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“Much Ado About Nothing”: Women’s Roles during the Elizabethan Era

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In the Elizabethan Era, a society dominated by men, women had little input. Common rights and abilities of our time such as voting, going to school, and achieving steady jobs were impossible for the average Elizabethan woman to achieve. This disparity of power prominently appears in the works of the time period’s most well-known playwright, William Shakespeare. In his “Much Ado about Nothing”, Beatrice, one of the most powerful women in all of Shakespeare’s work, complains of feeling weak and impotent in the face of the play’s overbearing men. Her sympathetic portrayal throughout Much Ado suggests Shakespeare’s staunch disapproval of the traditional Elizabethan gender roles.

It is easy to understand why Beatrice feels this way toward the men in the play, the social, educational and professional opportunities for women in the Elizabethan era were quite limited, and many of the women who did manage to enter a profession usually picked a domestic service such as a maid or cook. Women were also allowed to write literature but were rarely published. Going to school was for boys only, but girls were allowed to be tutored at home. Women could not be heirs to their father’s belongings or estates either; it usually was passed on to the son or brother of the father in some cases. The only exception in this law was the crown. The crown could be pasted to the daughter along with the power it holds. Women could be heiresses to the property though. (Alchin, Linda. “Elizabethan Women.”)

Unable to land pleasant jobs or take control of their own lives, women back in the 1600’s had only one “real” goal in life, which was to get married and bear children. Marriages were usually arranged by treaties so that each party knew what they were giving and receiving. Women did not have a say in the matter because it was their father and future husband who arranged the special day. Men usually wanted to marry the women of his choice for their father’s estate, money, or business; rarely was the marriage for love, although most couples eventually grew to love each other. Childbearing was something women took much pride in and the average women had a baby every two years. (Alchin, Linda. “Elizabethan Women.”)

In Shakespeare’s play, Much Ado it is obvious how much more power the men have compared to the women. After Don Pedro woos Hero for Claudio, her father Leonato tells his future son-in-law, “Take of me my daughter and with her my fortune…” (Shakespeare 20). The reader can understand that during the arranged marriages, women had no say in who they wanted to marry; it was for the men in their life to decide. Furthermore, Benedick talks to Don John about Hero, a wealthy but weak woman, and compares her to a “bird’s nest” implying how the men view women in the time period as property and do not care if the woman objects to a marriage. Although Shakespeare portrays the Benedick in the play as a nice free-hearted man, it seems that he too, is affected by the Elizabethan Era ways by perceiving women to only be items to fight over for more power and wealth.

“The flat transgression of a school-boy, who, being overjoyed finding with a bird’s nest (Hero), shows it to his companion, and he steals it.” (18). It seems that men show no love and respect for the woman in the play; furthermore, it also leads me to question where the men’s priorities lie. If they do not respect or love the women they are going to wed, why marry her; perhaps for the woman’s money? Jameson states that “Critics have argued over whether or not Claudio in his pursuit of Hero is a fortune-seeker… [Claudio] behaves in businesslike way that an accord with Elizabethan marriage customs and a study of these customs… supports this view” (Jameson 111). Thus, the men of the play, especially Claudio, seem to consider women mere objects of their desire.

It is obvious after reading Shakespeare’s literature to see that the Elizabethan Era took its toll on his work. He based Don John, the Bastard, as a rotten person, which people of this time period perceived illegitimate children to be. It seems that all the women in Much Ado are based on the common gender roles in the Elizabethan Era. Hero’s life is controlled by her father, and all of the low-class women in the play are maids and cook. That is until the reader encounters the character Beatrice. Beatrice isn’t portrayed as just another “mere object” of the men’s desire; she is respected, listened to, and obeyed. They don’t compare her to a “bird’s nest” and unlike the other women; she defends herself from the men’s verbal attacks and speaks freely about any subject in front of them. She manipulates Benedick into fighting his best friend Claudio, because she is unable to physically or verbally retaliate, for she is a mere woman.

However, she leaves the impression on all the other characters that she is a strong, independent woman. . While Shakespeare also makes Beatrice’s character loving and friendly by showing off her sense of humor and good-nature; he also contrasts it with the insensitive, nosy, and selfish aspects of her personality. Her wicked plot to have Benedick “Kill Claudio” (55) to prove his love for her demonstrates how deceitful she can be when angered. Beatrice also has a tendency to feel obligated to speak for people when not asked, such as when Claudio and Hero are announced to be man and wife; she tells them when to speak and what to do.

But no matter how powerful Beatrice is, her strength will never measure up to the men in the play, and sadly, she knows this is true. After Claudio finished embarrassing Hero during the wedding, Beatrice cried out, “O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place.” (55) knowing that only a male could have the power to take revenge on the Claudio for his foolish evil mistake. Judging from her outer appearance, it seems that Beatrice tricked everyone into believing that she has a strong, confident personality but reading through the book and quotes, it is clear that it is all a cover up and that she truly feels weak inside. By creating the character Beatrice, Shakespeare seems to want his reader to feel sympathy for the common woman and not treat them as subservient; let them have a voice in society and not silence them when they have a thought; encouraging his readers that this “way of life” is inhumane and needs to stop.

As the old saying goes “If you can beat them, join them”, but in this case the enemy is men. Since Beatrice knew she would never be more powerful than men, she decides to be with one. Although Beatrice joins Benedick in an everlasting friendship after being set-up by her friends and family members, it seems more for her advantage to be with Sir Benedick, not for love, but for fame, fortune, and reputation. Reputation in the Much Ado meant everything to the character; Claudio shamed Hero in front of many spectators in order to ruin her good reputation of being a virgin and saving his from being demolished.

Even the unintelligent Dogberry considers reputation to be of great value; after being called an ass by Conrade, Dogberry cries out that “Dost thou not [respect] my place? Dost thou not [respect] my years?” (58) demanding that even though he may be a low-class individual, he still deserves respect from people. Benedick is at a high-class status and considering that he had a good amount of power and respect, could help benefit Beatrice, who would become more respected and well-known. Not only will Beatrice gain quick recognition and power but if Benedick were to die, Beatrice would be the heiresses to his property, if not titles.

After all the discrimination, rights taken away, and horrible jobs, women in the Elizabethan Era still managed to make the best of life, showing how powerful they really are given credit for. It has been over 300 hundred years since the Elizabethan Era ended and though women’s rights have increase, they still have a long ways to go with men like John Knox believing that “Women in her greatest perfection [were] made to serve and obey man.” (Knox) Fortunately, we woman with Beatrice’s characteristics in this world today and with more job opportunities, education, and rights; this will not only allow them to have a better life but also a better chance of making life easier for women in the future.

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