Battle Of The Sexes In Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”

It is fascinating that a dramatic narrative can create such a strong representation of a person through words alone, determining their social class, their gender, their relationships and even their intelligence. ““Much Ado About Nothing”” by the respected dramatist William Shakespeare explores the shallowness, the naivety and the innocence of human beings through the characters of Hero and Claudio, the two protagonists who dominate our generation today.
However through the seemingly minor characters of Don John and Don Pedro, a contrasting analysis may be made of how someone’s actions can affect others and through comparing the relationship of Claudio and Hero with that of Beatrice and Benedick we understand how differences in experience, maturity and conformity can seriously affect a relationship.
Count Claudio, the leading male in ““Much Ado About Nothing”” is an impulsive, handsome, young man, who initially gives us the impression that he will make the ideal husband. However we soon learn that in that traditional, militaristic ideology of feudal aristocracy, male comradeship is much more important than really loving a female. Claudio is insecure and wanting as a lover, forcing us to question whether underneath his flawless brilliance there really is the heroic soldier that we hear about in the opening scene.

Leonato describes him as an honourable soldier: “I find here that Don Pedro hath bestowed much honour on a young Florentine called Claudio” and we understand that this boy is some sort of patriotic symbol to the Messinian community, but we as an audience never see him fight or even show the bravery for which he is renown and for this reason we are compelled to believe that he really is just another naive adolescent in love with an idealistic idea of militarism.
Shakespeare deliberately emphasises Claudio’s badge of youth, particularly when his brotherhood are brought to tears by Claudio fighting the war “in the figure of the lamb, the feats of a lion” and he is referred to as a “boy” six times and as “young” on four occasions by his seniors. However despite his youth, Claudio succeeds on Messinian terms and thus secures for himself glorification based on reports of his bravery and heroism.
So it is no surprise that included in Claudio’s noble vision for himself is a trophy wife worthy enough to enhance his image and it is through this vision that we are introduced to the beautiful and romantic Hero who suits all of Claudio’s love ideals. In the first scene Claudio admits that “she is the sweetest lady that e’er I looked on”, which immediately makes us question whether his love is merely based upon an adolescent idea of attraction, as this young man has spotted a woman of beauty and suddenly is announcing his deep love for her and his willingness to cement this ‘love’ in marriage.
Elizabethan audiences would see nothing strange in his enquiring after Hero’s inheritance before he takes the blushing Hero’s hand in marriage, but from a modern perspective we find this gauche, although comparison with the high profile relationships of celebrities today who profit economically from advantageous marriages are proof that money based relationships still very much drive notions of love.
Claudio is the typical Elizabethan romantic, beguiled into notions of chivalry by society’s stereotypical view of males as creatures honourable and confident and easily enticed into romantic love through the perceived honour of being loved by a beautiful woman, so we can conclude that it is nothing less than the converse of courtly idealisation which characterises Claudio’s attachment to Hero. However it is not just notions of courtly honour which undermine this relationship.
Our precious Claudio also fails because his personality is underpinned by a shyness which ultimately leaves him unable to express his feelings, clearly evident when Don John slyly dupes Claudio into believing that Don Pedro is in love with Hero and the reticent Claudio says nothing but chooses to suffer in silence. This shyness makes him appear to be an innocent, sweet lover but the truth is very different. When we witness Claudio’s mistrust after he has believed the rumour spread by Don John, “I come hither to tell you, as circumstances shortened, the lady is disloyal”, we see Claudio as the inadequate, adolescent he really is.
His mistrust in the faithfulness of Hero and his behaviour the following day when he embarrassingly and cruelly rejects her in front of the entire community on their wedding day, because he thinks she is not pure and has betrayed him, in turn degrades his perfect social image making him callous and shallow. It is completely unacceptable for Claudio to humiliate Hero in this way and if Claudio had sincerely loved her he would have at least spoken to her privately or treated her in a more respectful manner which again highlights the flaws in this relationship built as it is upon youthful innocence rather than intellect and conversation.
Although in the early 1600’s the idea of being “pure” was interpreted as having your virginity until your wedding night and an unchaste bride was considered a worthless thing, it was still far more natural for the aristocratic warrior to defend his own honour than to invest any real trust and commitment into the keeping of a woman’s. Interestingly, when Claudio finds out Hero is supposedly ‘dead’ from false accusations, he desires her even more and quickly accepts marriage with her ‘cousin. Claudio’s willingness to acquiesce to Leonato’s demand to marry this cousin seems crass and shallow and negates the undying love he once stated he had for Hero. When Claudio discovers that Hero is not actually “dead” they reunite and Hero herself certainly seems to have no compunction in reuniting herself with the man who publicly humiliated and abandoned her on the basis of malicious gossip and a contrived conception, which forces us to examine her motives. So who is Hero, this woman who has so completely captivated Claudio?
