Much Ado About Nothing: Representation of Women

Last Updated: 19 Apr 2023
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Freedom for women in the patriarchal society, in which the play is set, appears controlled and constrained in ‘Much Ado About Nothing (MAAN)’. Shakespeare employs the rebellious spirit of Beatrice in his comedy to subvert the social orthodoxy of the Elizabethan era. Hero falls victim to the suppressive nature of the dominating male characters; however Beatrice, our shrew, provides humour with her quick wit and wordplay, and a breath of fresh air for a modern feminist audience. The dramatic genre of comedy is often subversive and ‘MAAN’ definitely does not fail to live up to this expectation.

With her opening line, our female protagonist subverts conventional stereotypes as she interrupts a conversation between two male speakers, questioning the return of “Signior Mountanto”. Instantly this informs us of her subversive lack of etiquette in conversation, as women would not typically speak out for themselves, especially not against a man. Her wordplay and double entendre here invokes humour firstly because the name relates to an up thrust in duelling, thus describing Benedick as a show-off, and secondly because it has sexual connotations.

Beatrice’s outward smutty nature can be marked in juxtaposition to Hero’s lack of independence and confidence (a woman who occupies the role of a tragic heroine, rather than a comic one, barely utters a word throughout the play, and succumbs totally to the homosocial ruling class of Messina). Behind her witty exterior, and her constant determination not to be seen as weak, Beatrice can be seen as inquisitive about Benedick’s time away, showing she cares for him; this would conform to Renaissance standards for it was anticipated that all women would fall into the arms of a man.

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Being a standard feature of romantic comedy, the female protagonist typically begins by hating the man she loves, mirroring the structural pattern of beginning in discord and ending in accord. Furthermore, Beatrice, the stock character of the shrew, is exposed as a woman whose opinion of marriage definitely subverts the status quo. Asserting that she will not marry “till God make men of some other metal than earth”, her unconventionality of not wanting a husband can be seen explicitly.

An Elizabethan audience could deem this to be impractical and absurd; however a contemporary feminist critic may praise her for her independence. Most noteworthy perhaps, is when she says she will “cry “Heigh-ho for a husband! ”” illustrating that the fact she is without a lover bothers her more than we may have assumed previously. Consequently, she initiates an impetuous proposal from Don Pedro which is fascinating as we are left unsure as to whether it was merely a jest or actually sincere – this confusion and chaos being predictable of a comedy.

In my opinion the proposal was sincere as Don Pedro is left unhappy at the end of the joyous comedy: “Prince, thou art sad; get thee a wife”. Although, staying true to her word, Beatrice turns down the offer, on the basis that his “Grace is too costly to wear every day. ” But there is dramatic irony in this; it is evident that she does not want a husband, so the audience is fully aware that the plot will alter in due time, ending in a married Beatrice. Again, this is conventional of a romantic comedy, where the female heroine will ultimately revise her original opinion of the man.

Additionally, Beatrice’s discontent with the lack of respect and regard she receives as a woman manifests itself in her wish that she was a man. Beatrice is clearly aware of her inability to act against Claudio (purely because of her gender), after he shuns Hero at the altar. Beatrice declares “O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market place! ” The metaphor used here creates an image of a savage and ruthless Beatrice (implying she would kill Claudio, rip his heart out and then eat it); traits which definitely are not associated with the conservative women of the Elizabethan era.

However, some may deem her subversion of the gender roles here as positively defiant. Although verbally expressing her anguish, Beatrice “too, in this patriarchal society, must be dependent on a man to make right prevail”, as Penny Gay says, and this disheartens the audience. Thus, Beatrice turns to a man to carry out her wish for her: “Come, bid me do anything for thee. ” Also note Benedick’s reaction to this request; he succumbs to Beatrice’s influence, and in consequence reverses the established gender roles in Renaissance society.

The consistent sexual innuendo Beatrice insinuates in her speech is undeniably subversive. Bawdy language, not generally used by young, conventional women, presents Beatrice as characteristically more masculine than feminine: “With a good leg and a good foot, uncle”. There is a sexual pun on the word “foot”, perhaps linking to the unmannerly French ‘foutre’, as to suggest an adept lover during copulation – women having openly sexual desires during Elizabethan times was very distasteful, making the comment even more significant.

