The Establishment and Defence of a Gendered Honour in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing William Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing is a timeless dramatic comedy that establishes a number of Victorian gender norms as well as their relation to honour through the two main romances in the play, that of Claudio and Hero and Beatrice and Benedict. The relationship between Beatrice and Benedick is completely different to the more traditional relationship between Hero and Claudio, who’s relationship portrays the more conservative ideals of honour during the time the play was set. This essay will analyse the ways in which males and females in the play defend their honour through the analysis of the expected gender norms and ideals of the time. During Shakespears time, there were a great deal of gendered expectations, norms and ideals associated with honour, most of which tended to lean in a more masculine favour, as it was an era in which men dominated society. Woman’s honour was generally associated with purity, chaste and virginity. Loss or questioning of these could potentially permanently damage a woman and her families reputation and could in some cases even result in the death of the accused. If a woman had been accused of slander it was extremely difficult to regain her and her families honour, despite whether the accusations were true or not. Mens honour was more associated with bravery, nobility and loyalty. If a mans honour was questioned, it was only through a duel or battle that it could be restored.
Many of the actions and activities in Much Ado about Nothing, can be linked to these honourable expectations. Women during this era were expected to behave in an honest, respectable and modest way, much like how Hero is portrayed in the play. Hero, is getle, kind and soft spoken, and is regarded by Don Pedro as the ideal woman. In the play, Hero establishes her honour by accepting Claudio’s advances with grace. Although very close with her cousin Hero, Beatrice on the other hand is extremely different. Beatrice is confident, sharp and witty, and often speaks her mind; something that was not commonly accepted during this day and age. She is confident, witty, independent and has a sharp tounge. She believes strongly against the male dominated society, and is adament not to be a prisoner within it. She will not marry a man that she believes not to be of equal statue and who will show her the respect she feels she deserves. Despite their differences, she and Hero have a good relationship and are very close. At the climactic moment of the play, Hero attempts to defend her honour after she had been unfairly and wrongfully accused of cuckold, which was deemed as the most unacceptable behaviour for woman of that era. Hero is effected so badly after being confrunted in front of so many people, that she faints. In an attempt to regain her honour, Hero is announced dead, in the attempt to supposedly resurrect after being proven innocent, and re-establish her deserved honour. Enraged by the false acusations directed at her cousin, Beatrice urges Benedict to challenge Claudio to a duel in order to defend Hero’s honour. Beatrice is so enraged that she wishes she could perform the duty herself, “O God that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market place” (4.1.306-7). During this male dominated era, men had a different sense of honour, based on courage, loyalty and military prowness.
The play portrays both Beatrice and Benedict to be honourable gentlemen, Claudio being described as a valient young soldier who is well respected and honourable for the way in which he woos Hero, which was performed in the accepted manner of that time. Claudio’s unfortunately suspicious nature makes his quick to believe evil rumors, and so when hearing of Heros supposed cuckoldry, he sees the only way to keep his honour is by confronting her in front of the public, which was at the altar of his own wedding. However, once made aware of his mistake and her innocence and death, he displays honour by placing an epitaph on Hero’s grave, and by accepting the hand of her cousins as a means of respect in order to replace Hero and her families honour, “Give her the right you should have giv’n her cousin” (5.1.285). Benedict is portrayed as an aristocratic soldier as well as a gentlemen by Don Pedroin when he states “he is of noble strain, of approved valour and confirmed honesty” (2.1. 374-5).
Benedicts attempts to defended his lover Beatrice’s cousin Hero’s families honour by challenging Claudio to a dual, where he states “By my sword” (4.1.323), a frase often used as a challenge to a duel. In conclusion, Much Ado about Nothing referres to and portrays many gender ideals and norms that were expected and performed by men and woman during Victorian times. These gender ideals focus on honour and the ways in which men and women during these times attemot to ensure it, and defend it.
Shakespeare, W. Much Ado about Nothing. Ed. Stanley Wells. Oxford Worlds Classics. Oxford. University Press:1993