Image 1: The title page of Much Ado About Nothing.
William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, possibly written in 1589-90, is a romantic comedy play that revolves around themes such as love, marriage, and various misconceptions. The play is located in an Italian town known as Messina where the Governor, Leonato, lives with the rest of his friends and family. The main story mostly focuses on four major characters as well as their romantic relationships with each other. That is, the relationship between Hero, the Governor’s good and passive daughter, and noble Claudio, along with the relationship of Beatrice, an independent woman, and the scornful Benedick. In this sense, throughout the play, what stands out is the depiction of Hero and Beatrice, how they both represent a dissimilar figure of a woman in Shakespeare’s time, namely the Elizabethan era. Hero is represented as an ideal and angelic woman who is contrasted against the sharp-tongued and non-obedient woman, Beatrice. This article will mainly examine these two women, their related dialogues, and discuss how their characters determine contrasting gender roles in Elizabethan society.
Image 2: Hero, Much Ado About Nothing, John William Wright.
Starting with the character of Hero, the one and only child of Leonato, it is quite unfortunate and sometimes even piteous to see how she is represented as such a passive and weak character in front of the whole community. Throughout the play, she has merely or, never given a chance to raise her own ideas, beliefs, and feelings as it is others' role to do so, and the following lines can be given as evidence to this matter:
[To Hero] Well, niece, I trust you will be rul’d by your father.
Yes faith. It is my cousin’s duty to make curry and say, ‘Father,
as it please you.’ But yet for all that, cousin, let him be a
handsome fellow, or else make another curse, and say,
‘Father, as it please me.’ (Shakespeare 2.1.50-56)
This dialogue between Antonio and Beatrice revolves around the occasion of the marriage of either of these women and here it becomes more apparent how this particular society regards Hero. What this means is that even though the decision discussed in these statements is a decision that may affect her entire life, one might think it would be up to Hero to make. On the contrary, it looks like Hero herself is the only person who does not have the right to share her thoughts and feelings on this topic as she does not say a word at this moment at all. That is to say, while the family members (and mostly men since it is her father she is “rul’d” by) decide on her behalf, what is expected from Hero is simply to follow the path built by this patriarchal structure.
It sounds almost as if Hero is just an object, a form of property in this position. In other words, she does not have any control over her life, since being the active agent in making decisions in her life has never been presented to her but instead, they have been established in advance for her to bow down to. Then, it may be added that the roles that define her as ideal and good such as, being submissive and silent are, at the same time, what make her deprived of being a living entity, an individual who can and should live, reach out, think, and feel in the way it “pleases” her.
In this way, it may also be stated that what Shakespeare possibly does here is to demonstrate and criticise the ridiculousness of the roles women had to play in his time. He does this by displaying how wicked men treated and put women in certain so-called “good” roles and controlled them as if they were marionettes.
Image 3: Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing, Alessandro Zaffonato.
For Beatrice, the most controversial and witty character in the play, unlike the description of Hero, she portrays this woman who has a mind of her own and wants to live according to her own preferences but not according to the rules authorised by the patriarchal structure. She is depicted as someone who stands against love, marriage, and ignores any pressure regarding these issues, which is neither an accepted nor an expected vision of women in that particular era, and the following lines may support this argument more:
Just, if he send me no husband; for the which blessing I am at
him upon my knees every morning and evening. Lord, I could not
endure a husband with a beard on his face. I had rather lie in
the woollen! (Shakespeare 2.1. 27-31).
These statements are truly against the perception of women in the Elizabethan era. As mentioned above, since women were considered a means of either their husbands or their fathers in Shakespeare’s time, they did not have any choice but to obey them. Thus, what Beatrice suggests here is that when she does not want to marry someone, it sounds as if she is breaking a law or violating the rules of society. Thinking the pure and naive Hero, who is, unfortunately, someone that men can easily manipulate, which is probably why men like the stereotype of women in Hero’s role, Beatrice is basically what men do not want to deal with at all. In this regard, Shakespeare does seem to be presenting two contrasting images of women and their roles: the good and, in Beatrice’s case, the evil or bad. When a woman or a girl does not have the humiliating but “good” attributions that Hero has, immediately, this woman is considered the opposite, which means that she sadly becomes an unwanted presence in public.
However, there is something worth considering in this position and that is the possibility of men being scared of this type of woman in society. Beatrice with her bold and strong characteristics can do anything she wants throughout the play, unlike Hero, she indeed has control over men and their opinions. Therefore, it almost sounds as if Beatrice reflects the way men always have been and treated women, and perhaps, this may be the reason why men do not like such a type of woman. Since they presumably know that she can have non-physical control over them, such as manipulating their ideas or simply talking about her own perspective on marriage and love, they are then scared of the idea of being defeated by a woman. When they anticipate what a woman is capable of doing, as an easy way out, men simply disregard such women and make them believe that there should be only one type of them, which is what Hero inevitably symbolises.
In conclusion, William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, a romantic comedy play, shows two dissimilar types of women, particularly in Shakespeare’s own time. He approaches this aspect through the submissive character of Hero who, in this case, symbolises the idealised and accepted Elizabethan woman. By contrast, through the character of Beatrice, Shakespeare presents a woman who refuses to be obedient and dutiful as she should according to the expectations of Elizabethan society. What Shakespeare attempts to demonstrate through this literary work are the unfair and somehow pathetic circumstances that women have been through, as well as to show, through the character of Beatrice, what women are, in fact, capable of doing.
Shakespeare, W. (2015). Much Ado About Nothing. Van Haren Publishing.
Image 1: Much Ado Quarto. (2011). [Wikipedia]. Retrieved on February 26 2022 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Much_Ado_About_Nothing.
Image 2: Hero, Much Ado About Nothing, John William Wright. [Wikipedia]. Retrieved on February 26 2022 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hero_(Much_Ado_About_Nothing)#/media.
Image 3: Beatrice, in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. [Wikipedia]. Retrieved on February 26 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Much_Ado_About_Nothing#/media/File:Much_Ado_Quarto.JPG