09 May 2014

Jane Austen and Shakespeare

Today is celebrated (among Janeites and English teachers, really) as the 200th Anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park.  My love for the works of Jane Austen predates my love for all things Shakespeare; I am an unabashed Janeite.

One of my favorite scenes in Mansfield Park - a novel that is a much more representative picture of its time and place than any of Austen's other novels; I had a professor in college who assigned it as a primary source reading in her course on English history - is this exchange between the hero, Edmund Bertram, and the story's cad, Henry Crawford:

"That play must be a favourite with you," said he [Edmund]; "you read as if you knew it well."

"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."

"No doubt one is familiar with Shakespeare in a degree," said Edmund, "from one's earliest years. His celebrated passages are quoted by everybody; they are in half the books we open, and we all talk Shakespeare, use his similes, and describe with his descriptions; but this is totally distinct from giving his sense as you gave it. To know him in bits and scraps is common enough; to know him pretty thoroughly is, perhaps, not uncommon; but to read him well aloud is no everyday talent."

"Sir, you do me honour," was Crawford's answer, with a bow of mock gravity.

"Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how...His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them everywhere."  How I love that!

Of course I enjoy the romance of Austen's stories - Elizabeth and Darcy, Emma and Knightly, and the rest.  But I return to them again and again not only for the comfort of the familiar words, but for how much Austen's novels continue to unfold their riches.  Her insight into her society, the layers of her symbolism, the wit with which she attacks - and, occasionally, sympathizes with - her characters and their situations make Austen one of the best writers in the English language.  The scholar Harold Bloom once wrote, "Like Shakespeare, Austen invented us....We read Austen because she seems to know us better than we know ourselves, and she seems to know us so intimately for the simple reason that she helped determine who we are both as readers and as human beings."  That sounds an awful lot like what Henry Crawford and Edmund Bertram were talking about - regarding Shakespeare!


  1. A delightful post, Kate! I found it via a google alert for Jane Austen. As an Adm. for a Jane Austen bookclub(AusteninBoston) on socialmedia (Facebook/Twitter/Wordpress), I would like to share your post on the socialmedia sites if that's ok with you. As part of my 450th Shakespeare celebration, I have been reading some of the plays(A Winter's Tale, Macbeth(doing a Scottish reading challenge). As much as I hate Henry VIII as a historical figure, I'm going to give the play a read soon. A few Austen scholars have mentioned about Henry Crawford's reading of Henry VIII(Question for Jane...did you choose Henry C to read Henry VIII because of the lack of character of both....etc). By the way, have you read Jane Austen's History of England? I recently went to an operatic version of History of England. Cheers!

  2. Thank you for your interest! As long as I'm credited, I don't mind at all if you share it around. I'm happy that my post struck a cord.

    I nearly excerpted more of the scene from "Mansfield Park" than ended up above, to include Edmund's praise of Crawford's reading (even Fanny unabashedly turns her full attention on Crawford!). I think Austen is commenting both on Crawford's romantic sensibilities and genteel education (see: Marianne Dashwood's passionate reading in S&S), as well as on the shallowness of his own character. He can more easily wear the words and passions of others, because there is not much depth to his own (contrast the steadfast Edmund, who is portrayed as a terrible actor in "Lovers' Vows"). I had never previously thought anything of the choice of play, though. Food for thought!

    I've not read "Henry VIII" recently, but I did a few years ago. I think it says a lot about the play that Katherine of Aragon is the most memorable character. But I read it with an historian's eye - I couldn't help being fascinated by Shakespeare's depiction of "recent" English history, and how politic he had to be in his portrayals of the main characters. I remember the epilogue contains a strange, ahistorical reference to James I - but it's only strange from a twenty-first century perspective. Shakespeare's audience, after all, would have sat through (and, likely, enjoyed) a reference to Elizabeth I's Earl of Essex making its way in to "Henry V"!

    I have read Jane Austen's "History of England." I find it youthful and cheeky - very like her juvinelia, loads of fun without the maturity that underwrites the world of her novels. An operatic version sounds like so much fun! Where did you come across that?

    (Sorry for the length. When I get started talking about Jane Austen, I find it hard to stop!)

  3. Lol, I love the length of your reply! Any post on Jane Austen...or anything remotely connected to her or to things that interested her...or anything(while some purists object, I post non Austen items from time to time)....would be as warmly welcomed as the post above. :)

    The operatic version of "History" was fun. I found via a newsletter of a local music school. While I rarely go to concerts there, the newsletter paid off for "History". The info was not in a Google alert! It looked like the students were having a ton of fun with it too. I might have enjoyed it abit more if it had been spoken word. Occasionally it was hard to hear the words, especially when the two narrators were singing at the same time! Great comment about Jane's youthful works. Lol, no one can rightly claim she didn't write her novels.

    I love that you reference Marianne Dashwood and passionate reading. My favorite heroine! Lol, I read like Edward...sadly. I was offered a part in reading JA's Lady Susan for my local JA society. It appears, however, that they are not going to do that reading. Sad and glad at the same time.

    TWI warning: There's a chance I might see "The Two Gentleman of Verona" at the Folger in DC this week. My GF is at a conference(digital something or other) there this week. Just read your post about the play....hmmmm. Cheers!

  4. I've heard nothing but good things about the Folger's production. I hope you enjoy it if you get the chance to see it! My only theatrical experience with TGoV was deeply disappointing (and, sadly, at a renowned theater that I love!). I envy you the chance to see it at the Folger. I'd love to have my opinion of that play improved!

    When I think of Marianne Dashwood and reading, I can't help but flash on the 1995 "Sense and Sensibility" - where Kate Winslet is encouraging a timid Hugh Grant to "try again" at reading Cowper's "The Castaway." ("No voice divine the storm allayed, / No light propitious shone; / When, snatched from all effectual aid, / We perished, each alone" - you can just hear it in her voice!) That version is filled with the kind of poetic references that, we know, Austen was so familiar with. And the recurring reference to Sonnet 116 was my first encounter with Shakespeare's sonnets!