From Hero to Lady Susan: Kate Beckinsale in ‘Love & Friendship’

As curators of the upcoming exhibition Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity opening at the Folger on August 6, we could not help viewing the new Austen film Love & Friendship through a Shakespearean lens—and with an eye to celebrity culture. For us, actress Kate Beckinsale is one of the movie stars who can link Shakespeare and Austen in popular culture.

Celebrity association depends, of course, on the role in which a fan first encounters a particular actor on the screen or stage. Laurence Olivier, for example, was trained as a Shakespearean stage actor before he played Mr. Darcy in the 1940 Pride and Prejudice screen sensation. But would movie audiences have wiped that Austen experience completely from their minds when they saw him again as Hamlet in the 1948 film? Or were lingering Austen associations part of the pleasure of seeing Olivier perform Shakespeare—and vice versa?

Dame Judi Dench, a great Shakespearean actress, brought her thespian reputation to bear on the staunch Lady Catherine de Bourgh in 2005. So too have other actresses forged links between Will & Jane: Emma Thompson (Beatrice in 1993 and Elinor in 1995); Gwyneth Paltrow (Emma in 1996 and Juliet/Viola in 1998); and Kate Winslet (Marianne in 1995 and Ophelia in 1996).

Such links do not call into question the skills of great actors, whose talents indeed make us forget their true selves in favor of the characters they portray. But celebrity, when forged by a particular high-profile role or film, unwittingly and inevitably carries that association forward into the next part.  In theater studies this inevitable sense of déjà vu is called “ghosting” and may even be harnessed with casting or staging choices to deliberately stimulate spectator memory.

Beckinsale’s first feature film was Much Ado About Nothing in 1993. At the age of 20 and still in college, she stepped into the limelight when she joined Kenneth Branagh’s all-star cast to play the innocent Hero. As Hero, Beckinsale falls victim to the schemes of Don John and his men. Now 23 years later (and with some killing of werewolves in between), Beckinsale plays a woman who is anything but a victim. Today Beckinsale is the ruthless Lady Susan, who—in spite of being old enough to have a daughter on the marriage market—still turns heads and then wraps the men they belong to securely around any finger of her choosing. Lady Susan is no victim. Although she is forced by economics to take actions that she herself knows to be wrong, she is a hunter on the prowl.

Kate Beckinsale in Much Ado About Nothing
Film still of Kate Beckinsale in Much Ado About Nothing, 1993.

The ghosting of Beckinsale’s Lady Susan by her Hero throws into relief the differences between Shakespeare’s play and Austen’s novella. Beatrice, whose cynical wit most closely approaches Lady Susan’s snarky social commentary, melts at Hero’s plight. Lady Susan, however, shows us a new type of venom directed at women as well as men. Her very own daughter, an ingénue like Hero, narrowly escapes victimization by her mother’s machinations. Unlike Beatrice, who springs to Hero’s defense, Lady Susan is quite unconcerned with the welfare of a wimpy innocent, even when that innocent is her own daughter. Austen’s novel and Shakespeare’s play spark questions that burst into flame in Branagh’s and Whit Stillman’s films: what does power look like when a woman wields it? Can we like a woman who not only knows how to take care of herself, but is good at getting other people to do it for her?

Kate Beckinsale in Love & Friendship, 2016.
Film still of Kate Beckinsale in Love & Friendship, 2016.

It does not seem a great leap to think of the juxtaposition of Beckinsale’s two roles as not just marking her own career trajectory, or mere differences in the plots of two authors, but highlighting a 200-year change in how writers could convey female power. Shakespeare’s Hero is sympathetic not because she speaks (she barely has any lines) but because she is wronged.  And although—along with Beatrice—we feel Hero’s injury acutely, there is no question but that the friar’s advice to play dead and wait it out is the right course of action. Hero’s role of laying low while patriarchy figures out her fate contrasts, of course, with Beatrice, whose character evokes the possibility of a manipulative, perhaps deadly, feminine power—“Kill Claudio”—even as it safely submits, in the end, to Benedick’s husbandly authority. Lady Susan, in contrast to both Shakespeare heroines, remains unmastered. Sir James Martin is no Benedick.

By the time Austen writes Lady Susan, an epistolary novel smartly turned into dialogue by Stillman’s screenplay, the world—or Jane Austen at least—can imagine a woman forging her own destiny without a husband to take charge of things.  Lady Susan is no Hero, but a smart-mouthed Beatrice who needs no Benedick to right her wrongs.  The dangerous Lady Susan may still not be able to inherit land, but she can take her financial future into her own hands.  Her actions are despicable, and yet her intelligence and wit draw us in.  Lady Susan is an anti-hero—pun intended.

It may be significant that for half a century after Austen’s death her family hid the edgy Lady Susan manuscript, which dares to explore a mother’s sexual jealousies of her own daughter, until publication by a nephew as part of an 1870 memoir of “Dear Aunt Jane.” Could Lady Susan have been performed in Austen’s era in the way that Beckinsale plays her now? While Much Ado has always been popular on the stage, its female characters are not nearly so threatening to masculine control. Beatrice is not allowed the badass manipulative powers of Lady Susan, and Hero is, well, … Hero. Our tolerance for a powerfully independent stage heroine is dependent upon historical context.

Learn more about Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity, on exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library, August 6 – November 6.