Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus: Extreme Comedy

[Between 2006 and 2016 I wrote a number of short articles for the magazine of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, Around the Globe. Strangely, though, I only saw my first production at the Globe this year, when my daughter Gracie took me to see King Lear performed by the incomparable Kathryn Hunter under the direction of Helena Kaut-Howson. The experience made me think I should publish my Globe essays on this blog, in the hope they may remind a few readers of the productions staged at the playhouse through all those years when I couldn’t see them. This is the first, on a play for which I’ve always had a soft spot since seeing it in the 1970s with Imogen Stubbs as a handless, tongueless Lavinia.

The following piece comes with multiple trigger warnings: rape, mutilation, murder, cannibalism and more.]

Shakespeare’s Globe

Ancient Rome lay at the heart of the Elizabethan grammar school system. At Stratford grammar school Shakespeare would have learned to see Roman culture as the source of all good writing, the touchstone by which any modern society must measure the degree to which it could claim to be civilised. So when Shakespeare set his first non-English tragedy, Titus Andronicus, in Rome, one might have expected him to approach the subject with timidity: a little over-awed by the sheer weight of expectation that must accompany any theatrical dealings with the supreme exponents of theatre, a little abashed at the prospect of testing his rhetorical skills on the historical home of rhetoric…

Not a bit of it.

Shakespeare dealt with the anxiety of influence by cocking a snook at Rome. Instead of drawing on Roman history he invented a story of his own, rewriting the decline and fall of the Empire as a series of violent set-pieces, riddled with derisory laughter. He responded to the belief that ancient Italy was the cradle of civilization by depicting it as fundamentally barbaric. And he mocked the solemn attitude of his old schoolmasters by filling his play with allusions to the schoolroom, where an appreciation for Latin had been beaten into him with a stick. In Titus, Shakespeare had the temerity to laugh at the culture that shaped him; and having done that so early in his career, it must have seemed to his Elizabethan audience that he was capable of anything.

On the face of it, Titus deals with the infiltration of a great metropolis by the forces of barbarism, as the Queen of the Goths Tamora and her Moorish lover Aaron take a terrible revenge on the Roman general Titus for subjecting them to the humiliation of a military defeat. But as the plot unfolds it becomes clear that barbarism was already endemic in the Empire long before the Goths came on the scene. In the first act, Titus presides over a bloody ritual that horrifies Tamora: the sacrificial killing of an unarmed prisoner-of-war, Tamora’s eldest son; and in the last, he perpetrates a series of atrocities that puts all her crimes in the shade. Between these framing acts of violence, the Empire’s affinity with barbarism signals itself repeatedly: among other things, in the speed with which the Roman Emperor Saturninus woos and marries Tamora, and the ease with which the Romans catch on to the lesson she has to teach them, which is about the intimate relationship between revenge and laughter. This was a topic that fascinated Shakespeare throughout his career, from The Merchant of Venice to Twelfth Night, from Hamlet to The Tempest. And in all his work it is the Roman general Titus who is its bloodiest exponent.

Laura Rees as Lavinia in the 2006 Globe production of Titus Andronicus

Aaron and Tamora see themselves as teachers, instructing Tamora’s surviving sons in the art of comic vengeance. Summing up his career in Act Five, Aaron explains how he taught the boys to read Ovid’s Metamorphoses – one of the standard books in the Elizabethan school curriculum – as an instruction manual in the art of rape. From it they learn to rape Titus’s daughter Lavinia, then cut off her hands and tongue to prevent her revealing their crime. The Moor finds this ghastly prank hilarious: Lavinia, he says, was ‘washed and cut and trimmed’ by barbarous barbers, and it was ‘Trim sport’, he adds, ‘for them which had the doing of it’. Later, he framed two of Titus’s sons for murder, then tricked the old general into cutting off his own hand in a vain attempt to save them from execution. As Aaron puts it, he ‘played the cheater’ for Titus’s hand – a cheater being at once a swindler, an officer of the crown and a cant word for hand – ‘And when I had it drew myself apart / And almost broke my heart with extreme laughter’. Afterwards Aaron and Tamora celebrated the downfall of the Andronici in an orgy of sex and merry-making: ‘when I told the Empress of this sport / She swoonéd almost at my pleasing tale / And for my tidings gave me twenty kisses’. Clearly, reading the Roman classics in a certain way could have quite the opposite of a civilizing influence; and this is a way of reading that Titus takes to heart. For Aaron is Titus’s tutor too, teaching him through a series of sledgehammer blows to abandon the excessive respect for time-honoured custom with which he began the play, and to discover instead the terrible power of comic improvisation.

The turning point in Titus’s fortunes comes in the middle of the play, when he learns to join in the monstrous mirth provoked by the Moor’s atrocities. This happens at the moment when a messenger comes in carrying the heads of his executed sons, together with Titus’s hand, which Aaron lopped off on the old man’s orders in a bid to procure his sons’ release. As the messenger says, the judges who refused to spare the boys made ‘Thy grief their sports, thy resolution mocked’. And it’s by mimicking this grotesque conversion of grief to jest that Titus finds the path to vengeance. His brother Marcus tells him that this is the proper moment to vent his sorrows: ‘Now is the time to storm’. Instead Titus bursts into peals of hysterical laughter, stinging Marcus into an offended inquiry: ‘Why does thou laugh? It suits not with this hour’. But Titus’s mistimed merriment signals his readiness to take part in the appalling comedy set in motion by Tamora and her lover. Grief is powerless, he tells his brother, making his eyes ‘blind with tributary tears’ and obscuring the path to ‘Revenge’s cave’. Laughter, by contrast, serves as the perfect means of blurring his enemies’ vision, while leaving his own sight clear to seek out the nastiest and most appropriate form of retribution.

Poster for Julie Taymor’s extraordinary movie Titus, 1999

The revenge he chooses wittily completes the story from the Metamorphoses that Aaron chose to dramatize when he plotted the rape and mutilation of Lavinia. After a series of comic performances – filling Rome with satirical taunts aimed at Tamora and her Emperor husband, pretending not to recognize Tamora and her sons when they visit him in disguise – Titus stages a banquet as the final act of his comedy, a grotesque parody of the feast of reconciliation that closes the traditional comic plot. In it, he serves up Tamora’s sons to their mother, baked in a pie: a scene that recalls the tale of Philomela, in which her sister Procne killed and cooked a rapist’s son, then served him to his father in a stew. The Gothic Queen is being forced to eat her words: after all, it was she and her sons who first liberated Philomela from Ovid’s pages. Her death at the climax of this cannibalistic supper demonstrates the success of Titus’s scheme to stun her into silence, finally putting an end to the pernicious cycle of comic vengeance she helped to spark off.

Except that Tamora and Aaron, and the horrendous form of comedy they practise, are not so easily suppressed. As the ‘breeders of these dire events’, the couple have also bred a healthy baby in the course of the play; and Aaron’s last trick on the Romans is to make them swear that they will raise the child as one of their own. The offspring of the two notorious pranksters survives the play along with Titus’s grandson, and both branches of the Roman family were adopted by the Elizabethans, who indoctrinated their own offspring in the ways of ancient Rome. The inheritance from that Empire is an unsettling one, and in stressing its unsettling nature Shakespeare makes his audience rethink the concept of civilization, and whether they can claim – or would ever wish to claim – to aspire to the Roman brand of it. Titus Andronicus is a funny play as well as a savage one. its humour is in poor taste; but who says that history, politics, myth, or even good drama have to be tasteful?

The famous drawing of Titus Andronicus by Henry Peacham, 1595

 

Puck, Dreams and the Devil

[This article first appeared as ‘Dreams, Freedom of Speech, and the Demonic Affiliations of Robin Goodfellow’ in the Journal of the Northern Renaissance, Issue 1.1 (March 2009), pp. 129-44, and was reprinted by Cengage Learning in Shakespearean Criticism, vol. 139 (2011). I put it here to sit alongside a number of other pieces on the early modern fantastic.]

Henry Fuseli, Robin Goodfellow

1.  Robin Goodfellow in Athens

In darkness, Nashe tells us in The Terrors of the Night (1594), mortals are more vulnerable to the machinations of the devil than they ever are by daylight.[1] Dreams and night visions weave Satan’s most cunning ‘nets of temptation’ (p. 210), and after sunset one’s eyes turn into magnifying glasses, so that ‘each mote… they make a monster, and every slight glimmering a giant’ (p. 239), multiplying the viewer’s proneness to delinquency and despair.  For the Elizabethan anti-theatrical lobby, on the other hand – as represented by pamphleteers like Stephen Gosson, Phillip Stubbes and William Rankins – it’s drama rather than dreams that constitutes the Devil’s weapon of choice in the unceasing siege he lays to the human mind and spirit.  Plays, they claim, constitute an elaborate imaginative trap whereby Satan lulls the citizens of London into a false sense of security, then ambushes their souls through the unguarded portals of the senses.[2]  So when in about 1595 Shakespeare wrote a comedy called A Midsummer Night’s Dream and crammed it full of spirits, damned or otherwise, he was playing a witty game with the fears of Gosson and his fellow thespiphobes.[3]  What I shall argue here is that the game he played in the Dream was already in full swing among the pamphlets and printers’ shops of 1590s London, and that the appearance of Robin Goodfellow in the woods of Athens would instantly have alerted his first audiences to Shakespeare’s participation in it.

Puck’s presence in the Dream has long been something of a puzzle – whether acknowledged as such or simply ignored.  Classical creatures had found their way into the English landscape often enough in Elizabethan culture before Shakespeare started writing: the transformed Philomene had warbled in English woods in Gascoigne’s verse satire The Steel Glass (1576), Neptune had terrorized Humberside in John Lyly’s play Gallathea (c. 1588), the sea-god Glaucus had moped by the banks of the Thames in Thomas Lodge’s poem Scilla’s Metamorphosis (1589).  But Shakespeare’s transplanting of Robin Goodfellow to some woods near Athens was the first time (to my knowledge) that a figure from English folk legend had been relocated to the Mediterranean, and the implications of that relocation have not yet, I think, been fully worked out.  For one thing, as a peculiarly northern forest-dweller Robin may have had some effect on the relationship between night and day in his new, more southerly setting.  Nashe reminds us in The Terrors of the Night that nights are longer in the north, and especially in Iceland, where witches and wizards are plentiful and possess an enviable power over local weather-conditions (p. 223).  The Dream transplants those northern nights to Greece, curtailing daylight hours and extending the shortest night in the year to giant proportions.  Four days and four nights are supposed to have passed between the first and last scenes of the comedy, whereas the audience experiences only two – and has no idea which of those two is the midsummer night of the title.  Robin Goodfellow seems the obvious person to blame for this hypertrophied period of darkness, since he is associated in folk tradition with night, dreams, trickery and Devilish magic.  Moreover, he had an unusually high profile in print during the early 1590s, featuring everywhere as a spirit who transcends the normal boundaries of space, time, life and death.  It’s only by recovering this profile that we can hope to understand his function in Shakespeare’s ancient Greek extravaganza.

2. Puck in Print

For the Elizabethans, Robin possessed a strange double nature, as the embodiment both of English Catholic superstition in the past and of an innocent native cheerfulness that had been lost with the advent of continental sophistication in the present.[4] Reginald Scot paints him in the former light in The Discovery of Witchcraft (1584), where he features as a bugbear whose ability to terrorize night-wandering papists has been stripped from him by Protestant rationalism: ‘Robin goodfellowe ceaseth now to be much feared, and poperie is sufficientlie discovered’ (sig. B2v).  The poet William Warner concurs with Scot. His Robin is a spirit who appears like an incubus to sleeping mortals, and in the fourteenth book of Warner’s digressive epic Albion’s England (published in 1606) Robin sits naked on the face of a dormant shepherd and laments the good old days of Mary’s reign, when English Catholics everywhere believed in him: ‘Was then a merrie world with us when Mary wore the Crowne, / And holy-water-sprinkle was beleevd to put us downe’.[5]  But Warner’s Robin is also a blunt teller of unwelcome truths to Protestants.  He goes on to utter a satirical invective against the various forms of hypocrisy prevalent in the reigns of Elizabeth and James, thus revealing himself to have as much of the satyr as of the demon about him.

This is hardly surprising, since by the time Warner painted this picture of him in 1606 Robin had long been associated with satire as well as with drama, dreams and devils.  Robin’s conversion into a satirist is in fact inextricably bound up with his theatrical associations.  In a pamphlet of 1590 called Tarlton’s News out of Purgatory the ghost of the late great comic actor Richard Tarlton appears to the anonymous author in a dream, and sooths his terror at this visitation by reassuring him that he is no devil, but a homely spirit like the noted goblin: ‘thinke mee to bee one of those Familiares Lares that were rather pleasantly disposed then indued with any hurtfull influence, as Hob Thrust, Robin Goodfellowe and such like spirites (as they terme them of the buttry) famozed in everie olde wives Chronicle for their mad merry pranckes’ (p. 2).  As a substitute Robin, Tarlton links himself with Catholicism – but a Catholicism defused of the terrors of damnation with which it had been charged by Protestant dogma.  When the author asks the dead clown’s ghost how it has managed to visit the land of the living, given the Calvinist belief that ‘the soules of them which are departed… never returne into the world againe till the generall resurrection’ (pp. 2-3), Tarlton contemptuously dismisses Calvinist doctrine as unhealthily dualistic.  His spirit, like the spirit of Hamlet’s father, inhabits Purgatory, the third alternative to heaven and hell, vouched for by the great poet ‘Dant’ as well as by ‘our forefathers’ and ‘holy Bishops of Rome’ (p. 3) – hence its ability to return now and then to the earth’s surface. In this way the clown blithely sweeps aside decades of religious conflict; and he goes on to tell a string of stories under the aegis of a non-judgemental version of the afterlife which permits the free flow of merry tales between this world and the next, regardless of theology.  His stories may stink of sulphur but they are ‘rather pleasantly disposed then indued with any hurtfull influence’; and in telling them he dismisses out of hand the didactic goody-goodies who saw all such stories – on stage or on the page – as works of Satan.

Tarlton’s News was ‘published’, according to its title-page, by an ‘old Companion’ of Tarlton’s, Robin Goodfellow – the spirit with which the ghost of Tarlton links itself.  It seems fitting, then, that when an anonymous ‘Cobbler’ wrote a story-collection of his own (The Cobbler of Canterbury (1590)), and prefaced it with a light-hearted attack on the shortcomings of Tarlton’s News, Robin Goodfellow should have penned a response to the cobbler’s preface, which was printed immediately after it in the first edition.  Here the goblin takes the cobbler’s objections to his publication as a sign of the times, when respect for good manners has been utterly eroded since the happy days when he was ‘so merry a spirit of the Butterie’, helping maids to grind malt and getting a ‘messe of Creame’ for his labour (sig. A4r).  The inhospitable spirit of Elizabethan England has driven Robin to a self-imposed exile in Purgatory along with his old friend Tarlton.  It has also made him devilishly vindictive, though not frighteningly so: he promises to ‘haunt’ the cobbler ‘in his sleepe, and after his olde merrie humour, so to playe the knave with the Cobler, that hee shall repent hee medled so farre beyond his latchet’ (sig. A4r).  Damnation and hauntings have here been reduced to pretexts for comic squabbling and trickery, quite bereft of the fear with which the established churches sought to invest them.

Robert Greene in his shroud

At this point in our story the immensely popular writer of romances and comedies Robert Greene gets mixed up with Puck’s Elizabethan biography.  Evidently a rumour went round that Greene had written The Cobbler of Canterbury, and to deny this rumour Greene wrote a pamphlet called Greene’s Vision (1592) in which he is visited in his sleep by the ghosts of Chaucer and Gower, who debate the merits and demerits of Greene’s prolific scribblings.[6] At the end of the dispute the spirit of King Solomon appears and elicits a promise from Greene that he will from henceforth devote himself to theology; and perhaps for this reason Greene did not publish the pamphlet in his lifetime, reluctant to commit himself to such a career-changing volte-face until he had exhausted the profitable vein of fiction he was still working at the end of his life.  When it did appear, the pamphlet reintroduced the fear of hell into the dialogue between pamphleteers, since it opened with a section where Greene articulates his  ‘trouble of minde’ in distinctly Faustian terms: ‘can the hideous mountaines hide me, can wealth redeeme sinne, can beautie countervaile my faults, or the whole world counterpoyse the balance of mine offences?’[7]  Greene’s fellow pamphleteer Barnaby Rich pounced on this hint at Greene’s posthumous fate, and described him in Greene’s News both from Heaven and Hell (1593) as wandering between Heaven and Hell in search of the happy third location, Purgatory, where he can escape damnation while retaining all the venial faults that made him so attractive a writer in his lifetime.  (On his journey he meets Dick Tarlton, who has now become Lucifer’s resident satirist-entertainer.)  The devil finally expels Greene’s ghost from hell at the request of the cony-catchers he exposed in his final pamphlets; and at this point Greene is transformed into a particularly aggressive incarnation of our old friend Robin Goodfellow, a spirit who troubles the nocturnal wanderings of living sinners.  ‘I woulde therefore wish my friendes,’ he declares, ‘to beware howe they walke late a nights, for I will bee the maddest Gobline, that ever used to walke in the moonshine’ (sig. H3r), haunting the sleep of women and persuading them to cuckold their husbands, infecting men of all occupations with the spirit of avarice so that they will do anything to amass wealth for their heirs, and urging lawyers, courtiers and clergymen to persevere in the corrupt practices already rife in their professions.  Robin has resumed his mantle as a night-dwelling satirist; but by now he trails in his wake the ghosts of clowns and popular authors, whose activities had been denounced as devilish by the theatre- and fiction-haters along with Robin himself.  The implication here as elsewhere is that the target of the moralists has been badly misjudged, and that they have wasted their energies in denouncing fictions and the makers of fictions, when in fact these are far more effective and energetic in attacking social abuses than they are.

For all his residence in a fictitious Catholic Purgatory, then, Robin Goodfellow was seen as mostly harmless by Shakespeare’s predecessors in popular print.  Indeed, he was represented as the victim of a miscarriage of justice, sharing with the common people of England the burden of an inequitable social and legal system, and endowed with gifts that enable him to expose these inequities.  In the anonymous pamphlet Tell-Troth’s New Year’s Gift (1593) he joins forces with the honest narrator Tell-troth to denounce the operations of jealousy or envy at every level of the English commonwealth.  Here he is characterised as ‘Robin good-fellow… who never did worse harme, then correct manners, and made diligent maides’ (sig. A2r), a kind of incorruptible agent for the discovery of hidden vices, who ‘could go invisible from his infancy’, is ‘subject to no inferiour power whatsoever’, and has ‘a generall priviledge to search every corner, and enter every castell to a good purpose’ (sig. A2r-A2v).  Robin’s affiliation with hell is explained as a consequence of this privilege, which means he can visit even the infernal regions without becoming contaminated by them, and use what he sees and hears there ‘to a good purpose’.  The insistence on his independence of all authority apart from nature’s is intriguing: it is the most explicit statement so far that Robin has become a figure for the legendary liberty of imaginative writers, a liberty invoked by the ghost of the executed poet Collingbourne in William Baldwin’s hugely influential collection of political poems, The Mirror for Magistrates (1559, 1563, etc.).[8]

Behind all these vision-pamphlets, in fact, the Mirror looms as a monumental presence, containing as it does the richest collection of posthumous first-person narratives in the English language.  Its versified stories of the decline and fall of great men and women throughout English history are narrated by the spirits of the dead, and its representation of the past is repeatedly linked to political and social abuses still current in the present.  Interestingly, too, it features a representation by a protestant poet of a Hell that is based on classical accounts of Hades (as it is in Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (c. 1589) and Tell-Troth’s New Year’s Gift) and which is also explicitly linked to the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory.  This representation of Hell occurs in the celebrated ‘Induction’ to Thomas Sackville’s tragedy of the Duke of Buckingham, and is followed by a discussion of Purgatory among the protestant writers who have gathered to hear the narrative.  The Induction’s Hell, complains one writer, ‘savoreth so much of Purgatory… that the ignorant maye thereby be deceyved’ (fol. 137r) – presumably into thinking that Purgatory really exists.  But the chief editor of the Mirror, the printer-poet William Baldwin, disagrees.  In his poem, says Baldwin, Sackville has depicted not Hell or Purgatory but the grave, ‘wherin the dead bodies of al sortes of people do rest till tyme of the resurrection.  And in this sence is Hel taken often in the scriptures, and in the writynges of learned christians’ (fol. 137r).  A second listener goes further.  What does it matter if Sackville’s Hell resembles Purgatory, he says, since ‘it is a Poesie and no divinitye, and it is lawfull for poetes to fayne what they lyst, so it be appertinent to the matter’?  True enough, Baldwin replies, but such liberty has not always been accorded to poets; and he proceeds to read out the tragedy of Collingbourne, who was executed for writing satirical verse in the reign of Richard III, and whose ghost warns all poets to beware of speaking the truth about tyrants in an age that has grown ‘so fell and fearce / That vicious actes may not be toucht in verse’, and when ‘The Muses freedome, graunted them of olde, / Is barde, aye reasons treasons hye are helde’ (fol. 138r).  The tragedy closes with the heartfelt wish from its listeners that the warning it contains ‘may take suche place with the Magistrates, that they maye ratifie our olde freedome’ to speak openly in verse (fol. 146v).  Restoring this liberty will work for the ruling classes as much as for the common people in whose name the poet speaks, since rulers need to know what their subjects think of them if they are to defend themselves from popular insurrection and eventual dethronement.

The audience of Collingbourne’s tragedy speak with the heartfelt hopefulness of Protestants who have lived through persecution under a Catholic monarch and who hope for something better under her successor.  The first print-run of The Mirror for Magistrates was suppressed in the reign of Mary Tudor, and the 1563 edition from which I have been quoting couches its plea for poetic liberty in terms that are wittily designed to shock both radical protestants and Catholics alike – invoking the concept of Purgatory while at the same time dismissing it as a poetic fabrication – as if to test the Elizabethan reader’s capacity for greater tolerance.[9]  The references to Purgatory in the pamphlets of the 1590s seem to take up this notion of Purgatory as emblematic of the poet’s exemption from political or religious persecution, as does their frequent invocation of that figment of the superstitious Catholic imagination Robin Goodfellow.  Robin is a spirit of the buttery – that is, the bar or pub – rather than of the infernal regions, and his location in Purgatory indicates his temporary immunity from knee-jerk moral judgments based on over-rigid notions of right and wrong.

In the spirit of the other pamphlets we have touched on, Henry Chettle’s Kind-Heart’s Dream (1593) deploys its revenants to argue against simplistic views of the theatre and popular print.  Robin does not figure in it (though it addresses itself to ‘Gentlemen and good-fellowes’, sig. B1r), but the ghosts of both Tarlton and Robert Greene are summoned up, the latter appealing to Pierce Penniless – a pseudonym of Thomas Nashe – to defend his memory against the posthumous slanders of Gabriel Harvey, and the former defending the stage against its detractors while acknowledging the shortcomings of the modern theatre.[10]  ‘Mirth in seasonable time taken,’ the ghost of Tarlton avers, ‘is not forbidden by the austerest Sapients.  But indeed there is a time of mirth, and a time of mourning.  Which time having been by the Magistrates wisely observed, as well for the suppressing of Playes, as other pleasures: so likewise a time may come, when honest recreation shall have his former libertie’ (sig. C4r).  The latter sentence so closely echoes the discussion of Collingbourne’s tragedy in the Mirror that it is hard not to read it as a reminder of William Baldwin’s hope that liberty of speech will be restored to poets at last – even if only at the latter end of Elizabeth’s reign.  Greene and Tarlton, poets and players are ‘good fellows’ in two Elizabethan senses: good drinking companions (Kind-heart sees their apparitions while dozing in a tavern) and morally upright citizens who tackle vice wherever they see it.  And both wish the same punishment on all moralistic ‘maligners of honest mirth’: that is, ‘continuall melancholy’ (sig. C2v).

In Nashe’s Terrors of the Night – a pamphlet where spirits and devils are reduced to the size of dust particles so that ‘not a room in any man’s house but is pestered and close-packed with them’ (p. 212) – Don Lucifer himself, ‘their grand Capitano’, is described as having taken on the form of a ‘puritan’ with an aversion to shows and ceremonies of all kinds (p. 230).  In doing so he has ceased to be the cheerful entertainer he was of yore, when he ‘was wont to jest and sport with country people, and play the Goodfellow amongst kitchen-wenches’ (p. 231).  As a result of this transformation ‘there is no goodness in him but miserableness and covetousness’; he has shifted his allegiance to the camp of the theatre-haters and laughter-loathers, and the world is a poorer place.  Here again Robin represents a form of night mischief that is finally harmless, despite its devilish associations, and those who set themselves against it condemn both themselves and others to an unalleviated depression, the condition for which laughter was prescribed by early modern physicians.[11]   

Shakespeare’s Robin Goodfellow is the heir to all these Robins, Greenes, Tarltons and merry Devils.  Like his precursors he frequents the sleeping places of mortals, shaping what are in effect their dreams (all the lovers concur in retrospectively perceiving the business in the wood as dreamlike).  Like the Robin of Tell-Troth’s New Year’s Gift he can make himself invisible at will and go with impunity wherever he wishes in the globe or, presumably, out of it.  Tell-Troth’s Robin has the licence accorded to fools (and sometimes poets) to meddle with the doings of all classes, and Shakespeare’s Puck takes the role of Oberon’s fool, making and discovering fools wherever he turns up.  The merry tricks he plays are mentioned often in the pamphlets, and became the subject of a jest-book in the seventeenth century, Robin Goodfellow his Mad Pranks and Merry Jests (1628), filled with stories like the ones he tells the fairy on his first appearance in Act Two.  And his connection with fairies is taken for granted by nearly all the pamphleteers, as it is by Shakespeare.  Nashe, for instance, associates Robin with ‘elves, fairies, hobgoblins of our latter age’ in The Terrors of the Night (p. 210); and it is striking that Puck’s fairy friends in Shakespeare’s play have the capacity to shrink themselves to the size of Nashe’s mote-like devils.  Even Puck’s fondness for hemp, for stamping and for bellowing ‘Ho ho ho!’ is shared with the Robin of The Cobler of Caunterburie, whose catchphrase when provoked is ‘What Hemp and Hampe, here will I never more grinde nor stampe’ (sig. A4v).[12]  Clearly Shakespeare was deeply immersed in the recent literary as well as folkloric history of his ‘merry wanderer of the night’ (2.1.43), and knew how well the ground had been prepared for the rapprochement between popular superstition and sophisticated comedy by his precursors among the Elizabethan pamphleteers.   

 Shakespeare’s artfully managed rapprochement between popular superstition and romance, too, was prepared for by the pamphleteers we’ve glanced at.  Robin’s interest in lovers is first established in Tell-Troth’s New Year’s Gift, where he condemns greedy fathers for seeking to wed their daughters to wealthy men against their will, and catalogues the many forms of jealousy and fallings-out between sweethearts which occupy the central scenes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Tell-Troth ends with a general blessing bestowed by Robin on young lovers, which foreshadows Oberon’s blessing of Theseus’s household at the end of the Dream:

Their dalliaunce shall bee rewarded with darlings, whose sweete favoured faces, shall be continuall pledges of their faithfull kindnesse… Their encrease shalbe multiplied, their substance doubled and trebled till it come to aboundance… They shall adde so great a blessing to their store as time shall not take away the memory of them, nor fame suffer their antiquitye ever to die… Thus shall loves followers be thrise happy, and thus Robin goodfellowes well-willers, in imitating his care bee manifolde blessed (sig. F4v-F5r).

Oberon too promises that the issue created in the ‘bride beds’ of Theseus, Hippolyta and the rest will be ‘fortunate’, free from the ‘blots of nature’s hand’, and that the ‘couples three’ who engendered them will ‘Ever true in loving be’ (5.1.394-411); and Puck follows up this promise with a heartfelt appeal to his well-willers among the audience.  Shakespeare’s Puck shares, too, with Tell-Troth’s Robin a particular concern for the well-being of amorous women, as he shows when he mistakenly dismisses Lysander as ‘this lack-love, this kill-courtesy’ for his apparent spurning of Hermia (2.2.83).  The goblin, then, was associated with the defence of romance as well as of the stage at the point when Shakespeare introduced him into his Athenian love story.  He was also already seen as a link between English and classical myth, one of the Lares Familiares or household spirits transformed into an impudent English imp who lives in a classical-Purgatorial Hades, well before Shakespeare gave him a new home in the woods of ancient Greece;[13] and a half-demonic champion of laughter with a heart of gold, well before Shakespeare gave him the capacity both to laugh at and pity the mortal fools he spies on. 

Stanley Tucci as Puck

The combination of mischief-making with benevolence is shared by Shakespeare’s goblin with his namesakes in Tarlton’s News, The Cobbler of Canterbury and Tell-Troth’s New Year’s Gift.  In Shakespeare’s play, it is Oberon who speaks most openly about this fusion of qualities, when he invokes the link between himself, his fellow spirits and the devil at the end of the third act, telling Robin to ‘overcast the night’ with ‘fog as black as Acheron’ (3.2.355-7) – one of the rivers in the classical underworld – and encouraging him to mimic the voices of Demetrius and Lysander as devils are said to mimic men’s voices in Nashe’s Terrors of the Night (3.2.360-3).[14] But when Robin tells him that this must be done swiftly before dawn sends ‘damned spirits’ back to their ‘wormy beds’ (no hint of Purgatory here), Oberon replies by dissociating himself and Robin utterly from souls who have ‘themselves exiled from light’.  ‘We are spirits of another sort’, he claims, and goes on to describe his delight in dallying with the morning sunshine like Apollo, the classical god of learning (3.2.378-93); and this assertion of benevolence is reinforced at the point when the fairies and Puck extend their benison to the sleeping lovers in the play’s last scene.  If plays resemble dreams, in this play they are evidently dreams that bring peace and health to those who experience them.

Having said this, the terror of damnation with which the theatre-haters had infected the playhouse is by no means absent from Shakespeare’s comedy.  When Robin Goodfellow turns ‘actor’, for instance, after witnessing the amateur theatrics of the craftsmen (3.1.75), he throws them into a superstitious panic by assuming a range of terrible forms: ‘Like horse, hound, hog, bear, fire, at every turn’ (3.1.106).  But the devilry he practises is finally harmless, like the merry pranks played by the demonic Vices of an earlier dramatic tradition, or the antics of the devilish satyr-spirits in the pamphlets of the 1590s.  And if it is both harmless and health-giving, the theatre-haters who saw it only as monstrous stand condemned for crude thinking, moral cowardice, and a lack of generosity.  After all, the craftsmen welcomed Bottom back into their midst when they saw he was no monster (4.2); whereas the theatre-haters at their most extreme could find no place in a civil commonwealth for comedy.[15] 

Mickey Rooney as Puck   

It is hardly surprising, then, if in the last lines of the play Robin himself should turn defender of the theatre, like Tarlton in Kind-Heart’s Dream.  Theseus lays the groundwork for this defence earlier in the scene when he teaches his contemptuous master of the revels Philostrate the proper way to respond to well-meant drama.  ‘Never anything can be amiss,’ he says, ‘When simpleness and duty tender it’ (5.1.82-3); and he goes on to explain how best to read incompetent performances where the actors stumble over their lines and fall silent, overawed by the grandeur of their audience.  ‘Trust me, sweet,’ he tells Titania,

Out of this silence yet I picked a welcome,
And in the modesty of fearful duty
I read as much as from the rattling tongue
Of saucy and audacious eloquence.
Love, therefore, and tongue-tied simplicity
In least speak most, to my capacity (5.1.99-105).

For Theseus, a courteous audience participates in a performance, reading into it the good will they would hope to find in all the works of the imagination.  A little later he characterizes this process of generous reading as a kind of amendment or emendation: ‘The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them’ (5.1.210-1).  It’s the word ‘amend’ that Puck takes up in his epilogue; a word that had long been associated with readerly generosity by Elizabethan readers.  Presenting their books to a potentially hostile public, some authors prefaced them with a gnomic challenge to their critics: ‘commend it, or amend it’; speak well of a work of art if you can’t improve on it.[16]  Robin Goodfellow presents his audience with a more genial offer from the playwright and actors who have entertained them.  ‘If we shadows have offended,’ he begins, ‘Think but this, and all is mended: / That you have but slumbered here, / While these visions did appear’ (5.1.414-7).  For Nashe, visions seen in sleep, like Robin, are mostly harmless; they seldom have prophetic significance, and in most cases signify little more than the quality or otherwise of the last meal you have eaten.[17]  Robin’s dream, too, is no more than a ‘weak and idle theme’, and its idleness is not threatening (5.1.418).  If it is pardoned, the players will ‘mend’ or improve their performance next time; if they escape the hissing of envious serpents among their spectators they ‘will make amends ere long’; and finally, generosity from their audience will strengthen the bond of imaginative friendship or amity among the citizens and their entertainers: ‘Give me your hands, if we be friends, / And Robin shall restore amends’ (5.1.421-9).  The theatre-haters insisted that the playwrights had failed to amend or reform their plays despite endless promises of amendment.[18]  Robin makes the process of amendment a general one, healing rifts and bridging gaps between friendly co-habitants of the linked spaces of playhouse and city, and exorcising the demons that had been introduced into those spaces by the serpentine hissing of ungenerous prudes.

Henry Fuseli, Titania and Bottom

3.  Robin Goodfellow and Bottom’s Dream

It’s perhaps worth mentioning one more way in which Shakespeare’s Robin both evokes and counters the anti-theatrical prejudice through interference with sleep.  His decision to replace Bottom’s head with the head of an ass, then obtrude him into the presence of the sleeping Titania, in whose arms he is afterwards lulled asleep to the strains of seductive music, is another knowing reference to the Tudor controversy over the beneficence or devilishness of drama.  As early as the 1540s, the schoolmaster-playwright John Redford introduced a scene into his moral interlude Wit and Science in which the schoolboy-hero Wit is danced into a state of exhaustion by a seductive female Vice, then lulled to drowsiness in her arms.  As he dozes, the Vice’s son Ignorance places his fool’s cap on Wit’s shoulders: a cap no doubt endowed with the usual pair of ass’s ears.  On waking, it is some time before Wit becomes aware of his transformation; and if ever Shakespeare saw a performance of Wit and Science or one of its variants, it seems unlikely he would have forgotten the peals of laughter that greeted Wit’s puzzlement at the reaction of those around him to his changed appearance.

The Vice who seduced Wit into this compromising somnolence was called Idleness, a term often used by the theatre-haters to designate the unproductive activities of players.  Her rival in the play is a Virtue called Honest Recreation – and again, this is the virtue defenders of the theatre liked to champion, insisting on the necessity for relaxing and instructive entertainment in the midst of one’s daily labour, and claiming that the theatre could provide such entertainment more fully than any other art-form.  Redford’s Honest Recreation has nothing but contempt for Idleness; but any attack of hers on the Vice is pre-empted by the Vice herself, who launches a devastating verbal assault on Honest Recreation that anticipates in its wording the polemic of the theatre-haters in the 1570s and 80s.  Honest Recreation, says Idleness, is nothing but a fake, a common player or mummer who uses the mask of virtue to cover her vices:

The dyvyll and hys dam can not devyse
More devlyshnes then by the doth ryse
Under the name of Honest Recreacion:
She, lo, bryngth in her abhominacion!
Mark her dawnsyng, her masking and mummyng.
Where more concupiscence then ther cummyng? [19]

Honest Recreation retaliates with an eloquent humanistic defence of leisure-time activities as a source of intellectual refreshment; but her thunder has been stolen, her name forever muddied, and she retires defeated as soon as she has said her piece, leaving Wit firmly entwined in the embrace of her demonic counterpart Idleness.  And here he was to be found, again and again, throughout the rest of the sixteenth century.  Two more versions of the story of Wit and Science were staged in the 1560s and 70s (The Marriage of Wit and Science and Francis Merbury’s The Marriage Between Wit and Wisdom), each of which replayed the scene where Wit gets saddled with a fool’s cap in his sleep.  In the early 1580s a version of the play was acted called The Play of Playes and Pastimes, which responded to Stephen Gosson’s attack on the theatre by depicting Life lulled asleep by Honest Recreation herself – not by her vicious substitute – then entertained with Comedy when she wakes.20  And Redford’s play was reworked at least three more times in the following decade: once in The Cobbler’s Prophecy (c. 1590), a comedy by the celebrated clown Robert Wilson, where the god Mars is lulled asleep by Venus until startled into action by a comic cobbler; once in Anthony Munday’s Sir Thomas More (c. 1593), where More takes part in a performance of The Marriage Between Wit and Wisdom; and once in the Inns of Court entertainment The Pilgrimage to Parnassus, whose entire plot is ultimately derived from Redford’s.  Shakespeare helped to revise Sir Thomas More for performance, perhaps in the early 1600s.  It seems beyond the bounds of possibility that he should not have known the plot, at least, of Wit and Science, and its affiliation with the theatrical controversy.  And read as another reworking of this plot, Bottom’s transformation tells us a good deal about his creator’s attitude to the theatre at this stage in his career.

Henry Fuseli, Titania and Bottom

Bottom the weaver is an actor – albeit a very bad one.  His designation as one of the ‘rude mechanicals’ – the phrase Robin applies to them (3.2.9) – associates him with the standard insult levelled at actors and non-university playwrights by two of the so-called University Wits of the 1580s, Greene and Nashe, both of whom saw acting as a ‘mechanical’ art, a non-intellectual exercise well suited to the offspring of craftsmen and tradesmen who practised it.[21]  So when Puck invests Bottom with the head of an ass it seems no more than he deserves, as an upstart crow who plans to raise his presumptuous voice in the presence of royalty against all the principles of classical decorum.

Yet the weaver responds to his predicament with astonishing dignity.   He refuses to be frightened by the insults levelled at him (he tells his fellow craftsmen that in accusing him of monstrosity they are merely exposing themselves as ‘ass-heads’ or fools, 3.1.111), and sings to keep up his courage.  His song acts like that of a mermaid or Siren on Titania’s senses; she becomes ‘enamoured of his note’ (3.1.131), much as audiences were said by the theatre-haters to be roused to lustful paroxysms by the melodic blandishments of the stage.  Yet when she declares her love for him he remains both rational and scrupulously courteous.  ‘Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that’, he tells her, and later denies her statement that he is ‘as wise as he is beautiful’ – he lays claim only to the pragmatic ‘wit’ he needs to ‘get out of this wood’ (3.1.135-42).  This practical or mechanical intelligence manifests itself, too, in his philosophy: ‘reason and love,’ he says, ‘keep little company together nowadays – the more the pity that some honest neighbours will not make them friends’ (3.1.136-9).  For him, the love that matters is the love that binds communities, the love between neighbours which he has clearly provoked among his own neighbours, the fellow craftsmen and actors who mourn his absence at the end of Act Four, just before he is miraculously restored to them.  Bottom is a fool only in that he voices popular wisdom, fails to take advantage of Titania’s infatuation for selfish ends, and refuses to modify his behaviour in the presence of power, as a sycophantic courtier would have done.  His deportment to Titania’s fairy servants is impeccable; and when Titania tells them to ‘Tie up my love’s tongue; bring him silently’ (3.1.191), it is not an injunction to restrain the ribaldry of an unruly clown, as it would have been in a Redfordian moral interlude, nor yet an act of ritual humiliation, as it would have been in a play by Robert Wilson, but a means of subduing him to her desire – a desire that is ultimately harmless, to herself, to him, and to their Elizabethan audience.

Joseph Noel Paton, Oberon and the Mermaid (with Puck)

The harmlessness of the piece of supernatural theatre Bottom finds himself caught up in is strongly asserted by Puck in the following scene.  When he describes the weaver’s transformation to Oberon, Robin laughs at the unnecessary terror of Bottom’s companions when faced with his metamorphosis: ‘Their sense thus weak, lost with their fears thus strong, / Made senseless things begin to do them wrong’ (3.2.27-8).  Later, unreasoning terror is mentioned again by Theseus, whose analysis of the workings of ‘strong imagination’ includes the transformation of inanimate harmless objects by panic: ‘in the night, imagining some fear, / How easy is a bush supposed a bear!’ (5.1.18-22).  Even the craftsmen are aware of the ease with which terror can be aroused by harmless things: they seek to defuse any fear that might be generated by their own theatrical performance by drawing attention to its theatricality, so that the lion in their play gives an elaborate and wholly unnecessary explanation of the principle of dramatic illusion to its courtly spectators.  Both the craftsmen’s very reasonable fear of Bottom, and their less reasonable fear that the ladies in their audience will fear them, are profoundly funny; and the implication is that the fear of the theatre evinced by its critics is not much less so.

Malice is simply absent from Robin’s actions, as it is from those of the well-intentioned craftsmen.  When Oberon rebukes him for administering the love-juice to the wrong lover, for instance, the goblin repeatedly insists that he ‘mistook’, although he is delighted by the outcome of his errors.  Once his cruel but harmless ‘sport’ is over, it assumes the status of ‘a dream and fruitless vision’ (3.2.371) for the Athenian lovers who were its victims; and Titania’s fleeting affair with Bottom – something mistaken on her part, not maliciously intended – also ends by being dismissed as ‘the fierce vexation of a dream’ (4.1.68).  Like Titania and the lovers, audiences will leave the theatre without having been adversely affected by what they saw there; restored to what Robin calls ‘True delight’ (3.2.455) – responsible pleasure, something the theatre-haters don’t seem able to imagine – in the things and people that are dear to them, they will return to waking life with nothing but an enhanced sense of its fragile beauty and comic unreasonableness.  And having left the stage, they will be no more tempted to engage in any over-critical analysis of their ‘most rare’ theatrical ‘vision’ than they would to analyse a dream after a feast (4.1.202).  If they sought to do so, they would show themselves to be asses, transformed to fools by the spectacle they have witnessed, just as those who take exception to satire transform themselves into satire’s targets by their over-sensitive response to its gibes.  

Arthur Rackham, Bottom

This, at least, is what Bottom implies when he wakes from the dramatic role of Titania’s lover in Act 4 scene 1.  ‘I have had a most rare vision,’ he says, and ‘Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream’ (4.1.202-4).  But he couches this observation in the language of theology, adding a somewhat jumbled but instantly recognizable version of Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians: ‘The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was’ (4.1.207-10).  As we’ve seen, Robin Goodfellow and Dick Tarlton were not afraid to get themselves mixed up with theology, despite the bloody history of religious controversy throughout sixteenth-century Europe.  At the bottom of Bottom’s theatrical dream there may be a serious point about the working of the imagination at all levels of society.  After all, real dreams could, Nashe tells us, be heaven-sent ‘visions’ containing genuine prophecies, even if the bulk of them were nothing but outlets for the superfluous matter engendered by the human digestive system.[22]  Prophecies could provoke social change, insurrection, maybe even revolution; visions could start religions or spark off heresies; that’s why there was such careful legislation in England against men’s claims to be visionaries or prophets throughout the Tudor period.  Bottom awakes these controversial matters even as he dismisses them, just as Robin Goodfellow and his fairy companions evoke the demonic associations of drama even as they dismiss them.  The magic of the theatre, and its status as the space where human dreams and nightmares can be realized as nowhere else, remain as potent at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as they were at the beginning.  And it’s partly thanks to Shakespeare’s clever predecessors, with all the goblins, ghosts, and visions they invoked on stage and printed page, that this is so.  The time has come to wake them from their long sleep, set them loose among us once again, and listen carefully to what they have to tell us.

Arthur Rackham, Puck

NOTES

  1. See Thomas Nashe, The Terrors of the Night or a Discourse of Apparitions, in The Unfortunate Traveller and Other Works, ed. J. B. Steane (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), pp. 209-210.  All references to The Terrors of the Night are taken from this edition.  An early version of this paper was given at the World Shakespeare Congress, Brisbane 2006, in a panel on early modern sleep organized by Garrett Sullivan and Evelyn Tribble.  I am very grateful to all the participants in the panel, especially Jeffrey Marsten and Rebecca Totaro.
  2. I have discussed the anti-theatrical prejudice in my book, Shakespeare and Comedy (London: The Arden Shakespeare, 2005), pp. 5-24 etc.  See also Jonas Barish, The Anti-Theatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), and Laura Levine, Men in Women’s Clothing: Anti-Theatricality, 1579-1642 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
  3. My reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in this paper develops my discussion of it in Shakespeare and Comedy, pp. 141-154.  I am also indebted to Peter Holland’s introduction to his edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), and his essay ‘“The Interpretation of Dreams” in the Renaissance’, Reading Dreams: The Interpretation of Dreams from Chaucer to Shakespeare, ed. Peter Brown (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).  See also Derek Alwes, ‘Elizabethan Dreaming: Fictional Dreams from Gascoigne to Lodge’, in Framing Elizabethan Fictions: Contemporary Approaches to Early Modern Narrative Prose, ed. Constance C. Relihan (Kent, Ohio and London: Kent State University Press, 1996), 153-67.
  4. Accounts of Robin Goodfellow can be found in Katharine Briggs, The Anatomy of Puck: An Examination of Fairy Beliefs among Shakespeare’s Contemporaries (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1959) (see index); Briggs, A Dictionary of Fairies (London: Lane, 1976), entries for Puck and Robin Goodfellow; Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy Stories (London: Allen Lane, 2000), ch. 5; and Winfried Schleiner, ‘Imaginative Sources for Shakespeare’s Puck’, Shakespeare Quarterly 36 (1985), 65-8
  5. Albions England (1612), Anglistica and Americana (Hildesheim and New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 1971), p. 368.  The first four books of Warner’s epic were published in 1588; the 14th book, containing ‘A Tale of Robin-goodfellow’, first appeared in the 1606 edition.  See my ‘Myths Exploited: The Metamorphoses of Ovid in Early Elizabethan England’, Shakespeare’s Ovid, ed. A. B. Taylor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 27-8.
  6. For a fuller discussion of this text see my ‘Robert Greene and the Uses of Time’, Writing Robert Greene, ed. Kirk Melnikoff and Edward Gieskes (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008), ch. 8, pp.182-7.
  7. The Life and Complete Works… of Robert Greene, ed. Alexander B. Grosart, 15 vols. (London and Aylesbury: privately printed, 1881-3), vol. 12, p. 207.
  8. For a detailed discussion of the place of the tragedy of Collingbourne in The Mirror for Magistrates see Andrew Hadfield, Literature, Politics and National Identity: Reformation to Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), chapter 3.  All references are to the 1563 edition.
  9. For a print history of The Mirror for Magistrates see the introduction to Lily B. Campbell’s edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1938).
  10. For a recent account of Gabriel Harvey’s posthumous attack on Robert Greene and Nashe’s response, see Ronald A. Tumelson II, ‘Robert Greene, “Author of Playes”’, Writing Robert Greene, ed. Melnikoff and Gieskes, ch. 5.
  11. For the health-giving properties of laughter see my ‘The Afterlife of Andrew Borde’, Studies in Philology vol. 100 no. 4 (Fall 2003), pp. 463-92.
  12. The Cobbler’s Robin opens his epistle with ‘Ho, Ho, Ho’, the phrase Shakespeare’s Robin uses at 3.2.421.  Shakespeare’s Robin alludes to hemp at 3.1.72, and describes himself stamping to terrify Peter Quince and his fellow craftsmen at 3.2.25. 
  13. Nashe associates him with the Lares or ‘household Gods’ in The Terrors of the Night (p. 210), and Warner calls Robin a ‘breechlesse Larr’ in Albions England, p. 367.  See also Tarlton’s News Out of Purgatory, p. 2, quoted above.
  14. Nashe mentions the devil’s power of mimicry several times in The Terrors of the Night, but cf. ‘Those that catch birds imitate their voices; so will he imitate the voices of God’s vengeance, to bring us like birds into the net of eternal damnation’ (p. 211).
  15. Stephen Gosson takes this stance in his Plays Confuted in Five Actions (1582).  See Arthur F. Kinney, Markets of Bawdrie: The Dramatic Criticism of Stephen Gosson (Salzburg: University of Salzburg, 1974), introduction.
  16. For the phrase ‘Commend it, or amend it’ see e.g. the title-page of John Lyly’s Euphues and his England (1580).
  17. ‘From the unequal and repugnant mixture of contrarious meats… many of our mystic cogitations proceed; and even as fire maketh iron like itself, so the fiery inflammations of our liver or stomach transform our imaginations to their analogy and likeness’.  Nashe, Terrors of the Night, p. 233.
  18. For the theatre-haters’ rejection of the playwrights’ claims to have reformed their work, see my Shakespeare and Comedy, pp. 11-12.
  19. John Redford, Wit and Science, in Tudor Interludes, ed. Peter Happé (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972), pp.181-219, p. 196.
  20. For a summary of the plot of The Play of Plays, which demonstrates its indebtedness to the plot of Wit and Science, see Markets of Bawdrie: The Dramatic Criticism of Stephen Gosson, ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Salzburg: Universitaet Salzburg, 1974), pp. 181-3.
  21. See Nashe’s statement that ‘everie mechanicall mate’ aspires to the status of a rhetorician because of the example set by ‘vainglorious tragoedians’; epistle ‘To the Gentlemen Students of both Universities’, printed with Greene’s romance Menaphon (1589), Works… of Robert Greene, ed. Grosart, vol. 6, p. 9.  See also Greene’s romance Francescos Fortunes (1590), Works… of Robert Greene, ed. Grosart, vol. 8, p. 132, where the players’ art is described as ‘a kind of mechanical labour’.
  22. The Terrors of the Night, p. 235.

Armour that doesn’t work: an anti-meme in medieval and Renaissance romance

[I wrote this essay for a Festschrift in honour of my DPhil supervisor, Professor Helen Cooper, Medieval into Renaissance: Essays for Helen Cooper, ed. Andrew King and Matthew Woodcock (Woodbridge and Rochester, NY: D S Brewer, 2016); you can find it on pp. 35-54. I place it here in Helen’s honour, with infinite thanks for her patience, scholarship, good humour and support through the difficult years of writing a doctorate.]

One of Helen Cooper’s finest essays concerns the function of magic that doesn’t work in medieval and Renaissance romance.[1] Bringing together her impish sense of humour, her astonishing range of reading and her infectious delight in tracing the mutations of genre in response to cultural change, the essay is a scholarly tour de force, perhaps the most memorable chapter in her celebrated monograph The English Romance in Time. It is particularly suggestive where it draws attention to the moments in medieval romance when the presence of magic serves to focus the reader’s attention on some peculiarly human quality: on selfless love, for instance, as when the imperiled teenage lovers Floris and Blancheflour compete over which of them will bestow on the other the magic ring which is said to preserve its owner’s life; or on stubborn courage, as when an anonymous lover in a tale by Marie de France refuses to drink the magic potion that would help him carry his beloved up a mountain, an act of heroic obstinacy that kills them both.[2] The chapter is not about a ‘meme’, Cooper explains – an idea or theme that survives from generation to generation, mutating in response to the changing pressures of the time. Instead it concerns what she calls a ‘meme that got out of hand’, that of the magical object.[3] All too easily magic can get boring, operating in too predictable a fashion, providing too easy an escape route from a tricky situation. The magic that doesn’t work revitalizes the magical narrative by introducing a crucial element of surprise, disorder, or emotional crisis; and as such it resists replication, since the whole point of it (when well used) is to unsettle the romance reader’s expectations.

Robert Addie as Mordred in Excalibur (1980)

I would like to consider in this essay another recurring theme that has given us some of the most striking passages in medieval and Renaissance romance: that of armour that doesn’t work. For a modern reader, armour is the ultimate emblem of chivalric romance, especially the full plate armour of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as fetishized in the paintings of John William Waterhouse, John Boorman’s film Excalibur, or the BBC TV series Merlin. For the late medieval reader, too, armour or harness that worked was romance incarnate. Someone in the fifteenth or sixteenth century wearing splendid harness instantly displayed his gender, his status, his affiliations (if he wore a coat armour, or if the steel itself bore heraldic devices), and his physical attributes (think of Henry VIII’s expanding girth as recorded in his successive sizes of battle dress). Armour stood for the chivalric code; praying over it was an integral part of a squire’s induction into knighthood.  What you wore in the Middle Ages was, in theory, who you were; and fine armour was at the very apex of the sartorial pyramid.[4]

Sir Galahad, by George Frederick Watts

For all these reasons – because it is so instantly readable in so many ways – armour can be a boring object in romance, especially when its bearer is vying for the position of Number One Knight, so to speak, in the chivalric standings. Under these conditions the armour bearer is like a machine, whose limited functions are always predictable and whose victory always assured. The ultimate example of an armour-bearing machine is of course Sir Galahad, who gallops through the landscape of Malory’s ‘Tale of the Sankgreal’ fulfilling prophesies left and right without any emotional engagement with the men and women he encounters. Galahad is the embodiment of spiritual commitment; he has no personality or history, and when all his deeds have been accomplished his soul is carried up to Heaven by a team of adoring angels, leaving little physical trace behind on the earth he barely touched.[5] In some ways, then, he is the worthy forebear of Spenser’s mechanical man Talus, the metallic dispenser of justice in Book V of The Faerie Queene who signals the poet’s uncomfortable commitment to the Tudor project of subjugating Ireland by force. Talus’s status as what can anachronistically be termed a self-propelled suit of armour conveniently sets him apart from human beings in such a way as to make that project seem (barely) defensible, since though devised by men it is executed by an agent without a soul. Nevertheless, the iron man’s association with the animated statues of Virgilius the Sorcerer or Cornelius Agrippa confirms his ambiguity as a representation of justice.  Virgilius derived his power from the devil and Marlowe assumed, in Doctor Faustus, that Agrippa too was in cahoots with the fiend.[6] Given that Talus is simply an allegorical machine, unsullied by magic, he can in theory be employed by Spenser’s knight of justice, Sir Artegal, without tainting his employer with infernal associations. But the memory of other moving statues would have been hard to shake off for an early modern reader. And there remains the fact that Talus is impossible to like, with his remorseless efficiency, his predictable reactions to every situation, and his utter indifference to the Christian quality of mercy.

This problem of the perfect knight as a soulless machine is brilliantly addressed by Italo Calvino in The Non-existent Knight (Il cavaliere inesistente, 1959), his sparkling tribute to Ariosto and Cervantes.[7] The book’s protagonist, a full-body harness that comes to life by an act of sheer will power, makes himself universally unpopular with his fellow paladins by his rigid adherence to the rules of military and chivalric good conduct. As the book proceeds, however, the knight’s increasing sensitivity to other people’s views of him makes him increasingly likeable, and his posse of followers – the fool Gurduloo, the idealistic female warrior Bradamante, the confused young squire Raimbaud – endow him by proxy with the flesh and emotions he lacks. He becomes the focus of their dreams and passions, the anchor of their identities, no longer merely a metal container for the regulations by which these dreams are rendered manageable by the authorities. Armour requires the flesh to make it move, both emotionally and physically speaking; and codes of conduct, however impractical, give direction to the undirected yearnings of the flesh. Calvino’s story beautifully captures the awkward symbiosis between the organic and the inorganic which is the late medieval and early modern knight.

Flesh, then, is the essential adjunct to the carapace of protective steel, as late Victorian painters such as Waterhouse acknowledged when they surrounded their gleaming knights with voluptuous temptresses. Men, of course, can display their fleshly qualities in romance by defeating powerful opponents without the benefit of armour; this is the homosocial equivalent of the amorous encounters, chaste or unchaste, with which romance women have been traditionally associated. A fine example of such an unarmed hero is the young Sir Perceval de Gallys in the Middle English metrical romance, whose lack of armour serves at first merely to underline his lack of education in chivalry.[8] Wearing only goatskins, young Perceval’s first heroic act is to transfix his father’s killer, a fully armoured knight, with a light Scottish throwing-spear, when the man is foolish enough to raise his visor. But Perceval is an adolescent at the time, and every reader knows from the old stories that he will soon acquire some armour and join his fellow knights at the Table Round. For Perceval, the acquisition of his harness from the slaughtered body of his enemy makes it an emblem of his power and skill, a natural extension of the unusual muscularity of his right arm and torso, his easy mastery over the objects and people he meets on his travels.  But I am concerned in this essay with the knights whose harness proves useless in one way or another after its acquisition; either because the adventure they are on cannot be achieved with the help of steel, or because they are caught without armour through trickery, neglect or betrayal, or because their armour provides inadequate protection – or even because their harness itself is a kind of trap. For these heroes, armour is a difficult affair, never at hand when you need it, not fulfilling its prescribed function when you have it, brittle, permeable or imprisoning rather than impervious, encumbering rather than enabling. And in the adventures they take part in, armour often becomes intriguing in its own right, for a variety of unpredictable reasons.

One twentieth-century embodiment of this difficult relationship to armour is King Pellinore in T. H. White’s novel The Sword in the Stone (1938). Pellinore is an errant knight who is perpetually engaged in the rather pointless pursuit of a friendly creature called the Questing Beast. When the future King Arthur, here known as the Wart, first encounters Pellinore, the boy quickly learns a great deal about the inconvenience of closed helmets for those who wear spectacles (the lenses get ‘completely fogged’[9]), and of armour generally. As the knight explains:

All this beastly amour takes hours to put on. When it is on it’s either frying or freezing, and it gets rusty. You have to sit up all night polishing the stuff. Oh, how Ay do wish Ay had a nice house of my own to live in, a house with beds in it and real pillows and sheets. […] [T]hen Ay would […] throw all this beastly armour out of the window, and let the beastly Beast go and chase itself, that Ay would.[10]

In this passage King Pellinore is a kind of human snail, whose metal shell serves as an uncomfortable substitute for the nice warm house he yearns for. His armour has little value as a means of defence, since the Questing Beast is far too friendly to attack him. Instead it tends to erase the distinction between its bearer and the animal world through which he wanders, exaggerating the limitations of the King’s body by fogging up his spectacles and fraying his temper to the extent that he keeps referring to his equipment as beastly. When the Questing Beast turns up a page or so later, the King’s animal passions get further excited and he promptly forgets the allure of sheets in the thrill of the chase. An unsuccessful fusion of animal unruliness and rigid artifice, of chaos and convention, White’s knight is a direct descendant of Carroll’s White Knight and Cervantes’s Quixote, both of whom are always damaging their elderly bodies precisely because they insist on wearing protective steel. For all three, the harness they wear underscores the limitations of the flesh it encases, as well as the eccentric relationship between that flesh and the code of conduct that the harness represents.

In this as in other ways, armour that doesn’t work has a similar function to magic that doesn’t work, as Cooper describes it. If full plate armour is a kind of meme in late chivalric romance – like the meme of the magic object – then the armour that doesn’t work is designed to circumvent the narrative problems posed by that meme; an ‘anti-meme’, in other words. The romance hero is nearly always one of the greatest fighters of his time, and in full armour his fighting prowess must necessarily render him as indestructible as the owner of an effective charm or talisman – and hence as dull, in terms of the narrative possibilities to which he gives rise. For such a knight to retain his stature as a combatant while engaging in properly perilous adventures, he must be stripped of his protective exoskeleton, deprived of the tools of his trade by one means or other – or those tools must be turned against him, like King Pellinore’s fog-inducing helmet. And the effect of this process of stripping down, deprivation or armorial recalcitrance is to draw attention to the fragile humanness of the romance’s male protagonist.

