In our last conflict four of his five wits went halting off, and now is the whole man governed with one, so that if he have wit enough to keep himself warm, let him bear it for a difference between himself and his horse, for it is all the wealth that he hath left to be known a reasonable creature. (A1,S1)
Beatrice mocks Benedick for his loss in one of their battles of wits. Both Beatrice and Benedick define themselves by their skills with language, presenting an idealized version of themselves in social situations. Since this self-image is crucial to their self-worth, Beatrice considers failure of wit to be essentially failure as a human. She knows Benedick cares just as much about his witty reputation as she does, so she knows mocking that reputation is the swiftest way to undercut him.
I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace, and it better fits my blood to be disdained of all than to fashion a carriage to rob love from any. (A1,S3)
Don John expresses his instinctive need to cause trouble for others. He lacks charisma and warmth and can’t keep up with the social performances of his peers, which divides him from the ranks of society. Don John’s unrepentant villainy is a testament to the importance of social skill to the characters’ culture. His unspoken exclusion from the game of social performance has left him so alienated and bitter that his moral core rots. He resolves to take away others’ happiness, lacking the skills to secure his own.
I’ll tell thee what, Prince: a college of wit-crackers cannot flout me out of my humor. Dost thou think I care for a satire or an epigram? No. If a man will be beaten with brains, he shall wear nothing handsome about him. (A5,S4)
Here, Benedick all but admits that his caustic wit is a false veneer to protect against true feeling. He and Beatrice have just revealed their love for one another, and their friends, having watched the two circle each other for years, are endlessly amused. Benedick exclaims that he is so happy that he’s immune to their teasing jabs, implicitly defining witty banter as an opposing force to real emotion. This opposition is the paradox of social performance: Though socializing should ostensibly bring people closer together, those who are the most skilled at the art can more easily keep others at arm’s length.
He were an excellent man that were made just in the midway between him and Benedick. The one is too like an image and says nothing, and the other too like my lady’s eldest son, evermore tattling. (A2,S1)
Beatrice describes the ideal man as existing somewhere between witty Benedick and silent Don John, a perfect balance of all the right qualities. Of course, no person could fulfill every single quality another person wants, at least not in reality. In the quasi-reality of a perfected social image, however, a person can appear as idealized as need be, masked by the fact that people are seeing only what the person wants them to, without any of their innermost qualities. For Beatrice, who semi-consciously avoids real connection, the impossibility of her ideal man is likely a comfort.
The body of your discourse is sometimes guarded with fragments and the guards are but slightly basted on neither. Ere you flout old ends any further, examine your conscience. And so I leave you. (A1,S1)
Outnumbered by both of his friends mocking him, Benedick opts to grab the last word and take his leave. Benedick uses his sharp wit to disguise his sensitive core, and when his wit is in danger of being overpowered, his core is in danger of harm. As such, when he suddenly finds himself in the minority, Benedick simply mocks the others one last time and removes himself, begging the question of how sturdy his social armor really is.