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Twenty-eighth in a series of posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. For more details, open Your Invitation to Mansfield Park.

Shakespeare's Poetic StylesJohn Baxter is Professor of English at Dalhousie University, where he teaches classes on Early Modern literature, Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, rhetoric, and religion and literature. He’s the author of Shakespeare’s Poetic Styles: Verse Into Drama (Routledge) and many essays on Shakespeare, as well as on several other writers, including Ben Jonson, J.V. Cunningham, Janet Lewis, Yvor Winters, Helen Pinkerton, and George Elliott Clarke. With Gordon Harvey, he edited a collection of essays by C.Q. Drummond called In Defense of Adam: Essays on Bunyan, Milton, and Others (Brynmill Press/Edgeways Books), and with J. Patrick Atherton, he edited George Whalley’s groundbreaking translation of Aristotle’s Poetics (McGill-Queen’s University Press).

He’s also my father, and I’m absolutely delighted to introduce his guest post on Fanny Price and Shakespeare for my “Invitation to Mansfield Park” series.

The oral reading of Shakespeare in Mansfield Park summons up a number of contrasts. Theatrical skills are seen in a positive light rather than the negative light of Lovers’ Vows. The disreputable Henry Crawford gives a command performance that is admired by the characters – and surely by the author too. And the ever-vigilant Fanny Price is caught off-guard. But what, exactly, captures her attention? And why is the play Henry VIII?

In spite of her best intentions, Fanny cannot resist the performance:

She could not abstract her mind for five minutes; she was forced to listen; his reading was capital, and her pleasure in good reading extreme. To good reading, however, she had been long used; her uncle read well – her cousins all – Edmund very well; but in Mr. Crawford’s reading there was a variety of excellence beyond what she had ever met with. The King, the Queen, Buckingham, Wolsey, Cromwell, all were given in turn; for with the happiest knack, the happiest power of jumping and guessing, he could always light, at will, on the best scene, or the best speeches of each; and whether it were dignity or pride, or tenderness or remorse, or whatever were to be expressed, he could do it with equal beauty. – It was truly dramatic. – His acting had first taught Fanny what pleasure a play might give, and his reading brought all his acting before her again; nay, perhaps with greater enjoyment, for it came unexpectedly, and with no such drawback as she had been used to suffer in seeing him on the stage with Miss Bertram.

– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 34 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005)

Mansfield Park, Cambridge edition

Edmund notices that she is enraptured, that her eyes are “fixed on Crawford, fixed on him for minutes, fixed on him in short till the attraction drew Crawford’s upon her,” and with a jealously acute memory (which is perhaps more than fraternal), he later recalls this moment and imagines it as proof of an erotic attachment: “who that heard him read, and saw you listen to Shakespeare the other night, will think you unfitted as companions?”

That the reading of Shakespeare in this context is erotic there is little doubt, even if it is not quite as Edmund imagines it. But if Fanny’s enjoyment of Henry’s acting is rather different from Maria Bertram’s enjoyment, what does it consist of? And who knew that Henry’s acting in Lovers’ Vows “had first taught Fanny what pleasure a play might give”? The rehearsal scenes for that play seemed to have occasioned mostly pain for Fanny, so that “pleasure” here comes as a surprise, and “first taught” implies that reading Shakespeare offers a second lesson similar to the first. How could the pleasures of Lovers’ Vows conceivably be aligned with the pleasures of Henry VIII?

Sarah SiddonsThe Cambridge editor John Wiltshire remarks that Henry VIII was in vogue during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, particularly with Sarah Siddons in the role of Queen Katherine, and he notes as well that “the play’s many ‘fine speeches’ by male characters, together with the absence of bawdy passages, probably also contributed to its popularity and its choice by JA for Fanny’s reading aloud.” One of the virtues of this note is in drawing attention to the fact that it is Fanny who first selects Henry VIII for reading aloud (to Lady Bertram), even if Henry Crawford takes over the performing of it, but the emphasis on the negative principle of an absence of bawdy language and the miscellaneous feel of many fine speeches tends to suggest a principle of selection (on the part of both author and character) that is rather more adventitious than artistically or psychologically purposeful.

