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Beatrice and Benedict are a pair of constantly squabbling lovers in William Shakespeare's comedy Much Ado About Nothing. Their witty bickering serves as a relief from Hero and Claudio, the more serious and dramatic lovers of the play. The secondary love story of Beatrice and Benedict belongs to a theatrical tradition predating Shakespeare, most frequently used in the Italian theater Commedia dell'arte. Although the name is often heard as "Benedict," it is actually correctly spelled "Benedick."
In Shakespeare's play, Beatrice is a young woman in the household of a prominent man of Messina named Leonato. Beatrice is the cousin of Hero, Leonato’s daughter, and is a witty woman famous for her refusal to marry. Beatrice is disdainful of all men, but particularly of Benedict, a soldier in the visiting army of Prince Don Pedro. Interestingly, Beatrice references an early visit in which she and Benedict were romantically involved, but it is never fully explained. Leonato warns the soldier who announces Don Pedro’s company about the ongoing fight between Beatrice and Benedict, and his prediction of a "merry war" between them comes true when their first meeting leads to an explosive verbal duel of wit.
Benedict is no fonder of Beatrice than she is of him. He is a life-long bachelor, and goes into fury when his best friend, Claudio, announces he wants to marry the virtuous Hero. Benedict swears to Claudio and Don Pedro that he will never fall in love or marry, most particularly in regards to Beatrice.
After a party that results in the engagement of Claudio and Hero, Don Pedro suggests they pass the time before the wedding by getting Beatrice and Benedict to fall in love. By staging conversations to convince each that the other is madly in love with them, Don Pedro and his friends bring about their desired result. After a plot against Hero causes disaster, it is the still-quarrelling Beatrice and Benedict who reunite Hero and Claudio, and the play ends with both couples marrying.
The tradition of a comical couple as a foil to the romantic couple was frequently used in Italian renaissance theater. In the traveling style of Commedia dell'arte, there were two specific characters that would fill this role. Arlequino, or Harlequin, is usually a servant portrayed as in love with another servant, Columbina, who refuses to marry him and consistently makes fun of him. The main love story of the piece is usually saved by Arlequino and Columbina working together. It is likely that Shakespeare would have seen performances of this traveling form of theater, and many critics suggest that Beatrice and Benedict are directly derived from this source.
The roles of Beatrice and Benedict are highly sought after by actors, as they are often considered the funniest and most colorful of Shakespeare's lovers. Famous British actors Henry, John Gielgud and Derek Jacobi have all done award-winning performances of Benedict on the stage, while Ellen Terry, Peggy Ashcroft and Sinead Cusack have had noteworthy performances of Beatrice. Possibly the most famous interpretation of Beatrice and Benedict was in the 1993 film version of Much Ado About Nothing. This production, one of the most financially successful film versions of a Shakespeare play, was noted by critics for the sparkling performances of Emma Thompson and director Kenneth Branagh as the dueling lovers. Because of its humor and accessibility to new Shakespeare, the film is frequently used in Shakespeare classes as an introduction to the playwright and subject.