The “Frenemy,” or, the friend with the agenda who does not always mean well, has become a stock character in twenty-first century pop culture. As a master manipulator and resident two-face, the Frenemy is key to escalating the plot of many a romantic comedy or teen dramedy, either by revealing some humiliating secret about the protagonist(s) or by withholding crucial information. For most readers, this description will, no doubt, immediately conjure images of Regina George, the vindictive leader of the Plastics in the 2004 film Mean Girls. However, a close reading of Much Ado about Nothing indicates that the Frenemy has been betraying confidences long before he/she made it to the silver screen. But, who is this Shakespearean frenemy? After all, Much Ado about Nothing hosts several characters who seem friendly, but who have no intention of playing nice. There is Don John, of course, as well as his two cronies Borachio and Conrad, both of whom are willing to mire the happy atmosphere surrounding the impending marriage. However, perhaps the most important “friendly” character flies under the radar. The Regina George of this play is… Margaret, Hero’s handmaiden.
Margaret is crucial in Borachio and Don John’s plot to ruin Hero by “revealing” her infidelity to Claudio and Don Pedro, just hours before Hero and Claudio’s wedding. As Borachio admits later, it is “Margaret in Hero’s garments” (5.1.221-222) that Claudio and Don Pedro see that night, not the innocent Hero. Yet, while Leonato’s intends to “talk with Margaret [to see] / How her acquaintance grew with this lewd fellow” (5.1.312-313), the readers are never informed whether she is actually complicit in the plot. However, one has to wonder why a gentlewoman like Margaret would agree to dress up in her friend’s clothes and entertain the advances of such an unseemly character. Asking someone to assume another’s identity is an odd request by any standards, and would surely prompt some questions. Furthermore, Margaret’s dialogue throughout the play reveals her to be a clever and headstrong woman, not some vapid youngster easily distracted by a suitor’s flattery. This is perhaps best captured in her snarky response to Benedick’s metaphorical surrender of his buckler: “Give us the swords. We have bucklers of our own” (5.2.16). Not only is Margaret presenting herself, and other women, as capable of being aggressive, she is also playing on the sexual connotations of these words (i.e. swords are like penises and bucklers are like vaginas), signaling her awareness of sexual politics.
Given her intelligence and worldly sensibility, it seems unlikely that Margaret did not realize what was going on or what the consequences might be. Indeed, she becomes particularly sensitive when Hero, and, a little later, Beatrice tease her about entertaining men out of wedlock. In both cases, she argues that her friends are twisting her words. “O illegitimate construction! I scorn that with my heels,” she cries (3.4.41-42). As headstrong as she may be, Margaret is aware of how damning a bad reputation can be, particularly for a lady. Yet, if Margaret did sense the very real humiliation in store for Hero, than why did she go through with it? After all, by all accounts she and Hero are friends, teasing each other and Beatrice in a familiar and affectionate way.
The most likely answer is that Margaret was/is jealous of Hero. Readers get some indication of this during Margaret’s argument with Hero over which ruff to wear. “By my troth, ‘s not so good,” she insists (3.4.8), suggesting perhaps a misbegotten sense of authority on the matter. She then goes on to describe Hero’s dress in rich detail. When paired with the reader’s knowledge that Margaret has taken the liberty of wearing Hero’s clothes, her description, which goes on for five lines, points to an envious wish to possess the dress as her own. Yet, it is not simply Hero’s clothes that Margaret wants, but Hero’s winsome reputation. With her good looks and fair wit, Hero is the center of attention, sidelined only slightly by her feisty cousin Beatrice. As a result, there is not much room left for Margaret, whose snappy ripostes depict a woman desperate to assert herself. “O, God help me…,” Beatrice remarks at one point, “How long have you professed apprehension?” (3.4.56-57). “Ever since you left it,” Margaret replies, “Doth not my wit become me rarely” (3.4.58-9). Like her modern frenemy counterparts, Margret is motivated by a complex mixture of jealousy and desire for recognition, making her participation in the plot an exercise in one-upping Hero rather than malicious attack. However, by obscuring the truth, Margaret sets off a chain of events that she can no longer control. Like most frenemies, Margaret decides to keep her secret even as Hero is humiliated, perhaps out of self-interest or perhaps out of guilt. However, unlike her analogous fellows, Margaret never seems to get her comeuppance. There is no bus to teach this Shakespearean Regina George a lesson. Perhaps her punishment is to watch Hero regain her happiness, coming out of the ordeal stronger and more admired than before. Or perhaps, her comeuppance, like Don John’s, is still coming.