What Biblical criticism exists in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Shakespeare's comedy Much Ado About Nothing is a humorous portrayal of a society in which life is purely superficial. While charming on the surface, there lies beneath this society hollow values. Especially with the characters Benedick and Beatrice, the roles of woman and man are "hardly essential and stable categories of identity," as one critic writes. Indeed, their roles are often changeable and contestable. As such, there is a challenge to the Biblical role of patriarchy and its authority, especially with regard to the separation of a daughter from the family as she becomes a another man's wife. In The Book of Common Prayer, it is specified that "for this cause [marriage] shall a man leave father and mother, and shall be joyned unto his wife," but the departure of a daughter disrupts the patriarchal world more, at least in Shakespeare's world.

  • Challenge to the Biblical patriarchy

Since Beatrice is an orphan and Leonato, her uncle, is her foster father, there are challenges to his patriarchal role. With Leonato's role, Shakespeare does not replicate the Biblical assumptions of patriarchy as his transactions are not successful in their intent and his power as a foster father is mitigated. In Act II, Scene 1, there is this exchange between Leonato and Beatrice:

LEONATO Well, niece, I hope to see you one day fitted with a husband.

BEATRICE Not till God make men of some other metal than earth.  Would it no grieve a woman to be overmastered with a piece of valiant dust?  To make account of her life to a clod of wayward marl?  No, uncle, I'll none.  Adam's sons are my brethren, and truly I hold it a sin to match in my kindred. (2.1.38-42)

In the end, she and Benedick do perform the marriage dance, although after multitudinous humorous repartees, Beatrice and Benedick enter their union as husband and wife more as partners than with Beatrice as being the feminine conduit of a relationship that creates an order with Leonato and Benedick.

  • Challenge to other established Biblical beliefs

In her unwillingness to marry, Beatrice challenges some of the traditional beliefs, such as one in which women who die unmarried lead the apes to hell. When, for instance, Leonato tells her, "Well then, go you into hell," Beatrice retorts,

BEATRICE No, but to the gate, and there will the devil meet me like an old cuckold with horns on his head, and say, "Get you to heaven, Beatrice, get you to heaven. There's no place for you maids. So deliver I up my apes, and away to Saint Peter, for the heavens. He shows me where the bachelors sit, and there live we as merry as the day is long. 

LEONATO Well, niece, I trust you will be ruled by your father. (2.1.29-34)

But, her uncle reinforces the idea of patriarchal authority in his reply.

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