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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Much Ado About Something Amazing: Borachio’s Double Bluff Revealed After Four Centuries of Concealment in Plain Sight




 My wife had seen the new Joss Whedon film Much Ado About Nothing three times on her own during the past few weeks, before we went to see it together this past weekend. As you might guess, she really likes Whedon’s version a lot, urged me to see it with her, and when I did, I, too, liked it a great deal.

My first reaction, which I still hold to, is that while Whedon’s version is very different from Branagh’s-- which has been the gold standard for modern audiences since it first screened twenty years ago-- yet neither is, on balance, better than the other, they just have different strengths and weaknesses.

For example, I deem the new Don John, Sean Maher, to be much superior to Keanu Reeves in the same role, and the new Don Pedro, Reed Diamond, seems better matched to the role than Denzel Washington’s bravura Don Pedro. But, conversely, the fools of Branagh’s version, led by Michael Keaton’s Dogberry, are, to my eyes and ears, much funnier (and therefore much superior) to Nathan Fillion’s way too deadpan Dogberry, and his fellow castmates. 

As for the two main roles, I see it as a kind of artistic draw between two excellent pairings.  Branagh and Thompson are pitch perfect and bring all of their (even then at ages 33 and 34, respectively) vast Shakespearean experience to the screen with full force, and are as charismatic as Firth and Ehle in P&P2. But Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof do a surprisingly (to me at least) excellent job in their own right, and succeed in making me believe, and enjoy, their merry war onscreen, too, and not yearn for Branagh-Thompson.

In short, I am glad to now have these two complementary versions to enjoy over the coming years of re-reviewings, even though I do agree with those who see Whedon’s more cynical presentation of corruption as closer to Shakespeare’s intent,  i.e., to depict the ugly mercenary side of marriage and romance. No question,  Branagh’s version tilts a bit too far to the romantic side, and seems to blunt the full force of the cynicism of the play text, whereas Whedon seems to balance the two sides better.

So, all in all, Whedon’s film is a must-see for any lover of Shakespeare, and especially so for any Bardolater who also loves Jane Austen, because, of course, as was first noticed two hundred years ago, and has been noted dozens of times since then, Much Ado About Nothing is a crucial allusive subtext for Pride & Prejudice—not just for the merry war between Darcy and Elizabeth, which so obviously has Beatrice and Benedick in mind at every twist and turn of the progression of their complicated romance.

What is even more fundamental to Jane Austen’s allusion to MAAN in P&P is her brilliant translation of Shakespeare’s depiction of a world in which every “fact” about human interaction is subject to confusion, deception (both of self and of others) and ambiguity. That ambiguity is the foundation of both of these works of great genius, and what they also share is the deliberate superficial minimizing of such weighty epistemological themes by the authors, making it appear as if they are merely “light, bright and sparkling” romances, when actually they are so much more than that, both carrying the weightiest intellectual power.

And the same duality also applies to Pride & Prejudice in terms of the balance between romance and cynicism about love, as a hard nosed reading of P&P focuses on the meat market aspect of love and marriage in JA’s day just as much as in Shakespeare’s two centuries earlier. And my interpretations of the shadow story of P&P fit perfectly with the cynical interpretation of MAAN.

But that is all prelude to my main and final point, which I have hinted at in my Subject Line. As a result of my seeing Whedon’s film. I was prompted to revisit my earlier intense study of Shakespeare’s play, which I last did about 8 years ago, and to see if I would have better luck penetrating to the level of Shakespeare’s “shadow story”, which I always felt was there, but I could not quite get at.

It was, I think, Whedon’s depiction of Borachio that got me thinking about that mysterious “minor” character, upon whose words the main plot of the play turns so decisively. Borachio of course is the associate of the malevolent Don John, and Borachio is the schemer who is the “author” (in the same vein as Don Vincentio in Measure for Measure and Iago in Othello) of the plot to defame Hero in the eyes of Claudio, Don Pedro and the rest of Messina.

What my wife reminded me of last night, which I had not consciously retained in my memory after watching the film once, was that Whedon goes into uncharted territory when he depicts Borachio as actually being in love with Hero, and therefore being motivated to his evil schemes by intense jealousy of Claudio when marriage is arranged so quickly between Hero and Claudio.

By this, Whedon makes Borachio an audacious trickster, because his scheme to defame Hero includes within it the supposedly fictitious element that Borachio loves Hero, and that is why he has a final tryst with her in her bedroom the night before her marrying Claudio.  How audacious of Borachio, then, if he actually does love Hero, and hides his unacknowledged love in plain sight in this way!

