The play, ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ is a romantic comedy by William Shakespeare, set in Messina – Sicily in the 16th century. Centred on youthful characters in the mist of deception, lust and honour, the central characters in the play are the two pairs of lovers, in this case the romantic leads, Claudio and Hero, and their comic counterparts, Benedick and Beatrice. Through the bold, witty Beatrice’s relationship with the valiant, sharp Benedick, Shakespeare echoes the attitudes in society at the time surrounding women, status, marriage and reputation.
Beatrice plays an extremely important part in ‘Much Ado about nothing’ and has a main role in the plot. Her witty banter and charisma with Benedick, whose antagonistic relationship and eventual courtship are dramatized in the play’s subplot. Shakespeare makes Beatrice play a comical, astute character whose position in the household allows her freedom in a way her cousin, Hero cannot have. She plays the impatient cousin who has an opinion for every matter in the house, as she is persuasive, opinionated and manipulative. Beatrice challenges males as she believes they destroy women’s reputations, which was a rare-unspoken attitude towards men in the 16th century.
‘I Would eat his heart in the marketplace.’ Beatrice is referring to Claudio and ‘Oh God that I were a man.’ Wishing she could cause him as much pain physically as he has caused Hero emotionally by leaving her at the altar on their wedding day. By wishing she was a man tells the audience that she has an atypical personality compared to the usual 16th century woman who is meant to keep quiet and not publish their opinions. Furthermore, Beatrice saying she wants to eat his heart in the marketplace shows she wants to humiliate him and make a mockery of him in front of the town’s people as the market place is the busiest place and reputation is a very important concern -showing us the seriousness of Beatrice’s threat.
Beatrice’s diverse personality brings spice to the play’s situations for the audience. As she speaks, her mind is not affair to offend anyone with her quick wit; the plot thickens by her role in it. ‘Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher’ ‘A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours’ replies Beatrice to Benedick, illustrating how her dialect with other characters can add excitement to the play, making the words from Benedick turn her way and humiliate him; she makes the phrase ‘parrot teacher’, meaning chatterer to ‘bird of my tongue’ indicating elegant speech, in flavor of her. In addition, she retorts by saying Benedick’s tongue is a beast, suggesting their early hatred to each other, which later turns into passionate love. ‘I would my horse had the speed of your tongue…I have done’ Beatrice replies ‘You always end a jade trick’ Benedick is also quick-witted but Beatrice has the last line, and at the end of their ‘merry war’, Beatrice turns around the meaning of horse to a jade – broken down, vicious horse, showing the audience that Beatrice has won in their subconscious speaking battle. Dialogs such as this between Beatrice and Benedick controlling the situation rings a certain amount of pleasantry entertainment to the plot and her role in it is vital for the audience’s amusement.
The vital roles in the plot which Beatrice plays are also shown through the themes of the play. The main themes throughout Much Ado about Nothing are love, conflict and the ongoing battle of the sexes. Beatrice plays a crucial role in all of these themes, being involved in the key storylines throughout the play. Beatrice is not afraid to speak her mind and illustrate her resentment for males and their sexist opinions which were extremely apparent in the 16th century. Shakespeare represents Beatrice with a front which she is determined to not be in love as she thinks little of men, and wants to be seen that she can survive without their unwanted affection. The hiding of her feelings with this apparent facade made by Beatrice is removed when the others trick her into thinking Benedick loves her.
Benedick: Do not you love me? Beatrice: Why no; no more than reason Benedick: Why then your uncle, the Prince and Claudio have been deceived; they swore you did. Beatrice: Do not you love me? Benedick: Why no; no more than reason. Beatrice: Why then my cousin, Margaret and Ursula are much deceived, for they did swear you did. From Benedick’s and Beatrice’s conversation it is clear to see that they are confused by overhearing that the other one loved them, but they are quick to change their mind about loving one another and soon admit it soon after this conversation. The audience can see that also they are very similar to each other for they use the same phrase to retort back to each other , pushing their love-hate relationship further. This shows the audience another sub-plot to the play, deception and over-hearing. Without the other’s medalling towards the couple, they would not have overcome their differences and admitted they loved each other, showing the importance of intervening. Shakespeare shows the audience that everyone has the capacity to love and to be loved, using Beatrice as an example in this. As Benedick and Beatrice’s joking, merry war blossoms into passionate, amorous relationship, just through the mere medaling of their friends and family in Messina.
Another theme in which Beatrice plays a large part in is through the conflict between the sexes. Shakespeare echoes the audiences’ hatred for Claudio after he leaves Hero at the altar through Beatrice’s resentment against him and wish to kill him when talking to Benedick. She speaks her opinions in which the other women are too scared to speak in the 16th century as they are afraid on the consequences from the males, as they have the overriding power over them. She shows the audience the status of women in a household when she finally falls in love with Benedick. ‘Methinks you look with your eyes as other women do’ – Margaret reiterates the point that Beatrice is now considered ‘normal’ as she has fallen in love with a man. Suggesting a woman’s role in the society is to be with a man and love and honour him, as she is finally doing what women are ‘supposed’ to be doing. The status of women in shown throughout the play by Hero, with Beatrice’s character contrasting this. ‘Will you have me, lady?’ – Don Pedro asks Beatrice to marry him and she declines the offer, ‘No, my lord… I was born to speak all mirth, no matter’ Her outspoken independence in rejecting, where an passive 16th century female would find it hard to conjure up a justification in declining the offer in the first place. She wants to remain unmarried and not live the expected life for a 16th century woman living in Messina. Also, she is the only female in the household who has the quick wit and vocabulary to retourt to the men – showing the audience that she was before her time and women in the 16th century had a lower status in the house compared to the men.
