Feminist Criticism of Beatrice and Hero
At the conclusion of the play, Much Ado's two principal female characters---Beatrice and Hero---prepare to wed their respective mates. This is certainly an appropriate end for a comedy in which the relationship between the sexes serves as an overarching theme, and the audiences of Shakespeare's day saw the pre-marital dance as both a happy and a fully expected outcome. But from the standpoint of a modern feminist sensibility, Beatrice and Hero's acceptance of marriage can be interpreted in a highly negative light. Indeed, from a modern feminist perspective, that Beatrice marries a "professed tyrant" of women while Hero weds a man who has inflicted gross humiliation upon her demonstrates that these women are portrayed by Shakespeare as subordinated and powerless figures in the male-dominated society of Messina. From this modern feminist viewpoint, the author of Much Ado can be accused of gender bias.
Any assessment of this charge must begin with Beatrice: of all Shakespeare's comic heroines, Beatrice comes closest to embodying feminist values. At the very start of the play, only Beatrice is capable of penetrating through the inflated egos of Don Pedro and his gallant soldiers. She makes no bones about her disdain for the overblown macho gallantry which the returned heroes use as veneer to hide their lust, and she is equally aggressive in her rejection of any potential suitors. It is crucial to note that Beatrice is not anti-male, but instead keen to counter the use of male wit and deception as a means for controlling her. In her independence and in her own command of wit, Beatrice is an attractive character, and we must assume that feminist critics would approve of Beatrice before her "conversion" at the start of Act III.
In the parallel orchard scene that begins Act III, Beatrice is partially deceived by Hero and Ursula about Benedick's passion for her. During this charade, Hero speaks with a great deal of candor about the character defects of her cousin, knowing full well that Beatrice is within earshot. Hero's words resonate for Beatrice: after hearing them, she resolves to abandon her proud and scornful attitude, saluting "Contempt, farewell, and maiden pride adieu!" (III, i., l.109). Contrary to feminist criticism, what is crucial to observe here is that it is the opinion of her female cousin, Hero, that counts for Beatrice and that Beatrice herself recognizes her own arrogance as an inglorious quality. Rather than...
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The Artificiality of Messinian Society
There is a strong suggestion that Shakespeare took elements of contemporary Venetian society into account in his imaginative construction of Messina, its local society and dominant values. Venice in Shakespeare's day was a leading commercial power, and, like Messina, it was a materially rich city in which attendance at masquerades was expected of all its leading figures. Even more to the point, Venice was known in Elizabethan times as a hotbed of intrigue and deception, a place in which outsiders could easily be fleeced by indigenous city-slickers. Messina too is full of plots and ploys, some benign in their aims, others malevolent in their purposes. At bottom, there is "something wrong" in Messina.
As noted elsewhere in this analysis of Much Ado, in Act I, scene i., not only does the legitimate Prince of Aragon, Don Pedro, appear on the stage with his loyal followers, his bastard brother Don John is there as well, along with a brace of demi-villains to assist him in further dirty work. Don Pedro explains that even though Don John has attempted to over turn his reign, the two are now reconciled. For Shakespeare's audiences, this would have sounded loud of alarums. Threats to the state by illegitimate usurpers had only one proper ending in Elizabethan society, the execution of the guilty. Seeing a defeated enemy of the state on stage, moving about freely and permitted to rub elbows with the local Messinians would be interpreted as a sign of weakness in the body politic. Under Leonato, Messina is a weak patriarchy, vulnerable to intrigue and disorder, with clowns like Dogberry assigned the task of safeguarding the public order. It is noteworthy that once Don Pedro has explained his "reconciliation" with Don John, no further word is said about the rebellion that the later has presumably led. Instead, war, even civil war, is treated by the victors and their hosts as a gentlemanly pursuit, a sport in which individuals distinguish themselves, rather than a serious political crisis.
Ceremony and custom predominate in Messina. With the possible exception of Beatrice, an elaborate social code of behavior defines and constrains all of the characters in the play. Claudio turns over the wooing of Hero to Don Pedro not because he thinks that the much older man has greater romantic charms than himself, but because Don Pedro is equal in rank with Leonato and can therefore better meet the customary obligation of requesting the governor's...
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