“Much Ado About Nothing” by William Shakespeare Essay Sample
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“Much Ado About Nothing” by William Shakespeare Essay Sample
How far do you agree with the feminist contention that the treatment of women in this play reflects deep insecurities in men about the potential threat of the female to undermine patriarchal order?
There are many ways in which the play, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, by Shakespeare could be interpreted and read. This ambiguity is present in all of Shakespeare’s works yet one interpretation is prominent in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ particularly. The feminist contention that the treatment of women in this play reflects deep insecurities in men about the potential threat of the female to undermine patriarchal order, such as that of Messina’s society, highlights Shakespeare’s tendency to override the freedom of female characters. Of course, it is only in recent years that the play has been read from a feminist viewpoint and the shift of social focus during the years since it was written has also offered a vast range of interests, so much so that throughout the ages Shakespeare has meant different things to different people. However, the passive oppression of women seems to be a common denominator and is present here at its greatest strength in the arranged marriage between Hero and Claudio and her subsequent disgrace. It must be considered whether this is just a misinterpretation of Shakespeare’s preference to focus on male characters because there were no female actors at the time when it was written (a prejudice reflected in the play), or the greater impetus that dramatic scenes had when acted out within a patriarchal society. Is it a genuine argument that the treatment of women reflected their real threat to weaken the dominance of men?
Beatrice’s role in the play is quite different from that of Hero. Both live in the same household yet the freedom that Beatrice enjoys as a result of not having a father figure demonstrates the influence that men had over their daughters. Hero, whose father resides in the same household, is mute for almost the entire play besides her protestations of her innocence at the marriage ceremony. The contrast between these two women is the basis for the extent to which women pose a threat. This idea is supported by their first appearances on stage, emphasised by Shakespeare to familiarise the audience with the characters. Beatrice’s first words sum up her apparent resentment of Benedick whilst exhibiting her wit – “…is Signor Mountanto returned from the wars or no,”, meaning ‘Sir Stuck-Up’, a term used in fencing and, in this context, has implications of a match of wits between the two. There is significance in the men’s confusion arising from such wit of Beatrice’s, since Leonato himself asks, “What is he that you ask for, niece?”, yet Hero has no difficulties comprehending. This kind of understanding between them, if typical of all women, must certainly contribute to a sense of unease that the men feel.
Also during Act 1 Scene 1 Don Pedro’s assumption, “I think this is your daughter”, is met by Leonato’s response, “Her mother hath many times told me so.” This introduction of Hero is indicative of the treatment of women, as he makes a joke at her expense in public without considering her feelings. It could be said that this sort of oppression of Hero is what causes her to remain silent, although Shakespeare may have created her in recognition of the popular view of women at the time, as an opposite to Beatrice’s free speech. When the play was written there would have been no competition to this convention and, as mentioned earlier, it has only surfaced in the wake of women gaining an ‘equal’ role in society. In short, the stark contrast between Hero’s muteness and Beatrice’s unconventional vulgarity highlights Beatrice’s lack of a father to govern her and the way that women were viewed by Shakespeare and Elizabethan audiences.
Beatrice’s relationship with Benedick is also shrouded in unconformity. As Leonato explains to the messenger (the audience) there is a ‘skirmish of wit’ between them, at odds with the codes of Messina’s loveless society where women readily submit themselves to marriage. Her outbursts are treated with good humour from the other characters and she is never taken seriously by the male characters, who dismiss her with cynicism. That Beatrice adopts this approach in her encounters with Benedick is not surprising, but that she openly contradicts what he says suggests that she strives for competition in order to prove that she is equal. This is evident especially in early encounters between the two – the perceived playful hostility of Beatrice is humoured by the sharp retaliatory insults from Benedick. Such an example is when Beatrice tells Benedick that he may as well keep quiet now because no-one is listening to him, and he responds with, “What my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living?”. Beatrice’s remarks have a detached iciness about them, but Benedick’s have a ferocity that denotes a kind of intimacy, breeding insecurities about his feelings toward Beatrice which continue to grow throughout the play.
It is certainly Beatrice who seems better suited as the male in a relationship between her and Benedick due to the control that she has over Benedick, however unaware she may be of it. We may admire Beatrice’s spirit but the play “continues to endorse a particular view of women’s nature”, as Terence Hawkes believed. This idea of going against the male ‘grain’ of the play and abandoning the female nature, dominated by marriage and the prospect of children, draws comparisons to Lady Macbeth in the play, Macbeth. This comparison is also relevant when Beatrice exclaims, “O God that I were a man!” (Act 4:1), when confronted by her own conflicting emotions in her desire for Claudio to be killed. This idea of women becoming ‘unsexed’ to commit acts of violence or brutality is present in Shakespeare’s plays to the extent that it comments on the behaviour of the men. This in itself makes it impossible for any woman to be a man’s equal in the society of Messina, where women are incapable of violence due to nature’s order, yet men transcend nature such is the dominating force that they have in the play. Whilst never going to the extreme of becoming ‘unsexed’, Beatrice is reluctant to submit to the predetermined role of women in Messina and this contributes to her reasoning behind the use of irony as a defence mechanism, to prevent herself becoming too close to Benedick.
