In Janeites, Nancy Mayer wrote the following re Jane Austen's selection of Kotzebue/Inchbald's Lovers Vows as the play within the novel in Mansfield Park: "Austen had to have known many different plays well for her to choose this one for her purposes as it had the right mix of characters and the "right" story."
Nancy, amen, multipled by ten. Since 2010, I’ve been posting more and more about my own original discoveries of complex, thematically significant allusions that JA made in all six novels to literally two dozen + Shakespeare play---all the comedies, most of the tragedies, and some of the histories---in addition to a number of other plays, such as Sheridan’s famous trio. And my finds are in addition to the many other allusions in MP to plays which were previously flagged by other Austen scholars (not merely Paula Byre and Penny Gay).
And that also gives me a prompt to mention again that I’ll be a breakout session presenter at the 2014 JASNA AGM Oct. 10-12 in Montreal—here’s my blurb for my talk: "Scholars have long recognized Mansfield Park’s debts to Shakespeare. Austen’s allusions to a tragic quartet (Titus, Troilus, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet) shed new light on the perplexing moral quandaries of this Shakespearean novel."
In short, the days of rationally believing that JA lacked an encyclopedic knowledge of the literature that preceded her, including both fiction and theater, are long gone. So good on you, Nancy, for acknowledging that Lover’s Vows was the opposite of a random choice.
In fact, last July, I posted what constitutes, I claim, indisputable proof that JA was alluding on both a micro and macro level to one particular Shakespearean subtext of Kotzebue/Inchbald's Lovers Vows:
Here’s the Subject Line of that July 2013 post…..
“Mrs. Norris’s “What a piece of work here is about nothing” echoes Cottager’s Wife’s "Here’s a piece of work indeed about nothing”—Jane Austen’s Veiled, Layered, Paradoxical & Feminist Allusion to Lover’s Vows…and behind it, Hamlet!”
…and here’s the climactic section, edited down for length, in my 2013 post which shows how deeply JA had delved into the Shakespearean subtexts of Lover’s Vows:
“First, I will note the obvious, which is that Mrs. Norris, in speaking this sentence to Fanny….
--‘What A PIECE OF WORK here is ABOUT NOTHING…”
…is echoing Hamlet’s famous speech of disillusionment about humanity…but this allusive echo seems a typical Austenian deflating irony-- Mrs. Norris uses the phrase “piece of work” not to speak of the creative works of God, but the opposite--an unnecessary, mundane fuss by Fanny “about nothing”, i.e., about something trivial, indeed not worth the bad vibes caused by Fanny’s fuss.
But perhaps some of you reading my all caps in that statement by Mrs. Norris have realized that she is also echoing the title of another Shakespeare play, entitled…(you guessed it)… Much Ado About Nothing! And the thing is, it also fits perfectly with Lovers Vows as Hamlet, but in a different way.
I.e., Lover’s Vows, the play Mrs. Norris pushes Fanny to participate in, has as its backstory a young woman, Agatha, who could easily have been Hero in Much Ado, if Hero had actually had sex before marrying him, and if Claudio had then not gone on to marry her. And in a way, the climax of Lover’s Vows is just like the climax of Much Ado---Baron Wildenhaim is an older Claudio, who is morally pressured to undo a wrong, and finally marry his Hero, Agatha, but only (also similarly as in Much Ado) after Agatha first almost dies!
So, what could these two Shakespearean allusions by Mrs. Norris mean, beyond a witty but superficial irony? I claim that it’s actually a special textual window constructed specially by Jane Austen, meticulously designed by her so as to open into the very Hamletian subtext I’ve been describing for years, and just summarized, above. Let’s open that window and plunge in deep (as Henry Crawford might have put it)!
What nobody, including myself, ever realized before I saw it yesterday, despite its being out there for two centuries where scholars could have studied and detected it, is that MRS. NORRIS IS ALSO QUOTING ALMOST VERBATIM FROM Lovers Vows ITSELF!
Here’s the passage in Lovers Vows which I claim Jane Austen unmistakably alluded to, late in Act 1:
LANDLORD [with a sneer]. A bed for this good woman! ha, ha ha! She slept last night in that pent-house; so she may to-night. [Exit, shutting door].
FREDERICK. You are an infamous--[goes back to his mother] Oh! My poor mother--[runs to the Cottage at a little distance, and knocks]. Ha! hallo! Who is there?
COTTAGER. Good day, young soldier.--What is it you want?
FREDERICK. Good friend, look at that poor woman. She is perishing in the public road! It is my mother.--Will you give her a small corner in your hut? I beg for mercy's sake--Heaven will reward you.
COTTAGER. Can't you speak quietly? I understand you very well. [Calls at the door of the hut.] Wife, shake up our bed--here's a poor sick woman wants it. [Enter WIFE]. Why could not you say all this in fewer words? Why such a long preamble? Why for mercy's sake, and heaven's reward? Why talk about reward for such trifles as these? Come, let us lead her in; and welcome she shall be to a bed, as good as I can give her; and our homely fare.
FREDERICK. Ten thousand thanks, and blessings on you!
WIFE. Thanks and blessings! HERE’S A PIECE OF WORK INDEED ABOUT NOTHING! Good sick lady, lean on my shoulder. [To Frederick] Thanks and reward indeed! Do you think husband and I have lived to these years, and don't know our duty? Lean on my shoulder. [Exeunt into the Cottage.]
So there you see Cottager’s Wife quoted by Mrs. Norris, with understanding of her meaning. Cottager’s wife was saying that she did not deserve ten thousand thanks, or even blessings, for doing something any decent person would do, when they see a person suffering in dire need whom they are in a position to help. “ END QUOTE
And from there I argued that JA, by having Mrs. Norris covertly quote Cottager’s Wife, was “telling” her knowledgeable readers that Mrs. Norris’s intervention actually saved Fanny from having to participate in Lover’s Vows, and probably was intentional on Mrs. Norris’s part (the same way that Huxley’s 1940 P&P screenplay shows Lady C as an intentional but covert match maker for Darcy& Lizzy).
I will end this Part One here, having taken the opportunity presented by Nancy to reiterate just how much more went into JA’s selection of Lover’s Vows for the play-within-the novel than has previously been recognized. And in particular it reinforces all I have previously written about Sir Thomas Bertram as a representation of the middle-aged hypocritical Baron Wildenhaim.
But then, why do I call this Part One of my post about the Shakespearean “piece of work” in Jane Austen’s novels? Because…. as a result of my revisiting my 2013 post today, I saw something else in the text of Lover’s Vows in exactly that same vein, which I had overlooked last year, but which makes me realize that JA had ALREADY covertly alluded to Lover’s Vows PRIOR TO her writing Mansfield Park, and in an even more salient way!!
So, please go on to Part Two to find out which other Austen novel I am referring to, and which Austen character in that other novel wears a mask to conceal the face of the young Baron Wildenhaim!
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