Shakespeare is now generally acknowledged as a writer with several facets. By all standards he seems to be a leader among writers. Harold Bloom has considered him to be at the centre of the Western Canon. Shakespeare’s mind was that rare receptacle that included criteria deeply and individually contemplated or socially realized. In his tragedic writings he perceived what few could (in terms of forays into the consciousness). But tragic intensity cannot remain for long spells of time; the human mind needs comic interventions to retain a sane manner of absorbing human experience. Comedic presentations are therefore very frequent in Shakespeare and it is these that novelists like Jane Austen seemed to have gained from. The length of the novel lends itself more readily to comic modes of narration and novelists who adopt highly tragic strategies are fewer. Of course, the tragic will now and again intrude into the comic and vice-versa. But by and large, the novel has not been a vehicle for extended tragic vision. A Thomas Hardy has remained an exception rather than the rule. It is not surprising that Shakespearean comedy rather than the masterly Shakespearean tragedy provided much that the novel could inherit. In its most elemental forms the novel has taken from Shakespearean comedy. I do not say that this inheritance has always been a very conscious one.
Jane Austen is very significant as an English novelist because of her understanding of and preoccupations with Shakespeare. “After the Bible, Shakespeare is ‘part of an Englishman’s constitution,” Henry Crawford said in Mansfield Park (196). It would be a good idea to quote a passage from Mansfield Park to show how much Shakespeare was in Austen’s mind; this is evident from what certain characters in the novel say:
“That play must be a favourite with you,” said he; “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 in my hand before 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 his meaning immediately.”
“No doubt one is familiar with Shakespeare in a degree,” said Edmund, from one’s earliest years. . . . and we all talk Shakespeare, use his similes, and describe with his descriptions;” (Mansfield Park, 382-83)
Austen was the novelist to incorporate the maximum into the novel of what existed in Shakespeare’s comic vision. If she had not been such a frequent inhabitant of the Shakespeare-universe, the novel as an art form as well as a medium may have been substantially different. Her novels can be seen as agents for transforming Shakespearean comic drama into novels that dwell on social reality. Love is a basic ingredient of more than three-fourths of fiction. It is to be found in almost all genres of literature almost everywhere. But Shakespeare valued it as few have done. He returned to it recurrently in his comedies, tragedies, sonnets and narrative poems. Whereas the genre of comedy has invited satirical and other stock social subjects, for Shakespeare love is the chief ingredient of comedy. Comedy will always draw upon the social and it does so even in Shakespeare but the blending of the social into stories chiefly amorous is typical in a Shakespearean Comedy. The same could also be said of a Jane Austen novel. Her novels knit together the amorous tale into a comic vision adding to it an increased dose of the social content. Laughing at the stupidities of people is what comedies have usually done. But in Shakespeare and in Austen there is the additional charm of a love story that becomes central to the comic perception and visualization. In both, instead of looking merely at the follies in men and women we are made to watch the nature of love; its changeability as well as its constancy.
It is not surprising that Shakespeare’s men and women characters tend to lend some of their traits to characters in Jane Austen’s works. A man who decides to devote himself completely to the services of a lady, to the extent of standing by her whims and fancies at the cost of being ridiculed, can seem funny and odd. Shakespeare knew this and could make such a person the butt of comic laughter. Malvolio was one such man. For him Lady Olivia was so adorable that he could go to any extent to win her favour. Later, when he is tricked into believing that she loves his blind admiration for her makes him imagine that he is good enough to be loved by her. He provides much comedy till such time as he becomes pathetic and pitiable. The very same is true of Mr. Collins’s unmitigated admiration for Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Every word Lady Catherine utters, and everything that she does, whether good or evil, is accorded divinity by Mr. Collins. Austen has taken pains to sketch the portrait of a man who is so besotted by a lady that he will go to any extent to make her seem virtuous and noble. He may not imagine, like Malvolio, that the lady loves him, but he would most probably begin to believe that if someone tricked him into believing it. Malvolio is in many ways the predecessor of Mr. Collins.
Shakespeare had created some smart and confident women, women who well might be models for our contemporary woman. Cleopatra, Portia, Rosalind, Viola, and Beatrice would be the envy of any woman even today. These women were there as precursors when Austen created Fanny Price, Elizabeth Bennet, and Jane Fairfax. There were several heroines of Shakespeare from which Austen probably took to conceive her own heroines. But when we come to Elizabeth Bennet, there is a resemblance with Portia that is difficult to escape. I say this in spite of what some others have felt in the similarities between Elizabeth and Beatrice (Deidre Shauna Lynch, as quoted in Mary Walderon for instance. 85) Portia is undoubtedly more successful in doing and getting what she wants than is Elizabeth, but there are similarities and contrasts in their conception. Just as Portia is witty and will not bend before male domination, even though she will in the ultimate analysis support a patriarchal social order, similarly will Elizabeth do that. Portia’s father has set down in his will who she is to choose as husband; she follows her father’s instructions and marries the man who can win her in accordance with the will. Yet she does make use of the lyrics of a song that she asks some musicians to play and sing. These act as a hint for Bassanio to choose the casket which will yield to him the trophy of Portia as a wife. But on the whole she has been a faithful and obedient daughter to a dead father. Elizabeth has the same or even more respect for the patriarchal system; she has understood Wickham better than her father has and knows the consequences of allowing Lydia to travel to Brighton with Colonel and Mrs. Forster, but does not go beyond a point to stop her from accompanying the Forsters. But Elizabeth knows how to get a difficult man like Mr. Darcy to see her point of view. It is the sentences she uses that have the necessary effect on Mr. Darcy to change him to her position. Saying the right things at the right time is a virtue that can take women and men very far. These require intelligence, wit and the right choice of words. Both Portia and Elizabethan can be seen as individuals who live by their choice of and understanding of words. The correctness of their actions is matched by the correctness of their words.
Shakespeare was a model for all ages that came after him. His art is simultaneously embedded in tradition but grows out of it into more original domains. This is particularly true of his comic art. For a writer like Austen who comes after him it would be difficult not to be taken in in by such a new and original approach. It is vastly known that Shakespeare’s Much Ado anticipates the Comedy of Manners plays which came a little more than half a century after Shakespeare’s play and then kept coming for centuries after that. The bawdy repartee of Much Ado and Love’s Labour’s Lost found a significant place in the comic plays of restoration England while the love and courtship themes and the superficially social conduct that promoted wit and artificiality became the basic subject matter for the comedy of manners. The comedy of manners plays often enters the domain of the bawdy. Eric Partridge has shown the bawdy in Shakespeare in a book length study, Shakespeare’s Bawdy (Plume, 1960), just as Michael Macrone has in Naughty Shakespeare (Andrews & McMeel, 1997). The element is rather prominently positioned in works of restoration comedy by William Wycherley, George Etherege, William Congreve, George Farquhar, and Aphra Behn. The chief among these plays to delve into the bawdy are The Country Wife, The Man of Mode, The Way of the World, and The Rover.
