Gender Roles in Much Ado About Nothing and Trifles
Today, gender roles have become far more flexible than as recently as 50 years ago. Women today can enter management positions, have focused careers, and expect salaries on the same level as those of men. Indeed, some women have proved themselves to be as competent, or more so, in leadership positions as men. At the same time, however, women are free to choose for themselves the lives they want, and some prefer lives as home makers and mothers. Society today is far more tolerant of women who choose either a career, homemaking, or a balance of both to live their lives. This is why it is so interesting to examine plays from earlier times, when assigned gender roles were far more rigid. Authors such as Shakespeare in "Much Ado About Nothing" and Susan Glaspell in "Trifles" offer significant comment on the social values of their times with regard to gender roles. With the perspective of today, critics can also add their own interpretations of these roles when reading such plays. In both plays, women and men have commonly accepted gender roles, but it is also true that some of the women break the norms imposed by these roles to great dramatic effect.
In Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" Claudio and Hero are the most obvious examples of traditionally assigned gender roles in the play. Claudio is the typical strapping young lad, a nobleman who is well-respected. In other words, he is a typically prince-like character to sweep the princess-like Hero off her delicate feet. Hero, on the other hand, is a sweet, sensitive, and kind woman. She plays the typical role of her gender and age, pining for marriage, and delighted when it presents itself in the form of Claudio. The two are in love almost as soon as they meet for the first time. Neither Claudio nor Hero break their traditional gender roles, even in the face of conflict.
When Claudio is deceived into believing that Hero is unfaithful, he immediately jumps to the conclusion that it must be true, again in typical male fashion. When he goes even further by humiliating Hero on their wedding day, she in turn responds in a typical female way by having an emotional breakdown. She does absolutely nothing to defend herself and neither she nor her family does anything active to uncover the truth. Instead, she submits to her father's decision to pretend that she is dead from grief and shock. The gender role assigned to Hero is reinforced by the fact that nobody, including Claudio, finds this deception difficult to believe.
What is somewhat surprising is Benedick's reaction to Claudio's treatment of Hero. The former challenges the latter to a dual. This signifies a break of gender role, since he is on the side of Beatrice, Hero's cousin. Beatrice and Benedick, who ultimately also fall in love, are less typical of the assigned or traditional gender roles of the day.
Beatrice is a strong female figure, extremely intellectual, and very unwilling to be constricted by marriage, especially to a controlling man. Indeed, she is happy never to marry or to marry only when she finds a partner who is truly equal. Despite their many word skirmishes, this is what Benedick becomes to her; a completely equal partner.
What is interesting is that Beatrice breaks out of her atypical strong female character on two occasions; first by opening herself to the relatively weakness and vulnerability created by romantic love, and second by her reaction to Hero's humiliation. In Act IV scene i, for example, she wishes to be a man so she could avenge Hero's undeserved dishonor (line 312 -- 318). Here, she acknowledges that, for all her intellectual prowess and strength, she is unable, as a woman, to defend the honor of another woman. This is a role that Benedick is willing to fulfill for her out of his love. Hence, even though Beatrice is mentally very strong, she admits that she can do nothing but "die" with "grieving" because she is a woman.
In the wake of Hero's tragedy, Benedick and Beatrice finally acknowledge their love for each other. Although this creates for them a reversion to more typical gender roles, Beatrice maintains her atypical female strength by entering into one of her…