In “Much Ado About Nothing” Shakespeare captures many of the social standards in Elizabethan society whether they are fair or not. In Act 2 Scene 2 of the play, Don John plots to frame Hero and make it look like she has been unfaithful to her fiancée the night before they are due to marry. This then sparks outrage from the male characters, which in turn shows a male bias in their society. The way Hero’s father takes a mans word over hers shows how strong trust and respect was for men compared to that shown towards women.
Even though this play was written in a time when England was ruled by a woman (Queen Elizabeth) society was still dominated by men. Even Queen Elizabeth said she had the stomach of a man, implying that men are tougher than women purely because they are of a different gender. This left women with two roles in society; they were seen as prostitutes to be bought or wives to be owned. On top of this, women were also used as scapegoats for the faults of the world, this idea spawns from the beginning of time and Eve eating the apple and having mankind banished from the garden of Eden. This attitude is similar to the opinion of the Nazis towards the Jews, blaming the Jews for all the bad and evil in the world.
At the start of act 4 scene 1, the arranged marriage between Claudio and Hero is about to take place, Claudio, Don Pedro and Don Pedro think that Hero has been unfaithful and is no longer a virgin. However, they have been misled and the other characters are not yet aware of their feelings. As Claudio turns down Hero at the altar and lets everyone know, men’s attitudes towards women become clear.
The first person to speak on the subject is Claudio, he turns to Leonato and says “Give me this maid your Daughter?” He is making a statement because as far as he knows Hero is not a “Maid” (virgin), he is challenging Leonato because he has been given Hero like a gift but she is not what he expected. This quote is also interesting because is shows us that women are seen as possessions of their fathers. Claudio has to ask for permission from her father to “give” Hero to him, almost like a present. This would spark a reaction with a modern day audience as women are now seen as equals and independent in society. However, in Elizabethan times this is what they were used to so they would probably not give it a second thought.
Claudio then refers to Hero as “a rich and precious gift,” this confirms what I have already said that women were seen as possessions to be given to people. Claudio then goes on to say, “Give not this rotten orange to your friend.” He is using the orange as a metaphor for Hero, a rotten orange can appear fine until you peel it or taste it and see what is inside. He is saying that Hero appeared to be an innocent virgin but now he has seen that maybe that isn’t true. He is saying she is “spoilt goods.” However, this quote also shows us that Claudio is putting part of the responsibility of Hero’s actions onto Leonato, he is saying that Leonato should not have given a woman who isn’t a virgin to him. Because Leonato gave Hero to Claudio like a gift he is now responsible for any mishaps she may have with Claudio.
This really shows how women were thought of as objects, that a woman could be compared to an orange, which is amongst the lowest forms of living things. I think this would have an impact on a modern audience as they would be more sensitive towards sexist treatment of women, and women being treated as objects. Claudio then uses Dian and Venus to show what he thinks of Hero. He says that Hero “seemed” like Dian, Dian was a true virgin so he is using this imagery to show that he feels Hero deceived his as being a virgin. He then uses Venus the adulteress as the other extreme, saying that Hero is more intemperate than Venus. These two extremes give us a scale on which to picture Hero he has given us the best (Dian) and the worst (Venus), he has then left us thinking that Hero is at the worst end of the scale with Venus.
Claudio later says, “like a maid she blushes there,” he is saying she is deceitful, pretending to be a virgin when she isn’t. I think this would be effective both modern and Elizabethan audiences because of the frustration it makes an audience feel. The “dramatic irony” would be especially popular with an Elizabethan audience as it was a popular form of humour at the time and common in Shakespeare’s comedies. The audience really feel Hero’s frustration because they know that she is innocent and have to watch on helplessly as Claudio makes a huge mistake because the audience know more than his character does.
One of the first real comments on the situation by Leonato is, “Hath no man’s dagger here a point for me?” This really shows the shame Leonato feels that his own daughter has done such a thing; it also shows how he feels it is all about him. He is not worried about his daughter but by how she has affected him, she has damaged his honour and pride, these things would have been very important in Elizabethan times and not something you can get back as easily as you can lose. This shows the importance in Elizabethan England of the family name and how you can be judged by your name. It also shows the responsibility Leonato has for giving his “wanton” daughter to Claudio, he wants to kill himself due to the shame and guilt she he has brought upon himself because of his daughter. Leonato next says, “death is the fairest cover for her shame,” he feels that she has brought such shame upon herself that it would be fair for her to die for it. This would have a large impact upon an audience, for them to hear a father saying his daughter should die before he even hears her side of the story or even before he really finds out what has happened.
It is especially effective because the audience knows that she is innocent and the fact that she is being told she should die for her crime leads the audience to think that there is no justice. However, an Elizabethan audience may sympathise with Leonato as they would be likely to react in a similar way if it happened to them, as this play is a real reflection of Elizabethan society it would have happened therefore his situation would be very real to them. Leonato then has a long speech in which he seems to no longer love his daughter, where shortly before the wedding he could not have been happier for her. This really shows the strength of opinions on pre-marital sex and adultery in Elizabethan times. Probably one of the most shocking and effective statements made by Leonato in his speech is, “Myself would on the reward of reproaches strike at thy life.” If it was not shock enough to an audience to hear Leonato say he it was fair for his daughter to die, he is now saying that he is willing to kill her himself.