So, perhaps, subconsciously, I did register Whedon’s bold new interpretation of Claudio, because it was only a few days later, i.e., yesterday, that I realized that Shakespeare played his own audacious game of hiding in plain sight with the character of Borachio, in the pivotal scene in which Borachio calls himself a “true drunkard” and then proceeds to spill the beans about the defaming-Hero plot to his buddy Conrade (whom Whedon, interestingly, depicts as a woman), while being overheard by Dogberry and his cohorts hiding very close nearby.

Scholars have grappled with the contradictory character of Borachio for many years, in particular with respect to the surprising 180 degree about face he makes once he has been apprehended, appearing to genuinely repent for the dreadful harm he has almost caused for Hero et al. He seems to morph from Iago-like “motiveless malignity” to Othello-like unrestrained repentance in a matter of days. 

Over the past day, I’ve grappled with the paradoxical Borachio, reading and rereading his speeches, reading articles and chapters about him by various scholars, struggling to figure out what makes him tick. And it was only then that I realized in a flash of recognition that Shakespeare meant for knowing readers of his play text to ask the following suspicious question:

What if Borachio—who is after all a serial liar--was _not_ a “true drunkard” at all (despite his name, which means “drunkard” in Italian!), but was feigning drunkenness, and, what’s more, had first deliberately planting himself with Conrade in close vicinity to Dogberry & Co., so as to be certain that they would overhear his confession!?

So, where did I get this nutty-sounding idea, and what made me think it was an idea Shakespeare had deliberately planted in my mind? Well, from the entire rest of the play, where else?!

Specifically, what we see in Acts 2 and 3 are benevolent hoaxes, involving Beatrice and Benedick, in which the benevolent schemers deliberately situate themselves in the paths of the two sharp-tongued lovers/haters, respectively, so as to be “overheard” by each of them, supposedly quoting each of them declaring undying love for the other! I.e., we have these two instances very fresh in our minds, from seeing two such schemes played out in front of our eyes.

And then, not much later in the play, we have the capper---another case of staged eavesdropping –staged by none other than Borachio himself!---which, when we examine the circumstances, look very suspicious indeed.  I.e., Borachio’s staging the witnessing by Claudio and Don Pedro (egged on by Don John) of the alleged infidelity of Hero in her bedroom right before!

I suggest that Shakespeare hides this alternative interpretation in plain sight, pushing it in our faces, by having the absurd coincidence of Borachio making his confession right next to where Dogberry & Co. are situated, and then, even seeming to ignore the sounds of the voices of the law enforcement bumblers, suggesting it is only the sound of the wind. Shakespeare is practically begging us to realize that Borachio is only doing with Dogberry exactly the same thing that we’ve seen enacted three times previously in the play! And it is when he hears Dogberry et al reacting verbally to his performance, he knows he has caught his fish on his hook, and then he proceeds to reel Dogberry in.

As far as I can tell from my preliminary research, there is no scholarly article or chapter in which this idea of Borachio deliberately setting himself up to be overheard by Dogberry has been broached. Has anyone seen a performance of Much Ado About Nothing in which this was played this way?

In any event, that still leaves the huge question--- why would Borachio stage a confession to be heard by the local cops the night before the wedding? How can it be incorporated into a satisfying theory of Borachio’s motivations?

I’ve got my theories about that, and am still working on them, as they are still very fresh in my mind, and demand deeper consideration. But in the interim, if you want to, I suggest you go back to the text of MAAN and see if you can discern what his motivations might have been—if you come up with anything, let me know!

And then, if you’re a Janeite, here’s a companion question---what if Jane Austen was well aware of this alternative reading of Borachio’s “confession” in MAAN, and therefore wrote the beginning of P&P so that some suspicious readers might suspect that Darcy meant be overheard by Elizabeth at the Meryton assembly when he first dissed her? 

Food for thought!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


Monday, June 24, 2013

Catherine Morland DOESN’T Lose (All) Her……Mirth After All: Words, Words, Words, Indeed!




At the JASNA AGM presentation in Portland in 2010, my main argument was that death in childbirth is the principal theme of the shadow story of Northanger Abbey:


One of my important sub-arguments was that there is a pervasive allusion to Shakespeare’s Hamlet spread throughout Jane Austen’s gothic novel, from beginning to end.  In a nutshell, I claimed, and still claim, that the ghost of the murdered King Hamlet’s father haunts Elsinore, crying out for justice, and, likewise, metaphorically, the ghost of Mrs. Tilney, who was “murdered” by childbirth, haunts Northanger Abbey and cries out for justice for all the similarly “murdered” English wives, including three of Jane Austen’s own sisters-in-law.

