Persuasions #15, 1993                                                                                                                                          Pages 37-41


 Jane Austen’s Use of Measure for Measure

in Sense and Sensibility



Bishopston, Bristol, UK


In Mansfield Park, Edmund Bertram declares that “one is familiar with Shakespeare in a degree … from one’s earliest years.  His celebrated passages are quoted by every body … we all talk Shakespeare, use his similes, and describe with his descriptions.”1  Jane Austen certainly had a thorough knowledge of his work, and over the years a large amount has been written about Shakespeare’s influence on her novels and the significance of her allusions to his plays.  To cite just a few examples: Pride and Prejudice has been seen as drawing on Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo and Juliet; the significance of the allusion to Henry VIII in Mansfield Park has been discussed, and the novel’s possible indebtedness to King Lear explored; Emma appears to have been influenced by A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Persuasion has been compared with Twelfth Night, The Tempest, and the Sonnets.2  In Jane Austen’s last work, the uncompleted Sanditon, there may be fleeting recollections of Shakespeare in the literary mélange spouted by Sir Edward Denham, with his references to “samphire” (King Lear) and “mariners … overwhelmed by the sudden tempest”3 (The Tempest).

Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen’s first published novel, also contains references to Shakespeare.  Willoughby promises to keep for Marianne’s use a horse named “Queen Mab.”  This name may have been intended ironically.  In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio says of Queen Mab that


… she gallops night by night

Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love.4


Mercutio states that “dreamers often lie” (I, iv, 51);told “thou talk’st of nothing” (I, iv, 96) he replies “I talk of dreams” (I, iv, 96).  If the name “Queen Mab” recalls this exchange, then the implications are that Marianne’s hopes of future happiness with Willoughby will have all the substances of dreams, and that they will come to nothing.  Dream-lovers like Willoughby, like dreamers, can lie.

When Willoughby goes away unexpectedly from the vicinity of Barton, he leaves unfinished his reading of Hamlet.  Tony Tanner noted of this: “One guesses he had perhaps arrived at the point where Hamlet inexplicably rejects Ophelia.”5  As a result of this rejection, Ophelia goes mad, and commits suicide.  Willoughby’s rejection causes Marianne great emotional anguish and trauma, and she comes close to both breakdown and death; later she says that had she died, “it would have been self-destruction.”6  It may also be noted that the duel between Hamlet and Laërtes has its equivalent in the off-stage duel fought by Willoughby and Colonel Brandon over another of the former’s victims, Eliza.  Both the Shakespeare references therefore prefigure plot developments in the novel.

A play not mentioned in Sense and Sensibility, but which appears to have influenced it, is King Lear.  Cecil Seronsy has seen a parallel between King Lear II, iv, and chapter 2 of Sense and Sensibility.  In this scene in King Lear, Goneril and Regan tell their father that they will not accommodate his one hundred followers; they reduce the number that they regard as acceptable first to fifty, then to twenty-five, then ten, then five, and finally to none.  In chapter 2 of Jane Austen’s novel, John Dashwood, who has promised his dying father that he will assist his half-sisters and their mother, reduces this assistance, stage by stage, to nothing at all, under the influence of his wife.  Seronsy remarked that “common to both scenes are parsimony and meanness and the circumstances of children acting in bad faith.”7  King Lear I, i, may have influenced the first chapter of Sense and Sensibility: both deal with the unjust decisions of a foolish fond old man, and the consequent disinheritance of the virtuous.

However, despite all the attention that has been paid to Shakespearean sources, no critic seems to have noticed that the play with the most parallels in Sense and Sensibility is Measure for Measure, even though these parallels are considerable enough to suggest strongly that Jane Austen had the play in mind when writing her novel.

