Beatrice, the Elizabethan Feminist

Having much interest in feminine writing and the feminine perspectives in literature, I very much enjoy Beatrice as a character and in her relationship with Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. As we see again and again, Shakespeare’s plays are still relevant today, even if it necessarily was not his aim at the time to make the statements he does. The relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, from a feminist perspective, is very progressive. Especially in comparison to Claudio and Hero’s courtship; Benedick loves a strong woman who is not afraid to speak her mind or insult a man. Beatrice is not the traditional woman, especially of Shakespeare’s society; she is not sound in the institutions of marriage and would almost rather lead a life as an unmarried woman than to be chained to a man she can barely stand just because she is assumed the lesser sex. In Act II, Beatrice has an interesting debate with her uncle, Leonato, over the idea of her getting a husband. I thought it was so empowering to females that Beatrice shuts his ideas down at every turn. One of her indignations really sums her up as a character: “Yes, faith, it is cousin’s duty to make curtsy and say ‘Father, as it please you’. But yet for all that, cousin, let him be a handsome fellow, or else make another curtsy and say, ‘Father, as it please me’.” (Shakespeare 2.1:44-47). In this Beatrice is not only making her statement that her husband must be a choice of her own, but she is also trying to empower her cousin to make the same choice for herself. The themes of arranged marriages and gender roles can be seen in many of Shakespeare’s plays, we saw similar ideas in Twelfth Night and Midsummer Night’s Dream. But I feel that in Much Ado, thus far, we see the most definitive reversal of gender roles yet. Beatrice is one hundred percent in control her own sexuality and marital status, and she takes heat from no one on the subject. She firmly believes that it is her choice in if, who, or when she wants to get married and is deflated when she sees other woman, like Hero, falling into the patriarchal trap of marriage traditions. In my opinion, Shakespeare made a statement with Beatrice and her attitude toward marriage; by making Benedick fall in love with her, he proved that a man could love a strong, independent woman just as much as a woman who played along with the idea of females as the lesser sex. And it may seem tongue-in-cheek, as Benedick changes his mind so rapidly from hatred to love, but I feel that this is a theatrical attribute to the play. As we discussed, this is one of Shakespeare’s comedies, and I feel he uses Benedick’s apathy to lovesickness change as tool for laughter. Other than that though, his statement is utterly clear. He succeeded in the audience’s understanding that a woman does not have to be subservient and weak to obtain a husband, that in fact SHE can be the dominant force in the relationship. My hopes in the coming acts of the play, that Shakespeare stays with the strong reversal of gender roles, allowing Beatrice to have her feminist cake by realizing her feelings for Benedick and eating it too as she still remains strong in the relationship.

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About stewingthepot

Colleen Stewart is a freelance writer and photographer based in the Hudson Valley. She is currently finishing her Master's degree in English Lit at SUNY New Paltz. Her published work has appeared in The Valley Table, Hudson Valley Magazine, and The Shawangunk Review. She is also a self-taught cook, avid photographer, and budding food stylist.

One thought on “Beatrice, the Elizabethan Feminist

  1. caitoconnor13

    I don’t know if she’s quite the feminist, but then again, that’s speaking from the ever-problematic and incomplete theories of The Feminine Mystique. According to Betty Friedan, it was not enough to be a married housewife or a stay-at-home-mom, like Beatrice or Lizzy Bennett end up being. But I disagree. Feminism and the point of intersectionality are to recognize that women should have the choice to be housewives but know that there are broader options available to them by way of single life, a career, college, etc. For the time, I would definitely classify Beatrice as a feminist or as our perception of what feminists are, as a “misandrist” or a “man hater” until she folds and is basically tricked into loving Benedick and receiving the typical Shakespearean comedy happy ending. Her outspokenness and her lack of willingness to immediately bend to the norms certainly would deem her rebellious, but I don’t know about a feminist, and I’m not sure I totally agree, only because the conceptualization of feminism didn’t even materialize at this point and was unthinkable and unreachable for women.

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