Much Ado About Nothing clearly shows the attitude of the Elizabethans towards women and what was expected of women of the time. Shakespeare uses two main characters; Hero and Beatrice, to show how women were treated. The status of the women also played a part in how women were expected to behave at that time.
Even at the beginning of the play Beatrice and Benedick speak their mind but as the audience we know that deep down Shakespeare meant for them to be good willed and a blessing as both of their names begin with bene from the word benevolent. Beatrice was considered precocious for her time. We know this because Leonato, her uncle, often has to make excuses for what Beatrice says. Leonato justifies what Beatrice has said about Benedick from the text, “You must not, sir, mistake my niece; there is a kind of merry war betwixt Signor Benedick and her”. This quotation shows that Leonato is used to the kind of language Beatrice uses. Shakespeare allows Beatrice and Benedick to use spiky language so that some real emotions can be aired in a society that was very formal. Beatrice also gets away with saying what she wants as her parents have both died and she lives with her uncle. This means that although Beatrice has a little wealth she is not under the same pressure as Hero is from Leonato as Hero is his only heir.
It was essential for Beatrice, Hero and all women of higher social status of that time to be virgins when they got married. It was considered a gift to their husband to be a virgin when they got married. Men on the other hand had more freedom and were able to “sow their wild oats” as there was not the same social pressure. However it was desirable for men to be virgins when they got married, Claudio was very proud to declare his virginity. We know this from at the wedding ceremony when Claudio disgraces Hero publicly he makes it clear in the audiences mind that he had not had sexual intercourse with Hero, “I know what you would say: if I have known her, you will say, she did embrace me as a husband, and so extenuate the forehand sin: no, Leonato, I never tempted her with word too large, but as a brother to his sister, showed bashful sincerity, and comely love.” This quotation shows that Claudio wishes to make it clear that he has not lost his virginity.
For Margaret, the gentle woman, who cares for Hero things are slightly different. Margaret does not have the same pressure as she does not have wealth or status so it is not as essential. This is due to the fact that courtship for a couple of lower social status was very different to Hero’s. Hero had not spoken very much to Claudio before they were engaged however couples of lower social status often courted for over a year before they got married. We know this because Borachio says to Don Pedro, “I think I told your lordship a year since, how much I am in the favour of Margaret, the waiting gentlewoman to Hero.” So this implies a form of courtship that has been going on for over a year. When Hero was publicly humiliated on her wedding day for supposedly having “spoken” with another man the night before the wedding even Leonato believed Claudio and the Prince Don Pedro rather than trusting his daughter.
Leonato says “Hath no man’s dagger here a point for me?” this quotation shows that Leonato was deeply hurt by his daughter supposedly losing her virginity as no man will want to marry her now and Hero is his only heir. Also Hero and the rest of family would have been disgraced, as the whole of Messina would have been talking about the events. Borachio who helps set up the deception calls Hero “A contaminated stale” so you can clearly see how despised people were who were not virtuous. As Benedick comes round to the idea of marrying he makes up a list of all the qualities his wife should be “Rich she shall be, that’s for certain: wise, or I’ll none: virtuous, or I’ll never cheapen her”. This list clearly shows that women have to be virgins and it is a standard quality that men expect when they marry a woman. Benedick also mentions that his wife should have money so this clearly shows that in theory he wants to better himself, as he is just a Signor so he has no title but in reality he later proposes to Beatrice who has little wealth.
The men in the play are often making sexual innuendoes and this is acceptable because men do not have the same pressure to be virtuous, where women on the other hand have to be innocent. This is a big difference in the way men and women behaved because there is a double standard. When Leonato, Claudio and Don Pedro are making sure that Benedick overhears them talking about how much Beatrice loves him, Leonato makes one of the many sexual innuendoes that are in the play “When she had writ it, and was reading it over, she found Benedick and Beatrice between the sheets.” This quotation proves how the men can speak freely yet the women have to save themselves for their wedding day.
Her father, Leonato, tells Hero that if the prince asked to marry she should say yes: “Daughter, remember what I told you: if the Prince do solicit you in that kind, you know your answer.” So women were expected to marry who their father wanted and it did not matter if Hero loved Don Pedro or not because Leonato wanted Hero to marry the Prince, as he is further up the hierarchy than they are. Leonato is not as concerned who Beatrice marries but would still like her to get married we know this because he says to Beatrice, “By my troth, niece, thou wilt never get thee a husband, if thou be so shrewd of thy tongue.” So you can learn from this that Leonato is giving some constructive criticism.
Beatrice gets a surprise offer of marriage from the Prince even though it was thought that it would be Hero. The audience knows that Leonato believed the Prince would propose to Hero because Leonato tells his daughter before the masked ball, “if the prince do solicit you in that kind you know your answer.” It is unclear whether Don Pedro was serious with his offer or was just deceiving Beatrice, even so she usually comes up with a quick-witted comment about everything, but here she lets the Prince down gently showing that she does have a softer side, this could be due to the fact that he is the Prince and so should be respected. “Your grace is too costly to wear every day”. Beatrice also helps her cousin and Claudio by telling them how they should behave. This shows that she is interested in marriage and love. She is also being unselfish in getting the pair together. “Speak cousin or (if you cannot) stop his mouth with a kiss”. In Shakespeare’s time when a marriage was agreed upon publicly like that, it was as if they were already married this is because it was a solemn betrothal and it was binding.
