“We were born in the same parish, within the same park, the greatest part of our youth was passed together; inmates of the same house, sharing the same amusement, objects of the same parental care.” (P&P 81)
“I know him as myself; for from our infancy
this is a story familiar to all Jane Austen readers: two gentlemen from the North of England cross paths while each is making his separate way through Hertfordshire, a county far from their homes in Derbyshire. “[B]orn in the same parish, within the same park” (81) and “nearly the same age” (200), the young gentlemen had been companions in their youth, but a series of betrayals by one man destroys the trust that existed between the families and causes an irreparable split between them. During their sojourns in Meryton, Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham find themselves attracted to the same young woman—a witty, independent girl who is at first deceived by the handsome appearance of one man and the ungentleman-like behavior of the other. Finally, love humbles even the proud and the prejudiced. Since this is a comedy, impossible matches become the reality.
Here is another two-gentlemen-on-the-road story: two provincial gentlemen, friends from their youth, leave Verona on separate journeys “To see the wonders of the world abroad” (1.1.6) and to seek their fortunes at the court of the Duke of Milan. One gentleman—Valentine—“after honour hunts”; the other, Proteus, whose treachery reveals him to be less of a gentleman than he first appears, seeks selfishly after his own pleasure. In Milan, both gentlemen fall in love with the Duke’s daughter, an independent, witty girl described by her father as “[p]roud, disobedient, stubborn, lacking in duty” (3.1.68-69), but Silvia is a young woman who sees true personal worth where others are deceived by first impressions. She rejects two “proposals”; she scorns ungentleman-like behavior. By the end of the tale, Love is revealed as “a mighty lord” whose sole purpose seems to be to “humble” the pride of young lovers and to transform them (2.4.134-35). Since this is a comedy, “nothing is impossible” (3.1.357), and the plot resolves in a double marriage that celebrates “One feast, one house, one mutual happiness” (5.4.174).
If we assume that Mr. Austen’s library included an edition of the complete plays by Shakespeare,1 it may very well be that Jane Austen came across The Two Gentlemen of Verona when she was a young reader. Shakespeare’s early play would perhaps have formed part of the informal education for a young person who had been taught to start reading Shakespeare’s plays from the beginning of a book, or even a multi-volume set, rather than in the middle. It is interesting, therefore, to speculate about what the young satirist would have found to her taste in this early play. Austen’s characters acknowledge a debt to Shakespeare: Henry Crawford asserts in Mansfield Park: “‘Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is part of an Englishman’s constitution.’” Edmund concurs: “‘one is familiar with Shakespeare in a degree . . . from one’s earliest years. . . . [W]e all talk Shakespeare, use his similes, and describe with his descriptions’” (338). What relationship might Austen see between her own fictional landscapes of Meryton and Pemberley and Shakespeare’s Verona and the Duke’s Court in Milan? What plot elements and characterizations might she have considered worthy of burlesque?
The parallels that critics have noticed between Shakespeare’s plays and Austen’s novels—the situational irony, the cadence of lines of dialogue, the motif of the star-crossed lovers, the theatrical entrances and exits—suggest not only that Austen consciously adapted fictional techniques from the dramatic form, but that she re-visioned Shakespearean themes in an early nineteenth-century context. It is also the case that issues that concerned Shakespeare’s theater-going public in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were similar to those that interested the novel-reading public of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Subsumed under the larger umbrella phrase called “human nature,” for example, are moral failings like greed, pride, and lust, and, for the gentry especially, the smooth running of society in both the Renaissance and the Romantic period hinges on well-made matches, class, and family responsibility. Shakespeare’s comic vision meshes these themes, and Jane Austen picks up where Shakespeare left off. She burlesques, parodies, and satirizes stock conventions; she appropriates characters and situations, especially from the romantic comedies—connections with Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, and As You Like It, for example, have long been established.2 John Wiltshire finds “that Jane Austen did learn a great deal from Shakespeare, but that she did not imitate him” (222); rather, Austen “quotes” and alludes to Shakespeare’s plays directly and indirectly. Austen uses what she needs and wants, “not by quietly absorbing and reflecting it,” Isobel Grundy notes, “but by actively engaging, rewriting, often mocking it” (190). Austen borrowed from Shakespeare to perfect her own very different art.
What would the young parodist have made of this particular play? While Pride and Prejudice echoes the general form and content of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies about young lovers, desire, dejection, and marriage, this novel also reflects more specifically themes that appear in The Two Gentlemen of Verona—the two-gentlemen-on-the-road motif, for example, which, as it is used in this play, allows for the long history between the men to become the ethical and moral backdrop for the love stories. When the two gentlemen of Derbyshire, as unlike in personality and demeanor as can be, arrive in Meryton, the community immediately establishes comparisons. These comparisons multiply because Wickham early on asserts his intimacy with the Darcy family and Pemberley: “‘You could not have met with a person more capable of giving you certain information . . . than myself,’” he tells Elizabeth, “‘for I have been connected with his family in a particular manner from my infancy’” (77). His authority as the historian is certified when he tells Elizabeth that he has known Mr. Darcy “‘too long and too well’”; proclaiming a special position of intimacy with the family, he says further that “‘the late Mr. Darcy was . . . the truest friend I ever had. . . . I verily believe I could forgive [Darcy] any thing and every thing, rather than his disappointing the hopes and disgracing the memory of his father’” (78). Wickham makes sure Elizabeth knows that his life is entailed by the long history of private family relationships; he focuses upon his special relationship with the son and with the patriarch of the family; he emphasizes friendship, inheritance promises, and disgrace, and, in so doing, he generates what seems to be an unassailable link with truth.
It is that intimate, lifelong, and familial connection—in essence, a demonstration of the way nurturing has from infancy linked these two gentlemen of Derbyshire—that I am interested in here, for Wickham’s systematic retaliation for what he perceives as his “‘great ill usage’” by Mr. Darcy begins as a pack of lies and half-truths about his relationship with the Pemberley family, and results in the kind of personal anti-“brotherly” betrayal that Shakespeare depicts in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. When Wickham claims the benefits of Mr. Darcy’s fatherly protection, he exposes through his own dastardly behavior the fatal flaws of his nature.
Austen, like Shakespeare, focuses on place and proximity. Not only are Darcy and Wickham from the north of England, from Derbyshire, they are from Pemberley, a magical-mythical place that forms the locus of personal, moral, and ethical values and behavior. As Austen sets her two gentlemen on the road south, she uses Pemberley as a touchstone that suggests perfection, peace, stewardship, responsibility, and generosity. By emphasizing the fact that the two gentlemen from Derbyshire, like the two gentlemen of Verona, have grown up as virtual brothers with shared values and ideas about responsibility and commitment, Austen opens up dramatic parallels between the natures of the two men and the women they court, and the plot reveals values in conflict. The action of the novel illustrates how each man evolves, how each man fits the concept of “gentleman”—particularly in terms of appearance vs. behavior, and how the radically different natures of two men are finally manifested when moral choices are made.
The ethos of improvement—that is, education in the ways of the world, leading toward knowledge of the self and others—permeates both works. Structurally, the outward journey—from Verona to Milan; from Derbyshire to Meryton; from Meryton to Derbyshire—tests the moral strength and discernment of the young people. Just as Shakespeare juxtaposes the social and class-bound differences between provincial Verona and sophisticated Milan, so also does Austen use the North/South divide to suggest cultural inconsistencies. In the first scene of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Valentine and Proteus enter the play together as loving friends and talk playfully of ambitions and love. Valentine is leaving Verona to attend the Duke’s court in Milan, where he will seek his fortune, but Proteus stays at home to pursue “all for love” (1.1.65). Very soon, however, Don Antonio, Proteus’s father, hears from his servant Panthino that there is some concern in Verona about Proteus’s “spend[ing] his youth at home,/While other men, of slender reputation,/Put forth their sons to seek preferment out” (1.3.5-7). Antonio has been “hammering” away at Proteus to get him to seek his fortune abroad, but Proteus seems unmovable; finally, he forces his son to get himself ready to leave Verona and see the wider world. If he lazes about, Antonio says, Proteus “cannot be a perfect man,/Not being tried and tutored in the world” (1.3.20-21); without travel and experience, he will remain a mere youth, noble, but unable to rank as a worthy companion for gentlemen who have tried their fortunes abroad. Antonio asserts that “Experience is by industry achieved” (1.3.23), and it is that combination of experience and industry that serves to make the best gentleman.