The comedy of manners brings up what have sometimes been considered the lower instincts of man. Sex comes up recurrently in this version of drama. In Much Ado, Margaret jokes about sex throughout the play. She does this even with Hero and Beatrice on Hero’s wedding morning and with Beatrice towards the end of the the play. Alexander Leggatt points out: “Don John’s plot casts her, in a kind of bed trick, as a sexually active version of Hero. . . . if there is a true parallel between her and Hero it is because she is sexually active in words alone . . . (140.) ” Of course this is not the only Shakespeare play to use the lewd and bawdy language or behaviour. This aspect can be found in a number of Shakespeare plays including the grave tragedies, the comedies and the problem plays. But Much Ado can be seen to foreshadow the comedy of manners in a special way. It has been pointed out that this is a play that lightly “pokes fun at the manners and conventions of an aristocratic, highly sophisticated society.” As pointed out earlier it uses eavesdropping as a significant device. Then, it involves the battle of the sexes, the miscommunication of messages, the problem of mistaken identities, the complications of interwoven subplots; features that echo the comedy of manners. Above all, Much Ado is a play about love and courtship with a tilt towards the latter. Catherine Bates shows how Shakespeare’s comic plays give us the “mad merry-go rounds of love” in which courtship occupies a distinctive place. This happens in Much Ado, of course, but it happens in most of the other comedies as well. Austen’s novels are battlegrounds of the texts of plays and sonnets written by Shakespeare. This can be the subject of research; the researcher, however, must be a lover of Shakespeare and the kind of fiction Austen wrote.
When the novel began in England with authors such as Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, Laurence Sterne, Oliver Goldsmith and others, it had s few prose works and drama to learn from. The use of literary language and narrative-forms had some precedents during the Renaissance and in later prose writers. William Baldwin, Geoffrey Fenton, George Gascoigne, Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, Thomas Deloney, Thomas Lodge, John Lyly, Philip Sidney and others came up with rare kinds of prose fiction which was historically significant for its literary merit. These writers undoubtedly played their own roles in helping to develop the genre with their individual contributions. But what gave the real impetus to the novel was the powerful drama of the times, drama which provided the emerging novel with pictures of people as they actually were and plots as they could be manipulated for delight and instruction. Thus the works of the University Wits but particularly the plays of Marlowe, Kyd, Shakespeare, Jonson and several other powerful sixteenth and seventeenth century playwrights gave to them ways of combining literary language with scenes and situations that were wrapped up in powerful plots and structures. Though both prose fiction and drama did not have the literary status of poetry, they did pave the foundation on which the novel would ultimately develop. A dramatist such as Shakespeare, who was also already a poet, was easily a major influence on the earliest novelists beginning with Defoe. He gave to them the richest poetic plays which were sometimes interspersed with prose and introduced them to the widest possibilities that could engage the literary imagination.
Shakespeare’s plays were stage worthy and seemed to have captured the imagination of virtually any English mind that had literary hankerings. At a time when the novel was emerging as an art form considered lesser than poetry, it was quite logical for the new writer to still remain connected with poetic minds. Shakespeare’s plays provided exquisite poetry and drama; great poetic form for magnificent stage-plots. He gave out ideas, the very stuff for literature, which the new writer could accept with reservations or wholeheartedly. Thus Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) could well have resulted from ideas provided by Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Both texts make use of shipwrecks to further their plots. In The Tempest a shipwreck is contrived whereas in Robinson Crusoe it is not artificially engineered. Like Shakespeare’s play, Defoe’s novel uses the subject of race, slavery and colonization. Master-servant relationships form a major content in both works of literature. It is difficult to believe that Shakespeare’s text has played no role in the creation of Defoe’s. Both Prospero and Crusoe do not only want to be powerful in the alien lands they have gone to; they also have future self-empowering plans in their own homelands. Scholars have suggested these comparisons and I need not dwell much on them. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) similarly relies on shipwreck and a theme that utterly echoes this master-servant association. It is the authors’ understanding of how human nature would always want to capture or subdue the other.
Some of Shakespeare’s plays used a device referred to as the “bed trick” which raised the question of chastity and its need in society. Some of his Problem Plays raised the moral issue about the bed trick, how far the playwright was justified in using such a device. But what it actually raised was the issue of virginal chastity. Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748) return to this subject recurrently and focus on women somewhat in the manner of a Shakespearean comedy or a problem play in an age when man generally grabbed the centre of attention.
This chapter will show how Jane Austen took infinitely more from Shakespeare than any other author of fiction to carve out her novels and thus she gave the most stable structure to the novel as it would be after her. I am not going into a detailed history of prose fiction writers and dramatists of the period between Shakespeare and her. I will, however, mention a few of the early novelists to show how often Shakespeare cropped up in their minds and his texts in theirs.
Jane Austen was a channel for funneling some of Shakespeare’s dramatic, particularly comedic, approaches into the basic domains of the novel. Shakespeare’s love for the fairy tale, his conception of the social dimension as exists in some of his comedies, a balanced approach that gives an equal importance to character and plot, all and each find their way into Austen’s novels. She was, it might be said, a kind of machine for converting Shakespeare’s dramatic materials into the elements of her novels. This point cannot be over emphasized considering how much Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays were in her mind and how Shakespeare continued to speak through Austen in a subtle fashion. Theories of intertextuality have focused on how every text has other texts inbuilt into it. Perhaps Austen’s absorption of Shakespeare is one of the delicately elusive and understated cases of intertextuality and the passing on of Tradition from one author to another.
Austen’s case is highly relevant because she is so significant in the history of the English novel, a fact well established in F. R. Leavis’s The Great Tradition (1948). Describing the the art of the novel through a Keatsian metaphor, it could be said that the novel came to Jane Austen as naturally as leaves to a tree. Her story, plot and characters fell in line with each other easily and without an apparent effort. You could say that her characters stemmed from her plots just as much as her plots summed up her characters. Her plots and characters were perfectly merged into each other. It is difficult to think of many other novelists who could carve out plots as neatly as Austen does. Her novel-plots have the finish of stage presentations; they maintain the compactness of plays. In fact there is much that she takes from stage craft into her fiction. Of central importance in this regard is how she blends the Comedy of Manners into her fiction. The Comedy of Manners virtually begins with Shakespeare, particularly with his Much Ado About Nothing (1598).
