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At the end of the play, Benedick reflects that “…man is a giddy thing.” Referring in your answer to two or three key scenes in the play, explain why events in Messina might lead him to that conclusion.
In a play that so clearly focuses on the conflict between reason and emotion, it is a relief to find that the parallels so often drawn between these traits and men and women have been discarded. Shakespeare has turned the stereotypes on their heads to deliver to the audience a play that is not only insightful into the ways in which men and women interact, but that also challenges the audiences ill-founded preconceptions. Indeed, when Benedick refers to man as a “giddy” thing, this can be regarded not only as a reference to humankind, but to men in particular. The series of events that has previously unfolded has led him to believe that men, and not women, are the species that are fickle, reactive and emotional.
The world of Messina is, evidently, a self-contained one, concerned less with the outside world than the preservation of its own superficial values. In fact, the only glimpse we are given of the world outside Messina is in the opening scene, when Don Pedro and his companions return from war, and even here the main characters appear to be more concerned with the fact those lost were “none of name”. The inhabitants of the town are isolated, and thus concern and amuse themselves with fashion, leisure, wit and, importantly, courting. These activities demand of spectators little more than mere observation and this appears to be the standard way of gaining the respect of others. Whilst the men seem to attempt to win the adoration of the women through sport and use of wit, Hero can be seen as something of an ornament, and indeed this is how she is perceived. When asked by Claudio if he took note of Hero with more than a passing interest, Benedick’s response is unmistakable:
“I noted her not, but I looked on her.”
The emotive, instinctive action of “looking” requires no reasoning and appears to be typical of the status quo. The world of Messina has a glossy veneer, and it is this that leads the main characters to show their susceptibility to deception, as judgements founded without thought or reflection are tantamount to mere guesses. Fashion and wit are deceptive tools, and are used thus by the characters. They give first impressions, conveying an impressive appearance, but that is all, as Borachio notes, perceptively:
“Seest thou…what a deformed thief this fashion is…”
Indeed, reliance upon appearance and how things seem to be at first glance inevitably leads to a detachment from reality and leaves one vulnerable to misjudgement and deception. In Act 4 Scene 1 Claudio questions his own discernment, asking rhetorically:
“Is this the Prince’s brother? Is this face Hero’s? Are our eyes our own?”
In the world of Messina, where what is observed is assumed to be true, truth and falsity can become confused, and belief in what the characters see can become fragile. However, the men in the play seem to be less aware of this than the women and in Act 2 Scene 3 the susceptibility of Benedick is shown up and we become aware of how easily his perception can stand in the way of reality. His opinions shift dramatically from talking of marriage scornfully at the beginning of the scene, saying that, “man is a fool when he dedicates himself to love”, to only moments later exclaiming, triumphantly:
“…I will be horribly in love with her.”
Here Benedick shows himself to be not only fickle and unpredictable, but also remarkably inconsistent. The deception of Beatrice in Act 3 Scene 1, on the other hand, despite her expression of an apparently similar response, shows her to be consistent, steadfast and most certainly not “giddy”. She believes what she has heard “better than reportingly,” and therefore is aware of Benedick’s qualities and ability to love without needing to be told, emphasising her ability to deduce things for herself, and to disregard appearance. However, both characters are deceived, and therefore perhaps fail to use their reason, to some extent. Certainly Benedick’s response (and some might argue Beatrice’s as well) is emotional and instinctive, and we see a conflict between reason and emotion which is hugely significant throughout the play.
The capacity to maintain an appropriate balance between reason and emotion appears to evade every character at some point during the play, except, I feel, Beatrice. She shows herself throughout to be steadfast, loyal and, certainly in contrast to most of the other characters, notably consistent. It is her that we look to in order to draw comparisons with other characters’ reactions and responses. In Act 4 Scene 1, she shows not only loyalty to and faith in her close friend Hero, but also certainty and credence in her own convictions. Leonato’s response to Claudio’s accusation is unambiguous and explicit, as he takes what he is told to be the truth, showing absolutely no belief in his daughter and saying:
“Death is the fairest cover for her shame/ That may be wished for.”