The journey from Verona to Milan—or, in general, to unknown places in the wider world—should promote a youth’s independence; introduce him to new ideas and new codes of behavior; and test his worth, his values, his morals, and his spirit. Metaphorically, the journey is a casting out and a new beginning. The journey should therefore serve to transform the travelers from untested, complacent youths to adults whose ideas about love, honor, and commitment are challenged and perhaps changed by new experiences. An indulgent father, Antonio has allowed Proteus “to spend his youth at home” (1.3.5), but to become a real gentleman worthy of the company of other gentlemen, Proteus, like Valentine, must leave his father’s house and test himself abroad. Antonio arranges for a protesting Proteus to travel with “gentlemen of good esteem” who are on their way to the court in Milan, and it is here that Proteus does indeed have his eyes opened to a grander vision and to different modes of behavior. At the Duke of Milan’s court, Proteus finds his psyche completely unsettled by the leisure, splendor, and liberality of the Duke’s household, and by the beauty of Silvia, the Duke’s daughter. But what is unsettling is the fact that Proteus and Valentine, friends from childhood, have completely opposing reactions to the glory of the Milanese court. If experiences with new people and new manners show Valentine that there are gracious and gentle ways to behave and to interpret the world, those same experiences at court turn Proteus into a predator and a liar.
The road that takes Darcy and Wickham from Pemberley to Meryton—and then, ultimately, to London, with a stop in Brighton for Wickham, of course—leads to life-changing encounters and events. Wickham, who would not apply himself to the study of law or the church, has settled into “a life of idleness and dissipation” (201). Pemberley, the locus of industry, good works, and application, as the reader understands from Mrs. Reynolds’s praise of Mr. Darcy’s activities as a good master and good brother, does not suit Wickham. He is quick to take the road away from Derbyshire. Meryton suits Wickham perfectly, with its relaxed atmosphere, bevy of marriageable girls, and round of balls and card parties. He finds himself easily accepted by the mothers of Meryton; he finds the easy life of the militia during peacetime perfectly consistent with his indolence. Proving himself to be, as Shakespeare would say, “sluggardized,” idle, and self-regarding, Wickham does nothing more than wear a red coat to please, and no one really notices his inertia, his laziness, or his calculating nature.
In Meryton, Wickham gambles, does not pay his bills, and tells bold-faced lies as he tries to capitalize on his connection with Pemberley, even as he betrays the master. With its standards of elegance and gentlemanlike behavior, Pemberley is regarded with awe by the community. Since the place itself inextricably links these two gentlemen from Derbyshire, it is a fact that both men understand the significance of the estate in terms of its social position and esteem. More importantly, passed from father to son is an appreciation of the values of stewardship, duty, and responsibility inherent in the estate. Yet, while Wickham pleases everyone with his open conversation, his handsome appearance in his red coat, and his easy manners, Darcy appears formidable because he lives up to its code in terms of his behavior. While Darcy is honest, punctilious, formal, ethical, and proud in his personal relationships, Wickham whiles away the time flirting with the girls and making himself a pleasant companion.3 Darcy suffers, like the perfect landlord he reveals himself to be, from an overwhelming sense of responsibility for his sister, his friends, his tenants, and his estate—and his sense of responsibility propels him into action on behalf of the Bennets when Wickham and Lydia elope. It is, perhaps, Darcy’s innate seriousness that makes him unpopular and therefore unsuited for Meryton—for games of chance, for long evenings of gossip and dancing, for frivolous conversations.
The drama of the novel reveals how travel away from one’s childhood home challenges the characters’ ingrained prejudices. The extended form of the triple-decker novel gives Austen room to develop more fully how the two gentlemen on the road cross paths when they arrive in Meryton, how one gentleman betrays the trust of the community, and how one gentlemen comes to a greater knowledge of himself and the world. When the two gentlemen of Derbyshire come face to face after their journeys south, the plot turns on appearances and reality, that is, on what it means to be a man whose integrity and honor qualify him to be recognized by society as a true gentleman. If, as Darcy says, a gentleman must act with “the wish of giving happiness” to others (366), Wickham’s status (like Proteus’s) is questionable.
