Saturday, September 22, 2012

Gender Roles and Marriage

In the first two Acts of Much Ado About Nothing we learn that the Prince, Don Pedro, and his military men or knights are coming to visit the home of the governor of Messina, Leonato.  We learn that noble Claudio is Don Pedro’s right hand man accompanies him and Claudio seems to fall in love with Leonato’s daughter, Hero, at first sight and wishes to marry her.  We also learn that Benedick, another lord who has accompanied Don Pedro, disdains marriage as a yoke around the neck of men, and that Beatrice, Leonato’s niece, is a witty woman who disdains marriage as well and they both dislike one another at the beginning. The treatment of gender is well described in these first two Acts and can be best described provocatively through the characters of Beatrice and Benedick and more traditionally through the characters Hero and Claudio.

The primacy of patriarchy in English society is summed up in a Balthasar’s song:

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more.
Men were deceivers ever
One foot in sea, and one on shore.
To one thing constant never.
Then sigh not so, but let them go.
And be you blithe and bonny.
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into hey nonny, nonny (2.3.57-63).

This song shows men to be deceitful and women to play their role of being beautiful, not complaining and singing their pain away—in other words, suffer in silence. 

Perhaps it is this acknowledgement at the silence women must bear that convinces Beatrice she will never marry since she has no problem speaking her mind and has apparently had years of verbal sparring with Benedick.  It seems as if they both enjoy their taunts and witticisms although, because of the gender roles they are both meant to play, neither will admit that they are attracted to the other. Although Beatrice is given the role of shrew by speaking her mind such as when she tells Benedick, “I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me,” she admits that she “was born to speak all mirth and no matter” (1.1.106-108, 2.1.288-289). This seems to show that her duality in being witty—good for a man, bad for a woman—and yet always happy—expected of the perfect wife.  Even Benedick admits that despite his constant insistence against marriage, “The world must be peopled” (2.3.213-214).  This is the point.  Although men and women may not like losing their freedom, they have to have children to populate England.

Nevertheless, men also had anxiety about marriage as can be seen when Benedick is challenged about his insistence about always living the life of a bachelor, saying, “But that I will have a recheat winded in my forehead, or hang my bugle in an an invisible baldic, all women shall pardon me” or when Don Pedro says, “In time the savage bull doth bear the yoke” (1.1.196-198, 1.1.213-214).  The word “yoke” is a disparaging one.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a “yoke” is “A contrivance, used from ancient times, by which two animals, esp. oxen, are coupled together...” and yet, for an agricultural society, it seems inevitable.


1 comment:

Cyrus Mulready said...

I'm glad you brought up this song, Barbara, and sorry that you aren't able to participate in our discussion today! I'd be curious to know what you think about the promise of "converting songs of woe"--is this possible in the gender dynamics you observe here and in the play as a whole?