In my JASNA talk, I outlined many of the passages in NA which I’ve identified as covertly pointing to passages in Hamlet. One of the most significant is the following famous passage in Chapter 14 of Northanger Abbey….

[Catherine] “That is, I can read POETRY and PLAYS, and things of that sort, and do not dislike travels. But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. Can you?”
[Eleanor] “Yes, I am fond of history.”
[Catherine]  “I wish I were too. I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either VEX OR WEARY ME. The quarrels of popes and KINGS, with wars or PESTILENCES, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and HARDLY ANY WOMEN AT ALL — it is very TIRESOME: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. The SPEECHES that are put into the HEROES’ mouths, their thoughts and designs — the chief of all this must be invention, and invention is what DELIGHTS me in other books.”

…which, to my eyes, unmistakably points to Hamlet’s even more famous speech in Act 2, Scene 2:


As I analyze it, JA is  enjoying the rich irony of having Catherine say she enjoys reading plays and poetry (Hamlet is of course both), as opposed to reading history, and yet…Hamlet is also all about quarrels of kings, and has only two female characters, as opposed to a dozen male characters!

Shakespeare, as an adapter of history into poetic plays, seems to fall somewhere in the gray area, between the reading Catherine says she enjoys, and the reading she says she does not enjoy. By this veiled allusion, JA seems to be suggesting that these categories are much more complicated than Catherine realizes. And on a metafictional level, JA, by alluding so pervasively to Hamlet in NA, is in effect blending poetry and prose, fiction and history, in one complicated meta-text!

But, as it turns out, that is only half of the Austenian subtext in NA pointing to Hamlet’s famous speech. Today, I realized that Jane Austen also had that same speech by Hamlet in mind as she wrote the following passage in Chapter 25 of NA, which occurs after Catherine has just learned that Isabella Thorpe has jilted the modest James Morland for the rakish Frederick Tilney:

[Henry to Catherine] "Your brother is certainly very much to be pitied at present; but we must not, in our concern for his sufferings, undervalue yours. You feel, I suppose, that in losing Isabella, you lose half yourself: you feel a void in your heart which nothing else can occupy. SOCIETY IS BECOMING IRKSOME; and as for the AMUSEMENTS in which you were wont to share at Bath, the very idea of them without her IS ABHORRENT. You would not, for instance, now go to a ball for THE WORLD. You feel that you have no longer any friend to whom you can speak with unreserve, on whose regard you can place dependence, or whose counsel, in any difficulty, you could rely on. You feel all this?"

Here Henry---in a manner reminiscent of the scene a few chapters earlier, when he deliberately stoked the fires of Catherine’s imaginative anticipations of Gothic horrors to come as they approach the Abbey--- describes the world-weary Hamletian angst which he supposes Catherine feels after reading that James has been jilted by Isabella.

And the ironic parallel is enhanced, when we  recall that Hamlet makes his above-quoted speech to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, his old school chums whom he has, in Act 2 Scene 2, rapidly exposed as false friends, just like Isabella vis a vis Catherine. Hamlet is weary of the false world filled with false friends like them, and Henry (and of course, JA, pulling the strings behind  him) hints that Catherine, having been shocked by her “best friend’s” romantic treachery, should feel as Hamlet feels.

But then, after all of that fevered buildup toward an excessively emotional response by Catherine,  JA, in classic ironic mode, pops the balloon of expectations, and abruptly brings us down to earth, from the heated  imaginary world of Gothic excess to the real world of Catherine’s commonsensical, pragmatic, self-awareness of her actual feelings.

In response to Henry’s leading question, “You feel all this?”, this time the less gullible Catherine fails to rise to Henry’s bait, and instead responds in quite the opposite fashion as she did as they approached the Abbey:

“ "No," said Catherine, after a few moments' reflection, "I do not—ought I? To say the truth, though I am hurt and grieved, that I cannot still love her, that I am never to hear from her, perhaps never to see her again, I do not feel so very, very much afflicted as one would have thought."
[Henry] "You feel, as you always do, what is most to the credit of human nature. Such feelings ought to be investigated, that they may know themselves."
Catherine, by some chance or other, found her spirits so very much relieved by this conversation that she could not regret her being led on, though so unaccountably, to mention the circumstance which had produced it.” END QUOTE

The attentive reader cheers along with Henry, and is confident that Catherine will indeed follow Henry’s excellent advice and further investigate her feelings about Isabella, uninfluenced by notions of the tragic Hamletian ennui and angst which Henry has so deftly and subtly alluded to in his set-up.

