Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, returns victoriously from the war. Leonato, the governor of Messina, welcomes the army with open arms. The army includes two friends, Benedick and Claudio. Benedick disdains love – a position shared by Leonato’s niece Beatrice, with whom he has a long-standing relationship of mutual mockery. Claudio admires Leonato’s daughter Hero. The prince volunteers to woo Hero while disguised as Claudio at the dance that night, and then persuade her father that the match is a good one.
Unfortunately, Don Pedro’s brother Don John is angry that Don Pedro defeated him in battle, despite having since been returned to Don Pedro’s good graces. He determines to ruin Don Pedro’s matchmaking between Hero and Claudio. His first plan is to tell Claudio that Don Pedro woos Hero for himself, not for Claudio. When this plot fails, and Claudio and Hero plan to wed, Don John devises another scheme.
Meanwhile, Don Pedro, Leonato, Claudio, and Hero decide to trick Beatrice and Benedick into falling in love with one another. Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio arrange for Benedick to overhear them talking about how Beatrice is desperately in love with him, but afraid to reveal her true feelings because he might mock her. Hero and Ursula, a gentlewoman, play out a similar scene for Beatrice. Both Beatrice and Benedick resolve to return the other’s love.
The night before the wedding, Don John plays his trick. His follower, Borachio, is intimate with Hero’s maid Margaret. Margaret, dressed in Hero’s clothing, meets with Borachio. Don John then takes Don Pedro and Claudio to spy on the couple, and what they see leads them to believe that Hero has betrayed Claudio. Two watchmen overhear Borachio boasting to his friend Conrade of the charade he has just performed and the money he will receive for it. They promptly arrest Borachio and Conrade, but unfortunately the bumbling officer Dogberry is not able to explain what has transpired to Leonato before the wedding.
At the wedding, Claudio, Don Pedro, and Don John denounce Hero as a harlot mid-ceremony. She faints, and the Friar persuades Leonato to pretend that she is dead, in the hopes that this will make Claudio remember his love for her.
Beatrice and Benedick declare their love for each other, but Beatrice says if Benedick loves her, he must challenge Claudio to a duel. He reluctantly agrees.
Dogberry questions his prisoners and brings them to Leonato. Claudio and Don Pedro learn of Don John’s trick, but Don John has since fled Messina. Claudio begs Leonato’s forgiveness for ever doubting Hero’s innocence. As penance, Leonato assigns him to marry Leonato’s niece. At the wedding, the "niece" unmasks herself – it is Hero, alive. She and Claudio marry, as do Beatrice and Benedick. The latter two insist that they are marrying only out of pity for the other, but are betrayed by their own discarded snippets of love poetry.
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