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Slander is dramatic, theatrical and public. It is a rhetorical exercise - known as vituperatio - it is a triangular conceit involving the slanderer, the listener and the victim. However, slander is only effective if it is undetected.

Slander was a powerful weapon against women. If the Renaissance woman was accused of being a ‘whore’, or bringing dishonour to her family, her life was destroyed economically and sometimes physically. When Claudio says to Hero, ‘Thou pure impiety and impious purity.’(4.1.104), it has the potential to bring about her death. When Leonato hears the accusations against Hero, he becomes overwhelmed by shame. Shame is connected to slander and is of paramount importance in this play. In this play, shame is the deliberate effect of the slander and later Claudio has to go through his own shaming process in order to recuperate what he almost lost, Hero.

If an honourable reputation is one of the key concepts of Renaissance culture, then how is shame relevant now? The media, celebrity culture and political ambivalence have led the current age to be labeled ‘shameless’. Is that true?  The definition of shame may have changed since Shakespeare’s time, but generally students will be acquainted with one form of shame or another; we feel personal shame for all kinds of reason; we get shamed at school by our peers, by our parents, by our teachers. And collectively, countries can be shamed by the actions of their presidents. Now we have celebrity shaming, the tabloids constantly shame and greedily devour the personalities they helped to create.

Nowadays, shame is largely social; the concept of spiritual shame however, is still felt among many religions other than Christianity—including Islam—where the daughters of the family carry the burden of being the keepers of family honour.


When Leonato says:

Wherefore? Why, doth not every earthly thing

Cry shame upon her? Could she here deny

The story that is printed in her blood?

Do not live, Hero; do not ope thine eyes!

For did I think thou wouldst not quickly die,

Thought I thy spirits were stronger than thy shames,

Myself would on the rearward of reproaches

Strike at thy life. Grieved I, I had but one?

Chid I for that at frugal Nature’s frame?

O, one too much by thee! Why had I one? (4.1.120-129)


Leanato feels Hero’s shame is so great that if the burden of it doesn’t kill her than he will kill her to prevent it from spreading like a disease throughout his house and his name. He feels the necessity to add to her public shame to save his own face.


The public nature of Hero's shaming is part of the play's theatricality. The plan to humiliate Hero publicly creates a theatrical spectacle akin to the public shaming of women such as being dunked in ducking stools. By turning Hero's shaming into a theatrical event, Shakespeare makes us aware of the dangerous power of slander, effected with just a few items of Hero’s clothing, and fallibility of human judgment.  


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