Shakespeare, W - Much Ado About Nothing (Arden, 2006).pdf

The very existence of such guides suggests however

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The very existence of such guides suggests, however, that the ideal is easier described than found; their recommendations for proceeding suggest that the reason for the difficulty lies not only in the scarcity of good women but also in the limitations of the technologies available to discover them. How could a woman's nature and character be known? These guides are thus semiotic in nature, designed to enable the prospective suitor to discover a virtuous spouse by interpreting the marks of her speech, appear- ance and reputation. Yet the difficulty of finding a good woman lay not only in the ways in which bad women might impersonate the good; one author warned that 'thys undertaking is a matter of some difficulty, for good wiues are many times so like vnto bad that they are hardly discerned betwixt' (Niccholes, sig. B4 V ). More troubling still was that even though a bridegroom needed to look for signs of virtue, the very existence of legible signs ironically rendered a woman suspect. For a good woman was by definition inconspicuous, but hence at times potentially inscrutable. For example, the standard advice in such manuals was to observe signs of behaviour, such as 'a sober and mild aspect, courteous behaviour, decent carriage, of a fixed eye, constant look, and unaffected gate, the contrary being oftentimes signs of ill portent and consequence' (Niccholes, sig. Cl r ). Redheads were to be avoided, as well as women who were either too beautiful ('many times both to herself and to them that beholde her beautie is a prouocation to much euiP) or too far above one in social sta- tion (liable to upset the gender hierarchy) (R.C., sig. Kl v -2 r ). But 1 Heywood, Man; Niccholes; Snawsel. 40
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Introduction the difficulty in choosing a helpmeet on these grounds was that the viewer was always haunted by a sense that such signs might be dissembled, or be inadequate as denotative guides, especially as a meretricious sign is likely to be a warning one. A frequent dilemma is that a good woman can be known by her speech, but a truly good woman will be silent. Similarly, while 'the lookes' are an index of 'godliness in the face', the truly godly face will be veiled, 'to shewe how a modeste countenance and womanly shamefastnesse doe command a chaste wife; it is observed, that the word Nuptiae, doth declare the manner of her marriage. For it importeth a couering, because Virgins which should be married, when they come to their husbands for modestie and shamefastness did couer their faces' (R.C., sig. G4 r ). This paradox would bedevil John Milton, who nearly half a cen- tury after Much Ado's composition writes in his divorce tracts that 'who knows not that the bashful muteness of a virgin may oftimes hide all the unliveliness and natural sloth which is really unfit for conversation?' 1 We can hear here the bewilderment of a man con- fronted by the contradiction between the cultural ideal of a woman who kept her signs to a minimum and his own definition of mar- riage as a 'happy conversation' (if not a couple talking themselves mad). Milton's plaintiveness
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