Much Ado About Nothing: Symbolism Of Female Empowerment

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In Shakespeare’s play, Much Ado About Nothing the idea of idealized women is a frequently occurred concept. Hero, the daughter of Leonato can be acknowledged for her quiet and timid personality. She is a soft-spoken character and is idealized for men during this time because of her lack of wit, her obedience, and her ability to comply at all moments in the play, even if it was not in her favour. Symbolically, “Hero’s name describes not her heroism, but also her ability to be “Leonato’s Hero, Your hero, [and] every man’s Hero” (Spark Notes, Translation of Much Ado, 3.2. 100-102); Hero’s cousin, and the niece of Leonato, Beatrice, has a completely opposite personality, categorizing her as a shrew during Shakespearean time. 

Unlike Hero, Beatrice is a strong-willed woman with a very sharp tongue. She is generous and loving but finds amusement in continually mocking men with elaborately tooled jokes and puns. She wages a war of wits against Benedick, who is a love interest to her. At the outset of the play, she appears content never to marry and does not to submit to men as Hero would. Although Benedick and Beatrice reject their various scenes of chemistry, Beatrice never encourages herself to lose dominance. Females are symbolized as a reward to prize to be won, and men are encouraged to exhibit their dominance to impress the woman they want to pursue. 

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Claudio, the love interest of Hero is much more enthusiastic to marry almost instantly; on another side of the spectrum, Benedick refuses to allow himself to fall so deeply for a woman, especially since Beatrice seems to snap back at him when he approaches her in anyway, positive or negative. When comparing both characteristics of the male and female antagonists, women are still meant to act submissive to being married off without complaint. What can prompt an argument is Beatrice’s critical character trait of feminine ascendancy, in which this grants her the ability to not submit to male superiority or being tied down from marriage. Beatrice negotiates the constraints of the largely patriarchal values of her society; shown through themes of honourability, gender and respect and reputation, Beatrice empowers the reading of the play to be interpreted in a way of understanding social norms do not have to remain definitive. 

Beatrice as a protagonist and a symbolism of female empowerment projects her honour as a significant trait. For a woman to lose her honor in Shakespearian time by having sexual relations before marriage meant that she would lose all social standing. Moreover, this loss of honor would poison the woman’s whole family. What sets Beatrice aside from Hero is that her pride and honour does not allow her to fall victim to as many rumours as Hero; Leonato rashly believes Claudio’s shaming of Hero at the wedding ceremony and he tries to obliterate her entirely: “Hence from her, let her die” (Spark Notes, Much Ado… Act 4.1.154). For women in the corresponding era, the loss of honor was a form of losing oneself, which is why a character like Beatrice does not put herself into a fragile state. Instead she addresses her honour in her femininity with her powerful personality and her oath not to fall submissive to just any man. Beatrice’s confident and honour define her character and specifically targets Benedick as the less dominant: I hear how I am censured. They say I will bear myself proudly if I perceive the love come from her. They say too that she will rather die than give any sign of affection. I did never think t marry. I must not seem proud… I can bear them witness. And virtuous… I will be horribly in love with her… I have railed so long against marriage, but doth not the appetite alter? (2.3. 222-235) 

Independent women like Beatrice are often regarded with interest and suspicion. The comedic exploration of Benedick swallowing his pride to allow himself to fall submissive to a woman is what can contradict the normalities of a dominate, strong-willed woman being incapable of finding love. What considerably makes Shakespearean men flawed is their inability to let go of their honour and pride; what argues definitively Beatrice’s feminine power is the fact that although she does succumb to love, she immediately assumes a dominant male role in demanding Claudio’s death and defending Hero’s honour, as she sees herself as a woman in power and Hero is one that although is idealized, needs to take honour in her womanhood and not allow herself to be pushed around by any man. Gender is a direct contributor to consider when Beatrice is being characterized. In the Shakespearean era the male and female sexes were distinguished through stereotypical traits, which can overall question the argument about honour but in a way where the relevance is shifted to focus on social anxieties that surround women empowerment. 

Women of Elizabethan times are arguably meant to be silent, gentle, passive and submissive. The erosion of traditional gender ideologies created anxieties about the subversion of the social order. When looking at two predominantly specific characters in the play, Hero and Beatrice contrast personalities in which Beatrice takes a dominant female role and does not allow any man to interfere with her rights. In the first three scenes, male characters continually put female characters down, whether it be through insults or direct discrimination. Hero was much more vulnerable to this attack, whereas Beatrice strived to empower Hero and get across the idea that women are not trophies to be won and are allowed to have a voice. This segment of gender analysis can show the contrast in characters specifically when Leonato orders Hero to prepare to accept whoever courts her. Her duty is to “be ruled by your father” (2.1.38), or, as Beatrice puts it, “to make curtsy, and, say, father, as it please you” (2.1.39–40). Conventionally submissive, Hero refrains from answering and does what she is told. By doing so, Beatrice is enraged and does not allow herself to maintain a docile state, and instead she is verbal about her thoughts. 

