Women in the Elizabethan age were extremely repressed and discriminated against. Most would not have gone to school or received any type of formal education. They were not allowed to vote, own property, or freely voice their opinions.
They were seen as the property of a man, subject to his wants, needs, and not allowed to have their own; men held extremely stereotypical views of their female counterparts that helped them justify the way they treated them. Shakespeare exposes many of these injustices and biases in his stage plays, which are still commonly read and performed today.
In Much Ado About Nothing, Claudio moves from seeing women (specifically Hero) as goddesses and wives to adulterers, and then back again to his original views.
Claudio initially views Hero according to the established stereotypes, in Act 1, Scene 1 as property. When first speaking of Hero, he refers to her as the “daughter of Signor Leonato;” while this appears to be simply for identification purposes, he actually relinquishes the power of her name to her guardian (1.
Instead of calling her by her given name, Hero, Claudio names her in relation to her more powerful male owner. He goes on to ask Benedick if she is a “modest young lady,” not wondering only if she is sweet, but if she is literally a virgin (1. 1. 121). A woman’s virginity was extremely valuable in Elizabethan England, and determined her worth as a potential wife.
This outright inquiry into her purity foreshadows the later scandal surrounding it. Benedick asks Claudio if he would buy her, and Claudio responds with a seemingly noble hypothetical question: “Can the world buy such a jewel?” (1 1 134). While his question seems to imply that she is so valuable that the entire world’s money could not purchase her, it still perpetuates the stereotype that women are pieces of property, albeit very beautiful and expensive ones.
Later in the same scene, Claudio demonstrates Elizabethan men’s views of women through Shakespeare’s thematic messages. He remarks that “in mine eye, [Hero] is the sweetest lady that ever I looked on” (1 1 139).
This introduces a reoccurring theme of Much Ado About Nothing of seeing and perception. Here, and later on in the play, Claudio bases his opinions of Hero on her outward beauty and appearance of piety. In addition, the words “mine” and “I” stress the importance of Claudio himself, the important, powerful male in the situation. One notes Shakespeare’s wordplay in the pun implied when “eye” and “I” sound interchangeable when spoken aloud.
Another theme surfaces in the use of the word “sworn” in line 144 of Act 1, Scene 1, whereby Claudio makes evident that his honor depends on people’s perception of him and, by proxy, his future wife, Hero. Also notable is the hope he expresses that Hero would “be [his] wife”, in that he uses language again pertaining to himself; where he could have wished that Hero would “marry him” or something similar, he instead wishes her to become his property.
Claudio reveals that he has had an interest in Hero for a while before their present conversation about her. He admired her before he went away to war, but more pressing, important, masculine issues took his mind off her. This implies that matters of the heart were less valued by men than duty and honor, and that his current infatuation with Hero is sort of an afterthought, something to pursue as he is now bored.
This distant, material admiration for Hero quickly turns to contempt when he thinks that Don Pedro has taken her for himself in Act 2, Scene 1. When Don John and Borachio tell him about his friend’s betrayal, Claudio seems to be angrier with Hero than with the man who stole his prospective bride. He claims “beauty is a witch, against whose charms faith meltheth into blood” (2 1 135-6). This demonstrates the stereotype that Elizabethan men held of women being easily turned to adulterers – it seems to be her evil beauty that lured Don Pedro into supposedly winning her over for his own.
This is again an insult to Claudio’s pride; Don John and Borachio use forms of the word “swear” when recounting Don Pedro’s supposed conquest of Hero, calling to mind how Claudio swore to marry her in the first act. Claudio denounces Hero, and wishes Don Pedro “joy of her,” once again suggesting women to be objects of personal property, solely existing to fulfill the desires of man.
When it is confirmed that Don Pedro was indeed just performing his friendly duties, Claudio instantly reverts to his view of Hero as a perfect, virginal, almost goddess-like potential wife. He says to Hero: “Lady, as you are mine, I am yours: I give away myself for you, and dote upon the exchange” (2 1 233-4).
