Much Ado about Nothing features many virtuous, proper characters who behave in an upper-class manner befitting the upper crust of the Renaissance. As a result, a great importance is placed upon virginity, chastity, and avoiding scandal at any cost. Virtue and honor are very important in this society, with a great emphasis on remaining faithful and virginal for one’s husband. In this essay, the ideals of virtue and virginity/sex will be explored in Much Ado about Nothing, including how many characters deal with these issues.
In the beginning of the play, Claudio is attempting to woo Leonato’s daughter, Hero. One of the ways in which he does so is by attempting to elevate his social status through language, using lordly words and intricate phrases to thrill her with his intelligence, and therefore, his virtue. “His words are a very fantastical banquet, just so many strange dishes,” Benedick says of Claudio in this moment (II.iii.18–19).
When familial conflicts inspire Don John, the ill-favored brother of Leonato, to find a way to undermine Claudio, he chooses to do so in myriad ways. First, he attempts to confuse the easily swayed and jealous Claudio by claiming that Don Pedro, who is wooing Hero for him, is actually taking her for himself. However, this soon backfires, as Don Pedro convinces Claudio that nothing is amiss. The courtship with Claudio and Hero proceeds abate.
Don John succeeds in his next attempt, however, by providing false “proof” of Claudio’s fiancée having improper relations with another man. What’s more, he invites Claudio to watch from out the window, while his man Borachio makes love with Hero’s servant Margaret, who is dressed up in her clothes. This dismays him incredibly; thinking that it is Hero, he declares right then and there that the wedding is off. Not only that, however, but he will wait to confront Hero about it at the wedding.
Claudio will have nothing to do with Hero upon hearing of this terrible happenstance; he shuns her entirely and publicly at their wedding. In light of this instance, even her own father, Leonato, says “Hence from her, let her die” (IV.i.153). The revelation of this incredible betrayal is too much for even her own father to bear. “O she is fallen / Into a pit of ink, that the wide sea / Hath drops too few to wash her clean again” (IV.i.138–140). He relates the act of love as a treacherous act, particularly when it is not at the hands of her betrothed, Claudio.
His description of her as a harlot is especially cutting; “you seem to me as Dian in her orb, / As chaste as is the bud ere it be blown; / But you are more intemperate in your blood / Than Venus, or those pamper’d animals / That rage in savage sensuality” (IV.i). Claudio equates sex with animalism, and animalism as a negative attribute. Therefore, a harlot, a slut, someone who has sex before marriage is not virtuous, and therefore not capable of proper humanity.
A great deal of shame and damage to Hero’s honor happens as a result of the accusation of adultery. Claudio calls her a “rotten orange” (IV.i.30). Leonato says that “the wide sea / Hath . . . / . . . salt too little which may season give / To her foul tainted flesh!” (IV.i.139–142). All of this was according to Don John’s plan; even the mere accusation or suspicion of infidelity would completely derail any goodwill she had with her jealous fiancée or protective father. This is in tune with the incredibly civil and polite Renaissance society the characters inhabit; everything and everyone must be proper, prim and chaste. Don John, being an illegitimate son himself, completely understands the shame that occurs as a result of these circumstances. At the same time, he wishes to be Don Pedro’s favorite, instead of Claudio; as a result, he engages in this plan to completely shame Hero and bring Claudio to such untoward behavior.
The biggest problem Hero faces is the inability to defend herself and reclaim her honor; as a man, this is easy, but as a woman, it is impossible. The men seek to regain honor through duels and alliances (e.g. Claudio being challenged by both Leonato and Benedick), but all Hero can do is feign death. The situation in the play is boiled down to the fact that, either Leonato finds a way to clear Hero’s name, or she must take another identity and go to a nunnery. Despite the apparent difference in honor between the men and the alleged whore Hero, Claudio and Leonato engage in very uncouth, angry, impolite behavior, shaming Hero publicly instead of confronting her privately before the wedding.
Claudio says to her, “fare thee well, most foul, most fair, farewell / Thou pure impiety and impious purity. / For thee I’ll lock up all the gates of love, / And on my eyelids shall conjecture hang to turn all beauty into thoughts of harm / And never shall it more be gracious.” (IV.i.101-106). This is meant to let the whole world know what she did to him, though he is jealous enough to merely assume that the rumors are correct before checking up on them. In such a proper, virtuous society as Claudio believes it is, however, he could not believe that these rumors are anything but the truth. The most terrible insult to Claudio, in his eyes, is the loss of her virginity, which is seen as her virtue. Therefore, Hero is no longer a ‘hero’ to him; she is used up, impure, and therefore worthy of being thrown away.
After having rebuked Hero, she and Leonato feign her death, leaving Claudio to find out the truth – that she was being faithful, and it was a trick – on his own. As a gesture of recompense toward Leonato, he offers to marry Leonato’s “niece,” who bears a striking resemblance to Hero. “Which is the lady I must seize upon?” Claudio says when he is forced to marry someone else at the altar, though he feels obligated to do so through his actions (V.iv.53)
The play’s other subplot, that of Beatrice and Benedick, both forever bachelors who see not the virtue of marriage, also touches on themes of honor and virtue. By never seeing the point of marriage, the two constantly spar with one another, though everyone else believes that they ought to be together, and scheme to do so. One of these tactics is allowing Benedick to overhear a conversation between then about how Beatrice is extremely enamored with Benedick. Benedick then says to himself, “They say the lady is fair. ‘Tis a truth, I can bear them witness. And virtuous – ‘tis so, I cannot reprove it. And wise, but for loving me” (II.iii.204-206).
As a result of this conversation, he begins to reevaluate his feelings for her. In his mind, virtue is equal to loveliness; in few other plays or scenarios would someone fall in love with someone else based on their mere virtuous attributes. However, Benedick soon learns to love her because of her good qualities. In this context, the word ‘virtuous’ also refers to her virginity, and, as Benedick is unmarried, it is likely that he is still a virgin. Therefore, they are both virtuous characters, though they perpetually believe that they are too good for the other due to their stubborn ideas about marriage. (However, it must be noted that virtue in the virginity sense is much more highly stressed of a social trait in women than in men (Collington, 2006)).
In the world of Much Ado about Nothing, virtue and virginity are very closely intertwined. The villainous characters are either bastards (Don John) or those willing to have sex with unmarried women, particularly to further a scheme (Borachio). On the other hand, the play heralds couples who wish to marry (Claudio and Hero, Benedick and Beatrice) before they commence the act of love. When Don John manages to plant the seed of suspicion in Claudio’s mind he runs with it, his own feelings of Hero turning to hatred once she no longer becomes virtuous.
What’s more, one of the major selling points of Beatrice for Benedick is that she, too, is virtuous. As a result, the men of this play (and of the Renaissance, particularly in this social class) place a high importance on virginity. They cannot stand the idea of the woman being with another man before them, the one they would marry.
Collington, Philip. "'Stuffed with all honourable virtues': Much Ado About Nothing and The Book of the Courtier." Studies in Philology 103.3 (2006): 1. Print.
Jorgensen, Paul. "Much Ado About Nothing." Shakespeare Quarterly 5.3 (1954): 1. Print.
Shakespeare, William. "Much Ado About Nothing." The Norton Shakespeare . New York: W.W. Norton, 1997. 1. Print.