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Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a major allusive source for Austen’s Pride & Prejudice: PART ONE


Without further (or much) ado, I’ll give answers to my quiz, in a series of 2 posts, this being the first:

QUIZ QUESTION: “I’m thinking of a work of literature which fits each and every one of the following 37 (+1) clues, from the macro scale all the way down to the micro. What is its title, and who wrote it?”

CLUE #1: “The work is one of the most famous and popular works in literature, even though it was written centuries ago.”

Hamlet by William Shakespeare (2nd Quarto version 1604)
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)

There needs no ghost, reader, come from the grave, to tell knowledgeable Janeites that Jane Austen was speaking about herself ventriloquistically when, in her most overtly Shakespearean play, Mansfield Park (as to which I gave a breakout talk, Session D2 at the 2014 JASNA AGM 
 http://www.jasna.org/agms/montreal/breakout.html ), Henry C. and Edmund B. discuss the Bard:

[Henry] “Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is a part of an Englishman's constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them everywhere; one is intimate with him by instinct. No man of any brain can open at a good part of one of his plays without falling into the flow of his meaning immediately.”
“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.”

13 1/2 years of researching Austen’s art of novelistic allusion has long since convinced me that she had a most uncommon –indeed, elite-- knowledge and grasp of Shakespeare’s plays. It was a knowledge born from genius, coupled with a lifelong habit of close, outside-the-box reading of his entire canon; and I claim that she reflected that vast and deep well of Shakespearean erudition in all six of her completed novels (as well as in the rest of her unpublished writings).

Zeroing in on Pride & Prejudice, did you know that the first reader to notice, and mention in print, the Shakespeare in P&P was Sir Walter Scott? In his (now famous, but then anonymous) 1816 review of P&P and Emma, Scott noted that the extraordinary repartee between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy was modeled on the “merry war” between Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.

[You needn’t follow any of the below links to my prior blog posts in order to follow the sense of this current post; I provide them if you want to get into the weeds on allusive claims I make as I go along]

Here is my most recent post summarizing Austen’s multifaceted allusion in P&P, her greatest romantic comedy, to Much Ado, what is arguably Shakespeare’s greatest romantic comedy:

I’ve also, at various times, pointed out a number of other Shakespeare plays besides Hamlet which live on in the shadows of Pride & Prejudice, including but not limited to the following sampler:







I’ve also previously argued that Hamlet was a significant allusive source for all the other five Austen novels besides P&P, including this sampler:

Northanger Abbey

Mansfield Park

Emma & Persuasion

And several other Austen scholars who came before me have also pointed out hints of Hamlet in Austen’s writings.

With all that as background and context, I claim that, as Henry and Edmund’s paeans to Shakespeare suggest, Jane Austen was intimate, by both instinct and study, with Shakespeare; and Hamlet in particular was as prominent in her mind as any of the Bard’s 38 plays. Shakespeare’s ghost haunted Jane Austen’s imagination….in the most positive way possible. And now I’m ready to make the case in the remainder of my answers, that the ghost of Hamlet (the play) haunts Pride & Prejudice  (the novel), poking its head out from the literary “cellarage” no less than 37 (+1) times, answering the question “Who’s there?” by whispering “Remember me”.  😉

One crucial caveat as you read along: my argument is cumulative; i.e., I freely acknowledge that several of the following clues, standing alone, would not be strong evidence of an intentional Austenian allusion in P&P to Hamlet. However, in the aggregate, given that I’ve collected 37 clues, a number of which are extremely specific, the odds of this aggregate parallelism being random or unintended on Jane Austen’s part are minuscule. I hope you’ll agree.

CLUE #2: “The work is filled with famous, witty epigrammatic quotations, which pop up regularly in 21st century popular culture; many of the best ones are spoken by the witty, brilliant protagonist; and the rhetorical device of hendiadys is prominent.”

Hamlet is arguably the wittiest of all literary characters, and the catalog of his bons mots fills several pages. The same is true of the rapier sharp wit of Elizabeth Bennet, and of the witty narrator of P&P who sounds so much like her, who gave us “A truth universally acknowledged”, etc. etc.
Less well recognized [see “Hendiadys and Hamlet” by George T. Wright  PMLA 96/2 (March 1981), 168-193] is how Hamlet is marked by (according to Wright’s count) about 70 “hendiadyses”, defined as the expression of a single idea by two words connected by “and”, such as “slings and arrows”. I see this  a reflection of the fundamental ambiguity and duality of everything and everyone in the world of that most mysterious of plays. Pride and Prejudice’s title is the most famous hendiadys of all (and don’t forget Sense and Sensibility and “Love and Freindship”!)

CLUE #3: “Conversely to CLUE #2, the work also has an iconically tedious character: a verbose, sometimes nonsensical parent who criticizes the daughter-heroine’s courtship behavior, and is also disrespected by the hero.”