The behaviour associated with dominance and wit is shown when Beatrice converses with Leonato: Leonato: I hope to see you one day fitted with a husband. Beatrice: Not till God make men of some other mettle than earth. Would it not grieve a woman to be overmastered with a piece of valiant dust…I hold it a sin to match in my kindred. (2.1.56-64) Beatrice does not allow herself to follow in Hero’s idealized footprints and instead she claims that she shall not submit to the men of this earth, which can metaphorically translate to her hatred for having to grant men power (Spark Notes, Much Ado, Act 2.1). Beatrice continues to rebel against the idea of gender roles and express herself as a dominant female empoweree when she scolds Benedick. In her witty dialogue, she enters the male domain and expresses herself with her own means of power. She is not humble, and this shows with her courage in standing up for herself. This passage begins with showing the loss of dominance in a masculine character, which then continues to exhibit Beatrice’s voice containing power when she is confident and honourable of her gender. Benedick complains that her words can “stab… [As if] her breath was as terrible as her terminations” (2.1.248) and once she launches an attack, she is unescapable and holds nothing back. Although she is seen as somewhat cruel to Benedick, he still falls “horribly” (2.3.233) in love with her and Beatrice’s soft side is explored. Beatrice deplores the decline of the heroic ideal and condemns in her male peers the discrepancy between pretension and performance. 

Throughout the various segments of gender role swaps, Beatrice’s character can argue against stereotypes in gender power and allow her witty persona to make a man submit to her supremacy. For characters as insolent as Beatrice, it is not hard for men to find her less idealized. She speaks her mind directly and does not care for what the consequences may bring, which is why the corresponding idea of reputation and respect in the play can be questioned; “Truly the lady fathers herself. — Be happy, lady, for you are like an honorable father. (1.1.106-108). Starting off with a comparison, Don Pedro speaks to Hero and grants her a positive reputation by saying she is her father’s daughter. The important thing is that “reputation is bestowed easily” (Spark Notes Much Ado, Summary Act 1), so it can be taken away easily too. Looking forward, even Leonato, her source of reputation will denounce her, and that can classify why Beatrice does not allow herself to fall submissive to anyone, even Leonato. 

The differentiations with Hero and Beatrice is already shown with Hero’s naïve mannerism versus Beatrice’s knowledge and understanding. The reputation that Beatrice builds is complex and Beatrice argues against anything she is told to prove that she is not to be neglected or treated poorly. Although arguing can play a large impact on Beatrice’s reputation negatively, discern her ability to earn respect. Benedick and Beatrice bicker frequently appealing Beatrice’s question of Benedick’s judgement. She directly insults him and states his face should not be “scratched” since it would not differ his personality (Spark Notes, Much Ado, Act 1.1. 132-162). The purpose of the bickering is not only placed in the play for comedic affect, but to symbolize the growing relationship between the two characters. Her feminine power is declared with her rebuttal to Benedick’s insults, but even though she is cruel, later in the play Benedick still finds himself falling in love with Beatrice, and her wits contradict that a woman must be submissive to be cherished. 

Reflecting on Much Ado About Nothing, characters like Beatrice cannot be seen as a ‘perfect’ woman, but that does not make her lesser. Beatrice stands her ground and acts as a symbol of woman empowerment and femininity. She embraces ambitiousness and contradicts ideas of being a man always being in power. Without Hero to look upon, Beatrice would simply be displayed as a virago with no purpose or meaning, but instead Beatrice stands for the patriarchal values of her society and expresses her individuality with her wits and charm. Replicated in honourability, Beatrice finds her pride and connects with her love interest with a dominant and direct attitude. It is not until Benedick submits to her and divulges the last of his pride does their relationship really form into something significant. When corresponding with gender roles, Beatrice challenges the idea of the most desirable woman with her own strong-willed persona; she does not stand down to a challenge but regardless of her blunt attitude, her heart is generous for loved ones like Hero. Respect is earned through her comedic intelligences and bickering with Benedick; Beatrice acclaims her reputation by standing up for not only her cousin, but herself, which ultimately showed Benedick there was more to learn about her than what she argued with him about. 

Concludingly, Beatrice sanctions the close readings of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing with the justifying of woman rights and power. Throughout the entire play, Beatrice expresses her vibrant personality with jocularity, which overall won the heart of the man she loved and encouraged her to never submit to societal standards. 

Works Cited 

  1. Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing. The Oxford Shakespeare, 1994. Shakespeare, William. 
  2. “Spark Notes, Much Ado About Nothing.” SparkNotes, SparkNotes, 1612, Used to assist with summaries and theme analogies 


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