Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how.…one is intimate with him by instinct. -Jane Austen, Mansfield Park
Jane Austen was a Shakespeare fan. References to his plays appear throughout her novels, and her characters’ relationships to Shakespeare recommend or condemn them. In Mansfield Park, an impromptu reading of Henry VIII sparks intimate talk. Though the heroine is skeptical of the reader’s virtue, “she could not abstract her mind five minutes; … his reading was capital and her pleasure in good reading extreme.”
If Austen chuckled at commingling a ‘good read’ of her own with one by Shakespeare, imagine her delight at being called “the prose Shakespeare” in subsequent decades. The Victorians based the comparison on her rendering of realistic, engaging characters, and the recognizable worlds that contained them. Walter Scott said as much in his review of Emma, commending the author’s “knowledge of the human heart” and her “art of copying from nature … that which is daily taking place.” Later Enthusiasts linked Austen to Shakespeare for her impressive “art of telling.” It is telling that Austen’s celebrity, like Shakespeare’s, increases with each century. Comparisons persist. Edmund Wilson observed “only two reputations have never been affected by the shifts of fashion: Shakespeare’s and Austen’s.”
While Austen’s characters differ from Shakespeare’s, their journeys are marked by sublime language, wit, irony, and an inclination to expose social unease. The title of Sense and Sensibility prepares us to assess the merits of being guided by prudent intellect rather than pandering to feeling. S&S is considered Austen’s most didactic novel, with the Dashwood Sisters representing competing approaches to life: Elinor exemplifies good sense; Marianne champions emotion. The plot ties ‘sense’ to the dominant social code while it accuses ‘sensibility’ of indulging the individual, sometimes at a cost.
Scholars debate which sister is the novel’s proper heroine, with most weighing heavily in Elinor’s corner. Their reason rests (spoiler alert) on Elinor’s getting what she wants. That Marianne does not has led to dissatisfaction among feminist critics, in particular, because what Elinor desires seems too much in keeping with what society says she should.
But if Austen took lessons from Shakespeare, she’d know that marriage has a place in comedy. It is, she will write in Emma, the “origin of change.” Change confronts all Austen heroines. C.S. Lewis describes their progress as a discovery of mistakes. But the errors they face are more society’s than their own. The women’s uncanny ability to spot opinion and practice in need of revision marks them as progressive. If they make accommodations in their alliances, they likewise position themselves as correctives to established authority.
Austen’s world, like our own, could use some improvement. Her narrators and characters signal imperfections as they find them. (They ‘threw shade’ before there were trees.) The clarity and sting of those observations titillate, educate and consistently surprise us. The thrill of that surprise explodes at full force in Kate Hamill’s gorgeously fresh and funky adaptation. Hamill’s text drives home the power of the word, not just because Austen knew how to write, but also because her characters knew how to talk, listen, repeat. Director Eric Tucker does with actors what Austen does with prose: offering up exceptional arrangements to hilarious and inspired ends. The production bursts with sense and sensibility. We should be intimate with both by instinct.