Honour, honourable and dishonour, are such profound words because they embody honesty, respect, integrity, fairness, trustworthiness, dishonesty, social standing and dignity. Shakespeare’s tragi-comedy ““Much Ado About Nothing”” encapsulates the role that honour plays and will always play in a loving and caring relationship and forces us to hold the mirror up to the conflicts and dilemmas that revolve around honour in our own lives.
Although to love, honour and obey is the wedding vow where we pledge to honour and cherish one another in good times and in bad times, it seems without doubt that honouring thy partner is one of the first vows to be disregarded and this is wrong because without honour how can we love? Honour is one of the corner stones of Christianity. John 3:07 says “Husbands honour your wives” and Moses when he handed down the Ten Commandments made the third commandment “Honour thy father and thy mother. ”
“Much Ado About Nothing”” shows us varying examples of the code of honour in action and the reader begins to question whether love and honour are so bound together that when you dishonour somebody you can no longer love them? We see first hand the effect on others when people seek to gain honour or a higher social ranking by forming dishonest relationships and that in fact these actions typify dishonour and relationships formed on this premise lack any emotional substance and are doomed to failure. Overall, honour is such an integral part of our everyday lives that without it our world becomes an immoral and unethical place of deceit.
However before we can really grasp this concept we need to understand more critically what the code of honour stands for. A ‘code of honour is a set of standards for behaving honourably, usually unwritten but understood by the group to which they pertain’. We are used to hearing ‘you don’t love me, you don’t love me’, but do we ever hear ‘you don’t honour me’. Honour is such an integral part of love, that it becomes the outward expression of how much we love somebody, and it defines the lengths we are willing to go in order to protect our loved one’s honour.
Shakespeare’s tragicomedy ““Much Ado About Nothing”” pivots around love and marriage and the importance honour plays when love is at stake. Although many Messinian attitudes to honour can be classified as sexist and express different cultural values, the one thing that remains true is the impact that honour has on a functioning relationship. Shakespeare shows us through the young naive couple, Claudio and Hero, who believe they are in love, the impact that honour has on a relationship, because on closer investigation we see their relationship is fickle and driven by dishonest motives.
In contrast to this couple Shakespeare gives us Beatrice and Benedick, a couple brought to the very brink of destruction over the question of honour. We see brothers who are prepared to sacrifice honour in their battle for power and we see a father, whose job supposedly is to uphold his daughter’s honour in the community, publicly join in stripping his daughter of her honour. When we focus on the intriguing relationship between Claudio and Hero, it seems from the outset that this relationship is a doomed disaster.
Formed on the promise of an inheritance, social position and suitability, it has no substance whatsoever and the only thing that both Claudio and Hero have in common is that they think they will inadvertently gain honour through gaining a higher social standing if they agree to marry. When we first see Claudio, we see a man turning from the perils of war to the perils of love, a dangerous transition. A soldier’s honour, although implicated with that of his male confederates, nevertheless lies chiefly in his own hands, but that of a lover is inseparably bound up with the conduct of the woman he loves.
Before Claudio is willing to commit to Hero he first finds out whether his ‘love’ is the heiress of Leonato, the governor of Messina. Interestingly, Claudio quickly breaks off the wedding with Hero when he is tricked into believing she is not as chaste as she claims to be, because he knows that in society’s eyes she would dishonour both him and her father if the marriage was to proceed as planned. Here we see that Claudio is far too quick to judge his betrothed because he is so worried about how things appear he ignores the despair that losing this love will bring him.
Claudio, on his very own wedding day savagely says, “There, Leonato, take her back again, Give not his rotten orange to your friend, She’s but the sign and semblance of her honour: Behold how like a maid she blushes here! Oh what authority and show of truth can cunning sin cover itself withal! ” Claudio’s harsh conduct is inexcusable, however If we look at this relationship through the eyes of Claudio and accept that he believed that Hero had made love with another man, would a man in today’s society act any differently? Would he not direct the same angry anger at the woman as Claudio does at Hero?
If a man cheats on a woman in today’s society or vice versa would this not create an uncontrollable outburst of rage? It seems that as an audience we are very quick to judge Claudio as the ‘baddy’, but is this attitude valid? Furthermore if we look more closely at the code of honour we see that Claudio’s actions are in fact justified. In Messinian society a woman’s honour depends on whether she is a virgin, just as in our society if a woman is extremely promiscuous she loses much of her dignity, integrity and inadvertently her honour.
The only way Claudio can remove the dishonour from his own name and fix it where it truly belongs is by such a shapely revenge. Another flash-point in the social structure of Shakespearian times is that if princes and friends may play false, then so too may women. Insincerity was endemic, and real feelings must never subvert sham, false ones. Claudio and Don Pedro believe what they are told they see, not only because they trust men rather than women, but also because they know that women are born to betray men. They have a misogynistic vocabulary of accusation ready to hand.
Hero is a ‘rotten orange’, a ‘common stale’, an ‘approved wanton’, raging like an animal ‘in savage sensuality’ and she must be shamed and anathematised, for her sins. ““Much Ado About Nothing””, is best considered as a problem play, whose disturbing ending dramatises the inadequacy of the ideology by which its ruling classes rule. It is a comedy of social manners whose romance structure, with its improbable story, characters and denouement, makes deliberate play on the social tensions which in real life are not so readily resolved.
It is an affectionate critique of upper-class manners, whose outwardness in matters of love and religion ran contrary to the new expectations of the inner life that were becoming widely accepted in Elizabethan England. Shakespeare’s ““Much Ado About Nothing”” highlights many weaknesses in human nature and the complexity in the relationship between love and honour. However crossing the boundaries between our world and Shakespeare’s world a few absolutes remain. Loyalty, trust, integrity and fairness are all words which embody ‘honour’ both in Shakespeare’s time and in our own time and must remain to the fore if love is to prosper.