How Shakespeare Presents Women in Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing

Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing are two of Shakespeare??™s most famous plays. In this essay, I will explore the way in which Shakespeare presents the women in these two plays. In Shakespeare??™s time, it was usual for authors to write plays which would please the Monarchs of that period. This is apparent in both plays, particularly Much Ado About Nothing, as there are distinct similarities between the character Beatrice and Queen Elizabeth, who ruled at the time. She was a strong willed, opinionated woman who never married, which coincides with Beatrice??™s character, as she also swears that she will never marry and is a witty, headstrong woman; very much ahead of her time.
Macbeth was also clearly written with England??™s ruler in mind, this time King James the 1st, due to its??™ strong links with Scotland, Witchcraft and the succession of the throne. James was the first king to rule both England and Scotland, so setting the play in his home country would have surely appealed to him. He also had a great interest in the supernatural, particularly witchcraft, and had even written a book; Demonology, on the subject. As was the case with most monarchs of that age, he believed in the divine right of kings, so the concept of a man who became king without being appointed by God getting his comeuppance for his treasonous deeds would have been a very relevant one.
Throughout Shakespeare??™s life, society was obsessed with witchcraft and occult practices, which resulted in the torture and execution of hundreds of innocent people (nearly all of them women). Many women were put on trial for committing acts of regicide using spells and curses, and Shakespeare used this fear of witches??™ power in Macbeth to make it appeal more to the general public. He incorporated many features of witchcraft into the play; Lady Macbeth invites spirits to enter her body in Act 1 Scene 5, to give her enough cruelty to commit the deed, saying ???Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here???. Also, Macbeth experiences an inability to pray, when he tells his wife ???I had most need of blessing and ???Amen??™ stuck in my throat. Other features include trances and visions, disturbed behaviour and an indifference to life; things which were strongly associated with witchcraft.
This was an age long before equal rights for each gender, and women were seen as second class citizens and were expected to serve and obey their husbands. The character Hero in Much Ado About Nothing is an example of the way women were expected to behave, accepting the decisions of others and being well-mannered and submissive. She would have appealed to the audience of that time, as a model for correct female conduct. The plotlines of the two plays are very dissimilar from each other, caused mainly by the fact that one is a tragedy, and the other is a comedy. Macbeth focuses on the psychological state of the characters and is mainly based on the idea of retribution; that crime doesn??™t pay in the end. On the other hand, Much Ado About Nothing is based very much around Love and deception, and concludes with a happy resolution.
Macbeth begins just after a battle has ended, in which Macbeth has demonstrated his bravery and valiance. He and his comrade Banquo then come across three witches who make predictions; that Macbeth will be the Thane of Cawdor as well as Glamis, and that he will be king. They also predict that the heirs of Banquo will become kings. Macbeth is made Thane of Cawdor, and this is followed by Lady Macbeth plotting with her husband and trying to persuade him to kill King Duncan, making the rest of the prophecy come true. He then murders the king and rises to the throne when Malcom and Donaldbain flee the country. Macbeth then kills his friend Banquo to stop his line ever entering the succession, but Banquo??™s ghost appears at the banquet, and his mind begins to unravel. He then returns to the witches to find out more, and they tell him that none of woman born can kill him, and that He will not fall till Bernam Wood comes to Dunsinaine. He then sends murderers to Macduff??™s castle who kill his wife and children. This prompts Macduff and Malcom to try and overthrow him, and they plot to attack. Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth has become insane and sleepwalks, talking about the deeds her husband has committed and trying to rid her hands of the blood she sees there. Finally, Malcolm??™s troops arrive at Dunsinaine, but camouflage themselves with branches from the wood, creating the illusion that the wood itself is approaching the castle. Macduff and Macbeth fight, but Macbeth thinks he cannot be killed, for all men are born of women. It is then revealed that Macduff is not of woman born as his mother had a caesarean section. He finally slays Macbeth, and Malcom is crowned King.
The story of Much Ado About Nothing is a much more light hearted play, focussing on the love affairs of two couples; Claudio and Hero, and Benedick and Beatrice. The tale begins in a similar way to Macbeth, when Don Pedro and his troops return victorious from battle. Beatrice and Benedick have a ???merry war of wit???, and Claudio speaks of his love for Hero. Leonato is then told a false rumour about Don Pedro??™s intensions towards his daughter, Hero. Meanwhile, Don Pedro??™s illegitimate half brother Don John is planning mischief. There is a masked ball, in which Benedick is teased by Beatrice, and Don Pedro woos Hero on Claudio??™s behalf. Don John tricks him briefly into thinking that Don Pedro woos her for himself, but he is soon corrected and he and Hero are betrothed. Don Pedro then devises a plan to bring Beatrice and Benedick together. Borachio and Don John invent a scheme to make Hero appear unchaste, and Benedick is tricked into thinking that Beatrice loves him. Likewise, Beatrice is tricked into believing that Benedick loves her. Both Don Pedro and Claudio are deceived by Don John??™s slander of Hero, but the watchmen arrest Borachio and Conrad after they confess to their part in the trickery. Hero prepares for the wedding, but Leonato is too busy to listen to the report about the arrest. The wedding comes, but Claudio denounces Hero, still believing that she has committed acts of infidelity. Friar Francis comes to her aid, and a plan is made to conceal Hero and tell everyone that she has died of grief. Benedick and Beatrice find that they are in love with each other, but she is distressed by the supposed death of her cousin and wants Benedick to avenge her by killing Claudio. Before more damage can be done, Borachio confesses all about the plot with Don John, and Claudio visits her tomb in repentance, still believing her to be dead. He is told that Hero has a cousin who resembles her closely, and that he can marry her if he wishes. He agrees to this, but at the wedding it is revealed that it is Hero herself, who is still alive. The deception surrounding Beatrice and Benedick is also revealed, but they realise that they are truly in love. The story ends thus, both couples happy and content.
