All attend a masque -- the kind of "Venetian Carnival masque" Oxford would have enjoyed for its disruptions of social status and matters of disguise (Anderson 104). Beatrice acknowledges what a grim presence Don John is. Since he is called "Count John" too (II.i.12), "Don" = "Count" = Earl. Beatrice brings up Benedick again, only to rail against him. She also runs down marriage and mocks male pomposity when Leonato claims she'll never get a husband being such a shrew (II.i.18-19). "In faith, she's too curst," agrees Antonio (II.i.20), while it is Hero her "cousin's duty to make cur'sy and say, 'Father, as it please you'" (II.i.52-53) -- which smacks of Anne Cecil's kowtowing to her father Burghley (Ogburn and Ogburn 494). Beatrice calls man "a piece of valiant dust ... a clod of wayward marl" (II.i.61-63). Her anticipation of leading apes to hell is the proverbial "traditional fate of women who die spinsters" (Asimov 454), but more precisely, comes from "The Maid and the Palmer" folktale in which a maid leads an ape as atonement for a dead illegitimate child (Anderson 164). Leonato has instructed Hero: "Daughter, remember what I told you. If the Prince do solicit you in that kind, you know your answer" (II.i.66-68).
A series of conversations between masked dance partners follows: Don Pedro with Hero; Borachio with Hero's gentlewoman Margaret; Ursula and Antonio; and Benedick and Beatrice. The disguised Benedick has told Beatrice that he has heard that she is disdainful and that her wit is unoriginal. She in turn is merciless about him as he thinks she doesn't know who he is: "Why, he is the Prince's jester, a very dull fool; only his gift is in devising impossible slanders. None but libertines delight in him, and the commendation is not in his wit, but in his villainy, for he both pleases men and angers them, and then they laugh at him and beat him" (II.i.137-142). It certainly sounds like a summation of Oxford's situation at Elizabeth's court (Ogburn and Ogburn 483f), with the "impossible slanders" being his dramas (Clark 542). She also says that if Benedick's wit is "not mark'd, or not laugh'd at, [it] strikes him into melancholy, and then there's a partridge wing sav'd, for the fool will eat no supper that night" (II.i.147-150). That Hero is not equal for the marriage (II.i.164) also seems to refer to Anne Cecil (Ogburn and Ogburn 494).
Meanwhile, Don John and Borachio, the only two not wearing masks, pretending they think he's Benedick, tip Claudio off that Don Pedro is actually trying to steal Hero for himself. Claudio laments, "Friendship is constant in all other things, / Save in the office and affairs of love" (II.i.175-176). (And one thinks of the Sonnets.) This dastardly scheme doesn't work, because in a few moments, Don Pedro will confirm that he has made a match between the two young lovers. But it does show Claudio's easy gullibility.
Benedick notes that Claudio is sulking, but he pitches a private fit about Beatrice calling him a jester in summing up his public identity and function:
But that my Lady Beatrice should know me, and not know me! The Prince's fool! hah, it may be I go under that title because I am merry. Yea, but so I am apt to do myself wrong. I am not so reputed. It is the base (though bitter) disposition of Beatrice that puts the world into her person, and so gives me out. Well, I'll be revenged as I may! (II.i.203-210)Though outraged, his initial impulse is to trust her assessment, which indicates that he doesn't truly know himself. As for de Vere, "To call Oxford 'the prince's fool' may have been some satisfaction to offended noblemen whose weaknesses or knavery had been brought to light by means of lines in a play, but to the world in general he was an honest man who, through his plays, was showing up abuses both private and public, for he did not attack the Queen's courtiers without reason" (Clark 542).
Benedick alerts Don Pedro to Claudio's delusion, and Don Pedro reports that Beatrice feels insulted by Benedick. Benedick says she started it. She said he "was duller than a great thaw" (II.i.244). He openly rails at length against Beatrice, but he doth protest too much. For example, when he rants against marrying her (II.i.250f), one wonders who brought that up?! When she arrives, he requests that Don Pedro send him on a military mission so that he may leave: "I will fetch you a toothpicker now from the furthest inch of Asia, bring you the length of Prester John's foot, fetch you a hair off the great Cham's beard ... rather than hold three words' conference with this harpy" (II.i.266-271). The "great Cham" can be the Khan of Tartary, but it also serves as an abbreviation for Lord Great Chamberlain -- Oxford's court position. The "hair" reference may indicate a pun on "heir" (Ogburn and Ogburn 487, 853).
The suggestion from Beatrice's subsequent conversation with Don Pedro is that she and Benedick have some sort of aborted history together: regarding Benedick's heart, "Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile, and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one. Marry, once before he won it of me with false dice, therefore your Grace may well say I have lost it" (II.i.277-282). "We have to conclude that Beatrice and Benedick already have been lovers, and that her vitality, however expressed, has frightened him into flight" (Bloom 199). Insofar as Beatrice represents Anne Cecil, the reference may be to the heart of the daughter Elizabeth too (Clark 536, 543). But Vavasor, seemingly more present in the character, seems to have had a miscarriage in 1580 before the illegitimate boy-child in 1581 (Anderson 164). Beatrice has the reputation now of a misanthrope: Leonato claims, "I have heard my daughter say, she hath often dreamt of unhappiness, and wak'd herself with laughing" (II.i.344-346)!