As Elizabeth notes when she first sees Darcy’s estate, to be master or mistress of Pemberley is to be “something”; to be associated with Pemberley is to be imbued with particular values and modes of conduct—with standards of honor, respectability, elegance, liberality, and integrity. Darcy informs Elizabeth that “‘Mr. Wickham is the son of a very respectable man, who had for many years the management of all the Pemberley estates; and whose good conduct in the discharge of his trust, naturally inclined my father to be a service to him, and on George Wickham, who was his god-son, his kindness was therefore liberally bestowed’” (199). Darcy describes Wickham’s worth in terms of his respectable father, and so also does Valentine define the concept of gentlemanliness when he says that Don Antonio, the father of his friend Proteus, is a gentleman known “[t]o be of worth, and worthy estimation” (2.4.53-54). When Proteus first appears at the court of the Duke of Milan, Valentine, emphasizing the idea of “[f]amily pride, filial pride” (P&P 81), praises his childhood friend as “a son that well deserves/The honour and regard of such a father” (2.4.57-58). The father passes the legacy of respectability and trust to the son, but both Wickham and Proteus reject the responsibility that follows that legacy. It is this family trust that Wickham betrays at Pemberley, at Meryton, at Brighton, and in London. Initiated into the ethos as well as the largesse of Pemberley, George Wickham understands fully that his connections with Pemberley mean that he has certain ethical responsibilities, but all he is interested in is how the place can ease him into society and aid in his social advancement.
Both young men have a role model in Mr. Darcy senior, but has this father figure been, perhaps, too lenient, too indulgent with a charming boy whose flawed nature reveals that he needed more guidance? The elder Mr. Darcy is George Wickham’s god-father—his surrogate father; spiritually, then, Wickham takes the place of the younger son and ostensible “brother” to Darcy in the Pemberley “family.” Fitzwilliam Darcy’s future is circumscribed and preordained by patriarchal traditions, but Mr. Darcy (senior) offers Wickham (as his second “son”) his own choice of career path. What Wickham chooses centers solely on seeking his own pleasure. His individualism and egocentrism contrast with Darcy’s altruism, but Darcy’s actions show how moral, ethical, and social choices can match personal choices—including those leading toward happiness—and how right choices are the foundation of the society.
How does it happen, then, that Darcy is a man with a strong sense of honor, discipline, and duty, and Wickham is undisciplined and amoral? The liberality of Mr. Darcy (senior) has leveled boundaries for this young man. An attractive child and young man, he has been offered all the opportunities available to a man of his class and position—opportunities that were open as well to Shakespeare’s young gentlemen. Wickham has been educated at Cambridge (“Some to the studious universities” [TGV 1.3.10]); he has a commission as an officer of the King’s army (“Some to the wars to try their fortune there” [TGV 1.3.8]). But Wickham has not joined the army “to see the wonders of the world abroad”; like Proteus, he would probably prefer to live “dully sluggardized at home” in “shapeless idleness” (TGV 1.1.6-8). As Juliet McMaster points out, Wickham is “[a] gentleman’s son who must earn his living” within the rather limited choices (church, army, navy, law, and medicine) offered him (121)—and Wickham has tried these choices, only to give up when pleasure begins to require hard work. When he sells his living at Pemberley, his settled future, and buys a commission in the militia, he severs his connection with the spirit of the place. Pemberley has given him the essential ethical grounding for right behavior and the aura of gentlemanliness—we must remember that Elizabeth found him at first to be very attractive—but Wickham’s character is flawed. As a man he lacks the moral backbone to behave honorably.