Polonius is an Elizabethan Era helicopter parent who micromanages both his young adult children, Laertes, and even more so, Ophelia; and he is mocked by Hamlet, before being eventually (accidentally) killed by Hamlet. Mrs, Bennet hovers over all her daughters, but particularly criticizes Lizzy for her responses to her suitors; and she is definitely not respected by Darcy -- although Darcy does not directly sport with Mrs. Bennet, saving his digs for the ears of others.

And I believe I’m correct that Shakespeare created no fool more tedious than Polonius; and Mrs. Bennet is outdone only by Miss Bates in Austenian logorrhea. However, Darcy never kills Mrs. Bennet, even after she becomes his mother in law—or, at least, we don’t hear about it if he did!

CLUE #4: “The work is set in a period of war, with the protagonist’s home country under threat of invasion from a powerful hostile neighboring country.”

Fortinbras threatens, and then actually leads, Norway in an invasion of Denmark. Napoleon threatened to lead France in an invasion of England, hence the presence of Wickham and the rest of the militia in Meryton. Of course there was paranoia about French invasion in Shakespeare’s world as well as Austen’s, and so it’s no surprise that Austen would’ve tracked this theme from Hamlet.

And she was not alone – Lord Byron in his 1814 journal (i.e., only a year after P&P was published) confessed that he saw himself as a weak Hamlet compared to Napoleon’s strong Fortinbras. That becomes more interesting still when you consider my claim that the character of Darcy not only echoes Hamlet, but also that of Lord Byron himself—wheels within allusive wheels!

CLUE #5: “The work is famous for its multilayered ambiguities; in particular, the protagonist is plagued by persistent doubts about the guilt or innocence of another major character, until those doubts are eventually and dramatically resolved.”

Of all Shakespeare’s plays, and all of Austen’s novels, none are more overtly concerned with the solving of a fundamental mystery, than Hamlet and Pride & Prejudice, respectively. Hamlet tries to determine if his uncle killed his father, and when he becomes convinced that he did, he eventually exacts his revenge; Lizzy tries to determine if Darcy intentionally “killed” Jane’s reputation with Bingley; and when she becomes convinced that he did not, she marries him. In both works, the protagonists’s doubts take up a great deal of space in the story-telling, as the reader accompanies the doubting protagonist on his or her tortured path through the dilemmas that confront them.

CLUE #6: “The heroine is one of the most famous heroines in literature.” 

Ophelia is one of Shakespeare’s numerous very famous heroines, and Elizabeth Bennet is, in 2018, as famous and popular as any heroine in literary history. However, I’d argue that Austen tweaks her model, by making Jane, Elizabeth’s sister, the more Ophelia-like character in P&P. Much more on that in the future.

CLUE #7: “The heroine is a young woman with a doting father.”

Polonius doesn’t exactly dote on Ophelia, but he is extremely diligent in his close parental attention to his daughter. Of course, Mr. Bennet extravagantly dotes on Elizabeth, his favorite daughter by a long shot. Interestingly, however, both of them question the wisdom of the romantic relationship between their daughter and her high-born suitor.

CLUE #8: “When the heroine’s sibling travels to an exciting city, questions are raised as to the risks of the sibling’s misbehavior, while there without parental supervision.”

This is now getting into the weeds of specific and unusual parallels. As Laertes is getting ready to leave Elsinore for Paris, Polonius not only waxes tedious about hot-blooded Laertes being true to himself by following the dozen instructions his father gives him, Papa Polonius then sends Reynaldo to Paris to spy on Laertes to make sure Laertes is not misbehaving.

In a strikingly similar way, as hot-blooded Lydia is getting ready to leave Meryton for Brighton, it is sister Elizabeth who raises serious concerns to her father about the risks of Lydia’s misbehaving there, but her father drops the ball and relies on the lax supervision of Colonel Forster, with disastrous results.

CLUE #9: “The hero is one of the most famous heroes in literature.”

I need only write the names “Hamlet” and “Mr. Darcy” to prove this point.

CLUE #10: “The hero’s father, whom he speaks of idolizingly, is dead when the work begins.”

Hamlet speaks of his late father King Hamlet as “Hyperion to a Satyr” (i.e., Claudius), and in a number of other speeches – Hamlet is “haunted” by his awe-inducing father in all senses of the word.

The situation is more understated in P&P, in typically ironic Austenian fashion, but in essentials it’s not really different. Mr. Darcy writes to Elizabeth: “My excellent father died about five years ago”, and also describes how his generous, loving father took great care of Wickham, his steward’s son.


In fact, it is Wickham who sounds more like Hamlet, when speaking about his GODfather Mr. Darcy:
“His father, Miss Bennet, the late Mr. Darcy, was one of the best men that ever breathed, and the truest friend I ever had; and I can never be in company with this Mr. Darcy without being grieved to the soul by a thousand tender recollections. His behaviour to myself has been scandalous; but I verily believe I could forgive him anything and everything, rather than his disappointing the hopes and disgracing the memory of his father….”

