Who is the most courageous character in MAAN?

This question comes from the January 2016 Edexcel IGCSE paper. It is unusual because it is so open to individual interpretation and possibly comes as a result of having asked all other available combinations of questions in previous years. I like it because there really is no right answer and as long as focus is clearly on character rather than event there is ample opportunity to develop ideas and to compare characters.

In order to discuss it with Year 11, I am gathering my thoughts here:

I want to consider 2 aspects of courage in the main: Moral and Physical courage.

I will begin with Characters in order of appearance – no other logic being used here.

Messenger: Low on both counts – not involved in the fighting as a messenger and can’t wait to get out of the skirmish of wit that Beatrice so willingly begins.

Beatrice: Physical courage. Beatrice is not a fighter, due to her gender, but she is clear in 4.1 that she would be if given half a chance – “I would eat his heart in the market-place”. She never gets the chance.
Moral courage she has in spades: She is courageous enough to admit in public that all her bravado is in vain and that she loves Benedick. Prior to this it is her advocacy of her cousin’s innocence which enables the Friar to intervene on Hero’s behalf. In the context of the play she shows remarkable courage when she refuses Don Pedro’s proposal – even having the presence of mind to turn up so many well chosen images relating to clothes that he seems not to be offended by such an honest breach of court etiquette. She is driven by a wish to uphold honour and though she can’t fight, she makes Benedick realise his own honour and challenge Claudio to a duel.

Benedick: As discussed above he finds his moral and physical courage in 5.1 when he challenges Claudio, having been tested in 4.1 by Beatrice on this matter. This is especially courageous since a duel may well have meant death to either party and also because it would have removed him from “society” for ever. Prior to this, if Beatrice is to be believed in 1.1 he might not be the most courageous soldier, though students should compare her boast to “eat all of his killing” with the messenger’s slightly bemused ” a good soldier too, lady”. Whatever the case, he gets a chance to show genuine physical courage and he does not disappoint. It is clear from Beatrice in 1.1 that moral courage is not his strong suit – he always ends “on a jade’s trick” after all- but as he develops through 2.3 and 3.2 he shows a range of courage in tricky social situations which seem to suggest that he will “come good”. He is clearly terrified of seeing Beatrice in 2.1 after the humiliation of being called the “prince’s jester”, yet he is courageous enough in 4.1 not to side at once with Pedro and Claudio during the wedding. From this point his courage grows, fired by love until he runs the show at the very end.

Hero: Poor wronged Hero has little chance to show her courage. Her moral courage does show itself by the end of the play when she emerges triumphant from the grave to take Claudio’s hand, but to many 21st Century viewers, this is not courage, so much as a failure to do the really courageous thing and tell him to lump it. At the wedding she seems to respond to threat by total collapse and gets no chance to show much courage of any sort because she is in a swoon. Her arranged marriage is simply too easy and Beatrice’s advice to only accept a husband “if he please me” is not needed because Claudio does please her.

Claudio: Physical courage he has over and above all: “in the figure of a lamb, the feats of a lion”. he is a proven soldier at a young age. A true hero. His moral courage is less certain. Beatrice teases Benedick about his fickle attitude to friends, but Claudio, it seems, utterly lacks the courage of his convictions, swinging from melancholy to joy and back again at the drop of a hat. For me his true lack of courage is seen in his inability to stand up for the woman he loves and to resist Don John and Don Pedro once they have made their decisions. It is not courageous to vow to “shame” someone publicly for a perceived fault without seeking to gather any real evidence. He accepts the duel grudgingly and is remorseful by the end, but courageous? NO. Neither he nor Hero are meant to be courageous – their roles are the classical archetypes and do not develop beyond that point. That is where B&B come in.

Leonato: Although too old to fight and although he is presented until 5.1 as an obsequious sycophant around wealth and status, Leonato does find his courage when the honour of his daughter is at stake.. Socially his challenge of Claudio is highly significant and would probably have resulted in death. It may be late, but he finds his courage, helped by Antonio whose indignant wrath in 5.1 is one of the joys of the whole play.

Don Pedro: Is not a courageous man. A character used to getting his own way due to his rank and wealth and who rarely needs to see life through any other lens. his regular use of indicative tenses when arranging Claudio and Hero’s marriage is as clear indicator of his expectation that all will be as he wishes as any we could find – “I will break with her father and thou shalt have her”.

His brother Don John (the bastard) is much more interesting. Definitely courageous in challenging his brother in war prior to the play and seeking to address the unfairness of society, it is a moot point whether his continuation of the plot is courageous within the play. Certainly his fleeing once the truth is known is cowardly in the extreme. Courage in deceit is hard to express and I do not find him courageous even though he is battling against society itself and facing huge odds.

The Friar is courageous to halt the wedding and risk the wrath of Leonato, his employer, but from this point he becomes a voice of sanity and sagacity rather than a voice of courage.

Dogberry and the watch: Little evident courage on a physical scale here, but then they do “comprehend” the miscreants. This is a brave act and is carried out swiftly and efficiently. I am not convinced that Dogberry is brave when he tries, but fails, to alert Leonato – that is his job after all. Whilst I will happily argue that Dogberry represents a low social order which can challenge the highest in a bid to alter the hierarchy of society, it seems to me that this is done as part of the comic necessity of plot, rather than from any desire to show him as a secretly courageous man.

So my essay would focus on Benedick and stress the way in which he develops courage, both moral and physical, as the play moves on. I might bring in other characters as contrast, but would not move far from this idea.

Others will not agree.

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Filed under EDEXCEL IGCSE, KS4, Shakespeare

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