To be a “gentleman’s son” or a “gentleman’s daughter” (P&P 356) is to accept the role of participant in a social class that conforms to codes. In Pride and Prejudice Austen performs a riff on the word “gentleman” and thus establishes an evocative verbal connection with The Two Gentlemen of Verona. For both Shakespeare and Austen, the comedy attendant on the idea of the “gentlemen” evolves from the juxtaposition of manners vs. attitude, class vs. physical appearance, charm vs. substance, nature vs. nurture. The gentlemen of Verona find that in Milan “worth” equals “welcome” (2.4.100), but in a play that focuses on the “fantasy of social mobility” (Smith 3), Shakespeare’s characters are from the very first lines conscious of their status. The dialogue reverberates with references to “the fair resort of gentlemen” (1.2.4), “gentlemen of good esteem” (1.3.40), “lovely gentlemen” (1.2.19). Valentine praises Proteus: “He is complete in feature and in mind,/With all good grace to grace a gentlemen” (2.4.71-72), but the play demonstrates how deceptive those graces of gentlemanlike appearance can be.
In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare underscores the ironic disparity between what the Duke refers to as the difference between “a gentleman of worth” (nurture) and “a gentleman of blood” (3.1.107; 121) (nature),4 and it is this discrepancy between perceived perfections and actual behavior that Austen dissects in Pride and Prejudice. Austen uses a variation of the word “gentleman” more than 80 times in Pride and Prejudice,5 and these are obviously not random word choices; rather, the repetition weaves an ironic web about what it means to be a real gentleman, and it also shapes the context of personal, moral, and ethical discovery and change. In one of the most important verbal exchanges in the novel, for example, Elizabeth wounds Darcy by accusing him of behaving in less than a “‘gentleman-like manner’” (192)—an accusation that so mortifies him that he repeats her words at the end of the novel, after she has accepted him. “‘Your reproof, so well applied, I shall never forget: “had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.” Those were your words,’” he tells her. “‘You know not, you can scarcely conceive, how they have tortured me’” (367). Myra Stokes points out that the “resonance of the word actually becomes a feature of the plot in Pride and Prejudice, where its utterance in indignation by Elizabeth to Darcy serves to change the current of all his powerful pride of birth (which is not a superficial pride) and make it run with instead of against his regard for her” (83). Throughout the novel, Austen uses the word “gentleman” to question contemporary ideas about birth, worth, and social mobility, and she carefully sets up a context for the theme of personal worth and social equality. Birth is one estimation of gentlemanliness; worth is another principle altogether.
Is Mr. Wickham a gentleman? In the same way that Proteus is welcomed intimately and extravagantly into the court of Milan, Wickham easily makes his way into the bosom of Meryton society. Both Proteus and Wickham present themselves as gentlemen: they achieve positions in society because they are attractive males, intriguing strangers, and glib flatterers. If society judges gentlemanliness on first impressions—more by the appearance than evidence of “worth”—then Wickham and Proteus can score highly. Wickham was nurtured by a respectable father and a doting god-father, he was raised well, and he looks good in his officer’s uniform: thus, his “countenance, voice, and manner, had established him at once in the possession of every virtue,” Elizabeth thinks (206). How is it that he can trick someone as discerning as Elizabeth likes to think herself to be? Like Proteus, Wickham presents himself well in society; like Proteus, he is a chameleon, a shape-changer whose treachery evolves from his own deeply ingrained character flaws. He never takes responsibility for his actions. Neither the goodness nor the good nature of others can improve either of their characters. Julia and Lydia, silly young women who take sexual and moral risks, are stuck with men bedazzled by other women. Both men have broken vows and betrayed the trust of friends. They have merely the outward guise—not the essential worth—of the gentleman.
