‘O God, that I were a man!’ cries Beatrice after her cousin, Hero, has been left at the altar on her wedding day. When Beatrice says this, what she means is that she wishes that, as a woman, she were entitled to the qualities that men are not only allowed to have, but are celebrated for. Qualities such as the ability to take personal revenge on men like Claudio, openly defy father-figures like Leonato, or even simply to fall in love with a person of her choosing and for her affection not to be seen as weakness, nor her sexual desires be used as evidence of her inconstant character.

Much Ado About Nothing is a bit of a misleading title. Shakespeare’s play grapples with a variety of things: gender, friendship, banter, shaming, trickery, hypocrisy, and even the nature of evil, just to name a few. But while the play doesn’t deal with ‘nothing’, there is ‘much ado’ about quite a lot.

From the very first scene, we can see how the play is concerned with male friendship and the practice of bonding through ‘banter’. As soon as this happens, we also see how this is done not just to cement friendships between men, but to exclude women from such conversations. When Leonato introduces Don Pedro to his daughter Hero, he immediately makes a joke about whether or not his daughter is actually his. This doesn’t appear to be said in a self-deprecating way. Instead, Leonato’s aim is to accuse his dead wife of being a whore in order to get a laugh from the laddish soldiers he wants to make friends with.

For men like Benedick, Claudio, Don Pedro, and Leonato, humour like this acts as both a weapon and a shield. By making sexist jokes, the women are demeaned, but the jokes are also made because of the own men’s insecurity: the very fact that women can hurt them emotionally is a chink in their armour that they don’t want to be exposed. But the play’s main female character, Beatrice, is the heroine precisely because she sees the everyday sexism around her and decides to shout back. Beatrice uses the insults that the men make and turns them back on them. When Benedick tells her ‘God keep your ladyship still in that mind, so some gentleman or other shall scape a predestinate scratched face’, she replies ‘Scratching could not make it worse, an ‘twere such a face as yours were’. Using his own words against him, Beatrice inverts his original insult to her own advantage. This kind of witty exchange is known as euphuism, and it’s a good way of getting one up on your rival. Of course, this ends up being the reason why Beatrice and Benedick seem so well-suited for each other: Beatrice gives as good as she gets when it comes to the sort of male banter Benedick engages in.

If Much Ado gives us male bonding, it also gives us female solidarity. Hero’s anguish at being wrongly accused of infidelity, and Beatrice’s passionate plea to maintain her innocence, reveals to us the closeness of the two young women. What brings them yet closer, though, is their own isolation. Who is able to fight their corner? Who can they turn to as an ally? Leonato – Hero’s own father – believes Don John’s story rather than the daughter he’s known for her entire life. Shakespeare doesn’t even give Hero and Beatrice mothers to defend them from the accusations thrown at them; presumably, both women died at some unspecified point in the past. Or perhaps the lack of mother-figures onstage happened for practical reasons: it’s possible that when the play was written in the late 1590s, when only men were allowed to perform onstage, that there were not enough actors in Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, who could convincingly play older women. Even if this was the case, though, Shakespeare uses this to his advantage by allowing us to see how vulnerable women like Hero and Beatrice could be in Elizabethan society. The fact that only men were able to be actors might also give us a reason why Beatrice is so outspoken in the first place: originally, she too would have been played by a man.

When we watch the play today, we may feel uncomfortable about what we see, particularly as much of the action is only too recognisable as we go about our own lives. The shaming of Hero, and in particular, the male hypocrisy about sexual partners (if a man is sleeping around, he’s a stud; if a woman sleeps around, she’s a slut) is still a double-standard that we are exposed to, as is the idea that a man is more likely to be loud, talkative, and funny (and that if a woman is also those things, then she isn’t being very ladylike). At the heart of Much Ado is a deep anxiety that appears most obviously in the character of Don John, the illegitimate brother of Don Pedro. As a bastard, Don John is a literal symbol of infidelity and women having sex outside of marriage. He’s the proof that some women do indeed sleep with men who aren’t their husbands, and his very existence confirms the worst fears of characters like Claudio and Leonato. The social anxiety around his illegitimate birth seems to make him what he is: ‘a plain-dealing villain’. In Elizabethan society, the fact that he’s a bastard automatically makes him evil. With this in mind, we can see why Claudio is so concerned that his fiancé has cheated on him with someone else. Saying that: while it’s terrible that Don John is frowned upon simply because of his illegitimate birth, it’s also terrible that no one believes Hero and Beatrice simply because they’re women.

Much Ado About Nothing is still a romantic comedy, and it gives us an ending where everything seems to work out for the best. The trickery is uncovered, the truth is revealed, and two couples end up getting happily married. Despite this, you may still find yourself asking further questions when you leave the theatre. If you were Hero, would you have forgiven Claudio? Do you think the marriages will last? Don John will be punished – and his actions deserve it – but doesn’t his capture further stigmatise people born outside marriage and, once again, blame women for having pre-marital sex while letting the men off the hook? As Shakespeare’s play ends, our own stories about how society treats gender are just beginning.

Dr Miranda Fay Thomas is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow and Globe Education Lecturer at Shakespeare’s Globe.