Role of Women in Shakespeare’s “Much Ado about Nothing”

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For my milestone I chose the theme of the “(stereotypical) role of women” and “Much Ado About Nothing” as my Shakespearean play. My reason for choosing the theme “role of women,” personally is because I identify as a feminist, and I gravitate toward anything that distinguishes characters and individuals from the female stereotype. My initial reason for choosing, “Much Ado About Nothing” is because I’ve been wanting to read it. My other primary is because I knew, just by watching the movie trailer, that there is a large variety of strong women in leading roles in this play. Taken together, my goal in looking at the stereotypes within “Much Ado About Nothing” is to discuss how Shakespeare both acknowledges, engages, and seemingly rejects notions and stereotypes about women that were held by many during the Elizabethan Era.

In the Elizabethan era, and arguably today, most written work- either literature or plays gender stereotypes define the role of women. During the Elizabethan era, the general thought was that - “women are the primary caretaker of children and elders. Females have a caring nature, have skill at household-related work, attractive physically. Occupational roles associated with gender are midwifes, teacher, nurse, cook, maid, housekeeper etc. Feminist would argue that the traditional gender roles are oppressive for women. (Self-Growth) The Elizabethans had very clear expectations of what the roles for women were, in general men were the breadwinners and women were housewives and mothers. On average, a woman gave birth to a baby every two years. Childbearing was considered a great honor to women as children were a blessing from God. Elizabethan society was a patriarchal society, women were seen as the weaker sex not just in terms of emotionally, but physically. It was believed that women needed someone to look after them. If they were married their husband was expected to look after them. If they were single, their father, brother or another male relative was expected to take care of them. (Elizabethi) Women were also denied access to formal, public-school but could be educated at home by private tutors. Women were not allowed to enter certain professions, such as medicine or politics, but were able to work in domestic services such as maids, nurses and cooks.

As for my chosen play, “Much Ado About Nothing” is based on the battle of the sexes and the relationships that are developed between the female and male characters of the play. In the play Shakespeare does an amazing job at distinguishing the female stereotype of the Elizabethan Era, he develops this through two of his female characters who happen to be the leads of the play Hero and Beatrice. The play is considered one of Shakespeare best works. The play was written around 1598 toward the end of the Elizabethan Era. The story takes place during the 16th century during the Italian Wars in Messina, in the play he mentions a battle which was most likely the Battle of Lepanto of 1571. Like many of Shakespeare’s plays, the plot is not original and probably got his source material that inspired his play from some Italian texts. For example, Hero and Claudio marriage in the play was inspired by a poem written in 1591 by Lodovico Ariosto called Orlando Furioso. Another example, La Prima Parte de le Nouelle by Matteo Bandello inspired Shakespeare setting Messina. The Renaissance context applied to the Elizabethan Era, since (Renaissance thinking started in Italy before moving into England).

The treatment of my theme in the play showed how Shakespeare used the characters and plots of Much Ado About Nothing to communicate his ideas about gender to audience. In Much Ado About Nothing the two main characters Hero and Beatrice are subjected to expectations and limitations because of their gender. Also, Hero is accused of something which gets her type cast as a whore. Women where either seen as a wife or whore. Much Ado About Nothing influence captivated and offended Elizabethan audience. Because Shakespeare poked fun at their traditions and expectations surrounding marriage and love. But also, because the play blurred the distinction between traditional female and male gender roles, but some people in society were fixated on the idea of people who have both female and male traits.

During the past few weeks my theme “role of women” was represented in week 4, Twelfth Night, when the character Viola disguise herself as a male to find a job. In the play gender plays helps display how gender, a socially constructed identity can be performed and impersonated with the use of costume, voice, and mannerisms. (Shmoop) The audience is shown first-hand how gender identity plays a vital role in how Viola is treated, by men and women when she assumed the identity of a man. Another play that represent the role of women was the Taming of the Shrew which showed patriarch at its worst. Petruchio the lead male character is determined to be his wife’s lord and master, by abusing her, humiliating her, starving her and more. Katherine has no choice and is basically her husband’s property which means she has to play nice if she wants to eat, sleep and be treated properly.

Contemporary Context

In Much Ado About Nothing the two main characters are limited due to their gender. Society did not permit wives to work outside of their homes if their husbands were employed. The theme of “stereotypical role of women” are represented in both in the Elizabethan era and 20th century, society is governed by patriarchal societies in the belief that a woman’s place was in her home, birthing a raising her children and taking care of her husband. Women are to be seen and not heard, women could not vote, had no authority, no legal positions, only certain women were allowed to work in certain occupations. But in the 20th century women roles changed due to the World War 1 which demanded that women partake in roles they had never done before, the period served as one that marked female independence. Before the 20th century did not permit women to work outside their homes if their husbands were employed. The role of women was restricted to taking care of their home, husband and children. However, during the Elizabethan era Many women (upper class women) were educated such as the queen herself, Lady Burghley, Mary Dudley, Lady Sidney and Countess of Pembroke. Women were not allowed to go to school or college but could be educated at home by tutors. (QE)There difference between the two era’s is that the twentieth century men are actually forced to rely and depend on women. In the 20th century the effects of the war provided motivation for the impending recognition of women’s contribution to society. In which allowing all women to work beside men and have political rights to vote etc. The changing roles of women were not only evident in the workplace but also in the general treatment in society. The 20th century woman began partaking in knowledge sharing, publishing books and materials that called for the liberation of women including their gender roles. I guess I would say that in the Elizabethan era only certain women in certain classes were allowed certain privileges, but in the 20th century all women (and I use all very loosely) were allowed to work, learn and almost seen as an equal to men.

The stereotype of role of women endures through time because a good chunk of the world is governed by patriarchal society. Society has a set of ideas about how we expect women to behave, dress and present themselves. For example, women are supposed to be feminine which means naïve, sexually inexperienced, passive, soft and accepting etc. Shakespeare on the other hand acknowledge, engages and rejects the notion and stereotypes about women that were held by many during the Elizabethan Era. In todays world the stereotype of role of women still exist but the twentieth century gives us the interpretation of having to change its ways due to certain circumstances. The role of women had a drastic change during and after the World War 2. The changes in both economic and social roles of women at the time were seen as a desperate attempt by the society to redeem it following the occupation of most men in the war. Women were called upon to fill the shoes left behind by their male counterparts in building the world. (Essay Typing) Following the events of the world war, the worlds view of women in employment changed, it laid the foundation for the change of the role of women in society. It also prompted women to fight for change in their gender roles.

The reason why Shakespeare legacy endures in contemporary culture because he understood the human character and its weakness and their imperfection, he also made fun of social norms during his time. His plays are believable and teach a moral lesson and his work remains relevant today because his works can still be related to. I believe Shakespeare’s legacy will always remain current. Because every so often his plays are being studied in English and drama classes they are always being remade or being based off his work. For example, some of the earliest silent pictures were of Shakespeare plays for example King John was made into a short feature in 1899, Midsummers Night Dream in 1909. Presently movies such as 10 things I Hate About you which was inspired by The Taming of the Shrew, Gnomeo and Juliet based on Romeo and Juliet or She’s the Man based off the Twelfth Night. Shakespeare acknowledge and rejected notions of the stereotypes about women which continues as his work is studied and used for inspiration.

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Role of Women in Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing". (2022, Feb 03). Retrieved December 4, 2023 , from

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