The role of women in the 1600’s was to be submissive, passive, to obey men and to be seen rather than heard; as is depicted in the female characters in many of Shakespeare’s plays such as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet and Queen Gertrude in Hamlet. However, the characters in Shakespeare’s plays are predominantly male, they include very few female characters and Much Ado About Nothing is no exception. Each of the female characters in this play represents a different role of a 16th century woman.
The reason for the relatively small number of female character’s in Shakespeare’s plays is for both practicality, as all female roles in Shakespeare’s plays were performed by men, but can also be seen as a reference to women’s relatively insignificant status in society. A woman’s virginity and chastity were what her reputation was solely based on. Her status was gained by marriage and women in this time were raised to believe they were inferior to men, this status is reflected in the character of Hero.
Shakespeare seems to portray the conventional role of a Shakespearean woman through Hero. Her silent and submissive nature is what shows her weakness to being controlled by other characters. This is predominantly men; however, Beatrice also speaks over Hero, challenging the male chauvinistic stereotype by placing characteristics commonly associated with males, in a female character. This is most noticeable in act 2 scene1, where Leonato, Beatrice, Hero and Antonio are discussing the topic of Hero’s future.
Shakespeare uses Hero’s lack of a response to anything the other character’s are saying in deciding her fate to emphasise society’s expectancies of Hero, and girls like Hero, in Shakespearean times. Shakespeare uses the character Beatrice to represent a less conventional 16th century woman, independent and outspoken. By contrasting the roles of Beatrice and Hero against each other in this way Shakespeare more effectively presents the differences between these two characters. Shakespeare also mirrors the role of Beatrice in Margaret.
Beatrice unlike Hero does not have a prestigious reputation to maintain. Other characters refer to Beatrice, often by name, in comparison to Hero as ‘niece’, ‘daughter’, and ‘cousin’. The way in which Beatrice talks to the male characters is unusual for her time, she is outspoken and does not hold back on voicing her opinions. In the 16th century women could be punished by law for having such mannerisms as this. Beatrice is particularly bitter towards Benedick, to whom she is rude, ignorant and seems to take great delight in mocking at every available opportunity.
In this respect Shakespeare challenges the male chauvinism of the time by matching Beatrice and Benedick, who both, at times, appear both as witty and stubborn as one another, despite Beatrice being a woman and therefore, supposedly (in accordance to society’s hierarchy at the time) an inferior match to Benedick. Beatrice’s stubborn nature is introduced from the very beginning of the play, in Act 1 Scene 1 where Beatrice makes no attempt to be subtle with her feelings towards Benedick.
She promises “to eat all of his killing” calling him weak and challenging the praise he is receiving from the messenger who is saying “he hath done good service, lady, in these wars. ” It can be interpreted, however, that Beatrice is perhaps trying too hard to convince the other characters of how much she dislikes Benedick, suggesting her stubborn and cruel nature is all just an act, Shakespeare uses Beatrice’s intense bitterness towards Benedick to provide the audience with sufficient evidence to suspect that something has happened between these two characters in the past to leave Beatrice with these thoughts.
Shakespeare mirrors Beatrice in the character of Margaret. He seems to portray Margaret as a less powerful and dirtier minded Beatrice. She, like Beatrice, is outspoken and often seen as rude. However as Margaret is just a servant, Shakespeare uses this character for the lines that Beatrice could not get away with saying. The audience can more easily accept this rude and often suggestive (particularly when talking to male characters) humour. The suggestive aspect can be seen in act 5 scene 2. In which Margaret flirts with Benedick by saying “will you write me a sonnet in praise of my beauty? Shakespeare tries to make it known to the audience that Margaret is aware of her lowly status, by writing lines for her that are jokes at her own expense, such as in act 5 scene 2 “why shall I always keep below the stairs? “, this can be interpreted however, as either Margaret’s acceptance of her role, or as a crude joke used to flirt with Benedick. Margaret’s comedy contrasts the intelligent wit Shakespeare writes for Beatrice. The character of Margaret’s purpose is to provide a different kind of humour in the play, perhaps as a relief from the witty and sarcastic banter between the other characters.
