A critical moment in Ang Lee’s 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility is the scene where Marianne and Willoughby, in their first conversation, bond over Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. When Willoughby notices and asks the Dashwoods about a copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Marianne “gaily commandeers” the conversation and Willoughby’s attention (Thompson 97). She has only to name Sonnet 116, and Willoughby quotes the first quatrain; he then invites her to assist him, and they recite part of the second quatrain together, only leaving off after he stumbles over line 6. The performance closely follows Emma Thompson’s screenplay:
WILLOUGHBY. Who is reading Shakespeare’s sonnets?
Everyone answers at once.
MARIANNE/ELINOR/MRS. DASHWOOD. I am. / We all are. / Marianne.
MRS. DASHWOOD. Marianne has been reading them out to us.
WILLOUGHBY. Which are your favourites?
It is a general question but MARIANNE gaily commandeers it.
MARIANNE. Without a doubt, mine is 116.
WILLOUGHBY. “Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove—”
Then how does it go?
MARIANNE. “O, no! it is an ever-fixèd mark.”
WILLOUGHBY joins in the line halfway through and continues. . . .
WILLOUGHBY. “That looks on storms”—or is it tempests? Let me find it.
WILLOUGHBY gets out a tiny leatherbound book.
WILLOUGHBY. It is strange you should be reading these—for, look, I carry them with me always.
MARIANNE. Oh, how beautiful. (Thompson 97–100)
© 1995 Columbia
Kate Winslet’s and Greg Wise’s performances underscore the importance of this moment to Marianne and Willoughby, for their gazes lock as they recite Shakespeare’s lines to one another, heedless of their audience.
Jane Austen does not tell us that the two young people discuss Shakespeare during their first meeting: in the novel, we hear only of Cowper, Scott, and Pope (57). Shakespeare does play a role, however, in Marianne and Willoughby’s relationship in the novel; for instance, after Willoughby’s sudden departure, Mrs. Dashwood laments, “‘We have never finished Hamlet, Marianne; our dear Willoughby went away before we could get through it’” (98). This speech did not make it into Thompson’s compact screenplay, but by replacing Cowper, Scott, and Pope with one of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets, she accomplishes several important jobs at once: Sonnet 116 stands in for the other three poets as evidence that Willoughby is familiar with at least one of Marianne’s favorite authors; it expresses the kind of idealism that is central to Marianne’s belief in “ever-fixèd” first attachments; and it hints at her willingness (and Willoughby’s) to ignore such “impediments” to love as social convention. Moreover, Willoughby’s failure of memory after just the first quatrain foreshadows his later failure to follow through—his abrupt breaking off, his “alteration.” In this way, the scene serves much the same thematic function as Austen’s Hamlet reference: in calling to mind Ophelia’s abandonment (Tanner 24) and subsequent breakdown as well as Hamlet’s duel with Laertes (Derry 38), Mrs. Dashwood’s allusion in the novel prefigures Marianne’s breakdown and Brandon’s duel with Willoughby.
Nor does Thompson deprive viewers of references to Hamlet, for she gives Willoughby the quip, “Frailty, thy name is Brandon” (another line not found in the novel), which plays on the well-known line from Hamlet, “Frailty, thy name is woman” (1.2.146). One of the most significant instances, however, where Thompson’s screenplay assigns well-known words from Shakespeare to one of her characters did not actually make it into the film. In an early scene, Kate Winslet’s Marianne states her philosophy of love to her mother: “To love is to burn—to be on fire, like Juliet, Guinevere or Heloïse.”