It is significant, then, that Proteus succeeds in his plan to get Valentine expelled from the Duke’s court, and he goes so far as to suggest ways to turn Silvia’s love away from Valentine: “The best way is to slander Valentine,/With falsehood, cowardice, and poor descent—three things that women hold in hate,” says Proteus (3.2.31-33). Proteus recognizes, and as Wickham surely must, “’Tis an ill office for a gentleman” to slander a friend (3.2.40), yet Wickham slashes away at Darcy during his first substantive conversation with Elizabeth. Calling on his Pemberley connection by acknowledging being “‘connected with [Darcy’s] family in a particular manner from my infancy’” (77), Wickham blurts out to Elizabeth how Darcy “scandalously” snatched the living at Pemberley from him and disposed of it according to his own, not his father’s, will (78). Wickham blames Darcy, not himself, for the fact that he has been dislocated from gentleman of the church to officer of the regiment. “‘A man of honour,’” he reveals, would have conformed to the wishes of a father’s bequest, “‘but Mr. Darcy chose to doubt it. . . . [T]he fact is, that we are very different sort of men . . . ’” (79-80). Shocked, sympathetic, and somewhat dazzled by Wickham, Elizabeth censures Mr. Darcy: “‘I had supposed him to be despising his fellow-creatures in general, but did not suspect him of descending to such malicious revenge, such injustice, such inhumanity as this!’” (80). Wickham reminds her of class-bound prejudices, “‘Among those who are his equals in consequence, he is a very different man from what he is to the less prosperous. His pride never deserts him; but with the rich, he is liberal-minded, just, sincere, rational, honourable, and perhaps agreeable,—allowing something for fortune and figure’” (82). Only later does Elizabeth question “the impropriety of such communications to a stranger. . . . She saw the indelicacy of putting himself forward as he had done, and the inconsistency of his professions with his conduct” (207). How ironic it is that Darcy does in fact turn out to be a “man of honour,” generously “liberal-minded, just, sincere, rational, honourable, and perhaps agreeable.” Disgusted by Wickham’s actions with Lydia, his own inherent sense of honor and justice offended by a man born and bred at Pemberley, Darcy forces Wickham ultimately to marry Lydia.
Wickham’s violation of the trust the Darcy family has given to the Wickham family corresponds to Proteus’s contemptuous treatment of his friend Valentine; and Wickham’s treacherous behavior to the Bennet family, especially his insincere courting games with Elizabeth and his dishonorable elopement with Lydia, corresponds to Proteus’s violation of the gentlemanly code of chivalric behavior to women. Seducers and betrayers, both Wickham and Proteus play simultaneously with the emotions of two women. For Wickham, it is less the heat of love than the glint of sterling that drives his attention from Georgiana Darcy to Elizabeth to Miss King to Lydia. What compels him to violate the codes of hospitality and trust and to take Lydia from his own Colonel’s house? What possesses him to break the bonds linking him to Meryton society—the society so accepting of him when he first made his appearance among the other officers—and to run off with a very silly, flirtatious girl? Does the rage of erotic love countermand his reason?
Like Julia, who has her heart set on having Proteus, Lydia has her heart set on having Wickham, and she will have him whatever way she can. Lydia’s willingness to transgress and her flagrant sexiness tempt Wickham, a man who has shown himself to be in constant pursuit of diversion. He succumbs easily to the romp of running off with the “stout, well-grown girl of fifteen” (45). This gentleman’s lack of active principle—his general desire to be at ease—seems to suggest that the elopement was more Lydia’s plan than his own. But in running off with the importunate Lydia, Wickham violates the trust of his officer and subjects the Bennet family to the disapprobation of a judgmental society, and he seems only to pay the price of marriage to a silly young woman. On the couple’s first visit to Longbourn after their marriage, the elder sisters are astonished by his sense of entitlement, which confirms for Elizabeth the “impudence of an impudent man” (315-16). In the chapter that chronicles this nuptial visit, Austen relies on dramatic repetition to heighten the embarrassment of the episode. “The easy assurance of the couple,” Wickham’s “easy address,” his “good-humoured ease,” as well as Lydia’s “ease and good spirits,” suggest an amorality that emphasizes their self-interest rather their concern for the welfare of family or community.
At the end of the play, in a scene that is shocking for its eroticism as well as for its incipient sexual violence, Proteus threatens to woo Silvia “like a soldier,” to “force” her to yield to his desire (5.4.57,59). This molestation—this rape scene—darkens the comedic texture of the play. The thematic connection with Wickham, a soldier who cannot be trusted with fifteen-year-old girls, is therefore even more striking. Valentine and Darcy both step in to save the young women, but the play’s ambiguous ending can be unsettling, for in fewer than twenty lines Proteus asks for Valentine’s forgiveness and is summarily forgiven, and then, in one of the strangest reconciliation scenes in literature, Valentine offers Silvia to Proteus—as if she were a pawn or a possession.