This play, whether it impacted her mind directly or not, it seems to have entered her psyche in some way. A more detailed account of this will be given later in this chapter. For now it is necessary to note that this play hinges on certain basic ideas relating to the social behaviour of human beings. Like much else in Shakespeare, Much Ado pinpoints certain elemental ways in which people interact with each other and indicates the how love can arise out of or end up for very trivial reasons. The word “nothing” which is a part of the play’s title would become a part of Shakespeare’s world view in his major tragedies. A line from King Lear, “Everything is nothing” or some from Macbeth “Nothing is serious in mortality” or that life is “full of sound and fury signifying nothing” indicate how for Shakespeare there was hardly much in our lives that mattered seriously and that whatever we strive for is in the last analysis ordinary. If there is something to be valued it is love and goodness that outlasts everything else in its richness and desirability. This is what a play like Much Ado gets at. But even something as precious as love in Shakespeare’s scheme of things is a result of something trivial and even stupid. It is made and unmade so pettily and triflingly. Benedick and Beatrice who are both intelligent if anyone in the play is, fall in love due to overhearing. People talk about each of them being in love with the other and they merely overhear this and fall in love. This is how ridiculous love can be. Claudio, on the other hand can give up Hero without giving her a chance to say that she is not guilty of lechery. He can begin to like her again with a similar ridiculous speed. But then, this is how lovers are. They come together and fall apart for petty ridiculous reasons. There is something comic about why people love each other. Love that is taken so seriously is ultimately as good as nothing. Besides, love can follow soon after an inimical relationship. Even in a play like Hamlet we are introduced to something low and ordinary in love. Hamlet’s love for Ophelia is both petty and serious at the same time. What goes in the name of love can often be little more than a practical need.
In Jane Austen we return to this view of love pretty often. Property and wealth can be a major cause for love. Love doesn’t seem to arise as it does in the case of Romeo and Juliet, where it seems to spring from a deeper source. Where it does rise therefrom in Austen it can be stifled and replaced by something that has arisen more out of convenience as is the case with Marianne love for Colonel Brandon or Emma’s love for Mr. Knightley. The much quoted first line of Pride and Prejudice (1813),”It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” is a case in point. A good fortune can help a man to a good wife or at least is a good reason for him to begin his journey to find love. Love is related to some kind of material fortune. In Much Ado, Claudio has this kind of fortune and therefore becomes the cause of Hero’s love for him. She in any case is the daughter to a socially significant and wealthy man Leonato who is the Governor of Messina. Both of them have have little time to fall in love in. Love that has little reason to come into existence is then taken so seriously that it means life and death for the lovers; it is based on stupid nothings. Shakespeare gave to later authors certain basic grounds on which plots for love relationships could be crafted.
Much Ado is a social play. Its basis derives from social comic material. Almost every relationship in the play is engendered socially. It deals with social groups that think in communal terms. Even love is engendered through social cooperative activity as it were. This same pattern reappears in Austen’s fiction. Mrs. Bennet and Lady Catherine are always working towards certain matches. Both end up as failures but they do take themselves seriously in the task. In Much Ado social endeavour finds success but in Pride and Prejudice this activity have evolved to a point that resembles a closer society for us than it was in Shakespeare’s times. Her heroines and heroes are amalgams of Shakespeare’s deeper and shallower lovers.
Comedy is always social in one way or another. In authors other than Shakespeare, like his contemporary, Ben Jonson, comedy is often satirical. Shakespeare, who had generally kept away from what could be described as the “purely social,” (even his comedies were love comedies rather than satirical) did move towards the social in a play such as Much Ado. This is one of the plays in which he seems to have decided to write differently, in the mode that later novelists would absorb consciously or unconsciously. The novel uses a dialogic imagination and Austen seems to have found this aspect of Shakespeare’s play particularly useful perhaps without much thought on the matter. Bakhtin’s approach to intertextuality could help in understanding how Austen both learned from Shakespeare and played her role in a slightly different reading of Shakespeare. Much Ado did provide a model for the Comedy of Manners plays that game earlier than Austen’s novels and then seems to have penetrated deep into her fictional work. The theatrical ideas and modes of representation of an earlier time can well get into the novels of a later age. Austen paints a world where social groups play their roles in getting individuals to love each other. This phenomenon is at work in novels such as Mansfield Park and Pride and Prejudice. But Austen has shown that even as these groups try to influence individuals, individuals make their own assertions in the opposite direction and it is in their success in this effort that the interest of a novel lies.
Shakespeare characteristically equated the world with a stage and our lives with play acting. The stage, or role-playing, was to remain closely associated with what people did as members of a society. This is another way of saying that what was done in society was not what came naturally to people; they did it because society expected them to do it. The natural and the social were rather antonymous. His plays would, in exceptional cases, work in the opposite direction as when Hamlet could say that “the modesty of nature” is of value for an actor:
The purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. (Hamlet III, ii, 20-25)
There needed to be a balance between art and nature. While on stage it was necessary to be natural whereas off-stage it was necessary to act in accordance to a socially coded script. For Shakespeare, “the play’s the thing” because it can improve upon life; life (in social setups) is no more than an empty role playing. Social actions are not spontaneous but labored and artificial. The Comedy of Manners is full of such social actions; its guiding principle stems from intelligence and reason instead of feeling and intuition. Much Ado should be taken as a significant comment of Shakespeare on how society functions on superficial thought-out values and beliefs. It is in a sense his treatise on the nature of society and social action. Masks are a vital part of the play’s plot. Much happens because identities are concealed. It is for this reason that this play can be considered as a kind of groundwork on much fiction that begins with Jane Austen and carries on until the present. Austen and later novelists have shown how the individual, living in society, is often no more than a suppressed voice, unable to do what they would like to. Jane Bennet and her sister, Elizabeth, are largely victims of a social setup that forbids them to act spontaneously in a substantial part of the novel. In the society portrayed in the novel woman is to naturally take the backseat and particularly the woman without an economic backing. Even Elizabeth, who has a mind of her own, when it comes to sorting out things with another woman, Lady Catherine, remains subdued, virtually oppressed by social circumstance and social consideration. Austen, and some other novelists after her, have in a Shakespeare-fashion, shown how a character becomes or is treated as the “other” by other characters, in a way reminiscent of how Caliban was treated by Prospero, Shylock by the Christian others, or as Malvolio was by so many others of various social categorizations, such as servant, knight, gentlewoman, etc. Edward Berry has shown in “Laughing at ‘Others’” how Shakespeare can even show a self as other to itself in certain cases (Edward Berry 127-29.) For, people as social beings are ultimately playing roles rather than being themselves:
The metadramatic tendencies of the comedies widen the scope of this ironical framing of “otherness.” Much of the mockery of “others” occurs in situations that show the characters as actors or role-players. (Alexander Leggatt, 129).