© 1995 Columbia
The allusion to Romeo and Juliet is unmissable and significant in itself. But the speech as Thompson wrote it does not just allude to Shakespeare. It directly quotes him: “To love is to burn—to be on fire, all made of passion, of adoration, of sacrifice! Like Juliet, or Guinevere or Heloïse—” (Screenplay 52, emphasis added). The passage in italics comes not from the romantic, lovestruck heroine Juliet but from As You Like It’s pathetic, lovesick shepherd Silvius: “It [love] is to be all made of fantasy, / All made of passion, and all made of wishes, / All adoration, duty, and observance” (AYLI 5.2.84–86, emphasis added). This may seem a strange choice of passage to borrow from. Silvius’s passionate, irrational obsession with the unattractive and scornful Phoebe represents anything but “the marriage of true minds” and invites less sympathy than scorn. Nevertheless, despite the fact that these words were dropped from the film, Thompson chose not to edit them out of her published screenplay, and they deserve our attention for that reason.
Although Thompson has not performed As You Like It professionally to my knowledge, it is unrealistic to think that this Cambridge-educated actor who played Princess Katharine in Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (1989) and triumphed as Beatrice in Branagh’s Much Ado about Nothing (1993) would not be Shakespeare-saturated. Much Ado came out in 1993—right in the middle of that five-year period during which Thompson was working on the screenplay for Sense and Sensibility. Furthermore, Branagh performed in a stage version of As You Like It in 1988 in which Sophie Thompson, Emma’s sister, played Celia.1 Thompson and Branagh had met in 1987 and were to marry in 1989, so she must have had some share in his months-long immersion in that script.2 For these reasons, even though the screenplay for Sense and Sensibility went through years of close scrutiny and thoughtful revision, it remains possible that Silvius’s phrasing, having become part of Emma Thompson’s constitution, slid its way unbidden into the script. Thompson was onto something, for there are significant affinities between As You Like It (1599) and Austen's first published novel (1811). Although Sense and Sensibility is not the only one of Austen's six complete mature novels to echo As You Like it, it is, far more than any of the others, in sustained conversation with that play. The relationships between Austen’s characters, the circumstances in which they find themselves, and Austen’s setting of remote Devonshire bear numerous strong similarities to the characters, plot, and setting of As You Like It—similarities that are only partly obscured by the more realistic treatment Austen gives them. Austen also shows a keen interest in the questions Shakespeare raises—questions Silvius only tries to answer—about the practice and performance of true love. And she comes, I believe, to a similar understanding of the difficulties involved in finding answers.
The opening of Austen’s novel is heavy on exposition; before either love story begins we are given a detailed explanation of a complicated back story involving legal inheritance, a dying father’s wishes, and an older brother’s cruel refusal to honor those wishes. Clumsy? Some might think so, but Austen had the best authority for such a start in As You Like It’s opening scene. The play opens with Orlando—the male protagonist—complaining about his brother Oliver’s harsh treatment of him to Adam, the old family servant:
As I remember, Adam, it was upon this fashion bequeathed me by will but poor a thousand crowns, and, as thou sayst, charged my brother [Oliver] on his blessing to breed me well—and there begins my sadness. My brother Jaques he keeps at school, and report speaks goldenly of his profit. For my part, he keeps me rustically at home—or, to speak more properly, stays me here at home unkept. . . . Besides this nothing that he so plentifully gives me, the something that nature gave me his countenance seems to take from me. He . . . bars me the place of a brother, and as much as in him lies, mines my gentility with my education. (1.1.1–7, 13–17)
© 2010 Shakespeare’s Globe/Opus Arte
Orlando’s opening sentence would not sit ill in the mouths of Elinor or Marianne Dashwood, whose elder “brother” was “charged” with providing for their futures. Like Oliver de Boys in their unkindness, John and Fanny give the Dashwood sisters a plentiful nothing.
Austen’s sustained engagement with the tropes of Shakespeare’s play can be seen also in the way that Orlando’s situation recalls that of Edward Ferrars, although the one who controls Edward’s money and “stays” him “here at home,” restricting his opportunities, is not his oldest brother but his mother. Edward also resembles Orlando in that each has a brother (Robert Ferrars and Jaques de Boys, respectively) who is granted privileges denied to him. The problems that Shakespeare’s young hero faces thus deeply inform Sense and Sensibility’s plot and are reflected in the situations of both male and female characters.
