“Hush”: The Lost Voices of Beatrice, Isabella and Contemporary Women

Lily Frost - Writer & Deputy Editor

2018 brought with it a storm of campaigns against sexual assault and harassment, especially against authoritative figures. First the rise of the #MeToo campaign and then multiple sexual misconduct allegations that were made against Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh. The Kavanaugh case showed how, understandably, many women are silenced and are afraid to speak up of against men of authority, at risk of being publicly humiliated or being framed as a liar. This ‘hushing’ of women resonates with the characters of Isabella and Beatrice in Measure for Measure and Much Ado About Nothing. To help understand the plot better, the Royal Shakespeare Company summarises Shakespeare plays, for Measure for Measure, (link: https://www.rsc.org.uk/measure-for-measure/) and for Much Ado About Nothing, (link: https://www.rsc.org.uk/much-ado-about-nothing/). Shakespeare wrote Isabella and Beatrice as independent women who act on their on behalf. However, after marriage, they have no more lines on stage. They are both  ‘hushed’ into silence by the men that they marry.  In the context of 2018, we can see that Shakespeare is suggesting that women can have agency throughout their whole lives, but sooner or later they have to submit to a man. What is more prevalent with today’s society is that is for both Isabella and Beatrice, both male superior figures have the last word.

In Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice is an independent character who openly rejects marriage and the idea of submitting to a man with lines such as, ‘I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow, than a man swear he loves me.’ This comedic line shows the audience and readers how independent she is. Not only are her words surprising for the time period, she is a main character so her voice is consistently heard. Shakespeare also writes Beatrice as a character who uses sexual innuendo, to add to the comedy, using comments such as, ‘[Benedick is] a good soldier to a lady’. Whether Shakespeare wrote Beatrice as a rebellious women for comedic purposes or as an icon of female agency in this play, Beatrice is without a doubt one of the strongest female characters in Shakespeare’s comedies. This then begs the question, why does Shakespeare write her out of the play as soon as she is married to Benedick. The consequences of this action is that her role is reduced to a submissive wife rather than the charismatic, comedic and defiant woman that she is. Benedick is a Lord who is higher up in the social hierarchy. I believe that Shakespeare created this ending for Beatrice to show that women can have agency throughout their whole lives but eventually they have to submit to a man. Readers can see this idea of loss of voice earlier on in Much Ado About Nothing. In act two, scene three, Claudio comments, ‘how still the evening is as hushed on purpose to grace harmony’. Even though, this was not in relation to Beatrice, one could easily see the resemblance. Michael Friedman interestingly explores this in relation to Beatrice as, ’particularly Beatrice…remained "hushed on purpose" to grace the harmony of the relationship’. Much Ado About Nothing was first performed in 1612, and yet, this idea of loss of voice resonates with contemporary society today, especially regarding Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged victims.

Isabella in Measure for Measure is far less “loud’ or “outspoken” than Beatrice but she is independent in her own right by making her own plans for her future, ’Yes, truly; I speak not as desiring more; But rather wishing a more strict restraint, upon the sisterhood, the votarists of Saint Clare.’ Whilst some believe that she is written into a restrictive role at the nunnery, it can be seen as an act of female agency rather than an act of confinement. Jessica Slights and Michael Holmes summarise, ‘Isabella’s religious devotion actually allows her to resist pressures to marry’. Even so, at the end of the play, the Duke demands that Isabella marries him, ‘give me your hand and say you will be mine’. The phrasing itself questions the nature of consent as ‘give’ and ‘say’ are command words rather than words that phrase a question. This demand resonates with the victims of the #MeToo campaign, as Isabella has been sought out by a figure of authority in the society, and therefore has everything at stake if she declines his offer. Before this, readers, get a sense of strength in her speeches to authoritative figures. In those speeches, we see her eloquence and strength and a sense of fearlessness. These are phrases such as,’I now must make you know’ and  ‘Commend me to my brother’. From this there is a expectation of rejection, or some kind of explanation. Yet, we receive neither, her silence is deafening and it is neither a rejection or an acceptance. Marcia Riefer comments on Isabella’s silence as, ‘a literal loss of voice… Measure for Measure is Isabella’s tragedy. Like Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, the eloquent Isabella is left with no tongue’. Reifer here perfectly summarises the crux of the issue of Isabella’s silence. The Duke was an authoritative figure. His voice was louder. Isabella’s silence resonates with how it might feel to be sought out by a Supreme Judge, a judge who was President Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Courts. Therefore, are these figures so extremely different?

Both Shakespeare plays are resonant of the society we live in today and echo the same problems that we faced then and now. Many other bloggers and critics have tried to blame Shakespeare for writing Isabella and Beatrice out of the plays when they are married. However, what Shakespeare actually did was manage to build a platform where women had voices, where they could control their own lives and have agency. By doing this, Shakespeare put a spotlight on the fact that dominant men took these voices away. What is particularly harrowing is that Shakespeare is suggesting that even the eloquent, articulate women will eventually have their voices drowned out by the voices of authoritative men.

How different really are they; a Duke and a Judge?


"Measure For Measure | Royal Shakespeare Company", Rsc.Org.Uk, 2018 <https://www.rsc.org.uk/measure-for-measure/> [Accessed 12 November 2018].
 "Much Ado About Nothing | Royal Shakespeare Company", Rsc.Org.Uk, 2018 <https://www.rsc.org.uk/much-ado-about-nothing/> [Accessed 12 November 2018].
 William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008),p. 102
 Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing,p. 99.
 Friedman, Michael D, "Hush'd on Purpose to Grace Harmony": Wives and Silence in "Much Ado about Nothing”, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990),p. 350.
 William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure,p.105.
 Jessica Slights and Michael Morgan Holmes, Isabella's Order: Religious Acts and Personal Desires in "Measure for Measure”, (North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press,1998),p.264
 Shakespeare, Measure for Measure,p. 227.
 Marcia Riefer, "Instruments of Some More Mightier Member": The Constriction of Female Power in “Measure for Measure”, (Washington DC: Folger Shakespeare Library,1984),p, 167.
Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/whitehouse/44873111735


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