By the time Shakespeare wrote Much Ado About Nothing in 1597/1598, he had already penned roughly half of his corpus, and given ink to more than a dozen motherless daughters, including Julia and Silvia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona; The Taming of the Shrew’s Kate and Bianca; Titus Andronicud s Lavinia; A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s Helena and Hermia; the Henry VI cycle ’s Joan of Arc and Margaret of Anjou; the Princess of France and her companions in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and The Merchant of Venice’s Jessica, Portia, and Nerissa.5 Beatrice, however, provides a unique case study of the effects of motherlessness on a Shakespearean heroine because the play contains her cousin and foil, Hero, a girl whose mother appears at the margins of the play. Hero s mother, Innogen, appears in the stage directions at the beginning of the first and second acts in both the 1600 quarto of the play and the 1623 folio printing.6
Innogen is a ghost character, an absent presence. She appears in the stage directions, but does not speak and is not directly spoken to in the course of the play.7 Her existence, however meagre, has left its impression on Hero. Hero exhibits the kind of traits Bullinger and Salter instructed mothers to instill in their daughters. We can see the effect of the mother’s presence on Hero contrasted to the effect of the mother’s absence on Beatrice in the girls’ respective first lines. In act one, scene one, Beatrice asks after the fate of Benedick returning from a military campaign, but she does so in mockery: ‘I pray you, is Signor Montanto returned from the wars, or no?’ (1.1.25-6).8 (A montanto is a fencing maneuver and refers to Beatrice and Benedick’s contentious relationship.) Hero speaks once in this scene, briefly, to clarify that Beatrice is referring to Benedick; her first substantial line comes in act two, scene one, and allows us to get the measure of her nature. In response to Don Pedro asking Hero to walk with him, Hero accepts: ‘So you walk softly, and look sweetly, and say nothing, I am yours for the walk; and especially when I walk away’ (2.1.73-4). Though she tacks on a teasing barb at the end of her response, the bulk of this rejoinder displays her virtue and good upbringing. Later in the same scene, after agreeing to the ruse designed to make Beatrice and Benedick fall in love with each other, Hero conditions her participation on maintaining her propriety: ‘I will do any modest office, my lord, to help my cousin to a good husband’ (2.1.326-7).9 Hero’s language reflects an upbringing in which she learned modesty and feminine ideals from her mother.
In contrast to Hero, who speaks less than half as many lines in this play as Beatrice, the fierier cousin spends the play exerting her agency and engaging in battles of wits with Benedick and Don Pedro, the prince. Of the play’s first one hundred lines, Beatrice speaks more than one-third of them, and all are aimed at teasing Benedick. Later in the play, she advises her cousin to choose a husband to please herselfrather than her father, and deftly turns down her own marriage proposal from the prince. The play suggests that Beatrice and Hero were raised together and had access to the same resources, training, and advantages—yet Hero’s mother is part of her child’s life, while Beatrice’s is not. As cause of these markedly differing personalities, the play provides only one explanation: Hero learned the feminine ideals of modesty, gravity, and prudency from her mother. Beatrice did not. Beatrice, displaying an agency learned of men, responds to Leonato’s desire to see her ‘fitted with a husband’ with a waggish parry: ‘Not till God make men of some other mettle than earth. Would it not grieve a woman to be overmastered with a piece of valiant dust? [... ] No, uncle, I’ll none. Adam’s sons are my brethren, and truly I hold it a sin to match in my kindred’ (2.1.48-54).
While the comedy of Much Ado lies mainly in Don Pedro, Leonato, Claudio, Hero, Ursula, and Margaret colluding to make Benedick and Beatrice fall in love with each other, Beatrice spends the play exerting her authority to make her own choices. She repeatedly dismisses the suggestions of the men around her (particularly her closest male relative, Leonato), and eschews the kind of actions and language that would make her grave, modest, or prudent in the culture Bullinger and Salter represent. This is not to say that Beatrice exhibits impropriety or sinful traits. She is not wanton, lascivious, or dishonest. In the absence of her mother’s influence, Beatrice speaks her mind and chooses her own path— and what is more, the men in her life let her do this. Kahn calls the mother ‘crucial to the child’s individuation (development of a sense of self)’ (1986, 37), and without a present mother, it is no wonder that Beatrice has modeled herself on the men in her life. Beatrice’s mother was indeed ‘crucial’ to her daughter’s development into a woman who exerts control over her own life, but counterintuitively, it was her mother’s absence that spurred this development.
Beatrice’s identity in the play is fully formed; established and ingrained in her by the time the play begins. From the start, we observe her ease in conversation with the men around her. She is never demure or reserved, always forthright and transparent in her speech. She says what she means, and the men she speaks to indulge her uncharacteristically feminine directness. Though Bullinger and Salter, among others, instructed early modern women to behave like Hero, many of Shakespeare’s heroines, Beatrice among them, eschewed the traditional values of his time. In Much Ado About Nothing, this is most evident in the way Beatrice speaks. Why is she allowed to behave this way? Her uncle, Leonato, and the prince, Don Pedro, never once check her speech or reprimand her for her barbs or behavior. Beatrice’s linguistic swagger reflects the language of the men around her—Benedick and Don Pedro are her most notable verbal sparring partners, but Leonato, Borachio, Balthasar, and Verges all engage in the same kind of jesting that peppers Beatrice’s speech. By turns employing lighthearted teasing and cutting jabs, Beatrice’s personality is modeled on the men in Messina and is starkly opposed to her cousin Hero’s sweet temperament influenced by the presence of her mother, however indirect and marginal. To appropriate a phrase from Coppelia Kahn, for Beatrice, ‘the only source of love, power, and authority is the father’ (1986, 36). In this case, Leonato is the most present father figure and it is in this environment that Beatrice learned to be her own master.
Though Beatrice’s speech habits ingratiate her with the play’s ranking men, and they allow her to carry on in this way, they do not accept her as their peer. Much Ado’s comedy comes from the plot to make Beatrice and Benedick fall in love with one another, and this idea, proposed by Don Pedro after Beatrice gently turns down his offer of marriage, is a way to trick Beatrice into taking on her ‘proper’ role as a wife. Don Pedro, together with Leonato, Claudio, and the cooperation ofthe play's remaining women, conspire to quite literally put Beatrice in her place. Don Pedro boasts, ‘If we can do this, Cupid is no longer an archer; his glory shall be ours, for we are the only love-gods’ (2.1.334-6).
Though perhaps a victim of the play's comic trickery, Beatrice sails through the play relatively unscathed. With her resilient disposition modeled on the gentlemen around her, she is hardily equipped to bear up under suffering. Hero, however, a girl who has obeyed the rules of early modern womanhood and is modest and virtuous in all senses, suffers an Aristotelian reversal of fortune when Don John, the bastard, convinces Claudio and Don Pedro that she has been sullied before her marriage. Publically humiliated, disowned by her father, and abandoned by her betrothed, Hero must shut herself in seclusion before the play can achieve its happy ending. Beatrice’s biggest sorrow in the play is in her cousin’s misfortune, and she responds to it like any man in her world would—she implores Benedick to ‘Kill Claudio’ (4.1.287). Though both women reap a happy ending at the play's conclusion, Hero, a girl who ticks every box on the checklist of appropriate early modern female behavior, a girl whose mother is a presence in her life (though a silent one), suffers far more than her cousin Beatrice, who displays the verbal swagger of a man learned in the absence of her own mother. In this play, Beatrice's motherlessness is an advantage to her strength and tenacity, while Hero's mother's presence weakens the girl’s personality and fortitude.