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Much Ado About Nothing – Elizabethan Women

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Elizabethan views about women were very different from views today. Women were seen as one of a variety of stereotypes of women.

Woman as a goddess- the courtly lover placed woman on a pedestal to be worshipped. In the play ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, Hero is treated as this kind of character until she is accused of sleeping with another man.

Woman as an adulterer- virginity was a virtue and adultery an unforgivable sin (for fear of a bastard intruding on line of succession), an heiress who was proved unchaste was deprived of her inheritance. After Hero is accused of having pre-marital sex with another man, she is seen as this type of woman

Woman as a shrew or scapegoat- blamed for the faults of the world. A woman who spoke up for herself was called a shrew and needed taming! This is the type of woman Beatrice represents in the play.

Woman as a wife or a whore- to Elizabethan men, women had just two functions. Either prostitute and bought, or wife and owned

To keep women “in check” the Elizabethans had a set of rules that women were expected to live by. These laws also dictated how women dressed. Hair was allowed to be worn loose before marriage, but after marriage had to be covered by a hood and veil. Queens were allowed to wear their hair long after marriage but only on state occasions when they wore a crown. Widows were required to wear a wimple and chin strap.

Sleeves had to reach the wrist, even in summertime and dresses were always long and reached the floor. Women also had to wear a constricting corset of leather of even wood, which flattened the breasts. However, gowns could have a square neckline that exposed the upper breasts. Queens were restricted by further laws. What they wore was often heavy and bulky.

Once married, a woman’s body and her possessions belonged to her husband and the law allowed him to do whatever he wanted with them. Wife beating was common and was thought a just punishment for an unruly wife. While a man did have the right to chastise his wife, he did not have the right to be cruel or inflict bodily harm. A man could be punished in law or by the community for being cruel to his wife, and in some cases, could be legally prevented from living with his wife. If a wife displeased her husband in any way even if the husband imagined the event, he could turn her out of his house at an instant. A divorce was very rare in Elizabethan times and was only granted by parliament in extreme conditions.

The roles of men and women were very different from nowadays. The woman stayed at home and looked after the family, while the man went out to work to earn a living, or worked his own land. Both husband and wife worked extremely hard, and both roles were as important as the other. A woman had, on average, a baby every 2 years. Childbearing was a considerable honour to women and they prided in it.

Women could be educated by a tutor, but they were not allowed to go to university. Queen Elizabeth even banned women from university premises as she felt they were distracting men from their studies.

Women, regardless of social position, were not allowed to vote. However, men below a certain social strata were not allowed to vote either.

Women could not enter the professions i.e. law, medicine, politics. Neither could women enter the navy or the army. Women could and did work in domestic service, however, as cooks, maids etc. Women were also allowed to write works of literature, though few works by women were actually published. However, women could not act on the stage. Acting was not considered reputable for women. Women did not appear on the stage in England until the seventeenth century. Young boys often played the roles of women in Shakespeare’s plays.

Women could not be heirs to their father’s titles either. All titles would pass from father to son or brother to brother, depending on the circumstances. The only exception was, of course, the crown. The crown could pass to a daughter and that daughter would be invested with all the power and Majesty of any king. This allowed Mary, and then Elizabeth, to reign.

The way a man treated his wife derived essentially from the biblical teachings of Paul in the New Testament, and his headship was a loose concept that gave the husband more responsibility in the marriage than the wife. The man was given responsibilities towards his wife, essential in ages when the woman spent most of her years pregnant, and was commanded to love and honour his wife. The idea of a tyrannical husband was completely against the Christian beliefs from which the principal derived. While Puritans may have publicly advocated the submission of women, there is no evidence that their views were the views of the nation.

An infidelious wife was not tolerated. Henry the Eighth made infidelity in a Queen treason because it could threaten the succession. In fact, a wife who was proved to be unfaithful could be executed if the King granted her husband’s permission to put her to death. A wife who killed her husband was guilty of petty treason instead of murder; unfortunately, this offence was punishable by burning.

