Benedick and The Book of the Courtier

Il Cortegiano – or The Book of the Courtier – was a book written by Baldassare Castiglione in the sixteenth century, and it consists of fictional conversations between various characters within the court of Duke Urbino regarding the qualities a perfect courtier – and the lady of his affection – must possess. The qualities discussed came to define the code of chivalry for its time, (Burke), and Collington and Scott both identified many similarities between characters from The Courtier and characters from Much Ado: Elisabetta Gonzagza and Hero; Emilia Pia and Beatrice; Duke Guidobaldo and Leonato. Scott also points out that the bantering between Lady Emilia and Lord Gaspare “is strongly suggestive of Benedick and Beatrice.” The character Benedick would eventually attain the status of the courtier, as can be seen through his defence of Hero after her slander, especially in the chivalric way he treats Hero and the way he stands up to Don Pedro.

The “chief conditions and qualities in a courtier” (Castiglione) consist of traits in “fields as distant or different as arms, letters, arts, music, conversation, sports, dancing, and telling jokes.” (Saccone) But the two most important qualities that a courtier must possess are concepts known as sprezzatura and grazia. Sprezzatura refers to the act of “conceal[ing] all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.” (Castiglione) Castiglione also wrote that “the Courtier ought to accompany all his doings, gestures, demeanors, finally all his motions with a grace.” This grace, or grazia, “consists of, or rather is obtained through, sprezzatura.” (Saccone) Despite the messenger’s proclamation that he is a man “stuffed with / all honourable virtues,” (1.1.52-53) it can be seen that initially Benedick is neither skilled in the art of sprezzatura, nor does he possess grazia. His aversion and misogynistic attitudes toward women are not at all “gentle, sober, meek, lowly, modest, serviceable, comely, merry, not biting or laundering with jests.” (Castiglione) He “hath every month / a new sworn brother,” (1.1.66-67) and he “hang upon him like a disease.” (1.1.79) One of the characters from The Courtier comments “that a man must in his protestation and counterfeiting take heed that he be not like commune jesters and parasites, and such as with fond matters move men to laugh.” When he first enters the play, he jokes of Leonato being a cuckold, directly disobeying one of Castiglione’s principles, to “not to be overseen in speaking words otherwhile that may offend where he meant it not,” leading Beatrice to say to him, “nobody marks you.” (1.1.109) As Beatrice observes, he “always end with a jade’s trick.” (1.1.136) after she insults him. At the dance, she further describes him as “the Prince’s jester, a very dull fool,” (2.1.123) and that other men “laugh at him and beat him.” (2.1.127­) Later on, Benedick’s rant to Don Pedro about her and the fact that he cannot come up with a comeback implies that there is some truth to what she has said. Much later on in the play, the way Claudio and Don Pedro treats Benedick’s challenge supports what Beatrice has said: Cladio says that he will accept Benedick’s challenge so that “he may have good cheer,” while Don Pedro cries “what, a feast, a feast?” (5.1.147-148)

In his defense of Hero’s honour, however, Benedick rises. The first aspect of his reaction to Hero’s slander that shows him to be a courtier is his chivalric response to Hero’s suffering. Upon Claudio and Don Pedro’s accusations that Hero is “but the sign and semblance of her honour,” (4.1.31) Benedick was the only man that employs reason and questions Beatrice regarding Hero’s whereabouts at nights. The usage of reason in a man’s treatment of women is approved by Castiglione, as he writes that a courtier’s love towards women should “not to be sensual or fleshly, but honest and godly, and more ruled with reason, than appetite.” He is also willing to abandon his former friends in favour of challenging Claudio to a duel. The “I jest not” (5.1.142) in the opening line of his aside to Claudio marks a turning point for his transformation from “the Prince’s jester” to a courtier. After Claudio and Don Pedro mock Hero during the wedding, Benedick admonishes and castigates them for their behaviour during his challenge: “I will leave you now to your gossip-like humour; you break jests as braggarts do their blades.” (5.1.178-180) As Collington writes, his “willingness to defend a wronged lady’s honor, even to the point of defying his prince, distinguishes him as having achieved the highest level of service outlined in The Courtier.”

Another aspect of Benedick’s response to Hero’s fall is his open defiance to Don Pedro, his prince. This is in contrast to Claudio, who asks for Don Pedro’s permission at every turn, and would only pursue Hero after Don Pedro describes her as “very well worthy.” (1.1.205) Castiglione asks all courtiers “to become an Instructor and Teacher of his Prince or Lord, inclining him to virtuous practises: and to be frank and free with him.” Furthermore, when he knows that his prince is making a mistake, the courtier has a duty “to be bold to stand with him in it, and to take courage after an honest sort at the favour which he hath gotten him through his good qualities, to dissuade him from every ill purpose, and to set him in the way of virtue.” Benedick fulfills this obligation by challenging Claudio, whose decision to scorn Hero was supported by Don Pedro. His advising towards Don Pedro extends beyond what happened to Hero, as he advises Don Pedro to “get thee a wife, get thee a wife.” (5.4.120) Through the events that have transpired in the play, Benedick is transformed from a jester to a courtier.

By abandoning the world of men in favour of upholding Hero’s innocence, Benedick manages to stand higher than Claudio and Don Pedro. Through his chivalric defence of Hero’s honour and his ability to oppose Don Pedro when he has made an error, Benedick is able to become the courtier as described by Castigione in The Courtier – and become the primary hero of the play.

Works Cited

Burke, Peter. The Fortunes of the Courtier: The European Reception of Castiglione’s Cortegiano. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania University Press, 1996. Print.

Castiglione, Baldassare. The Book of the Courtier. London: University of Oregon Press, 1900. Print.

Collington, Philip. “‘Stuffed with All Honourable Virtues’: Much Ado about Nothing and The Book of the Courtier.” Studies in Philology. 103.3 (2006): 281-312. Print.

Saccone, Eduardo. “The Portrait of the Courtier in Castiglione.” Italica. 64.1 (1987): 1-18. Print.

Scott, Mary. “The Book of the Courtyer: A Possible Source of Benedick and Beatrice.” PMLA. 16.4 (1901): 475-502. Print.