Thursday, 12 September 2013

Academic Essay: Honour in Much Ado About Nothing

English Studies 178
Much Ado About Nothing
Honour in the Elizabethan period.
Written and Copyrighted by Angélique Roux ©

The theme of honour in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, applies to both men and women. However, this conceptual idea is represented differently for each gender during the largely patriarchal 17th century. In this essay, honour will be discussed in terms of definition, importance, acquisition and the defending of one’s honour regarding the gender of the individual in question as well as Shakespeare’s feminist approach via strong female characters.

For a man to be honourable, he should have admirable achievements during war that would give them a good name. In the beginning of the play, Beatrice asks the messenger whether or not Benedick had received such a name during the war that had passed. She says, “I pray you, how many hath he killed and eaten in these wars (Shakespeare 98)?” Even though this is not completely confirmed, Leonato states, “I find here that…bestowed much honour on…Claudio (97).” Another substantiation that indicates the importance of a good name is found where Hero talks to Ursela about Benedick to try and convince Beatrice of his worthiness, saying “Indeed, he hath an excellent good name… (142)” As proved by the quotations above, the typical Elizabethan man’s reputation was his honour and this he held dear as it reflected his attractiveness to honourable ladies.

A woman’s honour was derived from her chastity and fidelity. Hero was wrongfully accused as lacking these traits. Claudio calls her an “approvèd wanton (162)” and compares her with a horse that “rage[s] in savage sensuality (163)” at their wedding ceremony. Hero, however, does confine to the ideals that women were judged by at the time. She is obedient as evident in Beatrice’s words, “Yes, faith, it is my cousin’s duty to make curtsy and say, ‘Father, as it please you.’ (114)” This is confirmed by her father as well, Leonato, when he says, “Daughter, remember what I told you. If the Prince do solicit you in that kind, you know your answer. (115)” She is polite and is never witnessed slandering anyone’s name. As Hero portrayed the ideal woman, not all characters in Much Ado About Nothing heed to complete patriarchy.

Hero’s orphaned cousin, Beatrice is bold and outspoken. This is evident from the beginning of the play by the “merry war” or “skirmish of wit (99)” between Benedick and her, but is solidly confirmed by Leonato as he tells her, “By my troth, my niece, thou wilt never get thee a husband if thou be so shrewd of thy tongue. (113)” She is also the only female character that dares to confront a man and influence him to act against Hero’s accuser on her behalf. When Benedick confesses his love for her, the only thing her mind dotes on is the fact that her cousin, Hero, has been slandered and, thusly, tells Benedick that he should “kill Claudio (172).” She even goes as far to say “O God that I were a man! I would eat his heart… (173)” Her disguised insults, such as belittling men by comparing manhood to “curtsies”, and her unreserved display of emotion eventually persuades Benedick to challenge Claudio to a duel.

Trial by duelling was a traditional and frequent practise for defending honour in Europe for many generations. Many were often killed in these duels and one would be considered a coward if one should refuse a duel. Benedick challenges Claudio to a duel. “You are a villain… I will make it good how you dare, with what you dare, and when you dare (183),” he says. He then continues to threaten to “protest [Claudio’s] cowardice (184)” which forces him to accept the duel.

The Elizabethans took honour very seriously, because the consequences were dire. Hero was advised to fake her death by the Friar in order to regain her honour. “Your daughter… left for dead. Let her a while be secretly kept in, and publish it that she is dead indeed (169).” They did just that and soon enough the truth about her innocence was revealed by Dogberry to which Claudio responded, “I have drunk poison whiles he uttered it (187)”, regretting that he had wrongfully accused her.

In conclusion, Shakespeare uses the theme of honour throughout the play, showing many different facets of it, the contrasting dissimilarities between men and women, how central the trait was to Elizabethans and how honour was defended as well as the drastic consequences of losing such honour. He also gives insight to feminist views through the self-governing character of Beatrice that was quite contemporary for the time.

Shakespeare, W. Much Ado About Nothing. United States: Oxford, 1993. Paperback.

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