Benedick and the Mask of Misogyny

Over the past six weeks I’ve been reading through Much Ado About Nothing with one of my tutoring students, a middle schooler I’ve been working with for about a year and a half. He would read an act a week and write one discussion question per scene, and we’d spend our sessions reviewing and discussing the play, with lessons on Shakespeare’s scansion, his play structure, his foiling of characters, etc, throughout. Having finished the play, we had a final discussion in our last session (to prep for his 3-pg essay) before working on line memorization of Benedick’s speech on what type of woman it would take for him to change his bachelor ways.

As often happens, leading my student through Much Ado reminded me why I, myself, love the play. Its balance of would-be tragic elements (the plot to deceive Claudio by soiling Hero’s name, the turning of brothers-in-arms against each other) with comic backstops (the fact that Dogberry, et al, have already captured Boracchio before the wedding scene, and the dramatic irony that the whole mess might be cleared up if Leonato could stop to listen to the constables’ report—or if Dogberry knew the words he was using) makes it one of Shakespeare’s best comedies, and certainly one of my favorites. If someone wants an entry into Shakespeare, Much Ado is what I recommend, especially since the “he hates her, she hates him, get married already” plot between Benedick and Beatrice is still used today in many of our shows and movies (New Girl‘s Nick and Jess being just one possible example from the last decade). In my opinion, as a student and teacher of Shakespeare, we should ditch Romeo and Juliet from the freshman curriculum (or at least push it later) and swap in Much Ado.

However, there is the growing question over whether this incredible play, which has been sifted, explored, and performed for nearly four centuries, would survive the current generation, which more often reads the old books not to understand but to dismantle and ridicule. While I can appreciate deconstruction as a critical tool (which I examine in my previous post on Nietzsche’s Dawn), taken too far it becomes so much destruction of what is genuinely good under the guise of a pallid, mediocritizing salvation from things one may be better off not being saved from. Which brings me to the central question: would Much Ado stand up to the scrutiny of Generation Z?

Of course, the main culprit would be Benedick, himself. Besides the low-hanging fruit of his name (full pun intended, as Shakespeare meant it), his persona of being above most women and living the life of a bachelor would probably have him castigated as either a closeted homosexual or a blatant misogynist. While I think the former claim baseless and anachronistic, coming more from our culture’s combined lack of understanding of male friendship and our oversized focus on erotic love than from Shakespeare’s plays, and more to be found in As You Like It and Twelfth Night, etc, than Much Ado, the latter bears examination.

In Act II, Scene 3, Benedick soliloquizes:

I do much wonder that one man, seeing how much another man is a fool when he dedicates his behaviors to love, will, after he hath laughed at such shallow follies in others, become the argument of his own scorn by falling in love… 

May I be so converted and see with these eyes? I cannot tell; I think not…One woman is fair, yet I am well; another is wise, yet I am well; another virtuous, yet I am well; but till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace. 

Rich she shall be, that’s certain; wise, or I’ll none; virtuous, or I’ll never cheapen her; fair, or I’ll never look on her; mild, or come not near me; noble, or not I for an angel; of good discourse, an excellent musician, and her hair shall be of what colour it please God.

One’s initial response, nowadays (to our absolute peril), might have to be an at least prudent defensiveness on Benedick’s behalf against his own words, especially his listing of what traits he is able to ignore in a woman, or his ultimate list of what he’s looking for in one. Objectifying, much?! Impossible standards, much?! Fat-shaming, slut-shaming, ableism, (etc), much?! To the student who would ask these questions, I’d say no, not really.

One general piece of wisdom is that when Shakespeare hands you a foil, be it a sword or a character dichotomy, you pick it up. Benedick’s words—indeed, his entire character throughout the play—must be measured against Claudio. Before this scene even Beatrice had compared the two men, and their contrasting approaches to love are what fill the main and sub plots of the play.

Before the metaphysical battle in 19th-century between the Romantics and the Realists in art and literature, Shakespeare had already staged, if not settled, the fight in Much Ado. Like many other romantics in Shakespeare, the inexperienced Claudio is taken away by his passion for Hero. While he at least has the defense of being so new to love that has not become self-aware and subsequently decadent and banal in his persona (I’m looking at you, Duke Orsino), Claudio is just as easily led out of love as he was into it. Although the damage eventually done to Hero and her family by Claudio’s rejection at the wedding ceremony falls more on Don John and Boracchio’s deception than on the young soldier, it nonetheless stands that the character who leaves himself most vulnerable to passionate love causes the most harm by it.

Which brings us back to Claudio’s foil, Benedick. For all his defensiveness against love (for it is, I believe, a defensiveness—a control and limit against an existing vulnerability) Benedick causes very little anguish in the play. Not until his conflict—the quintessential questioning of the established dictum “bros before hoes”—is concretized by Beatrice’s requirement that if he loves her, he will challenge Claudio to a fatal duel, is there any major possibility of Benedick’s causing pain to a woman; even then, the Benedick who declares his love in the marriage-turned-denunciation scene seems a different man than the one who pronounced the terms of his bachelorhood, above. However, as Hamlet articulates, seeming is not being.