Life in fiction is an enactment of the roles people are given by society and those that they take on for themselves to achieve their goals. Mrs. Bennet for instance is playing the social role of wife and mother no doubt but she takes on the added role of match maker for her daughters in a passionate manner. Emma seems to go a step further when she gives to herself the role of being match-maker for other women, not directly connected to her as Mrs. Bennet’s daughters were to her. For Jane Austen “the social” (which is effectively synonymous with “the patriarchal”) is virtually everything. Most of her novels show heroines trapped in social environments which cow them down and keep them virtually chained till such time as a suitable man comes like a prince in a fairytale to rescue them and take them to live with him in matrimony, largely under his own control. Just as Shakespeare’s Claudius takes all the decisions singlehandedly regarding whether or not Hero is to live with him in matrimony, in a similar manner all the young men in Pride and Prejudice – Darcy, Bingley and Wickham – decide and determine the fates of their respective wives even before marrying them. If Elizabeth has a little more say in matters relating to herself than her sisters do, it is because she is unusually advanced as an individual, something like Beatrice was in Much Ado. Shakespeare’s creation of Hero is a fine example of his way of looking upon the status of women who lived around him; she had to die into life and that was about the best she could have done to win Claudio back. She pretended to have died and her closest people supported her in making it known that she had died.
Studying Austen’s heroines as a group can reveal something of her society, namely that there were very few who could indulge in the luxury of passionate love and that it was the men who could have a more open choice in whom they would choose to love. (Even the men had often the “sense” to take care of, though. They had first and foremost to be gentlemen.) If Marianne of Sense and Sensibility loved Willoughby in that passionate manner, she was to lose him for Colonel Brandon whom she could not get herself to love for a substantial part of the novel. This brings us to a question that is often answered in novels? Is there something like pure love, one that arises for its own sake and one which will entail sacrifice and suffering for the sake of the other? The answer is: lovers like Romeo and Juliet are few, perhaps less than one in ten. For most, love is socially (which could be similar to being artificially) induced, or the result of a gain that will accompany it, or a realization that it is the best option available for two individuals who decide to come together. There are a few even in Shakespeare who set out to fall in love and meet with obstacles all the way if they do. Romeo and Duke Orsino are two clear examples but they are the exception rather than the rule in Shakespeare. Thus like Shakespeare’s men characters, those of the upper class, were by and large the kind of people who would figure as the heroes of Austen’s novels as well. In her world they would sober down, losing the chivalric charm of knights (imaginary or real at least in the imagination) in earlier times.
Jane Austen’s age was more the age when “the gentleman” was believed to be a man of sense than Shakespeare’s. Shakespeare himself, is claimed to have wanted to move upward to the class of gentry (http://blogs.bl.uk/english-and-drama/2016/07/shakespeare-gentleman-or-player.html) because he was considered a “player” rather than a gentleman. In Shakespeare’s time there was the lingering literary image of the knight errant from the Middle Ages, one who was more outwardly romantic and chivalric than a typical gentleman of the eighteenth century and later. Historian, Maurice Keens gives us a picture of the gentleman as he was during the Middle Ages and until Shakespeare’s time. The following two passages will give an idea of how the gentleman was to be chivalric, of good character rather than just have inherited nobility:
[It was expected for] gentlemen to resort to the ancient customs of chivalry to great fame and renown, and also to be ready to serve the prince when he shall call them or have need. (Nobles, Knights and Men-at-Arms Bloomsbury Publishing, 1996, 98)
. . . in the beginning true nobility came in only from good character and manly worth . . . he who gets nobility only from himself is to be preferred to him who derives it as a sort of inheritance from those from whom he gets his being. (Nobles, Knights and Men-at-Arms Bloomsbury Publishing, 1996, p. 191)
In Austen’s time the gentleman was more a social being who knew what to say and do at the appropriate time. He had been toned down by the sense of neoclassical decorum. As compared to Shakespeare, Jane Austen’s novels reflect social manners and community life to a greater extent; we enter the inner beings of individuals less than we do in Shakespeare. She inherits much from Shakespeare but she portrays her own society and the net result is a more reserved, controlled, socially oriented presentation of people who are more discreet in their words and actions. It is this kind of presentation that then onwards begins to be considered right for the novel, particularly in England. In Persuasion Sir Walter is not happy at the prospect of a navy admiral renting his house, Kellynch Hall, because navy men according to him are not equal to gentlemen; they seem too adventurous to his taste. He would have preferred a gentleman. He has to be convinced that the admiral is quite the gentleman and his quality is that he does not kill with his gun:
Mr. Shepherd hastened to assure him, that Admiral Croft was a very hale, hearty well-looking man. A little weather-beaten to be sure, but not much; and quite the gentleman in all his notions and behaviour – not likely to make the smallest difficulty about terms; – only wanted a comfortable home . . .he sometimes took out the gun, but never killed; quite the gentleman. (Persuasion, Random House 2008, pp 21-22.)
Shakespeare was already making great use of witty and polished language in plays such as Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing but Shakespeare would never remain restricted to one mode of expression or stylistic presentation. He would take on several other generic variations with regard to the language best suited those texts. Austen, as is vastly known, had a narrow canvas but on that canvas she tried to be as complete as was possible in her kind of fictional presentation. Consciously or not, she seems to have valued the Shakespeare that used wit on the one hand and refined and polished language on the other. The structuring of her plots and the portrayal of English social life were so well handled that she seems to have laid down the basic formula for the domestic, realistic novel that was to follow after her. Little concerns that engage women and their desire to court men, who are not easy for them to get onto their sides, is what we get in Austen. Even the men are well portrayed particularly as seen from a woman’s eyes; men who are more often than not well-bred and are desirable. In the empowerment of women Shakespeare seems to be her model even though she rarely comes up to him in this regard. Shakespeare created a number of very prevailing and dominating women like Portia, Cleopatra, Rosalind, Lady Macbeth, Beatrice and some others. Most of Austen’s women are a little less commanding and assertive than Shakespeare’s but they are also on quite the same path, rarely daunted by adversity and they have their own and very independent minds. Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, Anne Elliot and Fanny Price are some such heroines.
