Much Ado About Nothing is exactly that. It is a lot of dishonour and angst over something which never happened. So what did Shakespeare think about the gullibility and prejudices of the men and women of his time?
All of the characters in the play are either honourable people unwittingly doing dishonourable things or dishonourable people deliberately doing honourable things, for example Don John:
“Lady Hero hath been falsely accus’d, the Prince and Claudio mightily abus’d, and Don John is the author of all, who is fled and gone.
I think this play is typical of William Shakespeare’s writing because he is challenging the opinions and social prejudices of the time he lived in.
Another strong example of Shakespeare’s free-thinking and non-stereotypical characters is ‘The Taming Of The Shrew’ where the heroine of the story is at first a strong-willed and outspoken young woman, similar to Beatrice, who through out the course of the play is beaten, starved and mentally abused until her husband Petruchio is satisfied that he has ‘tamed’ his wife’s unladylike ways.
As at the time this would not have been an uncommon occurrence then perhaps this play was a personal attack on events which Shakespeare may have been forced to play witness to at some point. However, having said that it was not a rare occurrence, it still shocked and concerned a lot of it’s early audiences when it was first played out.
I think The Taming Of The Shrew was also very strongly focused on the idea of honour, however the events it involved were far more sinister than that of Much Ado About Nothing even though they are both considered comedies.
Petruchio’s actions towards his shrewish wife Kate are not spawned from his want of a happy marriage, but from his desperately proud and egotistic personality. Those personal flaws are what makes him so neurotic about Kate’s behaviour as any actions on her part which are perceived to be in any way masculine impedes upon his own masculinity and therefore his male honour. This demonstrates the fact that in the sixteenth century, most married men were more concerned about what their peers thought of them than their own wives’ well-being.
Returning to Much Ado About Nothing, the ideas of male, female and even familial honour play a prominent role in the story. However, whenever someone is dishonoured in the play, it is almost always a woman who gets blamed for it. The only exception to this rule is when Don John’s deceit is discovered, however even then, Leonato still blames Margaret even though she was probably tricked into doing it,
“FRIAR: Did I not tell you she was innocent? LEONATO: So are the Prince and Claudio who accus’d her, Upon the error that you heard debated; But Margaret was in some fault for this,” (184.108.40.206-30)
Even when everyone knows that Hero is innocent and that it was all a trick played by Don John, they still do nothing about it until after Hero and Claudio, Beatrice and Benedick are married before they do anything about it which allows John time to run from the town.
In the beginning of the play, Don Pedro, Claudio and Benedick have just returned from fighting a war against Don John and his comrades Borachio and Conrade. Despite this fact when they arrive in Messina, they are all together as one party and Don Pedro has seemingly forgiven his brother for whatever sparked the war. Everyone is courteous and polite to him, making no comment about it and even:
“LEONATO: Let me bid you welcome, my Lord, being reconciled to the Prince your brother:I owe you all duty.” (220.127.116.11-22)
This demonstrates how a felony or betrayal by a man is so easily forgotten, and has no effect on his honour or on his future reputation. This is almost disturbingly different to how people would have reacted if he had been a woman. They would most likely have been spitting on him in the streets and his family, rather than taking him with them wherever they went, and would have denied all associations with him. In fact, a wonderful example of Shakespearian biases is Leonato’s proclamation of
“Do not live Hero, do not ope’ thine eyes; For did I think thou wouldst not quickly die, Thought I thy spirits were stronger than thy shames, Myself would on the rearward of reproaches, Strike at thy life.” (18.104.22.168-20)
This shows the attitudes during the sixteenth century which seem kind of skewed compared to our perceptions nowadays. Leonato is basically saying that he would rather his daughter was dead than have to live with the fact that his daughter is not a virgin. This is very different to how fathers react now, because now most young Western women are not virgins when they get married but nobody minds very much because this is generally the norm, the main exception to this rule being in the Islamic faith. In Islam, many young women are forced into arranged marriages which can put their lives in danger if they refuse. Some of these marriages are to men whom the girls have never met let alone fallen in love with which can make the faith seem very behind the times, particularly as even in Shakespeare’s time people were often married for love like Hero and Claudio, Beatrice and Benedick.
Many of the characters seem honourable at the beginning of the play but seem to become darker as it continues. In particular John, he is a bastard so he is, even at the beginning of the play less honourable than others, like Claudio. John is quiet and submissive a lot of the time and seems grateful to his half-brother for having him with them and particularly to Leonato for welcoming him into his home as a friend,
“I thank you, I am not of many words, but I thank you.” (22.214.171.124-24)
He is often described as melancholy or morose, these words make the audience empathise with him as in Shakespearian times, to be melancholy was associated with being in love or in particularly, with being in an unrequited love, something which made a man a lot more interesting to the women and would improve what his male peers thought of him and therefore make him more honourable. Having said that, and although there is no mention of John’s emotional attachments, some portrayals of the play have implied that there is an affair between Don John and his man-servant Conrade who is also described as being “born under Saturn” which generally implies that they are miserable or melancholy characters (again, both supposed symptoms of being in love).
