Shakespeare’s contemporaries regarded human beings as possessing many conflicting qualities. Two of these characteristics, however, were judged to be especially powerful influences on our behavior: first, we have the capacity to reason; second, we are vulnerable to instinctive drives and passions. The inner war between these two forces creates much of the unbalance in ourselves and our lives. Therefore we should not be surprised that much of Shakespearean drama reflects his characters’ attempts to resolve that conflict.
One of the most delightful examples of a figure undergoing such difficulty is the bachelor Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. Atfirst, he announces his disdain for all love; in the long-standing tradition of comic drama, however, his antipathy masks a deep-seated desire that he does not acknowledge, but which we recognize whenever his counterpart, Beatrice, takes the stage. Benedick disparages her, but here is a case where hate and love reflect each other. The more Benedick rails, the more we want him to marry Beatrice, even when he denounces her with customary fury:
and every words stabs. If her breath were as terrible
as her terminations, there were no living near her,
she would infect the north star. I would not
marry her, though she were endow’d with all
that Adam had left him before he transgress’d.
She would have made Hercules have turn’d spit,
yea, and have cleft his club to make the fire too.
(II, i, 247–254)
Later he rationalizes his attitude toward women while simultaneously downplaying his desires: