If you were asked to name two famous English writers, chances are pretty good that the list would include William Shakespeare or Jane Austen – or possibly both! They lived two centuries apart, but their fame and influence has been long-lasting and global. Austen herself grew up during an age when Shakespeare’s work was established in the repertoire of the day, but also when his work was coming under scrutiny, and she addresses these issues in her writing.
William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, and over his lifetime he wrote at least 37 plays, 154 sonnets, and a handful of other poems and works. I won’t discuss the various theories about the true author of these works here. They are interesting, but for Jane Austen, at least, there was no question that Shakespeare was Shakespeare.
Shakespeare was successful as a playwright and actor during his lifetime, but was considered as just one of a number of talented writers of his age. His true fame was to come about a century after his death. Indeed, during his lifetime he published his sonnets but not his plays. They were intended for performance, not for posterity, and his troupe took pains to keep the scripts out of the hands of rival acting companies. Even then, piracy was a problem for authors!
During the years between his death in 1616 and Austen’s lifetime, his reputation grew. By the end of the seventeenth century he was acknowledged as a brilliant writer, and while his style fell in and out of favour, his works were popular on the English stage. His true meteoric rise, however, came after the Licensing Act of 1737. This Act of Parliament required that all new plays be approved and licensed by the Examiner of Plays, who assisted the Lord Chamberlain. The purpose was simple: to control and censor what was being said about the government on stage, for parodies and satire were scathing and very popular. Since this act applied only to new plays intended for public performance, a return to older works was always safe. Consequently, in the second half of the eighteenth century, a quarter of the plays performed in London were by Shakespeare.
But Shakespeare’s reputation wasn’t entirely golden. Even as his fame rose, so did the voices of the critics. Performance scripts often deviated from the folio edition (or editions, for there is no urtext of the plays) and endings were sometimes changed to better suit the sensibilities of the times. More importantly, the puns and double entendres that bring such life to the plays were looked down upon and some editions expunged them from the texts, although by the late 18th century they were mostly back. The only holdout of note was Thomas Bowdler, whose reworkings of the plays deserves another post at another time.
By the time Jane Austen was writing her own great works, there was a bit of a split between the Shakespeare of bawdy plays and the Shakespeare of refined high poetry. Austen herself references this in Mansfield Park, when the Bertrams and their friends start planning their own theatricals.
Henry Crawford sets out the popular notion of Shakespeare, the man of the stage.
“I once saw Henry the 8th acted, —-Or I have heard of it from someone who did—I am not certain which. But Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is part of an Englishman’s constitution.”
Edmund, on the other hand, presents the scholarly side of things.
“No doubt, one is familiar with Shakespeare to a degree,” said Edmund, “from one’s earliest years. His celebrated passages are quoted by every body, they are in half the books we open and we all talk Shakespeare, use his similes, and describe with his descriptions…”
Emma Woodhouse would probably gravitate more to Henry Crawford’s take on the Bard, as someone everyone has heard of without really studying his works. She explains to her friend Harriet that,
“When Miss Smiths and Mr. Eltons get acquainted—they do indeed—and really it is strange; it is out of the common course that what is so evidently, so palpably desirable—what courts the pre-arrangement of other people, should so immediately shape itself into the proper form. You and Mr. Elton are by situation called together; you belong to one another by every circumstance of your respective homes. Your marrying will be equal to the match at Randalls. There does seem to be a something in the air of Hartfield which gives love exactly the right direction, and sends it into the very channel where it ought to flow.
The course of true love never did run smooth—
A Hartfield edition of Shakespeare would have a long note on that passage.”
In Sense and Sensibility, the Dashwoods are devotees of Shakespeare and his plays, because it appears they were reading Hamlet together, as is seen in this passage.
It was several days before Willoughby’s name was mentioned before Marianne by any of her family; Sir John and Mrs. Jennings, indeed, were not so nice; their witticisms added pain to many a painful hour;—but one evening, Mrs. Dashwood, accidentally taking up a volume of Shakespeare, exclaimed,
“We have never finished Hamlet, Marianne; our dear Willoughby went away before we could get through it. We will put it by, that when he comes again…But it may be months, perhaps, before that happens.”
“Months!” cried Marianne, with strong surprise. “No—nor many weeks.”
And as for Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey, her transformation from unassuming tomboy to a heroine worthy of adventure was guided in part by Shakespeare.
And from Shakespeare she gained a great store of information—amongst the rest, that—
“Trifles light as air,
“Are, to the jealous, confirmation strong,
“As proofs of Holy Writ.”
