Shakespeare loved setting his plays in Italy. Many of his plays were derived from stories already set in Italy: tales by Tacitus and modern stories by Boccaccio. But Shakespeare was also profiting from an image of Italians as hot-blooded. In all, he set over a dozen plays in Italy. This one takes place in Messina, Sicily.
Leonato is a kind and respected noble. In a play full of fiery characters, Leonato is generous, honest and straightforward.
The suitors in this play constantly use the term fair to describe Hero and Beatrice. They don't mean that the ladies are considerate. They mean "fair" to be attractive. As Benedick says at one point, "By this day! She's a fair lady."
Hero is the daughter of Leonato and the cousin of Beatrice. She is beautiful, young and kind. She has a crush on Claudio right off the bat. At one point, Benedick calls her "short."
Beatrice is the niece of Leonato and the cousin of Hero. She's also pretty but has much more of an edge than Hero. She's sharp-witted and strong-willed.
The expression "for the birds" is older American slang for something that isn't worth much. The phrase is based on the idea that birds eat seeds, which are not worth much to a person. Beatrice professes that she'll never love a man.
Peter the Janitor seems well versed in dramatic storytelling techniques.
These soldiers may be armed, but their most deadly weapon is their charm.
Don Pedro, sometimes called "Prince," is a nobleman and the captain of the other soldiers. He is a longtime friend of Leonato and is also a close friend of some of his soldiers: Benedick and Claudio. Don Pedro is kind, witty, vengeful and powerful.
Claudio seems to be a good match for Hero. Both are very young and good-looking. They are both super nice, yet down to play tricks on their friends/cousins as long as it's in the name of love.
Another of Don Pedro's soldiers, Benedick is a self-proclaimed bachelor for life. He's constantly cracking jokes and playing with words. His wit is matched only by Beatrice's.
Solo is a popular brand of plastic cup. Most scholars agree that they didn't exist in Shakespeare's time. This is an example of anachronism: something from another time being placed in a work of art.
Don John is the illegitimate brother of Don Pedro. Unlike his half brother, Don John is moody and sullen. Perhaps he's jealous of his brother's status or contentment. Either way, he seeks to ruin the happiness of the other characters. He plots especially against the planned marriage of Hero and Claudio. He also has a couple of henchmen: Borachio and Conrad.
Dogberry is the constable of the villa. He's in charge of security. He's a sincere guy, but he has a vocabulary problem. He always seems to use the wrong word. In his desire to seem more aristocratic than he is, he gets his words tangled.
Once again, the janitor comes through with some really strong advice. As a side note, the British term for a janitor is caretaker, which does have a nice ring to it.
When Benedick and Beatrice first see each other in the play, they immediately begin to make fun of each other. Could it be that they really dislike each other? Or do their insults spring from an uncomfortable mutual affection?
Benedick's friends decide to play a benign trick on him. They make Benedick think that he's overhearing their private conversation, when in fact the conversation is made up for him to hear. They discuss how Beatrice loves Benedick and is only mean to him because she doesn't know what to do with her affection. This works like a charm. Within a few moments, Benedick declares that he's "horribly in love with her."A scene later, the trick is played on Beatrice in the same way. And she has a similar reaction.
People got married way quicker back then.
Don John has his buddy Borachio make love to Margaret, Hero's servant, at Hero's window. Don John brings Claudio to watch. Claudio thinks he sees his fiancé being unfaithful to him. Later, a broken-hearted Claudio humiliates Hero by accusing her of this awful deed. He then abandons her at the altar.
What's the easiest way to tell if you're reading a Shakespearean tragedy or a comedy? Shakespeare's comedies end with marriages. His tragedies end with deaths.