What Attitudes are Displayed about the Roles of Women in “Much Ado About Nothing”? Essay

In this coursework, I am going to discuss what attitudes are displayed about the roles of women in the play ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. I will also examine which ways a modern audience responds to this aspect of the play. The genre of the play is comedy and it was first performed at court in 1613. The play is centred on two couples – Beatrice and Benedick and Claudio and Hero. It was originally titled ‘Benedicke and Betteris’ and Shakespeare obviously wanted the audience to focus more on these characters rather than the main ‘ado’, which concerns Don John’s plot to prevent the marriage between Hero and Claudio.

Beatrice is the strongest female role in the play. She has ‘so swift and excellent a wit’ (Act 3.1 line 89), that most of the male characters do not dare to cross her. Benedick alone is her equal, and their wit is not just a means of defending themselves, but how they present themselves to others. Beatrice’s shrewish nature comes to the surface when the subjects of marriage or Benedick are raised, but it would be wrong to think Beatrice is only a literary stereotype as she has so much more to her character. Beatrice is probably a bigger heroine to a modern audience, rather than to one at the time when the play was written, because assertiveness in women and a feminist approach towards life would not have been seen as good traits in Elizabethan times.

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The stereotype in question is shown in Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’. This features a girl named Katherine who has a hatred of men. She is ‘tamed’ by Petruccio, who is, like Benedick is to Beatrice, her equal in wit and intellect. Katherine is somewhat attracted to Petruccio for these attributes, but she also decides to marry him because of her fear of being an ‘old maid’. Women in Elizabethan times were also looked upon with suspicion if unmarried, and they were sometimes thought to be witches.

Beatrice can be compared with Katherine in her dislike of marriage and fear of no one ever wanting her – ‘thus goes everyone into the world but I’ (Act 2.1, lines 293-4). However, at the end of the play it seems to the audience that Beatrice will not be as submissive to Benedick as Katherine is to Petruccio. But, it can be argued when Benedick says to Beatrice ‘peace I will stop your mouth’ (Act 5.4, line 97), that he has ‘tamed the shrew’. Yet, it is not just Beatrice who has been tamed. She has also transformed Benedick from someone who has ‘railed so long against marriage’ (Act 2.3, line 230) to someone who could consider killing his friend for the woman he loves.

Beatrice has a very strong personality probably because of the absence of her parents. Unlike Hero, Beatrice has no father to please, and her uncle has given her a free rein. She is in effect like a younger son – she has little or nothing to inherit and therefore can marry whoever she pleases. This is shown when Benedick casually informs Leonato that he wishes to marry Beatrice. Her references to classical mythology and aptitude for intelligent and witty conversation show Beatrice has had a high level of education (probably by a tutor, as schools were only open to boys in Elizabethan times). She also acts as a mother to Hero, as well as cousin and confidant. Hero was originally to have a mother in the play named Imagen, but Shakespeare removed her. Leonato would perhaps be less strict with his daughter if he had a wife and there would be someone other than Beatrice to be on Hero’s side when Claudio shames her at the wedding.

At the end of Act 4.1, Beatrice and Benedick are left alone. Beatrice is so affected by the shaming of Hero (her feelings seem almost maternal), that she thinks of murdering Claudio for revenge. She says ‘O that I were a man!’ (Act 4.1, line 299), because women in Elizabethan society did not have much influence in these matters. It was a man’s job to avenge and a women’s place to grieve. Here, Beatrice is a formidable woman like Lady Macbeth, and a strong female role model like Elizabeth I. Benedick reveals his love for her and she puts him to the test by asking him to kill Claudio. By getting him to do this she can confirm his love (as she has been wronged by him in the past) and get the revenge on Claudio that she wants so much.

Leonato seems to have two sides to his personality. On one hand he cherishes his daughter, but when it comes down to his honour, he will defend himself rather than her. At the wedding scene, when learning of Hero’s supposed betrayal, he uses many personal pronouns in condemning her. He asks ‘has no man’s dagger here a point for me?’ (Act 4.1, line 107), saying that he is so ashamed and dishonoured that he would rather die than stay and face people now that his reputation is tarnished. He speaks of Hero as his own when saying ‘but mine and mine I love and mine I praised’ (Act 4.1, line 134) and that he would have rather taken up ‘a beggar’s issue’ (Act 4.1, line 140), so that if the child came out wrong (like he thinks Hero has done) it would not be his fault as it was not his.

Hero is presented as the ‘perfect’ woman at the beginning of the play. Claudio idolises her and asks Benedick ‘can the world buy such a jewel?’ (Act 1.1, line 169). The modern audience questions whether his love for her is justified – he is in love with her beauty, not her personality. There is no reference to them ever having spoken or having an understanding before Claudio went to war, all he says is that he ‘looked upon her with a soldier’s eye…saying I liked her ere I went to wars’ (Act 1.1, line 278). Here he means that he thought she was beautiful, but didn’t have the time to love her – he was more concerned with thinking about war.

Another reason the modern audience can dislike Claudio’s love for Hero is when he asks Don Pedro ‘Hath Leonato any son, my lord?’ (Act 1.1, line 273). Here he is interested in what Hero could bring in the way of a dowry to the marriage. However, as a Governor’s daughter, Hero has a higher social status than Claudio – and this marriage will elevate him in society (another reason for Claudio to be interested in Hero). Don John also notices this when he says ‘that young start-up hath all the glory of my overthrow’ (Act 1.3, lines 61-2). He is jealous of Claudio being in favour with his brother – yet he, himself has a lower social status because he is illegitimate.

Claudio is also fooled easily by Don John when he carries out his plot to ruin the marriage between Claudio and Hero. Throughout the play the male characters (especially Claudio, Benedick and Don Pedro) speak of women as unfaithful and adulterous. In Elizabethan times, the virginity of a woman was extremely important. Husbands did not want bastards intruding on legitimate children’s claims to property. This is exactly the case with Don John. His whole motivation behind attempting to ruin Claudio and Hero’s marriage is to gain revenge on his brother. Causing mischief is the sole purpose of the bastard literary stereotype.

However, Don John’s plan is well thought out, as Hero’s virtue is something that Claudio needs to be sure of. By humiliating her in front of an entire congregation, he has damaged any further chances she has of marrying. No man of good social standing would consider marrying a woman who was not a virgin. In the wedding scene, Claudio also confirms the audience’s thought that he did idolise her when he says ‘you seemed to me as Dian in her orb’ (Act 4.1, line 55). Diana was the goddess of chastity and the moon and from the story of Hero and Leander (where Hero drowned herself for love, thus the name becoming a symbol of faithfulness), thus showing that Claudio has fallen for an ideal, not a person.

The issue of virginity was not so much of as problem with lower class women. Margaret, one of Hero’s serving women, is unmarried, yet she has the freedom to behave in any manner she wishes. This is precisely how Margaret unknowingly helps in Don John’s plan. Borachio boasts to Don John that ‘at any unseasonable instant of the night’ (Act 2.2, line 15), he can get Margaret to do as he wishes.

If a modern audience were to adopt a different view of the play, they could ask whether Hero actually did love Claudio. Originally she thinks she is being given to Don Pedro, as Antonio’s servant mishears Don Pedro’s and Claudio’s conversation about wooing Hero but she is actually being wooed by proxy. Leonato tells her ‘if the prince do solicit you in that kind, you know your answer’ (Act 2.2, lines 59-60), so to be given away to Claudio might be a disappointment. In the film version of the play (adapted by Kenneth Branagh), the relationship is made to look much more consensual. In Act 1.1, when the messenger talks of Claudio, the other characters seem to think Hero likes Claudio and when the Prince’s company come to Leonato’s house, Hero looks at Claudio several times as though she loves him. In the play, Hero never once says she loves Claudio (so she may not even want to marry him), but this is typical of Elizabethan times. Women had their marriages arranged for them by their fathers and had no control over the process.

A modern audience can also question whether Benedick and Beatrice are truly in love with one another. They are both tricked into thinking that the other is in love with them. In the first gulling scene, where Don Pedro, Claudio and Leonato talk loudly of Beatrice’s love for Benedick (so he can hear them while he hides in the arbour) he speaks aside to the audience and says ‘is’t possible?’ (Act 2.3, line 99).

Indeed, we can ask that question, because it is unlikely Beatrice would love him without the knowledge he loved her in return as she says to Don Pedro that Benedick lent her is heart for a while and she ‘gave him use for it’ (Act 2.1, line 256). This shows a past relationship in which Benedick wronged Beatrice, and why she despises him so much. Benedick speaks at length about how he will love Beatrice and his words are full of comic phrases such as ‘…but for loving me. By my troth, it is no addition to her wit’ (Act 2.3, lines 236-7). To the modern audience he does not seem serious about loving Beatrice.

However, when Beatrice is gulled by Hero and Ursula, she is much more serious about requiting his love. She speaks in poetry (not prose as Benedick did), and it shows her love to be stronger. But she does not question whether it is a trick, so perhaps she has actually been waiting for news of Benedick’s love for so long that she doesn’t wonder, like Benedick (who is naturally suspicious of women anyway) whether Hero and Ursula speak the truth.

Hero seems to find great pleasure in gulling her cousin. Here is an example of her true personality. When around her father she is submissive, quiet and respectful, which were valued traits in women in Elizabethan society. But when she is in the company of Don Pedro in Act 2.1, she is flirtatious, confident and witty. In Act 3.1 she enjoys slandering Beatrice as she is normally the one controlling Hero. Now Hero can say what she likes, because she cannot reveal that she has been eavesdropping on the conversation.

In conclusion, the role of women in Elizabethan society was limited as they were not allowed to enter the professions (such as law and medicine), but they were allowed to be tutored privately. Most noble women did have a good education because their families did not want them to seem unintelligent when they had a very clever queen on the throne. Men only saw women as whores or wives, someone to be idolised, as adulterers or as the shrew. Shakespeare uses all these stereotypes in the play to showcase the broad range of opinions. It is clear that he is not entirely biased against women and he includes the song ‘Sigh No More Ladies’, showing the infidelity and deceitfulness of men. He tries to present accurate and balanced views of society, and in doing that shows that a lot of men in the play are fearful of being cuckolded.



Notes from the Cambridge School Shakespeare

Much Ado About Nothing (The New Penguin Shakespeare)

Much Ado About Nothing (adapted for the screen by Kenneth Branagh)


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