Jane Austen herself also conspires to make the choice of play seem serendipitous when she has Henry exclaim, “I do not think I have had a volume of Shakespeare in my hand before, since I was fifteen. – I once saw Henry the 8th acted. – or I have heard of it from somebody who did – I am not certain which. But Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is part of an Englishman’s constitution.” Perhaps Austen, too, once saw Henry VIII acted or heard of it from somebody who did, though she is much less likely than Crawford to be uncertain which. In any case, it is worth considering more closely the versions she is likely to have known and the central role of Sarah Siddons that Wiltshire highlights.

A modern Shakespeare editor, Jay L. Halio, explains that “John Philip Kemble revived the play in 1788 after a twenty-year lapse, casting his sister, Sarah Siddons, in the role [of Queen Katherine] on Dr. Johnson’s recommendation” and that she was responsible for “a revolution in the representation of King Henry VIII, restoring the balance among principal characters that earlier eighteenth-century productions had lost in their emphasis upon the male leads.” Another critic, Hugh Richmond, argues that she “required of her fellow actors a shift in performance style toward the less ‘macho’ mode of interpreting Henry” that remains influential to this day.

King Henry VIII

If this is the performance style that Jane Austen knew, it seems plausible to assume that she deliberately chose the play because of a fundamental kinship between its heroine and the heroine of Mansfield Park. Both are women who may seem passive or inert from an external point of view, but who in reality are passionately devoted to their own deepest instincts and loyalties and who thus challenge the perspectives of the males in their circle.

At a general level, too, the play recommends itself because of its relentless investigation into the uses and abuses of power. Like Henry VIII, Mansfield Park presents a world in which love is hemmed in by a daunting array of powerful forces. Henry Crawford begins his pursuit of Fanny as a demonstration of his prowess, and when he becomes genuinely attracted to her, his sister represents that not as love but as triumph, celebrating “the glory of fixing one who has been shot at by so many; of having it in one’s power to pay off the debts of one’s sex.”

Fanny, of course, is not so interested in paying off the debts of her sex, but she is interested in a woman’s having the power to make her own choices, whatever forces of paternal and fraternal persuasion are arrayed against her.

Henry VIII

“I should have thought,” said Fanny, after a pause of recollection and exertion, “that every woman must have felt the possibility of a man’s not being approved, not being loved by someone of her own sex, at least, let him be ever so generally agreeable. Let him have all the perfections in the world, I think it ought not to be set down as certain, that a man must be acceptable to every woman he may happen to like himself.” (Chapter 35)

Fanny and Katherine are admittedly faced with very different dilemmas, but they are alike in strongly resisting male pressure to alter their feelings in accordance with the putative advantages of a social or political order.

Yet Henry VIII, unlike Lovers’ Vows, does not provide the individual characters of Mansfield Park with quite the same chance to act out or project their own peculiar wishes and desires; what really counts in the oral reading of Shakespeare is the opportunity to see things steadily and to see them whole. In Lovers’ Vows, too, while the other characters are preoccupied with their isolated parts, the lesson Fanny draws comes from the perspective that the acting of that play gives into the structure of her whole little world.

Her second lesson, from Shakespeare, is similar, and the pleasure Fanny takes from Henry’s acting is the vision it gives of a complete world: “The King, the Queen, Buckingham, Wolsey, Cromwell, all were given in turn.” Conspicuously, “the Queen” is included in Fanny’s list of characters; Shakespeare’s enchanting voices are not restricted to males who deliver many fine speeches. In the revolutionary representation of Queen Katherine by Sarah Siddons that Jane Austen is likely to have known lies a model of a female passion or desire which is capable of restoring a balance and which is put to surprising and creative use in Mansfield Park. Edmund is right to intuit that listening to Shakespeare is an erotic experience, though he doesn’t yet see how it all fits together, and he fails to understand, at this point, that it is he and not the masterful actor who is the ultimate target of that eroticism. It is all truly dramatic.

To read more about all the posts in this series, visit An Invitation to Mansfield Park. Coming soon: guest posts by Sharon Hamilton, Sara Malton, Margaret C. Sullivan, and Amy Patterson.

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