The plays do share one similar theme; that good triumphs over evil. Macbeth receives retribution for his murderous deeds and is overthrown, in the same way that Don John??™s plots to wreak havoc and unhappiness are thwarted. Shakespeare uses many linguistic devices in both Macbeth and Much Ado about nothing. There are many examples of metaphors in Macbeth, such as the part in which Lady Macbeth is instructing her husband on how he should commit the deed, and tells him ??? Your hand, your tongue; look like th??™ innocent flower, but be the serpent under??™t.??? She is telling him that although he must seem like a gracious host, he must also be cold and deadly, acting like a vicious snake. It also bears some religious connotations; the snake in the Garden of Eden tempted Eve to commit the sin of eating the forbidden fruit, much in the same way that Lady Macbeth is tempting her husband to commit the sin of murder. This metaphor also bears reference to the gunpowder plot, an attempt to blow up parliament on the 5th of November 1605. To commemorate the discovery of the heinous scheme, King James had a medal created picturing a serpent hiding amongst flowers. To the king and the audience at that time the link would have been clear; Shakespeare was likening the act of treason against King Duncan to the act of treason against King James.
Metaphors are also used frequently in Much Ado About Nothing, for example in Act 1 Scene 1 Beatrice is arguing with the messenger about Benedick, and describes him as a contagious disease, saying ???he is sooner caught than the pestilence, and the taker runs presently mad???. She is implying that he will not be a good friend to Claudio, and that he would struggle to be ???cured??™ of him. By the end of the play she too has caught ???the Benedick??™ despite her scornful remarks, and her saying that she will never run mad, ???No, not till a hot January???.
In these examples, Shakespeare presents the women involved as being two faced and fickle. Lady Macbeth demonstrates this through her ability to seem harmless, but to be actually a dangerous villain like the serpent, by encouraging her once noble and virtuous husband to commit deeds of treason and villainy. Beatrice??™s inconsistent principles show us this side of her character, as she insists that she will never fall in love with Benedick, but ends up doing just that. Another device Shakespeare uses frequently in Much Ado About Nothing is extended Metaphor. There are several examples of this technique during the ???merry war of wit??™ between Beatrice and Benedick in Act 1 Scene 1. He calls her a ???rare parrot teacher???, implying that she can only repeat things that other people say, like a trained parrot, to which Beatrice retorts ???A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours???. She is continuing the bird themed metaphor, saying that her talking parrot is better than his dumb beast.
At the end of their argument, Benedick says ???I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer???, meaning he would like his horse to be able to run at the speed of her tongue and with the same endurance. When Benedick says he has had enough of their quarrel, Beatrice then replies ???You always end with a jade??™s trick???, likening him to a stubborn horse refusing to go on, thus extending the horse metaphor.
Through these extended metaphors, Shakespeare is showing the audience how Beatrice always wants to have the last word in an argument , and that whatever insult Benedick uses, she wants to twist it to her advantage to stay one step ahead of them. In both plays, Shakespeare uses semantic fields to make links with other topics. For example, the characters in Macbeth often make references to inclement weather. This is especially apparent in Act 1 Scene 1, in which the witches plan to meet ???in thunder, lightning, or in rain???, and refer to as ship as being ???tempest tossed???. Lady Macbeth also uses this theme when she is talking about a dark, foggy night which would conceal the crime. Witchcraft and bad weather were thought to be directly linked, so Shakespeare may be trying to liken Lady Macbeth to a witch through this semantic field.
In Much Ado About Nothing, a Navy based semantic field is created in Act 2 Scene 1, when Beatrice is mocking Benedick at the masked ball. She uses terms out of context such as ???fleet??? and ???boarded???. The play was written shortly after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and so at this time England??™s Navy was very popular and had positive connotations in society. This adds to the feel good-factor of the play, by reminding people of the Navy??™s success.
Shakespeare is using these semantic fields to make references to the popular topics of the time; witchcraft, through the semantic field of bad weather, and the victory against the Spanish Armada through the semantic field of the Navy. These references would have made the plays more appealing to the audience of the day, who would have been fascinated by these themes.

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