In Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, how is Beatrice an unusual woman?
One of the important themes in Much Ado About Nothing is the conflict between men and women, specifically, the struggle for equality between Beatrice and Benedick.
Beatrice is very unusual as a woman of her time and place. First, most women of her status would have been a wife and mother by her age--in the early 16th century, the average life span of the wealthy was between 35 and 45, and most women married by their early 20's at the latest. The idea of either postponing marriage or of avoiding it entirely was not common. Second, Beatrice, despite her constant war of words with Benedick is clearly attracted to him. When she and Benedick are in disguise at the ball, for example, Beatrice says to Benedick that she has heard that Sir Benedick is at the party, and Benedick (also in disguise) acknowledges that he has seen him--to which Beatrice replies, "I wish he had boarded me," using a nautical image for an enemy boarding a ship during a battle.
Despite an underlying desire to have a love relationship, Beatrice's driving characteristic is a desire for independence, and she clearly believes (unusual for her time) that she is man's equal:
Would it not grieve a woman to be overmastered with a piece of valiant dust? to make an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl? No, uncle, I'll none: Adam's son's are my brethren: and, truly, I hold it a sin to match in my kindred.
In other words, Beatrice is arguing that she and men are equals, and more than that, related, which makes it impossible for her to marry "kindred" (that is, relatives). Exhibiting her pride, Beatrice argues here that she and men are not actually equals--it would be embarrassing for her to be ruled ("overmastered") by a "piece of dust." Clearly, Beatrice places herself above men, which is not a politically correct belief for a woman of her time.
Ultimately, however, Beatrice and Benedick give up their war and join forces. When they are tricked into believing the other is in love, they both exhibit the conventional romantic beliefs and emotions that society would expect. When Beatrice realizes Benedick is in love with her, she throws out her disdain:
And, Benedick, love on; I will requite thee,/Taming my wild heart to the loving hand;/If thou dost love, my kindness shall incite thee/To bind our loves up in a holy band. . . .
In the final analysis, then, even though Beatrice has exhibited traits that make her very unusual for her time period, condemning men and love in her words and actions, the reality of love works dramatically to change her views and transform her into a conventional woman in love.
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