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Explore Shakespeare’s Presentation of Gender Issues in “Much Ado About Nothing” Essay Sample

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Explore Shakespeare’s Presentation of Gender Issues in “Much Ado About Nothing” Essay Sample

Shakespeare’s presentation of gender in “Much Ado About Nothing” is concerned with the power each sex has over each other in society. The social conventions of the Elizabethan time that he was writing are reflected in this, as women were seen as socially inferior and had to submit to the will of men. At the beginning of the play, the characters are split into clear conventional groups (male and female), which sets up the theme of conflict between the genders for the rest of the play.

The quote in the title illustrates one of these main conflicts very clearly. It shows that the men in the play hold most of the power and are much less constrained by conventions compared to the women. Women were not allowed to fight their own battles while men had to be the protectors in the relationship and defend women on their behalf. That Beatrice states her longing to be a man, despite the fact that she is the most outspoken woman in the play, creates greater drama and shows that even she is still limited by her gender. Despite putting on an outward show of not caring what people think, she really does care about some of the conventions of that society.

Hero conforms to these conventions much more than Beatrice, and because of the fact that Beatrice is so outspoken this contrast is even more marked. Hero only speaks when prompted or when is absolutely necessary, which is shown early on in the play when all she says is “My cousin means Signor Benedick of Padua” (I, i, 33) while Beatrice launches into a series of jests on the subject of Benedick and then a war of words with the man himself “I wonder that you will still be talking Signor Benedick; nobody marks you” (L.105-6). Women were supposed to be seen and not heard, and this may be as much to do with Hero’s position in the household as with her personal tendencies. As she is Leonato’s daughter she has to behave like the lady of the household, while Beatrice, as Leonato’s niece, is able to have more freedom, “By my troth, niece, thou wilt never get thee a husband if thou be so shrewd of thy tongue” (II, ii, 16-17).

Another reason why Hero is more constrained than Beatrice is that it is seen as her duty to get a good marriage and keep the status of the family so she has to be conscious of her outward image at all times. Unmarried women were seen as a burden on the family so their fathers were keen to marry them of as soon as a suitable man came along. The woman involved usually had little or no say over matters, as marriage was more like a business transaction between the suitor and the father. This is shown when Benedick says to Claudio “Would you buy her, that you enquire after her?” (I, i, 164)

Women could still, however, wield a great deal of power over men, especially with the threat of cuckoldry. Men were very insecure over the faithfulness of their women, as the constant stream of jokes about cuckoldry, especially from Benedick, suggest “But if ever the sensible Benedick bear it, pluck off the bull’s horns and set them in my forehead” (I, i, 240-1). This is the main reason why Benedick is so adamant that he will never marry “I will do myself the right to trust none. And the fine is – for the which I may go the finer – I will live a bachelor” (I, i, 223-4). The men fear cuckoldry so much because it shows them not as the all powerful and controlling men that they want to be and that they cannot make women totally obey them.

Claudio, on the other hand, sees marriage as a romantic ideal, which is shown by the fact that whenever he is talking about love, Shakespeare has used blank verse rather than prose. According to a 20th century interpretation of the play by Carol Thomas Neely [1], this is to protect himself from Hero’s sexuality, by viewing her as a remote object that is not to be touched or even talked to “In mine eye she is the sweetest lady that I ever looked on” (I, i, 171-2). This idealisation is also shown by Don Pedro’s wooing for Claudio, who scarcely acknowledges Hero’s sexual attractiveness. However, you could argue that this was simply how things were done at that time and that Hero does not invite Claudio to talk to her so she is also to blame to a certain extent.

Even though Claudio does not really mention what he finds attractive in a woman, we do get a picture of the perfect woman built up throughout the play. One of the main features mentioned is paleness of skin, which, in Shakespeare’s time, showed a woman to be of the upper classes because they did not have to work outside under the sun all day. Surprisingly it is Beatrice that first reveals this, as in Act 2 Scene 1 she says, “Thus goes everyone into the world but I, and I am sunburnt”. This shows that it was very important for a woman to have light skin or she would have no hope of attracting a husband. Benedick also outlines the qualities of what he sees as the perfect woman: “Rich, wise, virtuous, fair, mild, noble, of good discourse, an excellent musician and her hair shall be of whatever colour it please God” (II, iii, L.27-34). It is clear that this meets the conventional prescriptions for a suitably accomplished and submissive wife, although Benedick seems to think it would be impossible to ever find this perfect woman, ending his soliloquy with a scornful “Ha!”

