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Hero, of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, is perhaps just as good a woman as Ruth of the “Book of Ruth”, but one would have to think twice or more before one could even half-heartedly begin to concede that she might be half as great a character as Ruth. The difference between the two women appears to be that while Ruth is an active maker and creator of her destiny, Hero more passively suffers her misfortunes and allows other people to devise schemes that fortunately, ultimately succeed in clearing her name and winning back her somewhat unstable fiancé. While both Ruth and Hero significantly outshine their male counterparts, Ruth’s second husband appears far more worthy of respect than the Claudio who needs a second marriage ceremony to consecrate his union with the only woman he ever contracts to marry (at least within the space and time of the play).
Hero in Much Ado About Nothing does indeed strike every one as “a modest young lady” as Claudio first speaks of her, but the first words spoken of her are those that her father uses in his rather unwholesome jest in answer to Don Pedro’s question about whether she was Leonato’s daughter—“Her mother hath many times told me so”(3 ). Benedick, in his sharp way is impelled to observe, “Were you in doubt, sir, that you asked her?” and Leonato compounds his innuendo with the words, “Signior Benedick, no; for then were you a child” (3 ). All in good fun, perhaps, but a trifle too offensive to women of the upper crust as Hero and her mother would no doubt expect to be considered. Perhaps the gentleman richly deserves to fall into the pickle that leaves him a sadder and wiser man at the end of the play. Even so, his sufferings pale in comparison with the extent of the pain and disgrace that Hero is subjected to, and that too, for a not inconsiderable span of time.
Ruth, on the other hand, has a different but no less painful situation to contend with. Her first husband has died, leaving her a childless widow in a strange land, alone except for her mother-in-law Naomi and sister-in-law Orpah. It is as if both Orpah and Ruth are laboring under the effects of a potent curse—for they are both in the same black barque—the two brothers who had been their husbands both having given up the ghost at around the same time, leaving their widows nothing but much ado. Naomi knows that it would be unfair to tie the two young girls to her apron strings and allows them, nay, advises and urges them to leave her and go back to their native lands and to marry again, and to have children of their own by other husbands. Both Orpah and Ruth protest that they will not leave Naomi and although Orpah is rather easily persuaded to do so, Ruth is unwavering in her decision to remain with her mother-in-law. Indeed this is one of the first indications the reader gets of Ruth’s goodness and her greatness. Ruth is good, no doubt, but, more importantly, she is great, rather than just goody-goody, because she knows that instead of just fending for herself it is her duty to take care of her dead husband’s mother, whom she has perhaps considered her mother ever since her marriage. As the Bible succinctly puts it, “Orpah kissed her mother-in-law” (and left her) “but Ruth clung to her” (1:14). Ruth has it in her to cling to what is right.
When Claudio asks his friend Benedick for his sober and honest opinion of Hero, this is what Benedick has to say:
Why, i’ faith, methinks she’s too low for a high
praise, too brown for a fair praise and too little
for a great praise: only this commendation I can
afford her, that were she other than she is, she
were unhandsome; and being no other but as she is, I
do not like her. (5)
It is sad, but true that many a reader might be inclined to voice more or less the same opinion of her, especially because of the contrast she offers to the more lively and engaging Beatrice. It is perhaps somewhat fortunate that a man like Claudio takes an instant liking to her—and if only no one had ever presented him with the opportunity to doubt her sincerity and her fidelity they might have had a moderately happy married life, like many other men and women.
That was not to be, however: the drama demands it, the presence of the Bastard villain Don John and his cohorts assures it; and it is Hero’s lot to suffer the most undeserved pain any maid ever had to endure—and that too, in open church, at a ceremony which she believed would ensure her eternal happiness in this world. Therefore the same Claudio who had declared of his beloved, “Can the world buy such a jewel?”(5) says to her father in open church, where he had said he would marry her, “Give not this rotten orange to your friend” (53). When Hero asks him
Who can blot that name[Hero]
With any just reproach? (55)
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Claudio’s reply is cruel:
Marry, that can Hero;
Hero itself can blot out Hero’s virtue. (55)
It is cruel, doubly cruel, because it is he, Hero’s hero, who has so easily, and what’s more, apparently irrevocably, blotted out Hero’s virtue from the minds of all the people gathered in that church and all the other people who had ever known the virtuous Hero. Hero was undone, not by herself, but by Claudio and Don Pedro, and Don John, and Leonato, and almost everyone else.