And the final lovely touch in all of this is that once again (as when, as I argued at the AGM, JA leaves broad textual hints that the play which everyone goes to see in Bath is actually Hamlet) JA has slipped a wink at the actual, tangible text of Hamlet into this passage. It’s right there under the reader’s nose.

 I.e., when we read earlier in that passage in Chapter 25 the following exchange….

“Nothing further was said for a few minutes; and then speaking through her tears, she added, "I do not think I shall ever wish for a letter again!"
"I am sorry," said Henry, closing the book he had just opened; "if I had suspected the letter of containing anything unwelcome, I should have given it with very different feelings."

….I suggest to you that the book that JA so inobtrusively mentions that Henry had just opened but then closes, is nothing less than the Northanger Abbey edition of Shakespeare’s plays, where he had just been reading…Hamlet’s above quoted speech! 

Words, words, words, indeed!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter   

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Mansfield Park, Shakespeare, and Letters 127-130: A Grand Matrix of Briliant, Witty Allusion by Jane Austen



I’ve been…thinking…some more about my last post….


…in which I (1) reiterated my 2009 claim that Jane Austen, in Mansfield Park, alluded significantly to Shakespeare’s Troilus & Cressida (T&C);  and (2) stated my new claim that Olivia Manning, the great 20th century English novelist, was obsessed with Jane Austen; and in particular that Manning picked up on, and covertly extended, JA’s veiled allusion to T&C in MP, in her own novel Fortunes of War.

I just revisited my prior posts about JA’s allusions to T&C, which I linked to in my above post, and am very glad I did, because now for the first time I see how JA’s allusion to T&C in MP is directly connected to JA’s famous allusion to The Merchant of Venice in the following passage in Letter 127:

"I have been listening to dreadful Insanity.--It is Mr. Haden's firm belief that a person not musical is fit for every sort of Wickedness."—I ventured to assert a little on the other side, but wished the cause in abler hands."

I will now walk you through this direct connection between MP and Letter 127 (and the three letters which immediately follow it) via two of Shakespeare’s problem plays, step by step, so you can savor the way it all hangs together so (to use Fanny Price’s word) harmoniously, once it’s laid out for you in the proper sequence.

I will make sense, for the first time, of what has up till now been, for all Austen scholars who have taken note of it, a cryptic, inexplicable literary allusion, but which I will show makes perfect sense, when viewed through the proper literary lens. If you’ll invest the time to read 3,000 of my words, I promise I’ll deliver a compelling explanation in return.

First, here is the relevant passage in MP, in Chapter 11:

“…Fanny turned farther into the window; and Miss Crawford had only time to say, in a pleasant manner, "I fancy Miss Price has been more used to deserve praise than to hear it"; when, being earnestly invited by the Miss Bertrams to join in a glee, she tripped off to the instrument, leaving Edmund looking after her in an ecstasy of admiration of all her many virtues, from her obliging manners down to her light and graceful tread.
"There goes good-humour, I am sure," said he presently. "There goes a temper which would never give pain! How well she walks! and how readily she falls in with the inclination of others! joining them the moment she is asked. What a pity," he added, after an instant's reflection, "that she should have been in such hands!"
Fanny agreed to it, and had the pleasure of seeing him continue at the window with her, in spite of the expected glee; and of having his eyes soon turned, like hers, towards the scene without, where all that was
solemn, and soothing, and lovely, appeared in the brilliancy of an unclouded night, and the contrast of the deep shade of the woods. Fanny spoke her feelings. "Here's HARMONY!" said she; "here's repose! Here's what may leave all painting and all MUSIC behind, and what poetry only can attempt to describe! Here's what may tranquillise every care, and lift the heart to rapture! When I look out on SUCH A NIGHT AS THIS, I feel as if there could be neither WICKEDNESS nor sorrow in the world; and there certainly would be less of both if the sublimity of Nature were more attended to, and people were carried more out of themselves by CONTEMPLATING SUCH A SCENE."
"I like to hear your enthusiasm, Fanny. It is a lovely night, and they are much to be pitied who have not been taught to feel, in some degree, as you do; who have not, at least, been given a taste for Nature in early life. They lose a great deal."
"You taught me to think and feel on the subject, cousin."
"I had a very apt scholar. There's Arcturus looking very bright."
"Yes, and the Bear. I wish I could see Cassiopeia."
"We must go out on the lawn for that. Should you be afraid?"
"Not in the least. It is a great while since we have had any star-gazing."
"Yes; I do not know how it has happened." The glee began. "We will stay till this is finished, Fanny," said he, turning his back on the window; and as it advanced, she had the mortification of seeing him advance too, moving forward by gentle degrees towards the instrument, and when it ceased, he was close by the singers, among the most urgent in requesting to hear the glee again.
Fanny SIGHED alone at the window till scolded away by Mrs. Norris's threats of catching cold. “ 
END QUOTE

