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

Monday, September 16, 2013

HERMIA: “Could not a worm, an adder, do so much?” EMMA: “Could a linguist, could a grammarian, could even a mathematician have seen what she did…How much more must an imaginist…”

In Act 3, Scene 1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Demetrius has been pursuing Hermia in the forest, acting on the tip given to him by the desperate Helena (who sought thereby to gain favor in his eyes).  Demetrius and Hermia exchange verbal barbs, and he makes a casual jibe about  Lysander’s “corpse”. Hermia immediately goes off the deep end into a hysterical panic, based solely on Demetrius’s bad joke. Hermia conjures up a fantasy that Lysander has been killed by Demetrius, and then lashes out with over-the-top vitriol at Demetrius for a half  dozen lines before abruptly reversing  herself and concluding, in effect, “Never mind!”:

Out, dog! out, cur! thou drivest me past the bounds
Of maiden's patience. Hast thou slain him, then?
Henceforth be never number’d among men!
O, once tell true, tell true, even for my sake!
Durst thou have look'd upon him being awake,
And hast thou kill'd him sleeping? O brave touch!
Could not a worm, an adder, do so much?
An adder did it; for with doubler tongue
Than thine, thou serpent, never adder stung.

In reading Hermia’s above speech, I was struck for the first time by the line “Could not a worm, an adder, do so much?” and realized instantly that Hermia’s imaginism in this speech had to be a source for Emma’s famous imaginism regarding Harriet and the Gypsies in Chapter 39 of Emma.

Just think about it---the brutal murder of Lysander by Demetrius that Hermia imagines, a fantasy which Demetrius--a sexist, greedy jerk but not a murderer---quickly deflates, is just like the breathless tale of Harriet nearly being assaulted by a band of gypsies which so captivates Emma’s imagination---also a tale of mortal danger and romantic intrigue and mystery in “the country” outside the safety of the town:

“Such an adventure as this,—a fine young man and a lovely young woman thrown together in such a way, could hardly fail of suggesting certain ideas to the coldest heart and the steadiest brain. So Emma thought, at least. Could a linguist, could a grammarian, could even a mathematician have seen what she did, have witnessed their appearance together, and heard their history of it, without feeling that circumstances had been at work to make them peculiarly interesting to each other?—How much more must an imaginist, like herself, be on fire with speculation and foresight!—especially with such a groundwork of anticipation as her mind had already made. It was a very extraordinary thing! Nothing of the sort had ever occurred before to any young ladies in the place, within her memory; no rencontre, no alarm of the kind;—and now it had happened to the very person, and at the very hour, when the other very person was chancing to pass by to rescue her!—It certainly was very extraordinary!—And knowing, as she did, the favourable state of mind of each at this period, it struck her the more. He was wishing to get the better of his attachment to herself, she just recovering from her mania for Mr. Elton. It seemed as if every thing united to promise the most interesting consequences. It was not possible that the occurrence should not be strongly recommending each to the other. “  END QUOTE

But then Emma resolves to restrain her own inner Oberon/Puck, and not interfere in the love lives of others.

I am of course not the first to suggest the presence of allusions to Shakespeare’s Dream in Emma.  That honor belongs to the pioneering Austen scholar, Jocelyn Harris, who, way back in 1986, wrote the following in JA’s Art of Memory, as part of a brilliant and extended textual unpacking of the complex allusion to MND in Emma:

“Frank also returns to his original betrothed…But Frank like Demetrius is a spotted and inconstant man who has flirted with Emma/Hermia and laid Jane/Helena open to mockery and derision...when Frank rescues Harriet from the gipsies, how could she not exercise her imagination!  [Harris then quotes that same “linguist” passage] Here is Theseus’s very comparison between seething brains and cold reason….activity is as irresistible to this imaginist as to Theseus’s poet. She teaches her pupil all too well. Harriet becomes an imaginist too..”  END QUOTE

But I am saying now that Harris overlooked this wonderful added textual wink toward Hermia ‘s speech  by JA. Plus, Harris did not realize---because she had no idea about the shadow story of Emma --that Harriet’s imaginism is entirely successful, in that I have long asserted that Harriet made up the entire Gypsies story to cover over her actual tryst with Frank outside Highbury in the “forest”, and Emma buys it hook, line and sinker!  So Harriet is like Hermia (and their names are even similar, aren’t they?) in conjuring up horrid fantasies---but Harriet’s is calculating—she really does speak with “double tongue” to Emma in telling this phony story to Emma, while Hermia’s horrid fantasy is sincere.

And Harris also does not recognize the characteristic JA echoing by wordplay, which does, as Harris noted, point the alert reader to Theseus’s speech, but also points to Hermia’s desperate speech, in which she imagines the worst about harm come to Lysander, when actually and ironically, Lysander, under a mistaken spell by Puck, is off pursuing Helena!

So... with her witty sense of wordplay, JA has Emma think of:

 a “linguist” because Hermia’s speech refers to a “double tongue”; and

a “mathematician” because Hermia uses the word “number’d”

Which all relates back to my post last week….

….about the mathematical resonance in Emma. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is every bit as mathematical in its structure, with the very explicit interchangeability of lovers, with Oberon using Puck to play an algebraic game of romantic x’s and y’ s being substituted and resubstituted, using love juice  in effect as an “eraser”, until the romantic “equation” is brought into proper harmony.  

I even found an article (which I can’t begin to understand, but I  am sure Michael Chwe would find  to be child’s play) entitled “A Foundational Mathematical Account of a Specific Complex Social Reality: Conflict in A Midsummer Night's Dream” by Gordon Burt [in Chen Bo, Manas Chatterji, Hao Chaoyan (ed.) Cooperation for a Peaceful and Sustainable World Part 1 (Contributions to Conflict Management, Peace Economics and Development, Volume 20), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp.69-91].

So, what is for certain is that Jane Austen, like Shakespeare was, in a very real sense, a linguist, a mathematician, and an imaginist, and they both deployed their great skills  in these fields to extraordinary effect in Emma and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, respectively.

Cheers, Arnie
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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