Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s finest (and darkest) comedies. Like all of Shakespeare’s creations, it is a show containing many life messages and warnings. My suspicion is that halfway through a production of the show, some mothers turn to their child(ren), wag a finger, and whisper “and this is why we don’t spread rumors” in a sing-songy way. While the “don’t gossip” message is an important one, I feel a more critical message is often overlooked: a message regarding women and their place in society.
“Feminism” is a culturally-loaded word. There are t-shirts, bumper stickers, and blogs with pictures, quotes, and song lyrics pushing you to either become a feminist or to hate feminists with a burning passion. A Tumblr blog recently rose to fame with the title “Confused Cats Against Feminism.” The satirical blog highlights the misunderstanding surrounding the word “feminism” through cute pictures of cats. Merriam-webster.com defines feminism as “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” As I am not writing this post in an attempt to change your views of feminism, when I write “feminism” or “feminist,” that is the definition I am referring to.
Much Ado about Nothing is set in the Italian city of Messina. The societal rules of medieval and early modern Europe, and thus of Messina, stressed that as Eve was derived from Adam, so woman is inferior to man. In this society, a man’s responsibility was to provide for the family while the woman’s was to protect its honor. To protect the honor of the family, a woman was expected to lead a solitary and silent life built on chastity and purity.
Beatrice of Much Ado about Nothing is by far my favorite woman that Shakespeare ever wrote into existence. She’s witty, outspoken, and positively brilliant. Despite living in a patriarchal society, Beatrice refuses to conform to societal norms. Beatrice tells her Uncle that she will not marry “till God make men of some other metal than earth” (2.1, 59-60). That’s an incredibly gutsy thing for an Elizabethan woman to say to a man. She continues to explain that she refuses to be “overmastered with a piece of valiant dust” (2.1, 61). In case you missed it, she just called all men dirt.
Her cousin, Hero, is standing beside her during the entire conversation and says nothing. When Hero’s father turns to her and tells her that she (Hero) knows what to say if the Prince asks for her hand, she still says nothing. In some productions, she stands before him and stares doe-eyed as if accepting her role as a pawn to be controlled by the men around her. She can become a face without a voice, and Shakespeare makes this known by giving Hero only a single line in the first act.
Since Beatrice lives under the roof of her uncle and not her own father, less pressure is put on her to marry well and represent the family name. She takes this bit of freedom and runs with it, telling Benedick that she had “rather hear (her) dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves (her)” (1.1, 131-132).
While Beatrice enjoys ridiculing marriage and men (especially Benedick), Beatrice’s character is comprised of more than banter. When Antonio tells Hero that he trusts that she is ruled by her father, Beatrice interjects saying; “Yes, faith; it is my cousin’s duty to make cur’sy and say ‘Father, as it please you’. But yet for all that, cousin, let him be a handsome fellow, or else make another curtsy and say ‘Father, as it please me’” (2.1, 52-56). Beatrice has essentially just told her cousin to place her own well-being before anyone else’s. With this line, Beatrice has become an advocate for social equality.
Later at the masquerade dance, when Don Pedro asks Hero to walk with him, she responds, “So you walk softly and look sweetly and say nothing, I am yours for the walk; and especially when I walk away” (2.1, 88-90). Hero has flipped the gender roles through this response. Prior to this encounter, it had always been Hero who looked sweetly and said nothing. Now she has told Don Pedro that she is in control. She has placed them on equal footing.
When Don Pedro asks Beatrice if she would have him she responds, “No, my lord, unless I might have another for working-days: your grace is too costly to wear every day” (2.1, 327-329). Beatrice has turned down a marriage request from the most socially powerful character in the play. Messina is built on power, wealth, and appearances, and Beatrice has said no to all of it. Through this action, she says that she believes that she can live a satisfying life without a man around to open doors for her, both literally and metaphorically.
Beatrice faces her fair share of obstacles and at one point, lamenting her inability to defend her cousin from slander, cries out in frustration, “O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place” (4.1, 306-307). However, Beatrice makes use of her intelligence and determination and stays true to her ideals. Her ultimate marriage to Benedick is based on love, not submission. They are equal partners and she makes sure that he is well aware of this. Beatrice believes that she as a woman has an equal right to happiness and self-satisfaction. As a result, she ends with both.
Some people believe that feminism is a modern trend perpetuated by the media. Others trace the movement’s lineage back to the suffragettes. William Shakespeare wrote Much Ado about Nothing around 1598. Within the pages of this dark comedy, a bold feminist emerged under the name of Beatrice. Beatrice began fighting the female stereotype and advocating gender equality over four centuries ago. Within the walls of the Blackfriars Playhouse and theatres across the globe, her voice is still heard today.