Due to the length of novels, which is greater than the length of plays, novelistic discourse and characters in novels are differently presented. Perhaps Shakespeare’s dominating women seem more in a commanding position because he does not have the leisure to develop them slowly, showing their feminine side along with their prevailing natures as Austen does. Feminine discourse as expounded through Anne Elliot and her other heroines is something which would emerge better through a multilayered novel than a play that needs to quickly move to its end because of the limitation of time. A character like Lady Macbeth hardly gets enough space, in spite of her central position in the play, and therefore her character is shown through specific momentary scenes like when she reads her husband’s letter, when she convinces him to kill Duncan, when she supports Macbeth in the Banquet Scene or when she sleepwalks. She dies suddenly and mysteriously without the audience getting a more complete picture of her being. It is Shakespeare’s genius as well as what he leaves to the imagination that helps readers, or audiences, to determine her true self. No wonder some consider her a perfect wife while others no more than a fourth witch. But Shakespeare’s dramatic art makes him raise the basic issues of a character, or the human traits in a character, and leave it at that. Austen’s novels are peopled with characters that we know to a much greater extent because she has the space for detail. Hence though, both authors empower women, the final impression does not seem very similar. Austen’s novels contain the added social discourse that novels have the length to possess. They show that the idea of a gentleman, though it has lost a little of its chivalrous trait, has still retained some part of it.
Emma serves as a great example to demonstrate the above. Emma seems to be a woman with her own views of match-making. She little realizes that she has serious limitations of being able to perceive which man and woman would be right for each other. Though she is called clever in the opening sentence of the novel, it is not difficult to see that she is far from that. She is foolishly clever and spoilt as well. Mr. Knightley, however, dotes on her throughout, almost in a platonic relationship, till in the end he wins her over by making her realize that he is the right husband for her. He guards her as a knight would a lady. His name suggests the quality of being like a knight. Austen makes it clear: “Knightley is quite the gentleman.” (Broadview Press, Peterborough, 2004, p. 18) In this there seems to be a similarity between Shakespeare and Austen both of whom have felt at one time or another that there are similarities between knights and gentlemen. This aspect of Austen’s novel has been well researched by Emel Deyneli, who sees the reason for Mr. Knightley bearing that name. (https://www.grin.com/document/10867) But Emma can be seen to take the concept of “gentleman” a stage further. We are introduced to Mr. Robert Martin whom Emma’s friend Harriet wants to marry. On Emma’s disapproval of Mr. Martin, Harriet decides not to marry Mr. Martin. His only fault that makes Emma dislike him is that he is not socially and economically as well off as Emma’s aristocratic expectations would demand, and as her other friends are. But Mr. Martin’s character reveals that nobility does not lie in being wealthy alone. He is nobler than Mr. Elton and Mr. Frank Churchill both of whom are much wealthier. In this Austen seems to be rather similar to what Shakespeare suggests in All’s Well that Ends Well a play in which Bertram is a nobleman by birth but not quite the gentleman he is expected to be by virtue of belonging to the nobility. Helena is not rich and much lower in social status but seems nobler than Bertram. A play such as King Lear suggests that some of those placed highest in society like the early Gloucester, Burgundy, Cornwall, and Edmund are nothing if they are devoid of compassion and sympathy for the other. The Earl of Kent on the other hand has this sympathy and remains a devoted servant to Lear, behaving like one much lower than he is socially placed, even in moments when Lear has lost everything. Shakespeare seems to have maintained that being born into a rich class is not a good enough reason to be arrogant or indifferent to mankind.
Jane Austen’s novels have constantly dwelt on this kind of cross-class concern in some of those who are truly noble and gentlemanly. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy is initially unable to sympathize with the Bennets because they are “decidedly inferior” in society than himself. He has always been kind to his helpers but that more as one who condescends to be caring. But his attraction for Elizabeth Bennet gradually makes him see where he was wrong. Elizabeth often tells him about a “gentlemanly kind of man”. She also talks of marrying for love rather than wealth, a criterion of goodness that Austen frequently returns to. In Austen, being a gentleman involves a certain flexibility that can accommodate the rich and the not so rich equally. In Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Sense and Sensibility she returns to this theme again and again. Her novels are somewhat like fairytales in that she creates a prince-like figure that is always keen to fall in love with a virtual Cinderella. Austen is able to reconcile the opposition of the rich and the poor in the rather Shakespearean manner which demands that we realize that “Everything is nothing” or that there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. This feature of Austen’s fiction may be found in some other novelists before her but never in the degree that it is present in her fiction. Jane Austen is very critical of those who marry only for wealth or those who consider wealth to be the only criterion for good breeding and manners. Darcy and Caroline Bingley are disturbed by the Bennet connections in Cheapside but Bingley is not hurt even if the connections had filled all of Cheapside. Austen is always pitting good fortune against love. Jane and Elizabeth Bennet are both of the view that love is important in marriage but Charlotte Lucas and Mrs. Bennet believe that love has very little place in marriage. But in this they are each contrasted by Jane and Elizabeth Bennet who consider marrying for love more dignified. His poetry, love tragedies, comedies and romances made love into a religion. Just as he was interested in playing up love through virtually every genre he wrote in, Austen was always trying to run down a man who had wealth but not enough nobility. After Austen, this desire to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor becomes one of the central features of literary fiction. Her novels, even though they seem to promote aristocratic living, can be seen as containing the germ of the anti-rich attitude that was to multiply several times and figure in philosophies such as the Marxist. For Austen capitalism could be perfect if it was accompanied by benevolence but for Marx it could never be benevolent but remain concomitant with exploitation.
Marriage is a subject that naturally features in much fiction of every age and in Jane Austen’s novels it particularly figures recurrently. Everything in her stories leads to marriage as though marriage were an end in itself, the very purpose of human endeavour; for her the home is everything and that home needs, love, social security and social recognition along with a prevailing good sense. And these come after a man and woman are married. What she says about marriage in Mansfield Park should not be missed out: “Marriage is indeed a maneuvering business.” This is the premeditated view of one who did not marry herself. But more significantly, this is the opinion of one who had come to realize that marriage was not the result of love as it was perhaps the outcome of other more practical reasons of which money was the most important. But marriage in Austen is like the ending episode of a fairy tale with a presumed happily ever after feeling.
It could be helpful to study certain patterns in Shakespeare’s thoughts on marriage before going on to Austen’s estimation of it. Shakespeare lived away from his wife in London for most of his married life. It is therefore difficult to believe that he expected too much from it. From the way he lived in a kind of self-exile in the big town while Anne Hathaway lived at Stratford-upon-Avon, scholars have indulged in much speculation about the relationship most of which does not paint a very rosy picture of their relationship. But little is known about the couple, particularly the wife, and whatever we have is the outcome of conjecture and fantasizing. The best that can be done to discover Shakespeare’s views on marriage is by picking up the pictures he sketched of it in his writings. Since Shakespeare’s majority of plays are either tragedies or comedies it would be best to see recurrent patterns relating to marriage in these two art forms. A great deal of his tragic vision seems to be connected with marriage. The tragedies by and large result from marriage. Romeo’s secret marriage with Juliet leads to the catastrophe. While Juliet is secretly married to Romeo her parents want her to marry Paris. The marriage cannot be made public for fear of a great confrontation between the Montagues and the Capulets. And not revealing it is a significant reason for the tragic deaths of Romeo and Juliet.
