In Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing", many Renaissance ideals are explored and integrated into the fabric of the story and the personalities of the central characters. Women in “Much Ado About Nothing" most notably Beatrice, are not confined to the more traditional role of objects and their position is more elevated than what one might see in earlier literature. In addition to this, ideas central to renaissance humanism are apparent including an increased emphasis on human potential and beauty—both physical and verbal. The tie that binds these two themes in “Much Ado About Nothing" by William Shakespeare together is a sense of individualism, which is also a renaissance ideal. By creating strong characters with vibrant inner lives, Shakespeare creates a perfect sense a Renaissance world by constructing characters that adhere to the philosophies of the Renaissance.
One of the key elements defining the Renaissance was the improved status of women. Although in “Much Ado About Nothing" by Shakespeare, Hero represents many more traditional ideas about womanhood during or before the Renaissance, Beatrice reflects the changes that were taking place for women during the Renaissance. As any character analysis of Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing" should note, she is very strong-willed and verbal and one of her defining traits is her sharp tongue and ability to make the decision about whether or not she wishes to marry. Also embodying the concept ofindividualism in the Renaissance, she engages in a “merry war" with Benedick and proves that even though she is a woman, she is mentally and verbally on par with any man and can hold her own. She is strong enough to declare in one of the important quotes from “Much Ado About Nothing", “I had rather hear by dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me" (I.i.107-108) and makes it clear that she does not need a man to depend on, emotionally or otherwise.
As a woman who embodies Renaissances ideas about the more elevated position of women, the character of Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing" is able to make her own decisions and stands apart in the play as one of the strongest and most vital characters rather than taking a position behind the men and serving only as “decoration" or an object. Even still, there are some vestiges of pre-Renaissance notions of women and Beatrice, after learning of what happened to Hero declares how she wishes she was a man so she could defend Hero’s honor. However, she states, “I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving" (IV.i.315-318). Here she recognizes that although her status as woman holds some importance, it is still not on par with that of men.
“Much Ado About Nothing" by Shakespearealso reflects some of the key themes underpinning Renaissance humanism, which involved concepts of focus on human beings and their potential as well as the idea of perfect beauty. The flowery courtly language used in the play represents some of the concepts behind humanism during the Renaissance as characters take turns outdoing one another with complex and witty verbal play. One of the best examples of this is embodied by Benedick who makes fanciful statements on a regular basis. He even makes fun of Claudio for his use of the same rhetorical flair stating, “his words are a very fantastical banquet, just so many strange dishes" (II.ii.18-19). This dramatic way with language was a way of reflecting the new emphasis on learning and appreciating art and beauty as well as showcasing it. In addition, all of Shakespeare’s characters rely on their senses as individuals to make themselves stand out, including Don John, who is an intense individualist who uses the powers of his own mind to constantly think and devise plans and ideas. In terms of ideas of this humanism, it is also important to note that physical beauty was important and the character of Hero is the example of the perfect woman since she is beautiful and demure. Each of the main characters is able to successfully represent some aspect of Renaissance humanism, whether it is by the inner workings of their minds, their physical appearance, or their ability to create beauty with words and use this as a skill.
Individualism is the key Renaissance concept that draws together both the improved position of women as well as the reflections of humanist ideals. The most interesting characters see themselves as individuals and compete with one another as well as fall in love. Instead of creating characters that are stagnant, many of them (with the exception of Hero, who is more or less something of an object throughout the play) have vital inner lives and personal motivations. For example, Don John represents the notion of individualism perfectly. He is not constrained by old notions of how one should behave or act, in part because he is a bastard child. He possesses the genius and deep inner life revered by those who value individualist qualities and like Beatrice, the other excellent example of individualism, he is able to make his own decisions outside of what is expected by his society.
While the setting and story do not necessarily represent Renaissance ideals by themselves, the characters and their depth work to make the play something can be tied to the Renaissance in many ways. By displaying individualistic traits, each of the characters demonstrates something about Renaissance ideals. Beatrice embodies a representation of the “new" Renaissance woman and her thought processes, Benedick and Hero present readers with notions of humanism, most notable beauty and perfection in appearances, learning, and verbal flair, and Don John (as well as Beatrice) best represent the concept of individualism. Through this play it is easier to gain an understanding of the Renaissance world, even if the story is not necessarily set in Shakespeare’s time.