Edited by Inger Sigrun Brodey

Shakespeare According to Austen

Engaging with Shakespeare: Responses of George Eliot and Other Women Novelists
By Marianne L. Novy.
University of Iowa Press. 1998. xii + 271 pages. Paperback, $18.00.

Reviewed by Elaine Bander.

"Shakespeare," observes Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park, "is a part of an Englishman's constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them every where, one is intimate with him by instinct." Edmund Bertram agrees: "No doubt, one is familiar with Shakespeare ...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,..."

In Engaging with Shakespeare, Marianne Novy demonstrates that the changing cultural institution we call "Shakespeare" is also part of English women's "constitutions," constructed through a female tradition of "appropriative creativity" in which women writers read, interpret, and "re-write" Shakespeare in order to express their own concerns. Novy is particularly interested in "how women writers use Shakespeare's plots of marriage and/or romantic love, his female characters, and potentially gender-crossing aspects of his male characters and his cultural image."

 She first claims that "[T]here have often been affinities between cultural constructions of Shakespeare and cultural constructions of women... Three images of Shakespeare have particular resonance for women's history: the outsider, the artist of wide-ranging identification- later called sympathy, and the actor."

Thus, she contends, 17th century women authors such as Aphra Behn and Margaret Cavendish identified with a Shakespeare who was, like themselves, socially marginalized, lacking a university education,' and guilty of writing popular rather than prestigious literary genres.

 Eighteenth century women novelists including Sarah Fielding and Frances Burney also alluded to Shakespeare, reworking his plots and characters in their own novels. By the end of the 18th century, Novy claims, critical foregrounding of Shakespeare's "sympathetic" ability to create a range of characters made him uniquely accessible to appropriation by women writers, who saw the presentation of character as a peculiarly female prerogative and the valuing of "sympathy" as a justification of women novelists.

Jane Austen certainly engaged in creative appropriation. In her youth she wrote burlesques, a genre dependent on writer and reader's collaborative remaking of a shared literary culture; all her life she communicated with friends and family through an allusive literary shorthand of which Shakespeare was certainly a component.

As Novy's subtitle indicates, however, the primary focus of Engaging with Shakespeare is George Eliot, with the balance of attention devoted to 20th century women novelists. Novy's discussion of Austen, one of the "other women novelists," is limited to one section in which Novy argues that Austen rewrites Shakespeare's comic plots and laces her novels with "lightly ironic" verbal allusions to Shakespeare. In Novy's view, Austen contributes one strand to the female tradition of creative appropriation while Charlotte Bronte contributes another, both strands joining later in the novels of George Eliot.

Novy argues that Austen "rewrites" Shakespeare's comic plots; specifically, both authors resolve their comedies with marriage; Elizabeth and Darcy echo Beatrice and Benedick; Emma's allusion to "a Hartfield edition of Shakespeare" calls attention to the screwball match- making which Emma shares with A Midsummer Night's Dream; and Anne Elliot is "Patience on a monument."

Conscious "re-writing" is difficult to prove, however, since one could say of courtship plots, as Tolstoy said of happy families, that they are all alike. Novy's comparisons, deployed to defend her thesis of a female tradition of creative appropriation, fail to deliver fresh insight into Austen's extensive use of Shakespeare.

Earlier studies by Jocelyn Harris and Margaret Kirkham recognized Austen's engagement with the tragedies and histories as well as the comedies. In both Mansfield Park and Persuasion, for example, a flawed patriarchal authority withdraws from responsibility, disinheriting the worthiest daughter whose silent resistance earns the epithet "ungrateful." Thus a tragedy, King Lear, is embedded within Austen's comedies.

Like Kirkham, Novy discusses Henry Crawford's dramatic reading of Henry VIII: "whether it were dignity or pride, or tenderness or remorse, or whatever were to be expressed, he could do it with equal beauty." While she points out that Henry's exercise of Shakespearean "sympathy," his ability to act all the characters convincingly, "is a predictor of the later fickleness with which he will break his promise to Fanny" as well as a quality he shares with Shakespeare's Richard III, she does not discuss the significance of the play itself, a topic both Kirkham and I have explored elsewhere.

Despite some inaccuracies, generally superficial analysis, and a pedestrian style, Novy has written an interesting book, but an even more interesting book on Austen's creative engagement with Shakespeare remains to be written.

Elaine Bander is on the English faculty at Dawson College, Montreal, and has spoken at several JASNA AGMs and Regional meetings.

JASNA News v. 15, no. 2, Summer 1999

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