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Misogyny in Much Ado About Nothing
Bar Harbor
I saw this on a friend's Tumblr, and felt it was worth sharing.  But I don't really understand how Tumblr works, so am copy-pasting here.

I’ve read a lot of scholarly articles on Much Ado About Nothing that dismiss Don John as a terrible villain, or criticise Shakespeare for the lack of finesse in constructing him, but honestly, I’ve always felt like that’s the point.

Don John is no sly, silver-tongued Iago – he is crude, brash and malicious. He makes statements like “I am a plain-dealing villain,” goes about attended by idiot henchmen, and takes advice and inspiration for his plots from others around him.

But even so, this weak caricature of a villain nearly brings ruin upon all of Messina.


Because, even before he had made plans to trick Claudio into thinking Hero was unfaithful, the culture of Messina had already done most of the work for him. Don John is not the true villain of this play; he is merely an agent. The real villain of Much Ado About Nothing is the culture of misogyny in Messina.

From the moment Benedick and the soldiers return to Messina, they engage in lewd sexual banter and joke about horns, adultery and cuckoldry. Leonato’s first instinct upon greeting them is to make such a joke, for when Don Pedro politely inquires if Hero is his daughter the old gentleman immediately quips, “Her mother hath many times told me so.” This banter speaks volumes about the underlying misogyny and anxieties about female sexuality that the men share, and it works to create an atmosphere that is ripe for Hero’s shocking rejection.

Thus, all Don John has to do is suggest to Claudio that Hero is unfaithful, offer him a sliver of proof, and the prince and Claudio, made susceptible by popular myths of female inconstancy, find the rest of the proof themselves. Claudio starts to see certain cues as evidence of Hero’s guilt where before they were badges of honour. He declares, “Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty.” And so Hero, by the simple machinations of a cardboard cutout villain, is publicly disgraced, left for dead, and threatened with death by her own father, showcasing how quickly those seemingly harmless jokes about women can escalate to actual violence.

What’s more, this culture of misogyny is what keeps Benedick and Beatrice apart. These two dorks start the play madly in love with each other, but their shared fear of horns and cuckoldry divides them. Beatrice is also repelled by Benedick’s attitude as a self-confessed “tyrant” to her sex, and patriarchal culture has convinced her that no marriage could ever be happy, and no man faithful. Both of them (but especially Benedick) must thus overcome and abandon patriarchal values and the culture of misogyny they are entrenched in. Again, the culture of Messina is the antagonist, not Don John.

Beatrice has the advantage of being resentful and rebellious towards patriarchal culture from the very beginning, and so it is Benedick’s conquering of his sexist attitude that becomes the axis on which the rest of the play turns. He starts off entrenched in a culture of toxic masculinity, but once he acknowledges his love for Beatrice, and after he sees Hero disgraced and left for dead, he becomes sickened by the views he once held. Beatrice flies into a rage at her cousin’s treatment, and in no uncertain terms rails against misogyny and the patriarchy and the culture that nearly killed Hero. She wishes she “were a man for his [Claudio’s] sake,” telling us that, were she a man, she would use her position of privilege and power to protect women rather than abuse them. Her next wish, “that I had any friend would be a man for my sake” is a challenge to Benedick to do what she, as a woman, cannot: defend her cousin with action, not words, and publicly oppose the culture of misogyny in Messina.

This makes her initial request, “Kill Claudio,” less a demand that Benedick murder his friend and more a plea that he break with the toxic culture of male camaraderie. And Benedick agrees. In the midst of a play saturated with jokes about women’s volubility and defined by the rejection of a supposedly unfaithful woman, he then makes the monumental decision to trust Beatrice. He listens to her when she grieves and finally asks her a single question: “Think you, in your soul that Count Claudio hath wronged Hero?” When she replies in the affirmative, her word is all the proof he needs to part with the prince and challenge his best friend.

When he meets with Don Pedro and Claudio, they are keen for him to validate their treatment of Hero with his witticisms, plainly desiring to hear the japes about cuckoldry he had trotted out at the start of the play. But with Hero almost “done to death by slanderous tongues,” Benedick knows tongues are as deadly as swords in Messina, and so leaves his wit in his scabbard. He challenges Claudio and informs the prince he intends to discontinue his company, officially cutting his ties with their little boys’ club.

Speaking to Margaret shortly after, Benedick claims he has “a most manly wit… it will not hurt a woman.” He no longer uses his tongue to scorn or denigrate women. Instead, he uses it to delight them, turning his efforts to poetry and song, and courting Beatrice with the jokes and witticisms he once reserved for his male friends. Shakespeare uses Beatrice to convince Benedick, and by extension the audience, of the shortcomings of masculine culture and shows us that true valour comes from men using their strength to protect women rather than hurt them: for this alone may Benedick call his wit “manly.”

Through their love, Benedick and Beatrice conquer the true villain of the play: misogyny. Don John, who is merely the agent, is instead undone by Dogberry and his idiot watchmen, who discover the plot and bring the truth to light. With all put right, the end of the play provides the denouement where Benedick, having proved his valour and cast off misogyny, is at last free to marry the woman he adores. He makes a speech where he mocks the old views about women and marriage he held, gaily advises the prince the marry, and tells Claudio “love my cousin,” the implication being that the only way Claudio and Hero will live happy is if Claudio follows Benedick’s example, throws off misogyny and loves and trusts his new wife as Benedick does Beatrice.

