1. Don Pedro and his party arrive at Leonato’s house in Messina (Act 1, Scene1)
Leonato, the governor of Messina, together with his daughter, Hero, and their relative, Beatrice, receive news of the return from the wars of the prince Don Pedro, his companions, Claudio and Benedick, and Don John, his half-brother. When Don Pedro’s party arrive at the house, Leonato invites them to stay for at least a month. Leonato extends his hospitality to the surly Don John who has recently been reconciled to his brother, Don Pedro, and receives a curt acceptance. Claudio immediately falls in love with Hero which he confesses to Don Pedro, who offers to woo her on his behalf. Beatrice and Benedick are re-acquainted and exchange witty insults.
2. Borachio tells Don John how he can prevent Claudio’s marriage to Hero (Act 2, Scene 2)
Borachio explains to his master, Don John, and Conrad, a follower, how he can convince Don Pedro and Claudio that Hero is unfaithful, thereby preventing Claudio’s marriage and injuring her father, Leonato. Borachio will stage a scene at Margaret’s window where she will pretend to be her mistress, Hero, as he woos her. This will dishonour Hero and Leonato.
3. Benedick is duped by Don Pedro, Claudio and Leonato as he eavesdrops on their conversation about Beatrice (Act 2, Scene 3)
Benedick muses on Claudio’s transformation since he fell in love and considers whether he would behave the same if he met his ideal woman. On hearing the approach of Don Pedro, Claudio, Leonato and Balthasar, Benedick hides in an arbour. After Balthasar has sung a song, Don Pedro and his companions, aware of Benedick’s hiding place, discuss Beatrice’s unrequited love for Benedick and how she cannot express this openly for fear of his scorn. Thus Benedick is gulled by his friends and resolves to return Beatrice’s love. When Beatrice calls Benedick into dinner he reads double meanings into her terse and unfriendly responses.
4. Beatrice overhears Hero and Ursula discussing Benedick’s love (Act 3, Scene 1)
Margaret is sent to fetch Beatrice and warn her that Hero and Ursula are discussing her in the orchard. In an echo of Benedick’s gulling, Beatrice conceals herself and overhears Hero and Ursula discussing Benedick’s love for her and how she is too scornful to reciprocate. The women leave and a solitary Beatrice emerges from her hiding place. Shaken by her friends’ candid opinion, Beatrice resolves to return Benedick’s love.
5. Borachio’s bragging confession of how he has tricked Don Pedro and Claudio is overheard (Act 3, Scene 3)
A drunken Borachio is overheard by the Watch telling Conrad how he has earned money from Don John by pretending to woo ‘Hero’, impersonated by an unwitting Margaret, at her window the night before her wedding. Having witnessed the scene with Don Pedro and egged on by the malevolent Don John, Claudio has sworn to shame Hero the next day in the church. Suspecting a threat to the state, The Watch arrest Borachio and Conrad, without fully understanding what has transpired.
6. After Hero is accused of immorality and rejected by Claudio in the church, Beatrice issues Benedick an ultimatum. (Act 4, Scene 1)
During the wedding ceremony Claudio accuses Hero of being “an approved wanton” despite her modest appearance and hands her back to her father. Don Pedro tells Leonato that he too has been dishonoured because he arranged the match. Hero denies the encounter, then faints, and the groom’s party leave the church. Beatrice tries to help Hero but Leonato states it would be better if she was dead rather than disgraced. Beatrice is adamant that Hero is innocent and that Don Pedro and Claudio have been deceived.
The friar proposes that they pretend that Hero has indeed died and that over time, Claudio and Don Pedro will become remorseful. Hero’s reputation can be restored and she can then live again.
Once left alone, Benedick tries to comfort Beatrice and they confess their love for one another. To prove his devotion, Benedick offers to undertake any task but is taken aback when Beatrice challenges him to ‘kill Claudio’. Torn between his friendship for Claudio, allegiance to Don Pedro and his love for Beatrice, Benedick agrees to undertake the challenge.
7. A villain confesses and Hero’s innocence is discovered (Act 5, Scene 1)
Leonato and Antonio, his brother, encounter Don Pedro and Claudio and accuse them of villainy in ‘killing’ an innocent Hero. The prince and Claudio refuse to fight the old men and move off. They meet Benedick who they hope will cheer them up but, instead, he challenges Claudio to a duel and resigns from Don Pedro’s service. Benedick tells them that Don John has left Messina.
Dogberry and Verges enter with the bound Borachio and Conrad. Borachio confesses his villainous deception to Don Pedro. Claudio is stunned by the revelation and experiences grief, remorse, shame and love. Leonato returns and Borachio repeats his confession but insists on Margaret’s innocence. At Leonato’s request, Claudio promises to proclaim Hero’s innocence, hang an epitaph on her tomb and marry his ‘niece’ the following day.
8. Hero’s honour is restored and lovers are reconciled (Act 5, Scene 4)
Claudio arrives with Don Pedro to wed Leonato’s ‘niece’. The women enter masked and Leonato insists that Claudio marry before removing the mask. Hero is revealed much to the amazement of Claudio and Leonato explains the deception.
Continuing the merry war of words, Benedick and Beatrice pretend that they don’t really love one another but when a sonnet and letter in their own handwriting are produced, betraying their feelings, they agree to marry after all. News arrives that Don John has been arrested but Benedick tells Don Pedro not to dwell on the thought at that moment, suggesting that the prince should overcome his sadness by taking a wife.