In Hamlet Gertrude’s overhasty marriage with Claudius is a reason for the shattering of Hamlet’s universe while Hamlet’s decision not to marry Ophelia is the cause of so much suffering in the play. Gertrude’s decision to marry Claudius has shaken Hamlet’s faith in women generally and he begins to see marriage as little more than an arrangement for breeding children, or so he tells Ophelia.
Othello’s elopement and marriage with Desdemona is the beginning and one of the reasons of the tragedy that ensues. In any case, Othello’s marriage with Desdemona and his mother’s with his father strangely depends on magic; “the magic in the web” of a handkerchief.” For Shakespeare, then, marriage can work or not work for reasons quite beyond the control of the married couple.
In Macbeth, the hero is prevailed upon by an insistent wife to murder Duncan, even though he is responsible for the assassination to an extent. After he has taken his decision against killing the Kind, Lady Macbeth comes up with arguments that no man will be able to withstand. She calls him a coward and his love for her false, something that would make most husbands act in order to keep their future relationships in marriage safe and intact. It is his marriage that he saves if he saves anything at all after assassinating Duncan. In the case of the other marriage in the play – the marriage of the Macduffs – the reverse happens. Honour is retained but the marriage is allowed to end through Lady Macduff’s slaughter.
In King Lear too marriage does not lead to anything that can be considered positive. If Cordelia was not married off to the King of France and if she had stayed back with her father he would not have gone mad because she would have absorbed much of his grief. Similarly, if Gloucester had remained contented in in his marriage with Edgar’s mother, he would not have produced a bastard son in Edmund. Thus marriage does not seem to have done much good to the universe reflected through this tragedy as well.
Put simply, in the tragedies, all suffering begins with marriage while in the comedies the plays end in marriage and therefore we cannot see what happens after marriage. We are shown the festivity and celebration of marriages but no more after at. The comedies do reflect the complications that precede marriage as A Midsummer Night’s Dream aptly does or as Much Ado does. In fact, virtually all the comedies reveal that love is not something that comes easily to those about to marry. Love is odd and difficult to understand. Olivia can fall in love with Viola dressed as a boy and then marry her twin brother in Twelfth Night. Orlando can fall in love with Rosalind dressed as a boy and then continue to love and marry her when she takes off the guise of a man in As You Like It. Bertram can refuse to honour his marriage with Helena throughout All’s Well and then suddenly begin to love her when she procures his ring and gets her with his child. This marriage is also rather uncertain and does not seem to be one that would preserve marital love for long. Angelo in Measure for Measure similarly suddenly accepts and marries Mariana with whom he is betrothed and who he doesn’t want to marry. There are several other examples of marriage in Shakespeare that could be cited to show that marriage in Shakespeare’s mind is not what most people believe it to be. It is either desirable only until it takes place or it incites a couple to suddenly begin to like each other for reasons difficult to explain.
The centrality of love in Shakespeare and Austen can be seen clearly. Shakespeare virtually invented the love tragedy and comedy by making each of these genres so different to whatever they may have meant before him. The Renaissance was an age when the individual became the centre of attention and love therefore became a more worthwhile theme and subject for literary texts, narrative poems, songs, sonnets, plays and pastoral pieces. There comes a time when a theme, subject, or philosophy becomes fashionable. In Shakespeare’s time that was love, and after love it was revenge. Shakespeare’s work reflects myriad faces of love. Virtually every time he wrote of it, its meaning changed. In Romeo and Juliet itself there are various versions of what can be called love from some angle: Romeo’s attraction for Mercutio, Rosaline and finally Juliet. But love in the bard is a very complex commodity, its hundreds of faces and masks can be seen in Shakespeare’s worlds.
Austen’s novels seldom aspire to the range of Shakespeare’s plays but she does maintain the centrality of the love and courtship theme. This point is best demonstrated in Pride and Prejudice. The novel examines the nature of true love, showing it from various points of view. Mrs. Bennet takes love very lightly believing that virtually any man in possession of wealth is good enough for her daughters. If he accepts one of them he is good enough. When Bingley arrives is to arrive in Netherfield she thinks of him as a prospective husband for one of her daughters: “But it is very likely that he may fall in love with one of them, and therefore you must visit him as soon as he comes (3).” Such a view of love would make it a rather mechanical affair that is likely to happen between any man of means and an unmarried woman. Such a love needs little more than a good dress sense, a ball or dancing together for a man and woman to fall in love. Mrs. Bennet has certain tricks up her sleeve to help her daughters to fall in love. Jane should go to Netherfield on horseback rather than in a coach so that the impending rain will wet her into sickness and help her to stay on till she recovers. Jane falls in love with Bingley soon enough, from the very first dance, and he does the same. Mrs. Bennet is therefore not entirely wrong in her understanding the nature of love. The novel paints a picture of a woman living under the protection of a patriarchal society can become an easy prey to a smart man. If the man turns out to be like Bingley, all is well but if he is devious like Wickham, things become difficult.
The novel, like Austen’s other novels, puts together the social issue of wealth and how it interferes with love. Elizabeth will not bend before Darcy merely because he is a wealthy man, even though her mother has begun to encourage her to do so just because of his wealth. Darcy has a prejudice against families socially lower than him and therefore does not respond to the Bennets as they want him to. Mrs. Bennet instantly changes her view of him. But with time Darcy sees in Elizabeth something that puts her above her class and gradually she too begins to change her opinion of him. Mr. Darcy’s can win Elizabeth’s love only after he has done a lot to win it. Theirs therefore is a deeper love. There are others like Charlotte Lucas for whom love follows convenience, if it exists in marriage at all. Her choice of Mr. Collins is entirely for convenience and Lady Catherine, like some wealthy people, would support such a marriage of convenience.
Courtship is more interesting than love for readers of fiction and theatre goers. Therefore Austen shows it a plenty. Jane and Bingley, Darcy and Elizabeth, Mr. Collins and Elizabeth each of these couples has to get into courtship and wooing before they either fall in love or they don’t. But courtship can involve much humiliation, trouble and mockery at times; one can become the butt of ridicule in trying to carry it out successfully. “For what do we live,” Mr. Bennet says to Elizabeth, “but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?” (185) Love may mean a great deal to the lovers but its management, which results from courtship, can provide fun and laughter for those who are not directly involved. To be successful in courtship the lovers need to be sincere, ready to sacrifice and of course loyal or true.
Though love is one of Austen’s major themes, she hardly goes as far deep into its paths as Shakespeare does. Love is shown as painful if anything is in Shakespeare’s love tragedies. His lovers are individuals who will sacrifice certain social interests but not make compromises in love. In Austen’s world the society has come in in a more obtrusive fashion and the individual has had to step back. Austen’s creation of a heroine such as Anne Elliot shows her intense suffering no doubt but she doesn’t seem to have the freedom to express her plight. Austen’s novels are neither as tragic nor as comic; they seem a blend of the two positions. Her heroines are not as helpless but they remain victims of a social order for a period after which they are able to free themselves from it.
Shakespeare’s view of marriage doesn’t seem very sunny generally. It is courtship that is more cherished. The tragedies show the suffering or the troubles that accompany it and the comedies normally end in marriage and never allow us to see what happens thereafter. But in Austen marriage seems everything; the goal of every heroine and hero. For Austen there seems nothing better or more desirable than marriage. However, when she does show us a couple that have lived together, for some decades, Like Mr. and Mrs. Bennet their marriage is definitely not what they must have married each other for. Both husband and wife are critical of each other and live together because that is the best option they have; they are no longer companions. The same can be said of Mary and Charles Musgrove’s marriage in Persuasion. Charles patiently endures his wife’s unjustifiable actions. John and Fanny Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility are able to pull through because John allows Fanny to totally dominate him. Sir Thomas Bertram and Lady Bertram are married no doubt but the wife is hardly alive to whatever goes on in her husband’s life. She is always drugged and seems to live in a daze. Hence, Sir Thomas can get attracted to his wife’s niece, the young and charming, Fanny Price. One of the few marriages in Austen’s novels that seem to have lasted very well is that of Admiral and Mrs. Croft in Persuasion. The Admiral is uncritical by nature and has a totally devoted wife. But by and large marriage is never as pleasant an experience as it seems to be in the Crofts’ case.
Austen then is with Shakespeare in matters related to marriage. Marriage for both is a highly attractive proposition which, however, does not generally turn out to be quite what it seemed it would. To put it in Shakespeare’s terms, marriage is a flower on top but a serpent underneath, though some can make the serpent toothless.
In issues relating to Gender, Shakespeare and Austen share an approach. For Shakespeare, it is often woman who either saves man from or leads him to his downfall. In the comedies she generally pulls him out of trouble whereas in the tragedies the opposite happens. But while comparing the two authors it would be meet to compare them only with regard to their comic visions because Austen never took on the more tragic forms of writing. In their comic plots, they are each complementary to the other. Shakespeare makes quite an effort to create socially correct and powerful women in his comedies while Austen creates a number of men who fall under that category. Her best male characters seem to have more good sense and wisdom. They are always protectors. Austen often ranks men a little higher than she does her women. Even where they suffer from some faults of character, they seem to be the guardian angels. Darcy, Bingley, Colonel Brandon, Edward Ferrars, Mr. Knightley, Mr. Martin, Edmund Bertram, Henry Tilney, and Captain Wentworth are some examples. If in Shakespeare, woman is to be significant, as a policy I would say, even more man is, because she either saves or is the cause of his ruin, in Austen it is the other way round.
Shakespeare’s comedies are known for their festivities, their songs, feastings and celebrations. The same jubilant spirit informs most of Austen’s novels. There are balls and dining table scenes where people eat, drink and make merry. This is one way in which Shakespeare gets into the constitutions of most English men and women. A number of Austen’s plot-turning points occur while these feasts and balls are in progress. The dining table seems just the right place for her to introduce Mr. Collins and his oddities to the Bennet family. It can be the place which will taint Mrs. Bennet in the eyes of Mr. Darcy. It can also be the right place to put an end to the life of Aunt Norris’s husband; an end that will do the opposite of saddening anyone. It can be just the place to introduce the charms of Captain Wentworth to all the young ladies who will admire him thereafter. In a tragedy like Macbeth, of course, the dining table can do the very opposite, as it does in the Banquet Scene. But in Austen it adds to the celebrations that men and women are heir to.
One reason why Shakespeare could have been such a powerful model for the prose-fiction and novels written after him was that one of his own models was the Italian novelle. It seems to have been a case of prose-fiction entering the poetic drama of Shakespeare and then Shakespeare’s poetic drama entering prose-fiction. Louise George Clubb points out the number of Shakespeare plays that were either set in Italy or had some links with the country:
Shakespeare’s Italianate plays, broadly classified, comprise five comedies and two tragedies entirely or partly set in Italy and for which ultimate sources of plot have been identified in Italian novelle: The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, All’s Well That Ends Well, Romeo and Juliet and Othello, not counting the Rome of Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus; two “romances,” better described as tragicomedies, The Winter’s Tale, with its beginning and ending in Sicily, and Cymbeline, in which Jachimo’s name and ruse belong to the Boccaccian novella tradition and to the Rome of the Renaissance rather than to the Empire of the play’s time setting; two comedies not set in Italy but based on Italian stories that circulated both in novella and dramatic form, Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure; and six that either came principally from the Italian theatre or contain some characters or scenes typical of its repertory, The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labor’s Lost, As You Like It, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. (30-31)
Austen was the first major novelist (in Leavis’s sense) to come after Shakespeare and therefore it is not difficult to imagine the impact his work must have had on her fiction. The impact has been steadily been affecting novelists till the present time. Liz Bury informs us how Shakespeare’s plays have involved contemporary fiction authors:
Acclaimed novelists Margaret Atwood and Howard Jacobson are to write prose retellings of Shakespeare’s plays as part of a series also including interpretations by Anne Tyler and Jeanette Winterson, but so far no author has taken up the challenge of rewriting one of the bard’s tragedies.
Rachel Wilfall has given a great account of how Shakespeare and Austen are similar and different and why they still remain so popular both in print and in cinematic adaptation. Says Wilfall: “In today’s multimedia, global, capitalist environment, Shakespeare and Austen have reached a level of literary “rock star” status occupied by no-one else, accompanied by all of the commodification which the corporate world has to offer (403).” And Harold bloom could go to the extent of claiming for Austen what he had claimed for Shakespeare as his devoted critic: “Like Shakespeare, Austen invented us,” and then proceeded to say:
After Shakespeare, no writer in the language does so well as Austen in giving us figures, central and peripheral, utterly consistent each in her (or his) own mode of speech and consciousness, and intensely different from each other. … She had learned Shakespeare’s most difficult lesson: to manifest sympathy toward all of her characters, even the least admirable, while detaching herself even from her favorite, Emma.
