Beatrice is one of the most delightful characters in all of Shakespeare — certainly one of the most talkative and witty. She is likely to touch a responsive chord with many readers and playgoers today in light of current social ideas that encourage greater equality and self-assertiveness for women than has been traditional for women of the Western world. The traditional woman of the Elizabethan period, especially of Beatrice's class, is better represented by her cousin Hero — the naive, chaste, and quiet young woman of whom Beatrice is extremely protective. Beatrice is as cunning and forward as Hero is naive and shy.
Beatrice often interrupts or speaks her mind without concern about decorum. Her first line interrupts the conversation between Leonato and the messenger and is loaded with sarcasm and bitterness. Throughout the play, she is very clever with words, displaying considerable intellectual faculty as well as a natural ability for humor. And her way with words is sharpened when the object of her humor is Benedick.
Beatrice's unexplained bitterness toward Benedick is displayed right from the beginning. Then we begin to realize she has been hurt by him. Still stinging from past experiences with him, now she greets him with scorn, wariness, and anger. Eventually we recognize that desire and affection for him are still buried within her. She has learned to use humor and insults to disguise deeper emotions. Yet, when she overhears Hero describing her faults, she is surprised at how she is perceived by others: "Stand I condemned for pride and scorn so much?" She vows to abandon her habits of contempt and pride, and also to let herself love Benedick openly.
Before Beatrice can express her true feelings to Benedick, she may find it so difficult to change her habits of scorn and insult that she has physical symptoms of discomfort: "I am exceeding ill. . . . I am stuffed. . . . I cannot smell." Finally in a moment of high emotion during which she rages over the deception against Hero, she is also able to tell Benedick that she loves him — first tentatively, then without constraint: "I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest." Yet at the end, she must have her last hesitation — joking or not:
Benedick: Do not you love me?
Beatrice: Why no, no more than reason.
And when she finally agrees to marry him, she has her last little gibe on the subject:
Beatrice: I would not deny you. But . . . I yield upon great persuasion, and partly to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption.
Has Beatrice changed over the week or so of the play's time-line? At the very least, her tongue is not so sharp and belittling; at best, she has let herself love and be loved — a miraculous change in such a strong, independent woman.