Much Ado About Nothing Essays
by William Shakespeare

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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 being pressured by a male dominated society into a pliant female headed toward marriage, Beatrice initiates her change of attitude on her own accord and with the aid of a mirror held to her face by another woman. Indeed, after this conversion, Beatrice is fully capable of directing Benedick to Hero's side, going so far as to insist that he "Kill Claudio."

One of the chief issues that has divided critics of all stripes in their respective readings of Much Ado About Nothing concerns Hero's acceptance of Claudio after he has spurned her on their first wedding day. Many commentators, and virtually all modern feminist critics have found it intolerable that Claudio should be reunited with Hero after believing a flimsy slander and rejecting her in public on their wedding day. On this count, we note that the extraordinarily satiric wit of Beatrice should not blind us to the fact that the gentler and more feminine Hero is fully capable of holding her own in the war of the sexes. When a disguised Don Pedro attempts to woo Hero, she matches wits with him, showing that she is by no means a vapid, powerless female. In response to the masked Don Pedro's requests that she walk with him, Hero makes it clear that she will do so only on her terms, i.e., "so you walk softly, and look sweetly, and say nothing, I am yours for the walk, and especially when I walk away" (II, i., ll. 88-90). Hero is not as pliant to male will as is often supposed; she merely appears that way when set alongside the feistier Beatrice.

Hero does accept Claudio...

(The entire section is 1,643 words.)