Slut-Shaming in Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” and Contemporary Society

Updated on July 9, 2018
LindaSarhan profile image

L. Sarhan has a B.A. in English and Creative Writing and plans for an M.A. in English with a concentration in literature and theory.

Hero and Claudio's wedding scene
Hero and Claudio's wedding scene | Source

Women have made great strides in gender equality since the Elizabethan era, however, in contemporary societies public shaming, more specifically slut shaming, has increased due to the popular use of the internet and social media. During the Elizabethan era, women had very little rights. In fact, they were not allowed to choose the man they were going to marry. That decision was left up to her father (Linley 125, 133). Even though the Elizabethan attitudes toward chastity were driven by Orthodox Christian beliefs, indiscretion occurred but was often concealed, if possible. However, the importance of sexual honor and reputation along with the degree of rebuke depended upon the woman’s social and economic status (Dabhoiwala 208). In the twenty-first century, women are no longer reliant on a man to thrive in society and although premarital relations are no longer a capital offense in most modern cultures, it is still frowned upon, especially when it comes to a woman’s social status (Khazan 2014). The way Claudio publicly shamed Hero in Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” demonstrates how detrimental public slut-shaming can be for women in the Elizabethan era, while new studies indicate how contemporary slut-shaming of women shows the remnant of an old patriarchal mindset.

In the Elizabethan era, the male mistrust of female sexuality underlies much of the patriarchal system as it was influenced by biblical references and the opinions of Clement of Alexandria (c.150– c. 215), who believed that “Every woman should be ashamed that she is a woman’ for they are the confusion of men, an insatiable animal […] an eternal ruin.” (Linley 127-128) It is a common belief in patriarchal societies that women tempt men with their beauty, thus making the burden of responsibility solely on the woman because it is taught that men sometimes cannot control their physical arousal. It is possible that Don John and Borachio may have used this frame of thought to conjure a plan to deceive Claudio into believing Hero was unfaithful with Borachio. After their plan succeeds to make Claudio believe that Margaret, Hero’s handmaiden, was Hero, he set out in a vengeful rage to ruin Hero for her alleged betrayal.

Hero, the daughter of Leonato who is the governor of Messina, was publicly humiliated by Claudio through a form of slut-shaming at their wedding when Claudio was misled to believe that she was unchaste. In front of the entire community, Claudio challenges Hero’s claim to virginity seven times. First, he addresses her father by saying, “There, Leonato, take her back again. / Give not this rotten orange to your friend” (4.1.28-29). This is his way of questioning Leonato’s friendship accusing him of covering up Hero’s alleged indiscretion. Furthermore, he is essentially referring to Hero as damaged goods and that he no longer wants her, thus throwing her away like rotten fruit. In the second passage Claudio states, “She’s but the sign and semblance of her honor. / Behold how like a maid she blushes here!” (4.1.30-31) declaring that Hero is not who she appears to be. While everyone thinks she is honorable and pure, Claudio accuses Hero of lies and deceit. Claudio continues in the third passage by declaring, “Oh, what authority and show of truth. / Can cunning sin cover itself withal!” (4.1.32-33) He speaks of how good Hero is of covering up her sinful nature. The third passage speaks about how Hero allegedly wants people to think she is blushing as a modest bride, but instead, Claudio sarcastically questions her façade as he says, “Comes not that blood as modest evidence / To witness simple virtue? Would you not swear” (4.1.34-35). Next, adding further insult to injury, Claudio directs the focus of Hero’s shaming to the community as he informs them specifically of her being unchaste, “All you that see her, that she were a maid / By these exterior shows? But she is none” (4.1.36-37). Lastly, Claudio takes a final, more direct accusation at Hero, “She knows the heat of a luxurious bed. / Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty” (4.1.28-39). Claudio is no longer speaking in metaphors and riddles as he comes out and says specifically that she has had relations with another man and her blushing is not out of innocence but instead guilt. The seventh blatant accusation is in response to Leonato’s confusion about the accusations Claudio claims. Claudio responds, “Not to be married, / Not to knit my soul to an approved wanton.” (4.1.41-42) Aside from Claudio outright calling Hero a slut for the seventh time, he laments that he will not risk his soul by marrying and bedding with a woman filled with sin.

