Go but with me tonight, you shall see her chamber window entered, even the night before her wedding day. If you love her then, tomorrow wed her. But it would better fit your honor to change your mind. (A3,S2)
Don John puts his conniving plan into action, baiting Claudio and Don Pedro to witness John’s underling Borachio pretending to make love to Hero. Though we already know Claudio is gullible enough to go along with such a scheme, John strengthens the ploy by appealing to Claudio’s honor. In this society, a woman besmirching her honor is not only shameful but practically contagious, spreading her shame to anyone associated with her, and especially to the man about to marry her. Since the prudish rules of honor are so absolute, John easily manipulates those rules to his own ends.
Is not marriage honorable in a beggar? Is not your lord honorable without marriage? (A3,S4)
Hero’s maid Margaret questions Hero’s prudishness. When Margaret casually jokes about sex prior to Hero’s wedding, Hero exclaims in protest, but Margaret urges her to loosen up, reminding Hero that these feelings exist with or without the technicality of marriage. The idea that there would be wiggle room within the strict boundaries of honor is difficult for Hero to understand. Margaret, by contrast, acknowledges that we are all only human, and trying to mold oneself perfectly to arbitrary guidelines is futile.
There, Leonato, take her back again. Give not this rotten orange to your friend. She’s but the sign and semblance of her honor. Behold how like a maid she blushes here! (A4,S1)
Here, Claudio cruelly reduces Hero to a commodity, suggesting that her father Leonato has done him a disservice by offering him tainted fruit. The ideal of honor robs Claudio of his compassion, and Hero of her personhood. This public shaming makes a case against the characters’ Puritanical ideals. Even if the whole issue were not a product of Don John and Don Pedro’s lies, and Hero had really betrayed Claudio, the idea that the best course of action is to degrade Hero at her wedding in front of her family is appalling.
O Fate! Take not away thy heavy hand! Death is the fairest cover for her shame That may be wished for. (A4,S1)
Leonato exclaims that he’d rather his daughter die than live with the shame of dishonor. When Hero faints after Claudio accuses her of infidelity, the wedding attendees are uncertain whether or not she has died from shock. While Beatrice frets over Hero’s wellbeing, Hero’s own father instantly gives up on her, viewing her supposed crimes as a poor reflection on himself. In this society, the tenets of honor are so stringent they can overpower a parent’s love for their child in an instant.
You are a villain. I jest not. I will make it good how you dare, with what you dare, and when you dare. Do me right, or I will protest your cowardice. (A5,S1)
Egged on by Beatrice, Benedick challenges Claudio to a duel, in revenge for the stain on Hero’s name. Just as Don John pulled Claudio’s strings by posing a threat to his honor, so too does Benedick use Claudio’s concern for his reputation against him. If Claudio backs down from the challenge, he will be branded a coward, which to him is a fate worse than death. The society’s rigid code of honor allows Don John and Benedick to play Claudio like a chess piece.