Tudor society did not have many avenues open to single women and the avenues were even less following the Reformation. Before then, women could become nuns and look forward to a rewarding life in Abbeys, perhaps be a Mother Superior one day. But with the Reformation, the convents were closed. Wealthy women, heiresses of property, could look forward to being mistress of their estates and wield the power in the community this would bring, but for poor women, the only “career” really open to them was domestic service.

It was not surprising, therefore, that most women married. Marriage was seen as the desirable state for both men and women, and single women were sometimes looked upon with suspicion. It was often single women who were thought to be witches by their neighbours.



My first impressions of Beatrice are that she wants to be the centre of attention. In the 1993 film ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, directed by Kenneth Branagh, she is first seen entertaining the group of people she is sitting with. Beatrice has an impish side to her, this is reflected when in 1.1.28 Beatrice says, “I pray you, is Signior Montano returned…” Mountanto refers to a fencing term for an upwards thrust so her sentence has a slight sexual undertone. This could also relate to a relationship between Signior Benedick and her. In lines 23-75, her ‘conversation’ with the messenger tells us that she is witty, intelligent and fast-talking.

Beatrice’s attitude towards Benedick seems to be hostile but not cold. Her relationship towards Benedick has been described as “…a kind of merry war… they never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them” (1.1.51-53). She is dismissive of talk of marriage and men. In act 2, scene 1, Beatrice declares, “He that hath a beard is more than a youth; and he that hath no beard is less than a man I am not for him” (2.1.29-33). Here she is saying that no man is suitable for her to marry. When Leonato, her uncle, talks to her about marriage, she responds by saying, “Not till God make men of some other mettle than earth” (2.1.51-52). This is saying that she will wait for a miracle to happen before getting married.

However, under this screen of hostility, Beatrice wants to get married. When Hero and Claudio declare that they are going to marry, Beatrice says, “Thus goes everyone into the world but I, and I am sunburnt. I may sit in a corner and cry ‘heigh-ho for a husband” (2.1.281-283)- she is sad because no man would want to marry her. This goes back to the Elizabethan views of women because Beatrice would have been viewed as a shrew and would have been regarded as unruly. This also reveals her more tender side and her real feelings. Surprisingly, Beatrice likes Benedick. In act 5, scene 4, Hero shows everyone a sonnet written by Beatrice showing her affection for Benedick.

Beatrice could be hiding her feelings because of a past incident with love. In Beatrice and Benedick’s quarrel in act 1, scene 1, Beatrice says that she knows Benedick of old. This could mean that she has had some sort of relationship with Benedick. Later in act 2, scene 1, Beatrice says to Leonato, ” Lord! I could not endure a man with a beard on his face…”(2.1.25-26)- this also suggests that she has had some past experiences with men. In act 2, scene 1, Beatrice has a conversation with Don Pedro about Benedick. Don Pedro says, “Come, lady, come, you have lost the heart of Signior Benedick” (2.1.243-244). Beatrice replies, “Indeed my lord, he lent me it awhile, and I gave him good use for it- a double heart for his single one. Marry, once before he won it of me with false dice, therefore your grace may well say I have lost it” (2.1.245-248). This is proof that Beatrice has had a relationship with Benedick but he led her on and their relationship ended.

These past experiences may have also caused Beatrice to become incredulous and suspicious of things. She may have been tricked or deceived a few times and is careful to be suspicious of things at first. When Beatrice overhears that Benedick likes her (which was really part of a trick to get Beatrice and Benedick to marry) she says to herself, “What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true… if thou dost love?” (3.1.107-113). This shows she is excited about hearing this but a bit suspicious of it. Also, when Hero is accused of being unchaste and not a virgin, Beatrice suspects that it is not true and there is treachery afoot.

When Beatrice finds out that Benedick likes her, she instantly changes from disliking Benedick to loving him. “Contempt, farewell! And maiden pride, adieu… And Benedick, love on, I will requite thee, taming my wild heart to thy loving hand” (3.1.109-112). For her to change so suddenly, she must have either loved him before, or her dislike for him is not as strong as she made it seem.