Once we are past the initial exposition, moreover, similarities continue to abound. Both narratives feature not one but two heartless brothers who impede the protagonists’ chances at happiness. In Shakespeare, the cruel Oliver de Boys is not satisfied merely to withhold support from Orlando; he seeks to kill him, which forces Orlando to flee, penniless, to the Forest of Arden. In Austen, likewise, when the selfish John Dashwood withholds money from his three half-sisters, he almost kills their chances of marrying and forces them to flee to rural Devonshire. In Shakespeare, Oliver’s betrayal is doubled by Duke Frederick’s past usurpation of the dukedom, which drove his older brother to the Forest of Arden and robbed his niece Rosalind of her right to inherit from her now-banished father; his present cruelty now sends both daughter Celia and niece Rosalind into exile. In Austen, John Dashwood is doubled by Robert Ferrars, who takes his older brother Edward’s inheritance once Edward’s engagement to Lucy Steele is revealed. In this case, the usurpation is more the consequence than the cause of Edward’s exile from his family and is, moreover, perfectly legal; however, it does consolidate Edward’s new and much lower social position, no longer eligible heir but humble country parson.
Yet as I have mentioned, Robert Ferrars also plays a role similar to Orlando’s middle brother, Jaques. Both offer their brothers reasons for envy, but both, as well, play minor but significant roles in bringing about the protagonists’ happiness, for each sends or brings unexpected news that is important to his sibling’s happiness. Much as Edward is freed to marry Elinor by the news that Robert has married Lucy, so Orlando is freed from exile in the last scene of the play by the news his brother Jaques brings, which is that Duke Senior (the father of Orlando’s new bride, Rosalind) has been restored to his dukedom by the sudden repentance of his usurping brother.
One notable difference between the two works is that the brothers’ betrayals bookend Austen’s narrative instead of both occurring at the beginning: Robert Ferrars takes (or accepts) his brother’s inheritance and fiancée towards the end of the story, whereas Duke Frederick usurped the dukedom from his brother before the play begins. An even bigger difference is that Shakespeare’s two evil brothers, Duke Frederick and Oliver de Boys, both repent at the end of the play. There is no reason to believe that either Robert Ferrars or John Dashwood will ever feel sorry for what they have done to their siblings, or even understand that it was wrong. Neither the Dashwood sisters nor Edward Ferrars is ever fully recompensed—at least in financial terms—for what they have lost. Thus, only Shakespeare entertains us with a fairytale ending, while also pointing up how very unrealistic it is; As You Like It is “poised carefully on the razor’s edge separating fantasy from harsh reality” (Howard 1616). Austen, by contrast, insists on reality throughout.
In both narratives we also find two young women—sisters in Austen’s case and cousins who are closer than most sisters in Shakespeare’s case—who behave in very different ways after falling in love, and here too Austen aims for increased realism. For one thing, her sisters argue and hurt one another far more than Rosalind and Celia do. And, of course, neither of them lives for a time, as Rosalind does, disguised as a young man whom not even her father or lover can recognize. The debt to Shakespeare, however, is significant: Austen’s Elinor resembles Shakespeare’s Rosalind in that each falls in love early in the story but then finds herself so awkwardly placed that she must conceal her passion from everyone (Austen) or nearly everyone (Shakespeare). Elinor lacks Rosalind’s gaiety, but both can act decisively, and both show tremendous self-restraint under challenging circumstances. As long as Rosalind must live in disguise (as the youth Ganymede), she cannot identify herself to Orlando; as long as Edward is engaged to Lucy Steele, Elinor cannot confess her love to him or anyone. Rosalind denies her own strong feelings when she attempts to convince Orlando that “Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love” (4.1.91–92); Elinor denies her own strong feelings when she attempts to convince Marianne that she “no longer suffer[s] materially,” and that she “wish[es] [Edward] very happy” (SS 298).