Claudio acknowledges that Hero is now his property, and as that is an accepted custom in Elizabethan England, it is therefore deemed heroic that he gives himself to her, as well. Using the word “exchange” suggests a formal transaction of property, which is what is really transpiring between Claudio and Leonato. Claudio expresses his anticipation for the wedding, as time moves slowly “till love have all his rites” (2 1 269-70); the two meanings of rites as the actual ceremony and rights as a husband provide insight into this.
He feels a necessity for their union to be official, as legally marrying Hero will give him legal ownership of her, and her property. Though he claims to love her, his affection could ultimately be seen as a want of her dowry.
Claudio shows his opinions of women in his comical description of Beatrice’s love for Benedick in Act 2, Scene 3. He describes her grief over her unrequited love in a ridiculous way, saying that she threw a savage fit. This implies Beatrice, and by extension all women, to be controlled and weakened by their emotions.
Claudio says that Hero had told him that Beatrice would surely die if her situation with Benedick progresses in any direction, again poking fun at women’s irrationality. He suggests she wear herself out by talking to someone about her love, as though she were a small child throwing a temper tantrum. Like most men of his time, Claudio appears to believe that women’s perceived lack of control of their emotions made them less worthy of esteem.
His view of women again turns cynical again when he receives news in Act 3, Scene 2 that leads him to believe that Hero has had an affair with another man. Don John uses the word “disloyal” to describe her actions, and Claudio repeats that word in outrage and confusion about this blow to his honor (3 2 76).
Being “disloyal” seems worse than most other things, in that it has wounded Claudio’s pride and reputation. The prefix “dis” is extremely negative and poignant. He emphasizes that if he sees anything with his own eyes, he will believe these accusations. He describes the issue as “mischief strangely thwarting,” and extends that description to all women in general; here he shows that he has moved from seeing women as wives and goddesses to adulterers and shrews.
At their wedding ceremony in Act 4, Scene 1, Claudio spitefully and ironically addresses Hero with all sorts of virginal, innocent, pure language like “maid” (4 1 19).
He again describes her as property in calling her a “rich and precious gift,” yet this time it is with an air of contempt and scorn (4 1 23). Continuing the theme of perception and sight, he calls Hero “but the sign and semblance of her honor,” implying that she merely put on a facade of virginity and purity (4 1 28). He asks the attendees of the wedding and, by extension, the audience, to acknowledge that her innocence is merely a show.
Claudio accuses her girlish blush to be truly that of guilt and shame. Where previously he has referred to Hero as a maid, here he calls her only “like” a maid; this literal comparison emphasizes his change of feeling toward her and her sex. He facetiously describes her as the goddess of chastity and the moon, Diana, and of an unopened flower bud – virgin in appearance only.
Then he compares her to Venus, goddess of sexuality, and even to mindless beasts that act only on impulse and instinct. In the line “Marry that Hero, Hero itself can blot out Hero’s virtue,” he proclaims that women are the source of their own downfall (4 1 75). Where her outward appearance was that of a virtuous young lady, her perceived actions lead Claudio to believe her to be a whore.
Although one could argue that Claudio’s view of women was that of all Elizabethan men, including Shakespeare himself, the development of Benedick’s opinions show that this is not true.
He begins the play disliking the idea of marriage and especially marriage to Beatrice, yet, through the dramatic action, he learns to love and appreciate her for her previously detested intelligence and wit. Benedick learns to value women for the humans they are, and yet Claudio still sees them as property at the end of the play.
This suggests that Shakespeare realizes that, although he can bring attention to the issue of gender equality in his works, he cannot expect the audience to fully accept his ideas.
Claudio constantly moves between stereotypes in his views of women in this play: he alternatively sees Hero as wife, goddess, adulterer, and everything in between.
Shakespeare’s specific word choice and themes revealed in Much Ado About Nothing provide insight into how women were actually thought of and treated in Elizabethan England, and how the author himself believed they should be. Today, the centuries-old fight for gender equality is far from over. But, like Shakespeare, we can hope that all women will eventually be respected as equals, like Beatrice. Works Cited
McDonald, Russ. The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare. Boston: Bedford, 2010. Shakespeare, William. Much Ado about Nothing. Ed. Mary Berry and Michael Clamp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.