Benedick is, “A Lord to a Lord, a man to a man- all stuffed with honourable values” (1.1.47-48). He is excessively confident and feels “… it is certain I am most loved of all ladies”. Benedick is also very egotistical and in his ‘arguments’ with Beatrice, he always has to have the last word.

Benedick is quite convincing in the fact that he swears his oath on a lot of things- “I’ll take my oath on it…” (2.3.23) “I will swear by it…” (4.1.271).

Al though he feels that all women like him, Benedick does not want to be married. Benedick feels that marriage is too much of a burden and will stop him from enjoying himself. When Claudio tells Benedick that he has fallen in love with Hero, Benedick replies “… I hope you have no intent to turn husband do you?” (1.1.168-169) He is obviously sceptical about marriage. When Claudio says that he intends to marry Hero, Benedick is horrified. “Is’t come to this… thou wilt needs to thrust thy neck into a yoke, wear the print of it, and sigh away Sundays” Benedick clearly does not want his friend to marry Hero, because he feels that they will not be able to have fun together when Claudio is ‘tied up’ with marriage.

Benedick says how marriage has changed Claudio: “I have known when there was no music with him but the drum and the fife, and now had he rather hear the tabor and the pipe: I have known when he would have walked ten mile afoot, to see a good armour, and now will he lie ten nights awake carving the fashion of a new doublet: he was wont to speak plain, and to the purpose (like an honest man and a soldier) and now is he turned orthography- his words are a very fantastical banquet, just so many strange dishes” (2.3.12-20). He is sad that is friend is going to get married and has seen how love has changed Claudio from a simple soldier into a poetical devotee to love.

“That a woman conceived me, I thank her: that she brought me up, I likewise give her my most humble thanks… I will do myself the right to trust none… I will live a bachelor” (1.1.208-215). This statement from Benedick shows that he is ignorant, in the sense that he doesn’t know that women are different from one another. It may also indicate that something in his past has made him suspicious of women. From Beatrice’s conversation in act 2, scene 1, we know that Benedick has had a relationship with Beatrice. Could it be this that is causing him to be suspicious of women?

Benedick’s change after hearing that Beatrice loves him is as sudden as Beatrice’s although he is more sceptical of what he has heard. His conversation with himself, after he has heard that Beatrice loves him reveals to us that he did not mean what he said about marriage- “When I said that I would die a bachelor, I did not think that I would live till I were married” (2.3.224-226)

Our first impressions of Claudio are from what Beatrice says about him. He is noble and Beatrice seems to think well of him. The first thing Claudio says is “Benedick, didst thou note the daughter of Signior Leonato?” (1.1.140-141). From this, we can tell that Benedick is one of Claudio’s friends; otherwise he wouldn’t be asking him a question of that context.

Claudio is quite untrusting and does not have much faith in people. In act 2, scene 1 when Don Pedro goes off to ‘woo’ Hero for Claudio, Claudio comments to himself, “‘Tis certain so; the prince wooes for himself. Friendship is constant in all other things save in the office and affairs of love: therefore, all hearts in love use their own tongues; let every eye negotiate for itself and trust no agent…” (2.1.151-156)- he thinks that Don Pedro has betrayed him and is out to ‘woo’ Hero for himself.

The most important things in Claudio’s life are his honour and his credibility. He decides that he wants to marry Hero as soon as he has seen her. But this love is not as romantic as it seems. When he hears that ‘Hero’ has been disloyal, he says “If I see anything tonight why I should not marry her, tomorrow in the congregation, where I should wed, there I will shame her” (3.2.106-108). He does not doubt Don John’s accusations and immediately thinks of how to shame Hero. This shows us that Claudio is quick to act and has a potential for revenge. He is going to shame Hero to protect his honour. It also further tells us how untrusting Claudio is, even of the woman he is supposed to love.

Could it be that Claudio doesn’t love Hero for herself, but for her inheritance (Hero is the only offspring of the Governor of Messina)? This goes back to Elizabethan views of marriage. Marriage was often viewed as a business transaction or a business deal between people.

