At first glance, it might not immediately be obvious that the plot of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, which centers on the romance of two couples and ends in their marriages, takes on the much more significant task of cautioning the male audience about the dangers of their masculinity. The play specifically targets male insecurity that stems from the connection between male honor and female chastity, where an unfaithful wife is able to destroy her husband’s honor, leading to his humiliation and the threatening of his masculinity. The play’s climactic slander scene, in which Hero is unjustly publicly shamed, problematizes male fragility by exposing it and showing its harmful effects: the oppression and suffering of women. In order to understand Much Ado about Nothing as a cautionary tale of masculinity, what is therefore particularly critical to study is the display of fragile masculinity in the slander scene and the consequent punishment of the male characters’ actions and underlying misogynistic beliefs. Through this, Shakespeare sets up, presents, and finally penalizes the idea of male insecurity, thereby exposing the dangerous and nuanced layers of masculinity—from embedded, oppressive beliefs about gender and the way in which they are expressed in society to the detrimental consequences of these misogynistic ideas and actions.
What is at the heart of the misogyny presented in Much Ado About Nothing is the link of male honor to a faithful and chaste woman. This connection is what sets the plot in motion and what ultimately causes the unjustified humiliation of Hero. The notion male honor derives from female chastity is revealed by its upset: that a man whose wife has cheated is a cuckold. Being a cuckold was, in the sixteenth-century setting of Much Ado About Nothing, an extremely shameful status that destroyed a man’s honor—his reputation and social standing—and was publicly and symbolically represented by him having to wear horns for everyone to see. Consequently, the actions of women were evaluated as the reflections of men’s honor, which is why chastity became one of the most important attributes of a woman. With this unique ability to ruin a man’s honor, women were in a powerful, yet dangerous position, in which men were aware that their masculinity and honor depended on the actions of women and were insecure about this link. Women were thereby seen as always possessing the potential to be dangerous, with the power to ruin a man’s life at any time, and social standards and misogynistic ideas connected to chastity and women’s behavior became powerful forces implemented for the purpose of controlling women’s menacing potential and ensuring the protection of men’s fragile honor.
This strong link between women and male honor was understood and acknowledged by men, as seen in Benedick’s discussion about why he refuses to get married. Talking to Claudio and Don Pedro, he exclaims: “I will do myself the right to / trust none; and the fine is (for the which I may go the / finer), I will live a bachelor”.1 Benedick has chosen the life of the bachelor for himself because he fears that he will inevitably become a cuckold. He does not want to subject himself to the possibility of becoming a cuckold and therefore sees marriage as a hazardous establishment bound to ruin his honor. Understanding Benedick’s display of fear in regards to marriage is vital, as it emphasizes the link that binds male honor to women’s behavior in marriage and the crucial fact that men were aware of and insecure about this link. Benedick’s logic that subjecting himself to marriage would mean subjecting himself to the inevitability of being cuckolded is illustrated by a comment to Don Pedro regarding marriage: “if ever the sensible / Benedick bear it, pluck off the bull’s horns and set / them in my forehead, and let me be vilely painted.”2 Benedick’s speech exposes that his reasoning for not wanting to marry is based on his underlying idea that women are predisposed to be unfaithful and on his consequent fear of being cuckolded and humiliated, further exemplifying the constant insecurity of masculinity inherent in men. This way of thinking is not unique to Benedick; these misogynistic ideas are so ingrained in the nature of the world of the play that many men—both the characters and the audience—may not even consider them to be problematic. In the case of this quotation, Benedick is casually talking with Don Pedro, a friend, and he shares these ideas lightheartedly, in the form of witty banter. That these misogynistic perceptions are brought up in such a mundane setting shows that this logic is common and, just as in the case of Benedick talking to Don Pedro, these ideas are seemingly harmless remarks made among male friends.
Shakespeare’s choice to preface the slander scene with male remarks related to chastity is critical in establishing a connection between seemingly normal and harmless remarks and the slander scene. This is further exemplified in the way that Don John incites in Claudio a fear of female unfaithfulness, and in the way that Claudio rapidly trusts Don John’s claims that Hero is unfaithful, not questioning the possibility that he is lying due to the imminent threat to his own honor. To Don John’s claims that “the / lady is disloyal,” 3 Claudio merely responds “may this be so?” 4 and immediately sets up his plan, saying: “why I should not / marry her tomorrow, in the congregation where I / should wed there will I shame her”5 Finally, Don John voices the underlying thought that these men share, exclaiming: “O plague right well prevented!”[126.96.36.199.] Thus, although the audience may not have directly experienced events akin to the dramatic slander scene, the sly remarks made by Benedick, Claudio, and Don Pedro might be more likely to ring a bell and resonate with Shakespeare’s audience. It is exactly the culmination of these smaller, more familiar fissions of logic—casual misogynistic remarks made by Benedick, the utilization of male insecurity by Don John, and Claudio’s readiness to believe the rumors about Hero—that leads to the climactic slander scene. Were he without deeply entrenched ideas about honor, shame, and women, Claudio would not have reacted the way he does on his intended wedding day, exposing how the link between women and male honor leads to dangerous assumptions and to unfounded, misogynistic actions.
