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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, April 28, 2012

"Two Curs Worrying Over A Bone": Another Austen-Shakespeare Allusive Matrix

In Austen-L, Anielka Briggs wrote the following this morning: 
  "   "the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone" ------ Apparently two curs quarrelling over a bone was a metaphor for two-party politics where a third individual or party stole "the bone" whilst the curs were distracted: "When two curs are snarling at each other, and quarrelling for a bone, a third very frequently, watching his opportunity, whips it up and runs away. This observation has often been metaphorically applied to politics" Joseph Moser "Prospectus of a Canine Dictionary" as reviewed in The European Magazine of 1802 Note that Austen uses the comparatively unusual word "cur" rather than dog. I don't think Austen ever uses this word on any other occasion. The juxtaposition of "two curs", and the very specific word "quarrelling" over a bone makes me think that this particular little detail from "Emma" must have been derived from a reading of The European Magazine.  " END QUOTE

Anielka, I agree that it is likely, for the reasons you state, that JA was struck by that passage you found in The European Magazine and decided to weave it into the shadows of _Emma_. Certainly, it puts an interesting spin on the following laughing confession by Frank Churchill at the very end of _Emma_....

"Oh! no—what an impudent DOG I was!—How could I dare—"

....especially if we think about all the male wooers of Emma as "curs" quarreling over the "bones"--i.e., their female targets, Harriet, Emma, Miss Hawkins, & Jane. And, as you and I both are well aware, there is a rich political subtext in _Emma_, whereby “courtship”, in both the romantic and the political senses, is seamlessly braided together, most of all in the person of the Prince Regent (aka Frank Churchill).

But I think you’ve only unearthed a “rib” there, and I suggest that we can find the “skull” sought by those "two curs quarreling" in Emma's snapshot of Highbury, if we take Henry Crawford, and not Joseph Moser, as our guide, and realize that beneath that contemporary political subtext, there is a fossil treasure trove courtesy of Shakespeare! As evidence thereof, look at these three seemingly unrelated passages written by the Bard which ALL pertain to “two curs”, which I dug up this morning!:

AS YOU LIKE IT, 1.3:  (Rosalind has caught the love bug for Orlando from watching him play "David" in a wrestling match over the "Goliath" Charles, and she doesn't want to talk about it!)
CELIA: Why, cousin! why, Rosalind! Cupid have mercy! Not a word?
CELIA: No, thy words are too precious to be cast away upon CURS;  throw some of them at me; come, lame me with reasons.

TITUS ANDRONICUS, 2.3: (The clueless, bumbling Quintus & Martius, sons of Titus Andronicus, literally fall into Aaron's trap and wind up framed for the murder of Bassianus, whose “bones” they inadvertently “dig up”)
SATURNINUS: [To Titus]  TWO of thy whelps, fell CURS of bloody kind, Have here bereft my brother of his life. Sirs, drag them from the pit unto the prison: There let them bide until we have devised Some never heard-of torturing pain for them.

TROILUS & CRESSIDA, 1.3:  (the Greek leaders debate their response to Hector's challenge to individual combat; Ulysses craftily suggests a sham lottery so that Ajax, and not Achilles, will fight Hector, and the pride of both Hector and Achilles will thereby be tamed)
ULYSSES: Give pardon to my speech: Therefore 'tis meet Achilles meet not Hector. Let us, like merchants, show our foulest wares, And think, perchance, they'll sell; if not, The lustre of the better yet to show, Shall show the better. Do not consent That ever Hector and Achilles meet; For both our honour and our shame in this Are DOGG'D with TWO strange followers.
NESTOR: I see them not with my old eyes: what are they?
ULYSSES:  What glory our Achilles shares from Hector, Were he not proud, we all should share with him: But he already is too insolent; And we were better parch in Afric sun  Than in the pride and salt scorn of his eyes, Should he 'scape Hector fair: if he were foil'd, Why then, we did our main opinion crush In taint of our best man. No, make a lottery; And, by device, let blockish Ajax draw The sort to fight with Hector: among ourselves Give him allowance for the better man; For that will physic the great Myrmidon Who broils in loud applause, and make him fall His crest that prouder than blue Iris bends. If the dull brainless Ajax come safe off, We'll dress him up in voices: if he fail, Yet go we under our opinion still That we have better men. But, hit or miss, Our project's life this shape of sense assumes: Ajax employ'd plucks down Achilles' plumes.
NESTOR: Ulysses, Now I begin to relish thy advice; And I will give a taste of it forthwith To Agamemnon: go we to him straight. TWO CURS shall tame each other: pride alone Must tarre the MASTIFFS on, as 'twere their BONE.

As my opening gambits in analyzing all of the above:

First, I point out that the above quoted passage in 1.3 of  _As You Like It_ dovetails nicely with Jane Austen’s veiled allusion to that play’s title, as Mrs. Elton discusses with Knightley the proposed outing to Donwell Abbey, which, along with Box Hill, collectively function very much like the “Forest of Arden”, i.e., the greenworld where “courtship” reigns supreme, in _Emma_:

"That's quite unnecessary; I see Jane every day:—but AS YOU LIKE. IT is to be a morning scheme, you know, Knightley; quite a simple thing….”

Second, I find it quite striking that the passages in As You Like It (a romantic comedy) and in Troilus & Cressida (a sour problem play), while otherwise seeming to be utterly unrelated to each other, BOTH involve the imagery of bones being thrown to curs being used in close proximity to individual combat between two men. That cannot be coincidental. 

Third, a veiled allusion to Troilus & Cressida in _Emma_ would dovetail even more nicely with the complex allusion to that same troubling play in _Mansfield Park_ which I have written about on several occasions, most recently here:

So, what did Shakespeare mean by these varied metaphorical curs quarreling over bones? And, equally important, what did Jane Austen understand Shakespeare to mean by this? I need to give both of those questions a lot more thought and study, but I already know she understood a great deal, and hinted at her own deep understanding with the following famous line which ends that quoted Highbury snapshot:

“…A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer. “

Indeed, JA wrote these veiled allusions to Shakespeare for the sharp elf with “a mind lively and at ease” who “can see nothing”---in Shakespeare’s plays and JA’s novels, that is---“that does not answer”—to a deeper meaning in both instances! So for now, thanks to sharp elf Anielka for prompting me to focus on this passage today and to excavate these Austenian-Shakespearean “bones”.

Cheers, ARNIE    @JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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