The Couple Doth Protest Too Much: Male Maturity in “Much Ado About Nothing”
Elizabethan men are not entirely different from some modern men, especially when it comes to their views on marriage, love, and sex. Many men still continue the double standard of expecting their partners to be virginal while they themselves are free to be sexually experienced. And the concept of marriage as painful and confining is still prevalent, along with the romanticized ideals of love and its timelessness. In Much Ado About Nothing Benedick holds many of these views at the start of the play, but how he differs from the rest of the cast is his gradual shift in his views on women, and relationships, by the play’s end. Benedick shifts from playing the role of the misogynist womanizer with a silver tongue to, at the end of the play, being a love struck realist who not only respects Beatrice, but women as a whole, and proves this by agreeing to duel Claudio to “avenge” Hero and prove his loyalty to Beatrice. This fundamental change is brought about through a series of key scenes: the masked party, the staged conversation between Leonato, Claudio and Don Pedro, Claudio’s rejection of Hero at the wedding, and when Benedick vows to Beatrice that he will challenge Claudio.
At the start of the play, Benedick is self-impressed and beloved (he claims) by all women except Beatrice. His ego is the caught up in the role he plays as that of a witty banterer, a lady-killer, a heroic soldier and distinguished nobleman. He brings this ego into every encounter he has with anyone, as evidenced by his reticence to give Claudio a straight answer as to whether Hero would make a good match; or when he banters with Beatrice upon his arrival, and defeats her in their battle of wits “with a jade’s trick” (1.1.141). So when Benedick’s ego is bruised by Beatrice at the masked ball when she says “[Benedick is] the prince’s jester, a very dull fool. Only his gift is in devising impossible slanders” (2.1.132-33) it forces him to reflect on his characteristics and then, later on in the scene he tells Don Pedro of all the insults and jokes she made at his expense. Benedick struggles here between playing his role and brushing off Beatrice’s insults or accepting that Beatrice really does despise him. His pride and possible hidden affections for Beatrice lead him to rail against her and when Don Pedro and Claudio imply he may like Beatrice he protests overtly. Benedick’s tirade against Beatrice is ironically the catalyst for his subtle shift from viewing his relationship with Beatrice as a sport, to respecting her and even loving her. Before loving Beatrice though, Benedick has to put aside his ego, his ruse of masculinity, and be vulnerable enough to face rejection. So when Leonato, Claudio and Don Pedro carry out their “accidentally” overheard conversation Benedick’s reaction to hearing of Beatrice’s love is authentic. This is the first scene he is depicted as his true self for the audience, without the guise of being chauvinistic and derisive for Beatrice’s sake. When he is alone and thinks no one else can hear him he even states “If I do not take pity of her, I am a villain; if I do not love her, I am a Jew” (2.3.255-57). Benedick may have cared for her before or may not have, but whatever his feelings before this encounter they changed because his ego was damaged enough at the masked party to enable his views to shift. So already, the man who said that he “will live a bachelor” (1.1.239) not one act before is changing his tune just because he perceives a change in Beatrice’s affections towards him. Benedick rationalizes his change in heart so he still does not seem the weaker, but the fact that Benedick is the first to change his feelings and be vulnerable may be a play on the typical gender stereotype of women being more emotional or likely to change their views or opinions. This change in his character, whatever the reason, indicates a change in his sentiments towards women. Whereas before women were just good for giving birth and spending the night with, now Benedick is at least open to the possibility of love (though not the same blind or financially inspired love as that of Claudio and Hero).