In order to show exactly what damage these seemingly harmless conceptions about masculinity and male power can do, Shakespeare creates a climactic scene in which these ideas are exposed and connected to obvious, harmful consequences. Accusing Hero of being unfaithful, Claudio publicly shames her at the altar, telling Leonato: “Give not this rotten orange to your friend. / She’s but the sign and semblance of her honor” and “Would you not swear, / all you that see her, that she were a maid, / By these exterior shows? But she is none: / She knows the heat of a luxurious bed.”6 What becomes clear in Claudio’s speech is not only that he thinks that women who are unfaithful are “rotten,” but also that he was deceived by Hero’s appearance and tricked into thinking she was honorable.7 Claudio prepares this accusation and performs it in front of a small community of guests, as well as the predominantly male wedding party. In this public performance, this scene acts as a representation of the larger standards of society. The women in this scene—Beatrice and Hero—become symbols for women, who are silenced, whose voices are not heard, and who lose any agency because of the threat they pose to male honor. After attempting to defend herself and being immediately dismissed and ignored, Hero faints and is disregarded. Beatrice, faced with this insurmountable inequality, loses her previously character-defining wit and is rendered speechless, exactly because her voice has lost its power. She can only get a few words out and is left to exclaim: “O, on my soul, my cousin is belied!”8 This blatant inequality and oppression the two women suffer (representing the position of their gender as a whole) is further acted out by the men in the scene. Most of the men immediately jump to misogynist conclusions about Hero’s infidelity and believe Claudio’s claims without any doubt, as seen in Don Pedro’s immediate renunciation of Hero as a “common stale.”9 Knowing that the male-dominated society would back him up and understand his insecurity and fear of being cuckolded, Claudio does not fear the consequences of making such a grave and unfounded accusation. This confidence and the endorsing responses of his male peers again act to symbolize the intrinsic sexism, which has its origins in the underlying male insecurity and exists to propagate male power and diminish that of their threatening counterparts.
Though Claudio was right initially in thinking his actions would go unpunished, Shakespeare doesn’t allow him to enjoy his unjust comfort for long. In the aftermath of this disturbing exhibition of misogyny, each male character has to reckon with his actions and the damage he has caused, serving as moral lessons of the dangers of masculine insecurity. Their actions are not brushed over; instead, Shakespeare purposefully reprimands each man’s display of irrational masculinity, thereby ensuring that the audience understands these behaviors as defective. Echoing the overarching message of the play, the Friar is the one who suggests the plan to “change slander to remorse” in the pursuit of avenging Hero’s public humiliation. 10 Before the Friar’s words and the proof of Don John’s guilt convince Leonato, he initially believes the accusations made against his daughter, ashamed of her alleged promiscuity, which would make her an undesirable bride and therefore bring shame upon his family. Once convinced of Hero’s innocence, Leonato leads the remorse mission and is also made to suffer for shaming his daughter and failing to defend her honor, telling Antonio: “Give not me counsel, / Nor let no comfort delight mine ear / But such a one whose wrongs suit with mine.”11 Grieving his daughter’s disgrace, Leonato wants to “make those that do offend [him] suffer too”12 and seeks retribution for the wrongful treatment of Hero. After the truth about Hero is exposed, Leonato underlines each character’s involvement in the professed murder of his “innocent child”13 and confronts Claudio, Don Pedro, and Borachio. These characters, now aware of the falsity and brutality of their initial claims, are forced to reckon with the fact that not only did they unjustly humiliate and shame Hero, but they also falsely believe that Hero has died, and that their actions are to blame. Filled with extreme guilt and remorse, this insight leads Claudio to beg Leonato for proper punishment, saying: “Choose your revenge yourself, / Impose on me what penance your invention / Can lay upon my sin.”14 Thus, Claudio’s rhetoric and his use of the word “sin” elucidates Claudio’s guilt and the punishment that Hero’s death would justify. Consequently, the examples of male suffering and the examination of the aftermath of Hero’s humiliation and its consequences on both women and men is particularly crucial for showing that these actions were morally wrong and deserve to be punished. Only through this exposure can the slander scene act as a cautionary example of the dangers of fragile masculinity, refuting the behaviors of the male characters and setting them as an example of what not to do.
For Much Ado About Nothing to be a cautionary tale about the danger of insecure masculinity, Shakespeare had to set this story up by establishing the misogynistic beliefs inherent in society, followed by the display of what these ideas can lead to, and lastly resolving this display by showing its harmful effects and reprimanding the actions of the male characters. In this way, showing the underlying ideas of the male characters in everyday situations, echoed by almost all, Shakespeare shows the prevalence of misogynistic thought in society and the danger and possibility of these thoughts leading and erupting to something like the slander scene. The ever-present and all-pervasive nature of the characters’ ideas about gender, which would have been familiar to Shakespeare’s audiences, gives their beliefs the power to cause significant damage, requiring only a minor spark, such as a rumor of female infidelity, to ignite the full power of masculinity. With this realization, the symbolic death of “former Hero”15 aims to caution the male audience and help them understand that irrational displays of fragile masculinity are reckless and will have serious repercussions. In doing so, Much Ado About Nothing exposes the oppression of women in a society that stems from the link of women to male honor and, in showing its dangerous repercussions and reprimanding the gross display of masculinity, the play successfully criticizes insecure masculinity, the misogyny it breeds, and the detrimental effects for all.