Jane Austen’s Shakespeare

Will and Jane graphicJane Austen, who was born in 1775, came of age in the 1790s and started publishing in the 1810s; her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, came out in 1811. She died in 1817, which makes 2017 the 200th anniversary of her death.

The Folger exhibition Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity (August 6 to November 6, 2016) explores how Austen’s fame, and William Shakespeare’s, not only persisted after their deaths, but soared—with a major boost for each author about 200 years after his or her lifetime.

Because she lived two centuries after Shakespeare, Jane Austen had a chance to experience his early rise towards literary megastardom firsthand. She read and admired his work, referenced him in her own novels, and saw his plays performed.

As a child, Jane Austen participated in family theatricals in the barn at her home, the Steventon rectory. A “set of theatrical scenes,” listed among the goods sold at the 1801 auction when her family moved to Bath, attests to the ambition of these amateur productions. Perhaps as a result of this early exposure to the stage, Jane was not indiscriminate in her admiration of Shakespeare.

On March 5, 1814, Jane Austen witnessed celebrity actor Edmund Kean (1787–1833) playing the role of Shylock in a production of The Merchant of Venice at London’s Drury Lane theater. In a letter to her sister, Cassandra, which is included in the exhibition, Jane Austen writes admiringly of Kean’s performance, “We were quite satisfied with Kean. I cannot imagine better acting, but the part was too short.” At the same time, she writes, “excepting him & Miss Smith, & she did not quite answer my expectation, the parts were ill filled & the Play heavy.” In her letter, Jane Austen also dismisses the play’s much-touted afterpiece as having “little merit.” Not easily pleased, Jane is no novice theatergoer.

Playbill for Merchant of Venice. Drury Lane Theatre, 5 March 1814. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Playbill for Merchant of Venice. Drury Lane Theatre, 5 March 1814. Folger Shakespeare Library.

The Folger owns the playbill for that performance, as well as contemporary Edmund Kean souvenir items. These and other objects show how Jane Austen participated in the first wave of celebrity culture that engulfed Shakespeare. Austen approved of Kean, whose face appeared on celebrity souvenirs that capitalized—then as now—on the reputations of starry thespians. A large circular snuffbox shows him on the lid. Small paper prints of Kean, grimacing while in the role of Shylock, were also sold. Austen witnessed how Kean magically transformed himself from dishy celebrity to this hated villain onstage. Perhaps her reaction to his performance as “quite satisfied” carries the same delicious thrill that such a celebrity sighting would have today. Imagine it as a tweet.

Austen’s interaction with Shakespeare extends well beyond her exposure to such occasional performances. Her own fictional people “all talk Shakespeare” in the world of Mansfield Park, published in 1814, where they rehearse amateur theatricals. Three characters in that novel, Yates and the Crawfords, intentionally share surnames with other famous Shakespearean actors.

Moreover, scholars have sounded out the strong echoes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the matchmaking follies of Emma and tolled the allusions to Shakespeare in Sense and Sensibility, in which characters read Hamlet aloud. They have also pointed to parallels between Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, especially as the banter between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy mimics the Beatrice and Benedick dynamics in the play.

Austen’s absorption of Shakespeare into her novels points to his importance in late 18th-century life. At the same time, Austen’s discerning fandom suggests an intelligence that embraced his importance without uncritically buying into all its manifestations.