Marianne Dashwood resembles both Mariana and Isabella.  Like her near-namesake Mariana, she is the victim of a heartless jilt.  Like Mariana, too, she has been abandoned because her fortune is insufficient.  Mariana has withdrawn to the melancholy environment of her moated grange, where she broods on her desertion and her misery.  Marianne reacts in much the same way, hugging her unhappiness to herself, living as reclusively as possible in London.  Cleveland, the Palmers’ house in Somerset, to which she goes after leaving London, becomes her equivalent of the moated grange; there she indulges her misery with “solitary rambles” (303) and “twilight walks” (305) in damp weather.  Like Isabella, Marianne is very young (they are actually about the same age) and has all the absolutism of youth; Marianne’s very decided and rather unrealistic ideas about romance are the equivalent of Isabella’s pronounced, somewhat unworldly views on chastity.  Isabella’s religious enthusiasm – she is a novice nun – has its parallel in Marianne’s sensibility, her “passion for dead leaves” (88).  Both women experience a crisis which challenges, and indeed shatters, their world-view.  Isabella finds she cannot trust either Claudio or Angelo; Marianne is betrayed by the man she has trusted totally, Willoughby.

In Measure for Measure, Angelo is outwardly respectable; so too is Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility.  Angelo is both a jilt and a would-be seducer; Willoughby seduced Eliza in addition to jilting Marianne.  Angelo calls Isabella a “saint,” Willoughby says Marianne is an “angel.”  In both works, their guilty secrets are known to an older man – the Duke, Colonel Brandon – who, nevertheless, delays exposing them.

At the end of the play, Angelo is married to Mariana, the woman he has jilted.  In Sense and Sensibility, Willoughby’s marriage to Sophia makes it impossible – even were it desirable – for him to marry Marianne.  However, Elinor does feel a brief wish that he might be free to make amends, when he pays his remorseful visit to Cleveland; for a moment, the end of Measure for Measure is glimpsed.  (Jane Austen will use it, but with a different emphasis.)  Willoughby describes his wife as being like the “devil” and declares that “domestic happiness is out of the question” (332).  Jane Austen is here using marriage as a kind of punishment, and this recalls the end of Measure for Measure, where the Duke punishes Lucio by marrying him to a whore.  Isabella marries the Duke, an older man and a figure of authority, who has been handing out rewards and punishments in the final act.  Marianne marries Colonel Brandon, a man twice her age, who has punished Willoughby by duelling with him, and who has rewarded Edward Ferrars for his constancy by bestowing a living on him.

Maliciously comic unexpected substitutions occur in both works: by the “bed-trick” Angelo sleeps with Mariana rather than with Isabella; Lucy marries Robert rather than his brother Edward, deceiving the Ferrars family and sending a spitefully ambiguous message to Elinor.  These substitutions save Isabella and Elinor from what they each, respectively, fear most – Angelo’s touch, Edward’s marriage to Lucy.  In both works, too, the villain repudiates and humiliates a woman he has wronged in a public place: Willoughby when he encounters Marianne at a party, Angelo when confronted by Isabella before the assembled cast in the final act.

Both the Vienna of Measure for Measure and the London of Sense and Sensibility are capitals that are centres of cynicism and corruption; both the play and the novel depict darkly comic worlds in which money and illicit sex are dominant motivating factors.  (Possibly the name “Lucy” was suggested by “Lucio” – both are cynical worldlings.)  The shadow of death hangs over a character in both works – Claudio, Marianne.

Critics of both the play and the novel have objected to their endings, and in similar ways.  Charlotte Lennox, the eighteenth-century novelist and critic (whose work on Shakespeare Jane Austen possibly knew8) remarked that Measure for Measure was “absolutely Defective in a due Distribution of Rewards and Punishments.”9  John Halperin recently wrote that “There is no wholesale meting out of poetic justice at the end of Sense and Sensibility  The evil continue to prosper as unfailingly as the virtuous.”10  (It is possible to argue with both of these judgements: what is pertinent is their similarity.)  Reviewing the general critical tradition regarding Measure for Measure, Rosalind Miles noted that “Shakespeare has often been rebuked for distorting his characters in order to bring about a mindless and meaningless ‘happy ending’.”11  Tony Tanner has spoken for a number of critics of Sense and Sensibility when referring to “the weakest part of the book – the way Marianne is disposed of at the end.  She is married off to Brandon to complete a pattern …  Her energy is sacrificed to the overriding geometry.”12  It is possible that Jane Austen, writing a tragicomic novel, was deliberately imitating a Shakespearean tragicomedy in giving her work such an “unsatisfactory” ending.  Alternatively, assuming that she had recognized that there was a problem with Measure for Measure, she may have thought that she had solved her corresponding difficulty: after all, Marianne has long been aware of Colonel Brandon’s devotion, she has been chastened by illness, and is perhaps coerced by her family; in contrast, the Duke’s offer of marriage is sprung upon Isabella as unexpectedly as it is upon the audience.  But many critics have obviously still found the ending, despite the rationale, objectionable or unconvincing.

