Heroes occur -- within the conventions of Western drama and Western literature more generally -- within the context of tragedy, for it is the stresses of tragic situations that (typically) allow for heroism to arise. But we can -- especially if we use the lenses of gender and queer theory -- see that Shakespeare has written a comedic play that nevertheless allows for heroism to come through. At least temporarily. Shakespeare underscores the heroism of his characters through the simple device of giving us "Hero." This might seem to be either heavy-handed or so obvious as to be meaningless, but to take this view is to privilege the point of the twenty-first century audience or reader.
As citizens of the postmodern world, we are used to (and ever expect) for different literary and artistic tropes to be mixed together: We are not surprised when tragic elements end up in comedies (or vice versa) like some literary form of recombinant DNA. However, the world of Shakespeare's audiences would have expected comedies to keep to the rules. Shakespeare -- in his opus as a while as well as in Much Ado About Nothing walks a very narrow and vertiginous line between following the conventions of his times and innovating new hybrid forms. (This is, of course, the essential nature of his genius -- shown perhaps to best advantage actually in his sonnets.)
Shakespeare gave his audience much of what they expected in a comedy -- all those complications, disguises, and misunderstandings about the nature of love. And all those -- at least putatively, or superficially -- happily-ever-after marriages. However, he also plays around the rules of comedy, and does so along gender lines. One of the cleverest aspects of this play is the fact that Hero is actually less heroic that Beatrice and Benedict. This is a nice piece of misdirection on the playwright's part, exactly analogous to the magician's holding up a wriggling white rabbit to get your attention while doing something else. We are literally given...
But not in the first place that we are looking for it.
It is hard not to see Benedict and Beatrice -- both introduced to us as characters who have forsworn traditional ideas of (heterosexual) marriage -- as two representations or embodiments of the same person. They are this play's version of Twelfth Night's Viola and Sebastion, a representation of a being that is a complex combination of both sex and gender and so of desire(s) that are not neatly categorized into traditional (straight) ideas about partnership. Beatrice and Benedict both recognize (and have done so for much of their lives) that the traditional marriage of their historical moment and culture is too narrow a world for them. This understanding is not expressed (at least in the script -- although this might not have been the case in the staging of the play) in terms of homosexual desire. This is hardly surprising given the ways in which sexuality was both constrained and understood at the time. But their simple refusal to accept without reservation the sexual (and marital) norms of their time would have provided the play's audiences with an essentially rebellious, and even potentially revolutionary perspective that sexuality could in fact be negotiated.
But only -- of course -- so far. Much Ado About Nothing is, of course, a comedy, and an English Renaissance comedy at that. Beatrice and Benedict are allowed to rebel, to push against conventional sexuality and marriage, but only temporarily. By the end of the play, social expectations have intervened, and the two are happily (and conventionally) married. But, despite this predictable ending, the fact that Shakespeare has introduced the possibility that not all people spend their lives desiring conventional heterosexuality allows for a more complicated set of conclusions. As is true of other comedies -- notably Taming of the Shrew and Measure for Measure, we are left both celebrating conventional pairings and asking ourselves, as the house lights come up and we leave the theater, whether we have indeed witnessed a comedy or a tragedy wrapped up (as if in drag) as a comedy.
Marlowe, Christopher. "Hero and Leander." Classic Literature Library. 1 December 2009.
"Hero" www.etymonline.com. 2005. 1 December 2009. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php? l=h&p=6
Hamilton, Sharon. Shakespeare's Daughters. New York: McFarland & Company, 2007.
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