I was rereading Jane Eyre recently and I came across a reference to Much Ado About Nothing. Following a piercing scream in the middle of the night, the whole of Thornfield is awakened and rushes out into an upstairs corridor to find out what’s going on.
And the door at the end of the gallery opened, and Mr. Rochester advanced with a candle: he had just descended from the upper storey. One of the ladies ran to him directly; she seized his arm: it was Miss Ingram. “What awful event has taken place?” said she. “Speak! let us know the worst at once!”
“But don’t pull me down or strangle me,” he replied: for the Misses Eshton were clinging about him now; and the two dowagers, in vast white wrappers, were bearing down on him like ships in full sail.
“All’s right!—all’s right!” he cried. “It’s a mere rehearsal of Much Ado about Nothing. Ladies, keep off, or I shall wax dangerous.”
Though I’ve read Jane Eyre several times before this reference always surprises me. It will be obvious that Much Ado is one of my favourite texts, as is Jane Eyre. I think of them very differently though, almost as though they belong to completely different literary traditions. I forget that Charlotte Brontë would naturally have read all the classics, including and perhaps especially Shakespeare. After all, he was valued just as much then–was as big a gravitational pull in the cultural landscape then–as he is now. Perhaps even more so.
Paradoxically it’s Jane Eyre that has an almost older or more traditional feel to me. I think it’s the gothic, almost puritannical, nature of the text. Most people forget that nearly half the book is taken up with Jane’s childhood sufferings in her vindictive aunt’s house and enduring the privations of Lowood School, not to mention all that time where she’s studying Hindoostanee (as it’s quaintly called) with her cousin St John Rivers as he tries to persuade her to become a missionary. There is a lot more time spent in biblical contemplation than there is extolling the wonders of being in love with Mr Rochester.
By contrast Much Ado About Nothing has a summery bantering playfulness that gives it a lightness and freshness that feels more contemporary in some ways than Jane Eyre does. It has dark elements as well but they aren’t the overwhelming aesthetic of the play, as they are in Jane Eyre. Or perhaps it’s that I’ve seen Much Ado in many more adaptations that experiment with its setting in time. I haven’t seen Jane Eyre modernised all that much (or ever, I think.) It would be more of a struggle–we don’t have that many governesses around any more, and it’s way more difficult to lock an inconvenient mentally ill relative in an attic now than it was back then. Diffident lovers, on the other hand, are always plentiful.
Given the modesty and reserve of Brontë’s text in contrast with the bawdy, suggestive nature of Shakespeare’s, I wonder how deliberate, how arch, her allusions to his works (and to other texts, such as the Thousand and One Nights, which is very far from puritannical) would have been. Was Brontë using these references to more explicit texts as a way to suggest that which for her must have remained unsaid, even when publishing under a masculine pseudonym? Are there things she included in those lines, things she intended to intimate to her readers without having to spell them out, which now remain hidden to my eyes? This is one reason that I keep coming back to Jane Eyre: every time I look I seem to find something new.