“The poor beetle, which we tread upon,
“In corporal sufferance feels a pang as great
“As when a giant dies.”
And that a young woman in love always looks—
“like Patience on a monument
“Smiling at Grief.”
Scholars have also spent a great deal of time finding Shakespearean influences in Austen’s works. In the 1870s, critic Richard Simpson likened Persuasion to Twelfth Night, particularly the passage where Anne Elliot talks to Captain Harville about women’s constancy. “Miss Austen,” he wrote, “must surely have had Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in mind while she was writing this novel.”
Contemporary scholar Nina Auerbach sees influences of Hamlet in Mansfield Park, both of which pivot around the aborted performance of a play within a play, and she likens Fanny to Hamlet himself, both disgusted with what they see but reluctant to act. And Roger Gard compares the conversation between Fanny and John Dashwood at the beginning of Sense and Sensibility to King Lear’s daughters, who plot to strip their father of all his comforts. Others have likened Emma to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with all the misguided matchmaking, and Pride and Prejudice to Much Ado About Nothing.
It is the last of these that intrigues me because my current work-in-progress is exactly this: A mashup of these two great works. The bickering between Beatrice and Benedick maps so beautifully onto the antagonism between Elizabeth and Darcy, it was a book crying to be written. I am not the first to attempt this by any means, and nor shall I be the last, but I had a great deal of fun as I explored the texts to write my version.
Here is an excerpt from my story, with the provisional title of Much Ado in Meryton. I hope to have it ready for publication by September 2021.
On one particular evening towards the end of October, they were all gathered in Mrs. Robinson’s parlour for an evening’s amusement at cards and games. The Robinsons were a family of comfortable if not excessive means, their lands bordering upon those of Netherfield. Mr. Robinson had offered his assistance in any matters which Bingley required, and hoped to be a good neighbour to the newcomer. It was therefore to Mr. Bingley’s advantage, as well as personal satisfaction, to befriend the man and his family, and he was present at every event held in that house.
Elizabeth and Charlotte were sitting on the settee with Miss Margaret Robinson, talking about some diverting if quite inconsequential matter, when Mr. Bingley and his party arrived. All rose and a series of bows and curtseys ensued, with one remarkable exception. Mr. Darcy most definitely did not offer any manner of salutation to Elizabeth. He bowed to Charlotte and muttered appropriate words to Miss Margaret, and quite ignored her very existence. It was the Cut Direct if ever she had seen one. She gaped after him as he walked on.
“I was correct, it seems,” she observed for any ears that happened to be near, “when I presumed Mr. Darcy to be no gentleman.”
To which, Mr. Darcy surprised her by turning to speak directly to her for the first time since the night of the assembly. “How fortunate then, Miss Bennet, that you are no lady to care.” He turned his back and began to move into the room.
“How happy that his purse is full then, for the man himself is an empty pocket.”
He turned once more and glared at her. “How happy that we are so distant from Egypt, lady, for your tongue is more venomous than all the asps in the Nile.”
“Darcy!” Mr. Bingley was at his side in a trice. “What are you doing? This is most unlike you. I know you have a hot temper at times, but I have never heard you speak to a lady like this. You were the one who told me always to take the higher path. What is this? Come away at once.”
Darcy sniffed and stuck his nose up into the air and walked away without another word, Bingley hissing into his ear. That man’s back was his best side, to be sure!
“Lizzy?” Charlotte’s voice was concerned. She waited until the two men had passed beyond hearing. “Is it wise to make an enemy of such a man as this? I have long known you to be impertinent, but never cutting. You were quite cruel. Has he injured you so gravely?”
Elizabeth sighed. “There is something about him that turns me into a termagant. His every word is like a cat clawing at my legs, calculated to annoy and cause grief. And I am not the only one in Meryton who seems to dislike him. I do not believe he has uttered two friendly words to anybody in the neighbourhood since he arrived, save Mr. Bingley and his sisters. And Mr. Bingley is so open and friendly a man. I wonder that they should be friends at all, they are so very different.
Charlotte clucked her tongue. “That they are! Two more different men it is hard to imagine. Mr. Bingley is so determined to like everybody that he, in turn, is sure of being liked wherever he appears. Whereas Mr. Darcy is so determined to be dissatisfied with everything and everyone that he continually gives offence. They are a strange pair indeed.”
“Just as we are, Charlotte,” Elizabeth laughed.