Shakespeare’s 16th century portrayal of Messina in southern Italy is a place where social conventions rule and order is kept through the strong bond of honour that exists among men. Honour is the only measure of the man and serves as a way for others to determine and evaluate that person’s character. Thus a person ‘becomes’ their honour. While women’s honour revolves around the womanly virtues of chastity and fidelity, men, being more complex beings, naturally have a more intricate and structured honour paradigm.
The Knights of the Middle Ages epitomised honour systems with their strict adherence to the chivalric code. Knights were elite warriors, holding immense military and political power, and honour was a central component in the concept of conduct known as chivalry, which influenced models of behaviour for nobles during the Renaissance and was admired and exalted as a sign of nobility and social standing. Because this period of time marked an age of instability and constant conflict, honour for men was inevitably tied up in the act of war.
In this environment, where one’s life lay in the competency of his fellow man, one who proved to be proficient and capable at war was naturally held in high esteem and regarded as honourable. War was an ever present reality and provided both an ideal and valuable test of one‘s honour and indeed the messenger in Act One, Scene One proclaims Claudio’s battle-proven honour, stating, “He hath born himself beyond the promise of his age, having done in the figure of a Lamb, the feats of a lion”.
The response to this news is one of overwhelming joy with the messenger also stating how the news had brought tears to the eyes of Claudio’s father. However the honour of women and men, although defined differently, is not separate, especially in the case of families and relationships, where in both cases the honour of both parties is interwoven and the disintegration of one person’s honour affects the other. Not surprisingly Messina is dominated by the conflict between appearance and reality, which has honour at its centre.
As the concept of honour is an abstract one and honour is of fundamental importance, it must be manifested in a physical way so that it is perceivable to others. Thus the desire to portray a perfect exterior dominates people’s behaviour and upholding the appearance of honour in public is a preoccupation with the majority of the citizens of Messina. Yet it is this very desire to uphold honour that constantly compromises both truth and individuality, negatively influencing the way people behave and destroying all sense of self.
The masquerade ball scene is just one of many incidents that play on this tension. Another threat arising from the glorification of honour is presumption and the fierce desire to defend one’s honour, which becomes a central concern in Messina and is at the very root of the most shocking conflict in the play. As each character fiercely guards their honour, the underlying insecurity, suspicion and irrationality remains unchecked, and Don John’s masterful deception causes Messina to collapse into calamity.
Claudio’s hasty, yet premeditated shaming of Hero is his pitiful attempt to protect his own honour. He erroneously believes that by denouncing his intended and disassociating himself from any connection with her, he will remove all risk of his own honour being implicated in the affair most foul and treacherous. Equally distressing, is Leonato’s shocking assumption of the role of the shamed and furious father, which demonstrates the importance of the concept of honour within the family.
Beatrice’s harrowing command to “Kill Claudio” is her attempt to defend and restore Hero’s honour and Bennedict’s reluctant, but convincing compliance is a perfect example of the interconnected nature of honour in Messina. Their reactions, which appear extreme, reveal the immense fear of shame, that the removal of honour brings, a fate which Messinians fear more than death itself and of course Don John is constantly there as a reminder of what happens to one who has lost his honour.
Known as Don John the bastard, his low rank and reclusive personality is testament to the pitiful existence that loosing one’s honour brings. Thus it is easy to understand why loosing one’s honour is so feared by Messinians, and their obsession over the idea of honour, whilst unfortunate, can be justified. To prove his point, Shakespeare masterfully expounds the negative implications of the attitudes of the people of Messina by immersing them in, and developing their reactions to, crisis and adversity, which exposes the frailty of their society and their restrictive notions of honour.
However Shakespeare does not let all his characters become ensnared in this mode of thought and the beloved duo of Beatrice and Bennedict are a definite example of what can be achieved when society’s social expectations are ignored and rejected as inhibiting forces. Finally the play reaches a happy, though somewhat uneasy, resolution, involving the restoration of everyone’s honour, because the blame for shaking the very fabric of society is laid very neatly at the feet of Don John, who is blamed as the perpetrator of the plot, which sadly means that Messina has learnt ‘nothing’ from its many deceptions.
Even Claudio, who publicly shamed Hero with such callousness and showed no emotion when the news of her death was announced, is conveniently absolved from guilt. Ultimately we are left with an uneasy feeling over the palpable instability of Messina, which threatens the seemingly peaceful resolution, and we realise that only Beatrice and Benedick have exchanged the traditional concepts of honour for the freedom of individualism.