In what seems to be a major flaw in the play, Silvia remains completely silent after Proteus threatens to force her to yield to him; she has no voice in the play for the last 115 lines (TGV 203). By giving Elizabeth Bennet such a strong voice in Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen creates a more complex and realistic ending. Not only does Elizabeth express her mind and opinions to Mr. Collins, Mr. Darcy, and Lady Catherine, she also has the last “speech” in the text—she tells Darcy that she must write a letter to her aunt .6  In fact, the ending of Pride and Prejudice stretches out to complete the story in a most satisfactory way; there is little sense of the phony reconciliation that hurries Shakespeare’s play to its conclusion.
At the end, in both the play and the novel, the double marriages seem to restore order and smooth the social fabric both in Milan and Meryton, but in the novel, Austen avoids scenes of reconciliation and instead questions if it is possible to restore order through marriage. Juliet Prewitt Brown points out the way “the celebratory atmosphere of the closing chapters” reflects the conclusion to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro (63). The conclusion to the novel takes the unsatisfactory ending of The Two Gentlemen of Verona a step further. The impossible perfection of “One feast, one house, one mutual happiness” (5.4.174) provides a framework for Austen’s sense of burlesque. She rejects in particular a vision of social concord and brotherly affirmation at the expense of thematic exposition; she avoids the sentimental romanticizing of conventional endings. Rather, the last chapter of Pride and Prejudice serves as an extended counterpoint to that last line of the play. There is, of course, one feast, for Mrs. Bennet “got rid” of two daughters on one day, but there is no artificial reconciliation or expression of brotherhood between Darcy and Wickham. Austen’s ending is more punitive, suggesting as it does a serious critique of what is forgivable behavior and a realistic vision of social discord and disunity. Wickham remains, in Launce’s parlance, “vanished”—banished from social interaction with the Bennet and Darcy families, but still there as a dependent relation, a less than noble kinsman.
Austen’s tone is more ironic than Shakespeare’s, especially in her description of the celebrations of the two marriages. The Duke, brought into the play as a deus ex machina with only fifty lines remaining, abruptly and ludicrously pardons everyone for their transgressions and announces that the “rare solemnity” of the marriage day will be celebrated with “triumphs” and “mirth” (5.4.162). If we compare the language of this reconciliation with the way Mrs. Bennet “got rid” of her two eldest daughters, we can uncover Austen’s anti-Romantic approach to finishing her story. The solemnization or “accomplishment” of these marriages does nothing to create harmony in Meryton by making “[Mrs. Bennet] a sensible, amiable, well-informed woman for the rest of her life . . . (385). Mr. Bennet spends a great deal of his time at Pemberley; Bingley and Jane move to the north of England; Kitty improves herself and her chances by spending more time at the homes of her sisters; Mary stays at home but mixes more with society; Lydia and Wickham remain unchanged—untransformed. And Wickham remains banished from Pemberley.
Hearing another unconscious or conscious echo of Shakespeare in Austen’s novels can add to our enjoyment of the nuances of Austen’s language and the subtlety of her motifs; identification of an echo can help us understand how eighteenth- and nineteenth-century authors used anew the works of the past. Austen might even be said to be in a dialogue not only with Richardson and Johnson but with Shakespeare as well. Trusting her well-read audience to recognize allusions, Austen repeatedly expands the Shakespearean plot triangles of the comedies, and in Pride and Prejudice, she extends the motif of the lovers’ pursuit. Just as she enhances such stock Renaissance themes as unrequited love, betrayal, male friendship, inconstancy, banishment, and social mobility, Austen constructs plots that continue to resonate with readers because of her psychological insight into the very ordinariness of human actions. The arc of action in both the play and the novel separates the two gentlemen who have been linked since birth by their natural proximity; the action then brings them into a fierce confrontation—Valentine interferes when Proteus attempts to molest Silvia; Darcy interferes when Wickham tries to seduce Georgiana and when he balks at marrying Lydia; the resolution comes with couples marrying.
