Loss of Honor in Much Ado about Nothing

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      A woman's loss of honor has significant consequences in Much Ado about Nothing; even the thought or suspicion of it is devastating for Hero. A woman must be married a virgin, or if that Cannot be attained, it is her soon-to-be husband who must have taken her to bed, an act, which Leonato suggests, can be pardoned. As Leonato tries to understand why Claudio is hesitating in the first marriage scene in act 4, he implies that maybe Claudio has been with Hero, and Shakespeare insinuates that Leonato is about to forgive Claudio for this. Dear my lord," Leonato says, "if you in your own proof Have vanquished the resistance of her youth, And made defeat of her virginity." But Claudio denies this, saying quickly that he knows what Leonato is about to say, but this is nowhere near the truth of the matter. "I know what you would say: if I have known her, You will say she did embrace me as a husband," Claudio says. This would be approved, in other words. But the fact that Hero might have had sexual relations with a man other than Claudio is unthinkable. One of the reasons for this is that inheritance was passed down from the father to the firstborn son. In order to prove that the first-born son was indeed a creation of the husband's, the newlywed wife had to be a virgin. No matter how much Claudio might have been in love with Hero prior to this knowledge, he can no longer love her, cannot marry her. And not only this, Hero is so publicly shamed by this accusation that her own father is willing to kill her. One could almost forgive Claudio for no longer wanting Hero, at least back in the sixteenth century; but for her own father to want to murder his daughter after obviously loving her from the time of her birth is unforgivable by twenty-first century audiences.

      It is from these attitudes of Leonato's that modern audiences can sense how important a woman's virginity was in Shakespeare's time. The loss of virginity appears to be a worse crime than murder. There is no mention of a similar pressure on men. Benedick mentions brothels, which implies that he has visited them; and Borachio mentions having an affair with Margaret, Hero's lady-in-waiting. So the standard of chastity seems to apply only to women of the upper classes.

      Although the character of Beatrice could easily be likened to a modern women in that she speaks her mind, she is not concerned about having a husband to make her whole and challenges Benedick to prove his love instead of just taking him at his word, there still remains in this play the double standard for men and women, as seen in the emphasis put on a woman's loss of honor.

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