This in itself would have been unheard of and possibly the most dishonourable and therefore worst thing to be branded (even worse than being a coward) and if Shakespeare had intended for John to come off as being homosexual then not only would Shakespeare have been ridiculed, his views rejected by all, and he could even have faced being arrested, committed to the dreaded ‘Bedlam Hospital’ and excommunicated. Had John been homosexual, he could have looked forward to a cell in Bedlam or prison, and possibly even execution, whatever the consequences were it would certainly have made him even more of an outcast than he is already because it is only in very recent years that homosexuality has become accepted in society and even now, there are many societies which frown on it, the Catholic church and Islam in particular. John would have been completely dishonoured had someone discovered him to be homosexual.
John seems almost proud of his treacherous personality as he boasts to his men:
“it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain.” he also says “I cannot hide what I am: I must be sad when I have cause, and smile at no man’s jest, eat when I have stomach, and wait for no man’s leisure: sleep when I am drowsy, and tend on no man’s business, laugh when I am merry, and claw no man in his humour.” (126.96.36.199-7)
This makes him seem slightly less of a villain and therefore of a more honourable character because he is actually admitting that he is a bad person. When reading the script of the play, it is quite easy to miss John a lot of the time but when the play is performed John is present during almost every scene even though he doesn’t say anything in them. The fact that he is always in the scenes but never joining in the jokes or the general joviality of the group and instead feels more comfortable hovering on the outside, never quite making it into the main group rather implies that he does seem to long for the sort of camaraderie that exists between his brother, Benedick and Claudio probably made to seem particularly strong to him because of his sense of being shunned, unloved and dishonourable all his life because of his being a bastard.
This was the generally conceived opinion about illegitimate children during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries however again, nowadays we do not think like this, in fact around half of the population come from single parent families with children from one night stands or failed relationships. I think Shakespeare attempts to persuade his audience to dislike and find people dishonourable based on what they do and not on whether or not their parents were married when they were born. I think this because all of the bastards written in Shakespeare’s plays are written as villainous or unkind characters, for another example Edmund in King Lear. However, this could be interrupted two completely different ways, one: Shakespeare wanted people to look past the character’s illegitimacy and judge them on their actions, or two: Shakespeare shared the common belief of his time that if a person is illegitimate then they will always be bad people so that is what he writes them as.
John is a fairly good person for the first part of the play, certainly not matching up to his brother and only starts to show his true colours, namely his black hearted villainy and his yellow-bellied cowardice. Throughout the play though, John is doing things which are dishonest and dishonourable but until he flees instead of staying to face the consequences of his actions at the end of the play, in doing this, he brands himself a coward. Being a coward is basically the only way a man could dishonour himself, whereas a woman could dishonour herself easily. For instance she could have sex out of wedlock, this is what Hero is accused of and nothing she says to the contrary seems to matter whereas if a man (any man, even John) had been accused of the same thing then he could have denied it and that would have been an end to it. The worst thing John could have done would have been to run, unfortunately he does just that:
” He is compos’d and fram’d of treachery, And fled he is upon this villainy.” (188.8.131.52-21)
In contrast, his companions Borachio and Conrade show their true honourable characters by staying behind to face the consequences of their actions even though they did it under John’s command: “BORACHIO: Let this Count kill me: I have deceived even your very eyes: what your wisdoms could not discover, (…) my villainy they have upon record, which I had rather seal with my death, than repeat over to my shame: the lady is dead upon mine and my master’s false accusation: and briefly, I desire nothing but the reward of a villain.” (184.108.40.206-13)
Benedick is a difficult character because he has many honourable traits but he is fickle, somewhat two faced and shallow:
“He hath every month a new sworn brother.” (220.127.116.11-7) “God help the noble Claudio, if he hath caught the Benedick, it will cost him thousand pounds ere a’ be cured.”
On the other hand, he is loyal to Beatrice and is even willing to murder his best friend Claudio to defend Beatrice’s cousin’s honour, albeit a little reluctantly at first,
“BEATRICE: Kill Claudio. BENEDICK: Ha, not for the wide world. (…) Is Claudio thine enemy? BEATRICE: that hath slandered, scorned, dishonoured my kinswoman?” Act IV, Scene I, Page 84, Lines 18-31. He does eventually agree, “BENEDICK: Think you in your soul the Count Claudio hath wrong’d Hero? BEATRICE: Yea, as sure I have a thought, or a soul. BENEDICK: Enough, I am engag’d, I will challenge him,” (18.104.22.168-25)
Benedick also later calls Claudio a coward, this being a direct insult, Claudio would have no choice but to meet his challenge because if he didn’t then not only would he be branded a coward by everyone, he would also be extremely dishonoured and likely never properly redeem himself, this would also make him more like John than any of them would probably be comfortable with.
The way honour is earned and lost in the play and in the sixteenth century, is very different for men and women, the best example of this in the play is of course Hero. The reason she loses her honour is because she is supposedly not a virgin on her wedding day, however if Claudio were not a virgin then there would be very little fuss made about it.
