(& scroll all the way down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Monday, April 27, 2015

“I will go get her picture”: Beatrice & Benedick as the source for Lizzy & Darcy’s picturesque repartee

At the end of the first post of this ongoing series about Pride & Prejudice and Much Ado About Nothing, after I spelled out the elaborate eavesdropping/portraiture motif in Chapters 10 & 11 of P&P, I ended with this comment:
“And there I will stop for today, but give you assurance that in my coming posts I will show not only how Jane Austen was inspired by Much Ado (and that earlier literary work I haven’t yet named), but how she studied and penetrated to the subtext of those works as well, better than any scholar of her era, and in some ways better than those earlier works have ever been penetrated!”

Today, I am ready to land that first plane. I begin with Act 2 Scene 3 of Much Ado, when Benedick soliloquizes about his ideal woman, just before he is gulled by Don Pedro et al into thinking of Beatrice as that woman:

“One woman is fair, yet I am well; another is wise, yet I am well; another virtuous, yet I am well; but till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace. Rich she shall be, that's certain; wise, or I'll none; virtuous, or I'll never cheapen her; fair, or I'll never look on her; mild, or come not near me; noble, or not I for an angel; of good discourse, an excellent musician, and her hair shall be of what colour it please God. Ha! the prince and Monsieur Love! I will hide me in the arbour.

And then, right after he has been gulled (during which the tricksters, who seem to have overheard his soliloquy, tout Beatrice as specifically fulfilling Benedick’s checklist), he revisits it with new eyes after Beatrice grudgingly comes to him:

BEATRICE        AGAINST MY WILL I am sent to bid you come in to dinner.
BENEDICK  Fair Beatrice, I thank you for your pains.
BEATRICE  I took no more pains for those thanks than you take pains to thank me: if it had been painful, I would not have come.
BENEDICK  You take pleasure then in the message?
BEATRICE  Yea, just so much as you may take upon a knife's point and choke a daw withal. You have no stomach, signior: fare you well.   Exit
BENEDICK  Ha! 'AGAINST MY WILL I am sent to bid you come in to dinner;' THERE’S A DOUBLE MEANING IN THAT 'I took no more pains for those thanks than you took pains to thank me.' that's as much as to say, Any pains that I take for you is as easy as thanks. If I do not take pity of her, I am a villain; if I do not love her, I am a Jew. I will go get her picture.  Exit

It was ten years ago that I first recognized two distinct echoes of these passages in P&P:

First, Darcy’s laundry list for his impossibly ideal woman in Chapter 8 eerily parallels Benedick’s:

"Your list of the common extent of accomplishments," said Darcy, "has too much truth. The word is applied to many a woman who deserves it no otherwise than by netting a purse or covering a screen. But I am very far from agreeing with you in your estimation of ladies in general. I cannot boast of knowing more than half-a-dozen, in the whole range of my acquaintance, that are really accomplished."
"Nor I, I am sure," said Miss Bingley.
"Then," observed Elizabeth, "you must comprehend a great deal in your idea of an accomplished woman."
"Yes, I do comprehend a great deal in it."
"Oh! certainly," cried his faithful assistant, "no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved."
"All this she must possess," added Darcy, "and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading."
"I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any."
"Are you so severe upon your own sex as to doubt the possibility of all this?"
"I never saw such a woman. I never saw such capacity, and taste, and application, and elegance, as you describe united."

And second, Beatrice’s sour “Against my will” is tracked by the famous words of Eliza Bennet giving Darcy what-for re his churlish “against my will” during his disastrous first proposal in Ch. 34 of P&P:

"I might as well inquire…why with so evident a desire of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me AGAINST YOUR WILL, against your reason, and even against your character?”

But it was only last week that I first noticed a much larger textual jewel/crux in Much Ado that Jane Austen must have noticed, decoded, and then alluded to in P&P, in particular in Chapters 10 & 11 of P&P. As my Subject Line has alerted you, Benedick concludes his session of deluded romantic doublethink with this cryptic assertion: “I will go get her PICTURE”.

Think about that word ‘picture”. Could it possibly be a coincidence that the shrubbery scene in Much Ado which Jane Austen tracked so carefully in her own shrubbery scene in P&P, just happens to end with a line of dialog which could serve as a subtitle for P&P, given all the textual evidence scattered through twenty chapters in P&P, which I laid out in the second previous post? It is obviously not a coincidence, or a coinage of my overheated imagination!

And that would be remarkable enough, if that were all there was to Jane Austen’s allusion to Much Ado in P&P. But it turns out that this cryptic line spoken by Benedick has its own complex subtext, which, I will now suggest, Jane Austen the scholar also penetrated deeply into, and wove into the complex fabric of her light bright and sparkling “darling child”, Pride & Prejudice. Let me explain.

