The Culture of Gender in Much Ado

Written by: Amanda Bledsoe

*Note: This essay focuses solely on Hero in regards to her role as a woman throughout the play. Beatrice’s role was not mentioned to coincide with the plot/characters we worked with for our adaption of the play.

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In Shakespeare’s England, marriage was widely viewed as a social and spiritual necessity, offering not only women, but also men support and companionship. During this time, however, there was also a growing genre of self-help guides offering man-to-man advice on how to cope with the failings of women and the burden of marriage. We can see tributes to this in Much Ado About Nothing, through Claudio relying heavily on his male friends on how to handle Hero’s “scandal”, as well as how quickly and easily he believes them when they first mention her “wrong doings”. Furthermore, women’s honor was established in their chastity, whilst men’s was established in their camaraderie and social standing.

In the patriarchal society of Much Ado About Nothing, the men’s loyalties were administrated by conventional codes of honor and comradeship, as well as a sense of supremacy to women. Assumptions that women were prone by nature to infidelity are exposed throughout the play, shown in the repeated jokes. This also helps explicate Claudio’s inclination to believe the smears against Hero.

This is where Shakespeare has a little fun with the character Hero, however. Shakespeare disproves these common myths about women by making Hero the blameless victim of the men’s obsession with chastity, and their outright obsession with gossip and drama. Hero acts as a scapegoat for all of the men’s (particularly Don John’s) repressed fears. Don John is the face of the cultures misogyny, and acts almost as a mirror for all the things he pushes on Hero: he is a bastard child, born out of wedlock, and he himself embodies infidelity and unfaithfulness.

Hero also represents the formal courtship traditions of the Elizabethan era. Hero has few lines throughout the play, and in any scene in which they are arranging or speaking of the wedding or marriage, she is generally passive. Hero is treated as property, her father Leonato negotiating her marriage to Claudio as if she were merchandise. In return, Claudio treats her just so, as merchandise, and when he believes she has had sex out of wedlock, he calls her things such as a “rotten orange”, insinuating that he no longer wants to marry her because she is damaged goods.

In the Elizabethan era, women were normally seen as second-class citizens, which is highlighted by the way the men treat her throughout the play, as well as how often the other characters speak about her as if she were not standing directly next to them. Hero is a direct example of the way women were most often seen and treated in the Elizabethan era. As Hero was chastised, women in Elizabethan times were often depicted as manipulative and immoral, deceptive and superficial, and often hiding their sins beneath a show of virtue.

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