Examine the speech again. That he is contemplating what it would take to remove him from his implied solitude shows that the idea of marriage at least exists for him, even insomuch as he has his list of traits ready (leaving room for extemporizing). Yet, the irony is that anyone who has been paying attention can see that he is describing, for the most part, Beatrice, herself. “Fair…wise…virtuous…mild [(eh, can’t win ’em all)]…noble…of good discourse…” He has already admitted most of these about the woman. If he doesn’t have her consciously in mind, he’s at least priming himself for the ploy by the rest of the men later in the scene to have him overhear words of Beatrice’s affection.

To the Gen-Z student, I would submit the possibility that far from hating women, Benedick actually respects them, and himself, enough not to mislead them. Further, I don’t believe he is as uninterested in them as he makes out—for consider how quickly he is directed towards Beatrice. One cannot turn an engine that is empty of fuel. However, he is mature enough to know himself and what it will take to make him genuinely committed, not just in name like Claudio. I’d even read his high standards as a confession of a knowledge of his own passion, which he has wisely and philanthropically kept controlled behind a mask of bravado and bachelorhood. Brash and arrogant he may be, but he’s not the one who ruins Leonato’s daughter’s wedding day (he writes as a future father of a daughter).

This, of course, only serves to compliment Beatrice (which I’ll do till I meet her author in Paradise), who one could argue holds herself behind a similar mask. Just like Benedick with his standards, only a man who can survive Beatrice’s verbal assaults and surmount her intellectual defenses is worthy of her. This, by the way, is one of the best qualities of Shakespeare’s comedies, that they set such high and full standards for what a woman is and can be. I was blessed as a teenage and young adult man to have had such tutors as Beatrice, Viola, Portia, and Cordelia. That Benedick does, eventually, end up with Beatrice makes me know he must have done something right.

It may seem contradictory to hide a respect and love for women behind a mask of brash misogyny. Yet, it is not the only time Shakespeare uses the ploy (see Hamlet’s much more vicious and tragic rejection of Ophelia, which he, as prince, must arguably do for her own good—though Hamlet is more a Claudio than a Benedick, imo, and, at the risk of resembling Polonius, I wouldn’t want him near my daughter). Of course, anyone who would argue Benedick is an example of everything toxic about masculinity would, no doubt, argue that the whole plot of Much Ado, itself, is unacceptable, being premised as it is on the idea that believing one has seen one’s fiancee sleeping with another man the night before the wedding is grounds for rejection. However, that kind of eye is insatiate in its own way, and ironically already articulated by Shakespeare in this very play, in Don John. As a later archetype of resentful envy would describe it, it doth mock the meat it feeds on.

I’ve already written much on Shakespeare becoming the target of Gen-Z, who are aptly called, coincidentally or providentially, because they seem to be intent on making themselves the last generation by dismantling the past and making it unable to survive into the future. This whole blog started as a place for me to record my research and meditations for my (still unpublished) novel, Sacred Shadows and Latent Light, which follows a literature professor putting on a production of the Henry plays and thus unintentionally (but knowingly) starting an ideology war on his campus. And that was in 2017.

As Benedick says later in Act II Scene 3 to justify his own conversion (that he needs to justify it to us and himself is, itself, a confession of an already present desire!), “the world must be peopled!” This is as true of art as of children, and woe to us if we do not allow the metaphysical strengthening of the latter by the established substance of the former. It is fundamentally telling that many who would attack the greatest productions of art quite often advocate against having children; both are, in my opinion, symptoms of decadence. Indeed, they may be a single symptom, even a confession: of a satiety unto sickness, even self-destruction.

The remedy, to further take something from Nothing, is in the very thing we believe we so vehemently reject—to let, indeed, to make ourselves love that which so offends us. Beatrice and Benedick cure each other of their respective shrewishness and bachelorhood; may it not be that characters such as they, and works such as Shakespeare’s, would cure the growing generation of their own mask of love and philanthropy, which, like that of Claudio or of Don John, may very well hide a reality of a much deeper misogyny? Perhaps, like Hero, Shakespeare must, indeed, die for a time before we will experience a repentance like Claudio’s. If so, so be it; if Much Ado can tell us anything, it’s that Shakespeare knows his way out of an apparent grave.

Author: dustinllovell

Writing professor, literature and US history tutor, previous ESL instructor, and would-be novelist who enjoys/specializes in Shakespeare, 19th century lit, and philosophy (whether in print or via audiobook). Author of the novel Sacred Shadows and Latent Light (Wipf and Stock, Resources Imprint). Member of Heterodox Academy. Columnist for The Mallard.

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