The two cousins in the plot are contrasted throughout, echoing the attitude in society at the time, .Hero acts the way in which a woman should act In front of men in the 16th century, seen but not heard and to obey and honor the male. This is shown through her and Claudio’s relationship, such as when Claudio asks ‘Can the world buy such a jewel?’ ‘Yea, and a case to put it ino…There, her cousin, and she were not possessed with fury, exceeds her in beauty as the 1st of May doth the last of December’ – Benedick. Such as when Claudio refers to Hero as a ‘jewel’ Hero is thought of as valuble, stunning and worthly, like a gemstone. But, when he uses the word ‘buy’, suggests that Claudio would own Hero as a possession, suggesting women where for show and not to equal the men of the 16th century. The light hearted reply from benedick that she was to be put into a case shows that the bought possession of Hero can be put inside jewellery box, told what to do and controlled by its owner – Claudio. Hero is a silent, inert female character and fits the conventional role of women in the play at the time. This type of women is illustrated in every women in the household apart from Beatrice.
‘Nature never framed a woman’s heart of prouder stuff than that of Beatrice – disdain and scorne ride sparkling in her eyes.’ Hero shows the audience that Beatrice is different to the other girls in the household, by that she is disparaging towards men and the whole aura surrounding it. Hero uses the word ‘Nature’ to describe why Beatrice is what she’s like, making her seem very spiritual and divine through her words, which is the way she is rendered in the play overall. Furthermore, Hero’s reference towards Beatrice’s eyes indicates that she is not all bad as they ‘sparkle’, hinting that there is more to Beatrice than she lets on. This is revealed to the audience later in the play when she falls in love with Benedick
Throughout the play, Beatrice’s humour and wit comes from the origin of her imaginative, cynical language towards the other characters in Leonato’s house, thus creating a perfectly dramatic picture. She initiates conversation between other members of the house, adopting a male role where she speaks her mind whilst the other women are more passive and submissive with the way they present themselves and how they speak. Beatrice is extremely intelligent when she converses and uses many different techniques to state her opinion to the others. She uses people’s own speech to favour herself by changing the meaning of it in a devious manner.
‘Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more. Men were deceivers ever. One foot in sea and one on shore, to one thing constant never.’- Beatrice uses several examples of imagery in her language when describing topics, such as talking to the women about men. This shows us that Beatrice is a very poetic and creative person at heart, but also very intelligent as she is a quick thinker. Looking at the meaning behind this quote though, shows us that even though Beatrice would ‘rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves her’. She talks as if she has had a past experience with a man to have this opinion about them, suggesting that maybe her and Benedick have had past relationship together which ended badly from her sour tone. Throughout her and Benedick’s merry war, they use cunning dialect and insults to seem to win the battle of the wit. Beatrice:’ Against my will, I am sent to bid you come into dinner.’ Benedick: ‘Fair Beatrice, thank you for your pains.’ Beatrice: ‘I took no more pains for those thanks than you take pains to thank me. If it had been painful, I would not have come.’ Benedick: ‘You take pleasure then in the message?’ Beatrice: ‘Yea, just so much as you may take upon a knife’s point. You have no stomach, signor? Fare you well.’
Through their cheery battle between themselves, neither of them can give in to the other and always have to have the last word. Beatrice does not want Benedick to seem like she has gone out of her way for him and is sarcastic to him saying that she takes as much pleasure in giving the message as he would stabbing himself – not a lot. This shows the audience that they do like each other really, this is because if they had real hatred for each other, then they would not pass conversation between each other, but as Shakespeare made them seem like they enjoy talking to each other and having this ‘love-hate’ relationship through their language. At inviting him to dine with the rest of the family, she has to make sure he knows that she does not want to, gaining his attention- which she wants secretly. The ongoing threatening, defensive language which they use against each other creates great entertainment for the audience and Beatrice’s tongue is comical, menacing and also loving when her and Benedick finally get together.
Looking at the context of this play in the 16th century, it is very interesting for the audience to see how Shakespeare represented the female characters. The large percentage of women around the time had their main job to marry and to make a perfect mother and wife. This is shown through the character of Hero, as she conforms to Claudio and her father throughout the play. But, the sixteenth century did produce a large number of notable women who were heads of state and made a notable impact in the public sphere. These include Queen Elizabeth of England, the Queen Mother Catherine de’ Medicis of France, Queen Jeanne d’Albret of Navarre, Mary Queen of Scots. All had to deal with being both a sovereign and a woman, all of them large characters and top of their ladder. I feel this type of women in the 16th century is obviously echoed through Beatrice and her independent opinions and attitudes to men at the time. Elizabeth remained a Virgin Queen (politically, anyway), using her marriage prospects as a diplomatic tool, and retaining England’s independence in the meantime. She was certainly one of the key shapers of the national character of England, and I feel that Shakespeare was trying to represent Beatrice through the head of state at the time to please her and hopefully make his plays more popular than they already were. This was very daring as to displease the Queen could end fatally, but Shakespeare was successful in this and is recognised today as one of the greatest play writers of all time.