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Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing

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Beatrice is a strong-willed, independent woman. How far do you agree with this statement?
I would agree for the most part with this statement. Beatrice is indeed strong-willed, but her independence has its limitations. As with many Shakespearean characters, appearance can be deceptive, and what we see is only a facade, a mask to hide their true character or feelings. I believe that Beatrice uses her cleverness and quick wit to hide her real feelings, and that although she is independent to a certain extent, she is aware that she has limitations because of her gender. Although Beatrice states ‘I would rather hear my dog bark at a crow than hear a man swear he loves me’ she is ultimately fooled into believing that Benedick loves her. The fact that she is tricked so easily, and subsequently admits her reciprocal love, tells us that she views marriage in a more favourable light than she had previously led us to believe. Whether she gave in to the ‘social construct’ demanded by the patriarchal society in which she lived is questionable. What we do know is that Shakespeare has presented her as a wilful, self-confident, autonomous woman who appears to revel in her single status. In contrast we have Hero, the antithesis of Beatrice. She is meek, obedient and completely dominated by the men in her life. She is the perfect foil for Beatrice, her willingness to please further enhancing Beatrice’s character.
It is clear from the start of the play that Beatrice is not an ‘acceptable version of the feminine’. She is strong-willed, and full of confidence, even to the point of interrupting a male conversation. Her mocking comment: ‘I pray you, is Signior Mountanto returned from the wars, or no?’ is the first thing she says in the play and gives us an immediate insight into her character. This play on words refers to Montanto, an upright thrust used in fencing, and this comment directed towards Benedick indicates her lack of faith in his swordsmanship. The fact that nobody berates her for it gives us an insight into just how accepted she is in spite of the male characteristics that she displays. She believes herself equal to men, at least on an intellectual level, and argues with Benedick despite his status. The ‘merry war’ between the two of them showcases Beatrice’s quick wit and self-assurance. She seems happy to stay single, and even appears to wish that Hero could be free from patriarchal repression. Although everyone else in the play is united in arranging the marriage of Hero, Beatrice urges Hero to please herself rather than her father:
... let him be a handsome fellow, or else make another curtsy and say, ‘Father, as it please me’

This comment indicates her belief that women should have the power to take their lives into their own hands, to be independent as she herself is, and not succumb to the ‘unequal power relations’ between men and women. She is strong-willed enough to openly compel Hero thus, even though Hero’s father is present.
In contrast to Beatrice, Hero is happy to conform to the ‘gender role’ expected of her. Hero is a main character in the play, integral to the plot, yet she has very few lines. Almost all of her actions are as a result of male influence, whereas Beatrice is influenced by men in no way. Her uncle’s comment ‘well, niece I trust you will be ruled by your father’ refers to important decisions like finding a husband. This appears to be Hero’s only purpose in life, regardless of her own feelings, while Beatrice is staunchly independent. Even when she does succumb to the idea of marriage, it is on her own terms. Hero has feelings for Claudio, yet she agrees to a match with Don Pedro, and she even goes as far as feigning her own death in order to win back Claudio after he rejects her at the altar. Her ultimate role in the play is to be married, and she goes through hell to get there. Even her own father would rather she were dead than bring shame upon him by jeopardising her chance at marriage. His comment:
‘Do not live, Hero, do not ope thine eyes’ when she faints after being falsely accused of being a ‘wanton’ is a shocking testament to his eagerness to ensure that his daughter is married off. Hero’s obedience and meek attitude proves to be almost her undoing.
Contrastingly, Beatrice’s confidence and forthright manner, coupled with her quick tongue, provide entertainment for the audience, and those around her. Don Pedro is so impressed by her that he says ‘Lady Beatrice, I will get you one’ after Beatrice is talking about the fact that she will not have a husband. Don Pedro also proposed marriage to her. Beatrice, who ‘cannot endure to hear tell of a husband’, rejects his proposal. I don’t believe that she does this to maintain her single independent status, or because she does not like Don Pedro. Her heart lies elsewhere, having been won by Benedick ‘with false dice’. This proves that although she still has feelings for Benedick, her wilfulness and need for independence do not allow her to act on it.
Beatrice does not conform to the social expectation in the play of finding a good husband, and rails against it on more than one occasion. She is indulged by those around her, especially her uncle, although he still hopes to see her ‘one day fitted with a husband’. He despairs of her ‘shrewd’ tongue, and reminds her that it won’t get her a husband. Beatrice is more than happy to be without, and says so frequently. I believe that her protestations are a front for her unhappiness regarding her previous relationship with Benedick that she alludes to with her comment: ‘You always end with a jade’s trick: I know you of old’.
When she realises that her character could prevent her from finding true love, her question ‘Stand I condemn’d for pride and scorn so much?’ shows how horrified she is that her attitude might cost her the love of Benedick. Her apparent scorn and ‘disdain’ presented throughout the play is, I believe, an act. It is a defence mechanism used to cover the fact that she has been hurt by Benedick in the past, and suggests that her will is strong enough so that she would rather be alone than give up her independence to the man who broke her heart.
Beatrice ultimately realises that her independence will only get her so far. When Hero is publicly humiliated at the altar, Beatrice wants revenge, and looks to Benedick to exact it. Her command ‘Kill Claudio’ said with such vehemence reveals just how strong-willed she is, but it also reveals that she is limited in what she can do because of her gender. Her comment: ‘O that I were a man’ tells us that she is aware of her limitations, and when she repeats the comment during her conversation with Benedick it serves to underline her feelings of inadequacy, as a woman she cannot avenge Hero’s undoing, she cannot ‘eat his heart in the market-place.’ This is a very masculine comment to make, in keeping with Beatrice’s character. The fact that she is unable to carry out this act does not detract from her strength of character. Beatrice is undeniably strong-willed, and because she is such an interesting and likeable character, her forceful nature is overlooked by those around her. Her independence is not given a strongly negative connotation; in fact it is Hero’s dependence that is not shown in a flattering light – notwithstanding her ultimate marriage, she has to go through a lot of heartache before it happens. Beatrice also gets married, but only to save Benedick from ‘a consumption’ as she jokingly puts it. The fact that everything she does is on her own terms promotes self-assertiveness in women, instead of encouraging the more traditional behaviour of Hero. 1334 words Bibliography: www.sparknotes.com www.onlineliterature.com www.shakespeareonline.com

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[ 1 ]. Much Ado About Nothing (1993) directed by Kenneth Branagh

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