I went to the theatre yesterday.
We are fortunate to live within a fairly short drive of two world-class theatre festivals, and we try to see a few plays every summer. Yesterday we drove out to see a production of Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing.
This is one of my favourite plays. In fact, I wrote a book about it, which I’ll talk about later. The interplay between Beatrice and Benedick brings to mind the arguing and sparring between Elizabeth and Darcy, and the thwarted insta-love between Hero and Claudio presages that between Jane and Bingley.
I’m certainly not the first person to have noticed this, and more scholarly pens than mine have written extensively on how Jane Austen might well have been influenced by Shakespeare when she wrote Pride and Prejudice. WSFF (William Shakespeare Fan Fiction), perhaps!
The production we saw was, for the most part, fabulous. The acting was terrific, the set and costumes gorgeous, and it was full of motion and physical humour that kept the audience laughing. But there was something that bothered me. The directors decided that Shakespeare’s words weren’t sufficient, and included two lengthy segments of newly written text. The first of these passages was a prologue that (to my untutored ears) added nothing at all to the play. The second was more problematic for me.
For those unfamiliar with the play, Claudio and Hero are engaged (the insta-love bit), but Evil Villain Don John convinces Claudio that Hero was cavorting with another man, and Claudio accuses her of this at the wedding. Hero falls down in a faint, and everyone thinks she is dead. After the truth comes out, that she was innocent, Hero’s father insists that to atone for his false accusation, Claudio marry another woman. This woman happens to actually be Hero (surprise—she’s alive), and everyone lives happily ever after.
This is troublesome to modern audiences. Claudio had just disgraced the woman he was supposed to love, and in a shocking and public manner. It’s bad enough that he believed the bad guy’s lies and never actually tried to ask Hero for her side of the story, but then he destroys her reputation in front of the whole community. And Hero still wants to marry him? This doesn’t sit well with modern sensibilities.
It also didn’t sit well with the director, hence the newly added lines at this point in the play. Here, Hero took centre stage, and took Claudio to task, not for his public humiliation of her, but for prizing her virginity over her value as a person. And Claudio’s new speeches involved him grovelling a lot and then confessing that he’s not nearly good enough for Hero and that he doesn’t deserve someone as good as her, but he’ll marry her anyway.
Now, I’m fine with rethinking the classics. I’m happy with tweaking storylines and recasting them in different lights. But I’m not sure I’m so fine with essentially changing a significant part of a classic play to line it up with what we think Shakespeare ought to have written. It might start as a bit of editing to make something more palatable, but when does this “editing” stop? Is it just a bit of fun, or the start of a slippery slope? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
For my part, if I’m not happy with how something ends, I’ll rewrite it completely, and not attribute my imaginings to the inspiration of my work. And that’s what I did. I mentioned above that I love Much Ado so much, I’d written a book based on it.
Much Ado in Meryton is a P&P variation that borrows heavily from The Bard. Lizzy and Darcy spar as vigorously as Beatrice and Benedick, and their friends resort to the same trickery as in Shakespeare’s play to get them to be nice to each other. But the bad guy is still the bad guy, and Jane and Bingley won’t have an easy time of it. That’s the joy of writing fan fiction and “inspired-by” stories. I can make things work out the way I think they should.
But I’m not messing with The Bard.
Here, for your enjoyment, is a passage from Much Ado in Meryton, where Lizzy and Darcy begin their merry war of words.
Bingley rolled his eyes, a habit Darcy had not been able to rid him of. “You are a bore indeed! I would not be as fastidious as you are for a kingdom. I have never met with so many pleasant girls in my life, and there are several of them who are uncommonly pretty.”
Perhaps there was something in Bingley’s statement, but Darcy was now set against the very idea. It was bad enough that he would have to dance with Miss Bingley later. “You,” he said at last, “were dancing with the only handsome girl in the room.”
“Oh, she is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld!” Bingley cried. Indeed, thought Darcy, not since the last ball we attended in London. Bingley was somewhat lacking in constancy. But he said nothing, and Bingley continued. “But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and, I dare say, very agreeable. Her name, I believe, is Elizabeth. Do let me ask Miss Bennet to introduce you.”
Heavens! Not another Bennet sister. Was there no end to them? “Which do you mean?” he asked. He turned around and saw none other than that country girl who had turned up her nose at him earlier. A wave of anger rippled through him. That impertinent chit must learn her place. He looked again. She was sitting with a friend—Miss Lucas, if he recalled—but it was most assuredly her. Her! One of the Bennet girls. This was most unpleasant. His jaw grew tight again.
He looked at her for so long that he caught her eye, and in that moment that she returned his frank gaze, he sensed her sneer once more. He withdrew his eye and said with all the ice he could muster, “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.” Had she heard him? He certainly hoped so. “I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You are wasting your time with me.”
Bingley gave another great roll of his eyes and stalked off to return to Miss Bennet and her friends, and Darcy shifted his weight, the better to withstand another tedious country dance. Then, to his side, he caught a flash of motion as the annoying Bennet sister rose from her chair and walked towards him.
She stopped in her path and pivoted to glare at him directly. Her dark eyes flashed and her chin thrust forward as she scrutinised him in the manner of a distasteful piece of meat left out in the sun for too long. Then she stated in clipped syllables, “How fortunate it is that I have no interest in dancing with you. Any lady of quality must have her standards, and I only dance with gentlemen. And you, sir, despite your airs and wealth, are no gentleman.” With which, she turned her back on him and melted into the crowd, her friend scurrying behind her.
Miss Elizabeth Bennet, so it seemed, had just declared war.
You can read the rest of the tale, and find out what happens with Jane and Bingley, through your favourite on-line bookseller: www.books2read.com/muchadoinmeryton