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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, August 12, 2013

"The Manager always played Banquo himself, his Wife my Lady Macbeth, I did the Three Witches & Philander acted all the rest."

For those who think I exaggerate when I claim that Jane Austen's Shakespeare obsession was lifelong and intense, that she was the greatest Shakespeare scholar in the history of literary scholarship even though she never published a word of literary criticism, per se, and that she  instead repeatedly demonstrated her mastery of Shakespeare by alluding, in a complex and global fashion, to a large number of Shakespeare's plays in all her novels, such as....  (Twelfth Night & Pride & Prejudice)  (As You Like It & Emma)   (As You Like It & Sense & Sensibility)  (Hamlet & Mansfield Park)  (Love's Labour's Lost & Emma)  (Much Ado About Nothing & Pride & Prejudice)  (The Merchant of Venice & three Austen novels)  (Troilus & Cressida & Mansfield Park)  (Hamlet & Northanger Abbey)

These are just a sampler, highlights of what I have found of Jane Austen's Shakespeare obsession---there are a number of others I have not yet written about publicly, and when you add all of them up, these are just _my_ discoveries. 

To these must then be added all the many mainstream Austen scholarly articles and book chapters about a number of _other_ Austen allusions to Shakespeare plays which have been identified by sharp elves like Jocelyn Harris, Marcia McClintock Folsom, Isobel Armstrong, Stephen Derry, H.R. Harris, et al,  most notably the Mansfield Park allusions to King Lear, Henry VIII and All's Well That Ends Well, the Sense & Sensibility allusions to Measure for Measure and Hamlet, the Emma allusion to Midsummer Night's Dream, the Persuasion allusion to Othello, etc etc. etc..

John Wiltshire did a pretty good job in 2001 of summarizing then-published Austen-Shakespeare connections in a chapter in his book Recreating Jane Austen; but as you can discern from what I have presented above, what Wiltshire covers is literally a drop in the bucket of what Jane Austen was actually up to vis a vis Shakespeare. It is an ocean of allusion.

I mention all this because of something I came across this morning which I had never really noticed before, a passage in Love & Freindship, written when Jane Austen was not yet 16 years old. I'll just reproduce it here, I think it speaks for itself in terms of where the 15 year old Jane Austen's head was at in terms of Shakespeare:

"As soon as we had thus happily disencumbered ourselves from the weight of so much Money, we began to think of returning to our Mothers, but accidentally hearing that they were both starved to Death, we gave over the design & determined to engage ourselves to some strolling Company of Players, as we had always a turn for the Stage.  Accordingly we offered our Services to one & were accepted; our Company was indeed rather small, as it consisted only of the Manager his Wife & ourselves, but there were fewer to pay and the only inconvenience attending it was the Scarcity of Plays which for want of People to fill the Characters, we could perform. We did not mind trifles however.

One of our most admired Performances was Macbeth, in which we were truly great. The Manager always played Banquo himself, his Wife my Lady Macbeth, I did the Three Witches & Philander acted all the rest.  To say the truth this tragedy was not only the Best, but the only Play we ever performed; & after having acted it all over England, Ireland, and Wales, we came to Scotland to exhibit it over the remainder of Great Britain. "  END QUOTE

Just imagine to yourself a 15 year old country girl with no formal education and no access to a worldclass library,  producing the above, and writing about the characters in one of Shakespeare's tragedies as casually as if she were describing some local friends--think of the degree of easy familiarity that is implied, which must have been based on a great deal of private reading and reflection on what she had read. By age 15.

In Mansfield Park, we read:

"It will be a favourite, I believe, from this hour," replied Crawford; "but I do not think I have had a volume of Shakespeare in my hand before since I was fifteen. I once saw Henry the Eighth acted, or I have heard of it from somebody who did, I am not certain which. But 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." it just a coincidence that Jane Austen at age 38 created a character who speaks about reading Shakespeare at age 15, and getting acquainted with Shakespeare without knowing how, almost as though a deep knowledge of Shakespeare was built into the Magna Carta, or slipped into spruce-beer when no one was looking? No, of course not, Jane Austen is speaking through the mouth of Henry Crawford, talking about herself at 15, writing the above passage in Love & Freindship, demonstrating an already substantial familiarity with Shakespeare.

And of course, this idea of magical osmosis of knowledge of Shakespeare which Henry Crawford throws out there so glibly, is total nonsense, and is meant to be understood as such by readers who pause and think about it for 10 seconds. 

The truth is that Jane Austen, great genius that she was, nonetheless must have devoted a humongous amount of sustained study over nearly 30 years in order to become the world-class Shakespeare scholar she became, in order to so thoroughly absorb and transmute the gold of Shakespeare into the gold of Austen.  Henry Crawford's speech should be read in the same vein as one should read Jane Austen's letters to James Stanier Clarke, in which she refers to her own writing in a minimizing, dismissive way. It's all a massive put-on.

In this case, the beauty and depth of Jane Austen's appropriations of Shakespeare for her novels  are that rare substance--gold which really does "glister".  And when you choose the Jane Austen cup, you find that it is filled to the brim with a very powerful Shakespearean brew.

Cheers, ARNIE

P.S.: I wonder if Alan Cumming--whom we all know as Mr. Elton in the Paltrow Emma- and who recently played all the roles in Macbeth on Broadway in a one man show, was aware that Jane Austen at age 15 imagined a performance of Macbeth in which an actor of an itinerant group of strolling players played all the roles in Macbeth except Banquo, Lady Macbeth, and the Three Witches.

P.P.S.: I  bet that Jane Austen insisted on playing Lady Macbeth in any Steventon theatrical production of Macbeth, or else, if someone else (like Eliza de Feuillide) snagged Lady M first, then JA must have made sure to play one of the Witches.

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