Shakespeare’s plays present the relationships between men and women in various ways, as for example, Benedick is a supposed tyrant to women, while Romeo, a member of the Capulet household, is deeply in love with Juliet. Shakespeare makes the audience focus on how men and women portrayed themselves to society in the Renaissance period. Men and women in modern society are analogous to the men and women in Shakespeare’s plays as they use trickery, deception and secrecy throughout the plays to attempt to achieve a goal that inevitably interferes with the lives of others.
However we can see that things have changed in society as Shakespeare’s time was predominantly patriarchal, not meritocratic.
For example Hero, ironically named, is a very shy and weak woman who is the daughter of Leonato, whilst Beatrice is an exception to the typical patriarchal paradigm; she is noisy, sharp-tongued and greatly opinionated – she isn’t afraid to contradict Benedick. This essay will discuss the portrayal of men and women and their relationships in Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo and Juliet.
* At the beginning of Romeo and Juliet “Two households, both alike in dignity” shows that there will be a comparison of the men and women in two families which may possibly lead to a feud. In the renaissance period status was very important, and Shakespeare’s plays typically emphasized that as the audience at that time approved of it. The houses hold an “ancient grudge” which implicitly reiterates the idea of conflict occurring throughout the play.
“Star-crossed lovers” suggest that there will be a great sense of romance throughout the play as a man and woman are destined to be together – “star crossed” which means, literally, against the stars (stars were thought to control people’s destinies).
Also, “Do with their death bury their parents’ strife,” suggests that these lovers will mend the quarrel between their families by dying. This is dramatic irony as the audience at that point would be aware of the inevitable fate of the main characters. It is evident that throughout the play there will be death and perhaps even a tragedy that will split the lovers apart – the rhyme of the prologue splits from “…death-mark’d love” which may literally refer to the splitting of Romeo and Juliet in the play through death. Keeping in mind that they were Catholics, they would believe that marriage did not exist in Heaven. Additionally the prologue is written in the form of a Sonnet, which generally relate to death and consists of 14 lines written in iambic pentameter.
* * Unlike Romeo and Juliet, the opening of Much ado about nothing is written in prose as all the characters have equal parts. For example in act one, scene one, the two most witty characters, Benedick and Beatrice, insult each other throughout the first scene, but they’re both “balanced” in their act of doing so; neither ever lets the other say anything without countering it with a pun or criticism. Beatrice is a strong woman who isn’t afraid to speak her mind to Benedick. For example, “Scratching could not make it worse an ’twere such a face as
* yours were” shows that Beatrice finds Benedick to be ugly superficially, but there is a sense of uncertainty as to if she truthfully meant that as “I know you of old” suggests that they were in a past relationship, and that she cared for him. Also, the men speak to each other with respect, and we can see this from how they address each other. For example Don Pedro calls Leonato “Good signor Leonato” and “My grace”. Once again, this is because society at that time was patriarchal and Shakespeare’s audience would’ve included men of high status that would’ve addressed each other in that manner.
* * At the start of Romeo and Juliet the servants are quarrelling over women in the Montague household and this is humorous for the audience. We see what the servants think about the men and women in the play. For example Sampson refers to the women as “maidenheads” as he thinks of them as only objects – virgins in this case. Additionally Sampson says he will “Thrust the maids to the wall”. This portrays men as being in complete control of the women, both mentally and physically. “Thrust” creates imagery of force and aggression while also referring to a sexual innuendo.
This is unsettling to the audience, but also evokes humour. Sampson also refers to women as the “weaker vessels” which implies that women are not seen as equals to men from the perspective of the Capulet servants – this is because Shakespeare wrote the play in a patriarchal era – men were seen as the “bosses”. The servants establish a very rough and unsettling atmosphere as they show no concern for how the women would hypothetically feel if they were to be raped. For example “Me they shall feel while I am able to stand…” shows that the men are only concerned about the sex, regardless of how the women would feel about it. This reiterates the concept of men being in control – their love is only physical and uncaring.