Margaret talks back to Beatrice without any hesitation, as is seen in act 3 scene 4, where she mocks Beatrice in saying “a maid and stuffed”, this reinforces Margaret’s ill mannered nature, being used as a source of entertainment for the audience. This kind of talk would not be acceptable from the other characters, but Shakespeare builds up the character of Margaret to represent a more ill mannered and crude aspect of the play. Shakespeare does this both through Margaret’s main purpose – as an accomplice in the shaming of Hero – and the way in which she acts around the other characters, who are predominantly richer and more powerful than her.
Margaret’s main purpose is to contribute to the shaming of Hero, which causes great controversy and outrage. It’s possible that Shakespeare involves Margaret in this event as a way of informing the audience that Margaret is of a far lower status than the other character’s and introduces the idea that it is acceptable for her to do many things that for the other characters it is not. The prime example being that even suspicion alone that Hero could be involved in such affairs causes outrage, and yet when it is discovered that it was in fact Margaret, not much more is said about the incident.
In Act 2 scene 1 Beatrice compares marriage to a “scotch jig” giving a very bleak outlook on the subject by saying “for, hear me, Hero: wooing, wedding, and repenting, is a scotch jig”. By referring to the aftermath of the wedding as ‘”repenting” Beatrice makes her opinions on marriage very clear. The expectancy of women of this time was to get married and have children, and so by portraying such a passionate disdain towards the subject through Beatrice, Shakespeare challenges the stereotypical role of a woman.
It is this attitude that likens Beatrice more so than Hero, to a modern day audience, the opinion that women’s sole purpose is not to marry and reproduce. Beatrice also makes a joke when Leonato says to her “well, niece, I hope to see you one day fitted with a husband” by responding with “Adam’s son are my brethren; and, truly, I hold it a sin to match in my kindred” this joke can be taken either at face value, as something Shakespeare has built up to be ‘typical Beatrice’, or seen as a way of avoiding what Leonato was really trying to say to her, as a way of covering her real feelings in case there is a lapse in her tough outer exterior.
And yet when in Act 3 scene 1 when Hero, Margaret and Ursula try to gull Beatrice she seems, to a certain extent, to believe them. Shakespeare’s sudden portrayal of slight naivety in Beatrice can be interpreted as a way of showing the audience Beatrice has a more compassionate side, and that really she wants to believe this is true such as when she says “and, Benedick, love on; I will requite thee”. Another moment in which Beatrice shows compassion is when Benedick proposes his love to her, and her immediate reaction is to tell him to kill Claudio for what he has done to her cousin, Hero.
She uses Benedick’s love for her cruelly as a way of forcing him to kill Claudio against his will when she says “you kill me to deny it. Farewell”. In some respects, the character of Beatrice is there to show an independent and opinionated woman, representative in some aspects as an early feminist and as a way of challenging the conventional role of a Shakespearean woman. However in the final scene even Beatrice the independent, witty and intelligent heroine succumbs to the persuasive ways of men, love and society. The character of Hero can be interpreted in one of two ways.
Critics say that Hero is ‘conventional, not at all deep, but ladylike and deserving of sympathy’ this could be to uphold the reputation expected of her due to her father and as a result of this, her high social status which can be seen in act 2 scene 1. But Hero can also be interpreted as an intelligent young woman that simply knows the right, and similarly the wrong, times to speak; as can be seen in act 3 scene 4, a scene with only female characters in which Hero speaks of her own free will for herself. In Act 2 scene 1, Leonato makes it clear that it is his decision whom Hero marries; and not Hero’s.
Yet Hero says nothing throughout. This is what can make the character of Hero so hard to relate to for a modern day audience, as this kind of behaviour is not as common or typical in a modern day girl of Hero’s age as it was in Shakespearean times. Although Hero’s lines in the play are often merely functional and slightly lacking, it is this; her lack of speech, that most effectively represents her character and role in society. The only time the audience is shown Hero’s wittier and more relaxed side is when she is surrounded by only female company.
Beatrice in Act 2 scene 1however, does not hold back with her opinions, when Antonio says “well, niece, I trust you will be ruled by your father” Beatrice speaks for Hero by saying “yes, faith; it is my cousin’s duty to make curtsy and say ‘Father, as it please you'” This can be seen as Beatrice either mocking Hero, or taking pity on her. But at the same time rather aptly sums up Hero’s purpose. Hero has functional lines in the play and only really speaks when given permission, such as in act 2 scene 2 when she says “I will do any modest office, my lord” modest being the crucial word in this line.