And now, here is the alluded-to passage in The Merchant of Venice, Act 5, beginning of Scene 1:

Belmont. Avenue to PORTIA'S house. Enter LORENZO and JESSICA

LORENZO: The moon shines bright: in such a night as this,
                     When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees
                     And they did make no noise, in such a night
                     Troilus methinks mounted the Troyan walls
                     And sigh'd his soul toward the Grecian tents,
                    Where Cressid lay that night.
JESSICA:    In such a night
                    Did Thisbe fearfully o'ertrip the dew
                    And saw the lion's shadow ere himself
                    And ran dismay'd away.
LORENZO: In such a night
                     Stood Dido with a willow in her hand
                     Upon the wild sea banks and waft her love
                     To come again to Carthage.
JESSICA:      In such a night
                      Medea gather'd the enchanted herbs
                      That did renew old AEson.
LORENZO:   In such a night
                       Did Jessica steal from the wealthy Jew
                       And with an unthrift love did run from Venice
                       As far as Belmont.
JESSICA:       In such a night
                        Did young Lorenzo swear he loved her well,
                        Stealing her soul with many vows of faith
                        And ne'er a true one.
LORENZO:    In such a night
                        Did pretty Jessica, like a little shrew,
                        Slander her love, and he forgave it her.
JESSICA:        I would out-night you, did no body come;
                        But, hark, I hear the footing of a man.

So, the structure is that of dueling allusions to unfaithful literary lovers. Lorenzo has induced Jessica to elope with him to Belmont, away from her home with her father, Shylock, and now they wittily trade cynical allusions to unfaithful lovers. After some to and fro, Jessica brings that point home when she refers to untrue vows of faith (i.e., lovers’ vows, which is the title, of course, of the play that will shortly be chosen in Chapter 14 for enactment at Mansfield Park), and Lorenzo counters that this is a slander on HIS lover’s vow to her, which he claims is true, and Jessica then calls off the duel without a victor being decided.

Note that the first (and therefore most prominent) allusion brought forward by Lorenzo is to Troilus & Cressida, and it’s clear from all the other allusions to T&C I’ve detected in MP that JA has taken serious note of T&C’s prominence in this scene.

Edmund does not come off well, as Fanny waxes poetic, but Edmund, dull unpoetic clod that he is, does not respond, in part because of his infatuation with Mary. Edmund’s implicit vows to Fanny, based on their strong shared love of art & nature, are, Fanny realizes, false, because even as he shares appreciation for art and nature with Fanny, he is seduced away by Mary’s siren song (and by the way, Ulysses, also a key character in T&C, is the one who avoids the siren’s song). JA ends her Shakespearean allusion with Fanny sighing for Edmund just as (Lorenzo recalls) Troilus sighing for Cressida.

Then after a very brief interlude with Stephano and Laucelot, Lorenzo resumes his wooing, until they are interrupted by Portia and Nerissa’s entrance, and the following is the part that JA alludes to in Letter 127, as I will explain further below:

Exit Stephano
Enter Musicians
Music
[And here is the passage JA alludes to in Letter 127]

END QUOTE

I already quoted, earlier in this post, the passage in Letter 127 dated 11/24/15, in which JA has alluded to Lorenzo’s and Jessica’s further verbal jousting. Now I will point you to the passage in JA’s Letter 128, written on 11/26/15, i.e., only two days after Letter 127, which I claim is part and parcel of that same matrix of Shakespearean allusion in MP (published only a year earlier):

“…on the opposite side Fanny & Mr. Haden in two chairs (I believe at least they had two chairs) talking together uninterruptedly. –FANCY THE SCENE! And what is to be fancied next? --Why that Mr. H. dines here again tomorrow. --Mr. H IS READING MANSFIELD PARK for the first time & prefers it to P&P."