* * In Romeo and Juliet, the way women are spoken about in act one, scene five, is different to the way the Capulet servants spoke in the first scene as for example Romeo uses words such as “Tender” and “Lips” to Juliet to show his affection for her; these words also create imagery of kissing in the audiences’ mind which refers to love and caring between the two characters. Compared to the language used by the servants, the language used between Romeo and Juliet is an extended Christian metaphor. “This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this…” is said by Romeo as the language has a religious overtone to it – their love can only be described through the vocabulary of religion, that pure association with God. “Good pilgrim” is another reference to how their conversation is holy and pure. This is because the love they share for each other is destined in the eyes of God as they were to believe it. Also, when Romeo and Juliet meet they say 14 lines that make up a shared sonnet – Shakespeare ingeniously captured the relationship between Romeo and Juliet through the use of a sonnet as they can relate to love, therefore fitting perfectly into this context.
* * Once Romeo has left Juliet at the Capulet mansion, he goes to find the Friar so that they can marry. The language changes at this point in the play as the Friar speaks in blank verse as Shakespeare uses this technique to signify that he’s speaking about love, as well as the fact that the Friar is of high status, therefore he would speak in blank verse. Shakespeare uses rhyme such as ‘eye and lie’ to emphasize key words. In addition to this the Friar speaks in couplets which relates to Romeo and Juliet being a couple in love. The language used by the Friar is very religious as for example “saint” and “heaven” are used as it fits appropriately to his job as he’s a man of God, as well as the fact that Romeo is wanting to get married.*
* In act three, scene five, the Capulet family discuss the marriage of Juliet. Her parents describe Paris as “gallant” and a “noble gentleman” as they are trying to persuade Juliet to marry him. Paris is intentionally addressed in this manner as he is of high status, and that made him significant and important to society. Dramatic irony is created for the audience as they’re aware that Juliet is married to Romeo, but her parents are not. It is assumed that Juliet will be happy at the thought of marriage, however she is in love with Romeo and is instead displeased. We can see this from “He shall not make me there a joyful bride”. Additionally, even more irony is added to the scene as Juliet states “It shall be Romeo, whom you know I hate” which shows she is lying to her parents as she is obviously in love with Romeo, and is already his wife! Nevertheless she goes onto say that she would not be full of joy if she marries Paris.
This results in her father calling her a “minion” (low status) and “Out, you green sickness, carrion” as he does not approve of Juliet’s refusal to marry Paris. “To go with Paris to Saint Peter’s Church, or I will drag thee on a hurdle thither” shows that Juliet is still a woman in a male-dominated world, and that she cannot go against her father because it just simply wasn’t accepted as society was patriarchal. Her father becomes very violent and the relationship between Juliet and him is weakened as even the thought of disobeying her father’s wishes causes him to feel great anger and hatred as he cannot comprehend why she would not listen to him; it simply would not make sense to a man of his status and mentality as he would assume that Juliet must listen to him as she is a women, not a male, and not of status equal to him.
* * In act four, scene one, the marriage scene in Much Ado About Nothing has similarities with the marriage theme in Romeo and Juliet as both females (Juliet and Hero) are virtually being forced to get married. The relationship between men and women, in this case Claudio and Hero, is weakened as Claudio addresses Hero as a “Rotten orange” which creates imagery of an orange that is sweet superficially, but is rotten on the inside. Claudio also refers to her as “cunning sin” which implies Hero as being a trickster and an evil thing which emphasizes his rage and emotions at that time. Claudio addresses Don Pedro as “Sweet Prince” as he is of high status, but also to emphasize the fact that the prince sides with him. Moreover the relationship between Leonato and Hero is damaged as he states “Does anyone have a dagger for me?” as if he was wanting to commit suicide at this supposed act of betrayal from Hero. Ultimately this whole scene is dramatic irony as the audience are aware that Hero is still a virgin and Don John is the culprit.
* * Following the tense marriage scene where Claudio has dumped the ironically named Hero, the audience first see Beatrice and Benedick declare their love for one another, however the scene also serves to show the powerless nature of women in the Renaissance period that was predominantly patriarchal. For example “I will die a woman grieving” said by Beatrice shows that she is unable to take revenge against Claudio as she is not a man. “O that I were a man” shows that women in that time were weak and that Beatrice would kill Claudio if she was a man. “I would eat his heart in the market place” produces strong imagery in the audiences’ mind which makes them feel the hatred Beatrice has towards Claudio. “In the market” tells us that she isn’t concerned about what others would think, she just wants revenge; a great sense of irony as the foundation of society at that time was built on aristocracy and Beatrice purely wants revenge, regardless of the consequences it may have on her status.
