Fear of the Feminine

Beatrice
in Much Ado about Nothing (1598)
by William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare, in describing the behavior of his characters in the paradigm of 13th century Italy could just as well be speaking of 21st century America. “[We] see that the whole society is filled with a kind of civilized shallowness.” Notice what a perfect description one critic gives of the false self as several key characters return from war in good spirits. “The heroes of the war, Don Pedro, Claudio, and Benedick, return in high spirits and good humor, seemingly untouched by their experiences, seeking comfort, games and diversion.”

Beatrice is the only one who comes close to seeing beyond the folly of the childish narrative that drives the behavior of the other characters. “Only Beatrice is unimpressed by the soldiers’ grand entrance, for she knows what they are. Between ‘noble’ actions, they, like Benedick, are no more than seducers, ‘valiant trencher’ men, or gluttons and leeches. Or like Claudio they are vain young boys ready to fall in love on a whim. Even the stately Don Pedro is a fool who proposes to Beatrice on impulse after he has wooed the childish Hero for the inarticulate Claudio. After witnessing their behavior we look back to Beatrice’s initial cynicism—‘I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow, than a man swear he loves me’—and applaud it as wisdom.”

In “Fathering Herself: a Source Study of Shakespeare’s Feminism,” Claire McEachern says that Shakespeare has created a father who has a false self too fragile to tolerate a self-reliant daughter. “As a father, Leonato is ‘caught in the inconsistency at the heart of patriarchy; he is unjust, disloyal, and too ready to sacrifice his love for his daughter to that of the ideal of male alliance.’ His male authority, in the role of father, has been damaged and to regain his social power among men in Messina, he must renounce his daughter and wish her dead.”

How outrageous! How could a father even think such a thing? Thankfully, we are 400 years beyond that patriarchal behavior. Alas, that worldview is alive and well in the Middle East, South America and Asia.  Leonato’s verbal actions are not unlike the physical ‘honor killings’ which go on today in such countries as Jordan, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Morocco, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and some South American nations. Women within some societies of these countries are not free but are the property of their male relatives. Men dictate what women may and may not do, and the men are free to do with the women as they wish. “More often than every two hours a woman is killed by a male relative for any reason—even if the reason is illusionary—and this practice is supported by the views of the nations and religions in which they live.”

In such societies, of course, this behavior is because the men fear the women. Women are seen as having the power through their behavior to ruin the family’s honor. The worldview in such communities is that the only way to save face and the family’s reputation is to kill the woman.

O what men dare do! What men may do!
What men daily do, not knowing what they do!
Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing (IV-i-19)

But alas, what we know about those who try to live by the wisdom flowing from the heart—they have little hope unless they can transcend the old, toxic narrative. Without the support that P-A offers, Beatrice ultimately succumbs and assumes an identity consistent with the other characters and falls under the spell of her false-self conditioning. After so brief a visit to the paradise of the present moment, she wanders out of the Garden, “East of Eden” back into Paradigm B.

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References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.

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