The following is an excerpt from my Brightest Heaven of Invention, published in the misty days of the mid-1990s.
Claudio looks at Hero’s appearance, and concludes she is a maid, a virgin. Because of Don John’s deception, he believes that he has peeled away the deceptive outer layer, the layer of seeming, and now sees Hero for what she really is—a prostitute visited by a stranger on the night before her wedding. Hero seemed to be a maid, but as it turns out, she is not.
Claudio thinks he has learned that appearances can be deceiving. What has really happened is that he has missed the truth and now believes a lie. He has learned that appearances can deceive; but he has not learned that apparent deceptions can also be deceiving. Claudio has yet to learn that what someone tells us is false may turn out to be true. He peeled off the outer layer, but the underlying layer is false.
In fact, the outer layer was true to begin with. Hero is not, as Claudio comes to believe, wearing the disguise of a maid; she is a maid. Thinking he is ripping the mask from Hero, Claudio is really tearing at her face.
Layers of appearance and deception make it exceedingly difficult to arrive at the truth. When we think we are wise enough to see through a disguise, we may only be seeing another disguise. When we see through one lie, and believe we have come to the truth, we may be really believing another lie. Shakespeare seems to be telling us that we can never really know the truth about anything, because someone might be deceiving us.
It may seem Shakespeare is an advocate of skepticism, the view that we can never know anything. (Philosophers will tell you that skepticism is self-contradictory; the answer to someone who says, “We can never know anything for certain” is simply, “Do you know that for certain?”)
Shakespeare, however, is no skeptic. But how does he suggest that the dilemma be resolved? Part of the solution is to recognize that seeing is not the most basic aspect of knowing. This is brought out in the “Gulling” scenes.
Benedick’s monologue before his “Gulling” summarizes a key theme of the play. Benedick describes at length the change that has overtaken Claudio since he has fallen in love with Hero (2.3.6- 23). He has been transformed from a soldier into a lover, a change that, Benedick thinks, is all for the worse.
To Benedick, the transformation seems complete. Claudio once mocked lovers, but is now subject of his own mockery. His tastes in music have changed: once he listened only to the drum and fife, to martial music, but now he wants the tabor and pipe and the lute—instruments suitable to women and lovers. (Benedick, still a soldier through and through, has no taste for the lute, which he says is only sheep’s guts, 2.3.62-63.)
Claudio once was interested in armor, but now he goes about in a new doublet and wears the latest in fashion. Claudio once spoke plainly, but now his speech is a “fantastical banquet” of words. In Benedick’s mind, to become a lover is to cease to be a man.
Lovers leave the men’s club to join the women. This is true not only because a man in love attends to the softer, more tender things of life, rather than the hardy life of a soldier in the field. It is more profoundly true because a man in love is beloved by a woman, and to be loved by someone else means being passive. Being loved means being acted upon rather than acting. For Benedick, being passive is a feminine trait. True men are soldiers, always acting and never being acted upon.
Benedick’s description of Claudio is crucial to the play’s conception of true love and helps us resolve the dilemma that arises from the problem of multiple layers of lies. After enumerating the changes in Claudio, Benedick asks, “May I be so converted and see with these eyes?” (2.3.23-24). The irony of the question is sharp; within moments, Benedick will undergo a transformation far more complete than anything Claudio has dreamt of.
But the way Benedick characterizes falling in love is fundamental: To fall in love is to be converted, to be totally changed from head to toe, to take a new position in the world, to look at the world through new eyes. And this is precisely what happens to Benedick. After he has become convinced that Beatrice is in love with him, she is sent to call him to dinner. They have the following exchange:
Beatrice: Against my will I am sent to bid you come in to dinner.
Benedick: Fair Beatrice, I thank you your pains.
Beatrice: I took no more pains for those thanks than you take pains to thank me. If it had been painful, I would not have come.
Benedick: You take pleasure, then, in the message?
Beatrice: Yea, just so much as you may take upon a knife’s point and choke a daw withal. You have no stomach, signior. Fare you well. [Exit]
Benedick: Ha! “Against my will I am sent to bid you come in to dinner.” There’s a double meaning in that. (2.3.255-268)
Beatrice has not changed a whit, and there is no double meaning in her words. She is the same “Lady Tongue” whom Benedick earlier said he could not stand to be close to. What has changed is Benedick. Since he is now in love, he sees everything in a new light. Beatrice is unchanged, but Benedick has been converted. Seeing now is not the most fundamental thing, since appearances can deceive; the most fundamental thing is being converted. What and how we see depends on whether or not we have been converted.
The scene of Benedick’s “gulling” enriches the play’s depiction of the relations between love and sight. In order to convert Benedick, Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio do two things.
First, they tell the truth. As Don Pedro says, Beatrice, in spite of herself, really does have an interest in Benedick. And Don Pedro and the others are correct when they discuss Benedick’s faults, particularly his pride and “contemptible spirit” (2.3.187-188). Though Don Pedro’s plot is a deception, it is a deception that gets to the truth (unlike Don John’s).
Second, the plotters let Benedick know that he is beloved. He believes himself to be loved before he responds by choosing to love Beatrice in return. Benedick is converted to love when he hears the report of Beatrice’s love for him. Faith in the love of another comes before love. There is good theology in the scene: as John says, we love God because He first loved us (1 Jn. 4:19) and Jesus said, Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed (Jn. 20:29).
When Benedick hears the plotters’ conversation, he is convicted of his faults and repents. Benedick recognizes the truth in their rebuke, and he resolves to change for the better. In the next scene, he has shaved his soldier’s beard and in a later scene he is attempting to write a love sonnet to Beatrice. He thinks of the mockery he will have to endure when others learn of his change of heart, and tries to prepare responses (2.3.231-54).
But all the responses that he plans are no more than jokes. In fact, he is not in love with Beatrice simply because he has outgrown adolescent tastes, nor because he is convinced the world must be peopled. He loves Beatrice because he has been converted.
The gulling of Beatrice is similar to that of Benedick. 3.1 contains the first and nearly the only extended speeches by Hero, and she makes the most of the opportunity. Like Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato, Hero is only pretending to pretend. In fact, her censures of Beatrice show her true feelings. As with Benedick, Beatrice is censured and rebuked mainly for her pride and scorn of others.
And like Benedick, Beatrice is converted because she learns of another’s love for her; her love is a response to a report that she is beloved. She repents and promises to return Benedick’s love. Truth, disguised as a deception masquerading as truth, sets her free.