Illustration of Hero wearing a mask

Much Ado About Nothing

by William Shakespeare

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Feminist Criticism of Beatrice and Hero

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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 back into her fold in Act V. But two points should be taken into account before she is condemned for this even by modern, feminist lights. First, Claudio suffers deeply upon learning that he is, in fact, a victim of Don John's vile deception. Hero can forgives him not because she is subservient, but because he is penitent. Second, Hero does not demand the satisfaction of humiliating Claudio as he humiliated her. By virtue of this, Shakespeare elevates the Hero to the status of a genuine Christian heroine who, like Portia in The Merchant of Venice, recognizes the supremacy of mercy as a value. In the end, Hero's willingness to forgive Claudio is presented by Shakespeare as a model of behavior for both the female and the male participants in the war of the sexes. Beatrice and Hero may concur in their assumption of a wifely role in a male-dominated society, but not before they demonstrate the inherent superiority of feminine traits like compassion and forgiveness, and, in this way, modify and improve Messinian society as a whole. That being so, the feminist charges against Shakespeare's handling of Beatrice and Hero cannot be sustained.

The Artificiality of Messinian Society

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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 permission for his daughter to wed. Indeed, even the mature Benedick must seek out Leonato's blessing before marrying Beatrice, the patriarch's niece.

There is a narcissistic self-centeredness infused throughout the Messina of Shakespeare's Much Ado. The "hero soldiers" of Don Pedro's cause are given to florid, self-congratulatory rhetoric. Indeed, ornate, artificial and stilted language is the common verbal currency of Messina. The text of the play is replete with antithesis, alliteration, puns, euphemisms, repetitions, and word-patterns. The imagery of Much Ado is also artificial and tends toward the prosaic and the conventional, e.g., as in the "clothes" motif, rather than the strikingly imaginative. What people say and, above all, how they say it, counts heavily in Leonato's court. Indeed, one reason that both Beatrice and Benedick are held in such high regard stems from their capacity for verbal wit. On the bottom of the social hierarchy, Dogberry plugs away, trying to use "big words" over which he has no command or even comprehension.

Social rank and money figure large in Messina. Claudio may be immediately smitten by Hero, yet his inquiry about whether her father has a son and, hence, a male heir, fleshes out the welcome fact that Hero will inherit her father's estate. In Act V, Leonato seals the marriage of Claudio to a fictitious niece by mentioning that she too comes equipped with a suitable dowry. Indeed, one of the reasons that Claudio and Don Pedro react so negatively to the sight of Hero (actually Margaret) taking a lover (actually Borachio) is that they feel that they have been "cheated" in a marriage "bargain."

Against this social backdrop of hypocrisy, some characters do distinguish themselves. Beatrice and, to a lesser extent, Benedick, remain apart from Messinian society. Their non-conformity is, in fact, a virtue. Friar Francis is also outside of Messina's highly secularized culture by virtue of his clerical vocation and his good sense. What ails Messina, however, can be cured by the introduction of a counterweight to curb unrestrained male egotism. Thus, not only would Don Pedro and the (presumed) widower Leonato benefit from having a female partner, Messina itself is in evident need of feminine charity and concern for others.

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Much Ado About Nothing