Hero is the daughter of Leonato, the Governor of Messina and his push for her marriage to Claudio is a calculated attempt to improve his social profile. Hero is a woman who barely speaks in public but amongst her female company she displays a keen and flexible wit. When faced with men her reserved and restrained nature signifies both her innocence and the superior market value she holds. Her youth, her wealth and her social position all contribute to her aloofness. In typical Elizabethan society women were marginalised and tightly circumscribed into the categories of wife and breeder (to be protected) or the whore (to be discarded).
Initially Hero seems to possess the qualities required for the successful advancement of a soldier’s career, being self possessed and silent. However as with Claudio, Hero’s youth and innocence is her downfall. She is shy, differential and rendered totally defenceless against Claudio’s public humiliation and false accusations of her fidelity at the altar on her wedding day and it is here that we see Hero’s shyness as a real weakness, as she stands there speechless, unable and unwilling to prove her innocence and we feel frustration at her passivity and wish she had more of the spunky Beatrice’s poise and confidence.
Claudio’s accusation of disloyalty is made more heartfelt because of Hero’s prior prophetic comments on love “some Cupid kills with arrows, others with traps. ” We know how important chastity is to Hero when on the night before her wedding she confesses to Margaret “my heart is exceedingly heavy” as the prospect of losing her virginity confronts her. The idea of impurity before marriage was inconceivable for any respectable woman in the Elizabethan era and Hero’s innocence is poignantly captured as we see her view her wedding night with both fear and trepidation.
Hero embodies the enormous pressure placed on the women of Messina to conform to the male ideal. In Elizabethan times, a woman like Hero submitted herself to her man and rarely retained a voice for herself, but Hero’s willingness to marry Claudio after he has disgraced her is problematic. Her fidelity to an unworthy man who vindicates himself in terms of the male code of honour is disappointing as she condemns herself to a life shared with an untrusting lover.
She herself says “And as surely as I live, I am a maid,” and true to her role as a conventional, romantic heroine, she is exemplary in her patience and forgiveness. The relationship that Hero has with Claudio is your typical ‘Twilight’ romance and markedly different to the one Beatrice shares with Benedick and it is through comparing these two young couples that we gain a deeper understanding of the battle that individuals have within the bounds of society to be themselves.
Claudio and Hero’s relationship provides the spine of the play and presents the ideal of beauty, love, reconciliation and sexual attraction prevalent during Elizabethan times, a relationship that is no different to the typical high school relationships of today. Hero and Claudio seem to be at ease with indirect ways of communicating through their friends, just as today’s relationships communicate through means of cyberspace. Facebook, email and text messaging are all chosen over face to face confrontation.
However Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship is founded on very different terms. From their first appearance the audience is aware of an excess of feeling between these two that testifies to anything but indifference. These lovers, who have previously fallen out of love, are now determined to confront each other at every possible opportunity as they publicly deny their love for one another and we realise that the distrust that defaces this relationship must somehow be cancelled out if they are to ever accept their love for one another.
Both vow they will never marry, but once deceived into admitting the truth about their love for each other, they quickly come together in a truce, determined to love each other for who they are, as individuals, proving that if the magnetic fields of attraction and repulsion are somehow reversed love will surely be the eventual result.
A popular misconception about language is the idea that words have innate qualities, but when Beatrice and Benedick eventually declare their love for one another they find themselves stumbling round to find the right words, whilst their words came trippingly when they were hurling insults back and forth between each other as a way of covering up their true feelings of affection. The merry war which exists between Beatrice and Benedick is a rivalry which is not exactly hostile because it is filled with wit and romance.
In contrast with the ‘bashful sincerity and comely love” which exists between Claudio and Hero, based on first impressions, wealth and ignorance, Beatrice and Benedick’s love is affectionate and colourful, yet difficult to interpret amongst their playful poetry, covered as it is with a seemingly strong distaste for each other. However when their commitment towards each other is tested through Beatrice’s two seemingly simple words, ‘Kill Claudio’, we see Benedick reluctantly agree to throw away his antagonistic values of war and male camaraderie for love and chivalric respect for a female.
