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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Mansfield Park Theatricals: The Most Insipid Play in the Engish Language is….?

Earlier this week, I posed the following question: what _specific_ Shakespeare play was under consideration by the Mansfield Park thespians when the following derogatory comments were made during the attempt to settle on one play for the troupe to perform?:

"No piece could be proposed that did not supply somebody with a difficulty, and on one side or the other it was a continual repetition of, "Oh no, that will never do! Let us have no ranting tragedies. Too many characters. Not a tolerable woman's part in the play. ANYTHING BUT THAT, my dear Tom. It would be impossible to fill it up. One could not expect anybody to take such a part. Nothing but buffoonery from beginning to end. That might do, perhaps, but for the low parts. If I must give my opinion, I have always thought it THE MOST INSIPID PLAY IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE. I do not wish to make objections; I shall be happy to be of any use, but I think we could not chuse worse."

Many have been the Austen scholars, including myself, who have claimed to detect in Mansfield Park allusions to various of Shakespeare's plays--- not only the well recognized allusion to King Lear, but also the less universally recognized allusions to Hamlet, All’s Well That Ends Well, Henry VIII, etc.

However, I realized only a few days ago that one _particular_ Shakespeare play is being covertly alluded to, in several significant and winking ways, in the above quoted passage from Mansfield Park, and also in the following passage that also is taken from the Lovers Vows episode:

"No doubt one is familiar with Shakespeare in a degree," said Edmund, "from one's earliest years. His celebrated passages are quoted by everybody; they are in half the books we open, and we all talk Shakespeare, use his similes, and describe with his descriptions; but this is totally distinct from giving his sense as you gave it. To know him in BITS AND SCRAPS is common enough; to know him pretty thoroughly is, perhaps, not uncommon; but to read him well aloud is no everyday talent."

If you are wondering why I have capitalized “anything but that” and “bits and scraps” in those two passages, it is precisely because they are the textual clues that first led me to the answer to my little quiz--the identity of the Shakespeare play which I am certain is the one Jane Austen very specifically had in mind as the butt of all the negative comments in the above passage—negative comments with which she herself did _not_, agree!—and that play is……Troilus & Cressida!

I will write a longer post in the near future which will unpack this allusion and begin to demonstrate that Troilus & Cressida, perhaps the most problematic of Shakespeare’s famous “problem plays”, really was a crucial allusive subtext for Mansfield Park, with multifaceted parallelisms which include Greek mythology, homosexuality, jealousy, unexpected visitors from a distance, a long sea voyage, high walls & gates, sour and disturbing cynicism, pandering, lover’s inconstant vows, and (last but not least) women treated as chattel to be bought and sold (pandered) by a greedy uncle. Truly, Mansfield Park is Jane Austen’s re-creation of Troilus & Cressida in early 19th century England!

But for now and for starters, I will be content to provide to you those two quotations, _both_ (not coincidentally) from Act 5, Scene 2 of Troilus & Cressida, which are, taken together, unmistakably pointed to by “anything but that” and “bits and scraps” in the two MP passages I quoted, above.

First we have Cressida wavering in her constancy to Troilus now that she has come under the spell of the very determined suitor Diomedes:

CRESSIDA In faith, I cannot: what would you have me do?

THERSITES: A juggling trick,--to be secretly open.

DIOMEDES: What did you swear you would bestow on me?

CRESSIDA: I prithee, do not hold me to mine oath; Bid me do ANY THING BUT THAT, sweet Greek.

And then, later in that same scene, after Cressida has apparently yielded to Diomedes’s persistent wooing and pressure, we have Troilus’s despairing soliloquy as he watches, concealed, from a distance, with Ulysses and Ajax as a cynical chorus making him feel even worse about what he is seeing himself:


This she? no, this is Diomed's Cressida: If beauty have a soul, this is not she; If souls guide VOWS, if VOWS be sanctimonies, If sanctimony be the gods' delight,
If there be rule in unity itself, This is not she. O madness of discourse, That cause sets up with and against itself! Bi-fold authority! where reason can revolt Without perdition, and loss assume all reason Without revolt: this is, and is not, Cressid.

Within my soul there doth conduce a fight Of this strange nature that a thing inseparate Divides more wider than the sky and earth, And yet the spacious breadth of this division Admits no orifex for a point as subtle As Ariachne's broken woof to enter.

Instance, O instance! strong as Pluto's gates; Cressid is mine, tied with the bonds of heaven: Instance, O instance! strong as heaven itself; The bonds of heaven are slipp'd, dissolved, and loosed; And with another knot, five-finger-tied, The fractions of her faith, ORTS of her love, The fragments, SCRAPS, the BITS and GREASY relics Of her o'er-eaten faith, are bound to Diomed.

I will now finish by pointing you to a sampling of posts at my blog where I have previously written about _other_ aspects of the complex allusion to Troilus & Cressida in Mansfield Park:

So, what I have brought forward today is actually only part of the complex allusion by JA to Troilus & Cressida in Mansfield Park—each of the parts of that complex allusion reinforce the validity of the others.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: Apropos the claim that Jane Austen did not do well with Shakespeare’s lesser plays, JA’s allusion to Troilus & Cressida is an enormous rebuttal to same. It illustrates that Jane Austen was such am omnivorous and sophisticated literary critic in her own right that she demonstrated amazing depths of insight into even Shakespeare’s least famous and least praised plays—and we know she read Troilus & Cressida, because she could never have seen it performed (other than, perhaps in the Steventon barn), as it was never performed on any public stage between 1734 and 1898, not even in Dryden’s seriously abridged version which was famous in its day, but had itself lapsed into obscurity long prior to JA’s birth.

P.P.S: And kudos again to Diane Reynolds who threw out Othello as a candidate for the “honor” of being called “insipid” by the Mansfield thespians, based on Dr. Grant’s describing the Parsonage apricots as “insipid”. While it was not Troilus & Cressida, I quickly realized that the principal theme of _Othello_, which is _jealousy_, is _also_ a major theme in Troilus & Cressida, and was the essence of Troilus’s anguished soliloquy, as his “beloved” Cressida appears to cuckold him with Diomedes almost as soon as she reaches the Greek camp. So, it tells us that Jane Austen did mean for her Shakespeare-savvy readers to think of _both_ Othello _and_ Troilus & Cressida, in relation to the jealousy with which MP is saturated, in particular the jealousy Fanny feels about Edmund and also the jealousy that Julia feels about Maria.

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