Much Ado About Nothing, quite simply, mocks the hypocrisy of patriarchal society at every turn. It questions why men should demand chastity in women when they display none themselves, and why women are thought of as sexually insatiable when experience generally showed the opposite. The play’s accompanying song Sigh No More is even about the unfaithfulness of men. The lyrics declare “Men were deceivers ever… to one thing constant never,” and the men of Much Ado tend to live up to this, being generally lusty and faithless while the women are constant and faithful. Shakespeare disproves common myths about female inconstancy by making Hero the blameless victim of men’s obsession with female chastity, a scapegoat onto whom all their repressed fears are projected. And Don John, the active agent of the culture of misogyny, is a bastard, living proof of men’s infidelity and unfaithfulness.

So yes, Don John is a terrible villain – but that’s precisely the point. His weak characterisation feeds neatly into the play’s subversive agenda. For what could this bitter, scheming man have accomplished had the culture of misogyny not predisposed Don Pedro and Claudio to suspect unfaithfulness? What power did he have over Benedick and Beatrice, and how did he serve as their antagonist?

Don John is not the true villain. Misogyny is. Hero’s shocking rejection and near-death proves how dangerous misogyny is, and how easily violent words lead to violent actions. Meanwhile, the witty, sparkling lovers journey together to overcome their internalised prejudices, and provide vivid proof of what happiness a marriage based on trust and true equality can bring.

Much Ado About Nothing is play about a battle of the sexes – and only once the two sides call a truce and join forces to overcome the real villain, misogyny, may the happy ending be achieved.

(source link: http://penfairy.tumblr.com/post/133400268109/misogyny-in-much-ado-about-nothing)

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I didn't get this about Much Ado – and think most people don't get this about Much Ado – until I saw the Whedon version.

There's something Whedon got about Much Ado that perhaps only someone like him could see: it's a horror story. What happens to Hero is literally nightmarish, and he reveals that. He reveals how terrifyingly precarious women's lives are under that culture of misogyny, and a perfectly blameless woman – indeed a morally perfect woman (Hero) – could be done to death in the most casual way, on the most trivial bases.

I think it is hard for modern audiences to understand the full magnitude of the consequences for Hero of what Claudio did to her: in a society in which women are permitted almost no other means of income, he has made her unmarriable. Not only isn't he marrying her, but by his slander, he has made it so no one within her social class - maybe nobody ever – will marry her. By turning her father against her, he basically rendered her homeless, penniless, and unemployable, possibly permanently. Her life choices at that point would basically to become a nun, a prostitute, or a beggar.

But then, it was apparently also hard for Shakespeare's contemporaneous audiences to get it: what is amazing to me is how much difficulty Beatrice has getting words around what Claudio did, when explaining it to Benedick. "She is wronged, she is slandered, she is undone."

And Claudio doesn't fucking care. Shakespeare's whole point for this play is to show how monstrous the situation of women is, and challenge the oblivious male point of view that never really considers what their attitudes and power does to women, which treats what happens to women as simply no big deal.

Hence the title. Which, it dawned on me watching Whedon's version, is meant bitterly ironically: this is how the men of his audience thought about Those Things That Happen To Women. Much Ado About Nothing.

Oooh! Nice catch on the title.

Agree totally--well put, siderea.
Also, as many Shakespearean critics have pointed out "thing" then--as now--is a euphemism for genitals, usually female--didn't the Carolingian jongleurs once sing the (barely euphemistic) "My Thing is My Own"?[ "My thing is my own, and I'll keep it so still/
Other young lasses can do as they will"). "Lot of Fuss about Not Getting Any" is another translation of the title.

I love having erudite friends :-)

No, "My Thing is My Own" is not in parts (heh heh, she said "parts"), and IIRC from post SCA period, so not in the Jongleurs rep; there was member who learned it, for solo campfire usage.

Now I wanna draw a line between this and men who fear that a single false rape accusation could destroy them.


The play’s accompanying song Sigh No More is even about the unfaithfulness of men.

The song "Sigh No More" is a gender-flipped parody of a then-common misogynist trope: a perennial theme in popular songs was "bitches be whores, arnirite?"

The song does a ton of work in the story. At first encounter, for the contemporary audience, it's just a "ha ha gender flip isn't it funny to hear men called faithless". But then as the story unfolds, by raising the specter of that kind of casual misogyny and letting it linger in the background, it raises all sorts of painful questions and issues. Like, "You know when you sing popular songs or otherwise jest about how all women are faithless, you're tarring women like Hero (and Beatrice), too, right?" Like, "Oh, actually, women, unlike men, can't act as the song recommends, because women don't have those liberties; a woman has to get married, or she loses everything, maybe even her life; she doesn't have the social liberty to say, 'Ahh, the hell with men'." And, as penfairy notes, then, "And about just who are the faithless ones here..."

Edited at 2015-11-30 03:14 am (UTC)

I can't read Benedick as becoming a Better Person for his defense of Hero and willingness to duel her slanderers. I pretty much just read that as Benedick siding with *raging hormones* because that's a thing people do.

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