Seventeenth-century culture was, undoubtedly, a culture made for men: women, who were considered the weaker of the two sexes, were subjected to their fathers’ wills prior to being married, and subjected to their husbands’ wills forever afterward. Other than remaining faithful to the man to whom she was bound at the time, a Renaissance woman would have had only one other responsibility—that is, maintaining and upholding the honor of the family, which, as it happens, includes faithfulness. That being said, if a woman were to be found unfaithful to her future husband, the repercussions of such a sin would be tremendous not only to the sinner, but to those with whom she associated herself, as ...view middle of the document...
119-120). Here, the reader would do well to consider just how important the institution of marriage was in Renaissance Europe, especially to noble families such as Leonato’s. As in our time, marriage in the seventeenth century was supposed to be sacred—a man and a woman were married and expected to remain so until one of them died, provided that each party maintained the duties characteristic of their respective roles in the relationship. Furthermore, marriages were also ways in which noble families could forge alliances with other noble families; Hero, being her father’s only child, is essentially a means to an end for Leonato, his only chance of creating such an alliance. Since that chance is now foiled, it is no wonder, then, that Leonato reacts to the weight of such social shame in the way that he does, since neglecting her duty as a daughter to remain faithful to her betrothed would have been left her ineligible for marriage, thereby bringing shame upon not only her, but also to her father.
However, all this shame—projected from Hero to her father and the rest of the family—seems to be absorbed by and concentrated in Leonato alone. His disregard for Hero’s feelings is made evident by his lamentation of her ever being born: “‘Grieved I I had but one?/Chid I for that at frugal nature’s frame?/O one too much by thee!’” (ll. 126-128)—which is to ask himself why he ever complained of having only one daughter, when now, given the trouble that the one caused him, he realizes he would have been better off having no daughters. Above all, though, he wishes he could remove himself from the situation altogether, to view the situation as an outsider looking in—or, even to experience some other form of shame. To Leonato, sitting idly on the street as a beggar does is a more attractive position than his own:
Why had I not with charitable hand
Took up a beggar’s issue at my gates,
Who smirchèd thus and mired with infamy,
I might have said ‘No part of it is mine,
This shame derives itself from unknown loins.’ (ll. 130-134)
Encountering such extreme dishonor on the very day that is meant to bring him the utmost honor in life is what sends Leonato over the psychological edge. For him, there are really...