Synopsis and Commentary 1Parents and Children; Social Expectation
In all his comedies Shakespeare explored the relationship between parents and children, linking it with broader questions of the dynamic between old and new generations. In Much Ado About Nothing, he expressed this through the contribution made by parents in the marriages of their children. Leonato is Hero's father and Beatrice's uncle. Although Beatrice's parents do not appear in the play, she makes one reference to her mother:
"the other [Benedick] too like my lady's eldest son, evermore tattling." (2.1.8-9)
Here Shakespeare gives us a glimpse of the family circle that he has chosen to exclude from the play. Beatrice is free from parental supervision. Shakespeare makes her independent in this way in order to draw a contrast between her and her cousin Hero, who is subject to her father Leonato. The two girls are at marriageable age, and Hero's family circle is on the look-out for a suitable husband for her. Beatrice, on the other hand, must take care of herself. In Act 2 Scene 1 Beatrice describes the perfect husband, suggesting as she does so that such a man is unattainable:
"He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man; and he that more than a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a man, I am not for him." (1.2.31-34)
Amused and, we suspect, somewhat exhausted by Beatrice's wit, Antonio (Hero's uncle) turns to his niece, saying,
"I trust you will be ruled by your father."
Beatrice picks up on this expression of patriarchal dominance and makes a joke out of it:
"Yes, faith; it is my cousin's duty to make curtsy and say, 'Father, as it please you'. But for all that, cousin, let him be a handsome fellow, or else make another curtsy and say, 'Father, as it please me'". (1.2.46- 49)
Underneath Beatrice's humour is a seam of truth: it is Hero's duty to obey her father. Beatrice points out the gravity of this subjection in her next speech:
"Would it not grieve a woman to be over-mastered with a piece of valiant dust?
Beatrice's independence allows her to resolve not to marry; Leonato's paternal authority and his conventional expectations of his daughter would make it impossible for Hero to do the same. However, Beatrice's freedom comes at a price. Later in Act 2 Scene 1 Beatrice admits to Don Pedro that in the past she and Benedick have had a relationship:
"Don Pedro: Come, lady, come; you have lost the heart of Signor Benedick.
Beatrice was free to be involved with Benedick without being married to him, but this has caused her pain. Hero, on the other hand, barely speaks to Claudio before they are betrothed. This, however, does not spare her pain. Hero's engagement to Claudio is arranged by Leonato and Don Pedro. In the opening scene Leonato remarks that "Don Pedro hath bestowed much honour on a young Florentine called Claudio". Most productions have this line spoken in a slyly suggestive way, with Leonato looking at Hero, who blushes amid the nudges and giggles of Beatrice, Margaret and Ursula. At the end of 1.1 Claudio confesses his love for Hero to Don Pedro in what seems like standard courtly language. Benedick, who has been teasing Claudio about Hero, leaves, and the register immediately moves from prose into poetry. Claudio's first question is about Hero's inheritance; he asks,
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