So this meant that when Hero had supposedly “talked” with another man by her chamber window it was considered so terrible. We also learn that Hero is not very enthusiastic about the prospect of marrying the Prince as at the dance she says to him “I am yours for the walk, and especially when I walk away”. This means that Hero likes his company but prefers it when she leaves him. So although Hero is meek and mild she politely stands up for herself. Another example of this is “why then your visor should be burned”. Here Hero is saying watch yourself, Prince! This may have been inspired by Beatrice as before the dance Beatrice was encouraging her to stand up for herself so that she marries who she wants, “Cousin, let him be a handsome fellow, or else make another curtsey, and say, father, as it please me.” Beatrice and Benedick are aware of the risks of getting married. For Beatrice it would mean submitting herself to a man and this causes them to reject marriage, this is summed up by Benedick who says, “Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably.”
When Benedick and Beatrice fall in love with each other they exhibit the traditional Elizabethan symptoms of falling in love. The Elizabethans believed that when somebody fell in love they would become melancholy. Another symptom is feeling ill and when Benedick meets with Don Pedro, Claudio and Leonato he tells them, “I have the tooth-ache.” Beatrice tells her friends that she has a cold. Benedick also shaved off his beard and earlier in the play Beatrice said, “He that hath a beard is more than a youth… he that is more than a youth, is not for me.”
Much Ado About Nothing also clearly illustrates the Elizabethan fear for men that they will be cuckolds. For men they wanted to produce a male heir who will carry on the family and inherit the wealth. This quotation is an example of the men talking about being a cuckold and it also shows that the men joke about it but to make anything humorous there has to be an element of truth, Don Pedro asks Leonato, “I think this is your daughter?” Leonato replies, “Her mother hath told me many times.”
Shakespeare is constantly reminding the audience throughout the play of his major theme, of noting things wrongly. Balthasar says “There’s not a note of mine that is worth noting” so Shakespeare does not want us to forget how everyone in the play is making the wrong assumptions. The word “Nothing” in the play’s title was pronounced in Shakespeare’s day as “noting” and that makes a lot of sense when you consider of all the times in the play where a character overhears something wrongly. Also no “thing” was an Elizabethan slang word for sex or an orgasm so to the Elizabethan audience there would have been lots of connotations. This means that the word “nothing” has three meanings. Also in Balthasar’s song he speaks of “the fraud of men” and calls them “deceivers” and says to the women “sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more”. Balthasar sang this song to men however none of the men pick up on the theme of unfaithfulness in this song because soon after in the play Hero will be accused of speaking with a man at night.
In the play Shakespeare uses a vast range of imagery to get the audience thinking and get images in their mind as the characters speak. When Claudio believes Don Pedro wooed Hero for himself and he confronts him about it he says: “a schoolboy, who being overjoyed with finding a birds nest, shows it to his companion, and he steals it”. This is a very effective image as in Shakespeare’s day, boys used to take eggs from birds nests and take out yolk to preserve the egg. This compares exactly to how Claudio feels about Hero. When the friends are trying to set Beatrice and Benedick up and the men are talking loudly so that Benedick can hear Don Pedro says, “in despite of his quick wit, and his queasy stomach, he shall fall in love with Beatrice”. This is quite a humorous line because his friends know that Benedick does put on pretence that he will never love nor marry a woman, also things are only funny when there is an element of truth in it. This quotation is quite true of Benedick’s character. When Benedick and Beatrice are in each other’s presence there is always a “skirmish of wit” between each other, an example of this is at the beginning of the play when Beatrice and Benedick meet again Benedick says,” What, my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living?” Benedick repeats throughout the play that he shall not marry and is annoyed when Claudio first expresses his desires to marry Hero Benedick says,” Shall I never see a bachelor of three score again?”
Shakespeare uses both blank verse and prose during the play. About 72% of the play is in prose and 28% is in verse this is more than any other Shakespearian play. Benedick usually speaks in prose because he is very frank and gets to the point. However when he comes to terms with being in love with Beatrice he speaks in blank verse and calls her “fair Beatrice”. The way Shakespeare makes Benedick speak mainly in prose makes the contrast great when he changes to blank verse. As the audience we know that Benedick has changed dramatically from once refusing to get married and then slowly considering the idea and then telling his friends he has changed. Shakespeare frequently uses alliteration in the play. By using alliteration it makes a statement stand out more from the rest of the script to the audience thus making more of a point. An example of this is of Hero at the wedding she says, “Is my Lord well, that he doth speak so wide?” the use of the words wide and well gives a greater dramatic impact to the audience as the words are more pronounced in the sentence.
In Much Ado About Nothing we can clearly see women’s roles in Elizabethan England. Women were the property of men; firstly it was their father and then he then handed his daughter over to a man whom he thought, was best for his daughter. Once they were married the women was her husband’s property and any wealth that she had went to him, the man could do anything that he wanted with her. All higher-class women had to be virgins when they got married so when Hero had supposedly been intimate to some extent with another man it was very shocking. If it were true it would be nearly impossible for anyone to want to marry her. But for lower class women like Margaret it did not matter so much if she were a virgin or not because people who were lower class would court for a year or more, because they did not have much money involved so there was not the same pressure, so women were not always virgins when they got married. With Beatrice we can take a look at what women really thought about their circumstances.