Don Pedro's honor is confirmed: Hero is indeed interested in Claudio and the two profess their devotion. Leonato approves too. So they're suddenly engaged to be married in a week (II.i.359).
But as a couple, Benedick and Beatrice are more interesting from the start, exuberantly engaged in the "combat of love": their verbal jousting and fighting means they belong together. According to Leonato, "if they were a week married, they would talk themselves mad" (II.i.353-354); "if Claudio and Hero must learn to speak for themselves, Beatrice and Benedick have to learn to stop talking -- at least once in a while" (Garber 379). Shakespeare tried out this kind of relationship in Taming of the Shrew with an unconventional couple whose insults and aggressions signalled true love. It's the "when I first met him I hated him" syndrome. A confirmed bachelor and bachelorette, arrested at the combat stage, use animosity as a cloak for attraction and wit as a defense mechanism, wit and words as a way of protecting the vulnerable inner self. Now they are older and in danger of remaining alone because of their set attitudes.
So Don Pedro enlists Leonato and Claudio in a plot to bring together Benedick and Beatrice; "If we can do this, Cupid is no longer an archer; his glory shall be ours, for we are the only love-gods" (II.i.384-386). The trick will lead Benedick and Beatrice not into deception but into self-discovery.
The jolly plotting of the previous scene is followed here with nasty plotting as Borachio lays out a scheme that will defame Hero and mess up the planned wedding. Borachio can enlist the help of Margaret, Hero's waiting-woman, and Don John will be able to report Hero "a contaminated stale" (II.ii.25). Impediments to the marriage between Philip Sidney and Frances Walsingham may have been an influence on this plotline (Clark 544).
Benedick, in a garden, rants about Claudio going soft because of love: "he was wont to speak plain and to the purpose (like an honest man and a soldier), and now is he turn'd ortography -- his words are a very fantastical banquet, just so many strange dishes" (II.iii.18-21). From a point of "no way" concerning his own likelihood of finding a partner, his soliloquy evolves into a list of the qualities his ideal woman should possess: "till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace. Rich she shall be, that's certain; wise, or I'll none; virtuous, or I'll never cheapen her; fair ... mild ... noble ... of good discourse, an excellent musician ..." (II.iii.28-34).
He hides when Leonato, Claudio, and Don John stroll along. After some banter involving puns with musical terms, a singer renders a song that, oddly, puts forth the theme that men are deceivers and women should be philosophical about it:
Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,"Converting" is a theme in the play (Garber 376), and the song "seems to be a more mature response to de Vere's sonnet 'Love thy Choice,'" beginning, "Who taught thee first to sigh, alas, my heart?" in Thomas Watson's 1591 collection Tears of Fancy (Farina 48). Benedick notes unromantically, "Is it not strange that sheep's guts should hale souls out of men's bodies?" (II.iii.59-60). After the song, he remarks, "And he had been a dog that should have howl'd thus, they would have hang'd him" (II.iii.79-80). "But the men -- Claudio and Don Pedro -- do not note the song, which means nothing to them. They hear the sweet melody and do not heed the piquant words" (Garber 381). References to the "fraud of men" may address the Arundel accusations, especially regarding Oxford's ostensible insult to the Queen's singing voice; hence the "ill singer for a shift" = for a woman (Ogburn and Ogburn 505).
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea, and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.
Then sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into hey nonny nonny.
The guys, knowing Benedick is listening, insist that Beatrice is swooning melodramatically for him and agonizing over abortive attempts to write to him. They lament what a wretch Benedick is and how "unworthy" (II.iii.208). So he gets an earful. Behind the bushes, Benedick rationalizes, "This can be no trick: the conference was sadly borne" (II.iii.220-221). His reference to the "white-bearded one" suggests that the most amiable and dignified depiction of Burghley occurs this play (Ogburn and Ogburn 481, 495). The speech is a delight. "When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married" (II.iii.242-244). So he has "decided": "I will be horribly in love with her" (II.iii.234). "In his heart, he wants to believe, of course. So it comes about that he decides he can't very well let the poor girl die and he might as well save her life by loving her" (Asimov 554).
When Beatrice is sent to call Benedick to dinner, which she does with her usual disdain, "Benedick attempts to wring amorous meanings from the least promising fragments of dialogue" (Garber 383). He thinks he can "spy some marks of love in her" (II.iii.245-246) and he detects subtlety in her typically cantankerous words to him: "'Against my will I am sent to bid you come in to dinner'--there's a double meaning in that" (II.iii.257-259).