‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ a comedy by William Shakespeare was first published in 1600 although it was believed to be written in 1598. The play is set within Messina, a place riddled with gossip in a strongly patriarchal society. During the play there are two main relationships which are focused on: Hero and Claudio’s traditional relationship and Benedick and Beatrice’s playful banter which surprisingly develops into a loving and genuine relationship. There are various elements of the play which a contemporary audience would definitely be able to relate to in some ways, while parts of the play may seem archaic. For example, references to classical illusions, usually made by Benedick to illustrate his good breeding would have meaning to a Shakespearean audience. Modern audiences may also find Hero and Claudio’s relationship hard to identify with due to the pace at which they fall in love and they may question how genuine their relationship is.
One of the first characters the audience is introduced to in the play is Beatrice, niece to Leonato. Beatrice is not representative of a typical Shakespearean woman although she may well fit into the stereotype of being a shrew1 due to her outspoken nature and mocking of Benedick. Her sarcastic sense of humour towards Benedick can first be observed during her interruption of Leonato at the beginning of the play in which she inquires after “Signior Mountanto” implying that Benedick is an egotistical exhibitionist. Beatrice continues her scornful mocking of Benedick, referring to him as a “fool” and insulting his ability as a good soldier by questioning “how many” he has “killed” at war. It soon becomes evident that Beatrice takes her insults too far as Leonato stops her and says that she criticizes Benedick “too much.” A contemporary audience may definitely be able to understand Beatrice’s blunt and direct nature, and interpret her insults as a secret admiration for Benedick and an illustration of her independence. Yet some members of Shakespearean audiences may have seen her behaviour abnormal for a woman. This may be because of her confidence and dominance which seem out of place within patriarchal Messina.
Soon after Beatrice is introduced for the first time, Benedick is introduced to the play in a good natured battle of wills with Beatrice. Similarly to Beatrice, Benedick insults Beatrice and personification is used as he calls Beatrice “Lady Disdain,” showing a slight arrogance to his character. Benedick’s arrogant behaviour is illustrated again by Shakespeare in a conversation with his friends, Claudio and Don Pedro. Claudio asks Benedick’s opinion on Hero, Beatrice’s cousin who he is falling in love with, and Benedick shows his characteristically scornful and dismissive nature as he replies he “noted her not,” but he “looked at her.” All his initial statements are typical of a misogynist and Benedick mocks the institution of marriage by asking Claudio if he has any “intent to turn husband,” Shakespeare also uses euphuism as Benedick exaggeratedly says that “fire cannot melt” his heart out of him. He voices his scorn by saying he will never be cuckolded by any woman and will “live a bachelor,” but perhaps he “doth protest too much”? Overall Benedick’s sharp tongue and outspoken nature compares dramatically with Beatrice’s and shows that although both characters are individuals, they both share a similar sense of humour and attitude to each other. A modern audience may observe Benedick as mocking and criticize his misogynistic attitude and opinion of Hero’s appearance. However, a Shakespearean audience may not have been as concerned with this due to the inferiority of women in those times compared to men.
Both Benedick and Beatrice prove themselves to be independent individuals who do not depend on love or marriage to progress with life, although both characters are easily manipulated into falling in love. This is due to the clever eavesdropping plots formulated by Don Pedro, proving their mockery of relationships and dislike of each other to simply be a faï¿½ade. After being deceived, Benedick admits Beatrice is “a fair lady” and that when he said he would “die a bachelor” he simply “did not think” he would “live till” he “were married”. Shakespeare also mirrors Benedick’s soliloquy in Beatrice’s deception as she admits she “will requite” Benedick. As part of a contemporary audience, I feel that the deception of two individuals to fall in love seems unrealistic and old fashioned although Shakespearean audience’s may have understood this better due to the fact that courtship and marriages used to be a more public affair. However, both audiences will be able to observe the tight knit and gossip ridden society of Messina which allows these deceptions to take place as part of their normal proceedings.
Beatrice and Benedick really do seem to unite as a couple when the crisis of Hero’s denunciation occurs. Whilst his friends’ leave, Benedick stays loyal to Beatrice leaving both modern and Shakespearean audience’s to wonder whether or not this illustrates a confirmation of his love for Beatrice. After Hero has been “wronged,” Benedick and Beatrice discuss their feelings for each other and a tender and sincere Beatrice can be observed as she almost admits she loves nothing “so well as” Benedick. Benedick asks if he can do “anything” to prove his love and Beatrice seriously asks him to “kill Claudio.” When Benedick refuses, Beatrice wishes that she was “a man” so she could kill him herself illustrating the patriarchal nature of Shakespearean times. After persuasion, Benedick does agree to “challenge” Claudio which ends the scene powerfully and shows how the female concept of justice has taken over the men’s masculine feelings. Overall, a contemporary audience may find Beatrice’s request to “kill Claudio” extreme. Despite this they may admire Beatrice’s honesty and enjoy watching Benedick and Beatrice’s banter evolve into a loving, honest and genuine relationship that would not appear out of place today.
In contrast to Benedick and Beatrice’s modern and unorthodox relationship, Shakespearean audiences may find Hero and Claudio’s conventional and traditional relationship easier to identify with and understand. Claudio’s admiration for Hero first becomes obvious when, after seeing her once, he decides she is the “sweetest lady that” he ever “looked on,” although the fact that he inquires “hath Leonato any son,” may also raise the question as to whether he’s a mercenary to a contemporary audience. Claudio then goes on to talk of how he would like Hero to be his “wife” before he has even talked to her and found out what her personality is like. However, Claudio’s courtly love for Hero soon seems ironic as he rapidly changes his opinions on her after being foolish enough to fall for, villain, Don John’s melodramatic plot to ruin their relationship.
On the day of their wedding, Shakespeare shows a change in Claudio’s attitude towards Hero as he publicly shames her for her supposed “disloyal” behaviour. Shakespeare uses dramatic irony as Claudio calls Hero’s soul “free and unconstrained” and describes her as a “wanton” even though this is far from the truth as Hero is a faithful virgin and the audience know this. Shakespeare uses the double meaning of the name “Hero2” as a further illustration of her innocence; Oxymoron’s such as “pure impiety” and “impious purity” are also used which convey Claudio’s chaotic and contradictory state of mind. Overall, members of a modern audience watching ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ would view this confusion as exactly that, especially as nowadays a woman is not expected to marry as a virgin. They may see Claudio’s treatment of Hero as rash and brutal as he has no real evidence and is quick to falsely accuse. Although they may feel some compassion towards him as he has been deceived by Don John. On the other hand, a Shakespearean audience would almost definitely have expected Hero to be a virgin and may have been able to understand Claudio’s harsh behaviour due to men’s superiority and the importance of “purity” in their times.
In Shakespearean times it was natural for a daughter’s father to select her husband and this may make the audience question whether Hero’s agreement to marry Claudio is true love or simply duty. This obedience can be seen as Beatrice says it is her “cousin’s duty to make curtsy and say ‘father, as it please you'” when referring to marriage showing her view that Hero will marry to please Leonato rather than herself. Evidence can also be gained from the fact that Hero makes an easy switch from believing she is marrying Don Pedro at the costume ball to getting betrothed to Claudio and setting the marriage for a “week” away. Similarities to Claudio can also be observed as he agrees to be her imaginary cousin’s “husband” which shows they both lack dedication to true love as their feelings seem to adapt too rapidly to be genuine.
Unlike Beatrice, Hero fits into the typical stereotype of a Shakespearean woman as she is mute in the company of men although her behaviour on the morning of her wedding contrasts with her normal quietness. Hero shows independent judgement when talking to Margaret and Ursula and she labels her cousin “a fool” proving she does form her own opinions. Compared to Beatrice, a modern audience may feel that Hero’s attitude to relationships remains firmly stuck in Shakespearean times due the fact that she barely talks to Claudio and their marriage seems like a public event rather than a testimony of their love. They may also get frustrated with her weakness and acceptance of Claudio after he has shamed her although a contemporary audience should also be able to observe the patriarchal society which causes Hero to behave this way. As for a Shakespearean audience, Hero’s conformity would be totally expected by most members of the audience.
Different audiences would also have different expectations of the survival of Hero and Claudio’s marriage: As part of a modern audience, I would expect their marriage to hit hard times and question their credibility as lovers because of the way both individuals seem to be able to adapt to others showing little sign of any emotion, the public nature of the relationship and because it is questionable as to whether Claudio’s mourning of Hero is entirely genuine or just a duty. On the other hand, most Shakespearean audiences would have expected love to be found within their marriage and would have seen their relationship to be progressing naturally and in the right way. In comparison to this view, some religions today share this view which may affect some members of a contemporary audience.
Overall, throughout the play Shakespeare presents many different angles to relationships between men and women to the audience particularly through the relationships of Benedick and Beatrice and Hero and Claudio. Contemporary audiences on the whole may find Beatrice and Benedick easier to relate to due to the naturalness of their relationship whilst Shakespearean audiences may have found Hero and Claudio’s relationship normal and respectable.
Benedick’s description of an ideal woman being “fair,” “wise,” “virtuous,” and “mild,” sums up what is expected of a stereotypical Shakespearean woman and along with Hero’s savage denunciation shows Shakespeare illustrating the patriarchal society of his times as well as showing how marriages were not necessarily based on love but instead family appearances or money. Modern audiences may also disagree with Hero’s decision to take Claudio back after he treats her so badly as in the play he offers no apology and has already agreed to marry somebody else showing his insensitive nature and disregard for her feelings. Shakespearean audiences would have been likely not to even question this and if anything would have found Beatrice and Benedick’s unconventional relationship to be abnormal. In my opinion, Shakespeare presents both relationships effectively although I find Hero’s acceptance of Claudio’s behaviour shocking and find Benedick and Beatrice’s relationship to be a lot more endearing.
In Shakespearean times, women were stereotyped into the following categories: women as whores, women as goddess, women as adulterer and women as shrew and scapegoat.