The Renaissance comedy, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, written by Shakespeare in 1600 during the Elizabethan era, addresses male inconstancy and female persecution; how women are controlled by the prevailing patriarchal system. Hero, the conventional heroine, is a ‘shrinking violet’, who suffers character assassination through male actions. ‘The Rover’, written in 1677 for the Restoration society of Charles II where men were hedonistic, uncommitted and brimming with bravado, also explores gender conflicts. However playwright, Aphra Behn, in this Restoration comedy, critically comments on male attitudes, and – through female rebellion where, not one, but three virgins challenge patriarchal control by seeking love – questions the traditional fabric of society and the status quo of male authority.
In ‘Much Ado’ Hero’s silence defines her submissive character. SP Cerasano’s comment that women were expected to be ‘chaste, silent and obedient… property of her father, husband or guardian’, typifies Hero as the model of Elizabethan womanhood. The unspoken implication of ‘you know your answer’ from Leonato in 2/1 regarding gossip about Don Pedro expresses male dominance.
In addition to patriarchal control Shakespeare provides evidence of the Elizabethan preoccupation with marriage’s financial aspect, evident in Claudio’s inquiry in 1/1 of Don Pedro, “Hath Leonato any son?” and the reply, “No child but Hero, she’s his only heir” illustrating what a contemporary audience might consider a mercenary approach that suggest doubt against his sincerity. However, for the Shakespearean audience, this commodification of women and financial basis of marriage was entirely acceptable.
The greatest evidence of women’s subordinate position comes in 4/1 when Hero is brutally slandered by Claudio. In what Cerasano calls Claudio’s, “brutal and unambiguous manner” calling her a “rotten orange” and an “approved wanton”, Hero’s powerlessness is highlighted by the brevity of her responses, “Is my Lord well that he doth speak so wide?” Cerasano recognises the difficulty of her situation, that nothing can ‘ultimately exonerate her’, not even her father whom we might expect to stand up for her. Leonato’s language shows the patriarch trying to retain his own honour by disowning his daughter, “no part of it is mine / This shame derives itself from unknown loins”
Only the appearance of her death can create the possibility of sympathy for Hero and remorse from Claudio. Through metaphorical ‘death’, Hero is ‘reborn’ – her honour is redeemed and marriage is resumed. Order is restored to society.
In “The Rover”, the conventional heroine, Florinda, assumes a more proactive role compared to the reactive persona of Hero. Behn opens the play with Florinda and Hellena chatting about her intended (and unwanted) marriage to the elderly Don Vincentio; we see rejection of patriarchal control, calling arranged marriage “the ill customs of our country”. Florinda’s rebellion telling her brother that to support this marriage will “make a slave of his sister” shows the Restoration audience that the conventional heroine is keen to pursue her own destiny.
However females are subject to dangers other than slander in ‘The Rover’. Florinda, rambling into the hedonistic streets of carnival is susceptible to sexual violence, a fact alluded to in 1/1 saying she was previously saved from the “licensed lust of common soldiers” by the English cavalier, Belvile, whom she loves.
The masquerade provides Florinda the opportunity to hide her noble status but, as S.J. Wiseman argues, at the cost of “suffering … physical and sexual violence”. Florinda comes under the threat of sexual assault not once, but twice, firstly by the eponymous ‘rover’ Wilmore, then more seriously by the unsympathetic Blunt. By using the audience favourite, Wilmore, with his links to the exiled Charles II, Behn challenges the libertine audience. His attitude, believing her a “very wench” as the direction state she is “in an undress” is boorish. Hypocritically he assumes the role of victim, accusing her of leaving a “cob-web door to catch flies”. However Behn offers the audience a scintilla of justification from this attempted rape, Wilmore blaming the “cursed sack” he has drunken which might excuse him from the Restoration crowd, if not later audiences.
Worse is to come in 4/2 when the masked Florinda hides in Blunt’s lodgings from her brother. While Wilmore is afforded drunken stupor as an excuse, Blunt’s actions are motivated by misogynistic revenge. Blunt’s hatred for Lucetta the prostitute turns Florinda into an opportunity to “wreak his righteous revenge on womankind”. Frederick’s involvement also implicates the cavaliers’ behaviour as he joins Blunt. Even Belvile’s honourable status is doubted, Frederick referring to him as “a cormorant at whore and bacon”. It is unsurprising that 18th century productions censored Blunt’s most vicious imagery to protect public tastes. The atmosphere becomes graver still as Florinda’s brother ironically wins the ‘lottery’ using the length of their swords; an explicit phallic connotation, to take Florinda first.
Even the Restoration audience recognises Behn challenging male hypocrisies, by creating a situation where the patriarchal protector himself is responsible for the loss of female virtue. The swiftness with which Florinda accepts their apologies “I heartily forgive you all” provides the males, especially Blunt, with undeserving reprieve. However, Behn accepts it is necessary not to alienate her audience. Florinda’s marriage to Belvile signals her victory over the Spanish patriarchy, but simultaneously her submission to English manhood.
Beatrice in ‘Much Ado’ is a template for female existence outside patriarchy. As an orphan, Beatrice is detached from what Gay calls the “solidly-structured patriarchal society”, giving her freedom of speech. Her ambivalence towards love and marriage, employing paradoxical imagery in 2/1 “He that is more than a youth, is not for me, and he that is less than a man, I am not for him” denies any possibility either. What Cerasano calls Beatrice’s ‘healthy distrust’ for the conventions of ‘idealised love’ is motivated by self-preservation, resulting from Benedick’s fickleness in love, she previously having given her ‘double heart’ for his ‘single one’. However Neely disagrees, arguing that her ‘mockery of marriage and men poignantly reveals her desire for both.’
