Reading ahead for “Will & Jane”

As you’ve seen on this blog already, the next Folger exhibition, Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity (August 6 to November 6), will be a fascinating look at the posthumous celebrities of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen.

In a blog post last month, the exhibition curators joined us to discuss Kate Beckinsale in the movie Love & Friendship. As Will & Jane documents, many leading actors, including Emma Thompson and Laurence Olivier, have performed in both Shakespeare and Austen films. The two curators—Janine Barchas, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and Kristina Straub, an English professor at Carnegie Mellon University—pointed out that the same observation applies to Kate Beckinsale, who played Hero in Much Ado About Nothing (1993) and is now starring as the “ruthless Lady Susan” in Love & Friendship. We can’t wait to hear more from the curators while Will & Jane is on view.

Before it opens, however, we’ve received a recent query from a Texas visitor to the Folger website, who hopes to see Will & Jane this fall. Her astute question inspired this post. She begins with the following explanation:

In November, I will vacation in the D.C. area [where she hopes to see Will & Jane]…. I have begun listening to Jane Austen’s audio books available from the local library for my commute.

She explains that she has Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion available in audio; she is also planning to re-read Pride and Prejudice. In addition, she has seen King Lear and Romeo and Juliet in two different cities, and read Hamlet and Macbeth in school. She asks:

What other works by William Shakespeare should I be familiar with, and is there a preferred order to go through?

We quickly checked with Janine and Kristina, and with Georgianna Ziegler, the Folger’s recently retired Head of Reference, who is the Senior Consultant on the exhibition. (We’ve highlighted some of the text in blue, so you can see the recommendations more easily.)

From Janine Barchas:

FolgerEditionsSquarePlease suggest re-reading the following Shakespeare plays. She could read them in tandem with the related Austen novels (thus, “reading Will & Jane”) for the most fun:

Hamlet, a play read by the characters inside Sense and Sensibility and alluded to in that novel on various levels

Much Ado About Nothing, a play that may have been Austen’s model for the verbal sparring between Lizzie and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play that is a literary model for the matchmaking chaos in Austen’s Emma

Kristina Straub agreed, and suggested one more as well:

Oh, Much Ado About Nothing for sure!

Richard III also gets at all the commodified manliness in porcelain and print (a key part of the exhibition). And that play, and Much Ado, were important to the growing celebrity of Shakespeare in the 18th century.

Georgianna Ziegler then chimed in:

These are great suggestions for pairing works by Austen and Shakespeare! I’ll also mention the following for more in-depth background if any of our fans are interested:

Claire Harman, Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World
Paula Byrne, Jane Austen and the Theatre
Michael Caines, Shakespeare and the Eighteenth Century (in Oxford Shakespeare topics series)

And now… what about you?

Please join this conversation about reading, started by a single visitor’s email.

Are there other Shakespeare plays and Austen novels you would recommend to someone who knows one author, but not the other? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity will be on view from August 6 to November 6, 2016. For more information on public programs and events related to the exhibition, including the play Sense and Sensibility, consult our Will & Jane press release. You can read any of the Shakespeare plays at Folger Digital Texts.

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