We don’t really find out much about Hero as she doesn’t say much until act 2, scene 1. She is confident around men and knows what she wants although she is quite subtle. “So you walk softly and look sweetly and say nothing, I am yours for the walk; and especially when I walk away” (2.1.83-85). She is stereotypical of women, being concerned with fashion, “These gloves the count sent me, they are an excellent perfume” (3.4.52-53).

Hero is also committed to marriage unlike Claudio who is willing to shame Hero to keep his honour. This is reflected in their conversation. Ursula asks Hero, “When are you married, madam?” Hero answers, “Why every day tomorrow!” (3.1.100-101). Hero cares about her friends and relatives. When Don Pedro announces that he wants to try “to bring Signior Benedick ant the Lady Beatrice into a mountain of affection th’one with th’other” Hero says that she will “do any modest office… to help my cousin to a good husband” This shows that Hero likes her cousin and wants to help her find happiness in love.



The scene begins with a high angle shot of a chapel. There is a cross on the top and bells are tolling merrily. This instantly sets the scene as a wedding and we know what to expect. High key (bright) lighting is used because the scene is set in summer. Everyone looks very pink and healthy apart from Hero. In Elizabethan times, paleness was a sign of beauty and this is reflected in the film.

The chapel is quite simple and not ornately decorated. This is because in Elizabethan England, the previous ruler, Henry the Eighth, had just abolished the Roman Catholic church with all its finery, and started his own religion, the Church of England: which was far more simple in the decorations and designs of its places of worship. The chapel may also be plain in design because Shakespeare’s plays featured mainly on costumes, and not scenery.

All the characters present are happy and joyful except for Claudio, Don Pedro and Don John. This is the first sign that things may not be what they are.

Claudio is initially very subtle about his feelings. He uses words with a double meaning. When the friar asks Claudio “You come hither, my lord, to marry this lady?” (4.1.4) he replies “No” (4.1.5). Leonato corrects the friar “To be married to her: friar, you come to marry her” (4.1.6). A simple misunderstanding or is it?

Claudio then asks Leonato what he has to give back to Leonato to balance the priceless gift of his daughter (this goes back to Elizabethan views of marriage as a business transaction). Leonato replies that Claudio has nothing to give except to give Hero back to him. Claudio replies that Leonato should take his daughter back again as she is not the innocent ‘maid’ that everyone thinks she is “There Leonato, take her back again, give not this rotten orange to your friend… Behold how like a maid she blushes here… she knows the heat of a luxurious bed. Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty” (4.1.28-48).

When Don Pedro confirms that he too has seen ‘evidence’ of Hero’s unfaithfulness, Leonato asks “…do I but dream?” (4.1.63). He is so shocked that his daughter could have ever committed adultery.

In the film, Claudio shoves Hero over a bench to her father, before taking his anger out on the benches that the wedding congregation were sitting on. The congregation flee in fear of Claudio’s rage. He is furious that his wife-to-be was not the innocent virgin that he thought her to be, but a devious adulterer!

Beatrice rushes to comfort her cousin but Claudio continues to rant on at her. He asks her who she was with last night. Hero replies that she was with no man between the hours of twelve and one when Claudio saw ‘her’. Don Pedro then says that he saw her too and Hero’s protests stop. Leonato then asks “Hath no man’s dagger here a point for me?” implying that he is so ashamed that his daughter has committed adultery, that he wants to kill himself. Hero faints at the shock of her father’s words and the accusations that Claudio is making against her.

Claudio storms away from the scene of the wedding along with Don Pedro and Don John. Beatrice says that she thinks that Hero has died at the shock of Claudio’s words. Leonato responds by saying that death is too good a punishment for Hero “Death is the fairest cover for her shame…” (4.1.113), reflecting on the view that adultery was an unforgivable sin.

