Gender Inequality in Shakespeare's 'Much Ado about Nothing' Essay

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The erosion of traditional gender ideologies is expedited by William Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing which exposes the role of truth and gender during the Elizabethan Era. With extensive literature on the role of women at this time, the controversial rise of the unruly female has a central impact on audiences, Elizabethan and modern alike. Under strain was the traditional feminine ideology of a passive, silent, gentle, and submissive woman, and with Queen Elizabeth I manifesting an ambiguous female-male identity, role expectations and the truth of gender have inevitably changed over time. This essay will examine the complexity of truth and gender, and how Shakespeare strategically makes a big fuss about nothing at all.

Inherent gender inequalities are portrayed through the juxtaposition of two courtships between conventional Claudio and Hero and their counters Beatrice and Benedick. Wielding words for weapons (Boon), Beatrice and Benedick have a combative relationship with insults and witty remarks flung back and forth. The relationship is best described by fellow character Leonato:

there is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her: they never meet but there's a skirmish of wit between them.


James Evans’ production for Bell Shakespeare uses this battle of wits to shine a light on the unorthodox role of women; with Zindzi Okenyou’s Beatrice projecting as the cerebral superior over Duncan Ragg’s Benedick. Differing from Petruchio and Katharine in The Taming of the Shrew, Beatrice constantly has the upper hand. The Elizabethan era cast the ideal woman as rarely seen or heard in public, having no legal possessions and no voting rights with little to no authority, even inside the household (Credit., 1992. p. 12). The traditional woman is better represented by her cousin Hero; the naive, chaste, and quiet young woman of whom Beatrice is extremely protective. Beatrice is as cunning and forward, and Hero is naive and shy. Beatrice immediately rejects these connotations by often interrupting or speaking her mind without concern about decorum. Her first line of the play interrupts a conversation between Leonato and the messenger and is loaded with sarcasm and bitterness. Loquacious, insubordinate, independent women were regarded with interest and suspicion, often by men, and this suspicion chaperones deceit and untruthfulness.

Unlike biological sex, which has specific and constant traits, the concept of gender refers to expectations regarding the behavior of the two sexes. The expectation of a man during this time was, masculine. In the patriarchal society of Much Ado, conventional codes of honor, camaraderie, and a sense of superiority over women regulate masculine loyalties. Benedick voices the traditional patriarchal ideology through his misogynist critique of women biting their tongues and sexual lightness. In the first three scenes of Much Ado, male characters continually degrade their female counterparts. Firstly, Leonato orders Hero to accept any man who proposes courtship or marriage. Her duty, as a female is to “be ruled by your father” (2.1.38), and Beatrice mockingly suggests that women are;

“to make curtsy, and, say, father, as it please you

let him be a handsome fellow, or else make another

curtsy and say, Father, as it please me”

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Men are dominant, Claudio in war and romantic love, Don Pedro in arranging his friends’ affairs, and Benedick in championing the soldier’s life and the sexual conquest of women. They cannot, therefore, know and empathize with women. Claudio denounces Hero, ironically, for not appearing to be all she seemed, an impossibility anyway since he had idealized her. Female roles in Messina are circumscribed – virgin, wife and mother, or whore.

Shakespeare showcases intertextuality with the allusion to his other literary masterpieces such as Othello, where a leading male character is hoodwinked into believing his love interest has been unfaithful; and Romeo and Juliet where a death is faked to evoke true feelings of affection and love. These events are consequential to the lies, deceit, and untruth faced in Shakespeare’s masterpieces. Much Ado is no exception. Central to deception is Claudio who believes Hero has been untruthful to him. After the woman, Hero is degraded and humiliated at the altar, Beatrice explicitly rebels against the unequal status of women in the Elizabethan era:

“O that I were a man for his sake! Or that I

had any friend would be a man for my sake…

I cannot be a

man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving.”


Ironically, not all deceptions of the play were ‘bad’. Don Pedro seizes an idea to deceive Hero through a disguise; although a deception, Don Pedro has honest and truthful intentions. He offers to pretend to be Claudio and woo Hero on his behalf at the masked reveling. By contrast, Don John seems weary at the thought of disguise. He describes himself paradoxically as a ‘plain-dealing’ villain (1.3.32) and declares ‘I cannot hide what I am’ (1.3.13). Shakespeare again winks to another text, King Lear, where a different pair of half-brothers use deception in the form of disguise for the greater good. Supporting this, Andrea Varney (2016) recognizes the role of the audience in deciphering the truth, “We are forced to recognize that honesty can be malevolent, disguise can be well-meaning, and seemingly innocent costumes can conceal dark purposes.” In place of clear opposition, Shakespeare blurs the lines between truth and fabrication, identity and performance, knowledge and misunderstanding.

Truth and Gender are core themes in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Shakespeare’s play is a muse for social issues, such as gender inequalities that prevailed in the Elizabethan Era attributed to the Queen herself. Directing the script is Beatrice’s role in disputing the gender polarities although being untruthful about her feelings toward Benedick. Gender and truth, predominantly untruths in this play are intertwined creating complex and layered meaning to each action and language choice used.  

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