Preface to this post: For those who aren’t familiar with Shakespeare’s play “Much Ado About Nothing” here is a short synopsis. Benedick, Claudio and Don Pedro are all friends; Claudio is in love with Leonato’s daughter Hero. Hero’s friend Beatrice claims to be a perpetual bachelor, as does Benedick. Now, there are a ton of schemes that conspire, but the two main ones are the friends trying to set Benedick and Beatrice up and Don John trying to break up Hero and Claudio’s marriage by disguising Margaret, Hero’s servant, as Hero and then having her ‘flirt’ with Borachio on the balcony, thus appearing to anyone watching that Hero has been unfaithful; this leads Claudio to decide on embarrassing Hero at the alter tomorrow. For a much better and more detailed summary, check out this link, but I also suggest reading the play; it’s very short but oh so entertaining.
While reading the novel, I was struck by the nature of Emma and Mr. Knightley’s relationship and how it called to mind that of Benedick and Beatrice in Shakespeare’s play “Much Ado About Nothing.” To begin with, at the start of the play, Benedict, like Emma, declares that he will never marry and much looks down upon those men who do marry and place themselves at the mercy of being cuckholded by their wives; in much the same way both Emma and Mr. Woodhouse pity those like Miss Taylor and Isabella who marry. With the resolve not to marry, Benedick and Beatrice carry on a merry war of sorts between the two of them, constantly throwing verbal insults at one another. Although the same cannot be said about Emma and Mr. Knightley, I do think that their relationship bears the same irrelevance of any cause and effect in their actions between one another. In other words, Benedict can be nasty to Beatrice because he doesn’t view her in a romantic light and Emma can act like herself without thinking of any repercussions around Mr. Knightley because she views him as a sort of extension of her family, as a brother of sorts who reprimands her as he sees fit. In fact, the only time they have what can be considered an exchange of wit is when Mr. Knightley makes Emma promise to find him a wife who is just like her and that he will come back to her to retrieve such a woman ( 257-58). Additionally, the only person to whom Emma expresses her opinions of others to is Mr. Knightley, again which I believe to be evidence of her non-caring of how he perceives her ( I’d like to note that this changes once the reader, although maybe not Emma herself yet, begins to realize her love for Mr. Knightley when she obsesses over his rebuking her for her behavior towards Miss Bates on page 258).
However, again like in Shakespeare’s play, there is an abundance of scheming that occurs in the novel. In “Much Ado About Nothing” the characters conspire to inspire romance between Benedick and Beatrice by having his friends ‘secretly’ discuss Beatrice’s love for Benedick within earshot of Benedict himself, while Beatrice’s friends do the same thing for her; both secret confessions of love are fabricated, but the plan works and once each hears that the other is in love with them, they too begin to reciprocate the feeling. It doesn’t take a savvy reader to keep track of the amount of times that Emma tries to set up Harriet in a romantic entanglement, calling to mind the plot line of “Much Ado About Nothing,” but unlike the play, Emma and Mr. Knightley fall in love once all schemes and charades are given up upon. At that point, Emma has resolved to quit her meddling and doesn’t question Mr. Knightley about his feelings for Harriet. Indeed, when Mr. Knightley bears his heart to Emma these words follow: “Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken…” (297), but at this moment Emma feels that what she is being told is nothing but the truth.
After she has gone to Miss Bates to patch things up, Emma observes the change in Mr. Knightley’s eyes when he finds out her actions. I picked this selection as the turning point in their budding romance: “Emma’s colour was heightened by this unjust praise; and with a smile, and shake of the head, which spoke much, she looked at Mr. Knightley. It seemed as if there was an instantaneous impression in her favour, as if his eyes received the truth from her’s…” (266); there in a shared palpable intimacy here. Their intimacy of knowledge mirrors the turning point in Benedick and Beatrice’s relationship as well, where Benedict stays behind to comfort Beatrice after Claudio has decided not to marry Hero and has shamed her. Asking her how he can help, Beatrice asks him to kill Claudio ( we’re not really sure if Beatrice was joking or being serious). Interestingly, both couples reach a new level once requests are made: Emma visits Miss Bates from an inferred request from Mr. Knightley, based on his disapproval of her actions and Benedick stays behind because he knows that Beatrice needs him, while Beatrice feels comfortable enough to make such an insane request from Benedick as to go and kill his best friend.
Perhaps I was drawn to comparing these two couples based upon the premise that the reader somehow all along suspects that the plot will make that unexpected turn and unite the two characters who are made to seem incompatible in both “Emma” and “Much Ado About Nothing.” Can you guys think of any other ways in which Emma and Mr. Knightley are similar to Beatrice and Benedick, or to any other literary couples?
By the end of “Emma,” the title of “Much Ado About Nothing” seems to be a more appropriate fit. Emma fusses over Harriet marrying Robert Martin, but learns at the end of the novel that Harriet has indeed accepted his proposal; Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax were secretly engaged, after Emma permitted herself to accept his love for her as merely a form of flattery; and Emma ends up marrying the one man who has always been by her side.
I think that the following clip from the most recent on screen adaptation of “Much Ado” is very telling for my lens of focus. Although it’s a preview for the movie, it pretty much includes everything that I’ve mentioned about Benedick’s and Beatrice’s “merry war.”