In Hero’s character, Shakespeare demonstrates the traditional values of an Elizabethan maid, as Claudio says “a modest young lady”. As such her relationship with other men reflects this ideal woman, by showing her submissive behaviour. Although Claudio and Leonato wronged her by their doubt, others defend her because of those qualities. It is the power of her fidelity and innocence that convinces the Friar of her truthfulness. Her behaviour to other women and her final “victory” over the malicious slander can be perceived as Shakespeare’s attempt to portray a woman who achieves what she wants by using more subtle and conventional means that can be seen in Beatrice’s openly rebellious character.
Indeed, Beatrice is used as a character who presents qualities directly opposite to Hero’s passivity. She challenges authority that men traditionally have over women, and in her Shakespeare indicates another power a woman may have, the power of language. In Act 1, Scene 1 Benedict states that he wishes “that my horse had the speed of your tongue”. Throughout the play, the language between Benedict and Beatrice is full of sallies and combative puns which is an indication of the power each has. They are portrayed as absolute equals. Leonato’s acute observation that Beatrice and Benedick are involved in a “merry war” enables Shakespeare to dramatically present Beatrice and Benedict’s relationship as volatile and excitable but still a far more mature and successful relationship than Hero’s and Claudio’s “traditional” courtship. The difference between the two relationships is demonstrated by the fact that in Act 1, Scene 1, Claudio uses formal, romantic language, when describing Hero, “in my eyes she is the sweetest lady my eyes ever looked upon on” while Benedict and Beatrice use the informal language of the prose, to challenge each other. Beatrice and Benedict are more mature and confident in themselves, and as such make a much more successful couple. Their conflict is based upon perceptions of male and female shortcomings, and it is those perceptions that make Claudio so susceptible to regard Hero as “sinful”. However, Benedict and Beatrice are able to admit their own mistakes and think rationally of each other when faced with their own faults, as is apparent in their reflective soliloquies after their deceptions. Their relationship begins with mistrust and develops into love, while Claudio’s and Hero’s starts with love and develops into mistrust.
This dramatic irony is used to reflect Shakespeare’s own attitude on what a relationship should be, which is amplified by Benedict’s humorous statement that he and Beatrice are “too wise to woo peaceably”. It is clear from the play that Shakespeare criticises the existing customs and advocates that a courtship in which couples communicate would be a far more preferable way, and which would prevent the mistakes of perception evident in Claudio. Benedict’s and Beatrice’s relationship advocates a society in which women are given more power and authority by the very nature of a “merry war”.
Shakespeare is ambivalent in his representation of love. He uses it as a necessary component to restore harmony to a community. He also uses it as a challenge to both the males and females in the play, especially with male characters, indicating that male power they possess publicly, such as Claudio’s warrior skills and Don Pedro’s position doesn’t affect matters of the heart. The male character who has the lesser rank in that patriarchal society, Benedict, seems to do best where love and valid judgment are concerned. Men are shown as fallible and prone to mistakes where love is concerned, where the suffering character of Hero is used as a reproach for this weakness in male characters. Her faithful love is betrayed by Claudio, while Leonato betrays his daughter’s trust. In love, male and female power over each other is on an equal footing, where rank and position doesn’t bring happiness and harmony to the society, but love and forgiveness.
The main example of female power in love can be seen in Beatrice, and the effect she has upon Benedict. From Act 1, Scene 1, where he rallies against the female kind, to the final transformation in Act 2 Scene 3, and Act 5 Scene 4, change in Benedict is clearly visible. He becomes the “Argument of his own scorn, by falling in Love”, the crime of which he accuses Claudio. He acts as a traditional lover, in everything except that he still manages to regard Beatrice as a rational creature, not a silly unfaithful female. Beatrice convinces him to oppose Claudio and Don Pedro after the wedding fiasco, her invective convincing him of the truth of her convictions. Acknowledging her power in this scene, the power he willingly gave her when admitting he loves her, brings him into conflicts with his shieldbrother, and his superior. In the patriarchal Italy of the time, this was a grave action, and one not taken lightly. Here Shakespeare shows than a women’s influence on a man can be greater than any other power. However, the play also shows that men have similar influence with women, by Beatrice’s transformation, and her willingness - “tame my wild Heart to thy loving Hand”, her deference for Benedict by allowing the taming to occur, Furthermore, the ambiguous ending with Benedict claiming “I will stop your mouth”, makes the modern audience fear that she has sacrificed her independence to love. This demonstrates that while women may influence men, they still must surrender to their authority in order for a “harmonious” society.
In addition to power of love women may wield privately, there is also the power of humiliation they might wield publicly. From the play, and various comments between Claudio, Benedict and Don Pedro, it is apparent that men’s greatest fear is that a woman will cheat on them. The great variety of cuckolding jokes in Act1 fully demonstrates the male fear of ridicule. Indeed, as feminist critic Marilyn Williamson states, it is that paranoid fear of possible betrayal that is the reason why the situation “forms a context in which Claudio’s suspicion of Hero are credible on very flimsy evidence”. Don John’s deception is possible, and his statement that “Lady Hero is disloyal” illustrates the severity of the crime which men considered infidelity to be. It is a matter of code of honour, and a woman can shame her husband by cheating on him. In patriarchal society , especially since the play was set in machoistic Italy, such shaming would be unbearable to any man.
This intense male fear is clearly demonstrated by Claudio’s behaviour and language. The repeated use of allusions to mythological betrayals and characters, and his invective language when describing Hero shows a man who is very angry and humiliated. Shakespeare’s use of puns and literary patterning when describing Claudio’s outrage and pain “most Foul, most Fair” can be seen as an indication of male opinion of all faithless females. This fear of infidelity is also present among women. Beatrice’s avowal that she would “rather hear a dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me” illustrates women’s distrust. However, women’s attitude is considerably different, as the song “Sigh no More” proves. They consider it as a fact of life, and while they distrust men, they don’t consider it a “betrayal” to be treated as such, the way that men do. Men expect and demand total fidelity from a woman. However, in contrast, male fidelity is considered as a passing thing, never to truly be expected by any woman.
Male honour demands that they protect women, but both Claudio and Leonato fail this task. Benedict, for the sake of his love of Beatrice, agrees to challenge Claudio and fight for the truth of Hero’s fidelity. He remembers true honour, and the obligations that come with male power and position. Beatrice and Benedict, in concert, challenge the clearly wrong “honourable” male behaviour. Shakespeare shows that male rage at female betrayal led them to forget their own duty to women, leading to their own betrayal. This is Shakespeare’s warning – while men have overt power and authority over women, the power comes with responsibilities which they are bound to fulfil. Beatrice’s love reminds Benedict of this duty, demonstrating women’s greatest power – to influence men’s minds and hearts.
- William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing
- Kenneth Brannah’s film “Much Ado About Nothing”
- English Department Study Guide
Approximate Word Count: 1,900