Leonato then goes on “Do not live, Hero; do not ope thine eyes: for, did I think thou wouldst not quickly die, thought I thy spirits were stronger than thy shames, myself would, on the rearward of reproaches, strike at thy life. Grieved I, I had but one? Chid I for that at frugal nature’s frame? O, one too much by thee! Why had I one? Why ever wast thou lovely in my eyes? Why had I not with charitable hand Took up a beggar’s issue at my gates, who smirch�d thus and mired with infamy, I might have said ‘No part of it is mine; this shame derives itself from unknown loins’? But mine and mine I loved and mine I praised and mine that I was proud on, mine so much that I myself was to myself not mine, valuing of her- why, she, O, she is fallen into a pit of ink, that the wide sea hath drops too few to wash her clean again

and salt too little which may season give to her foul-tainted flesh” (4.1.120-140).

Leonato says that he wishes that Hero were dead, because if she lives, she will be shamed forever. He regrets that he had a daughter of his own and says that had he adopted a beggar’s daughter, he would have been able to say that it was not his fault that his daughter committed adultery. He likens her crimes to falling into a pit of ink that even “the wide sea hath drops too few to wash her clean again” (4.1.137-138), implying that she will never be rid of her crime. However, Beatrice is convinced that her cousin has been slandered.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, the Friar steps in. A quiet observer to the whole proceeding, he has wisely decided, from the expressions of shock he has seen on Hero’s face, that she is not guilty of unfaithfulness. Hero regains consciousness and insists that she is a virgin, that she has been entirely faithful to Claudio, and that she has no idea what her accusers are talking about. Benedick realizes that if the accusation is a lie, it must originate with the trouble-making Don John, who would happily trick the other two to spoil their happiness.

The Elizabethan would have been expecting trouble from a ‘bastard brother’ at this point especially as Don John said himself “I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace… it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain… If I had my mouth, I would bite; if I had my liberty, I would do my liking…” (1.3.22-30).

The Friar comes up with an unexpected plan: he suggests that Hero’s existence be concealed, and that Leonato tell everyone she has died of shock and grief. When her accusers hear that an innocent woman has died, their anger will turn into regret, and they will start to remember what a virtuous lady Hero was. If the accusation really is a trick, then perhaps the treachery will expose itself, and Hero can return to the world. In the worst-case scenario, Hero can later be taken off quietly and placed in a convent to become a nun. The grieving, confused Leonato agrees to go along with this trick.

Later in the scene, Benedick finds Beatrice weeping in the chapel. Benedick, trying to comfort Beatrice, asks if there is any way he can show his friendship to her. He suddenly confesses that he is in love with her, acknowledging how strange it is for his affections to suddenly reverse, and she, equally startled and confused, replies in similar terms. But when Benedick says he will do anything for Beatrice, she asks him to kill his friend Claudio. The shocked Benedick refuses. Angrily, Beatrice denounces Claudio’s savagery, saying that if she were a man, she would kill him herself for his slander of her cousin and the cruelty of his trick.

Beatrice rebels against the unequal status of women in Renaissance society. “O that I were a man for his sake! Or that I had any friend would be a man for my sake…” (4.1.310-311), she passionately exclaims, “I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving” (4.1.316-317). After listening to her, Benedick changes his mind and soberly agrees to challenge Claudio-for the wrong that he has done to Hero, and for Beatrice’s sake.

Lots of close ups are used in this scene so that we can see the reactions of the characters towards one another and their facial expressions. Claudio particularly used physical anger and strong facial expressions to show the audience how upset he is.

The ‘good guys’ (Claudio, Benedick, Don Pedro and the other soldiers) are all wearing their uniform with blue collars and blue trousers. However, Don John is wearing a black collar and a black pair of trousers. Borachio also wears black clothing throughout the film. This could be to tell us that they are the ‘bad guys’ and troublemakers.

There are lots of reddish scenes at the start of this scene. Red represents blood, anger, intense emotion and pride. This could be a representation of what is to come. Lots of members of the congregation are wearing white. White is symbolic of purity as well as weddings. This could symbolise Hero’s innocence.

The clothing that the actors wear is not suitable for the period of time that the film is set in. Elizabethan views about women would mean that the women are not allowed to wear short sleeves but in the film, the women wear short sleeves. This may be to reflect to the audience that the wedding is set in summertime.

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