Illustration of Hero wearing a mask

Much Ado About Nothing

by William Shakespeare

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What is the significance of honor in "Much Ado About Nothing", and how does it differ between genders? Does honor cause more harm or good?

Quick answer:

In Much Ado About Nothing, honor is vital to the social lives of the characters. When honor is perceived as stained, a character is often unable to participate in the community. This happens to Hero when Don John makes it appear she is unchaste. Female honor is linked to bodies and sexual behavior, while male honor is linked to physical daring. In the end, the social politics of honor harm the characters more than anything else.

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In Much Ado About Nothing, honor is a concept that governs the social lives of the characters. To have honor is to be respected. Without honor, a character is essentially exiled from the life of the community and viewed as a contaminating influence on others. Honor is important for both men and women, but for different reasons.

The big difference between male and female honor is that female honor is explicitly linked with her body. A woman has "honor" if she remains a virgin until marriage and retains that honor so long as she remains faithful to her husband. This honor is compromised even if she only appears to be unchaste or if the woman is raped.

In contrast, male honor has nothing to do with his chastity. In a society like the one in Much Ado About Nothing, a man can lose his virginity before marriage and it is no threat to his social standing. Rather, honor is linked to courage on the battlefield or an unwillingness to be insulted. If a woman loses her honor when she is perceived as loose, then a man loses his honor when he is perceived as a coward.

Both the male and female characters in the play have their honor compromised or in threat of compromisation. Benedick's honor is challenged when Beatrice insists he kill Claudio. If he does not kill Claudio, then he will let an injustice go unwronged, which makes him seem unmanly to the woman he loves. However, Claudio is his friend and it would also seem dishonorable to kill a comrade.

More than Benedick, Hero is the ultimate victim of the social concept of honor. Don John makes it appear as though Hero has been unchaste before marriage, causing Claudio to call off their wedding. Now that Hero's honor has been compromised, she is no longer marriageable and is better off dead in the eyes of society. Hero's false death becomes symbolic, with her "resurrection" only occurring once her name has been cleared.

More than anything, Hero's troubles go to show how honor harms more than it helps. Her society is shown to be pitiless and unforgiving, willing to let an innocent woman be humiliated and exiled over a lie. Falsely bruised honor is the prime reason for the play's conflict. While the restoration of Hero's honor brings about a happy ending, the play's end brushes with potential tragedy. Note how similar Hero's plan to fake her own death mirrors the actions of the heroine of the tragic Romeo and Juliet. The whole enterprise makes honor as a concept seem suspect.

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