Shocked, Leonato initially disowns Hero as the accusation was considered to bring shame to him and his household, especially for someone of his social standing. Leonato sentences Hero as he says, “O Fate! Take not away thy heavy hand! / Death is the fairest cover for her shame /That may be wished for.” (4.1.113-115) In essence, in the disownment of his only child, Leonato proclaims that he considers her to be dead to him. As mentioned above, women in the Elizabethan era were reliant upon men to take care of them, thus, the thought of Leonato no longer being responsible for Hero was similar to sentencing her to death since she now had no husband to care for her survival. Leonato reflects this common Elizabethan patriarchal mindset when he says, “Do not live, Hero, do not open thine eyes, / For, did I think thou wouldst not quickly die” (4.1.122-123) Although Leonato finally believe in his daughter’s innocence, after Friar Francis observes the words of both Hero and her accusers and suggests that there is more to the story than is being told. Benedict then suggests that this shameful deceit is probably the work of Don Jon (4.1.154-163, 187). However, Claudio’s vengeful act of publicly slut-shaming Hero had already done its intended damage. It is then that Friar Francis suggests Leonato hide Hero away and pretend that she has died, just as the princes and Claudio have left her for. In this, the friar hope that it will cause some remorse to stir in Claudio and the princes for what they have done in falsely accusing Hero. Eventually, the truth comes out and the record is set straight.

Although premarital relations were frowned upon and forbidden in the Elizabethan era, the severity of public view and condemnation seems subjective to social class. Note how in the play, “Much Ado About Nothing”, Margaret did not receive the same condemnation as Hero did. This is because Hero was of a noble family and Margaret, being Hero’s handmaiden, was of a lower working class. In the 1993 movie adaptation, it is clear that no one is upset with Margaret after the truth comes out; she is even seen laughing and having a great time at the second wedding. It is as though no one faulted her at all, despite her questioned chastity and failure to speak out in defense of Hero at the original wedding.

The works of Shakespeare are enduring because the topics and themes he displayed are issues most generations face and must deal with throughout history and within contemporary societies. Dr. Bruce Smith, professor of English and Theatre at the University of Southern California, explains that Shakespeare had a talent for revealing different faces, or issues, to a variety of cultures throughout history, thus still making these issues relevant today (Smith qtd in Boston). Even still, before determining whether Shakespeare had any influence on his audiences, one must consider who his audience was during that time compared to contemporary audiences. At the time Shakespeare’s plays were performed, his audience’s social class varied from the lower-middle class looking to network their trades with others to aristocrats and nobility above the fray in balconies and galleries. Attending a Shakespeare play was not cheap, but affordable enough that the working class could attend once in a while (Bowles 61-66).

Chances are that Shakespeare’s plays echoed the patriarchal mindset more so than influenced it. However, in the case of how women were viewed and the dawn of the Renaissance, it may have inspired a slow change in how women should be perceived in future generations. Today, with the advancements in technology, Shakespeare play adaptations are widely available to most audiences of a varied demographic. This allows for a broader analyzation and study as to how women’s roles have changed throughout time and how it has stayed the same, such as the theme of slut-shaming in the Elizabethan era and contemporary society.

Shakespeare portrayed women from one of three male-dominated perspectives: as a virgin, a mother, or a slut. Shakespeare manipulated this male viewpoint of women to turn the dramatic element of the virgin Hero into being a potential slut. Even when he recounts the history between Cleopatra, Marc Antony, and Ceasar in “Antony and Cleopatra”, Shakespeare does not fail to throw in a quip of slut-shaming that was a prominent practice even in the Elizabethan era. In Act II, Scene II, Aggripa and Enobarbus are having a conversation about Cleopatra and her history with men through her comfortability with her own sexuality. Aggripa says, “Royal wench! / She made great Caesar lay his sword to bed. / He plowed her, and she cropped.” (2.2.37-39) He is basically saying that she is a royal slut who seduced Caesar and after they had intercourse, she became pregnant with this child. Enobarbus also has his crack at calling her a slut as he said, “Where most she satisfies, for vilest things / Become themselves in her, that the holy priests / Bless her when she is riggish.” (2.2.249-251) He is saying that where most men would be repulsed by her wanton behavior, Marc Antony keeps coming back for more. Even the priests seem to turn a blind eye to her behavior as they graciously bestow blessings upon her despite her unrestraint sexual nature. Although this was not a public conversation, slut-shaming through gossip is more prevalent regardless of the era.