Elinor also resembles Rosalind in the way she takes on the role of protector. An exhausted Rosalind, on first arriving at the Forest of Arden with an even more exhausted Celia, recognizes the responsibilities inherent in her disguise as a young man and confesses to their companion Touchstone, “I could find it in my heart . . . to cry like a woman. But I must comfort the weaker vessel” (2.4.3–4). Elinor, likewise, governs her feelings in part to protect Marianne and their mother from the distress they would feel upon “knowing how much” she “felt” (297). Celia turns out to be quite resilient, but in Sense and Sensibility, Austen makes Marianne’s need for comfort Elinor’s concern for much of the novel.
Marianne dominates Sense and Sensibility far more than Celia does As You Like It, and, as I discuss below, her antecedents are plural. Yet despite the differences in their personalities, Celia and Marianne are both foils for their counterparts Rosalind and Elinor in their lack of caution when it comes to love. Marianne, as we know, falls immediately in love with Willoughby and does not hesitate to show her feelings to everyone; Celia (while still disguised as the humble Aliena), likewise falls in love with the reformed and repentant Oliver the moment they meet. Jumping in with both feet, she is ready to marry him immediately. An amused and amazed Rosalind (still disguised as Ganymede, Celia/Aliena’s supposed brother) tells Orlando the story in very little more time than the events she recounts took to happen:
[Y]our brother and my sister no sooner met but they looked; no sooner looked but they loved; no sooner loved but they sighed; no sooner sighed but they asked one another the reason. . . . They are in the very wrath of love, and they will together. Clubs cannot part them. (5.2.28–32, 35–36)
In Shakespeare’s case, Celia does marry her first love, but as Juliet McMaster points out, Marianne’s second attachment also has its parallel in As You Like It, where Phoebe reluctantly marries the still-devoted Silvius when her first choice, Ganymede/Rosalind, turns out to be a woman (112). Indeed, Marianne has affinities with multiple characters in As You Like It. Besides Celia and Phoebe, these include Silvius and Orlando. But here, too, both Austen and Thompson follow Shakespeare. Thompson’s Marianne quotes Silvius, as we have seen. In Shakespeare, the characters who quote Silvius are Phoebe and Orlando!
Despite her contempt for Silvius, Phoebe does have one important trait in common with her despised suitor, and this is the belief that love is an instant, irrational, irrevocable passion. When Silvius pleads at length with Phoebe, she responds by pleading with Ganymede. Both Phoebe and Orlando affirm and echo Silvius’s words:
PHOEBE [to SILVIUS]. Good shepherd, tell this youth what ’tis to love.
SILVIUS. It is to be all made of sighs and tears,
And so am I for Phoebe.
PHOEBE. And I for Ganymede.
ORLANDO. And I for Rosalind.
. . .
SILVIUS. It is to be all made of fantasy,
All made of passion, and all made of wishes,
All adoration, duty, and observance,
All humbleness, all patience and impatience,
All purity, all trial, all obedience,
And so am I for Phoebe.
PHOEBE. And so am I for Ganymede.
ORLANDO. And so am I for Rosalind. (AYLI 5.2.73–77, 84–91)
© 2010 Shakespeare’s Globe/Opus Arte
How appropriate, then, that Thompson puts Silvius’s words in Marianne’s mouth. Marianne’s assertion (in the screenplay) that love is “to be all made of passion” signals her affiliation with shepherd, shepherdess, and exile: like them, she is determined, passionate, persistent; like them, she is pathetic and absurd; like Orlando, at least, she is also highly sympathetic.