Ruth, on the other hand, decided for herself, against the advice of her mother-in-law what it was that she had to do. She did this not because she was or wished to be disobedient but because she knew that there was a greater truth that compelled her obedience. This truth is that in certain cases, an excess of unselfishness may lead to an individual turning a blind eye to his/her own best interests and think only of the best interests of others. Ruth knew that it was in this spirit that Naomi urged her to abandon her and to think only of her own future. She knew as if the knowledge had been branded on her mind that her place was with Naomi. In words that are remarkable for being both loving and firm, she expresses her considered decision:
Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people.
and your God my God,
Where you die, I will die—
there I will be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!” (1:16-17)
Ruth here reveals that she knows, perhaps instinctively, a divine truth that others more intellectually inclined than her might have found difficult to grasp—that not even death could part her from the good people of her life.
Curiously, Hero could in all justification have used these very same words to affirm the eternal bond that united her with Claudio, for she had been considered dead by all the world except the two or three in the know. However, when Claudio exclaims at the sight of her after the marriage, “:Another Hero!”, Hero says only this:
One Hero died defiled, but I do live,
And surely as I live, I am a maid. (82)
Don Pedro comes closer to the truth than Claudio when he says, “The former Hero! Hero that is dead!” Leonato then uncovers the truth with his words: “She died, my lord, but whiles her slander lived” (82). Friar Francis then vows to “qualify” their “amazement” after the holy rites are done and Hero’s disgrace and return to grace are both forgotten in the more universal joy that surrounds(and quite rightly too) the truer “miracle” (84) of the uinion of Benedick and Beatrice. It had been an ordeal by fire for Hero, and to a much lesser extent for Claudio too, but the miracle that the audience yearned for was the marriage of the hero and heroine of their hearts—Benedick and Beatrice.
Ruth is fortunate in that the man chosen for her by God, by circumstances, by her mother-in law, and by the justness of her own actions, is a man worthy of her. His behavior to her by day in the midst of others is the very pinnacle of propriety and generosity. He shows that these qualities are ingrained in him when he finds her by his side at night. He asked her who she was.
And she answered, I am Ruth, your servant, spread your cloak over your servant; for you are next of kin. He said, “May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. And now, my daughter, do not be afraid, I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman. But now, though it is true that I am a near kinsman, there is another kinsman more closely related than I. Remain this night, and in the morning, if he will act as next-of-kin for you, good; let him do it. If he is not willing to act as next-of-kin for you, then, as the Lord lives, I will act as next-of-kin for you. Lie down till the morning. (3: 9-13)
And he is as good as his word—in fact, better than that. He sends her away before other eyes can spy on her. He accosts the nearer relation in open assembly and openly takes on the care of Ruth. And the couple and their mother Naomi are rewarded by the birth of a son, Obed.
At the end of the story of Ruth, not a heart but fails to beat for Ruth; at the end of Much Ado About Nothing none in the audience waste a thought for the future of Claudio and Hero—all find themselves caught up in the hype and hoopla that would certainly accompany the union of fire and phosphorus that is the marriage of Benedick and Beatrice. Similarly, there is no way anyone can ignore the message of divine intent that flows from the last sentences of the story of Ruth—the revelation that the son of Boaz and Ruth, Obed, was the grandfather of David, King of Israel and servant of the one Lord who came after him, and after his generations.
Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing. Web. 2008.
“The Book of Ruth.” The Cambridge Annotated Study Bible. Revised Standard Version.