Beatrice is the niece of Leonato, a wealthy governor of Messina. Though she is close friends with her cousin Hero, Leonato’s daughter, the two could not be less alike. Whereas Hero is polite, quiet, respectful, and gentle, Beatrice is feisty, cynical, witty, and sharp. Beatrice keeps up a “merry war” of wits with Benedick, a lord and soldier from Padua. The play suggests that she was once in love with Benedick but that he led her on and their relationship ended. Now when they meet, the two constantly compete to outdo one another with clever insults.
Although she appears hardened and sharp, Beatrice is really vulnerable. Once she overhears Hero describing that Benedick is in love with her (Beatrice), she opens herself to the sensitivities and weaknesses of love. Beatrice is a prime example of one of Shakespeare’s strong female characters. She refuses to marry because she has not discovered the perfect, equal partner and because she is unwilling to eschew her liberty and submit to the will of a controlling husband. When Hero has been humiliated and accused of violating her chastity, Beatrice explodes with fury at Claudio for mistreating her cousin. In her frustration and rage about Hero’s mistreatment, Beatrice rebels against the unequal status of women in Renaissance society.“O that I were a man for his sake! Or that I had any friend would be a man for my sake!” she passionately exclaims. “I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving” (IV.i.312–318).
Benedick is the willful lord, recently returned from fighting in the wars, who vows that he will never marry. He engages with Beatrice in a competition to outwit, outsmart, and out-insult the other, but to his observant friends, he seems to feel some deeper emotion below the surface. Upon hearing Claudio and Don Pedro discussing Beatrice’s desire for him, Benedick vows to be “horribly in love with her,” in effect continuing the competition by outdoing her in love and...