We do not see Celia in love long enough to know her staying power. Marianne’s character combines Celia’s blithe confidence with Silvius’s and Phoebe’s obsession (not to mention some of Phoebe’s rudeness); in her experience of love, she enjoys Celia’s euphoric beginning, shares Silvius’s and Orlando’s painful suspense, and partakes of Phoebe’s resigned ending. Like Celia and Orlando both, Marianne falls instantly in love; like Silvius, she plaintively and publicly pursues a cold lover; like Phoebe, she is forced to abandon her first love and accept the devoted lover she has scorned. At the play’s end, Shakespeare leaves open the question of whether Phoebe will learn to appreciate her second love, as Marianne does with Brandon, or whether Silvius will learn to see the flaws in his first love, as Marianne does with Willoughby. At the novel’s end, Austen gives us good reason to hope that Marianne and Brandon will be happy together, as we trust that Orlando (only somewhat chastened) will be happy with his Rosalind. But Austen, like Shakespeare, leaves room for lingering doubts.
The Silvius–Phoebe and Orlando–Rosalind unions are only two of four marriages with which As You Like It concludes.4 Austen’s plot also concludes with multiple marriages,5 and in both plots, at least one of the concluding marriages is made possible only by the near-miraculous transformation of one of the antagonists at the eleventh hour. In As You Like It, as I have noted, Oliver and Duke Frederick experience sudden changes of heart, which restore the exiles to their former positions and make it possible for Rosalind and Orlando to marry. In Sense and Sensibility, Lucy Steele’s much more realistic sudden change of heart (or rather, her heartless change of plans) frees Edward from his engagement and allows him to marry Elinor.
Furthermore, Austen follows Shakespeare insofar as her central love stories are at least partly played out in a rural setting. Here, too, however, she reworks As You Like It in ways that transform the pastoral fantasy into a realist novel—or, more accurately, in ways that acknowledge and develop Shakespeare’s own implicit critique of the pastoral and romance genres. The Devonshire setting is, I believe, Austen’s cultivated version of Shakespeare’s green world.6 Just like Rosalind and Celia, Elinor and Marianne find themselves living in a cottage in a place that is “well wooded, and rich in pasture” (SS). These three details, with which Austen introduces us to the Dashwoods’ new home, apply equally well to Rosalind and Celia’s new home: this is a “cot[tage]” that is either in or near the Forest of Arden and also has a “pasture” (AYLI 2.4.78, 83). Unlike Shakespeare, however, Austen immediately qualifies the initial romantic image by stressing that the Dashwoods’ new home is, “as a cottage . . . defective” (33). Moreover, Barton Park, with its piano and its lifestyle of “equal hospitality and elegance” (38) is a mere half-mile away, and the environs contain such further evidence of cultivation as a “village” (111) and “‘several neat farm houses’” (112). The presence of these farmhouses betrays the prosaic labor required to produce food, and no one who inhabits this landscape (not even Marianne) pretends to be able to live without either money, or labor, or both.
Shakespeare’s green world is much more recognizable from pastoral and heroic romance than Austen’s Devonshire is.7 We hear of pastures, but not of plows; of shepherds, but not of farmers. Most of the shepherds seem to spend all their time pursuing their amours, which they do in iambic pentameter.8 The forest is also peopled by aristocratic exiles, conscientious rebels against an unjust regime, of whom people elsewhere are already telling romantic tales: “They say,” reports Charles the wrestler, that the duke has “a many merry men with him; and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England. They say,” he repeats, that “many young gentlemen flock to him every day, and fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world” (1.1.99–103). Nevertheless, this same forest is also peopled by shepherds like Corin, who insists in good working-class prose, “Sir, I am a true labourer. I earn that I eat, get that I wear” (3.2.63–64). And the reality of the erstwhile aristocrats’ lives turns out to be quite different from the glamor and ease ascribed to them by court gossip. Their talk and song repeatedly mention such hardships as “winter and rough weather” (2.5.39), and they appear to require constant encouragement from Duke Senior, who reminds them how “Sweet are the uses of adversity” (2.1.12). Upon hearing Orlando’s story, he explicitly acknowledges his companions’ sufferings when he points out to them, “Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy” (2.7.135). Unlike Silvius and Phoebe, who seem able to live on love, these men, who depend on the venison they hunt, live with the daily knowledge that if they do not kill, they will not eat. In this sense, they too are “true labourer[s].”