So why would JA, vis a vis Mr. Haden, first in Letters 127, be pointing to the latter portion of Lorenzo’s and Jessica’s jousting, and then second in Letter 128, be pointing to MP?  I suggest that JA is jokingly suggesting to CEA (who would have been told long ago by JA about the Shakespearean allusions in MP) that Mr. Haden, the witty, charming apothecary, is being seduced away from JA--who is JA’s true match by reference to wit, mind and soul---by Fanny Knight’s girlish, mindless, soulless physical beauty.

That business about two chairs or one chair is classic JA irony, suggesting that Haden and Fanny are practically sitting on top of each other in the same chair!

And note that Haden has, at JA’s prompting, been reading MP, so that tells us that JA and Haden have been discussing MP already, hence JA’s allusion to MP (via The Merchant of Venice) in Letter 127.  

JA is in effect saying to CEA that she was discussing MP with Haden, and that JA was joking with Haden that he was just like Edmund Bertram, and just like Cressida, inconstant and seduced by superficial charms of a young fool, instead of valuing the soulful companionship of a genius, JA herself.

But there’s even more of Fanny, Edmund and Mary lurking in these Haden references in JA’s letters—look at the following passage in Letter 129, dated 12/2/15, written six days after Letter 28:

“…[Mr. Haden] has never sung to us. He will not sing without a pianoforte accompaniment. Mr. Meyers gives his three lessons a week [to Fanny], altering his days and his hours, however, just as he chooses, never very punctual, and never giving good measure. I have not Fanny's fondness for masters, and Mr. Meyers does not give me any longing after them. The truth is, I think, that they are all, at least music-masters, made of too much consequence and allowed to take too many liberties with their scholars' time.”

 It is not apparent from the text of the letter, but the lessons referred to are not piano lessons. Here’s what the late David Selwyn wrote about Mr. Meyers in _Jane Austen and Leisure_ at ppg. 127-8:

“Fanny [Knight] herself took up the harp later [than the piano]…the stimulus to have lessons was an entirely musical one. On a visit to a friend…in 1814, she heard what she described as ‘delicious harp music’, and the experience made her want to learn the harp herself.…[W]hen spending three weeks in London with Henry Austen…, she took the opportunity to have some lessons from a distinguished player, Philip James Meyer…”  
END QUOTE

So, into the mix of the already clear allusion to Fanny’s jealousy of Edmund’s being entranced by Mary’s musical gifts (both singing and playing the harp), let’s add the above---JA harps (ha ha) on Fanny’s harp lessons in the midst of discussing Mr. Haden, because, isn’t it clear, JA is hinting that Mr. Haden is similarly entranced with Fanny Knight’s harp-playing!

And as if all of the above were not enough to seal the deal and satisfy even the most skeptical reader, there is yet one MORE Shakespearean allusion hidden in plain sight in Letter 130, and it is in the description of Mr. Haden that immediately precedes the discussion of Mr. Meyer and his harp lessons:


Those who have attempted to interpret the above passage literally were doomed to failure from the start. Obviously, JA is horsing around, writing sophisticated nonsense about Mr. Haden, and, in so doing, surely echoing the sort of sophisticated horsing around that she and he have been engaging in, every time they meet, to their great mutual pleasure.

Let’s now examine that passage through a Shakespearean lens, and it then comes into clear focus.


But there’s another passage in Shakespeare which does not use the same exact words as JA uses to describe Mr. Haden, but which has exactly the same poetic music and rhythm, and (what a big surprise) we find it in Troilus & Cressida, in Alexander’s description of Ajax:



 JA has (wittily) hijacked Shakespeare’s metaphor of a man as a sort of stew with many ingredients added in, and she makes use of Mr. Haden’s being an apothecary to use “spice” in lieu of “sauce”, which shows how opportunistic her wit is, seizing upon whatever is at hand and shaping it to her witty ends.  

And that is the end of my tale of one part of the vast Shakespearean matrix undergirding Mansfield Park, and how JA alluded to it in Letters 127-130 relative to her interactions with Fanny Knight and Mr. Haden.

This shows how JA’s literary allusions were no sterile show of erudition, JA lived and breathed literature, and saw her own life and world through the lens of literature, hence these private epistolary echoes of her published fiction, all informed by her endless love for Shakespeare’s world of imagination, knowledge, and wit.

So what do you all think about the above?

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter