I consider myself somewhat of a Shakespeare buff – not an expert, per se, not a scholar, in a formal sense, but an enthusiast never-the-less. I used to be an actor, and have performed many of Shakespeare’s well-loved works. I have also studied his plays, both formally and informally to a large extent, and have done months, bordering on years, of research into his life and times, both for a play I wrote about the authorship argument, and for The Time Duchess, the fourth book in my time travel series, which takes place in Elizabethan England and also deals with the Argument. How does this relate to Jane Austen, you might ask? Well, it is clear from the mention that Austen makes in many of her novels that she, like most Brits, knew his works well. I am not British, but I have come to understand that Shakespeare runs in the veins of the British people like Mark Twain runs in that of Americans, and Jane was certainly no exception. As a matter of fact, in Mansfield Park, Edmund Bertram states: “No doubt one is familiar with Shakespeare in a degree…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…” Additionally, scholars have noted how the plots of some of Austen’s books, or parts of them, might be directly influenced by the plays, such as Pride and Prejudice by Much Ado About Nothing.
I have used references to Shakespeare in many of my JAFF novels because I love intermingling two of my favorite English writers, Will and Jane, though they are separated by almost two centuries. Therefore, I thought it might be interesting to look at a few more of Austen’s references to the Bard.
In Sense and Sensibility, for example, Mrs. Dashwood utters, after Willoughby has left them with very little explanation: “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.” These, of course, are no words of comfort to Marianne at all.
In Emma, our heroine quotes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, saying, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” However, she misquotes Romeo when she states, “If a woman can ever be excused for thinking only of herself, it is in a situation like Jane Fairfax’s. Of such, one may almost say, that ‘the world is not theirs, nor the world’s law.'” It strikes me as quite in keeping with Emma’s character that she misquotes Shakespeare, whether it was Austen who accidentally misquoted, or she had Emma do it on purpose. Though Emma is educated, in my opinion she is too flighty to care whether she gets her literary allusions just right. The quote actually is: “The world is not thy friend nor the world’s law…”
Again, in Mansfield Park, when the young Bertrams and Crawfords are trying to determine which play to do for the theatrical presentation they are planning, they bring up several of Shakespeare’s plays. While Edmund doubts whether it is appropriate for them to be taking part in theatricals at all, his brother Tom argues: “How many a time have we mourned over the dead body of Julius Caesar and to be’d and not to be’d in this very room for his [their father’s] amusement?”
Shakespeare comes up more than once in Northanger Abbey, in particular in chapter one, when the author is commenting on the various literary quotes that have shaped the young Catherine Moreland. One that she has learned from Shakespeare is that: “…a young woman in love always looks ‘like Patience on a monument, smiling at grief.'” (I used to say that about a cat I once had who would sit upon his perch waiting for his dinner.)
You don’t have to be an expert, or live in the Regency era, to quote Shakespeare though. He has such a huge influence over our day to day speech that today we quote him without knowing it. For instance, did you know these expressions come from Shakespeare?
- Wild goose chase
- Pure as the driven snow
- Seen better days
- Good riddance
- It’s Greek to me
- Love is blind
- Break the ice
- Knock, knock who’s there?
I could go on and on. The point is, Jane Austen was influenced by Shakespeare more than just in her writing. She must have quoted him, and referred to him in everyday life probably without even thinking about it, like we do. Such a realization gives me one more reason to feel connected to her, and helps me see how Shakespeare influences us all, writers or not, as much now as in Austen’s day.