The play, “Much Ado about Nothing” written by William Shakespeare in 1598 provides a representation of patriarchal gender roles, class hierarchy within the society and the social and cultural conditions of 16th century England. During this period of time women were dehumanised to the fact that they were seen not as people but as commodities to the male population. Along with this, the society was divided into classes with wealthy nobleman like Don Pedro at the top and workers like Dogberry at the bottom. Though the portrayal of different characters, Shakespeare is able to present readers and audiences alike the conditions in which the people of 16th century England lived under in a comedic manner. During the 16th century women were dehumanised as the cultural ideologies saw women more as commodities rather than people. Women were often lacking in agency compared to their male counterparts.
Shakespeare is able to incorporate these ideologies into his play through the character construction and relationship of Hero and Claudio. Hero and Claudio represent the idealistic Elizabethan couple, as Hero is portrayed as weak and powerless woman whereas Claudio is portrayed as a powerful, independent and honourable male. Their relationship supports the cultural beliefs of the time. An example of the way in which women were seen as more a commodity then human in the text is, “There, Leonato, take her back again Give not this rotten orange to your friend”.
Claudio openly accuses Hero of losing her virginity with another man, this in turn lowers her worth, condemning her in the eyes of all eligible suiters as she is no longer ‘pure’. Claudio’s use of the words “rotten orange” reinforces the idea of women being nothing more than a commodity. Though it is not only Claudio who reinforces the societal ideologies, Hero’s father Leonato strengthens the ideas because of his power and control over Hero’s life. In the play Hero is shown clearly not having agency over her choices especially when it comes to marriage. During the 16th century families of the higher classes often arranged marriages, and divorce was unheard of.
When Claudio and Don Pedro arrive in Messina, Leonato tells his daughter that id Don Pedro asks her to marry him first she will accept because he is of a higher class then anyone there. As seen here “Daughter, remember what I told you. If the prince do solicit you in that kind, you know your answer”. Leonato’s ability to control Hero’s choices allows him to see Hero as an economic investment, one where if he invests right he will receive a generous reward.
This is also evident after Hero’s public dishonouring when Leonato says “Death is the fairest cover for her shame that may be wish’d for”. This statement confirms that the only way Leonato’s honour may be saved is if his accused daughter were to die, taking her same with her. The idea that Leonato considers death an option to save himself from the shame his daughter allows readers to understand how fathers felt and saw their daughters during the 16th century. During the 16th century, England was a place divided into a hierarchy based on class, Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” is no different. At the top of the hierarchy is nobleman, Don Pedro. He is sometimes referred to as “Prince” throughout the text.
Don Pedro’s position in the play is as the most politically and socially powerful character. This is shown through his interactions with other characters for example his interactions with Leonato. These characters are presented as friends, but Don Pedro is superior to Leonato as he is the Prince of Aragon whereas Leonato is just the Governor of Messina (second in social power to Don Pedro). Leonato refers to Don Pedro as “your grace” in their first interaction as he welcomes Don Pedro to his home.
The plays synopsis of the leading characters reads that “Leonato is flattered by the attentions of Don Pedro, and quick to believe whatever the Prince tells him.” This show how the superior of class are admired and trusted by all that are of a lower status. Shakespeare also portrays the lower classes as simple and uses them in the play as comedic relief. Dogberry is one of the middle-class characters, he desires nothing more than to be accepted into the higher classes. When interacting with people of a higher class Dogberry tries and fails to mirror the sophisticated and witty language of his superiors for example, when informing Leonato with information about the false accusation of his daughter Hero Dogberry clearly shows his lack of education that comes with his class, “Marry, sir, they have committed false report moreover they have spoken untruths; secondarily they are slanderers; sixth and lastly they have belied a lady; thirdly they have verified unjust things and, to conclude, they are lying Knaves” . Dogberry takes his job seriously but has a habit of using the wrong words to convey his meaning, his uneducated and clumsy use of presents him as a lampoon of authority and by uncovering the plot, he proves that people of lower classes can be of somewhat importance.
It is though Shakespeare’s lexical choices in language that conveys the difference in people’s class within the society and with the interactions of characters readers are about to understand these differences in “Much Ado About Nothing” and 16th century England. Shakespeare wrote plays during the Elizabethan era (1558–1603). His work reflected the people’s views and ideologies of the time, such as patriarchal gender roles and social hierarchy. This period in time was considered to be a golden age in English history. It was a time of exploration abroad bringing new trades and cultures to England. This period of time was the height of the English Renaissance and saw English literature and poetry thriving.
During this time Elizabethan theatre flourished with the help of William Shakespeare and other play writes, composing plays that broke away from England’s past style of plays and theatre. Shakespeare’s work has left massive impressions on modern theatre and literature. He’s development of characterisation, plot, language, and genre. Shakespeare was able to combine these conventions to reflect the cultural conditions of the country at the time often using themes such as social hierarchy – classes were divided; The Monarch, The Court, merchants, apprentices and the poor. For example, the hierarchy of the characters in the play, with noblemen at the top and workers at the bottom.
This is extracted from the real world around which the text was written. When going to see theatre the sitting of the audience depended on the wealth of one’s social status. The rich were seated in galleries, set higher than the common folk who were situated on the ground in the standing area surrounding the stage. Shakespeare also incorporated the ideas of patriarchal gender roles into his plays. Where women were lacking in agency and seen as commodities by their male counterparts, for example, if asked to marry to a higher classed suitor Hero must oblige and accept even if she is not in love them.
This was a common situation during this period as rich daughters were offend married off quite young to wealthy suitors that were older than they were. Shakespeare’s skill and ability to easily relate cultural beliefs and ideologies into his plays in a way in which audiences at the time, of all levels of education could understand, and now over 400 years since Shakespeare’s death people are still able to relate his work to modern events. The ideas presented in Shakespeare’s play “Much Ado About Nothing” gives readers and audiences a clear understanding of the 16th century peoples values and ideologies. Shakespeare’s ability to incorporate ideas such as patriarchal gender roles through characters like Hero’s weak and powerless actions and Claudio’s strong independent ones. He is also able to incorporate ideas such as social hierarchy and class as well, shown through the interaction between character. Though his characterisation Shakespeare is able to represent the ideas in humorous and witty characters in a comedic manner.
- list example Internet/website Website K.Garner, Much Ado About Nothing Historical Context & Background 2017 https://study.com/academy/lesson/much-ado-about-nothing-historical-context-background.html (date accessed 24/04) https://study.com/academy/lesson/much-ado-about-nothing-historical-context-background.html
- Website Women and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century Britain K.O’Brien Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 2009 http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/831 (Date accessed 28/04) http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/831
- Website Claudio and Hero’s Relationship in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Bartelby.com https://www.bartleby.com/essay/Claudio-and-Heros-Relationship-in-Shakespeares-Much-PKCAHRZYTJ (date accessed 28/04) https://www.bartleby.com/essay/Claudio-and-Heros-Relationship-in-Shakespeares-Much-PKCAHRZYTJ Website LIFE FOR WOMEN IN THE 16TH CENTURY, T.Lambert 2017 http://www.localhistories.org/women.html (Date accessed 05/05)
- http://www.localhistories.org/women.html Books/E-books Book Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare, edited by R.Gill, OBE, M.A. Cantab,B.Litt. Oxon, Oxford University Press, 2010 P. 19,69 William Shakespeare, edited by Gill.R , OBE, M.A. Cantab,B.Litt. Oxon, Oxford University Press, 2010