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Much Ado About Nothing interrogates the rituals of courtship, love and marriage. Marriage is under the microscope in this play; and through the quips and exchanges about marriage we get a glimpse of how the prescriptive literature of the time advised women and men to conduct themselves.

‘first that she reverence her husband. Secondly, that she submit herself and be obedient unto him. And lastly that she do not wear gorgeous apparel, beyond her degree and place, but that her attire be comely and sober’

Much Ado About Nothing appears to reinforce such prescriptions while ridiculing them at the same time. There are two things that married men most feared: scolding wives and cheating wives. A man whose wife cheated on him was known as a cuckold – the name comes from cuckoos which often leave their eggs in other cuckoo’s nests but the sign of a cuckold is of two horns.

The fear of cuckoldry is referred to frequently in the play, manifesting itself in jokes, witty exchanges and large amount of animal imagery. Even as all of the social bonds are formed at the end, the final sentiments of the play again fixate upon the fear of the horns:

‘There is no staff more reverend than one tipped with horn’

(Benedick, V.iv.121)

Women who nagged or cheated on their husbands were punished, often by being dunked into a river. The idea was this would ‘cool her immoderate heat’. Another form of punishment was to literally shut a woman up by imprisoning her in a bridle – basically treating her like an animal, no better than a dog or a horse. These were seen as legitimate forms of punishment and were often carried out by the village constable.

But not everyone thought that this was right. There was a group of writers that spoke out against the injustices to which women were subjected. Because ‘Feminism’ was not a word in Shakespeare’s day, these writers can be known as proto-feminists. Here are some examples of what they said:

‘woman was made a part of man after that he was a living soul; yet was she not produced from Adam’s foot, to be his too low inferior; nor from his head to be his superior; but from his side, near his heart, to be his equal, that where he is lord she may be lady’

(Rachel Speght, 1617)

‘In the sex is all the difference, which is but only in the body. For she hath the same reasonable soul, and in that there is neither hes nor shes, neither excellency nor superiority’.

(William Austin, 1637)

Beatrice embodies this notion – and therefore her character makes bold, almost subversive, statement.

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