It is also vital to note Leonato’s response to such language stating to “be so shrewd of thy tongue” “wilt never get thee a husband”, as if almost presuming Beatrice aspires to be wedded and oppressed. Moreover, deception and mistaken identity, features typical of comedy, allow Beatrice to subvert the status quo even further when she has the upper hand on Benedick, at the masked ball. The humour present is in the dramatic irony that Benedick is unaware that she knows who he is; he feels he is at an advantage by being able to hear what Beatrice ‘thinks about him’.

Yet, it is Beatrice who is truly at an advantage, for she can in fact balance the power between the sexes, by ‘indirectly’ insulting Benedick, the “very dull fool”. Not only is the use of disguise a catalyst for humour, but Beatrice’s, debatably, greater intelligence challenges the conventional view that men are superior to women in every aspect. However, the structure of ‘MAAN’ enables the reader to recognise the chronological downfall of Beatrice’s wild spirit and liberation.

The ending, with its characteristic comic resolution of marriage, also sees Beatrice being silenced by Benedick, significantly on the day of their wedding. The literal kiss, used to cease her independence, is preceded by the imperative “Peace! I will stop your mouth. ” The fact that the feisty Beatrice is letting herself be silenced, which is marked in stark contrast to the “rare parrot-teacher” we met at the beginning of the play, demonstrates the restrictive nature of marriage for women.

The timing of the kiss, right at the end of the play, gives a lasting feeling that Beatrice will stay submissive to her husband after the play ends. As Jacob Lund argues “the marriage of Beatrice and Benedick seems at first to offer a different view of what constitutes social order in the world of the play” with their repartee and Beatrice’s confidence, seen clearly when she remains contentious just before becoming a wife, stating she will “take thee for pity”.

In spite of this critic’s view, I think the uniform structure of comedy, concluding with the restoration of order, means that it is only natural that Beatrice should be suppressed before long. It is clear that Shakespeare has created a realistic ending; perhaps it was too idealistic to assume Beatrice would claim superiority in the relationship? Inconsistent to Beatrice’s early assertions that she would “rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me”, she suddenly appears ditsy and romantic on discovering Benedick’s love for her.

Conforming to the stock character of an adoring, courtly lover she exclaims “Benedick, love on; I will requite thee” in her passionate soliloquy written in strictly formal Elizabethan iambic pentameter verse; the form giving this gulling scene a much more serious tone than the previous. The explicit parallel between the two scenes, both beset with comic deception, marks a contrast between the soliloquies of Beatrice, and her male counterpart, Benedick.

In comparison to Benedick, Beatrice’s fall from disdain has less of a dramatic impact, accentuating her sincerity and glee, whereas Benedick has to give himself reasons to requite her love, and consider how others will react. This undoubtedly presents Beatrice as the feebler and more vulnerable of the sexes. There is now even more of an inevitability surrounding her imminent submission to a controlling husband, as she tames “my wild heart to thy loving hand” just as she was expected to do.

A feminist critic would argue that the play’s heroine has just sold out to tradition by adhering to a life of matrimony. This scene is hyperbolic in the 1993 Kenneth Branagh film version, and Josie Rourke's production of the Shakespearean comedy. This adds great comic effect as Beatrice cries out her love in an over exaggerated and quixotic fashion; arguably too extravagant? The view that some of the comic heroines in ‘MAAN’ may fall into the typical portrayal of women as passive and compliant, has some credibility.

However, the unconventional wit and defiance of Beatrice outweighs the previous statement, and provides exactly what a comedy is made for: humour. It is arguable that the play ends badly from a feminist critic’s point of view as social order and the expected position of the sexes is restored (just as is anticipated, due to the comic structure). Nevertheless, mocking, transgressing and subverting the status quo will always be at the very heart of comedy, and ‘MAAN’ corresponds totally to this notion, especially in its depiction of the unforgettable character, Beatrice.

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Much Ado About Nothing: Representation of Women. (2017, Jul 29). Retrieved from

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