By putting her two gentlemen from Derbyshire on the road that will change their lives, Jane Austen perhaps had in mind the idea of parodying the plights of the two bachelor gentlemen of Verona who set out to see the splendors of the Court of Milan and find themselves married by the end of the play. In both the play and the novel, the best gentleman—the gentleman with the best nature—gets the best girl. It is an old story of a base betrayer and a coming to knowledge, but even the most hackneyed themes and characters could be transformed by the young novelist who used what she wanted and tossed out the rest. As Grundy points out, “Austen takes familiarity with Shakespeare for granted” (196), to the extent that when Austen zeroes in on the weaknesses of a play that is rarely performed today, and which critics find to be a pastiche of mistakes and inconsistencies, she can transform stock characters and situations into a great comic masterpiece that has remained one of the most popular, most perfectly conceived novels.
1. Susan Allen Ford has pointed out to me that during the late eighteenth century people would ordinarily purchase the multi-volume editions of Shakespeare’s plays. It is unknown which edition Mr. Austen had in his library.
2. Whately, Macaulay, and Simpson are the seminal writers who set modern critics on a quest to identify the ways in which Austen referenced, quoted, burlesqued, parodied, transformed, and alluded to Shakespearean texts in her novels, and contemporary critics such as Roger Gard, Nina Auerbach, Jocelyn Harris, Isobel Grundy, Paula Byrne, Penny Gay, and John Wiltshire have expanded the ways in which we work with those allusions.
3. The nature/nurture motif applies as well to comparisons of the behaviors of Elizabeth and Lydia, but this is a subject for another paper.
4. Note that in TGV the comedy about gentlemanliness extends to the outlaws’ debate. When Valentine is exiled from the court, Shakespeare’s hilarious outlaws accept him because in the “wilderness” outside the city of Milan, they recognize Valentine as “a proper man” (4.1.10) who has “an honourable mind” (5.3.13). Some of these outlaws own themselves to be dispossessed gentlemen, and they see that Valentine is “beautified/With goodly shape . . . /A linguist, and a man of such perfection /As we do in our quality much want” (4.1.55-58). While the court, ruled by a Duke who is blind to essentials, harbors fools like Sir Thurio and scoundrels like Proteus, the outlaws in the wilderness maintain order through observation of strict codes of honor. When Darcy is rebuffed by Meryton society, he, too, becomes a kind of outcast; Lady Catherine’s choice of venue for her diatribe about the class and status of the Bennet family is the “wilderness” at Longbourn.
5. In Emma, another novel that focuses on codes of society and constructions of “gentlemanlike” behavior, these words appear approximately 50 times; in the other novels they appear with less frequency.
6. In Pride and Prejudice Austen uses an epistolary technique similar to that in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.  Letters in both works serve comedic as well as serious purposes. If Silvia is wooed by a hand-delivered letter, a love letter written by Valentine on her own direction, then Elizabeth is wooed by the letter Darcy conveys by his own hand.  Darcy’s long letter detailing the circumstances of the past will transform her opinion of him. Jane’s letter to Elizabeth during her visit to Derbyshire details Wickham’s treachery; Aunt Gardiner’s letter about the marriage arrangements for Wickham and Lydia details Darcy’s active involvement. Note that Lydia’s letter “reports” on her own elopement.  The reader garners details only from Lydia’s uninformed point of view, and the reader does not get the gentleman’s version of the circumstances.
Austen, Jane. The Novels of Jane Austen. 3rd ed. Ed. R. W. Chapman. Oxford: OUP, 1986.
Grundy, Isobel. “Jane Austen and Literary Traditions,” in The Cambridge Campanion to Jane Austen. Eds. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster. Cambridge: CUP, 1997. 189-210.
McMaster, Juliet. “Class,” in The Cambridge Campanion to Jane Austen. Eds. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster. Cambridge: CUP, 1997. 115-30.
Shakespeare, William. The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Ed. Norman Sanders. London: Penguin Books, 1997.
Smith, Bruce R. “Two Gentlemen of Verona: Love and a Bit with a Dog,” in Asides: The Shakespeare Theatre playbill, Issue 4, 2000-2001. 2-3.
Stokes, Myra. The Language of Jane Austen. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.
Taylor, Michael. Introduction. The Two Gentlemen of Verona Ed. Norman Sanders. London: Penguin Books, 1997.
Wiltshire, John. “‘The Hartfield Edition’: Jane Austen and Shakespeare.” Persuasions 21 (1999). 212-23.