Hero is a young woman, of honourable birth so she was respected from birth, however when it is thought that she is no longer a virgin, almost everyone turns on her except for her cousin Beatrice and her maid Margaret. Beatrice persuades Benedick of Hero’s innocence but it takes the Friar and even a full confession from Borachio, Conrade and Margaret before Leonato and his brother Antonio are persuaded. This demonstrates the damage that could be inflicted by even the slightest suspicion of inappropriate or dishonourable behaviour during the sixteenth century. Having said that this only happened in Shakespeare’s time, if you compare the character’s reactions to the accusations in the play to the likely reactions of an Islamic or Muslim family today, then there would be very little difference, young women in Islam are still very much considered inferior to the men and are therefore in more danger of having false accusations thrown at them and there being tragic repercussions from it. Another similarity to modern day life is the fact that had Hero been a man, then not only could she have denied the accusations of her being unfaithful but, had she wanted to, she could have owned to them and probably improved her social status by doing so, this outcome applies to the era the play is set in but also very much so in the present day.
There are even prejudices and biases between classes in the play, not just between sexes. Margaret and Hero are both ‘unfaithful’ in the play, however truthfully Hero is only thought to be, Margaret is seen making love to her lover, Don John’s man Borachio at Hero’s window:
“DON PEDRO: I am sorry you must hear:upon mine honour, Myself, my brother, and this grieved Count Did see her, hear her, at that hour last night, Talk with a ruffian at her chamber window, Who hath indeed most like a liberal villain, Confess’d the vile encounters they have had A thousand times in secret.” (22.214.171.124-15)
When everyone thinks it was Hero who was seen, they are all in an uproar about it but when it is discovered that it was not Hero but her maid Margaret, nobody bats an eye that she is not a virgin because she is of a lower class and almost expected to do things so sinful as make love to a man whom she is not married to.
The works of Shakespeare are unusual in the fact that many of his plays breech the typical morals and views of the people of his time. His plays, in particular his comedies, often show authority figures in a bad light. Not all authority figures but almost always the heads of families: the Lords Montague and Capulet in Rromeo and Juliet (a tragedy) are shown as quite tyrannical because their hatred for each other makes them disregard their own children’s feelings which leads to the suicide of Romeo and Juliet and the murder of Mercuchio and Tybalt. In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare shows every authority figure in a bad light except for the Friar who, aside from Beatrice, is the only one who believes in Hero’s innocent the whole time.
The others however, do not fare so well. Leonato and Antonio are more inclined to believe the words of three men whom they hardly know than those of their niece and daughter, and Leonato even says that he would rather Hero was dead than have to live with the shame she’s supposedly brought on them all. Don Pedro, who is the Prince of Arragon, having just fought a war against his brother John and therefore knowing his intentions are likely to be less than that of a concerned companion, believes John when he says that Hero is unfaithful to Claudio, although in fairness, he does think that he himself witnessed it as well. As for Claudio, he is shown as naï¿½ve, gullible and fickle. At first he adores Hero and enlists Don Pedro to woo her for him, then when the idea is planted in his head by none other than Don John, that Pedro is only wooing Hero for himself, Claudio turns against his best friend
“JOHN: you are very near my brother in his love, he is enamour’d on Hero”(126.96.36.199-19) “BEATRICE: The Count is neither sad, nor sick, nor merry, nor well: but civil Count, civil as an orage, and something of that jealous complexion,” (188.8.131.52-15)
then when he is told that Pedro was wooing her for him, Claudio reconciles himself to Don Pedro again and resumes his position as lap-dog.
“DON PEDRO: here Claudio, I have wooed in thy name, and fair Hero is won.” (184.108.40.206-19) “CLAUDIO: Lady, as you are mine, I am yours, I give away myself for you, and dote upon the exchange.” (220.127.116.11-29)
In conclusion and having studied briefly other works by William Shakespeare, it is my opinion that on the whole Shakespeare did not agree with many of the morals, prejudices or opinions held by his peers. In particular, I believe that he did not share the general opinion of male superiority, or at least not as much as others did. I believe this because almost every one of his plays features a strong willed and dominant woman, in this case Beatrice, who ends up happy. He also portrays a downtrodden or submissive woman, in this case Hero, who, at some point in the course of the play gets beaten down and defeated, whether metaphorically (Hero) or quite literally as in The Taming Of The Shrew, Kate who begins as a fiery young woman much like Beatrice who marries a man she does not love and finishes the play with a disturbing monologue about a woman’s job being to obey her Lord completely and never fight with him or nag him. Finally Juliet, in Romeo and Juliet who, believing her love for her new husband to be pointless because of their warring families decides to run away with Romeo rather than stand and defend their marriage to their parents, this – in my opinion – misguided decision leads to both their deaths.
I also think that Shakespeare felt that honour and dishonour are not things which one can be born with, rather they must be earned by one’s life’s deeds, or misdeeds as the case may be. He also seems to be very judgmntal of his own sex as the bard’s song in the play clearly shows that Shakespeare was less than content with the way men treated women in his time and that he thought women were certainly the ‘fairer’ sex:
“Sigh no more ladies, sigh no more,
Men were decievers ever,
One foot in sea, and on on shore,
To one thing constant never,
The sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into ‘Hey Nonny Nonny!”
Victoria Holland 11BM