And so I say it's no coincidence that in his followup comment, Wickham echoes Hamlet's MOST famous words: “Some time or other he will BE—but it shall NOT BE by me. Till I can forget his father, I can never defy or expose him.” : TO] BE [OR] NOT [TO] BE ! ;)

Of course, neither Shakespeare nor Austen ventures explicitly into the possibility of illegitimate children among the principal younger characters; but in the future, I’ll address those shadowy possibilities too.

CLUE #11: “The hero is 28-30 years old, about a half dozen years older than the heroine.”

Hamlet’s age is not 100% clear, but close readers, working from textual clues, generally consider him to be in his late twenties, the same as Darcy; and we know Elizabeth to be not quite 21, and Ophelia, who seems new to the courtship game, is generally considered to be about the same as Eliza.

CLUE #12: “The hero is high in status, and much higher in status than the heroine.”

This is another key parallel. In both Hamlet and P&P, much is made about the wide distance in status between the hero and the heroine. For Ophelia, marriage to Hamlet would elevate her from a courtier’s daughter to a princess; for Elizabeth, marriage to Darcy would elevate her from a gentleman’s daughter to “mistress of Pemberley”. This is a central theme in both works.

CLUE #13: “The hero has had a university education.”

We know Hamlet attended university in Wittenberg, and we infer from Wickham’s having been sent to Cambridge by Darcy, Sr. that Darcy also attended Cambridge, where Darcy had, as he explains to Elizabeth, the opportunity to observe Wickham in “unguarded moments”.

CLUE #14: “The hero is often accompanied by a close male friend, who is extremely deferential to the hero.”

This is another highly significant parallel. Horatio, of course, is nearly never seen except in company with Hamlet, whom he almost never speaks to except to agree. I might be wrong on this, but I do believe we also never see Bingley in an enacted scene, except when he is in company with Darcy. And here is Elizabeth’s final thought about the two friends: “Elizabeth longed to observe that Mr. Bingley had been a most delightful friend; so easily guided that his worth was invaluable; but she checked herself.” 

CLUE #15: “The hero is moody, withdrawn, and taciturn, before undergoing an apparent shift for the better.”

Yet another striking parallel. I’ve found Twitter to be a rough measure of the literary zeitgeist, and if you search “Hamlet Darcy” there, you’d be amazed to see how many Tweeps speak of Darcy and Hamlet in the same breath – and yet, such is the widespread unawareness of Austen’s Shakespeare obsession, that it doesn’t occur to any of ‘em that this resemblance is not a coincidence or unintentional!

Commentators have given a lot of attention to the miraculous personality transformations of the two heroes – Darcy becomes a generous hero instead of a selfish jerk; Hamlet becomes decisive instead of ineffectual and suicidal. I suggest that Austen penetrated to the core of that mystery in Hamlet; and also understood that Hamlet was a major source for a number of later heroes, such as Milton’s Satan and  Richardson’s Lovelace, and added Darcy as her link in a great chain of literary allusion that later included Bronte’s Rochester.

And that seems as good a place as any to pause, and hear feedback from readers, before posting Part Two in the next few days. I’ll then address the remaining 22 clues, the answers to which collectively will further demonstrate that P&P owes as much to Hamlet as it does to any other earlier literary work. Here are those remaining clues, if you want to have a go at them in the interim:


16: The hero makes a famous generalization about each person having one particular natural defect.
17. The hero experiences an ambivalent attraction to the heroine, and other characters speculate about this, including about the obstacle posed by the large difference in status between them.
18: The hero engages with the heroine in famous sexual repartee, focused on the word “country” (a la Samantha Bee vis a vis Ivanka Trump) and the word “nothing”.
19: The hero also makes a risqué bon mot about the heroine putting on a sexual show for a group.
20: The hero is very focused on the poetry of love.
21: There is a foil to the hero who strongly resembles the hero in some key characteristics, and who is in conflict with the hero at times during the story.
22: The heroine receives a letter (the full text of which is presented in the work) from the hero, written to convince and explain to the heroine she has misjudged his worthy intentions.
23: There is reference to a duel.
24: A devious plot by the main villain is ultimately foiled by the hero’s proactive intervention.
25: The word “merry” is used in relation to sexual license.
26: The word “philosophy” is used in a generalization by a lead character about how to think about life.
27: The exclamation “Heaven and earth” is used in a famous passage referring to ghosts.
28. There are repeated occurrences of surprising haunting encounters.
29: The word “pollution” is used to referred to the dead.
30: The death of a father is a major plot element.
31: The protagonist utters a heartfelt speech expressing strong disillusionment with the human race.
32: There are repeated references to drunkenness.
33: There is sexual punning on the word “private”.
34: There is sexual punning on the word “instrument”.
35: There is punning on the word “desert/deserve”.
36: The protagonist gazes adoringly on a portrait of a beloved man.
37: There is reference to protesting against a second proposal to the same woman.

BONUS CLUE (there’s a huge reason why I’ve set this clue apart from the first 37 clues):

38: Its hero stages a “play” involving performances by others at his direction, with the specific goal of provoke another person (whom he’s obsessively focused on) to reveal a character.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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