Even today, slut-shaming is a trending topic but as studies show, the opinions and viewpoints on the matter of what makes a woman a slut is divided by social class perception and interpretation. Elizabeth Armstrong, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan, and Laura Hamilton, then a graduate assistant and now a sociology professor at the University of California at Merced, lived, observed, and interviewed fifty-three students in a female dorm for four years. According to an article in The Atlantic, “There is No Such Thing as a Slut”, they discovered that the students from wealthy and predominate families found that having sex before marriage or outside of a long-term relationship as socially unacceptable and a shameful act on their families and social class status. However, this does not mean they still did not have sexual encounters, they just kept it a secret, as they feared being viewed as outcastes by others in their social class. In contrast, those from lower-income families were often targeted as sluts, not just by some of their behaviors but by the clothes they wore, whether through gossip, name-calling, or a more dramatic form of public humiliation (Khazan 2014). This viewpoint echoes the divide between social class, yet shows a change in mindset compared to how Shakespeare portrayed sexuality between the upper and lower socio-economical class. Whereas, Margaret in “Much Ado About Nothing” received no public condemnation, women of a lower social status in contemporary times have a higher rate of public humiliation and slut-shaming.

Defining who is a slut or the characteristics of a slut depends on the time period and their socio-economic class. In the time of Shakespeare, any woman who had sexual relations outside of marriage was considered a slut. Again, although frowned upon in general, the lower socio-economic status sexual practices were often overlooked more so than those of a higher, more noble status. In the twenty-first century, the definition of who is a slut is more varied. Leora Tanenbaum (2017), the editorial director of Barnard College and author of I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet defines slut-shaming as the judgment of a woman for being too sexual and the belief that she deserves policing or punishment. Armstrong and Hamilton discovered that wealthy college students are more accepting of the idea of premarital relations if done quietly within the confines of a long-term relationship and simply making-out with a boy, which includes kissing and oral sex, while not being in a relationship does not make a woman a slut as long as intercourse is excluded. Those in a lower-income caste seem to view making-out and intercourse as acceptable if done so in a formal relationship. Interestingly, the way each social class viewed the choice of clothing also has a bearing on whether one is deemed a slut more so than in relation to sexual behaviors. With the higher social class, wearing short skirts because they fashionable is acceptable but certain behaviors, such as dancing while wearing short skirts, will quickly get a person labeled as a slut. Lower-income women viewed their wealthier counterparts as sluts by their personality often associated with rudeness and attitude of entitlement (Khazan 2014). Also, how slut-shaming is executed depends on the woman’s social class. For those in a higher socio-economic class, the slut-shaming is often done privately through gossiping. However, when it comes to the lower socio-economic class, slut-shaming is done on a more public platform whether in a social setting, in passing, or online. Either execution of slut-shaming can have damaging effect emotionally and psychologically.

There is also an ongoing trend of slut-shaming through victim shaming that is an increasing problem not only throughout history but in contemporary societies as well. In Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” fair Hero was victimized as she was set up to appear to be unchaste. Claudio and Leonato, turned a deaf ear to her pleas of innocence as they focused more on vicious condemnation before knowing all the facts. This mindset and focus on vilifying women when it relates to sexuality are often still in practice even in contemporary times. Victims of murder and robbery receive less if any, condemnation as that of female rape or sexual assault victims who are the typically the ones put on trial when they come forward to rectify the wrong done to them. There seems to be a remnant of an old-patriarchal mindset that points blame toward women for the lack of self-control exhibited by some men. In the most recent trial of Bill Cosby, Andrea Constand was succumbed to withstand a variety of victim blaming, slut-shaming remarks not only from the public but by the judicial system as well. One juror judged her by saying, “Let’s face it: She went up to his house with a bare midriff and incense and bath salts. What the heck?”, which in essences his thoughts were that she was “asking for it” despite proof of drugging her before the rape occurred (McCrystal and Roebuck 2017). This is a common mindset toward female rape victims who come forward as people judge them by what they wear or how they act as if they were asking to be sexually violated.

