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.
Intriguing! Dunno how I’ve managed to miss this each time as well! I’m interested by your suggestion that most people remember the Rochester sections most vividly – do you think this is a recent development within the last ten or so years? I only ask since I think many of the people I know basically remember Eyre as a horror story about school with a love affair tacked on the end, which distorts the book in a similar but opposite way. (It seems St. John Rivers gets left out either way. Serve him right. He will become Hon Sec of a tennis club, nothing is too bad for him.)
As to Much Ado, what a resonant remark for him to make. A play where half of the plot revolves around a wronged woman who is shut up in secret whilst her husband’s crimes come to light, and whose heroine tells her lover at the end “And when I lived, I was your other wife…One Hero died defiled, but I do live”. A very neat touch by Bronte that *this* is the play which springs to Rochester’s lips to casually explain away the ruckus as a genteel rehearsal for a light Shakespearean comedy…
I think it may depend on whether you were forced to read it for school or not. I feel a lot of the adaptations certainly focus on the love story over the creepy school elements, but I think it’s more than just that. I need to think a little more about why, though.
Jane Eyre is chockablock full of references to interesting other stuff. There’s a very wide vein of Orientalism, for instance, with tons of references to seraglios and harems and Mr Rochester’s horse named Mesrour, etc. It’s quite an interesting document to unpack in that way.
Also I’d point out that in Much Ado she gets shut up before they actually get married… there is still the possibility that the new Hero could say no to that marriage. Unlike poor old Mrs Rochester.
Apologies for another comment, but I just passed your piece over to a friend, who had a different reading of the reference. She pointed out that Much Ado is about deception into love as well as around it, and that Rochester’s remark is potentially horribly redolent of his claim that he was tricked into loving Bertha by her scheming friends and family. Casting himself as Benedick (if that’s what he’s doing), he puts himself in the role of a hearty, manly romantic hero who is literally deceived into marrying a woman by her friends.
Ooh, interesting! I never thought about that angle. I wonder if there’s a sort of echo between Claudio the young, earnest lover, Benedick the cynical older man, and Mr Rochester the embittered tragic figure.