By comparison, Hero and Claudio’s love is distant and removed and although playful lacks the humour and suspense that Beatrice and Benedick share. However as Beatrice and Benedick discover, no relationship can be defined through words, suggesting that true love has its own uniqueness in the context of lovers. Shakespeare shows us through these contrasting relationships that ‘love’ can be expressed in many differing ways and that the consequences of love can even mean death.
Furthermore, the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick is contrasted with Claudio and Hero’s to illustrate the themes of deception versus reality. Beatrice and Benedick claim that they have no feelings for one another whatsoever, while Hero and Claudio blatantly declare their love for one another without exchanging a single word. Benedick makes the claim that he “is loves of all ladies.. ut truly [he] loves none,” whereas Beatrice claims that she would rather “hear a dog bark at a crow than hear a man swear he loves her. ” Although Benedick purports to be uninterested in the opposite sex, through Don Pedro’s clever plan of deception, careful conversations are cleverly staged so that Benedick hears Don Pedro and Claudio talking about the “undying love” that Beatrice has for him. Similarly, when Beatrice overhears her kinswomen reading a sonnet which Benedick has written for her, she too quickly acquiesces.
This gossip, fictitious as it is, is helpful in solving the tension their friends have sensed exists between them and when both Benedick and Beatrice hear these fabricated “facts” that “t’were true”, their bottled up affection for each other is unleashed, and by the end of the play they are committed to the idea of marriage. Beatrice and Benedick are unconventional for their time. Beatrice is overpowering and slightly masculine in her ways, an unusual trait at a time when women were meant to be passive and submit to their husband’s will.
However the asexual Beatrice’s seemingly unfavourable social position gives her a freedom the other characters cannot enjoy. Likewise, Benedick, too, is free to shed his suit of honour in order to fulfil his preposterous mission to prove his love and it is precisely because Benedick is unconcerned about dismantling his social standing that he is free to love unconditionally. But what is the relevance of the brothers and how do they affect both the relationships of Beatrice and Benedick and Claudio and Hero. These brothers, Don John and Don Pedro, are pivotal to the climax of the play where we witness Hero’s humiliation and rejection.
Don John and Don Pedro’s relationship is based on jealousy and shows us the depths that rejection can lead us into and how the actions of one person, can significantly change the outcome of a relationship, particularly when that relationship is based on superficial qualities. Don Pedro is the most elusive and seemingly noble character in the social hierarchy of the play and his friends, Claudio in particular, must defer to him as their positions depend on his favour. Don Pedro has power, an attribute he is well aware of and whether or not he abuses this power is a matter of opinion.
For instance, he insists on wooing Hero for Claudio, while masked, rather than allowing Claudio to profess his love to Hero himself, and although everything turns out for the best, Don Pedro’s motives are purely in the interest of his friend, we are left wondering why Don Pedro feels the need for such an elaborate way of informing Hero of Claudio’s romantic interest. Although it is Don Pedro’s royal prerogative to do exactly as he wishes and no one can question him, despite his cloudy motives he does work to bring about happiness for everyone and it is his idea to convince Beatrice and Benedick to admit their love for each other.
It is Don Pedro who brings the two competitors together as he orchestrates the deception and plays the role of director in this comedy of wit and manners. Contrastingly, his brother, the bastard villain Don John, also orchestrates a deception, Hero’s denunciation, but here he is using power for nefarious purposes. Through the concept of static villainy, Don John is conveniently portrayed as the ‘author of all’ and thus becomes the scapegoat for a society looking to free themselves of the guilt and drama that ““Much Ado About Nothing”” personifies.
By only blaming Don John, Claudio, the Prince, and Don Pedro are exonerated and Hero’s humiliation, which destroyed her reputation without hard proof of her infidelity, is blamed on Don John’s villainous deception. So in reality the whole purpose of Don John’s character is to have somebody to blame for everyone else’s mistakes, because nearly all the characters in ““Much Ado About Nothing”” play some role in the climatic rejection of Hero at the altar.
In ““Much Ado About Nothing””, whether it be Claudio the misunderstood returned war romantic, Hero the innocent and wrongly accused wife-to-be, Beatrice and Benedick, the witty yet confused couple or Don Pedro and Don John, the conflicting brothers, Shakespeare has cleverly crafted these characters in such a way that we can relate them to our own lives and it is our identifying with these characters that allows us to fully understand their motives and reasoning.
When this play is analysed it is obvious that in ““Much Ado About Nothing””, it is difficult to think beyond the aristocratic code of honour, complicated as it is by conflicting ideas of love and that if the battle between the sexes is ever to be resolved the key lies within each of us if only we are brave enough to love as individuals.

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New York University
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