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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Troilus & Cressida, PLUS....the Bed Trick in All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and......ALSO in Mansfield Park and Emma!

As I am on an Austenian-Shakespearean roll, I thought I would add a very juicy new tidbit in the same vein that just came to my attention an hour ago, as usual by serendipity while looking for something else.

In followup to my recent postings about the complex, but veiled allusion to Shakespeare's Troilus & Cressida that I first identified in July 2009 in Mansfield Park----and, again, as far as I can tell, I am the _first_ Austen scholar to do so-----I was curious to find some opinions about Troilus & Cressida that JA might have read, to supplement the earlier negative critical judgments on T&C that I found the other day [by the great Restoration playwright Dryden, who rewrote T&C under the title Truth Come too Late, and in his Prologue called Shakespeare's original _insipid_ (!!!); and also by the great 18th century literary critic Steevens, who referred to T&C's _buffoonery_ (!!!)]. Again, I am certain that JA read both Steevens _and_ Dryden's verdicts on T&C, as she characteristically "tagged" them both in the theatrical discussions in Mansfield Park via these words "insipid" and "buffoonery".

So I went to Google Books and searched for "Cressida" in books published between 1700 and 1817, and after wading through countless hits for collections of Shakespeare's plays, I stumbled upon Samuel Johnson's comments about Troilus & Cressida in his essay "General Observations on the Plays of Shakespeare":

"This play is more correctly written than most of Shakespeare's //compositions, but it is not one of those in which either the extent of his views or elevation of his fancy is fully displayed. As the story abounded with materials, he has exerted little invention; but he has diversified his characters with great variety, and preserved them with great exactness. His vicious characters sometimes disgust, but cannot corrupt, for both Cressida and Pandarus //are detested and contemned. The comick characters seem to have been the favourites of the writer; they are of the superficial kind, and exhibit more of manners than nature; but they are copiously filled, and powerfully impressed...."

Surprisingly positive comments by Johnson about Troilus & Cressida, and all the more reason why JA would have been interested in this troubling, offbeat play languishing in the shadows of the titanic reputations of so many of Shakespeare's other plays.

But here's where the serendipity came in. As I was browsing through Johnson's essay, I happened to read his verdict on another of Shakespeare's problem plays which has previously been identified as a source for Mansfield Park--"All's Well That Ends Well"---and my eyes just about popped out as I put together some pieces of JA's literary puzzles in an exciting new way. Read on...

After first praising the comic depiction of Parolles the braggart, Johnson vented his critical spleen at the character of Bertram:

"I cannot reconcile my heart to Bertram; a man noble without generosity, and young without truth; who marries Helen as a coward, and leaves her as a profligate: when she is dead by his unkindness, sneaks home to a second marriage, is accused by a woman whom he has wronged, defends himself by falsehood, and is dismissed to happiness. The story of Bertram and Diana//had been told before of Mariana and Angelo [in Measure for Measure], and, to confess the truth, scarcely merited to be heard a second time."

Two points immediately came to my mind:

First, _clearly_ Jane Austen had Johnson's above comments about the inconstant and unheroic, yet lucky and privileged Bertram, firmly in mind when she wrote Knightley's "general observations" about the "Bertram" of _Emma_, Frank Churchill:

"He is a most fortunate man!" returned Mr. Knightley, with energy. "So early in life—at three-and-twenty—a period when, if a man chuses a wife, he generally chuses ill. At three-and-twenty to have drawn such a prize! What years of felicity that man, in all human calculation, has before him!—Assured of the love of such a woman—the disinterested love, for Jane Fairfax's character vouches for her disinterestedness; every thing in his favour,—equality of situation—I mean, as far as regards society, and all the habits and manners that are important; equality in every point but one—and that one, since the purity of her heart is not to be doubted, such as must increase his felicity, for it will be his to bestow the only advantages she wants.—A man would always wish to give a woman a better home than the one he takes her from; and he who can do it, where there is no doubt of /her/ regard, must, I think, be the happiest of mortals.—Frank Churchill is, indeed, the favourite of fortune. Every thing turns out for his good.—He meets with a young woman at a watering-place, gains her affection, cannot even weary her by negligent treatment—and had he and all his family sought round the world for a perfect wife for him, they could not have found her superior.—His aunt is in the way.—His aunt dies.—He has only to speak.—His friends are eager to promote his happiness.—He had used every body ill—and they are all delighted to forgive him.—He is a fortunate man indeed!"

Knightley's summation of Frank's miraculous and undeserved luck is an expansion of exactly the same sort of ironic encapsulation by Johnson about Bertram, and this also fits, of course, with the commonplace notion in Austen criticism that the bluntly and sourly brilliant Knightley is himself a representation of the bluntly and sourly brilliant Johnson--a resemblance which I have previously argued is _not_ so flattering of Knightley as many Janeites might think it to be.

But back to my main point, which is that I have repeatedly claimed that the shadow Jane Fairfax, already pregnant with a _married_ man's child, seeks to play a variant of Shakespeare's bed tricks (in both Measure for Measure and All's Well, as Johnson points out) on Frank Churchill, by tricking Frank into thinking that he has seduced (and impregnated) _her_ at Weymouth!

And now I point out that JA must have laughed uproariously as she did the exact opposite of Johnson's recommendation, by hiding a bed trick in _Emma_!

2. And (best of all and directly connected to #1, above) I also claim that it is no accident that Edmund's last name in Mansfield Park is _Bertram_, as all of Johnson's comments (and my own gloss) about bed tricks, apply equally well to Mansfield Park as they do to _Emma_! I think those of you still reading along this far can fill in the blanks on what I mean by that!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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