In Much Ado About Nothing, honor is earned, given, taken away, and restored. Though one could argue that the virtue is synonymous with integrity, William Shakespeare’s definition seems primarily based on reputation instead of doing the right thing (though with a couple exceptions). The honor and respect sought from others is what Shakespeare focus on as one of the main themes in the play. Although honor is applied to both men and women, how each one of them earns and defines the virtue is quite different. In Shakespeare’s time, the sexes were not considered equal, and as a result, have completely separate social expectations. The play categorizes the theme of honor into three distinctions. The first being adherence of social roles and norms, the second is acts of chivalry, and third, feminine purity.
After the chastity of Hero was called into question, Claudio and Don Pedro had no mercy on Hero and publicly disavowed her. These actions were performed in order to shield the honor they possessed. Don Pedro tries to quiet the fact that he once tried to help forge the romance between Hero and Claudio after her false accusation. The two men did all they could to protect their reputations, which was considered vital to society’s moral code of conduct.
The second category of honor is an element of selflessness, in which one protects the vulnerable. Men are obligated to shield and defend the inferior (i.e women and children) and also the ill. A good example of this is are the actions of Benedick defending the reputation of Hero and her family. This is a great personal risk as he is opposing his friends and also potentially sacrificing his own honor. He utilizes his position to protect Beatrice and her sister from shame. His actions also conveyed how much he cared for Beatrice.
The third type of honor is feminine purity. In the Elizabethan era, there were set standards to be followed for women. All those who were able to keep these conditions were honoured and remained desirable by society. The parents, especially fathers, were responsible to ensure that their daughter’s chastity and behaviour remained proper and intact. Failure to do so could mean serious consequences for the female’s future and that of her family. This is proven by Leonato, who does everything in his power to ensure his daughter is pure and chaste. The whole family could forfeit their honor if their kin is found guilty. In the play, Beatrice calls into question gender biased honor since the expectations and restrictions were directed towards women and didn’t seem to pertain to men. Beatrice laments the situation of Claudio refusing to defend Hero, in an attempt to preserve his own reputation. Women’s purity, obedience and fidelity greatly determined the respect and esteem she could receive from society. This was achieved by obedience to her father and remaining chaste until marriage. Once married, the woman is expected to be obedient and loyal to her husband.
In the play, It was the duty of every man to make sure that society was safe. In the event of a war, one was highly respected and honoured by bringing victory to the land. Men could lose honor by behaving cowardly, failing to provide for his family, or having marital/familial ties to an non virtuous woman. Chastity preserved until marriage was not important, unlike their female counterparts, who were expected to be faithful and obedient to their fathers and husbands (Everett, p54). No one was willing to be associated with a woman who was not considered chaste. No man was ready to lose his honor to defend that of a woman’s, except Benedick.
Not surprisingly, a woman was easily capable of losing honor and respect; however, there is a way through which she could regain it back. This is illustrated by Hero who is forced to redeem herself by having to restore her purity apparently lost (New Directions: Much Ado About Nothing and Social Media, p22). She does this by being declared dead.This now meant that she could indeed regain her honor and respect. Her father helps her honor to be restored through providing proof that she is still virginal.
Critically analyzing the actions of the characters in pursuit of honor shows us pros and cons. One study of the literary work argued that honor in the play brought more harm to the society than good (Everett, p54). The characters, especially the men, use honor as a means of self-interest. For instance, revenge is brought about by the struggle to gain honor. If it were not for honor, perhaps Benedick would not have plotted violence toward Claudio on behalf of Hero and Beatrice. He wished to prove his masculinity and gain respect by engaging Claudio in a fight. On another account, Hero is publicly shamed when it is falsely discovered that she is impure and in need of redemption. The thematic use of honor also depicts the unequal way in which men are seen as superior to women. Men could be honoured when engaged in a battle, but women were expected to stay home and wait on marriage. Fidelity was also expected from women more than men (Everett, p54).
On the other hand, honor has lead to good in the play. It were not for restoring her honor, Hero and Don Pedro would not have wed. Benedick defended Hero’s reputation and saved the future of her whole family, which also resulted in the happy union between he and Beatrice.
While there are many arguments that could be made towards the positive and negative attributes of seeking honor in the play, the fact remains that it is a difficult virtue to gain and a very easy thing to lose, especially as a woman. Even though Hero’s honor was restored, it was due to a man’s actions and not something she was in control of. Shakespeare makes it quite clear that possessing honor is highly significant, but it would appear that justice and honor do not always go hand in hand.
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