Colleen A. Sheehan is Associate Professor of Political Science at Villanova University. Her publications include articles on the American founding and the co-edited volume Friends of the Constitution. She has been an avid reader of Jane Austen since she was fourteen.
THERE IS NO DENYING IT, the prim and proper Jane Austen is a bit of a rakish trickster, In the very midst of her most earnest teachings the tinge of mischief is in her ink. Despite Mr. Knightley's censure of mystery and finesse, neither he nor Austen is more able to resist the pleasures of irony than some of her villains. "'Now, do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat,'" (MP 60) could have as easily been professed by Miss Austen as Miss Crawford, with equal power of persuasion.
Puns, riddles, and acrostics; charades, conundrums, anagrams, and double entendres. These are the playful arts of Jane Austen, most manifestly displayed in Emma. Austen's propensity for word play in this novel falls little short of Emma's propensity for matchmaking. Austen is at her ironic best in Emma when she has her heroine declare that "'there does seem to be something in the air of Hartfield which gives love exactly the right direction, and sends it into the very channel where it ought to flow'" (75). Emma then quotes Shakespeare, "'The course of true love never did run smooth,'" adding that "'A Hartfield edition of Shakespeare would have a long note on that passage.'" The quotation is from A Midsummer Night's Dream, conjuring up a juxtaposition of Miss Wood-house's abode to the play's "wood" near Athens. Unlike the erratic twists and turns in the latter locale, Emma would have us suppose that at Hartfield, under her guidance, love is perfectly understood and deftly directed. But of course Emma's antics and attempts at matchmaking turn out to be as droll and amusing as Puck's.
The effect of Emma's unrestrained fancy on the course of love gives the novel its comic character. First she schemes to break the attachment between Robert Martin and Harriet Smith and to make a match instead between Harriet and Mr. Elton. Having made Harriet fall in love with Elton, while Martin is still in love with Harriet, Emma discovers that Elton's passions are directed toward herself Foiled in this stratagem, Emma then encourages Harriet to imagine herself in love with Frank Churchill, but Churchill is secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax, whom Mrs. Weston imagines is being sought after by Mr. Knightley. But Harriet misunderstands Emma's hints, thinking she meant to encourage her in an attachment to Knightley. Harriet thus finds herself in love with Mr. Knightley, whom Emma finally realizes she is in love with herself
Just as in A Midsummer Night's Dream, in Emma the plot revolves around three couples and their ultimate marriages (or four, if one counts Pyramus and Thisbe in the former, and the Eltons in the latter). Indeed, Austen plays on the Shakespearean play throughout her novel, with Emma cast in multiple parts. Like Hermia, the "wrong" man is in love with her, and she protests against his courtship and in favor of her friendship for Harriet (Helena). Subsequently, again like Hermia, she fears that the "right" man for her may be in love with Harriet (Helena), and though it may appear to be so, in truth it is not. (1) Ultimately, like Hippolyta, the queen of the feral wood of the Amazon, Emma is united with the classical hero who, portentously, tenders reason, truth, and duty as the cool antidote to the seething imagination.
Before love can run smooth, however, that which turned it from its proper course must be corrected. Shakespeare's culprit is of course Puck, while Austen's Puck is Emma. And though in neither case are the errors intentional, neither are they accompanied by prodigious regret when detected. In fact, in both cases the impish characters continue their meddling unabated for some time. In attempting to manage the passion of love and order all things properly, Puck steals the power of the senses from one after another of the lovers. …