References to Shakespeare are frequent in eighteenth-century fiction, but not many novels are actually structured in imitation of his plays.  However, when Jane Austen first drafted Sense and Sensibility in 1795-96, and when she rewrote it in 1797-98 (the generally accepted dates: undoubtedly some revision was done later), she would have had the examples of two recent Gothic novelists to draw upon.  Ann Radcliffe’s works are saturated with Shakespeare, especially with the tragedies.  Shakespeare’s influence is especially notable in The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794).  Even more pertinently, in between drafts Jane Austen could have read Matthew Gregory Lewis’s novel The Monk (1796) – a work praised by John Thorpe in Northanger Abbey.  Ambrosio, the hero-villain of the novel, is beyond doubt modelled upon Angelo.  The extent to which Jane Austen rewrote Sense and Sensibility – originally entitled Elinor and Marianne and supposedly told in epistolary form – in 1797-98 is uncertain; it is possible that the idea of drawing upon Measure for Measure may have been a response to a reading of The Monk.  Whatever the truth, it is both an interesting comment upon the nature of literary indebtedness, and upon Shakespeare’s influence on the imaginations of two of his most creative readers, that two such different novels as The Monk and Sense and Sensibility should draw heavily upon the same source.





1 Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, ed. R. W. Chapman, 3rd edn. (London: Oxford U.P., 1934), 338.


2 For Much Ado About Nothing and Pride and Prejudice see Juliet McMaster, “Love and Pedagogy,” Jane Austen Today, ed. Joel Weinsheimer (Athens, Ga: U. of Georgia P., 1975), 64-92, and Jocelyn Harris, Jane Austen’s Art of Memory (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1989), 109-10; for Romeo and Juliet and Pride and Prejudice see Alan Hertz, “Dancing, Romeo and Juliet, and Pride and Prejudice,” Notes and Queries, ns 29 (1982), 206-08; for Henry VIII and King Lear and Mansfield Park see Margaret Kirkham, Jane Austen: Feminism and Fiction (Brighton: Harvester, 1983), 112-16; for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Emma see David Kubal, The Consoling Intelligence: Responses to Literary Modernism (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U.P., 1982), 33-51, and Harris, 169-87; for Twelfth Night and Persuasion see Richard Simpson, “Jane Austen,” North British Review 52 ( 1870), 144; for The Tempest and Persuasion see Nina Auerbach, “O Brave New World: Evolution and Revolution in Persuasion,” ELH 39 (1972), 112-13; for the Sonnets and Persuasion see Harris, 192.


3 Jane Austen, Minor Works, ed. R. W. Chapman (London: Oxford U.P., 1954), 398.


4 Romeo and Juliet, I, iv, 71.  All quotations are from: William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, ed. Peter Alexander (London: Collins, 1951).  Subsequent references are incorporated into the text.


5 Tony Tanner, “Introduction,” Sense and Sensibility (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), 24.


6 Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, ed. R. W. Chapman, 3rd edn.  (London: Oxford U.P., 1933), 345.  Subsequent references are incorporated into the text.


7 Cecil C. Seronsy, “Jane Austen’s Technique,”  Notes and Queries, ns 3 (1956), 305.


8 Jane Austen certainly knew her fiction; she refers to Charlotte Lennox’s novel The Female Quixote in a letter of January 1807; she had obviously read it before.  See Jane Austen’s Letters to her Sister Cassandra and Others, ed. R. W. Chapman, 2nd edn. (London: Oxford U.P., 1952), 173.


9 Charlotte Lennox, Shakespeare Illustrated, 3 vols. (London, 1753), I: 36-37.


10 John Halperin, The Life of Jane Austen (Brighton: Harvester,  1984), 84.


11 Rosalind Miles, The Problem of Measure for Measure (London: Vision, 1976), 22.


12 Tanner, 31.

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