Misogyny in Much Ado About Nothing
I’ve read a lot of scholarly
articles on Much Ado About Nothing that dismiss Don John as a terrible villain,
or criticise Shakespeare for the lack of finesse in constructing him, but
honestly, I’ve always felt like that’s the point.
Don John is no sly, silver-tongued
Iago – he is crude, brash and malicious. He makes statements like “I am a
plain-dealing villain,” goes about attended by idiot henchmen, and takes advice and inspiration for his plots from others around him.
But even so, this weak caricature of a villain nearly brings ruin upon all of Messina.
Because, even before he had made plans to trick Claudio into thinking Hero was unfaithful, the culture of Messina had already done most of the work for him. Don John is not the true villain of this play; he is merely an agent. The real villain of Much Ado About Nothing is the culture of misogyny in Messina.
From the moment Benedick and the soldiers return to Messina, they engage in lewd sexual banter and joke about horns, adultery and cuckoldry. Leonato’s first instinct upon greeting them is to make such a joke, for when Don Pedro politely inquires if Hero is his daughter the old gentleman immediately quips, “Her mother hath many times told me so.” This banter speaks volumes about the underlying misogyny and anxieties about female sexuality that the men share, and it works to create an atmosphere that is ripe for Hero’s shocking rejection.
Thus, all Don John has to do is suggest to Claudio that Hero is unfaithful, offer him a sliver of proof, and the prince and Claudio, made susceptible by popular myths of female inconstancy, find the rest of the proof themselves. Claudio starts to see certain cues as evidence of Hero’s guilt where before they were badges of honour. He declares, “Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty.” And so Hero, by the simple machinations of a cardboard cutout villain, is publicly disgraced, left for dead, and threatened with death by her own father, showcasing how quickly those seemingly harmless jokes about women can escalate to actual violence.
What’s more, this culture of misogyny is what keeps Benedick and Beatrice apart. These two dorks start the play madly in love with each other, but their shared fear of horns and cuckoldry divides them. Beatrice is also repelled by Benedick’s attitude as a self-confessed “tyrant” to her sex, and patriarchal culture has convinced her that no marriage could ever be happy, and no man faithful. Both of them (but especially Benedick) must thus overcome and abandon patriarchal values and the culture of misogyny they are entrenched in. Again, the culture of Messina is the antagonist, not Don John.
Beatrice has the advantage of being resentful and rebellious towards patriarchal culture from the very beginning, and so it is Benedick’s
conquering of his sexist attitude that becomes the axis on which the rest of the play
turns. He starts off entrenched in a culture of toxic masculinity, but once
he acknowledges his love for Beatrice, and after he sees
Hero disgraced and left for dead, he becomes sickened by the views he
once held. Beatrice flies into a rage at her cousin’s treatment, and in no
uncertain terms rails against
misogyny and the patriarchy and the culture that nearly killed Hero. She wishes
she “were a man for his [Claudio’s] sake,” telling us that, were she a man,
she would use her position of privilege and power to protect women rather than
abuse them. Her next wish, “that I had any friend would be a man for my sake” is
a challenge to Benedick to do what she, as a woman, cannot: defend her cousin with
action, not words, and publicly oppose the culture of misogyny in Messina.
This makes her initial request, “Kill Claudio,” less a demand that Benedick murder his friend and more a plea that he break with the toxic culture of male camaraderie. And Benedick agrees. In the midst of a play saturated with jokes about women’s volubility and defined by the rejection of a supposedly unfaithful woman, he then makes the monumental decision to trust Beatrice. He listens to her when she grieves and finally asks her a single question: “Think you, in your soul that Count Claudio hath wronged Hero?” When she replies in the affirmative, her word is all the proof he needs to part with the prince and challenge his best friend.
When he meets with Don Pedro and
Claudio, they are keen for him to validate their treatment of Hero with his
witticisms, plainly desiring to hear the japes about cuckoldry he had trotted
out at the start of the play. But with Hero almost “done to death by slanderous
tongues,” Benedick knows tongues are as deadly as swords in Messina, and so
leaves his wit in his scabbard. He challenges Claudio and informs the prince he
intends to discontinue his company, officially cutting his ties with their
little boys’ club.
Speaking to Margaret shortly after, Benedick claims he has “a most manly wit… it will not hurt a woman.” He no longer uses his tongue to scorn or denigrate women. Instead, he uses it to delight them, turning his efforts to poetry and song, and courting Beatrice with the jokes and witticisms he once reserved for his male friends. Shakespeare uses Beatrice to convince Benedick, and by extension the audience, of the shortcomings of masculine culture and shows us that true valour comes from men using their strength to protect women rather than hurt them: for this alone may Benedick call his wit “manly.”
Through their love, Benedick and Beatrice conquer the true villain of the play: misogyny. Don John, who is merely the agent, is instead undone by Dogberry and his idiot watchmen, who discover the plot and bring the truth to light. With all put right, the end of the play provides the denouement where Benedick, having proved his valour and cast off misogyny, is at last free to marry the woman he adores. He makes a speech where he mocks the old views about women and marriage he held, gaily advises the prince the marry, and tells Claudio “love my cousin,” the implication being that the only way Claudio and Hero will live happy is if Claudio follows Benedick’s example, throws off misogyny and loves and trusts his new wife as Benedick does Beatrice.
Much Ado About Nothing, quite simply, mocks the hypocrisy of patriarchal society at every turn. It questions why men should demand chastity in women when they display none themselves, and why women are thought of as sexually insatiable when experience generally showed the opposite. The play’s accompanying song Sigh No More is even about the unfaithfulness of men. The lyrics declare “Men were deceivers ever… to one thing constant never,” and the men of Much Ado tend to live up to this, being generally lusty and faithless while the women are constant and faithful. Shakespeare disproves common myths about female inconstancy by making Hero the blameless victim of men’s obsession with female chastity, a scapegoat onto whom all their repressed fears are projected. And Don John, the active agent of the culture of misogyny, is a bastard, living proof of men’s infidelity and unfaithfulness.
So yes, Don John is a terrible villain – but that’s precisely the point. His weak characterisation feeds neatly into the play’s subversive agenda. For what could this bitter, scheming man have accomplished had the culture of misogyny not predisposed Don Pedro and Claudio to suspect unfaithfulness? What power did he have over Benedick and Beatrice, and how did he serve as their antagonist?
Don John is not the true villain. Misogyny is. Hero’s shocking rejection and near-death proves how dangerous misogyny is, and how easily violent words lead to violent actions. Meanwhile, the witty, sparkling lovers journey together to overcome their internalised prejudices, and provide vivid proof of what happiness a marriage based on trust and true equality can bring.
About Nothing is play about a battle of the sexes – and only once the two sides call a truce and
join forces to overcome the real villain, misogyny, may the happy ending be achieved.