Powerful Sicilian Women in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing

Women in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing are portrayed as powerful beings, equal or superior in every way to men, except in their rights. This is not exactly a hot take for me to draw this conclusion. He names the protagonist Hero. That’s pretty on the nose, isn’t it? She is a victim of a fraudulent accusation, but she survives a world where the threat of murder follows women around, a world sadly all too common still today. 

Shakespeare, we know, was from the countryside and married into a higher status than he was born into. His wife was older than him and more well connected to the powerful. During Shakespeare’s career, England was ruled by Queen Elizabeth a truly formidable monarch. It’s no wonder that Shakespeare saw women as powerful, since his personal life and the country he belonged to were both made possible by strong women.

Hero is the protagonist of Much Ado, but the most interesting character, the strongest woman in the play is Beatrice. Beatrice is one of the most famous names in literature as the inspiration and motivation for Dante’s Divine Comedy. It was for Beatrice that the poet in Dante’s Inferno travels through the depths of hell. In Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice is famous for her wit. She is basically a stand-up comic for her times. People recognize her ability to make fun of Benedick using her intelligence to craft jokes about him.

She is not passively waiting for a man to marry her. To the contrary, she makes fun of how little she desires to be with a man celebrating her own independence. She is undoubtedly a feminist character, an earlier version of Steinam’s “women need a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” Beatrice is a strong intelligent woman who publicly ridicules anyone who tries to interfere with her independence. 

For a comedy, Much Ado is full of a lot of darkness that never quite comes to its fatal conclusion. Beatrice orchestrates one of the murder attempts in the play. Hero is framed as an adulterer and the men believe the story and are quick to anger and decide that murder is the appropriate penalty. A priest intervenes and convinces Hero’s father to fake her death for one day to make sure that the charges are true. Beatrice, for revenge, wants Benedick to kill Claudio. 

It was Helen’s face that launched a thousand ships in the Greek Epics, but it was Beatrice’s words that inspired murder in her suitor in Shakespeare’s play. She demands that he act to avenge her friend as a proof of his worth of her love. This is a darkly funny play that ridicules a system that is so easily manipulated. It starts out with a malicious act of deception by a jealous Don. In order to seek revenge, he creates the fictional narrative of Hero’s infidelity. It is far too easy for him to trick these men into wanting to murder a perfectly innocent woman.

Beatrice’s murder plot is also fueled by revenge, but it is a righteous anger focused on whom she perceives to be the cause of her friend’s troubles. She acts out of loyalty to Hero. In this play, we see a world where women are powerful but also held hostage by intellectually feeble men who could be tricked into murdering their own daughters. It is an indictment of a shame-based culture and a deconstruction of the legal process. The accused are made to prove their innocence. 

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