Shakespeare scholars have long debated exactly what Benedick means by “her picture”, given that Benedick does not otherwise mention any picture of Beatrice (or any other woman), either before or after he says that. Here is a brief yet thorough sampling of intelligent speculation regarding same from the Shaksper scholarly online group discussion of this topic six years ago:

Skip Nicholson: “Schmidt's glossary lists the use of "picture" in this line as literal, that Benedick is going to get an image or likeness of her”
Ron Severdia: “The idea is that he's going to get a picture of Beatrice to gaze upon it as typical young lovers do -- so it's literal. However, the actor might play the juxtaposition of building the speech up to that point, as if he was going to profess his love for her, but chickens out and goes for the picture instead”
Bill Godshalk: “I'd suggest a painted miniature of the loved one that could be worn about the neck by a chain. See Hamlet…3.4.53 who discusses "this picture." Jenkins cites A. C. Sprague's Shakespeare and the Actors…where the case for miniatures is "well put." “
Marilyn Bonomi: “I've always viewed that line as meaning he is going to go sketch her.”
David Evett: “…the likeliest explanation is that he means to track down a portrait miniature...It occurs to me that he might possibly have acquired one during the earlier phase of their relationship, a notion that would indicate that that earlier relationship was as serious as Beatrice's comments on it seem to suggest, while indicating Benedick's own continuing interest in her.”
Jim Ryan: “Overhearing that he is loved, Benedick first takes off in a flight of imagination, torturing Beatrice's invitation to dinner & desiring her picture, her idealized image...He then becomes, embodies, the fashionable image of a lover: he shaves and spruces himself up. He has a real or feigned toothache as the socially accepted means of explaining his lovesickness. The lovesick Beatrice, similarly touched to imaginative excess, soliloquizes in a one-quatrain-short sonnet...She then appears in the scene mirroring Benedick's lovesickness "stuffed" …with a cold, with Margaret's punning on the word suggesting a psychosomatic preparation for requiting Benedick's love. In both lovers the word stimulates the imagination toward an artful construct -- a picture, a  sonnet -- and then alters them physically.”
Thomas Krause: I agree that Benedick was probably thinking about a miniature….Long ago [1875], Frank Marshall suggested that "picture in little" might refer to coins bearing Claudius's picture…And I've always felt that use of coins in the queen's closet scene (a la Michael Redgrave) breathed wit into the queen's "this is the very coinage of your brain" line….”

I think it would be a mistake to try to choose one from among all these ingenious and plausible explanations as “the” meaning of it, as Shakespeare clearly loved to create multiple plausible interpretations. And I believe Jane Austen picked up on pretty much all of them – as the examples I catalogued in my previous post in this series, we have Elizabeth observing Wickham’s and Darcy’s miniatures, and Darcy’s portrait, at Pemberley. And Jim Ryan’s well-argued explanation for the way idealized images in Much Ado reflect changes in the way Benedick and Beatrice feel about each other rings truer than true with the transformation in Eliza’s feelings for Darcy while she is at Pemberley gazing at his idealized image suspended on the wall before her. And speaking of sonnets, Darcy is the one who, Benedick-like, defends poetry as the food of love, to which Eliza, Beatrice-like, replies that a bad poem will starve love away!

But perhaps the most interesting interpretation of all is that last one mentioned by Thomas Krause harking back to Marshall’s 1875 interpretation of Hamlet’s reference to Claudius’ “picture in little” as a pun on the image of a ruler on a coin. The reason I believe this works best of all for Benedick’s cryptic comment about going to get Beatrice’s (or maybe, Queen Elizabeth’s?) ‘picture’, is that it is in exactly the same vein as Benedick’s pun on British coins which occurs earlier in that very same scene 2.3, during Benedick’s wish list:

“RICH she shall be, that's certain; wise, or I'll none; virtuous, or I'll never CHEAPEN her; fair, or I'll never look on her; mild, or come not near me; NOBLE, or not I for an ANGEL…”

It turns out that a “noble” was the name of a British coin that had 2/3 of the value of another British coin, known as an “angel” (worth 10 shillings)! And so it would make perfect sense that Benedick, after revisiting the fulfilment of his wish list in the person of Beatrice, would then end his paean to Beatrice with yet another coin pun---in effect, turning her into his “queen”, whose face would appear on the coin that measures the value of his love!

Plus, a search of the word “noble” and other names of Elizabeth-era coins in the text of Much Ado reveals several other puns in the same vein. Clearly then, Shakespeare intended his alert readers and/or spectators to catch this punning---and it is not entirely funny, as it does suggest that behind Benedick’s flowery words of love, he is more than a little mercenary, especially when we take note that the first item in his wish list, ahead of wisdom, virtue, fairness, and nobility, is “RICH  she shall be, that’s certain”.

And anyone who knows P&P well will immediately associate Benedick’s mercenary tendencies with Mrs. Bennet’s unashamed yearning for rich sons-in-law, and Elizabeth Bennet’s famous joke that not’s a joke, when explaining to her amazed sister Jane her sudden engagement to Darcy:

"My dearest sister, now be serious. I want to talk very seriously. Let me know every thing that I am to know, without delay. Will you tell me how long you have loved him?"
"It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley."
Another entreaty that she would be serious, however, produced the desired effect; and she soon satisfied Jane by her solemn assurances of attachment….:”

And it’s no accident also, I would argue, that we see the word “noble” more often in P&P than in any other Austen novel, and in all cases referring either to Darcy or to his aunt Lady Catherine --- Jane Austen means to raise in the mind of her alert readers the disquieting notion that Elizabeth may indeed have been more revealingly honest than she meant to be with her sister Jane, and therefore not a little hypocritical for having earlier judged her friend Charlotte for what Eliza saw as mercenary motives in marrying Mr. Collins.

There is much more that could be said expanding on this outline of Shakespeare’s and Jane Austen’s masterful treatment of these themes in Much Ado and P&P, respectively, but I believe most of you will agree that I’ve already made a strong prima facie case for my initial claim that Jane Austen the literary scholar was every bit as extraordinary as Jane Austen the writer of fiction.

And with that, I will conclude with the promise to deliver in my next post the previously promised discussion of the Gilpinesque and Reynoldsian theorizing about the picturesque hidden just beneath the surface of P&P, which will now be read by you in the context of all the textual evidence I’ve presented thus far on this theme of the picturesque.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

No comments: