All due Nerd Alerts and apologies, if such are necessary by now.
This production of Much Ado About Nothing that’s happening at Kentucky Shakespeare is set (roughly) during the Regency period, with allowances for the fact that a) Messina is in Italy and b) we’re in the business of popular theater, not rigorous Historical Recreation. The most important reasons for this setting are the obvious parallels to be drawn, noticed by even mildly attentive folks long before this production, between this particular play and multiple works of Jane Austen.
The obvious hook here is Pride and Prejudice, what with the saucy woman of intelligence, impatient with her lot in a Man’s World*, and her public war of words with a haughty man who shows no interest in her despite the obviousness (to us) that they will end up together forever OTP shippity ship ship insert tumblr meme here.
I’m going to presume your familiarity with P&P as it’s a difficult piece of popular culture to avoid, with or without the zombies. And it’s equally difficult while in the midst of a production of Much Ado not to find similarities ranging from the obvious (the romantic naïvete of Claudio Bingley & Jane Hero, Benedick’s list of necessary female qualities that is so close to Darcy’s it’s only a “pair of fine eyes” short of a direct quote, a nice mid-contra-dance spat) to the more esoteric – for example, I’m pretty sure the true Darcy personality analog is Don John and not Benedick; Benedick is a Wickham if ever there was one, in public at least, the private behavior of Wickham being the purview of Borachio instead. Austen just swapped their places in the structure of the story – true to form, it’s the men Austen finds interchangeable (Don John as he is would probably be at least as at home in Northanger Abbey as he is in Shakespeare) and makes almost tangential, just problems to be dealt with by the women, to whom she gives a society and inner life of their own. Take Leonato’s wife, Innogen (if you can find her), a character that appears in a stage direction and a half and is given a name (barely) but no lines. Our knowledge of her existence seems purely due to an early draft in which no one got around to scratching her name out. I like to think of Mrs. Bennet as Jane’s Revenge for this oversight, a double verbosity to balance a muteness.
Abigail and I, in working on Bea & Ben’s scenes also noticed strong ties between the whole Kill Claudio business (if you’re reading this before you’ve watched our second half, spoiler alert) and the Vacationing Lizzie Tells Darcy About Lydia & Thinks He’s Skipping Town Because of It Which He Is But Not the Way She Thinks scene.** There are differences between the situations of the two women’s shamed relatives and between the types of dutiful feeling that spur the two men into action (Benedick loves Claudio and Darcy loathes Wickham, for starters), but the similarities are so clear that it feels wasteful to go into more detail.
Also notable to us were the equally quotable direct-yet-confusing declarations of love – what is “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you”, followed by details of Darcy’s sense of the general Bennet inferiority if not a one-page restating of Benedick’s single sentence “I do love nothing in the world so well as you; is not that strange?” And towards the end, note Lizzie’s “Now be sincere; did you admire me for my impertinence?” when laid alongside Beatrice’s “For which of my good parts did you first suffer love for me?” This isn’t brain surgery, but neither is it coincidence.
But to me, while the comedy angle of the Beatrice and Benedick plot (minus the elements of farce Jane disposes of) takes place very nicely alongside P&P, an important part of Much Ado also bears a strong resemblance to Persuasion, in that our pair of inevitables have some sort of history together that took a bad turn before the story begins and will need to be righted before it can end. Also, the word “prejudice” appears nowhere in the play – though in her snappy little soliloquy after she’s tricked into belief in Benedick’s lovesickness, Beatrice does come forth with “Stand I condemn’d for pride and scorn so much?/ Contempt, farewell, and maiden pride, adieu” which is really pretty close, sensewise – but there’s “persuasion” right in Beatrice’s final line (as noted in the title of this post). I’ve left out Mansfield Park, but it gives off more of a King-Lear-meets-All’s-Well vibe. Hamlet is read aloud in Sense & Sensibility, which must count for something.
On the subject of Emma, however, Shakespeare remains silent. Unless she’s Puck… Maybe some other season.
* It could be argued that this wasn’t really Austen’s focus, but it’s certainly an aspect that registers significantly now.
** I turned to my lovely wife for many of the Austenian particulars in this post; I enjoy those six novels greatly (and I also recommend Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman’s adapted Lady Susan – the film is delightful and his modification of the book is doubly so) and am an avid and unashamed watcher of any nine-hour BBC whispers-and-corsetry melodrama, but Abigail is fleeter than Google when you need a quote or a scene location from P&P. Ponder for a moment how many novels you can readily quote from if you’re a normal person whose job doesn’t require it. Not that she’s a normal person…