Yet Duke Senior, who presides over the forest by virtue of his (former) rank, is, I believe, Sir John Middleton’s literary original. Both aristocrats are noteworthy primarily for their love of hunting and their hospitality to newcomers. “Sir John was a sportsman,” Austen tells us. “He hunted and shot” (38). This being his only employment, “[c]ontinual engagements” were required to “support” his “good spirits,” and so he and his wife “kept more company of every kind than any other family in the neighbourhood” (38). The garrulous Sir John’s hospitality is characterized by a combination of food and music: “in summer he was for ever forming parties to eat cold ham and chicken out of doors, and in winter his private balls were numerous enough for any young lady who was not suffering under the insatiable appetite of fifteen” (39). On their first visit to Barton Park there is no ball, but the Dashwoods are guests for dinner, after which Marianne is “invited to play” the piano and sing (41). In As You Like It, similarly, talking, hunting, and hospitality are the only activities we see Duke Senior engaging in, and music serves him for entertainment. First, we hear him exhorting his “co-mates and brothers in exile” to consider the possibility that “Here feel we not the penalty of Adam” (2.1.1, 5). Next we hear him invite them to hunt with him: “Come, shall we go and kill us venison?” (2.1.21). Later, we see him seeking more opportunity to talk (this time with the melancholy Jaques, specifically); afterwards, we find him eating a meal that his companions have prepared. When Orlando bursts on the scene, desperate for food, Duke Senior simply invites him, “Sit down and feed, and welcome to our table” (2.7.104). The banquet’s being over, the duke turns to his companion Amiens and asks, “Give us some music, and, good cousin, sing” (2.7.173). Each aristocrat, moreover, shares these activities with a melancholy companion who is a world traveller with a mysterious past: Jaques (not Orlando’s brother) in the Forest of Arden and Colonel Brandon at Barton Park.
The situations of the two aristocrats are certainly not to be compared in terms of comfort. Duke Senior is an exile (and, we assume, a widower), forced to take shelter in the Forest of Arden, whereas Sir John lives with his wife, children, and wealth in his ancestral home (though Thompson makes him a widower too). Duke Senior is determined to idealize the rough conditions under which he lives, insisting for instance that life in “these woods” is “More free from peril than the envious court” (2.1.2–3); Austen, by contrast, satirizes such a determination by giving unrealistic notions about comfort to Willoughby, another aristocrat who hunts for pleasure, not for need: he can idealize the “‘dark narrow stairs, and a kitchen that smokes’” of Barton Cottage only because he does not actually have to endure such inconveniences (85). In this Willoughby resembles Shakespeare’s comfortably situated courtly gossipers who, themselves well sheltered from the winter wind, paint glowing pictures of the exiles’ life in the forest. Sir John does not have—or need—the store of philosophy for which Duke Senior is so well known. But the short list of resources the two men draw on for passing their time in the green worlds they inhabit, namely hunting, conversing, eating, and listening to others make music, is the same.
Given Austen’s purposeful reworking of Shakespeare’s plot, characters, and setting in Sense and Sensibility, it is inevitable that we find her novel exploring many of the same themes. I have gestured towards a few of them already, including inheritance, sibling rivalry, and town versus country. Readers will, no doubt, think of more. At this point, however, I would take Emma Thompson’s hint and return my attention to the two works’ explorations of the theme of love. After all, for both Shakespeare and Austen generally, love “is not just an emotion among others, it is a topic for debate, and for informed and playful commentary” (McMaster 111). Much has already been written about the complex love debate that Shakespeare dramatizes in As You Like It, and to do justice to that subject is far beyond the scope of this paper; my aim, rather, is to offer a preliminary reading of Austen’s love debate in Sense and Sensibility through a Shakespearean lens.
