How is the theme of honor presented in Much Ado About Nothing?
Honor is a much-desired quality in most people but historically it has been the cause of many disturbances, rifts and killings. Honor means different things to different people and such is the dilemma facing anyone who upholds it. It also has opposing perspectives when considered from a female or male point of view. Such is the problem facing Much Ado About Nothing.
Even from the outset, honor is associated with keeping up appearances. In line 6 of Act I, scene i a messenger comments on the casualties from battle by advising Leonato that "none of name" has been lost. The messenger further discusses Benedick's virtues when he says in line 47, "A man to a man; stuffed with all honorable virtues" because being a "good soldier " is a sure sign of honor. A man's honor is also affected by the way his wife or future wife behaves and she can dishonor him if she is not obedient and chaste. In assessing Hero, Claudio asks in line 141, "Is she not a modest young lady?" indicating the virtues necessary in a woman to make her worthy and therefore honorable.
Being honorable and appearing to be honorable creates conflict in the play especially when apparently honorable men behave dishonorably such as when considering Hero's fidelity or lack thereof. Claudio and Don Pedro are aware of Don John's reputation and yet they are persuaded by him because they consider a man more capable of honor than a woman. To them, honor defines a man and a dishonorable man denies his masculinity which would be a preposterous notion.
Therefore, they more readily accept that a woman may behave inappropriately and it is that she dishonors her husband or her father rather than herself. Even if a woman's name is unreasonably maligned and with no proof, it is already too late for her. Only a man can fight for honor; his own or his wife's. Hero's own father laments how she has dishonored him and wishes her dead, becoming quite vindictive when he says, "The wide sea hath drops too few to wash her clean again"(IV.i.141). Honor is thus presented from a male perspective to satisfy his audience but, as with all Shakespeare's works, Shakespeare is himself far more open-minded to the truth.
Honor is portrayed in different ways and by different characters in this play. The lack of honor is shown by Don John as he twice tries to thwart the relationship between Claudio and Hero. Honor is shown by Benedick in Act 4, when he agrees to kill Claudio for Beatrice because Claudio dishonored Hero when he publicly disgraced her by accusing her of not being a virginal bride at what was supposed to be their wedding. Then later, when it is revealed that Don John was behind the deceit and it was given out that Hero died, Claudio shows honor by agreeing to sing a public epitaph and clear Hero's name. He also agreed to marry Leonato's "other niece", whom he'd never met, as a way of atoning for having caused Hero's death. Even Dogberry and the watchmen show honor when they arrest Borachio and Conrade for their parts in the plot to make Hero look like she was being unfaithful.