Sexism in Much Ado About Nothing: Misogyny & Patriarchy

Instructor: Rachel Hanson
In this lesson, we learn about the terms sexism, misogyny, and patriarchy. We also see how these limiting views and power dynamics unfold in 'Much Ado About Nothing,' particularly in relation to the character of Hero.

Sexism, Misogyny, and the Patriarchy

So how do the three above terms fit into Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing? Considering that these terms and what they represent continue to plague contemporary society despite the many advances we have made over time, it's safe to say the Sixteenth Century was far more archaic in regards to women. In this lesson, we will examine how Hero is perceived, treated, and behaves to understand how sexism, misogyny, and patriarchy are at work in Much Ado About Nothing.

You may be familiar with the concept of sexism, which is the idea that women are predisposed to certain behaviors and traits. For instance, women are inherently bad drivers or women are only born to be mothers are examples of sexists ideas. Misogyny, on the other hand, is more aligned with a disdain or devaluing of women in general. Misogynists often place women in value categories based on physical traits or simply qualify women in regards to their worth as they see fit to define it. For example, calling a woman a 'dog' or 'cow' or referring to her only as being the kind of woman good enough to have an affair with but not good enough to marry are examples of misogyny. The patriarchy is a governing system ruled by men. For example, when a man is the ''head'' of a household that reflects a patriarchy. The United States is still considered a patriarchal society, for instance. Given the nature of the patriarchy, sexism and misogyny can thrive on such a system.

Hero's Virtue

Claudio has his eyes on Hero, first referring to her as a ''modest young lady'', meaning she is pure and untouched by a man. As such, he desires to wed her, but not before seeking advice from Benedick, who is quick to qualify Hero in physical terms. He does not find her impressive or worthy of praise.

Not only does Benedick find Hero unimpressive, he declares her cousin, Beatrice, to be much more beautiful, were it not for her sharp tongue. Here we see two men evaluating female worth in terms of their physicality. Even though Claudio has fallen in love with Hero and desires to marry her, his fondness for her is very much determined by her physical beauty and her modesty. That is, her virginity.

The Wedding, Humiliation, and the Patriarchy

A sketch of Claudio humiliating Hero at the wedding alter

When Don John and Borachio scheme to ruin Claudio's wedding they easily decide to do so by discrediting Hero's ''virture''. Now, in present times we understand that a women's value ought never be determined by what she does with her body, but during the time of Shakspeare, this was not the case. To discredit a woman in Much Ado About Nothing all the men had to do was say one of them had slept with her. In this case, Borachio pretending to have sex with Hero.

To make matters worse, rather than simply confront Hero and terminate the engagement, Claudio, with the support of Don Perdo, humiliates her at the alter by exclaiming in public that she had given up her virginity and that he would no longer have her. To make matters worse, Hero's own father momentarily turns on her at the wedding ceremony. So distraught is Leonato that he wishes his daughter's death to cover her shame. Consider the following quote:

''Valuing of her,--why, she, O, she is fallen

Into a pit of ink, that the wide sea

Hath drops too few to wash her clean again

And salt too little which may season give

To her foul-tainted flesh!'~

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