My wife seems to talk about this on stage a lot, but no one knows what it means.
By “a lot” I mean twice, as she’s played the only two characters who talk about leading apes into Hell in Shakespeare. But that’s 100%, so…
Much like misty origins of the horns of a cuckold, there’s no backstory universally agreed upon with the apes here. Of feminism’s many upsides, the reduction of the stigma of being An Unmarried Woman is but one – yes, there are still pressures and advertisements and tsks from older relatives (who are going to tsk about something anyway) but it’s been a long time since I’ve heard the word “spinster” or “old maid” used without irony and your meddlesome aunt, while perhaps asking you more than you’d like about whether or not there’s some nice boy who’ll keep you from dying alone in your apartment, is at least not going to suggest that your soul is doomed to lead tethered apes into hell for all eternity. Unless she’s a terrifying fundamentalist of some stripe, at most maybe you’ll be saddled with Crazy Cat Lady. Which, sure, is still sexist, but is of much lighter weight than having your soul doomed to lead tethered apes into hell for all eternity.
Many seem to agree that this mythic fate has as much to do with not having had any children as with not having been married. Which, having seen the behavior of young children from a safe distance*, sounds like a balanced exchange. If one goes not forth and multiplies not while on earth, one must agree to do something similar after. Fair enough.
Others insist that the “lead” of “lead apes into hell” is an Elizabethan euphemism for intercourse. Not impossible. And apes have always proverbially sexually uninhibited (everyone insert zoo field trip story here). But. Fun fact: it is possible to find a scholar who will tell you that every last verb/noun (and a few articles) in Shakespeare is an Elizabethan euphemism for intercourse & concomitant body parts. All of them. Which, I mean…he’s incredibly randy, but…this is just one more way the Freudians ruined a lot of adult conversation.
There’s a version of the proverb suggesting the “maids about twenty lead apes in hell”, suggesting that it’s less about reaching “old” age unmarried and more about maintaining one’s virginity for too long. And on Shakespeare’s behalf, considering the topic of oodles of sonnets, the whole “go on and reproduce, why doncha?” issue was not gender-specific for him.
The phrase “ape-leader” hung around for a surprisingly long time, but didn’t have the staying power of “spinster” (or the solid playing card marketing of “old maid”). The thing I like about its appearance in Much Ado is the wordplay piled on top of it.
If you know Elizabethan culture, you know that it’s primary feature was being gross. One of the gross things they enjoyed a lot was watching bears fight with dogs in a public arena. I don’t pretend we’re super enlightened, but, come on. And occasionally there were apparently apes thrown into this mix as well, presumably because they had the sort of digits that could handle folding chairs in proper McMahon-approved fashion.
So the Bear-herd (or Bear-ward), the guy in charge of herding (or warding) the bears, also led apes around himself. No word on whether this was a punishment for his likely marital status of Available, what with the inevitable smell. But as we’ve said, the Elizabethans were uniformly gross, so maybe it did him no harm, plus he could make some money on the side whenever a revival of Winter’s Tale came along, I guess. “Bear-herd” is a weird word to say. Try it. A few times. It’s fun. Notice the way the “h” disappears as in “shepherd” and you’ll get why in this scene in the Folio it’s spelled “Berrord”.
Going back a few lines, you’ll hear (if you’re reading aloud as you should) a lot of still fairly clear semi-bawdy chatter about men with/without…Beards. Which in the accent of the day was a similar sounding word – Beard/Berrord – enough to put the other in Beatrice’s mind. And in the full sentence where it appears – “therefore I will even take sixepence in earnest of the Berrord, and leade his Apes into hell” – it springs out of a variation on what was even then the boilerplate financial-contract-ese of “in earnest of the bearer”.
Beatrice’s gleeful improvised version of what will really happen to her once she’s dropped off her requisite apeload makes me very happy. She won’t go all the way into Hell but only
to the gate, and there will the Devill meete me like an old Cuckold with hornes on his head, and say, “get you to heaven Beatrice, get you to heaven, heere’s no place for you maids”
(the Devil being, of course, puritanical enough to want to protect virgins from such an infernal place – no surprise that Shakespeare casts Satan as a Puritan). In Heaven, St. Peter then shows her
where the Batchellers sit, and there live wee as merry as the day is long.
In the space of a few lines, she upends a dearly-held sexual double standard without particularly attacking the readily attackable male goons who surround her (they’re hardly worth it at this point, though things get ugly later…Pibling Leonato has more comeuppance coming up than he gets), like a late-sixteenth-century Mrs. Maisel (which you should watch the pilot of on Amazon Prime, because it’s really very good).
She’s a clever Old Maid, Beatrice. I’ve always loved her, and not just because she was attached to Emma Thompson when I first encountered her. There are just character you grok and admire the thought processes of, and she’s high on my list of those.
* The Wife and I are an aunt/uncle, or as recent non-gendered coining would have it, Piblings (unlike most such coinings, this one is actually fun to say, so score one for us there) and love our nieces and nephews (Niblings, which, while equally sonorous, has a playfulness that I fear belongs to a more innocent time), but are not cut out for the full-time job of parenting and are happy to be occasional fresh horses in the villages that it takes to raise each of them – specifically the horses that force “cool” movies/music like cultural lima beans down their metaphorical gullets.
** the almost illegible Valentine doggerel reads:
You would like to wear them dearly,
And in faith, you mean to try,
But old girl, I’ll tell you truly,
Your attempt is ALL MY EYE.
It will not fit, my downy one,
So fairly I would tell,
You had best but take the duty
of leading APES IN HELL.
Uh…so Be My Valentine, I guess?