Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing Research Proposal

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¶ … roles of gender and sexuality in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, with particular focus on the gender identity of Hero. For all that Much Ado About Nothing is a cheery play, it has more to do with gender conflicts than happy endings. Much Ado argues, on the surface, for a binarily gendered world. It argues that women and men are not just polar opposites -- but opposites who only engage with each other in relationships of tension. Those relationships vary from sexual tension to conflict to outright antagonism. But always women and men are bound in a dance of sex and dissension. Men are men and women are women, and every one is straight. But Shakespeare's little world is more complicated than it appears. Hero sexual identity is questionable. Claudio's gendered-ness casts him as the subtle villain of the story. And Balthazar sings quietly in the background, shining away the surface of things.

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These dynamics of polarity, conflict and sexual tension are perfectly expressed in the play's two principle couples: Hero and Claudio, and Beatrice and Benedick. Hero and Claudio are pristine examples of their expected gender roles -- and are so necessarily cast as film-negatives of each other. Where Hero is the quiet lady, Claudio is the boisterous soldier. Where Hero faints, Claudio rages. Where Hero is right, Claudio is wrong. This opposition is quite intentional on Shakespeare's part, and is meant to portray many things. The first, and most obvious, is that the audience is meant to like the characters for their expression of extreme gender identities. Hero is charming because of her modesty and purity. Claudio is appealing because a victorious soldier. The audience connects with Hero and Claudio, and finds them attractive precisely because they are so strongly gendered. On a less immediate level, it is an idealization of feminine-gendered people. After all, it is Claudio's gendered rage and pride that makes him act so cruelly, and Hero's modesty and sweetness that keeps the audience on her side.

Research Proposal on Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing Assignment

From the beginning, the tension between Claudio and Hero is forcefully thrust upon the audience. Claudio evinces his love at several points, declaiming his love in true Shakespearian fashion. He even grows jealous of Don Pedro, whom he thinks is wooing Hero (though this turns out not to be the case). Though all Claudio's emotions are cloaked in the guise of romantic love, it is clearly lust that Shakespeare means to imbue in Claudio with all his sighing and speeches and jealousy. It would have been clear to the audience -- in the bawdy and unabashed Elizabethan era -- that Claudio was acting on the whims of lust rather than the drives of love.

Hero, Claudio's reverse, is clearly not-so-passionately in love with her opposite. Hero, from the very onset of the play, seems disengaged from all men, and keeps to her women, though this disengagement is veiled with the always-handy excuse of maidenly caprice. Later on we will discuss Hero's gender identity in greater detail.

The sexual tension between Hero and Claudio soon transmutes itself into outright conflict when Hero is betrayed and Claudio tricked. Here, too, they are flawless representations not so much of themselves, but of that which they have been assigned to be . They are perfect models, perfect archetypes. They living, breathing incarnations of gender roles. Claudio is cruel and melodramatic -- every inch the slighted gentleman. Hero is weepy and quiet. Rather notably, she disengages entirely in this scene -- by fainting dead away.

And so we come to Beatrice and Benedick, two faces of the same coin. Here Shakespeare seems to underline both the couple's conflict-driven relationship, and the two individuals' eerie similarity. Both of these aspects of essential to understanding the nature of both the relationship between Benedick and Beatrice, and their respective gender roles and identities. The very first scene with them together sets them at odds -- and equally matched. Here again we see men and women engaged only in a tension-laden relationship -- and the only cause of that tension is the differently-genderedness of the two parties. But interestingly, Shakespeare choses to underline that it is only gender that separates them (and later on gender that brings them together), and nothing else. They both trade clever quips about the nature of women and men and about each other. In this, the first time we ever meet Beatrice and Benedick, we know they are destined to be lovers. We know this because of the arguing and protestations of dislike. The relationships between men and women in traditional western stories are like energy, as defined by modern science. Energy can be almost anything: light, heat, the push off the ground, friction. So too are women and men changeable when it come to each other. Enemies are easily made lovers. Ex-lovers readily became the hated villain. This fluidity of opposite-sex relationships is contrasted with the static unchanging-ness of same-sex relationships. The soldier-brothers never waver, the cruel enemy is never redeemed, the endless stream of nondescript female friends never fail in loyalty.

That is, in most stories. Shakespeare throws a wrench in the works. There are two notable instances where same-sex relationships alter their dynamics in Much Ado. Claudio's brief spat with Don Pedro is a perfect, abridged version of his emotional journey with Hero. In the play, Claudio starts out in perfect accord with Don Pedro, proceeds to fight with him over a perceived betrayal, and then all is made right again. It is entirely parallel plot line. One wonders just exactly what Shakespeare meant to say about Claudio's relationship with Don Pedro. After all, by using such a familiar plot device in such an unfamiliar way, the audience is forced to view their relationship in gendered, and therefore sexualized terms.

The other dynamic same-sex relationship is that of Hero and her lady Margaret. Margaret is initially presented as a friendly and trustworthy companion to Hero. She is, however the real betrayer here. In fact, Margaret is the real surprise of Much Ado About Nothing; We expect all sorts of horrible things from Don John from the beginning. Margaerts betrayal is entirely out of the scope of her character's generally expected behaviour. Her betrayal is more shocking and affronting than Don John's. We expect it from the brooding villian -- but not from Margaret. And one wonders just what Margaret would have felt, in the arms of a man and being addressed by her lady's name; an act both cruel and oddly intimate.

Hero. Hero is the most complicated ingenue ever to inhabit any of Shakespeare's work. She is veiled in virtue and maidenly charm -- but look just a little more closely, and you find a considerably more complex picture. Her name, for example. Hero would have meant something entirely different in Shakespeare's time. It did not mean to indicate the central character of the story, as that usage would not be used at all until 1697 (etymonline). There are, I believe, two images Shakespeare means to conjure up.

The first. is the ancient Greek story of Hero and Leander, and more directly the poem by Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare, and fellow dramatist. His influence on Shakespeare is a matter of common knowledge.

In the poem by Marlowe, there are a couple of notable things. First, is that Hero's story is a sad one, and not even remotely comedic. She drowns herself in the end, out of despair and love. What does this say about Hero in Much Ado? Both Shakespeare and his audience would have been most familiar with the name in the context of tragedy. This suggests that Hero's story is not quite so happy as it appears. It suggests that the Hero of Much Ado is as least to a certain extent a tragic figure.

So why should Hero be a tragic figure? Her story seems happy enough. She marries happily ever after, doesn't she? But why the ill-fated name? Shakespeare intended us to glean something from that name. Maybe several somethings.

The story of Hero and Leander (as told by Marlowe) is notable in this context for two reasons. First, in this story, Hero does succumb to a man. But the nature of her love is certainly interesting. For one thing, she is swayed by Leander's claim that Venus would not cherish the worship of a virgin. This is not a reasonable reason to become someone's lover -- unless you are at least half in love with the goddess of beauty and passion.

Secondly, and even more interestingly, is the nature of Leander in Marlowe's poem. A more feminine man could not exist. In fact, Leander is described as looking like, "A maid in man's attire" (Marlowe line 86). So the Hero of Marlowe's world, who has spurned many lovers in the past, succumbs only when Leander comes along.

What does all this say about the Hero from Much Ado? What does Shakespeare want us to know about her gender identity?… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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