Two other characters stand out as important elements in the dramatic development of the play. Beatrice is a fiery, outspoken cousin of Hero, who is intended no doubt to provide a contrast to Hero’s gentle and quiet character. Benedick is a witty and disrespectful courtier who so far has not consented to be romantically tied to any woman. Claudio and Hero are the unwitting victims of deception, showing one potential reaction to this turn of fate, while Benedick and Beatrice are examples of an entirely different, and more feisty response. As the title of the play suggests, it all comes right in the end, but the main point of the play is to explore the different paths that can be followed in leading two individuals to the traditional “happy ending” scenario of the Elizabethan comedy genre. Love wins out in the end, despite the posturing of the human characters in the play, and this is the main message that both film and play project.
Benedick and Beatrice are like male and female versions of the same character type. They predictably get into arguments with each other, partly to amuse their friends, but partly also because they have so much in common with each other, and make such equal and entertaining sparring partners. While Hero and Claudio play the role of the star crossed lovers, whose path to true love is interrupted by villainous subterfuge, Benedick and Beatrice represent a lively contrast, as two arch enemies who are brought together by the same villainous plotting. This criss-crossing plot device is an example of Shakespeare’s complex commentary on the shifting roles of the sexes in Elizabethan England.
One of the features of Branagh’s film that has attracted much critical attention is the fact that there is a mixture of British and American actors in the film, with a consequent erratic mix of accents. This was no doubt a consequence of UK/US collaboration on the production side, but also a reflection of marketing aspirations which were truly global. The kind of Shakespeare being produced here is deliberately international, with an ironic kind of inter-textuality that appeals to a post-modern audience. The casting of comic superstar Denzel Washington as Don Pedro, for example, adds modern layers of connotation to the original meanings intended by Shakespeare himself. Seen in this light, the relationship between Benedick (Kenneth Branagh) and Beatrice (Emma Thompson) appears as a commentary on relationship issues faced by modern globetrotting professionals. Certainly Emma Thompson’s Beatrice is reminiscent of the articulate, at times even stridently feminist, modern woman who will not succumb to traditional notions of female subordination in marriage. Don Pedro’s comment to Beatrice “In faith, lady, you have a merry heart” (Act 2, Scene 1, line 293) underlines the potential that she has to lighten every scene and distract attention from her inner loneliness to her outer display of wit. There is more to Beatrice than meets the eye, and only in the presence of Benedick does she truly shine. This chemistry between the two characters is brought out to perfection in Branagh’s film, as the two often stand back to back, facing away from each other and firing off remarks into the surrounding crowd of onlookers. They studiously avoid intimate contact at first, but everyone knows that they are a fine match for each other, romantically as well as intellectually. The underlying tension between the two sets up a slow burning suspense that carries on throughout the play and film until it reaches its fulfilment in the closing scene. The