His reaction is intensely emotional, and is reinforced by awareness of his own status. Beatrice, on the other hand, shows an ability to deduce the truth through a refined balance of reason, commitment to her friend, and instinct. She is aware of the fact that, as a woman, her views are not valued in Messina (she is considered by the men, “a rare parrot-teacher” who repeats herself and talks little sense) and recognises that “were [she] a man”, this would not be the case. However, she uses her ability with words and reason against Benedick in order to get him to fulfil her wish of having Claudio killed. Through her perception and an understanding of the society she believes that the “gallant” men are mere “valiant dust”, concerned more with the status and image that goes with being a warrior than actually realising this facade. She tells Benedick bluntly:
“…men are only turned into tongue, and trim ones too.”
By this she is implying that, as sharp and quick witted as he may be, he is in reality all talk and no action. This scathing remark shows not only a remarkably perceptive insight into how men work, but also a capacity to use reason and intelligence in order to manipulate others, an aptitude shown by no other character in the play.
In analysing the play, and when one takes note of the critical role that not only Beatrice but also Hero plays in it, it seems evident that in Messina the men are the more emotion driven of the species, and women the more reasonable. Certainly this challenges stereotypes that have existed for thousands of years in the west, and Shakespeare can be said to have been well ahead of his time. As I have already discussed, Beatrice represents the perfect amalgamation of emotion and reason, and is almost the epitome of stability, emphasising the giddiness of the other characters. But I feel that Hero, perhaps in a subtler, more understated way, plays a great part in this.
Away from the vigilant eye of social expectation she shows herself, similarly to Beatrice, to be capable of manipulating language and using her reason and logic in order to persuade and influence others. She is instrumental in the planning of the efficient deception of Beatrice in Act 3 Scene 1, evidently using harsh, hard-hitting comments as a tool against her, as Beatrice wails:
“What fire is in my ears?”
In contrast, Don Pedro, Leonato and Claudio’s ostentatious attempt is unplanned, ad hoc and full of mistakes that would be viewed as irredeemable, were it not for the fact that the men in the play have already shown themselves to be emotive and impressionable, as can be seen when, barely moments after “noting” Hero early on in the play, Claudio proclaims:
“That I love her, I feel.”
Even the name Hero appears to give her parity with the supposed male heroes of the war and at the end of the play we witness her showing the qualities that are required for one to be named as such. At first glance, Hero’s acceptance of Claudio (again) appears to show ignorance and a lack of comprehension of the deficiencies of a patriarchal society in which women are willingly subservient. However, while Claudio shows that he has learned nothing from the ordeal, referring to his wife-to-be as a commodity that he must “seize upon”, it is Hero who shows composure, self-awareness and conviction. To refuse to marry Claudio would be to question the foundations and fundamental beliefs of Messina, and so her self-sacrifice can be seen not only as heroic but also as strikingly controlled, level-headed, and essentially reasonable. She makes a definite distinction between “now” and “then”, showing certainty and assurance:
“And when I liv’d I was your other wife, and when you lov’d, you were my other husband.”
In the final moments of the play, when Benedick proclaims his desire to marry, saying that there is “nothing to any purpose that the world can say against it” Shakespeare is seeking to convey a similar certitude and integrity developing within Benedick to that previously shown by Hero; one that has thus far been absent in the nature of any of the male characters. Benedick’s perhaps more overt heroism can be put on a par with that of Hero and is perhaps more recognised, as it is he who appears to give the play its buoyant ending by vowing to marry Beatrice, love his cousin Claudio and, regarding Don John, “devise thee brave punishments”. But it must not be forgotten that, had Hero refused Claudio’s hand in marriage, none of this would have been possible. In addition to this, the quite remarkable transformation of Benedick’s character can be attributed overwhelmingly to Beatrice, who has shown herself throughout to be unwavering, virtuous – and indeed the absolute opposite of “a giddy thing”.
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