To begin, I turn briefly to Juliet McMaster’s helpful overview of “the conventions and physical aberrations” of love, as generally understood in the Renaissance and as spelled out by Robert Burton in his influential 1621 text, The Anatomy of Melancholy. To the Renaissance way of thinking, love is an “infection” caught from the beloved’s eyes, and this disease has predictable symptoms. The lover, once smitten, loves at first sight; “stands bemused”; “sighs”; and is either “struck speechless, or speaks disconnectedly.” The lover of a sanguine humor, hopeful of success, “will blush and sing and be gay” and “will be irrational in the idolatry” of the beloved. The melancholy lover, however, especially if disappointed in love, becomes sleepless; develops an uneven pulse, lack of appetite, and pallor; and dresses carelessly (McMaster 113–114). Many lovers in Austen exhibit one or more of these symptoms. Marianne, however, is noteworthy in that she works her way through every symptom in turn.
Some of these (the “uneven pulse,” perhaps) are beyond the lover’s conscious control. Yet as Shakespeare and Austen both appreciate, many elements of even the most burning, passionate, and irrational behavior can, paradoxically, be learned and practiced. It has often been noted by Austen scholars that Marianne knows the script for how a young woman in love should behave; she “has been educated . . . in the school of sensibility” (Seeber 226); she even knows how to foster her own insomnia and later confesses to having brought on her own near-fatal illness. She has also studied how a man worth loving ought to behave. Austen is explicit about this in the novel, when Marianne exclaims, “‘I could not be happy with a man whose taste did not in every point coincide with my own. He must enter into all my feelings; the same books, the same music must charm us both’” (20). Although she has not yet met this ideal man, she believes she can describe him precisely. And so, because of this confidence, she follows her script as soon as she meets a young man who follows his. Willoughby, as Penny Gay notes, is “a good actor of ‘sensibility’”; he “can pick up cues, and respond with immediate conviction” (36).
Even at his most contrite, Willoughby continues to perform: “‘Every line, every word’” of Marianne’s last letter to him, so he tells Elinor, “‘was—in the hackneyed metaphor which their dear writer, were she here, would forbid—a dagger to my heart’” (368). He imagines Marianne as an audience to his speech and checks his language accordingly. The question we face, then, is the same one Willoughby leaves Marianne with: whether we “‘could be allowed to think that he was not always acting a part’” (390). Does acting the part demonstrate a lover’s sincerity or the reverse? If Marianne’s behavior was at its most performative when she believed she was being most authentic and sincere, is authenticity even possible, or is the only choice between one set of prescribed behaviors and another? Austen leaves us with no easy answers. But these are very Shakespearean questions.
Orlando’s behavior is more obviously imitative of literary originals than either Marianne’s or Willoughby’s, but in the end Rosalind is satisfied of his sincerity. On his first arrival in the Forest, Orlando rushes about pinning badly written and derivative love poems onto trees; in this he is, as Jean E. Howard notes, “a sendup of a Petrarchan lover” (1618). Rosalind mocks the poetry, but she fights cliché with cliché. She begins by rebuking Orlando for not dressing the part of a melancholy lover: “your hose should be ungartered, your bonnet unbanded, your sleeve unbuttoned, your shoe untied, and everything about you demonstrating a careless desolation” (3.2.341–44). In this teasing way she lets him know that she knows that conventions exist that anyone who wishes to appear passionate may practice. But is she thereby challenging him to abandon his act? Or is she simply pointing out that he can select which script to follow? Later, Rosalind threatens Orlando with the assurance that every husband is destined to wear “horns” (4.1.52) and paints for him a frightening picture of a fickle, moody wife, “more jealous of thee than a barbary cock-pigeon over his hen, more clamorous than a parrot against rain, more new-fangled than an ape, more giddy in [her] desires than a monkey” (4.1.127–30). These misogynistic warnings are just as derivative, just as conventional, as Orlando’s poetry; their ubiquity and antiquity give them just as much claim to authority as Petrarch’s verse. But Orlando, steadfast in his belief in Rosalind’s virtue (4.1.55), refuses to accept that Rosalind will follow the standard script for wives, and refuses himself to learn to play the suspicious lover. Still, he is able to change his ways; he accepts Rosalind’s lesson that being on time for a date is at least as important as the ability to write poetry (4.1.161–69) and promises to modify his actions accordingly. And so the conversation ends with Rosalind, in the person of Ganymede, who is impersonating Rosalind, agreeing to another date—where she and Orlando may continue the debate on which the happiness of both depends.
