Most of Shakespeare’s aristocratic patrons would be intimately familiar with the arts of swordplay. Furthermore, Shakespeare as a trained actor would have studied fighting accurately to replicate it onstage. This is why Shakespeare takes many opportunities to mention duelling culture in his plays, especially within the comedies.
Shakespeare uses duel references to comic effect in plays such as Twelfth Night, in which Sir Toby Belch convinces the cowardly Sir Andrew to fight Viola, a woman disguised as a man. Both combatants are cowards, but according to the law of arms, both of them have to fight, though neither one wants to or knows how: “He cannot by the duello avoid it” (Twelfth Night 3.4)
A more serious example of duel culture occurs in Much Ado About Nothing. In Act 4, Scene 1, Claudio has accused his fiancée Hero of adultery in front of the whole town, thus dishonoring her. Her cousin Beatrice is so furious with Claudio, she claims that, were she a man “I would eat his heart in the marketplace!” Eventually, Beatrice convinces Claudio’s friend Benedick to challenge Claudio to a duel. This seems harsh at first, but when one considers the context of judicial combat, it becomes clear that Beatrice is actually being totally rational, and wishes Claudio’s death for an important purpose- to vindicate Hero.
In Elizabethan society, when a woman was accused of adultery, a champion could fight to the death on her behalf in a judicial combat. This is why Beatrice famously asks Benedick to kill Claudio in Act 4; if Benedick kills Claudio in a duel, Claudio’s death would prove by divine influence that he accused her falsely, and Hero would at last be free from shame. However, when she is left alone with Benedick, she is full of conflicting feelings of love for him, which is why at first she hesitates to ask for his help:
BENEDICK Surely I do believe your fair cousin is wronged.
BEATRICE Ah, how much might the man deserve of me that would right her!
BENEDICK Is there no way to show such friendship?
BEATRICE A very even way, but no such friend.
BENEDICK May a man do it?
BEATRICE It is a man’s office, but not yours.
Much Ado About Nothing, 4.1
In the last line, Beatrice hints at the office of a champion to fight for a dishonored woman. As a nobleman, Benedick may legally challenge Claudio to a duel and vindicate Hero, but Beatrice also knows that she cannot ask him to fight his best friend. Nevertheless, Beatrice wishes someone would fight to repair Hero’s honor, and her pleas eventually convince Benedick to challenge Claudio.
In our century, the idea of dueling to vindicate a woman from adultery is somewhat lost in translation, but the idea of men standing up for what is right on behalf of a lady is at the heart of chivalry, and certainly speaks to us as strongly now as it did in 1599. Therefore an understanding of the concept behind this duel helps the actors and audience to appreciate the richness of Shakespeare’s characters and their attempts to do the right thing, even through questionable means.
This entry is part of series on duels and judicial combat, which I’m working on for the Blackfriars conference in Staunton Virginia. I look forward to bringing you more posts about the culture of duels and judicial combat, which so pervades the works of Shakespeare.
Bonus video if time: Me (Paul Rycik) performing Much Ado Act 4 Scene 1 at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton.