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

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Part Three of the answers to my Austen-Shakespeare Quiz: Deserving Suitors in The Merchant of Venice and Pride & Prejudice

At the end of my immediately preceding post…..

…I promised one additional interpretive bonus arising out of my discovery of the veiled allusion in three of Jane Austen’s novels to the casket-choice suitors scenes in The Merchant of Venice which I outlined there. Now I will deliver on that promise.

Arragon is the suitor for Portia’s hand in marriage who chooses the silver casket, and here is how that choice plays out:

….Why, then to thee, thou silver treasure-house;
Tell me once more what title thou dost bear:
'Who chooseth me shall get as much as he DESERVES:'
And well said too; for who shall go about
To cozen fortune and be honourable
Without the stamp of merit? Let none presume
To wear an UNDESERVED dignity.
O, that estates, degrees and offices
Were not derived corruptly, and that clear honour
Were purchased by the merit of the wearer!
How many then should cover that stand bare!
How many be commanded that command!
How much low peasantry would then be glean'd
From the true seed of honour! and how much honour
Pick'd from the chaff and ruin of the times
To be new-varnish'd! Well, but to my choice:
'Who chooseth me shall get as much as he DESERVES.'
I will assume DESERT. Give me a key for this,
And instantly unlock my fortunes here.

He opens the silver casket

Too long a pause for that which you find there.

What's here? the portrait of a blinking idiot,
Presenting me a schedule! I will read it.
How much unlike art thou to Portia!
How much unlike my hopes and my DESERVINGS!
'Who chooseth me shall have as much as he DESERVES.'
Did I DESERVE no more than a fool's head?
Is that my prize? are my DESERTS no better?

You will note from my all-caps portions that Shakespeare is having a jolly punny time with the very ambiguous word “deserve”, which can mean two opposite things, depending on the context—i.e., a worthy person can deserve some very positive outcome, whereas an unworthy person can deserve some very negative outcome. That’s what makes “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he DESERVES” such a great riddle, because the chooser will hear in that word what he wants to hear, and thereby will select himself as unworthy, which is exactly what Arragon does.

And guess what! Jane Austen played with this ambiguity of the word “deserve” in all her novels, but most of all in Pride & Prejudice! I could give you ten examples of that ambiguity in the text of P&P, but if you are curious to see them, a global word search on the word “deserve” and its variants in this online text…

…will give you the fun of reading each such passage with new eyes, discerning how so many of them can be read in two very different ways.

I wanted to bring forward the best one, the discovery of the ambiguity of which I cannot take credit for, because I was beaten to the punch by Kishor Kale, who wrote the following several years ago in the article of his which he has written about from time to time in Janeites:

Kishor: “I now present a counterexample: a statement which, like the utterances of Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Collins, and Wickham given above, has a secondary meaning that is unintended by the speaker.  However, in this counterexample the secondary meaning cannot be understood by the reader to be an inadvertent truth.  After Darcy has proposed to Elizabeth, and Elizabeth has convinced Mr. Bennet that she really does love him, Mr Bennet says to her:  "If this be the case, he DESERVES you.  I could not have parted with you, my Lizzy, to any one less worthy" (377).   Clearly, Mr. Bennet means that nobody less worthy than Darcy would be worthy of Elizabeth.  However, his statement, like the examples given earlier, does formally have a secondary interpretation unintended by him.  The difference between this statement of Mr. Bennet's and the preceding three examples is that in this case, it is clear from the context that the secondary interpretation must also have been unintended by Austen and was caused simply by carelessness of expression on her part. Mr. Bennet's statement, taken literally, could mean that nobody more unworthy than Darcy could be found as a husband for Elizabeth, which in context is of course is a clearly preposterous interpretation.  We could simply dismiss the secondary interpretation of Mr. Bennet's statement as simply an uncharacteristic piece of careless writing on the part of Jane Austen as real author of Pride and Prejudice. However, if we introduce the notion of a constructed author who can be wiser than the fallible real author, it is possible to re-interpret this carelessness by the real author as an element of a coherent narrative strategy formulated by the constructed author.”

However, whereas Kishor believes the above ambiguity in the word “deserve” to be the result of “unintended” “carelessness of expression” on Jane Austen’s part, I believe it is 100% intentional, and is part and parcel of the allusion to the highly salient and ambiguously ironic usages of the word “desert” in the silver casket riddle and elsewhere in the text of  The Merchant of Venice!

Therefore….I believe that in one highly plausible interpretation of Pride & Prejudice, Mr. Bennet does indeed mean to say to Elizabeth that Mr. Darcy is _not_ a worthy suitor, and therefore if Lizzy really does love Darcy, then Darcy’s “deserving” Lizzy is as ironic as Arragon’s just deserts in TMOV!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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