Conventional and Unconventional Heroines in “Much Ado about Nothing”

February 10, 2022 by Essay Writer

A central theme in “Much Ado about Nothing” is that of the literary tradition of a heroine within the social conventions surrounding women. The literary tradition of the time (and indeed, in many cases, up to the present day) bestows the conventional heroine with beauty, modesty and etiquette, submissive and obedient to men’s will. Literary convention also presents the heroine with a variety of obstacles which, through no fault of her own, she is forced to overcome. Ultimately, she prevails and the Shakespearean tale typically ends with a joyful marriage ceremony, often an alliance between two families. However, modern literary tradition breeds the unconventional heroine, an independent, assertive and articulate young woman, overcoming prejudice and injustice. In “Much Ado About Nothing”, Shakespeare presents us with both the Elizabethan conventional and (the more modern) unconventional heroine in Hero and Beatrice, using a variety of effective literary methods, to demonstrate the extreme differences in character.

Social expectations of women in Elizabethan society were that they should submit to their fathers’ will, marry men of their fathers’ choosing, often as a way of forming propitious family alliances, and remain submissive to their husbands. They had no role or autonomy in their own right, only within the contexts of their menfolk. Expected to be beautiful, modest and chaste, “fair” Hero, at the beginning of the play, fits the role perfectly.

Claudio has effectively been chosen as her husband by her father, with Hero submitting uncomplainingly to her duty to “be ruled by your father”, thus matching the social norm of the time. Indeed, she had originally believed herself to be wooed by Don Pedro, and yet, when Claudio was presented as the actual wooer, had no apparent misgivings in switching to accept his suit – she is simply at the disposal of her father. The discussions between Don Pedro and Claudio about the proxy wooing reveal no suggestion whatsoever that Claudio’s suit could be rejected by Hero; the thought that she might have any free will does not even loom as a possibility: “I’ll unclasp my heart……And the conclusion is, she shall be thine”.

Shakespeare gives Hero virtually no speeches in the first act, although she is central to much that is happening, and she is early presented merely as a chattel to be discussed and “allocated”. The traditional female modesty is clearly portrayed; on her wedding eve, her virginal anxiety shows through all of her fussing over her clothes, and in answer to a ribald statement of Margaret’s, her modesty, even in private, is such that she exclaims “Fie upon thee! Art not ashamed?”. Even Hero’s fainting away at the altar on her wedding day, when her honour is besmirched, seems not only a dramatic device, but also a literary tool to demonstrate her female modesty and sensitivity. (One can scarcely imagine Beatrice reacting in such a way.) Moreover, the later continued feigning of death is not the idea of Hero, which would have shown her to be taking control of her own fate, but instead is the idea of yet another man, the Friar: “Publish it that she is dead indeed”. Thus, even at the moment when her reputation, indeed her entire future is under threat, Hero remains passive, at the disposal of men.

The deathlike faint, essential to Shakespeare’s plot, is possibly the ultimate in female submissiveness.

Throughout the play, Hero is presented as the archetypal traditional heroine, the romantic ideal. The language used in descriptions of her are flowery and tender: “jewel”, the object of “soft and delicate desires”, “the sweetest lady that ever I looked on”. Moreover, for such a pivotal character, her actual speeches of any substances are few, usually only speaking when spoken to, and almost always in blank verse – traditional feminine reticence is clearly shown throughout.

However, the Elizabethan tradition of submissive and meek women was being breached by Queen Elizabeth I herself. A strong, confrontational, independent and clever woman, the queen was challenging the contemporary perceptions of women and their place in society. Such a woman was Beatrice.

At the opposite pole from Hero, and completely in contrast to the traditional heroine, Shakespeare presents us, in Beatrice, with a heroine we are more familiar in seeing in modern drama. Shakespeare gives us a heroine capable of two different interpretations. Either we can see a jaded, aging, cynical and embittered spinster, who uses her wit and repartee defensively to gain attention, or we see Beatrice as an independent and feisty woman, courageous and loyal, determined not to fall into the expected role of submissive wife.

“He that is more than a youth is not for me and he that is less than a man, I am not for him.”

