Character Analysis of Benedick: 'Much Ado about Nothing' Essay

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'Much Ado About Nothing (1600) and Pride and Prejudice (1813), despite being published 200 years apart, present the challenges of women living in a patriarchal society. It could be said that Shakespeare and Austen chose to give women a voice through their female protagonists, in a society dominated by men. Beatrice expresses her defiance in a somewhat abrasive manner, whereas Elizabeth converses in a more refined, possibly entitled fashion. It could be argued that both of these characters defy social expectations enough to be considered 'witty' and 'spirited', yet never enough to act outside the confines of societal boundaries.

The two women share their attitudes towards marriage. At the beginning of Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice's contempt towards marriage is established explicitly through her animalistic language towards Benedick, after he declares his preference to remain uncommitted, 'I had rather hear a dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.' The use of the harsh verb 'bark' creates a disagreeable image to intensify the extent of her lack of desire for marriage. It is presented as supposedly unwavering. Beatrice is possibly an educated woman who knows the realistic effects of marriage; Shakespeare could have drawn on Queen Elizabeth's fairly vocal reluctance to marry, due to the loss of power this induced for women during the 16th Century. Furthermore, Beatrice is willing to share her unconventional opinion publicly, so building her character as one, in the modern day and the 1600s, to be admired. In Pride and Prejudice, although Elizabeth does not wholly criticize marriage, like Beatrice, she believes in only marrying for true love and happiness. Unlike the majority of women in the 19th Century who became wives solely for financial stability, for example, Lydia Bennet. Austen demonstrates this through her rejection of Mr. Collins' hand in Chapter 19, 'it is impossible for me to do otherwise than decline.' Elizabeth chooses to reject a stable future to protect her happiness, as she so explicitly declares to Mr. Collins, 'You could not make me happy.' Even under the disappointment from her mother, who vows to 'never see her again' if she does not marry Mr. Collins, Elizabeth somewhat admirably stands her ground. However, critic Devika Arora argues that the marriages in Pride and Prejudice are 'not a result of love but of economic needs'. Therefore, suggesting that Elizabeth did submit to the expectations of marriage through her engagement with Darcy and so disregarded her happiness in place of wealth. Perhaps this can be seen when Elizabeth first sees Pemberley and the stature that would come along with marriage as after Darcy's first proposal, 'she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!' There is a shift in Elizabeth's view upon becoming Mrs. Darcy after she experiences the riches of Pemberley. Therefore, it would be true to say, that Elizabeth's attitudes towards marriage throughout the novel are fairly contradictory. So, to some extent, she is acting out of the confines of societal boundaries by not wholly submitting to the prospect of marriage.

Shakespeare and Austen use these protagonists to possibly suggest that being defiant provides a choice in marriage that submissive women are unlikely to receive. Elizabeth's refusal, in Chapter 19, of Mr. Collins then allowed her to choose Mr. Darcy, later on in the text. This idea of choice for women, especially in the form of a husband in the 19th Century was not a common one. Similarly, Beatrice may be perceived as fastidious at the beginning of the play, 'with a good leg and a good foot, uncle and money enough in his purse!' due to her listing the ideal characteristics of a husband. Yet, this is what ultimately catalyzes her happy marriage with Benedick. These texts could show that defiance to some extent leads to happiness in marriage. Ironically, considering the firm loathing for marriage both women display, especially Beatrice, they have to some extent diminished by the end of the texts. This is particularly seen in Act 3 Scene 1 of Much Ado About Nothing, after overhearing Benedick's supposed love for her, Beatrice announces, 'taming my wild heart to thy loving hand.' This wholly juxtaposes Beatrice's previous statements, as she now somewhat ironically, wants to be tamed by marriage. So, perhaps it could be said that women did submit to societal expectations, surprisingly even the most obstinate; Elizabeth and Beatrice. However, this may only be because both women were able to choose their male equals to marry.

A shared trait these women possess is the striking language they use. Beatrice rebels against the ideal woman, who is hardly heard in public, mostly through the way she converses, specifically with Benedick, 'A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.' Shakespeare repeatedly provides animalistic language for Beatrice to reinforce her wild, untamed, and courageous character. On the contrary, Elizabeth speaks in a more refined and delicate manner whilst still greatly criticizing the addressee. For example, after Darcy's first proposal, in Chapter 34, Elizabeth pronounces calmly 'I have every reason to think ill of you.' There is far less aggression in her language, although Elizabeth is aware of the effect rejection will have on Darcy's 'pride'. Perhaps Austen and Shakespeare highlight both women's intelligence, as they match the way characters interact with them through their language. Darcy speaks with civility whilst interacting unpleasantly with Elizabeth at the beginning of the novel. At their first meeting, he proudly states, 'she is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me' and so Elizabeth speaks of him the same, admitting to Wickham that Darcy is 'very disagreeable'. Similarly, with Beatrice and Benedick, they both retaliate with the same barbaric language during their verbal sparring, as Benedick addresses her as 'Lady Disdain', whilst she refers to him as 'Signor Montano'. This differing tone compared to Elizabeth's and Darcy's may be due to their history together, 'I know you of old...' They know each other better so can further tease one another. Although these women are defying social expectations, specifically how women were expected to converse, they are not pushing the boundary too far, due to their ability to match the language of their addressee.

This balance in both the protagonists' nature is further highlighted possibly through the reader's automatic comparisons with their character foils. In Much Ado About Nothing it could be said that Shakespeare has used Beatrice's cousin Hero, to emphasize her rebellion. In Act 2 Scene 1 Beatrice declares, 'My cousin must make curtsy and say, 'Father, as it please you!'' Hero is consistently presented as the 'ideal' Elizabethan woman, in stark contrast to Beatrice. Her genteel character is also conveyed towards the end of the play, through Beatrice's instant skepticism for Hero's alleged unfaithfulness, 'Sweet Hero! She is wronged!' Beatrice's certainty in Hero's innocence further reinforces her established inability to revolt. Contrastingly, her father shames her, 'Do not live Hero, do not ope thine eyes', questioning his daughter's presented omnibenevolence. Shakespeare has used Hero's character to expose the challenges in society that not only the defiant women faced but also the submissive. Similarly, in Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth's gumption is stressed by comparison to her sister, Jane. After meeting Wickham, Elizabeth announces 'It was not in her nature to question.' It seems that Jane knows and accepts her position in society, which is well beneath men. Similar to Hero, Jane is presented as the 'perfect' woman. Not only is her submission admired by her acquaintances, such as the Bingley sisters, but also by her mother. Jane agrees, although she does not want to, to ride on horseback to visit the Bingleys, whereas Elizabeth does not as she 'declares her resolution'. Interestingly, Jane and Hero are somewhat dependent upon Elizabeth and Beatrice to reach their desired ending; marriage. So, overall both Jane and Hero are emblematic of the ideal women for the 16th and 19th Centuries, they intensify the protagonist's defiance, but it could be interpreted that also they introduce the ability to care into the characters. Therefore, reinforcing the interpretation that Beatrice and Elizabeth challenge societal expectations, emphasized through Hero and Jane, but not too far.

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This is because Austen and Shakespeare also give these seemingly rebellious protagonists a character foil that reinforces their balanced disposition. Beatrice seems somewhat respectable in comparison to the wholly disreputable characterization of Margaret. It would be fair to say that Margaret does push the boundaries of being a socially accepted woman, too far. Although being a servant, to have a refined manner is not so expected by the audience, as it would be in Hero for example. Shakespeare chooses to leave Margaret's character fairly undeveloped, perhaps ensuring she is presented in a purely dishonorable light; her character is used to highlight Beatrice's respectable qualities. Wherever Margaret is present throughout the play, she is very quick to create obscene sexual innuendos, 'A maid, and stuffed!' Not only does Margaret behave this way in front of other women, but also men. In Act 5 Scene 2, while on stage with Benedick she says, 'To have no man to come over me?' In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth's defiance is inferior contrasted with the behavior of her younger sister, Lydia. Elizabeth has her own controversial opinions, but it could be said she still respectfully behaves on the whole, Lydia, however, is termed by her sisters as 'self-willed and careless'. She is exposed further when she elopes to Brighton with Wickham, ignoring the grim effects it will have on not only her family's reputation but her future. Interestingly Mrs. Bennet supports Lydia's reckless decisions, 'Well! I am so happy!. Mrs. Wickham'. Although Lydia had submitted to society's convention of marrying, there was enduring shame brought on the Bennet family which Mrs. Bennet chooses to ignore. So, perhaps Austen suggests that expectations of women to submit diverge depending on age, relationship with family, and class. Elizabeth and Beatrice have women around them who exploit their defiance but also intensify their submission; this contributes to an accepted rebellion within their societies.

Shakespeare and Austen may be implying that women were not always expected to submit, conveyed through the reactions of other characters. In Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice's defiance does not affect those around her too much, in comparison to Elizabeth. Perhaps Shakespeare used Beatrice as a symbol of the oncoming Renaissance period that introduced more freedom for women. On the other hand, the majority of Elizabeth's spirit is highlighted by interactions with those around her. Mr. Bennet, surprisingly for the 1900s as daughters were seen purely as their father's property, fully supported Elizabeth's refusal of Mr. Collins's proposal, 'your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.' So, unlike Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Bennet does not expect Elizabeth to submit to marital expectations. Perhaps this is due to the close relationship he holds with Elizabeth, he truly values her happiness. In complete contrast, Lady Catherine De Bourgh is shocked to hear Elizabeth refuse to answer her questions on Darcy's proposal to her and not her daughter, 'Miss Bennet, do you know who I am?' It would have been expected for Elizabeth to respond to all of Lady Catherine's inquiries, due to her class; instead, Elizabeth views herself as an 'equal'. In conclusion, in Pride and Prejudice, other characters react to Elizabeth differently, some expect her wholly to submit to their expectations, Lady Catherine and Mrs. Bennet who center their focus upon class and financial stability yet others choose to support her defiance, Mr. Bennet and Mr. Darcy, who perhaps value her happiness over her stature.

It could be argued that Shakespeare and Austen gave Elizabeth and Beatrice masculine qualities for the context of their times, particularly their power. This is especially significant in Much Ado About Nothing as Shakespeare's comedies often included mistaken identities and gender swapping, like in The Taming Of the Shrew where Hortensio, Tranio, and Lucentio disguise themselves to woo Bianca. Through his plays, Shakespeare may have been drawing attention to the gender inequalities that were so rife during the Elizabethan period. This can be observed in Much Ado About Nothing when Benedick has confessed his love for Beatrice she challenges him to 'Kill Claudio', when Benedick refuses Beatrice declares, 'there is no love in you'. Surprisingly, Beatrice holds complete power over this situation, leading to Benedick's agreement. This can also be seen structurally through the dominance over lines she has in this scene compared to Benedick, all power Benedick should have as a male in the 1600s has been shifted over to Beatrice. This perhaps helps to explain why later in the play she agrees to take Benedick as her husband. Similarly, Elizabeth has some control over Darcy, especially towards the end of the novel. In particular, after Elizabeth refused his hand in marriage, when Elizabeth visited Pemberley Darcy's behavior had 'so strikingly altered'. The force Elizabeth had to encourage Darcy to give up some of his well-protected 'abominable pride' is exceptional. So, although these women submit to marriage, it is possibly only due to the fact they are unconventionally able to retain their power becoming equals to their husbands. However, the full extent of the women's wit is provided through their interactions with males, so perhaps this shows a slight reliance on men.

Austen and Shakespeare have chosen to give women a voice through these texts. Contextually, linking to how when Pride and Prejudice was written it had only just become acceptable for women to publish novels. Beatrice and Elizabeth would have been ostracized by their society so, not only have these female protagonists rebelled against the societal norms for women, but Austen and Shakespeare did too by giving women a voice. As Beatrice, 'yields upon great persuasion' and agrees to marry Benedick and Elizabeth becomes the 'happiest creature in the world' the message being portrayed may be that being spirited leads to joy. However, perhaps submitting to marriage with Darcy and Benedick will limit the characterization of Elizabeth and Beatrice. Specifically, Beatrice, when at the end of the play Benedick assertively says 'I will stop your mouth'. Although the women picked their male equals, this could mean a loss in their defiance as Darcy and Benedick are also headstrong and opinionated. In conclusion, for a modern reader, the overriding feeling once finishing both of these texts is contentment with the women's well-matched marriages. Austen and Shakespeare's use of women in their texts emphasizes that not everybody agreed with their established role during the Elizabethan and the Regency periods, and to some extent this is rightly questioned as they choose for Elizabeth and Beatrice to act out of the confines of their societies.

It may be concluded that in literature women are expected to submit to a certain extent. Beatrice's public opinions are unconventional for the 1600s, especially for a female voice. Yet those around her do not especially expect her to submit, perhaps due to her so firmly established character. Similarly, Elizabeth is also presented as an early feminist and is accepted by individuals. Yet in contrast to Beatrice, Elizabeth is expected to withhold the desire to marry and behave conventionally. Possibly controversially, both women do end up accepting a proposal. This reinforces the idea that although they defy societal expectations in some ways for example attitude towards marriage and their masculineness, they still conform in the end.'

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Character Analysis of Benedick: ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ Essay. (2024, April 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 22, 2024, from
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