Early in the morning, at the tomb where Hero supposedly lies buried, Claudio carries out the first part of the punishment that Leonato has ordered him to perform. Claudio has written an epitaph, or death poem, celebrating Hero’s innocence and grieving the slander that (he believes) led to her death. He reads the epitaph out loud and hangs it upon the tomb. He solemnly promises that he will come and read it here at this time every year. Everyone then goes off to prepare for Claudio’s wedding to Leonato’s niece, the supposed Hero look-alike, which is to occur that very day.
Meanwhile, in the church, Leonato, Antonio, Beatrice, Benedick, Hero, Margaret, Ursula, and the friar prepare for the second wedding of Claudio and Hero. We learn from their conversation that Margaret has been interrogated, and that she is innocent of conspiring with Borachio and Don John—she never realized that she was taking part in Don John’s treachery. Benedick is also very relieved that Don John’s trick has come to light, for now he does not need to fight his friend Claudio. Quietly, Benedick also takes Leonato aside and asks him for his permission to marry Beatrice. Don Pedro and Claudio enter, and Antonio goes off to fetch the masked women. While they are waiting, Don Pedro and Claudio tease Benedick about his love for Beatrice and about the fact that he will soon be married, although they do not know that he actually does plan to be married that very day. Hero, Beatrice, and the waiting women enter, all wearing masks. Claudio vows to marry the masked woman by his side, whom he believes to be Leonato’s mysterious niece. But when Hero takes off her mask, the shocked Claudio realizes that it really is Hero. Leonato and Hero tell him that now that Hero’s name has been cleared, she can figuratively come back to life and be his wife, as she should have been before.
The party prepares to go to the chapel to finish the ceremony, but Benedick stops everybody. He asks Beatrice, out loud and in public, whether she loves him. Beatrice denies it, and Benedick, in turn, denies loving her. They both agree that they are good friends, but not in love. But, laughingly, Claudio and Hero tell them that they know that isn’t the truth—and both whip out scribbled, half-finished love poems that they have found in their friends’ rooms and pockets, written from Benedick to Beatrice and from Beatrice to Benedick. Benedick and Beatrice realize that they have been caught red-handed and, giving in, finally agree to marry. Benedick silences Beatrice, for the first time, by kissing her. Claudio and Don Pedro begin to tease Benedick again, but Benedick laughingly says that he does not care—he remains determined to be married, and nothing he has ever said against marriage in the past makes any difference to him now. He and Claudio assert their friendship again, and Benedick calls for a dance before the double wedding. Suddenly, a messenger rushes in to inform the company that Leonato’s men have arrested Don John in his flight from Mes-sina. They have brought him back to Messina a prisoner. Benedick instructs Don Pedro to put off thinking about the villain until tomorrow, when Benedick will invent fine tortures for him. In the meantime, Benedick insists that all must dance joyfully in celebrating the marriages, and he commands the pipers to strike up the music.
This final scene brings the play to a joyous conclusion, drawing it away from the tragedy toward which it had begun to move and letting everyone wind up safe and sound. Claudio and Hero are about to be happily married, as are Benedick and Beatrice. The deception has been revealed, and Don John has been caught and brought to justice. Everybody has made friends again, and the final dance symbolizes the restoration of order and happiness in a world that has been thrown into chaos by Don John’s accusation and Don Pedro and Claudio’s rash action.
But in order for the play to reach this point, Hero must go through a symbolic death and rebirth, washing away the taint of the accusation of her supposed sin. Claudio’s writing and reading of an epitaph at her tomb seems to create a sense of closure, in relation to his false accusation of Hero and her supposed death. He acknowledges his error in having accused Hero: “Done to death by slanderous tongues / Was the Hero that here lies” (V.iii.
The emotional dynamics of the masked wedding must be complicated, and many readers wonder why Hero still loves Claudio after what he has done to her. The story can be read as one of real love that has been tainted by misunderstanding, paranoia, and fear but that has miraculously ended happily. Hero does seem to love Claudio still, and they are joyful at being reunited. Claudio’s amazement, awe, and wonder at finding Hero still alive may serve to wipe out any last traces of resentment or anger on either side.
Beatrice and Benedick finally profess their love in public—amid the laughter and teasing of all their friends—and are clearly happy to be marrying one another. Unlike Hero and Claudio, they are both very communicative people, and there is little doubt as to how they feel about one another. Benedick’s long struggle with his aversion to marriage is also finally brought to an end. Just as he privately declares his decision to change his mind after he comes to believe, through Claudio and Don Pedro’s trick, that Beatrice loves him, he now announces to the entire world that he is determined to get married, in spite of everything he has said against the institution.
Benedick also renews his friendship with Claudio, and the two of them note with considerable pleasure that they are now relatives. Leonato partakes in this sentiment as well, since Benedick will be Leonato’s nephew-in-law. Benedick is so fully changed from a willful cavalier into a submissive lover that he even commands Don Pedro, “Prince, thou art sad, get thee a wife, get thee a wife” (V.iv.
At the play’s end, Don John is more alienated from the happy company of nobles than he is at the beginning of the play. But Benedick does not even permit us to think about Don John. The villain’s torture will take place offstage, after the play’s end. The play’s closing words are a call to music, and the play’s final action is a joyful wedding dance. With the exception of a sad prince and a villain who remains to be punished, everybody has come to a happy ending.