The Beatrice that I find in “Much Ado” is the strong, independent atypical woman. It is interesting that this play is one of the few comedies in which none of the leading female characters dress up as a man in order to speak forthrightly or bluntly. The character of Beatrice has been written in such a way that this is her usual manner of speech. In her first interchange with Benedick, we see a woman who could not be more different from the reticent and passive Hero. We are given a woman who wants to dominate the conversation, who is witty, aggressive: “he wears his faith but as the fashion of his hat; it ever changes with the next block”. Indeed, throughout the play, she is so direct as to be sometimes bawdy, with many references to stuffing and horns, allusions usually restricted to men. This provides a stark contrast to Hero’s prudishness discussed earlier. Similarly, in what is usually a masculine conversational style, Beatrice makes many hunting allusions – “I will requite you, taming my wild heart to thy loving hand.” (a falconry allusion).

Unlike Hero, Beatrice is not portrayed as the gift of a father to a husband. Instead, we are very aware of a woman determined to be in charge of her own destiny, disdainful of the tradition of romantic love: “I would rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me”. Indeed, the early Beatrice rejects even the idea of marriage, “Not till G-d make men of some other metal than earth”, and is again presented as the antithesis of the traditional heroine. (There is evidence that her cynicism springs from a failed earlier entanglement with Benedick, which may go towards explaining her rejection of all romantic conventions: “once before, he won it (her heart) of me with false dice”.)

If this aggressive banter and rejection of feminine wiles and aspirations were all that we saw of Beatrice, Shakespeare would have given us a very one-dimensional character, with little appeal. Instead, Beatrice appears as much more rounded. She is described as a very happy person: “There is little of the melancholy element in her” and clearly is devastated by the wrongs done to Hero. Not only is she given weaknesses such as a love of eavesdropping that Hero, Margaret and Ursula exploit in convincing her of Benedick’s “love” for her, but also we see a fierce loyalty to Hero when she is falsely accused of infidelity. Indeed, such is the depth of Beatrice’s loyalty to her cousin, that it never occurs to her to doubt Hero’s innocence, and she makes the demand of Benedick that could be seen as very unfeminine: “Kill Claudio”. She bemoans the fact that, as a woman, she cannot use force to avenge the wrong done to her cousin, and has no hesitation in using Benedick’s avowals of love as a tool in her own desire for revenge: scarcely the archetypal submissive and dependent woman. (It is also likely that in this time of her own grief, she sees the opportunity to test the nature of Benedick’s love by demanding that he puts her needs above his friendship with Claudio.) Nonetheless, one can only admire Beatrice’s total loyalty to Hero and her determination to avenge her name.

Beatrice, like all heroines, is given her own obstacles to overcome, and unlike passive Hero, who achieves her goal through the efforts of others, Beatrice struggles with herself. Having so vehemently dismissed the notion of love and marriage, refusing to “sigh hey-ho for a husband”, possibly because of an earlier hurtful rejection, she must learn to show the flexibility of a mature character in accepting the (supposed and then real) love of Benedick. At the end of scene in which Beatrice hears of Benedick’s supposed love for her, and then accepts it in her own mind, Shakespeare has her speak in blank verse (III,i) (as Hero virtually always does) rather than in the blunter prose which she usually uses. It therefore feels as though we are being shown that despite so many masculine traits shown by this unconventional heroine, she still remains at heart womanly. “Benedick, love on; I will requite thee”

It cannot have been easy for Beatrice, of all characters, to discover that she has been tricked into falling in love with the man she has constantly and publicly ridiculed, but she is strong enough to put that to one side in her attempts to use the situation to avenge the wrongs done to Hero. Such a reaction takes the courage to put friendship before oneself.

Even in her acceptance of Benedick, however, at the point of marriage, the continued verbal sparring between the two leaves us with the conviction that this is a marriage of equals and of mutual respect, not a passive submission to the expectations of society. Beatrice, one feels, retains her integrity. Can that be said of Hero?

Thus in “Much Ado about Nothing”, William Shakespeare gives us two very different versions of heroines: the conventional, submissive, passive, Elizabethan literary ideal and the independent, witty self-determining Woman. Even in his contrasting use of language, largely blank verse for Hero and prose for Beatrice, Shakespeare draws sharp contrasts. One is buffeted by forces around her, at the disposal of the whims of men, the other strives to control her own destiny, and proves able to adapt and change in a mature and self-knowing way. Hero in many ways appears little more than a two-dimensional stereotype of her time. Beatrice jumps off the page as a person both believable and worth knowing today. I prefer Beatrice.

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