Cuckoldry is often associated with impotent husbands who are unable to control their wives’ sexuality. They essentially de-masculinise their husbands. In order to spot these men who lack the necessary bedroom skills, horns sprout from their heads. However, with reference to the story of Actaeon and Diana in Book 3 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Claire McEachern explains cuckolds by associating ‘horns with female power over men’ (McEachern “Introduction” 45). The implication is that the husband is rendered chaste in order to atone for his wife’s adulterous sins.
The cuckold as the epitome of chastity is alluded to in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing:
Benedick The savage bull may, but if ever the sensible Benedick bear it, pluck off the bull’s horns and set them in my forehead; and let me be vilely painted, and in such great letters as they write ‘Here is good horse to hire’, let them signify under my sign, ‘Here you may see Benedick, the married man.’ (I.i, lines 244-49)
By wishing to remain a bachelor, Benedick imagines himself as a cuckold. The phrase ‘vilely painted’ is ambiguous as it can either refer to the negative association of a cuckold being an impotent husband or rendered a fool by his adulterous wife. Ironically, by directly associating the bull’s horns with being married, Benedick accentuates the fact that he is supposedly not interested in women. Therefore, the play represents the popular notion of a cuckold as a de-sexualised man. The horns are a social display that enables the cuckolded husband to maintain a narcissistic fixation on chastity. In other words, the wife’s promiscuity is countered by the husband’s chastity. By maintaining his chastity, the cuckolded husband never stops searching for the ideal wife, a notion supported by the constant deferment of Benedick’s marriage to Beatrice.
The Bull or husband who actively pursues the female can also be deemed a cuckold as masculinity is equated with bestial passion. The linking of the male cuckold to the ravenous Bull is made by Jane Anger in 1589:
yet truly their sex [males] are so like to Buls, that it is no maruell though the Gods do metamorphoze some of them, to giue warning to the rest, if they coulde thinke so of it, for some of them wil follow the smocke as Tom Bull will runne after a towne Cowe. But, least they should running slip and breake their pates, the Gods provident of their welfare, set a paire of tooters on their foreheads, to keepe it from the ground. (Anger B2v)
Anger implies men do not make ideal husbands because they are ruled by bestial passions. However, the cuckold’s twin desires for bestial passion and constancy are related to the demands of the sexually dominant wife, which lead the husband to promiscuity. Yet his horns or ‘tooters’ protect the husband from his bestial passions to preserve his constancy. In order to gain approval from his domineering wife, the husband is not a cuckold who is fooled by his betrothed, but one who makes a fool of himself.
Anger, Jane. Jane Anger Her Protection for Women. 1589. The Early modern Englishwoman: A Facsimile Library of Essential Works. Part 1: Printed Writings, 1500-1640. Vol. 4: Defences of Women: Jane Anger, Rachel Speght, Ester Sowernam and Constantia Munda. Gen. eds. Betty S.Travitsky & Patrick Cullen. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1997.
McEachern, Claire. “Introduction”.Much Ado About Nothing. 1598. Ed. Claire McEachern. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2006, 1-144.
Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing. 1598. Ed. Claire McEachern. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2006.