Neely’s view explain why in 3/1, upon overhearing gossip about Benedick’s alleged feelings for her, in blank verse Beatrice unfolds, her imagery suggesting her wild female instincts being tamed “Benedick, love on, I will requite thee, / Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand”. Despite having been hurt before, she is ready to open herself to love.
However Beatrice has sufficient awareness of how little her verbal power extends. In 4/1 she recognises she cannot defend Hero, “Oh that I were a man!”, conveys her impotent rage. Her vitriolic threat “I would eat his heart in the market place” is effective only in spurring Benedick to act on her behalf. Finally this model for female independence bends to join the society controlled by men with marriage to Benedick. As Neely comments, their final kiss “serves as a truce in their merry wars.”
Hellena, Florinda’s sister, appears the inheritor of Beatrice’s character sharing her mockery of arranged marriage, “a worse confinement than a religious life”. However she differs from Beatrice, revealing a hedonistically masculine quality in her desire to experience love, at any cost “I will be beloved, or I’ll get one of your men”. Hellena is instrumental in rejecting male domination, a point Burke concurs with calling her “undoubtedly the leader of this band of feisty virgins”. However unlike Florinda, Hellena is not subject to sexual violence; her wit is her defence as is her adoption of male disguise. Initially disguising herself as a gypsy she meets Willmore, the rakish cavalier.
Hellena and Wilmore are matched not only in their wit, but in their attitudes, both expressing inconstancy; she accurately sums his character’s similarity to hers, him “to cozen as many maids as will trust you, and I as many men as have faith”.
In 4/2 Hellena assumes the stock Restoration role of ‘breeches part’ where she cross-dresses – a dual effect of further emancipating Hellena whilst ironically (and for the prurient pleasures of the Restoration audience) emphasising her female form. By using this deceit, she witnesses that should Willmore ever marry, “it should be some kind young sinner” referencing their earlier religious/sexual banter – Wiseman agrees with noting that Hellena’s very desirability is figured in, “her ability not to be herself or remain long in any one identity;” – in short displaying “the same nature as his – Inconsistent”.
Her marriage, even more than Florinda’s, appears to be a rejection of patriarchal authority from her intended life in a nunnery, using the cavalier crowd to choose her future “Let most voices carry it: for heaven or the captain?”. However Behn also affords us an interesting male perspective on patriarchal responsibility from Don Pedro, telling Willmore “Take her: I shall now be free from fears of her honour…I have been salve to’t long enough”. This patriarchal awareness of Hellena’s rebellious nature is perhaps the best evidence of status quo being challenged. In an ironic postscript however when Behn revisited the character of Willmore, Hellena has apparently died at sea. Behn is obviously aware that the Restoration audience prefer the rakish Willmore to have his independence to rove.
The development in female independence from the submissive Hero to ‘Helena the Inconstant’ is clear – but simultaneously the experience of Angellica reminds us of women’s weakness to love and the power of language. Angellica Bianca, the courtesan, is initially illustrated as the most independent female in the sexual economy of Naples. Uncontrolled by the patriarchal control that Florinda and Hellena are subject to, she is afforded freedom and wealth through her beauty, and her attitude towards love seems almost masculine in its mercenary nature “nothing but gold shall charm my heart”. However love, what her maid Moretta calls the “general disease of our sex”, weakens Angellica. Though she is well aware of male inconstancy calling Don Pedro “so uneasy and inconstant” she is ironically attracted by Willmore’s bluntness, Angellica being more accustomed to vibrant flattery.
Initially angered by Willmore’s criticisms of her occupation “Poor as I am, I would not sell myself” she simultaneously succumbs to his honest admiration of her beauty “Yet I contemn your mind / And yet I would at any rate enjoy you”. Russell states that the courtesan has a place in society so long as she “treats herself as a commodity”, but upon succumbing to love, she is undone. However Angellica lacks Hellena’s wit and flirtatious personality, leaving her susceptible to Willmore’s fickleness. In 4/2 Angellica realises that she cannot control his rakish tendencies, “He will not see me now, though oft invited” and in an ironic reversal of the courtesan/gallant economic transaction confesses Willmore, “Must now be hired and courted to my arms” showing that she has vainly given him money to try to purchase his loyalty.
When she unwittingly mentions Hellena’s wealth she realises she has given Willmore all the motivation he needs “False man! I see my ruin in your face”. This bears out Russell’s view that love makes Angellica “vulnerable both emotionally and economically”. Her final blank verse soliloquy in 4/2 gives her character a tragic aspect, lamenting “In vain I have consulted all my charms / In vain this beauty prized” the repetition of “in vain” conveying her emotional loss. Angellica ends as the stock figure of the Restoration comedy – the ‘vengeful mistress’ – economically damaged and emotionally destroyed.
There is significant change in women’s disposition over the 70 year gap of ‘Much Ado’ and ‘The Rover’‘s productions from the submissive Hero to Helena the Inconstant – however their destiny is much the same; Hellena insisting on marriage keeps women dependent on males and Beatrice’s enthusiasm to change herself prioritises male perspective rather than female principles. All four heroines live happily ever after with, assumingly, the man of their choice, but to retain balance and order in society, other women who have languished for these men would have no choice but to bury their feelings amidst all romantic efforts, and Angellica is such one.