My response to Shakespeare’s presentation of dishonour and shame in the world of Much Ado about nothing in this 17th century time in Messina, Sicily is that I believe it is of a very strict and serious type. The story represents a Patriarchal society which relies heavily on Nobleness and loyalty. Anything opposing these two things would be seen as Perjury or as serious as a sin worthy of being severely punished or even killed. An occurrence in the actual text is the aborted wedding ceremony, in which Claudio rejects Hero, accusing her of infidelity and violated chastity and publicly shaming her in front of her father, which is the climax of the play.
Claudio first questions Hero’s father Leonato “will you with free and unconstrained soul, give me this maid, your daughter” as if he were giving implication that Leonato already knew of the blemish on Hero’s fidelity, and trying to influence him in owning up, but Leonato knew of no such thing and replied “As freely son, as God gave her to me” Claudio realises this and goes on to expose the shocking exposition of Hero’s supposed infidelity Claudio says to Leonato ” Give not this rotten orange to your friend; she’s but the sign and semblance of her honour…..Can cunning sin cover itself withal!” This explaining the extent of Claudio’s anger at Hero’s dishonourable behaviour and the love of at this time to public shame the culprits of this type of behaviour, you would hardly find people trying to sort out problems in their own homes personally as we do now, but contrarily in a way resembling a show trial, hanging or beheading. This showing as well as being immensely opposed to dishonour and tremendously attracted to public shaming, these were spiteful times with cold people who had no tolerance or forgiveness for people committing dishonourable crimes, especially if you’re a woman.
We see this with the contrasting behaviour of Messina citizens when it came to Hero’s shaming and with discovery of Don John’s plotting and painting of this whole disaster, they admitted he deserved punishment, but just carried on to apologise for Hero’s death at her funeral, this maybe due however to being sidetracked at the realisation of wrongly accusing that lead eventually to the death an innocent woman. In Shakespeare’s time, a woman’s honour was based upon her virginity and chaste behaviour. For a woman to lose her honour by having sex before marriage meant that she would lose all her social status if apparent in the first place, a disaster from which she could never recover. We see this through more of Claudio’s anger filled comments “Comes not that blood as modest evidence to witness simple virtue, would you not swear…by these exterior shows? But she is none, she knows the heat of a luxurious bed, her blush is guiltiness, not modesty” Claudio is here showing the fact of Hero’s blood therefore heritage and family being severely tainted by her actions if not to say poisoned, she seemed “modest”, “blush” “shy” and nave on surface but ended up being found to be conniving and promiscuous or so it seemed.
When Leonato rashly believes Claudio’s shaming of Hero at the wedding ceremony, he tries to disown or wipe her out entirely “Hence from her, let her die”. Furthermore, he speaks of her loss of honour as a stain from which he cannot distance himself, no matter how hard he tries “O she is fallen ….. Into a pit of ink, that the wide sea……Hath drops too few to wash her clean again”. The language that both Claudio and Leonato use to shame Hero is extremely strong. To Claudio she is a “rotten orange” and to Leonato a rotting carcass that cannot be preserved “the wide sea …. Hath….. salt too little which may season give ….To her foul tainted flesh!”. Leonato seems to be extensively remorseless; at her body that he believed to be dead he confesses “O fate! Take not away thy heavy hand, death is the fairest cover for her shame that may be wished for”, This is something we in our time would fin hard to perceive or believe, because your daughter commits adultery, she is better dead, this is not right. I could never even contemplate doing that to my daughter or no anybody who could do the same; this is taking opposition to infidelity before marriage or dishonourable behaviour to an extreme.
Claudio shows not his patriarchal way of thinking about the whole situation but his emotional hurt and heartbreak about it “Thou pure impiety and impious purity! For thee I’ll lock up all the gates of love, and on my eyelids shall conjecture hang, to turn all beauty into thoughts of harm, and never shall it more be gracious”. Here he expresses himself explaining how he will never fall in love again, at least not so easy. He will never judge on surface value or through beauty face wise, because as he described beauty will be turned to harm, showing the extent of the effects of this break up on his personal feelings maybe showing all anger filled comments were just slips of the tongue in rage. These maybe can show that this society as with Claudio is a front that is covering their true feelings through social influence and for the need of social acceptance, something the deviser of all this trouble Don John so badly wanted and needed.
We also see Leonato showing signs that how would have probably done it himself before where he says”Hath no man’s dagger here a point for me?” This showing again the lack of love or morals by men in this world again, the whole conception of honour and shame being so important in this world comes down to the fact of their world’s men being to egotistic and spiteful. It was said (not in text) that “he who is without sin should cast the first stone”, when it came to infidelity with women this concept was not even thought about in the least.
For women in that era, the loss of honour was a form of annihilation. For men, on the other hand, honour depended on male friendship alliances and was more military in nature. Unlike a woman, a man could defend his honour, as we saw Borachio trying to do towards end and that of his family, by fighting in a battle or a duel, as Beatrice urges Benedick to avenge Hero’s honour by duelling with Claudio to the death.
As a woman, Hero cannot seize back her honour, but as a man, Benedick can do it for her through physical combat. Everyone is seems to be reeling from this news of dishonourable behaviour, although let it be said it was more so the men. Don Pedro tries to apologise as he feels partly guilty “I stand dishonoured, that have gone about to link my dear friend to a common stale” showing this anger and in this case guilty felt in unison by people in Shakespeare’s Much Ado world at the fact of dishonour being committed. We also see the unregretful and remorseless pushing of the dagger deeper into Hero’s back with the deviser of this whole situation Don John’s words “Sir, they are spoken, and these things are true” placing fundamental emphasis again on my point of the heartlessness of the people in this world, primarily the men.
Even though Hero is ultimately vindicated, her public shaming at the wedding ceremony is too terrible to be ignored. In a sense, this kind of humiliation contributes more to her lost honour and the fall of her family name than an act of unchaste behaviour, had it occurred, itself would have.
Shame is also what Don John hopes will cause Claudio to lose his place as Don Pedro’s favourite, once Claudio is discovered to be engaged to a dishonourable woman, Don John believes that Don Pedro will reject Claudio as he rejected Don John long ago. Shame is a form of social punishment closely connected to loss of honour. A product of being born out of wedlock himself, Don John has grown up constantly reminded of his own social shame, and he will do anything to balance it out in favour of himself. Ironically, in the end Don John is shamed and threatened with torture to punish him for deceiving the company. Clearly, he will never gain a good place in this society.