Rosalind’s situation is so unconventional that, though a lover, she has no choice but to improvise her role; even so, she moves agilely from one convention to another. The resilient Orlando proves himself able to do the same. Elinor, too, must think fast on her feet, drawing on various conventions of female friendship and politeness, once Lucy reveals her engagement. Marianne, by contrast, “is so locked into the convention” she has committed herself to “that she almost dies in conforming to it” (McMaster 117). One great irony here is that “convention” is just what Marianne professes to despise. Another is that, whether in the Forest of Arden or at Barton Cottage, convention may be all there is.
Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility is recognized today as having taken part in and contributed to the remarkable surge of Jane Austen film adaptations in the 1990s, years that brought us Clueless (Heckerling, 1995), Pride and Prejudice (adapted by Andrew Davies, 1995), Mansfield Park (Rozema, 1999), and several more. Perhaps this film also deserves to be recognized as, if not part of, then at least influenced and inspired by the remarkable surge of Shakespeare film adaptations that began a few years earlier and also continued through the 1990s, including not only Branagh’s Henry V (1989), Much Ado about Nothing (1993), and Hamlet (1996) but also Zeffirelli’s Hamlet (1990), Richard III (Loncraine, 1995), Othello (Parker, 1995), Twelfth Night (Nunn, 1996), Romeo + Juliet (Luhrmann, 1996), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Hoffman, 1999), and Titus (Taymor, 1999), among others. Emma Thompson’s incorporation of Shakespeare into her screenplay invites us to consider fresh approaches to the question of Austen’s engagement with Shakespeare’s work; more specifically, it invites us to read Sense and Sensibility as a reworking of the plot, characters, and themes of Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy As You Like It. As such, Austen crafts a realistic narrative that nevertheless explores many of the same concerns, including tensions between symptom and action, authenticity and imitation, sincerity and artifice, nature and nurture—between “the marriage of true minds” and the inevitable impediments of convention. Marianne, who promises Elinor at the end to “‘practise the civilities . . . of life’” (393), must be, and always has been, cultivated.
The clips used in this essay satisfy the criteria for fair use established in Section 107 of the Copyright Law of the United States of America and Related Laws Contained in Title 17 of the United States Code.
6Examples of the “green world” in Shakespeare, besides the Forest of Arden, are the woods outside Athens (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and the woods outside Milan (Two Gentlemen of Verona). Now a commonplace in Shakespeare criticism, the term the “green world” was first coined by Northrop Frye in 1957 (in The Anatomy of Criticism) to describe a lawless or magical place outside of civilization, where rules are suspended and class boundaries erased just long enough for lovers to work through the obstacles that prevent them from marrying, and from which they return, transformed, to civilization.
7For a useful discussion of the ways in which this play “participates in the rich tradition of Renaissance pastoral literature in which the rustic world of forest and field offers an alternative to and a sanctuary from the urban or courtly milieu to which it is contrasted,” see Howard (1615).
8As Corin explains to Rosalind and Celia, Silvius is a “young swain” who was expected to purchase the cottage with its “flock and pasture” presently for sale, but who is so obsessed with Phoebe that he “little cares for buying anything” (2.4.84, 83, 85). Rosalind and Celia purchase and move into the “cot” instead; where Silvius lives, or how he and Phoebe make their livings, is never explained.