The Elizabethan Era is one of the most fascinating periods in the History of the World. It is named after one of the greatest of the Queens of England – Queen Elizabeth I. It was the era of the very first Theatres in England – William Shakespeare and the globe Theatre and Christopher Marlowe! It also had a very different feel and look to it than we experience nowadays and this is shown in the marriage and wedding customs, recreation, social hierarchy, and how it is a patriarchal society.
The Elizabethan worldview is strongly reflected in Shakespeare’s play ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ set in the 17th century in Messina, a port on the island of Sicily, Italy. In ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ the marriage and wedding customs of the Era was strongly reflected as the play was based around love, betrayal and marriage. Marriages were often arranged so that both families involved would profit. Marriages would be arranged to bring prestige or wealth to the family.
Many couples would meet for the very first time on their wedding day, this particular Elizabethan custom usually applied to the nobility but the married or religious life were the only real options for the Elizabethan women. A man was considered to be the head of a marriage, and he had the legal right to chastise his wife. However, it is important to understand what this “headship” meant. It did not mean, as if often supposed, that the husband was able to command his wife to do anything he pleased, in other words, be a petty tyrant.
He was expected to take care of her, make sure she had everything she needed, and most importantly to love her and be a good father to any children they had. After marriage Elizabethan women were expected to run the households and provide children. The law gave a husband full rights over his wife so that she effectively became his property. This is shown in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ where Don Pedro, a nobleman, highly acclaims Claudio to Leonato, the governor of Messina, to wed Leonato’s daughter Hero.
Leonato then tells Claudio that he is to wed Hero without her knowing before hand and he freely gives her off after such high praising from Don Pedro. The recreation in the Elizabethan Era included a lot of bloodshed and horror, but the recreation seen in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ was of the more humane kind. It included feasts, banquets, plays, reading of monologues, expressions and playful banter filled with wit, and dancing. This all happened in the Elizabethan Era and is also seen in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ as something highly entertaining.
However in actual fact this wasn’t the only thing that people did for entertainment in the Elizabethan Era, they performed more horrendous spectator, blood sports including, bullbaiting, cock fighting, bearbaiting, and hawking. Social hierarchy in the Elizabethan Era had been so significant that it is proposed to be the most vital element in order to understand the history of those days. The highest in the hierarchy was the monarch, which at that time was Rodrigo Borgia, the powerful Renaissance Valencian who later became Pope Alexander VI, and Vannozza dei Cattanei.
The second in rank in the hierarchy was held by the nobility who in “Much Ado About Nothing’ was Don Pedro. They were rich and powerful and owned large households. Third in rank were the gentry, they were the people who owned small parts of land but possessed a substantial amount of wealth, and in the play this would be Leonato. Then there were the merchants who were the tradesmen, shopkeepers, and people who made products for public consumption. They were the citizens. Then there were the Yeomen who owned and used agricultural land for their living.
In ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ these people would be ‘The Watch’. After them are the servants, laborers, and peasants. Last there were the indigents, the poor people, and beggars. This is also reflected in “Much Ado About Nothing’ in the way that the different classes speak. It was a very patriarchal society where women were taught that they were men’s inferiors. The Elizabethans had very clear outlooks of men and women, and in general men were expected to be the workers and women to be housewives and mothers.
Women were regarded as “the weaker sex”, not just in terms of physical strength, but emotionally too. It was believed that women always needed someone to look after them. If they were married, their husband was expected to look after them. If they were single, then their father, brother or another male relative was expected to take care of them. They were not allowed to go to school or university nor could they inherit their father’s titles. Women who suffered most in this period were those like the Queen who did not wish to marry.
Tudor society did not have many opportunities open to single women and, following the Reformation, those avenues were even less. Before, women were able to become nuns and look forward to a gratifying life in convents, and perhaps be a Mother Superior one day. But with the Reformation, the convents were closed. Wealthy single women could look forward to being mistress of their estates and have the power in the community that this would bring. For poor women, the only long-term “occupation” really open to them was domestic service.
It was not surprising that most women married. Marriage was seen as the desirable state for both men and women. This was shown in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ as Beatrice was looked upon as a woman who will never be a proper wife to a man as she has too much power in her self even though they find her way with words humorous. It is also shown when we see the women amongst themselves, contrasting to how they act when they are in male company. They do not act out as much as they would have and act more prim and proper.
The physical and mental weakness views of the women are shown, as the death of Hero, from being so accused, is not taken as a surprise. In conclusion the Elizabethan worldview is strongly reflected in Shakespeare’s play ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, through many different ways and has clearly shown that the worldview then is much different now. Although the Elizabethan period was filled with elegance, charm, and extreme wealth, it was also a time of great pain, betrayal and poverty that Shakespeare has portrayed to us evidently through ‘Much Ado About Nothing’.