Online Harassment in 2017
Online Harassment in 2017 | Source

Another aspect of public humiliation and how it has changed since Elizabethan times is the invention of the internet. In contrast to Clement of Alexandria’s opinion, Marina Adshade Ph.D. (2013), a professor at the University of British Colombia, believes that “slut-shaming is one in which the historic economic environment perpetuated the idea that women are inherently virtuous. It is that perspective passed down through the generations, that has contributed to the modern slut-shaming culture.” Throughout history, the self-worth of a woman was placed on whether she was a virgin at the time she was married. Although some contemporary societies are more open-minded now, it is through public platforms that slut-shaming still thrives today. According to a Pew Research Center’s recent survey, 41% of Americans out of 4,248 U.S. adults have been personally subjected to harassing behavior online. 66% of those surveyed admitted to witnessing these internet shaming behaviors directed at others. Sadly, it shows no signs of slowing down as internet trolls batter away at people on social media. Women between the ages of 18 and 29 are 21% more likely to be subjugated to sexualized forms of abuse and humiliation (Duggan 2017). This can affect self-esteem and even threaten their employment and employability as more employers look toward social media to see if a person will be the right fit for the company.

Despite Hero being falsely accused publicly of being a slut in Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” and Cleopatra in “Antony and Cleopatra” being open to her own sexuality, public condemnation of anything less than virtuous was a hot topic for many people both in Cleopatra’s time period and the Elizabethan era. Although public opinion regarding a woman’s role in society has evolved, contemporary society still has a long way to go in changing the mindset that a woman’s worth is connected to her sexuality or alleged sexuality. Despite the roles of women changing to a more open-minded viewpoint, an archaic patriarchal mindset still influences a new generation of slut-shaming today, depending on a woman’s social class, certain behaviors, and what she wears (Khazan 2014). Whether a sexual act is consensual or forced, the burden of virtue, slut-dome, and self-worth still fall on the responsibility of women compared to the men who exploit them regardless of the time period it occurs. While public slut-shaming can damage both a woman’s personal and professional reputation, the lasting psychological effects of public humiliation can lead to a deterioration of self-esteem and depression. Even though Shakespeare gave a happy ending to his play, “Much Ado About Nothing”, the reality of public humiliation and slut-shaming in contemporary societies still exhibits how damaging a patriarchal mindset can be on some women’s self-worth and overall psychological welfare. Moving forward, future generations should educate themselves on the psychological effects of publicly humiliating a person, male or female, and use Shakespearean and contemporary examples of the way women are viewed to evolve future societies toward compassion and gender equality.

Works Cited

Adshade, Marina, Ph.D. “A Response to "The Economics of Slut-Shaming" Psychology Today. 2013. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/dollars-and-sex/201307/response-the-economics-slut-shaming

Boston, Michelle. “Six reasons Shakespeare remains relevant 400 years after his death.” USC News. University of Southern California. 2016. https://news.usc.edu/91717/six-reasons-shakespeare-remains-relevant-400-years-after-his-death/

Bowles, Samuel. “Shakespeare’s Elizabethan Audience.” University of Southern Indiana. n.d. pp. 61-66. https://www.usi.edu/media/2416960/bowles.pdf

Dabhoiwala, Faramerz. "The Construction of Honour, Reputation and Status in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England." Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, vol. 6, Dec. 1996, p. 201-213. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.snhu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edb&AN=57061096&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Dugan, Maeve. “Online Harassment 2017.” Pew Research Center. 2017. http://www.pewinternet.org/2017/07/11/online-harassment-2017.

Khazan, Olga. “There's No Such Thing as a Slut.” The Atlantic. 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/05/theres-no-such-thing-as-a-slut/371773.

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