The Renaissance comedy, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, written by Shakespeare in 1600 during the Elizabethan era, addresses male inconstancy and female persecution; how women are controlled by the prevailing patriarchal system. Hero, the conventional heroine, is a ‘shrinking violet’, who suffers character assassination through male actions. ‘The Rover’, written in 1677 for the Restoration society of Charles II where men were hedonistic, uncommitted and brimming with bravado, also explores gender conflicts. However playwright, Aphra Behn, in this Restoration comedy, critically comments on male attitudes, and - through female rebellion where, not one, but three virgins challenge patriarchal control by seeking love - questions the traditional fabric of society and the status quo of male authority.
In ‘Much Ado’ Hero’s silence defines her submissive character. SP Cerasano’s comment that women were expected to be ‘chaste, silent and obedient… property of her father, husband or guardian’, typifies Hero as the model of Elizabethan womanhood. The unspoken implication of ‘you know your answer’ from Leonato in 2/1 regarding gossip about Don Pedro expresses male dominance.
In addition to patriarchal control Shakespeare provides evidence of the Elizabethan preoccupation with marriage’s financial aspect, evident in Claudio’s inquiry in 1/1 of Don Pedro, “Hath Leonato any son?” and the reply, “No child but Hero, she’s his only heir” illustrating what a contemporary audience might consider a mercenary approach that suggest doubt against his sincerity. However, for the Shakespearean audience, this commodification of women and financial basis of marriage was entirely acceptable.
The greatest evidence of women’s subordinate position comes in 4/1 when Hero is brutally slandered by Claudio. In what Cerasano calls Claudio’s, “brutal and unambiguous manner” calling her a “rotten orange” and an “approved wanton”, Hero’s powerlessness is highlighted by the brevity of her responses, “Is my Lord well that he doth speak so wide?” Cerasano recognises the difficulty of her situation, that nothing can ‘ultimately exonerate her’, not even her father whom we might expect to stand up for her. Leonato’s language shows the patriarch trying to retain his own honour by disowning his daughter, “no part of it is mine / This shame derives itself from unknown loins”
Only the appearance of her death can create the possibility of sympathy for Hero and remorse from Claudio. Through metaphorical ‘death’, Hero is ‘reborn’ – her honour is redeemed and marriage is resumed. Order is restored to society.
In “The Rover”, the conventional heroine, Florinda, assumes a more proactive role compared to the reactive persona of Hero. Behn opens the play with Florinda and Hellena chatting about her intended (and unwanted) marriage to the elderly Don Vincentio; we see rejection of patriarchal control, calling arranged marriage “the ill customs of our country”. Florinda’s rebellion telling her brother that to support this marriage will “make a slave of his sister” shows the Restoration audience that the conventional heroine is keen to pursue her own destiny.
However females are subject to dangers other than slander in ‘The Rover’. Florinda, rambling into the hedonistic streets of carnival is susceptible to sexual violence, a fact alluded to in 1/1 saying she was previously saved from the “licensed lust of common soldiers” by the English cavalier, Belvile, whom she loves.
The masquerade provides Florinda the opportunity to hide her noble status but, as S.J. Wiseman argues, at the cost of “suffering … physical and sexual violence”. Florinda comes under the threat of sexual assault not once, but twice, firstly by the eponymous ‘rover’ Wilmore, then more seriously by the unsympathetic Blunt. By using the audience favourite, Wilmore, with his links to the...