Sunday, September 30, 2012

Faking Hero's Death; What's the Point?

Hero's feigned death in Much Ado About Nothing says a lot about the status of women during Shakespeare's time, especially considering Hero's unique position as Leonato's only heir.

Unlike men (whose honor is determined by title, money and status) a woman's honor is centered around her sexuality and purity until marriage. Men could defend their honor through battle and wit, but once Hero's honor was slaughtered by Claudio the only way for her to regain it was to have her name publicly cleared by him and her death to be mourned so she could be re-birthed through marriage as a known virgin.Only then could she inherit Leonato's money and save her name (as well as her father's).

I found her staged death to be discomforting and unnecessary; once it was clear that she had indeed been framed and that Claudio was still in love with her and prepared to marry her, why did the death-ceremony in Act V scene III need to happen? Did Claudio really think that Hero literally died of shame, or was everyone aware that the ceremony was merely metaphoric?

Claudio's poem "Epitaph" in 5.3 seemed to be the turning point of the play, where wrongs committed through deception were righted (interesting to note is that while deception was used to arrange love and marriages, it also nearly caused the demise of the most important marriage of the play!):

Done to death by slanderous tongues
Was the Hero that here lies.
Death in guerdon of her wrongs
Gives her fame which never dies.
So the life that died with shame
Lives in death with glorious fame.

I understand that "Done to death by slanderous tongues/Was the Hero that here lies" describes a woman's may-as-well-be-dead scenario if her virginity is not in-tact on her wedding day, but what still confuses me is if the ceremonial death was done by Shakespeare to illuminate the gender gap or if it's an accurate representation of what would be done to a slandered woman of Hero's class and status.

If it's a representation of how much power Hero doesn't have because she's a woman (whereas if she had been born a man her inheritance would never be wrangled from her and her position in society, as Leonato's only heir, would be much more profound), I believe Shakespeare poses a pretty interesting question among an otherwise silly and hilarious comedy; why is the position of women so heavily reliant on their virginity? And what would have happened to Hero if the watchmen were never able to capture Conrad and Borrachio? Is the horror of the alternative ending great enough to cause Shakespeare's audience to reconsider the value of virginity? Probably not, considering a woman's sexuality is, unfortunately, still a forefront of her identity and "power" in today's society.


Kelsey Maher said...

I agree that the staging of Hero's death was unnecessary, especially when after she supposedly died, Claudio was so quickly able to move on from her and marry her cousin just so that he would be forgiven by Leonato. I feel as though he was let off the hook too easily and should have suffered longer for his cruel treatment of her. I also wondered while reading what would have happened if Conrad and Borrachio were never captured. Would the wedding between Claudio and Hero's cousin still have happened? If so, would Claudio have readily married Hero if he still believed her to be unfaithful? I feel as though the wedding further emphasizes the importance of a woman's virginity and makes the gap between men and women, and the status of women as objects, that much more pronounced.

Cyrus Mulready said...

Your post raises and addresses a great question, Julian. I think you make a good claim, too, that Shakespeare might be uncovering the unfairness of societal attitudes toward women and the extent to which their value resides in their chastity. Your final point shouldn't be lost, either, that society today still empowers (and disempowers) women based on sexuality.