In ““Much Ado About Nothing””, 16th Century Messina is a deeply convention bound society, a world which is busy, light heated, witty, optimistic, cheerful and in many ways attractive. However the strictness of its code of behaviour is a serious reality bubbling beneath Messina’s frivolous exterior and the characters in Messina find it much easier to believe in words about people, rather than in people themselves.
Hero, as the daughter of Leonato the prestigious governor of Messina, is publicly judged on how obedient she is to her father’s wishes and we soon realise that her father and society will only honour her if her own personal honour is protected by her chastity. Hero must be a maiden until her wedding night to comply with the conventions of society, and to fulfil the role of the male ideal of the ‘perfect’ wife she must remain a spotless virgin.
However Leonato’s house is constantly riddled with gossip, rumour and eavesdropping with eavesdropping almost a full time occupation and Messina’s taste for impulsively trusting and withdrawing trust in others is a weakness in its social dealings. Thus deception dominates the world of ““Much Ado About Nothing”” and is skillfully interwoven with the notion of honour, which exposes this society to malicious harm, making accusations of unchaste and untrustworthy behaviour just as damaging to a woman’s honour as her behaviour itself. Claudio too is the victim of gossip and false report.
A soldier turned lover, he mistakenly believes himself betrayed by the women whom he loves and who he entrusted his love to. Because of Messenian society’s constant deceptions, gossip and lies, Claudio actually denounces Hero as his intended bride at the wedding altar, accusing her of being unchaste and ultimately shaming her and striping her of her honour in a pitiful attempt to regain his own honour. Although shocked and stunned at this accusation Hero is able to hold onto her dignity until she faints, protesting her innocence and becoming an image of death.
Now this response may seem like an overreaction or an exaggeration in the eyes of a person living in the twenty first century, but honour in the 1600’s defined who a woman was and a woman’s honour was based upon her virginity and chaste behaviour. If a woman was to lose her honour by having sexual relations before marriage, she would loose all social standing, a disaster from which neither she nor her family would ever recover. Thus Leonato finds Hero’s image of death completely natural in these circumstances, which highlights the sexist male attitude prevalent at that time.
His response “Death is the fairest cover of her shame that may be wished for”, illustrates how ridiculously important honour for women was because a woman without her virginity was worthless to both her father and her intended husband because her honour had been stripped from her. Both Leonato and Claudio’s venomous attacks on Hero show how hideously a female at that time was treated when her virginity was contested. Hero’s honour has been stripped from her by her supposed actions and Claudio is no longer willing to accept her as his wife because of the dishonour she will bring him.
Here Shakespeare cleverly aligns both Claudio and Leonato to represent the male viewpoint and the code of honour that they held so dearly. Ironically Claudio is in no way held to the same pre-marital expectations of honour as Hero is because noble or well to do families were greatly concerned with the chastity of their woman, who became their kin through marriage and premarital relationships on the woman’s part were considered immoral because it was feared that impure blood would be introduced into the family bloodline, which could then lead to disputes over inheritance claims, and power struggles and disgrace as the inevitable consequence.
Thus the way virginity was prized in their woman did not transfer to the male code of conduct and male virginity was never a pre-requisite for marriage. So it is easy to see that ““Much Ado About Nothing”” is centrally interested in the code of honour by which rule can be maintained. While for women honour lay in her chastity, for men honour depended on male friendships, alliances and was more military in nature. Unlike women, a man could defend his honour and that of his families by fighting in battle.
This code of honour that we see in ““Much Ado About Nothing”” had sprung from an earlier feudal code, and was a European phenomenon. This code of honour lay, often uncomfortably, alongside the new legal and religious codes, which were also used to consolidate the monarchs in their absolute power. It defined the conditions of membership of the community and honour and its central moral imperative remained what it had always been, the need to be true to one’s word. A man was as good as his word. To keep faith meant continuing allegiance to the code of honour, whereas to break it brought shame and banishment.
Thus the customs of the code of honour were maintained chiefly by the conventions of society. However these conventions and the code of honour have rapidly changed over the decades. The perception of honour in our generation today has changed dramatically. Families today do not rely upon chaste behaviour to bring them power and position in society and although it may be considered immoral by some to loose their virginity before marriage, the majority of the population find it socially acceptable to have sexual relations before marriage.
Honour for men has not changed quite so significantly and honour for men today is still very similar. Forming strong bonds, friendships and alliances between other males is the norm. However the scale and strength at which this occurs has decreased dramatically, because not as many men go to war which is were the most binding of these bonds is formed. These days it seems that these kinds of male bonds are formed on the sports field rather than on the battlefield, causing male honour to be on a backwards slide.
The trend we now see in the twenty first century is that honour is no longer as important to us as it was in the 1600’s and this underpins many of society’s problems. Although the code of honour which bound the characters of ““Much Ado About Nothing”” to the conventions of society and confined most of civilization in the 1600’s to live within its constraints was restrictive and oppressive, this code of conduct, defining as it did a person’s worth, ensured that there was a social responsibility concerning people’s behaviour which is all too often missing in today’s ‘me’ generation.