Feminist Sundays: Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing

Feminist Sundays is a meme created by Elena over at Books and Reviews. Here’s what she says about it: “Feminist Sundays is a weekly meme created at Books and Reviews. The aim is simply to have a place and a time to talk about feminism and women’s issues. This is a place of tolerance, creativity, discussion, criticism and praise. Remember to keep in mind that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, although healthy discussion is encouraged.” Do head over to Books and Reviews to read the excellent posts for this meme so far.

So, this isn’t my usual sort of post, with a theme and two book choices.  Instead, as part of Feminist Sundays I was thinking about any times that a feminist discussion has come up around something I’m reading.  And I remembered a tutor of mine saying that she thought she’d been such a doormat in her first marriage because she’d unconsciously integrated the misogynistic attitudes towards women from her specialism, Renaissance literature (inappropriate disclosure to her students about her personal life was another speciality of hers).

Now, I love Early Modern literature, but I’m not going to try and claim that sixteenth-century England was a progressive, proto-feminist society.  However, at the same time I think my tutor was talking nonsense.  When we look back at Early Modern texts, there are strong females for us to identify with, and I’m going to take a look at one of my favourites, the brilliant Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare. Here’s Emma Thompson in the role:

Beatrice

Image from: (http://www.monologuedb.com/comedic-female-monologues/much-ado-about-nothing-beatrice/)

This is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays; the city I live in (London) has seen 3 productions I can think of in recent years (one at the Globe in 2011, the other with Catherine Tate and David Tennant at Wyndams the same year, one this year with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones at the Old Vic); Joss Whedon also released a film version earlier this year.  I think this is a good indication that Beatrice is a character who still has something relevant to say to us.

For those of you who don’t know the story: a group of soldiers arrive in Messina.  One of the officers, Benedick, has some romantic history with Beatrice (niece of Messina’s governor), and they spend a lot of their time bickering and proclaiming they’re not interested in each other at all – lies, all lies.  Their friends conspire against them, convincing each of the other one’s feelings.  Meanwhile one of the younger soldiers, Claudio, wants to marry the governor’s daughter, Hero, but the evil Don John works to tear this all apart…

This being a comedy, it all works out OK in the end.  Along the way we have some brilliant sparky dialogue from Beatrice.  On hearing Benedick will arrive:

“In our last conflict four of his five wits went halting off, and now is the whole man governed with one: so that if he have wit enough to keep himself warm, let him bear it for a difference between himself and his horse;”

Ouch.  Their first meeting:

Benedick. Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted: and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart; for, truly, I love none.

Beatrice. A dear happiness to women: they would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that: I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.

Benedick. God keep your ladyship still in that mind! so some gentleman or other shall ‘scape a predestinate scratched face.

Beatrice. Scratching could not make it worse, an ’twere such a face as yours were.

Beatrice strives to establish and maintain her own personality amongst a society that deems women should be seen and not heard – something she resolutely refuses to do.  She’s witty, she holds her own against Benedick’s jibes, and she’s caring and honest.  She’s also feisty until the end:

Benedick. Do not you love me?

Beatrice. Why, no; no more than reason.

Benedick. Why, then your uncle and the prince and Claudio
Have been deceived; they swore you did.

Beatrice. Do not you love me?

Benedick. Troth, no; no more than reason.

Beatrice.Why, then my cousin Margaret and Ursula
Are much deceived; for they did swear you did.

Benedick. They swore that you were almost sick for me.

Beatrice.They swore that you were well-nigh dead for me.

Benedick. ‘Tis no such matter. Then you do not love me?

Beatrice.No, truly, but in friendly recompense.

[…]

Beatrice. I would not deny you; but, by this good day, I yield upon great persuasion; and partly to save your life,for I was told you were in a consumption.

Benedick. Peace! I will stop your mouth. (Most productions have him kiss her at this point)

Aww, true love conquers all.  And although my feminist side balks at her mouth being stopped once she’s in a relationship, I also think you could never keep Beatrice down, and marriage will not silence her. She and Benedick form a relationship of equals. Compared to the insipid rent-a-virginal-romantic-lead Hero, Beatrice is a fully realised, complex and intriguing female character.  She’s definitely one of my feminist icons.

Here’s a clip from the very enjoyable Globe production mentioned earlier.  Eve Best plays Beatrice, bantering with Charles Edward’s Benedick:

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20 thoughts on “Feminist Sundays: Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing

  1. Good post. I love Beatrice, she’s one of my favourite female characters but I also balk at the ending. I hate that she conforms so easily and doesn’t speak again. I do think her and Benedick appear to be equals but it does leave a doubt at the end that this won’t continue to be the case.

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    • You’re right – Shakespeare’s endings are rarely all neatly tied up – they do leave questions. I’m hopeful for Beatrice though. More so than some of the other women in Shakespeare who are silenced at the end – Isabella in Measure for Measure is left in a very dark place, I think. But maybe I’m too influenced by modern productions; these days we like to think Beatrice will carry on as she has been, as independent as ever, but she certainly lives in a society where this would be very difficult.

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      • Good point. Portia in The Merchant of Venice is another good example of a woman holding her own in a society that wants to deny her intelligence, although I’m not marrying Bassanio was her smartest move I don’t think he’s going to get one over on her, as it were, either.

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        • That’s an interesting example, because having asserted herself dressed as a man she changes back into female clothing, but I think you’re right, marriage will not diminish her. With Viola in Twelfth Night I think this is symbolised by the fact she stays in her male clothes, but maybe Shakespeare was more confident with Portia to allow her back into her own clothes. I’ve never really understood why she chooses Bassanio though!

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  2. Great post and I have to say you just reminded me how much I love Much Ado About Nothing! I don’t think any other actress could have played Beatrice: Emma Thompson is such a strong, and inspiring woman. Having said this, I still have to read the play.

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    • I am very spoilt living where I live, there’s always an abundance of theatre – cost is the limiting factor 😦 I think the Globe production is on YouTube and the Wyndams production is available at Digital Theatre – not as good as a live performance but still an opportunity to see a production…

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    • I really want to see that film. Its great that you enjoyed it, I don’t know anyone who’s seen it & its always handy to get a recommendation! Joss Whedon has a good track record of strong female characters so I was hopeful he’d do Beatrice justice.

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  3. Terrific post and discussion. Beatrice – of all Shakespeare’s women – is the one I have the highest hopes for. Shakespeare may well have planned a silent future for her, but he made her too vivid for that to hold true. And thank goodness!

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    • Tricky to answer….I think Beatrice’s appeal is a complex mix of wit, hostilty, anger & vulnerabilty. Its hard to seperate her charming wit from her hostility, but I wouldn’t like to guess what specifically appeals to audiences when – they are a disparate bunch!

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      • I think you’re right. I was just thinking that, if I were writing Beatrice, I’m not sure I could make her open to love and charmingly independent at the same time.

        I wonder if they are, to an extent, mutually exclusive.

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        • I really hope not! I think we tend to figure love in our language in terms of dependency (you are my everything/I can’t live without you etc) but in fact a love based on independent choice rather than co-dependency would seem to me to be healthier, and have a chance of enduring. So I think there’s hope of love for all the charmingly independent people out there!

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