This was the essay I wrote during my mock examinations- I did the passage-based.
Re-read in Act 4 Scene 1 from ‘Benedick: How doth the lady? Beatrice: Dead, I think.’ to ‘Hero: Refuse me, hate me, torture me to death.’
How does Shakespeare make this such a powerfully emotional moment in the play?
The exchange that occurs after the calumniation of Hero in Act 4 Scene 1 of Much Ado About Nothing is a heart-wrenching and powerfully emotional moment in the play. Leonato’s reaction to the accusation and the vitriolic and relentless battering of Hero’s chastity left the audience indignant and feeling utterly helpless to the seriousness and drastic implications of Hero’s situation.
Hero had just fainted (as a proper woman in that era was expected to), and Leonato immediately falls into the platitudes of anti-feminism, brutally abusing his own daughter through verbal insults and reproach. He utters ‘oh she is fallen/ into a pit of ink, that the wide sea/ hath drops too few to wash her clean again’, demonstrating the atrocity of Hero’s supposed deed. She has tainted her reputation as a woman to the point that even the sea, brimming with water, could not erase her blemish! The use of this hyperbole accentuates the seriousness of this situation, and as the audience knows that Hero is in actual fact, innocent- it makes us feel all the more indignant and invokes pity for Hero. The fact that it is Leonato, Hero’s own father and closest kin, that denounces her so bitterly, makes it a very powerful moment in the play.
Leonato then casts the greatest punishment on her, ordering her to die- ‘would the two princes lie […] let her die.’ He takes the word of the two princes over his own daughter’s, even though disobedience is uncharacteristic of Hero. Not only does he falsely accuse her of infidelity, but orders her to die! Here, Leonato espouses the common Elizabethan view that a father owned his daughter- so Hero’s life is in his hands. This would have been incongruous to a modern audience- Hero is not guilty, and even if she were, infidelity does not deserve such a drastic sentence! The irrational fear of cuckoldry among Elizabethan men has caused them to victimize even the most ideal products of their system- the silent, submissive, and wholly endearing Hero. The ideal infallible woman is ordered to die- and because she has no right to speak, she cannot refute the accusations, and therefore must die as men read her like a text through both physical and verbal interpretation. The dramatic irony at this point contributes greatly to the overwhelming tension and suspense that makes it such an emotional moment in the play.
Benedick and Beatrice plead Leonato to be patient and not to jump to conclusions, but to no avail. It is Friar Francis who manages to appeal to Leonato: ‘I have marked/ a thousand blushing apparitions/ To start into her face a thousand innocent shames’. He tells Leonato that he has read her blushes and thinks that she is innocent- here the audience sees a glimmer of hope for the restoration of Hero’s reputation. However, especially to a modern audience, this could make the scene even more infuriating and emotional. It is bad enough that Leonato disregards Benedick, Beatrice’s, and Hero’s own pleas over the word of a prince, and only starts to relent when a Friar speaks. The fact that Friar Francis uses Hero’s expression as proof of innocence serves to be even more aggravating. This asserts that females only exist as an object, something for men to read into. As Claudio reads into Hero’s blushes, calling them indicative of guiltiness, Friar Francis reads it as innocent shames. Whether it is one or the other, it is not determined by the woman’s good character, but rather man’s interpretations. Men are endowed with power simply because of their sex, and this overrides any support of a woman’s word.
When at last, Hero recovers and has a chance to speak (note that this is only because Friar Francis offers her an opportunity), she finally tells him she is not guilty. She says that if it is found otherwise, they can ‘refuse [her], hate [her], torture [her] to death.’ This invokes a strong sense of sympathy and pity for Hero- we all know that she is innocent- but she defers her rights as a human over to her father to do as he will with her, displaying the horror and profound implications of the situation. Her use of triplets and repetition accentuates the despondency of the situation- ‘refus[ing]’ a daughter would be the greatest shame and denunciation; ‘hate’ is a superlative with strong pejorative connotations- dislike, abhorrence, loathing; and ‘torture’ is the highest degree of acute pain. All this culminates to an emotional deluge that highlights the despondency of the situation and Hero’s lack of power to fix it. We witness the flaws of the patriarchal system and see woman as a weak and powerless individual that lacks the ability to stand up for herself- even as Hero epitomizes the ideal woman in Elizabethan society that will never threaten the patriarchal dominance. At this stage we feel a strong sense of wrenching pity, coupled with a tinge of anger for the injustice of the situation- making it a very emotional and overwhelming moment in the play.
This section of Act 4 Scene 1 is very much an emotionally powered moment, and brings the audience on a roller coaster of emotional turmoil. It encroaches on the idea of hegemonic masculinity, and how the restraint of women and power of men can have drastic consequences- invoking both anger and pity in the audience.