John Wiltshire comes up with a number of sensitive arguments on Austen and Shakespeare and how so many comparisons have been made on the two. He mentions a number of other scholars who have written in this area. I cannot do better than quoting some lines from his article:
Contemporary writers take up this link between Shakespeare and Austen. Claire Tomalin compares Mansfield Park with The Merchant of Venice to suggest how “Shakespeare’s play and Austen’s novel are both so alive and flexible as works of art that they can be interpreted now one way, now another” (229). Closer relationships have often been claimed. “Like Mansfield Park, Shakespearean drama characteristically pivots upon the performance of a play within a play,” claims Nina Auerbach, who compares Fanny Price’s reluctance to act with Hamlet’s (55-6). More persuasively, Roger Gard compares the “lethal rationality” of the conversation in Chapter 2 of Sense and Sensibility between Fanny and John Dashwood with the dialogue in which Lear’s daughters progressively strip their father of all his comforts (77-8). More wholesale recapitulations of Shakespeare have been suggested: Isobel Armstrong has seen many affinities between Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Henry VIII and Mansfield Park. Jocelyn Harris has argued that Emma is a reimagining of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (258)
Shakespeare was always raising the status of love in human relationships perhaps because he was a Renaissance man he needed to promote love like his contemporaries did (to a lesser degree though) after the Middle Ages decided to refrain from dwelling upon it. Austen continued this tendency to write at length about what she considered to be the truth about love. In Shakespeare love is no one thing; it is shown from different perspectives and situations in different texts. In Austen, however, love has a more stable meaning and there is much less confusion in understanding it.
Given the fact that a literary author is either not present in the text they create or is only partially present therein, it may not be helpful to presume that Shakespeare’s not very happy situation in his marriage or Austen’s never marrying could have changed the way they wrote of marriage. However, the fact that they both returned to the subject cannot be overlooked. Besides, in the writings of these two authors is visible a clear though varying discourse on the subject of marriage. It is never equated with love because it is the cause of the reduction of love.
In Austen there are few couples like Admiral Croft and his wife, Sofia as presented in Persuasion. There is a rare unchanging love between the two. But then they are not the most centrally placed characters in the novel. Mary and Charles Musgrove, in contrast, do not share the same loving relationship that the Crofts do. In Sense and Sensibility if there is stability in the marriage of Fanny and John Dashwood and they are reasonably well adjusted that is so only because John allows Fanny to dominate over him completely. He curbs his desire to help his step mother and step sisters by sharing some of the inheritance bequeathed him by his father with them.
Marriage in any case never comes easily. It is as difficult an acquisition as any in Austen’s world. Charlotte Lucas believes that happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance:
“Well,” said Charlotte, “I wish Jane success with all my heart; and if she were married to him to-morrow, I should think she had as good a chance of happiness as if she were to be studying his character for a twelvemonth. Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other or ever so similar beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.”
(Pride and Prejudice (Wisehouse Classics, 10-11).
In order to do justice to Austen’s work it would be necessary to see concepts such as “the gentleman”, “manners”, “love” and “marriage” as interrelated. The one cannot exist without the other. Each of these conceptions in Austen seems to derive from Shakespeare, whether it was consciously done or not. Country manners are charming for Mr. Bingley; he finds them as inviting as the manners of urbanity:
“When I am in the country,” he replied, “I never wish to leave it; and when I am in town it is pretty much the same. They have each their advantages, and I can be equally happy in either.”
(Pride and Prejudice, Amazon Classics Edition p. 47).
Just as Shakespeare considered the world a stage, and life a sum of enactments, Austen considered manners very vital. Manners are essentially like enactments that people are supposed to follow in society. They arise out of decorum and promote the good life of man. A word such as “Mister” is not common in Shakespeare; is results from certain social codes of conduct that grew in the English society after him. A word such as “Mister” which is another form of the earlier “Master” grows as a result of the increasing value of decorum and manners in Austen’s times. Manners suppress instinctual behaviour and keep things moving correctly in social living. Manners are alright till a point but not beyond that. In Shakespeare we find both manners as well as instinctive and romantic behaviour finding his support. In Austen we have drifted away from the latter towards manners. Even marriage, as a social institution, involves manners. The marriage of the Bennets, for instance, is left with little love when we meet them. We find love returning to their relationships only when something of a positive nature happens for their daughters. But most of the time it is a consciousness of what is lacking in the other partner.
For a woman who remained unmarried, marriage seems to have become a subject of interest. She saw it as critically even as her mind returned to it frequently. It could be compared to a politician’s who never won an election even though sufficiently engaged with it to see its fault. She was interested in society and social behaviour as Shakespeare was in some of his plays. In some of his greatest plays Shakespeare looked toward tragedy and human nature rather than the lighter vein of comedy and social interaction. But marriage for both authors was roughly the same; something not as desirable as it was for most of their characters. It was not easy to get married without making compromises in the first place, and then it was not easy to retain the joys of marriage for long. Love, of course was another matter. In Shakespeare’s comedies and in Austen’s novels love was connected to manners only indirectly. Good manners could be responsible for the beginning of a love-relationship and could hide evil intentions for some time. But good manners would not help in a relationship for long; for that a certain basic love was required. Wickham in Pride and Prejudice is a good example. Both Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility and William Elliot in Persuasion are people with manners but have little love to offer.
Manners were desirable, both in town and in the country. But these could be different to each other. Pride and Prejudice could be considered a discourse on manners as they are to be found in the town and the country. Mrs. Bennet is violently supportive of country manners in order to make her daughters more eligible in marriage to gentleman coming from towns where more wealth resides. Bingley’s sisters see the difference between country manners and the ways of London they regard so highly.
Bloom, Harold “From ‘Canonical Memory in Early Wordsworth and Jane Austen’s Persuasion’” A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen. Ed. Susannah Carson New York Random House 2009 – 2309.
Bury, Liz. “Shakespeare retold: Margaret Atwood and Howard Jacobson join new series.” The Guardian, 9 Sept. 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/sep/09/shakespeare-margaret-atwood-howard-jacobson
Clubb, Louise George. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Comedy. Ed. Alexander Leggatt. Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition, 2002.
Grundy, Isobel. “Jane Austen and Literary Traditions.” The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Ed. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster. CUP, 189-210.
Leggatt, Alexander. “Comedy and Sex.” The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Comedy. Ed. Alexander Leggatt. Cambridge University Press. 2002.
Macrone, Michael. Naughty Shakespeare. Andrews & Macmeel, 1997.
Partrigde, Eric. Shakespeare’s Bawdy. Plume 1960.
Wilfall, Rachel. “Introduction: Jane Austen and William Shakespeare – Twin icons?” Shakespeare: Volume 6, 2010 – Issue 4: Shakespeare and Jane Austen, 403-409.
Waldren, Mary.”Critical Responses, early”. Jane Austen in Context. Ed. Janet Todd, Cambridge University Press, 83-91.
Wiltshire, John. “‘The Hartfield Edition’: Jane Austen and Shakespeare.” Jane Austen, ed. Harold Bloom. New York : Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2008.