Role of women in the Elizabethan era

Literary works have since time immemorial formed a fundamental aspect
of the society. They have been written in an effort to tackle the issues
of the day, where the authors or poets aim at outlining the ills in the
society within which they live, as well as inspiring thoughts on how an
ideal one would look like. Needless to say, numerous works of arts have
given their composers, authors and poets incredible amounts of
popularity, which has marked their place in the literary world. This is
the case for Shakespeare, one of the most recognizable figures in the
literary world. While Shakespeare addressed a wide range of topics in
the Elizabethan period in which he lived, one of the most conspicuous
themes of his literary collection was the role of women in the society.
This is especially so for the play “Much ado about nothing”, a story
that revolves around two sets of love affairs one between Beatrice and
Benedick, while the secondary couple being made up of Claudio and Hero.
While the first couple makes the play extremely memorable due to its wit
and humor, the second one is the one that underlines the role of women
in the Elizabethan era.
First, it is worth noting that in the patriarchal society on which the
story is based, women were brought up in such a manner that they would
see men as superior to women, in which case the women’s role was to be
obedient and bring up the new generations. In essence, they were always
subject to the authority of the men. At first, they would be the
possession of their fathers and brothers, who would then arrange their
marriage and surrender their possession to their husbands. In this case,
women would be used as bargaining chips, as well as a reflection of the
reputation, power and status of the family. At this time, they were
supposed to be seen rather than be heard.
Underlining the position of women as mere possessions is the image that
is created by the character of Hero. The play presents Hero as the ideal
leady of the Elizabethan times. Close examination of the adjectives that
Claudio uses in describing Hero reveals a deeper meaning. In Act 1,
Scene 1, Claudio describes her as beautiful, modest young lady, the
sweetest lady, a “jewel”. These adjectives come with a connotation
of mildness, submission, and meekness, which are the three fundamental
characteristics that a man would look for in any woman. The use of the
adjective “jewel” would also paint the picture of Hero as an object
that may be possessed. Indeed, she could be considered as Leonato’s
possession, after which she is expected to become Claudio’s
possession.
  In addition, women would be seen as a pathway for the enhancement of
a person’s wealth or worldly possession. Indeed, this may be seen in
the first scene, where Claudio and Hero fall in love and immediately
make a decision to get married. While Hero’s love for Claudio seems
genuine, it is evident that Claudio`s love is dangerously shallow.
Indeed, when first professing his love for Hero, Claudio is careful to
ask whether she will be inheriting her father’s wealth. He enquires
from Don Pedro “Hath Leonato any son, my lord” upon which Pedro
replied that Leonato has “No child but Hero. She’s his only heir”
(Act 1, Scene One). This means that Claudio is also interested in the
wealth with which Hero would come. Scholars have noted that, at this
time, women were supposed to offer a dowry, in which case since Hero was
Leonato’s only child, she would be the ultimate heiress. This,
essentially complements his description of her as a jewel, which may be
looked at in two contrasting ways. First, it may be interpreted in the
context of a beautiful woman who is of immense worth. Alternatively, it
may be denoting a rich woman that would have the capacity to provide
Claudio with a fortune. Indeed, Hero seems to be used by Claudio,
Leonato and Don Pedro as a pawn that would bring more wealth to the
family and enhance the family’s social status with her marriage to a
count who is extremely successful at war. This underlines the fact that
as much as the marriage would be shown as having been based on love, it
is essentially a business deal or an arranged marriage.
On the same note, women are seen as objects that may be used in
settling scores. This is the case for Hero who is used by Don John as a
means to make trouble for Claudio for being so respected and admired
(Act 1, Scene 3). The demonstration of Hero as a loose woman would
damage Claudio’s image. This plot becomes successful as Don Pedro and
Claudio apparently see Hero having intercourse with another man on the
eve of her wedding day. This infuriates Claudio who decides to humiliate
Hero in public the following morning and follow it up with failure to
marry her.
Women, in the Elizabethan times were required to remain chaste and
pure, and keep from sexual intercourse with men that were not their
husbands, failure to which their honour would be suspended. In this
case, women had to remain virgins until they got married. Failure to
adhere to this requirement portrayed the woman as loose, something that
would bring her and her family immense shame. However, the same
standards were not held for men, as being unfaithful to their wives was
totally acceptable. Such control over the sexuality of women embodied
oppression. This is seen in the case of Hero, who upon being “seen”
having intercourse with another man on the eve of her wedding is not
only publicly disgraced and accused of being a loose woman by her
husband-to-be, but also is denied the marriage. Even more appalling is
the fact that her father not only does no believe her but also want her
punished by death for her despicable “sin”. He states that “Death
is the fairest cover for her shame / That may be whish’d for […]
Hence form her! Let her die!” (Act 4, Scene 1). Underlining the
despicable nature of the supposed “deviation” from the acceptable
norms in the society is the strong language that Leonato and Claudio use
to shame Hero. Claudio describes her as a “rotten orange” while
Leonato describes her as a “rotting carcass cat cannot be
preserved”. It is stated that “The wide sea / Hath drops to few to
wash her clean again / And salt too little which may give season give /
To her foul-tainted flesh!” (Gardner and Brian).
On the same note, it is evident that a woman is not expected or
supposed to defend herself in case of such accusations. Despite the
seriousness of the accusations and the immense price that Hero is bound
to pay, she does not utter a word in protest rather she ends up fainting
from the overwhelming shame. This attitude comes off as cowardly as she
behaves like a weak woman that is at the mercy of the male figures.
This, however, does not mean that women could not be assertive and
decisive at the Elizabethan time. Indeed, the determined and assertive
side of Hero comes up in Act 3, Scene 1, when she executes a plot to
deceive her cousin thereby creating the impression that Benedick was in
love with her. Nevertheless, Beatrice is the epitome of assertiveness of
women. Upon discovery of the deception that has been committed, she
shows her strong personality, fierceness, as well as loyalty to her
cousin Hero. This, however, does not undermine the incapacity of women
to act on their feelings. Indeed, Beatrice wishes she was a man and
proclaims “O that I were man for his sake! Or that I / Had any friend
would be a man for my sake! But / Manhood is melted into courtesies
[…] I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with
grieving. The proclamation, despite underlining the bravely of women and
their strong-minded nature, also exposes their defenceless nature as
they cannot undertake any action of justice even in instances where they
are right.
Works cited
Shakespeare. “Much Ado About Nothing: Entire Play”. Shakespeare.mit.edu.
Web Retrieved 6th October 2013 from HYPERLINK
“http://shakespeare.mit.edu/much_ado/full.html”
http://shakespeare.mit.edu/much_ado/full.html
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