''In Much Ado about Nothing' Shakespeare presents unequal relationships between men and women

Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado about Nothing’, written in 1598, depicts relationships between men and women within a context so patriarchal, it is arguable that a 21st century audience may find the relationships difficult to relate to. However, Shakespeare presents and explores a diverse range of relationships between men and women: between father and daughter (Leonato and Hero) and between lovers (Hero and Claudio, Beatrice and Benedick). These demonstrate examples of both equal and unequal relationships. The equal match of Benedick and Beatrice engages the audience because Shakespeare presents their courtship as a “merry war of wit”.

In contrast, the inequalities between Hero and her father and Hero and her lover, are exposed to show the audience the destructive consequences of a patriarchal society. To outweigh the potentially tragic nature of the play, Shakespeare is careful to use humour, through the characters, the language and the subplots. The audience knows the truth and is entertained by the twists and turns of the plot and by the use of disguise, deception and trickery.

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Whilst some of the relationships show overt inequalities, the central relationship in the play, that is between Beatrice and Benedick, is presented as an equal love match.

Beatrice, an orphan, is an independent, vivacious woman, unshackled by dominant male figures. Throughout the play her self-assurance is demonstrated, for example in her ability to hold her own with her uncle, who is after all a powerful man, the governor of Messina. In the opening scene, she confidently asserts herself within a male conversation, offering opinions and wittily refuting arguments.

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The messenger credits Signor Benedick with being “a good soldier too, lady” and Beatrice’s immediate response is “and a good soldier to a lady”.

From such exchanges, Beatrice reveals herself to be on an equal intellectual footing with her male counterparts. Following this particular exchange, Leonato acknowledges this equality when he explains the: “merry war betwixt Signor Benedick and her; they never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them. ” Such an equal relationship could potentially lack drama; however the tension between the two is entertaining because of the way in which they use language as a weapon and as a mask to hide their true feelings.

As Francis Gray says: “… the audience is well aware of the mutual attraction that sparkles beneath the lines. ” This tension also suggests the past relationship between the couple, which is alluded to by Beatrice later in the same scene, when she ends a dispute with: “you always end with a jade’s trick; I know you of old. ” For a modern day audience, watching this relationship unfold through such skilful use of language, is like watching a tennis or fencing match played at its highest level.

Throughout the play, Beatrice displays her quick thinking, witty temperament, unafraid of the consequences it may have for her reputation as a lady. She breaks the mould of a typical 16th century female. It seems that this “gratuitous impertinence and unseemly forwardness” was still problematic in 1859, according to critic Henrietta Palmer. On the other hand, it is Beatrice’s “unseemliness” that provides a basis for a modern-day heroine and endears her to a modern audience.

For instance, the very first thing she says to Benedick in the play is: “I wonder that you will still be talking, Signor Benedick, nobody marks you. ” Such a remark demonstrates a freedom that she possesses, unlike Hero, who is presented as being very much constrained by her social circumstances, being the daughter of a powerful man. One could argue that as Benedick kisses Beatrice in the final scene: “Peace! I will stop your mouth. ” Beatrice is tamed, and this is Shakespeare’s way of returning a woman to her rightful place.

Alternatively, Benedick has proved himself to be a man that Beatrice can respect: he treats her as an equal and as such she no longer feels the need to constantly prove herself. In the National Theatre’s 2008 production, the kiss is interpreted by the actors in a playful manner, without any suggestion of oppression. This light-hearted way of staging the kiss results in the audience feeling that the line could have been delivered just as easily by Beatrice. This untraditional courtship between two independent spirits provides a refreshing contrast to that of Hero and Claudio.

At the beginning of the play, Hero is presented as being the ideal Renaissance woman; “A Turtle in her love, a lamb in her weakness, a saint in her heart and an angel in her soul. ” (Nicholas Breton). She possesses all the characteristics desired by men in the 16th century; she is obedient, meek and pure. Hero rarely speaks, and in the company of men she remains quiet, only speaking when she is spoken to. For instance, when the events of the play reach a climax, in the scene where Hero is shamed, the most she does to defend herself with is to ask Claudio: “seemed I ever otherwise to you my lord? . Unlike Beatrice, whose command of language is supremely eloquent, Hero’s lack of words in this scene perhaps reflects her lack of choice and her inability to defend herself against these false allegations made by her superiors. Indeed previously Shakespeare has revealed her to be assertive and intelligent in the way she directs the gulling scene and in her witty responses to Don Pedro at the masked ball: “I am yours for the walk; and especially when I walk away”.

Until this point Claudio prizes her, asking: “Can the world buy such a jewel? ” This objectification of her reflects his expectations of her perfection, so that when it appears that she is less than perfect, he publicly rejects her and humiliates her in the denunciation scene. Claudio can only relate to Hero either as “Dian in her orb”- the goddess of chastity, or of being “more intemperate in [her] blood Than Venus, or those pampered animals That rage in savage sensuality. ” Such similes reflect the inequality of their relationship.

In her given circumstances, she can only be praised as a goddess or denounced as “an approved wanton”. As unequal as her relationship is with Claudio, so is her relationship with her father. Initially, Leonato instructs his daughter to accept Don Pedro should he ask for her hand, “Daughter remember what I told you, if the prince do solicit you in that kind, you know your answer”. However, when Claudio confides in Don Pedro that he is in love with Hero, Don Pedro insists on helping Claudio to woo her.

It is Beatrice who asserts a woman’s right to say “Father, as it please me. ” Claudio and Leonato engage in finalising the marriage which is primarily a business contract, transferring not only control of Hero from father to husband, but also her inheritance to Claudio. Proof of this is when Claudio asks Don Pedro “is she his [Hero Leonato’s] only heir? ” demonstrating how money takes priority over love in this relationship. In the scene where Hero is denounced, Leonato makes it clear that his reputation is more important than his loyalty to his daughter.

He wills her to die, commanding “Do not live, Hero, do not ope thine eyes”. His rejection of her is so absolute that he even wishes that she were not his daughter because if he had adopted her he could say, “No part of it is mine: This shame derives itself from unknown loins. ” Whereas earlier she was regarded by her father as pure she is now “fallen” and has become “tainted” in her “foulness”. Such powerful imagery is shocking and it is arguable that a modern day audience might find such a betrayal difficult to respond favourably to.

However, because the audience knows that Hero is innocent, their sympathy is with her and any hostility is directed at Leonato and Claudio for their mistreatment of her. Shakespeare’s understanding of the destructive nature of unequal relationships is as relevant to a modern day audience as it was four hundred years ago. While many of the audience will aspire to Beatrice’s independence of spirit, it would be wrong to assume that there are not as many Heros in modern society, as there were in the 16th century.

In the 21st century there are plenty of examples of arranged marriages in different cultures, enabling a modern day audience to relate to issues raised in the relationships between Hero and her father, and Hero and her lover. However, the enduring nature of Shakespeare’s appeal lies in his understanding of the need to portray the darker, more painful side of human relationships through comedy thus acknowledging the desire of most audiences to witness closure and a happy ending.

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''In Much Ado about Nothing' Shakespeare presents unequal relationships between men and women. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/much-ado-nothing-shakespeare-presents-unequal-relationships-men-women-new-essay

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