In Shakespeare’s Messina, the attitude towards courtship and romance combines cynicism with an awareness that the social realities surrounding courtship inevitably detract from the relationship. The need to marry for social betterment and to ensure inheritance, coupled with the importance of virginal chastity, complicate romantic relationships. Although this play is a comedy ending in multiple marriages, full of witty dialogue making for many comic moments, it also addresses the more serious aspects of, such that border on unfortunate tragedy.
The battle between the sexes can never be resolved because the bond of male honour and its historic dominance over women is unshakable. Men do not ‘make love’ to women, they merely plant their seed within them because they are unable to see them as people worthy enough of their love and affection. They can only see women as a means to an end, the prize being a male heir. Messina is a society where the ‘code of honour’ binds its men to each other in an unspoken marriage that simultaneously prevents them from showing unconditional love in their own relationships with the opposite sex.
Honour is the only measure of the man and serves as a way for others to determine and evaluate that person’s character. Unchaste women cannot be seen to undermine a man’s honour. As each character fiercely guards their honour, their underlying insecurity, suspicion and irrationality rages unchecked, and Don John’s masterful deception causes Messina to collapse into calamity.
Michael Kimmel, a renowned sociologist writes that, “Honour and masculinity must be proved, and no sooner is it proved than it is again questioned and must be proved again,” which explains Claudio’s hasty, yet premeditated shaming of Hero in his pitiful attempt to protect his own honour. He erroneously believes that by denouncing and disassociating himself from any connection with this unchaste woman, he will remove all risk of his own honour being tainted in the affair most foul and treacherous.
Claudio is more worried about ‘saving’ not only his own honour, but the honour of his fellow men, than actually finding out the truth about his bride to be and throws hero back into her father’s disowning arms. “Give not this rotten orange to your friend; She’s but the sign and semblance of her honour. ” But more distressing than Claudio’s immature, narcissistic attitude, is Leonato’s shocking assumption of the role of the shamed and furious father, demonstrating, beyond question the importance that the concept of honour within the family.
All the males involved in Hero’s debasement have a misogynistic vocabulary of accusations ready at hand with which to condemn her. They call her a ‘rotten orange’, ‘a common stale’, ‘an approved wanton’, raging like an animal ‘in savage sensuality’ and by their actions show that she must be shamed and anathematised for her sins. Men want women that they can control. Man’s desire for so called ‘perfect love’ is no more than their patriarchal lust for dominance.
Therefore, one cannot expect smooth-sailing through the courtship of Claudio and Hero because Hero is the trophy bride, who cannot breathe a word before her denunciation at the altar, which she passively accepts without question. Hero is merely a projection of the dominant man’s desire for control. She has no voice. She is the silent woman, “born to obey. ” To add insult to injury, in Elizabethan English “nothing” or ‘no-thing’ was slang for the female sexual organs.
A man has a penis – a thing and a woman, because she lacked the male genitalia,was referred to as a ‘no-thing’, and “Much Ado About Nothing” is packed with male characters chasing after this no-thing without any emotional connection because of the demands placed on them by this fearful patriarchal society. In contrast, today’s society would like to argue that men are not so concerned with retaining their honour and are more inviting of gender equality but in actual fact nothing has changed.
Today, men are as domineering and dictatorial as they were 500 years ago, if not more and the reason that people believe honour to be a distant memory is because men have become more clever and manipulative. They have given women a small amount of power to lull them into believing they have control and equality, whilst they are secretly sneering and rendering themselves victorious as they go to work, come home and relax while watching their women perform super-human tasks that superman himself would have been unable to perform.