To further prove the point that Benedick is a changed man in his sentiments not only towards Beatrice, but towards all women, the wedding scene marks the third example of a shift in Benedick’s beliefs. When Don John, Claudio and Don Pedro accuse Hero of no longer being a maid, Benedick decides to stand by Hero and Beatrice instead of exiting with the three allegedly wronged men. Benedick shows open concern for Hero, asking “how doth the lady?” (4.1.111), and even going as far as to defend Hero from Leonato’s wrath when he tries to attack her. Earlier Benedick, while he may not have condoned attacking a woman, would certainly have sided with his companions when it came to the question of Hero’s virginity. But now there is a subtle shift in his behavior. He even agrees to help with the deception of Claudio by faking Hero’s death; he says “and though you know my inwardness and love is very much unto the prince and Claudio, yet by mine honor, I will deal in this as secretly and justly as your soul should with your body” (4.1.243-47). Benedick completely commits to the conspiracy between Hero, the Friar and Leonato, especially because he believed Claudio and Don Pedro to be deceived by Don John. Benedick, at this point, is a completely different character, in that his normal combative and verbally playful way of talking has been replaced by earnestness and much more to-the-point dialogue. In comparison, Claudio when Benedick encounters him later, is all banter and bravado. It is almost as if Claudio and Benedick’s personalities have shifted from one to the other. This shift in character shows Benedick is completely removed from his former façade, because he made no jokes, and had hardly any of his ego or other hubris-like characteristics from earlier in the play.
The final and most dramatic change in Benedick’s attitudes towards women comes immediately after Hero’s disgracing. When He and Beatrice are left alone he not only confesses his love for her, but also he consoles her and shows more compassion than any man towards any woman in the play. Although some may write this off as him trying to get on Beatrice’s good side, Benedick has proven in all the above examples that his views are changing and that his motives and actions are sincere. To further prove his loyalty in her, Beatrice asks Benedick to kill Claudio, and after much persuading he says “enough, I am engaged. I will challenge him. I will kiss your hand, and so I leave you. By this hand, Claudio shall render me a dear account” (4.1.330-32). This action at first glance may not seem especially heroic, but there are some details from earlier to be remembered: Claudio was said to have slain many in the wars, and the messenger in the first act could not stop bragging about his heroics and skill. Beatrice joked that Benedick must not have killed many soldiers, which must have been a jab at his lack of ability (or at least last of remarkable prowess) on the battlefield. Also to be taken into account is that Benedick and Claudio are very close friends and companions, as are the prince and Benedick, so for him to agree to challenge Claudio is not only a dangerous and possibly fatal task, but is also emotionally trying. While Benedick’s first approach is to first appease Claudio and Don Pedro, he will carry out his plan to challenge Claudio if he must. This shows the greatest change in his character, because he went from joking and sparring verbally with women, to now possibly actually sparring with his close companion to defend a woman.
The shift in Benedick’s disposition, from that of a bachelor who verbally scuffles with women to impress others and is full of himself and his own bravado, to a man who is earnest, to the point, and has very little if any ego left is interesting because his shift in character most coincides with Claudio’s shift as well. So one might argue that both men have their views of women changed, but one is positive while the other is negative. Claudio starts out being the wide eyed naïve romantic, and ends a suspicious, but married, man who is preoccupied with what others think of him. While Benedick starts out being the romance-bashing bachelor who would rather die that way than be made a “cuckold”, and then he changes into a romantic realist who respects his wife as an equal in verbal combat. This reversal of roles may indicate Shakespeare’s thoughts on male-female relationships as a whole being combative and ever changing, or may simply be a way of mirroring the beginning and end of the play.
As a whole, Benedick’s change in regards to women is a positive one. He goes from being very self-indulgent and ridiculing of women to being respecting and loving of them at the end and this shift is slow but ultimately the complete opposite of him at the start. The masked ball, coupled with his overhearing Claudio, Don Pedro, and Leonato, and his defense of Hero all served as stepping stones along the way for Benedick to change his relationship with Beatrice and in the end win her heart. His willingness to endanger himself to prove his love for Beatrice while protecting the honor of hero reveals him to be a completely different man from the beginning of the play, which mirrors the change in Claudio’s character almost exactly.
Shakespeare, William, and Sylvan Barnet. “Much Ado About Nothing.” The Complete Signet
Classic Shakespeare. General Editor: Sylvan Barnet. New York: Harcourt
Jovanovich, 1972. N. pag. Print.
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