The consciousness of Beatrice of diminished freedom after marriage is never present in Hero. Her willingness to be married is yet another indicator that she has never experienced true freedom. The behaviour of Claudio in the period before his wedding is an example of how women did not feature predominantly in the actions of the men who held high positions in society. Claudio’s gullibility is very telling of the value of any man’s word over that of any woman – Don John, the perpetrator of the lie that Hero has been unfaithful, is the most mistrustful character in the play yet Claudio and Don Pedro, who himself often acts as a benchmark for the other male characters, are taken in by his deception. That Claudio takes Don John’s word as fact without having consulted Hero is damning evidence of the poor treatment of women. The justification of his behaviour lies in the disgrace that he would bear should he continue to wed Hero. Thus, in order to prove his worth and distance himself from Hero, he rebukes Hero at the altar, in public, for a crime that exists only in the deception that Don John and Borachio arranged.
Hero poses a threat here to Claudio and, arguably, this frightens him. He is aware that her disgrace has the potential to undermine any respect that he commandeers and destroy his reputation, and so his disproportional response is intentionally acted out in public so that he can be disassociated from her. Possibly the only reason that Shakespeare allows Hero to speak in this instance is that the allegations made against her are unfounded, yet her protestations of innocence fall on deaf ears besides Beatrice, Benedick and the Friar. The Friar’s significance, whilst still being male, is that he is a man of God capable of seeing beyond social prejudices. In this scene, Act Four Scene One, so much is destroyed for the sake of male pride.
What is surprising is how freely Hero offers herself to Claudio for the second time. This is largely a result of pressure from Leonato, the governing power in her life, who is preoccupied with the damage that it may do to the family name. She has possibly come to value herself lowly compared to the men surrounding her. Leonato devalues her worth immediately upon introducing her to Don Pedro and later, in wishing Claudio to marry Hero after his appalling behaviour towards her. The compromising position that Hero finds herself in is no different to that of the beginning of the novel – an arranged marriage – but if this was not resolved, Hero would most likely never find a husband – “She knows the heat of a luxurious bed”. Women were forced to comply with the codes of the patriarchal society or face possibly dire circumstances such as the public humiliation that Hero experiences.
However, finding a husband is not a priority of Beatrice’s at the beginning of the play. The synchronism between Beatrice and Hero is extended to marriage as Beatrice falls for Benedick around the same time that Hero is due to marry Claudio. The difference is that Beatrice made her own decision regarding Benedick, although Shakespeare would have only made Beatrice marry to meet expectations of the audience when it was written and acted in Elizabethan times. Shakespeare championed the idea that women must be wed, which goes against all modern feminist contentions. It could be said that Leonato’s original joke about Hero opens the gate for men to mistreat her but, due to the defensive stance that she adopts, men are more dismissive of Beatrice – “You must not, sir, mistake my niece”. This shows how aware the men of Messina are of the threat of the female.
Margaret is a minor female character yet she is grossly wronged by Borachio in the deception by Don John to provide visual evidence of Hero becoming intimate with another man. She remains silent throughout Hero’s ordeal, even after realising what part she had to play in the proceedings, which is akin to Hero’s conduct whilst having her future decided by the men around her. Margaret is reluctant to reveal the truth due to the shame that it would bring on herself, a common jeopardy faced by women. Therefore, it is not just the mistreatment by men that suppresses the threat posed by women but also the reaction of society that females must endure following events instigated by men, ironic in itself.
Although both men and women had predetermined positions and roles in society, the feminist contention that the treatment of women reflects deep insecurities in men about the potential threat of the female to undermine patriarchal order is predominantly evident in this play. Beatrice, as a strong-willed woman, holds great influence whilst refusing to be treated badly by any man. Such an example is her persuasion of Benedick to kill Claudio, an action a female could not carry out herself unless she were ‘unsexed’ such as Lady Macbeth. The deed that Hero is supposed to have perpetrated is a threat to Claudio’s reputation and his treatment of her subsequently is the best proof in this play of this feminist contention. The female characters are pushed into less significant roles within the play as a way to ‘contain’ the threat and feminist readings place emphasis on the idea of structuralism – interpreting the play against the male-orientated grain that it was written in.
Much Ado About Nothing – Edited by J.H. Walter
Shakespeare and new critical approaches – Terence Hawkes
Critical approaches to Shakespeare from 1660 to 1904 – Harry Levin
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