Conversely, we know little about what women find attractive in men, apart from when Beatrice says, “He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that have no beard is less than a man; and he that is more than a youth is not for me, and he less than a man, I am not for him” (II, i, L.30-4). This reinforces the fact that men had more choice over who they married compared to women because the conventional upper class lady would not have expected to marry for love. Marriage was seen as a way for a family to reinforce or increase its status in society; women were simply matched with a suitable man by their father as soon as possible because they were seen as a burden on the household.

The issue of father and daughter relationships is raised in the play. Even though Leonato loves Hero deeply, “Bring me a father that so lov’d his child, who’s joy of her is overwhelm’d like mine” (V, i, L.8-9), he still sees her as a way to increase the status of his family and is glad when Claudio asks for her hand in marriage. Fathers and daughters in Shakespeare’s time did not appear to have a particularly close relationship and daughters had to be submissive to the will of their fathers because Hero does not give her opinion at all when Leonato offers her to Claudio “Count, take me of my daughter, and with her my fortunes” (II, i, L.280-1).

Another issue concerning gender is the apparent inequality over sexual relations. The whole play is centred on an accusation of a women’s infidelity, as at that time it was very taboo for women to have sex outside of betrothal. A motive for Don John’s actions could be provided through this, as he could hold a deep grudge against women in general for his illegitimacy and consequent loss of status. This also ties in with the story of the fall of man in the Bible, as it is Eve who entices Adam to eat the forbidden fruit, causing them to be thrown out of the Garden of Eden. Thus, Don John’s seemingly random act of villainy towards Hero could have an explanation.

The power that men hold over women is most fiercely demonstrated when Claudio denounces Hero in front of the whole congregation on what was meant to be her wedding day. Under Claudio’s verbal tirade e.g. “There, Leonato, take her back again. Give not this rotten orange to your friend! She is but the sign and semblance of her honour” (IV, i, L.30-2) Hero is totally unable to defend herself and eventually faints from the pressure of it all. The word of a man was worth more than a woman and women were unable to fight for themselves. This is supported by the fact that Beatrice is only able to wound with words, but not in any other way.

In a 19th century interpretation of the play, Georg Brandes [2] suggests that Claudio could be accused of holding similar prejudices to those of Don John because, in his opinion, Don John’s very weak scenario manages to convince him of Hero’s guilt. This could show that Claudio is as paranoid as Don John over the fidelity of women because he does not question if, and why, Hero would do something like this.

Beatrice is the only person who does not believe in Hero’s guilt, which is probably because they are cousins “I have this twelvemonth been her bedfellow”. This relates to Beatrice’s “Oh that I were a man!” because she feels so powerless and unable to do anything to defend her cousin. She has to, therefore, ask Benedick to kill Claudio for her, and in the process opens herself up and admits her love for him. She convinces him that Hero has been wronged, which consequently makes him completely change character and become much more serious and thoughtful. He is the only male character in the play that ends up on the side of the women, as all the others are quick to believe Hero’s guilt. This is shown when Don Pedro says “I stand dishonour’d, that have gone about to link my dear friend to a common stale” (IV, i, L.63-4) and when Leonato bemoans “O she is fallen into a pit of ink, that the wide sea hath drops too few to wash her clean again” (IV, i, L.138-40).

In conclusion, the overall presentation of gender in “Much Ado About Nothing” is that women were socially inferior to men and had stricter set of social rules to adhere to. It is possible to conclude that Shakespeare felt this was the right way of doing things because he does not challenge it and in the end even Beatrice appears to be tamed because after Benedick says “Peace, I will stop your mouth” (V, vi, 97) she does not speak again. Elizabethan conventions are restored because in the end everyone is married to who they should be so Shakespeare sees marriage as the key to happiness and stability. The dance at the end of the play indicates that social conventions have been restored as the ordered rhythm and open identities of the characters provides a sharp contrast to the masked confusion of the dance earlier in the play and women are put back in their place below men in the hierarchy. Even though Beatrice previously wished that she “were a man”, she now seems to have accepted that her place in society is below them, though how long this will last is unclear.

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