Especially in modern times it is almost unthinkable for a mentally sane father to threaten his daughter with death when he cannot be 100% sure that she is guilty of what is a unthinkable crime. This shows us two things, firstly it shows yet again how strong views were on adultery, but it also shows us how strong a man’s word was against a woman’s in Elizabethan England. Leonato is threatening to kill his daughter purely on the word of a few men who he does not know that well, he wont believe his daughter who he has raised and known all her life. It is like he has just switched of all his love and trust for his daughter, this shows that he values his respect and honour more than he values her.
Friar Francis is interesting in this scene because as a vicar he is maybe expected to speak the side of the church, which we would expect to be very against what Hero has allegedly done. However, Friar Francis plays the middle man in the way that he does not condone what she has supposed to have done. But he sees that she may not be guilty of the accusations so he defends her when almost nobody else will. This may be to represent the church as a voice of reason and as a comfort in times of trouble, the belief that if she has done wrong then God will right it himself. The first thing Friar Francis says during the accusations is “have comfort lady,” the audience will be relieved that someone is seeing reason and will possibly warm to the character of the Friar. However, they might be slightly shocked to see this comfort coming from a man of the church as it does say in the bible “thou shalt not commit adultery.” After everyone has said what they think about Hero, Friar Francis interrupts with “hear me a little.”
The effect of this is almost like a hero coming to the rescue, he has seen that Hero is defenceless and he now steps in to reason with everyone and protect her. He refers to her “maiden truth,” this shows us that he really has faith in her as a person while everyone else takes the word of the princes. By “maiden truth” he is saying that she is telling the truth when she says she is a virgin, this is interesting from an audience perspective because they would expect these words to come from her father. Friar Francis then makes a plan to save Hero’s dignity. He decides that they should pretend that she died with shock or shame and then Claudio would feel guilty and love her more than when she was alive.
They can then reveal that she is still alive and they can happily marry again. At this point it becomes clear why Friar Francis has to be the one to save Hero, it is because he is a trusted man in society and seen as a respectable figure of the church. This puts him in a position to advise people as Benedick says after the Friar’s speech, “Signior Leonato, let the Friar advise you.” It works as they all agree with his idea and the Friar has saved Hero from shame making himself almost the true Hero of the play.
When you analyse Hero’s self defence and appeal of innocence it becomes less surprising that she was thought to be guilty and that the mans words were taken over hers. Her defence is weak and spoken with little passion or convincing tone, she says very little to her defence except that she is guilty but cannot prove it or offer any alternative solution to how the mistake came about. She says, “O God defend me,” this shows how helpless she is that she is calling upon God to help her because she cannot help herself.
This may make an audience angry because she is so weak, especially in a modern audience where women are seen as stronger and more independent. Women were seen as the weaker gender in Elizabethan society but with Hero’s terrible defence and cry to God for help, she is causing herself to be treated weak because she is acting in that way.
I think that audiences would also be amazed at the happy ending to the play when Hero appears to accept the mistakes that were made and forgive for the insults they made without a second thought. This really shows how weak she is and how she is expected to react as a female. An audience would be expecting her to make some kind of speech at the end along the lines of “I told you so” or something on the way she was appallingly treated by most of the men. However, she says nothing and is happily married to Claudio forgetting about anything that was previously said. I feel this would shock an audience because it gives the message that you can treat women like that and get away with it because they are in no position to argue back.
An Elizabethan audience may expect her to be submissive because it is what they are used to, however, a modern audience would be disappointed in the message she is giving. They would be especially disappointed because they have seen Beatrice act strongly and independently against the stereotype placed on women, this makes Hero look even worse because if Beatrice has managed to be strong then there is no reason why Hero cant do the same.
I found that what was most shocking in this play was not how the Hero was treated, but how she was representing women and just took all the mislead abuse without any kind of defence or anger. What I found interesting about this play is how it appears to have different appeals for a modern audience and an Elizabethan audience. I felt that a modern audience would be very sympathetic on Hero’s side but also slightly angry at her lack of defence and self respect. They would also feel shocked by the male characters and their treatment of Hero as a woman. However, an Elizabethan audience would sympathise with Hero because she is innocent but they would not be shocked by her lack of defence as that is what they would expect in their society.
Similarly, they would sympathise with Leonato and the men where we would be angry, this is because they would be used to a similar reaction in their lives if a woman was thought to have been unfaithful. They would understand the shame Leonato feels in the play. This shows how amazingly Shakespeare can cross not just generation but centuries, his plays are made to entertain a wide range of people with different beliefs and social or religious views. I believe that it is because of this that Shakespeare is seen as one of the greatest playwrights of all time.
Courtney from Study Moose
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