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Let’s consider the place of woman and its relationship to the play. You would think that the place of women in Shakespeare’s time was very different from today…and on many levels this is true. We don’t get dunked in the Thames if we talk too much; we don’t get burned at the stake for being too beautiful and bewitching (at least, not literally).

But can you not think of examples of prescriptive literature that tells women how to dress, what to eat, how to get a man, how to keep a man, what we should think, when we should get married, the age we should have children, how we should raise our children, how skinny we should be or how young we should look?

Shakespeare’s plays, particularly the comedies, register the tension between what was expected of women and how they actually behaved. The expectations of women were clear. Here’s a quotation from Juan Luis Vives, a Spanish Humanist scholar, whose work ‘The Instruction of Christian Woman’ (1529) was translated into English in the 16th century:

‘the maidens should keep themselves…from either hearing or saying or yet thinking any foul thing, which thing she shall labour to do. Nevertheless at other times too and unto the time they be married, much fasting shall be good, which doth not feeble to body, but bridle it and press it down and quench the heat of youth’

Clearly, women haven’t escaped the pressure placed upon them to deprive their bodies of food!

Women weren’t only supposed to keep their bodies clean, but their minds as well. Their chastity should be mental as well as physical; their silence should indicate pious thoughts and their obedience would demonstrate their complete submission to the wills of their superiors: husbands, fathers, God.

Here are a few more examples from Vives that indicate how someone like Hero would have been expected to behave.

‘chastity is the principal virtue of a woman’

‘Now shamefastness and sobriety be the inseparable companions of chastity’

‘as oft as a maid goeth forth among people, so often she cometh in judgement and extreme peril of her beauty, honesty, demureness, wit, shamefastness and virtue’

These prescriptions are fundamental to understanding Hero’s predicament; it is not just cheating on Claudio, it is cheating on God, on society and it is damaging the honour of her father. Today, in many parts of the world, young girls are considered to be wholly responsible for the honour of their families.

 (Article taken from a lecture by Dr. Farah Karim-Cooper)