* * In act two, scene one, in Much Ado About Nothing we are provided with Beatrice’s view of men. She says “he that hath a beard is more than a youth… and he that is less than a man, I am not for him” which suggests that the age of the man is irrelevant, she doesn’t want any man. Also Leonato says that he hopes to see her get married one day, and she replies with “Not till God make men of some other mettle than Earth”. The key word is “Earth” as God formed men from the dust of the ground and all men were created by God as it was believed at that time ergo she is saying that no man will ever gain her hand in marriage. In addition to this, Benedick refers to Beatrice as “sweet Beatrice” as he is now in love with her, but there is no evidence of her referring to Benedick as anything of the same, therefore this may imply that she is still uncertain about feelings towards Benedick.
* * * Later on, at the Masquerade ball, Beatrice and Benedick encounter each other (Benedick wearing a mask) and Beatrice describes Benedick as “The prince’s jester” to intentionally insult him as she is quite aware that Benedick is wearing a mask. This is humorous for the audience as a sense of dramatic irony is brought forth as Benedick doesn’t realise that Beatrice knows it’s him. Beatrice is teasing Benedick in some manner because she is aware of what would irritate him and get his attention on her – in this case it’s humiliating him. Moreover, it appears as if the men and women in both plays have a tendency to create conflict where it is not necessary as they want to achieve something. In Much ado about nothing it’s Benedick and Beatrice and their battle of confused love and hate (predominantly at the beginning), while in Romeo and Juliet it’s a much larger conflict between the Montagues and Capulets.
* * At the end of Romeo and Juliet the Friar reveals his role in the cause of their deaths. He speaks in blank verse as it discusses the love between Romeo and Juliet. The language he uses is strong and emotive as he uses words like “desperate” and “violence” as they emphasise how difficult the love between Romeo and Juliet was because of the feud between their families. Additionally, he speaks formally and with respect as it shows that he’s of high status and that he’s discussing the terrible tragedy with a great sense of guilt as he is a man of God.
* * Finally, at the end of the play, the Montagues and Capulets are very empathetic towards each other as they have lost their offspring, and as a result of this their relationship is much friendlier. Evidence of this can be seen from “For I will raise her statue in pure Gold” said by Montague; gold is a very precious and expensive metal so it implies that they are showing great respect towards the Capulets as they are offering them a tribute to their daughter. Likewise, lord Capulet insists that he will raise Romeo’s likeness in gold beside hers. Ultimately, there is now a grand irony in the relationship between Romeo and Juliet as through their deaths, they have created the world that would have allowed their love to live. Romeo and Juliet’s deaths are tragic, but this tragedy was fated: by the stars, by the violent world in which they live, by the play, and by their very natures. From the prologue the audience want this death, this tragedy. At the play’s end, we do not feel sad for the loss of life as much as we feel greatly wrenched by the incredible act of love that Romeo and Juliet have committed as monuments to each other.
* * Somewhat similar to the end of Romeo and Juliet, the ending of Much Ado About Nothing results in the renewal of the relationship between Benedick and Claudio as the two of them are now pleased to be relatives. Evidence for this can be seen from “come, come, we are friends”. However, not all the relationships end up so happily: “Prince, thou art sad, get thee a wife, get thee a wife” is said by Benedick to Don Pedro. This order serves partly as a joke, but it contains a drop of melancholy.
Perhaps Don Pedro really is sad—an idea that seems even more probable when we recall his light-hearted, but perhaps not entirely joking, proposal to Beatrice, in Act two, scene one, and her gentle rejection of it. As so often happens in Shakespeare’s comedies, it seems as if somebody must be left out of the circle of happiness and marriage. Additionally the relationship of Don John is much more alienated from the nobles – at the end of the play we are left only assuming what is going to happen – this serves to satisfy the audience as they can create their own endings without truly ever knowing what was going to happen.
* Overall, from the emotive struggle between Romeo and Juliet, the endless feud between Montagues and Capulets, the lies that created conflict for Claudio, and the tricks that caused Beatrice and Benedick to fall in love, Shakespeare, through his plays, has demonstrated the complexity of what happens when love and deception coincide in patriarchal societies.