The first time we hear Hero speak for herself is at the masked ball. However, it can be interpreted that Shakespeare uses this opportunity for Hero to hide behind a mask to grant her the freedom to speak for herself, and in normal circumstances this would not be the case. In act 3 scene 1, we see a very different side to Hero than Shakespeare has previously portrayed. In this scene there are no men and so Hero is free to say as she ‘pleases’, this freedom is furthered by Ursula and Margaret, both servants, both females, and both, therefore, below Hero in terms of social status, being the only other characters in the scene.
In this scene Hero is given more lines than she has throughout the rest of the entire play. The scene opens with Hero giving Margaret an order “run thee to the parlor; there shalt thou find my cousin Beatrice… whisper her ear and tell her, I and Ursula walk in the orchard and our whole discourse is all of her” up until this point this kind of assertiveness and power is completely unexpected of Hero to the audience.
Hero then goes on to give Ursula clear and precise orders of what she must do “when Beatrice doth come” however, in act 3 scene 4, where the characters present are again all female, Hero is not as outspoken and forward. However one of the characters present is Beatrice, this suggest that’s Beatrice overpowers Hero, and although Hero is technically more powerful and important than Beatrice, as she is Leonato’s daughter, her lines are still functional and infrequent such as “these gloves the count sent me; they are an excellent perfume”.
Hero is mirrored – in a similar way to how Beatrice is mirrored in Margaret – in Ursula. Out of Margaret and Ursula, Margaret is – as it is between Beatrice and Hero – the more loud and opinionated one, as opposed to Ursula who is more quiet and reserved, and like Hero is given functional lines “madam, withdraw: the prince, the count, Signior Benedick, Don John, and all the gallants of the town, are come to fetch you to church”. In act 3 scene 4, Margaret is the dominant speaker, mocking Beatrice and talking back to Hero “troth, I think your other rabato were better. . Hero’s response to this “no pray thee, good Meg, I’ll wear this” is uncharacteristically sure of herself, showing that she didn’t really care about Margaret’s opinion, and chooses to ignore it. This suggests that Hero is perhaps not a pushover as she is made out to be, but rather knows her place and what is expected of her, and so, when she is around certain company (i. e men) she is more reserved, so as not to get herself into trouble, giving reason to suspect Hero is perhaps smarter than a modern day audience would give her credit for.
The other character’s, in particular Claudio and Leonato’s, expectancy of Hero is really emphasised when Margaret and Borachio set her up to be shamed. As even suspicion of Hero doing such causes great controversy and trouble, and is near enough the sole cause of the rest of the problems in the play from then onwards. Whereas, when it is found out that it was in fact Margaret, the act is completely overlooked. This reinforces the importance of social status within the play.
Shakespeare both challenges and supports male chauvinism at times by exploring the social boundaries of women. This is done through the characters of Beatrice and Margaret, with their outspoken nature and Beatrice’s seemingly unconventional outlook on life, but he does not cross these boundaries. As is seen in Act 4 scene 1 in which Shakespeare reflects and reinforces the separate roles 16th century society has created for males and females when Beatrice proclaims “O that I were a man! With Beatrice being the main character to challenge the conventional role of a woman, she – of all characters – being the one to say this, shows that there are still restraints put in place by society on things seen as acceptable for women to do. Beatrice repeats this line several times, interrupting Benedick with more of her self pitying rant every time he tries to defend his reasons for objecting to killing Claudio.
This can be seen as giving Beatrice, an heir of ‘damsel in distress’ a conventional and necessary role in romantic comedy, which contrasts with her character’s less conventional role as a woman in the society she is in. Also in this scene, Shakespeare uses dramatic irony, when Claudio says “you seem to me as Dian on her orb” saying that Hero seems innocent, and pure, but he continues to say “but you are more intemperate in your blood” saying that he has realised Hero is not as she first appears and sees her more as someone who sleeps around.
The audience, of course, knows this is not true. But the use of the dramatic irony here portrays the two sides of a woman, and shows how much Leonato’s reputation lies on Hero’s actions and status. Hero is a character that at first glance seems insignificant in the sense that she is rarely given opinions or a chance to speak. However the role that she plays is vital to romantic comedy as the young, innocent, female. This necessity of female characters to the plot and genre of the play despite their portrayal as being inferior to men is what is ironic in Much Ado About Nothing.
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