Much Ado About Nothing | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Much Ado About Nothing | Context


Theater in the Elizabethan Era

William Shakespeare is thought to have written Much Ado About Nothing between 1598 and 1599. Shakespeare's writing occurred during the Elizabethan era, which was named for Queen Elizabeth I of England, who ruled from 1558 to 1603. An avid fan of music, poetry, and drama, Elizabeth's ascension to the throne ushered in the English Renaissance movement. One of her most important contributions to the arts was approving the construction of the first public theaters in the country, which gave audiences many opportunities to see the latest work of national playwrights, whose works were departing from the religious and turning toward the secular.

The Church of England often opposed the views imparted by opinionated playwrights, and it condemned theater in general for being vulgar. Parliament was known to shut down plays on the grounds of profanity, heresy, or opposing political viewpoints. Theater companies got around these objections by establishing theaters outside of London's city limits, which were still accessible to the general population. As many as 3,000 people could fit in some of these theaters, and they came from all walks of life. Performances, which usually took place in the afternoon, were rowdy affairs.

Suspicious of those who chose to make their living in the theater, church officials often characterized actors as bohemians lacking morals. Acting troupes like the Lord Chamberlain's Men, of which Shakespeare was a member, were comprised entirely of males. It was unseemly (and illegal) for a woman to be onstage, so female roles were played by young boys.

Gender Roles in 16th-Century England

As in most societies prior to the 20th century, women played a secondary role to men in Elizabethan England, especially in public. The stereotype of the typical Elizabethan women, as often portrayed in literature, is that she was chaste, modest, subservient, and wholly dependent on the men in her life—first her father, then her husband. In those portrayals marriage is expected as unmarried women didn't have any means of supporting themselves. That portrayal simply isn't accurate. It was made popular by the "conduct books" of the 16th century, which served as manuals for the upper class on how to be good Christians. Though some people adhered to the standards presented by these so-called authorities on morals and behavior, that wasn't how most people lived their lives.

There were, of course, great differences between men's and women's roles in Elizabethan England. Most are rooted in schooling. Boys attended grammar school from the age of six or seven, then either did an apprenticeship in a trade or continued their education at university. With a few exceptions for the upper class, girls were schooled at home during their grammar school years. Their education focused on chastity and the household arts of cooking, cleaning, and sewing. Girls from wealthy families could learn reading, writing, and the keeping of accounts in the homes of family friends. The lack of formal education for women during the Elizabethan era led to a disparity between what men and women were thought to be capable of, when, in reality, women were rarely given the chance to develop or show their abilities and talents.

The division of labor between men and women was fairly straightforward. Men earned the bulk of the family's income while women took care of the home. That often included earning money from household duties. Housewives sold the products of their gardens, chicken coops, and spinning wheels at market, and they were wholly responsible for the marketing and bookkeeping of their wares. This was especially important to women who were not married or under a male relative's care. Women were allowed to own property in Elizabethan England, but the laws were such that as soon as a woman married all of her property became the property of her husband. Upon his death a widow would receive only one-third of the property her husband owned in his lifetime even if that property used to be hers. Many women found ways to get around this law, and it wasn't unusual for women to inherit property from their female relatives. Both sons and daughters were allowed to inherit property from their parents. Property ownership and the ability to earn money allowed women a modicum of independence in a society that placed emphasis on the education and success of men.

Sex in the Elizabethan Era

Sex was considered to be a natural part of life in Elizabethan England. Women were expected to remain virgins until marriage, but most people thought it acceptable if an engaged couple had intercourse between the agreement to marry and the actual wedding ceremony. Historians estimate as many as 30 percent of women were pregnant on their wedding days, as was Shakespeare's wife, Anne Hathaway.

It was of utmost importance for a woman to maintain her virginity until she was at least engaged to be married. Rumors about premarital experiences not only harmed the woman's reputation, but her father's and her husband's as well. It was a father's duty to protect his daughter's chastity during her formative years. Likewise a wife's faithfulness was a reflection of her husband's status and his ability to control her. After marriage any expression of female sexuality, particularly feminine desire, was considered deeply disturbing. Many people thought women couldn't control their lustful urges. As a result it was quite common for men to fear their wives' infidelity. This concern preoccupies the male characters in Much Ado About Nothing.

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