This may be the central difference between the magic that doesn’t work and the armour that doesn’t work. Cooper’s examples of non-functional magic (and she includes under this rubric magic that might well work but isn’t used, just as the present essay includes functional armour that gets left aside at crucial moments) often serve to demonstrate the spectacularly exceptional nature of the people who fail to use it. It is the exceptional strength of Floris and Blancheflour’s love that prompts a sympathetic king to urge their captor, the Admiral or Emir of Babylon, to spare them. In Marie de France’s tale, it is the refusal of the lover to drink the magic potion that exhibits the exceptional potency of his love, since love alone gives him strength to achieve what no other man has managed by carrying his lady unassisted up a mountain. Armour that doesn’t work, by contrast, tends to underscore the vulnerability of the person it fails, or who fails to wear it. For this reason it becomes one of the defining themes of the late chivalric tradition, when the best writers (Chaucer, Malory, Shakespeare) chose to produce ‘works designed to question their own generic assumptions’ in response to the ‘strong self-consciousness of a genre now passing into its fourth century’, as Cooper reminds us.[11]

These comments on late chivalric romance come from the final chapter of The English Romance in Time, ‘Unhappy Endings’, and armour that doesn’t work is strongly represented here among the romances that choose to resist the genre’s assumption that all its narratives must end well. But like magic that doesn’t work, non-functional armour can be comic too. Inevitably it is Chaucer who provides the best examples of both the comic and tragic aspects of this ‘anti-meme’ (Cooper was always pointing out to me in tutorials that Chaucer provides the best examples of almost anything before the late sixteenth century). In The Canterbury Tales, Sir Thopas exhibits his own and his narrator’s ignorance of the romance tradition by getting caught without his armour when he meets a giant. Any medieval reader would have known that an errant knight should be wearing armour when he seeks adventure, and that if he happens not to be wearing it he should defeat his antagonist regardless, as Perceval beats the Red Knight dressed only in goatskins. But for Chaucer’s narcissistic protagonist, wearing the wrong clothes for any given deed is inexcusable; he must hurry home to arm himself before he can even think of engaging in combat.  When he does so, it is in an elaborate metal and fabric confection which again violates romance conventions, both by its placement in the wrong part of the narrative (he should have armed himself at the beginning) and by the sheer weight of clichés that cluster round it (his coat armour is ‘whit as is a lilye flour’, his fine cypress spear ‘bodeth werre, and nothyng pees’, and so on).[12] The belatedness of Sir Thopas’s arming also confirms his inverted understanding of the chivalric code, which has already been signaled by his plan to marry an elven queen because no mortal woman is worthy of him. After reading this poem it is hard to imagine anyone taking another metrical romance entirely seriously.

At the tragic end of the spectrum, ‘The Knight’s Tale’ provides an example of a yet more radical inversion of the proper order of the chivalric romance narrative and the code to which it theoretically adheres; and it does so largely through the difficult relationship it sketches out between a man and his armour. Like a true romance hero, the protagonist Arcite defeats his friend and rival Palamon in combat, and the tournament in which he achieves this is stuffed to bursting with allusions to armour: from the frantic ‘devisynge of harneys’ that precedes the fighting (line 2496) to King Theseus’s prohibition of certain weapons from the contest itself  (‘ne polax, ne short knyf […] Ne short swerd, for to stoke with poynt bitynge’, lines 2544-6).  As it turns out, however, neither harness nor prohibition offers much protection to the contestants. ‘The helmes they tohewen and toshrede,’ the poet tells us with unnerving relish; ‘Out brest the blood with stierne stremes rede;/ With myghty maces the bones they tobreste’, and it is by the merest chance that no one dies in the melee (lines 2609-2611). When the tournament is over, Arcite takes off his helmet to salute the woman who inspired his triumph; and at once his horse falls over and fatally crushes him. The calamitous effect of this fall on Arcite’s flesh is described in lurid detail, as if to stress the limitations of his strong young body: ‘The pipes of his longes gonne to swelle,/ And every lacerte [muscle] in his brest adoun/ Is shent with venym and corrupcion’ (p. 44, lines 2752-2754).  In this narrative, then, armour and the rules that govern its use represent men’s feeble attempt to take control in a world full of insidious poisons, from the venom of corrupted wounds to the contagion of desire, from the disease of jealousy that sets the knights at odds to the poisonous rivalry of the gods who sponsor each combatant. Theseus does his best to re-impose a sense of order after Arcite’s accident, declaring the tournament a draw and delivering a speech that affirms the continuing stability of creation. But Arcite’s death was not in fact accidental. It was engineered by Venus (or rather by Saturn acting on her behalf), and intended to benefit Palamon, her devoted acolyte. Arcite, by contrast, was an acolyte of Mars, the god of war, who also happens to be Venus’s lover. So the pantheon of pagan gods would seem to be as violently competitive as the knights they sponsor, and as capable of circumventing regulations and breaking alliances. The armour that doesn’t work here serves to point up the limitations of the structures that bind us: above all the kind of structure represented by traditional stories and comforting fictions, the imaginative armour with which we defend to ourselves such slippery concepts as honour and friendship.

The works of Malory, too, offer fine examples of both the comic and tragic aspects of non-functioning armour. On the tragic side, there is the tale of the brothers Balin and Balan, who hack each other to death because each is wearing unfamiliar harness. The final section of ‘The Knight with the Two Swords’ begins with Balin accepting a shield from a stranger knight in place of his own, whereupon a mysterious damsel warns him that ‘ye have put yourself in grete daunger, for by your sheld ye shold have ben knowen’ (p. 56, lines 22-4).  His brother meets him shortly afterwards wearing unmarked red armour, and in the fight that follows both men dismantle each other plate by plate until ‘their hawberkes [were] unnailed, that naked they were on every syde’ (p. 57, lines 12-13).  Mortally wounded, Balan crawls to his brother and takes off his helmet; but he cannot recognize him at first because of the damage he himself inflicted in the battle: he ‘myght not knowe hym by the vysage, it was so ful hewen and bledde’ (p. 57, lines 22-3). As Cooper has argued, part of the power of this denouement springs from the fact that it forms part of a larger narrative with which the medieval reader was well acquainted – the Arthurian cycle – while the knights themselves have no idea what forces drive their fate.[13]  Throughout his adventures, the invincible Balin is helplessly propelled by the machinery of story, unwittingly setting up riddles, problems and conundrums that will only be resolved long after his death by the machine-man Galahad.  The armour that destroys him, then, embodies his entrapment in structures he cannot understand because of his limited vision – the restricted view you get from inside a closed helmet (think of Pellinore’s spectacles). The fact that he cannot recognize his brother, and that his brother cannot recognize him, sums up his condition as an ignorant tool of dispassionate supernatural forces – as represented at Balin’s burial by the sorcerer Merlin, who laughs sardonically as he makes further predictions about the tragic fate of Balin’s sword.

Sir Launcelot and the Witch Hellawes, by Aubrey Beardsley

Malory’s Lancelot, meanwhile, furnishes us with examples of both the comic and tragic aspects of the armour that doesn’t work. Of all the knights in Malory’s pantheon apart from Galahad, Lancelot stands in greatest danger of becoming boring, since he is the best knight in the world and we know in advance the likely outcome of every battle – and hence of every narrative – in which he is involved. For this reason Malory is careful to vary the scenes he selects for inclusion in the parts of his work he devotes to Lancelot; and an inordinate number of these episodes involve non-functional armour. In ‘A Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot du Lake’ the hero is forced to don another man’s armour if he wants adventures; wearing his own means he is avoided like the plague. But some of his best adventures occur when he wears no armour at all. On one occasion, for instance, he finds a pavilion in the forest, lavishly prepared for the reception of a guest. In many romances such a discovery would signal the presence of the supernatural: the pavilion would belong to a fairy or enchantress, as in Sir Launfal, and Lancelot would have to deploy all his knightly self-control to resist the seductions of its owner. It seems only natural, then, to the reader, that on finding the tent he should remove his armour, lie down in the bed and go to sleep; this is what you do in enchanted pavilions. Later, the knight who owns the pavilion comes home and gets into bed. Finding Lancelot between his sheets and assuming him to be his lover, he ‘toke hym in his armys and began to kysse hym’, scratching the sleeping hero with his ‘rough berde’ (p. 153, lines 27-8).  This leads to a brief, fierce swordfight between the two warriors – presumably naked – during which Lancelot wounds the stranger ‘sore nyghe unto the deth’ (p. 153, line 33).  At this point, the men pause to explain themselves to each other. Lancelot then takes the stranger indoors to tend his injuries, and the knight’s lady arrives. The lady is naturally inclined to blame Lancelot for her husband’s injuries; but she soon comes up with a means for him to make amends. He must use his influence at court, she insists, to procure her man a place at the Round Table. In this way Lancelot’s nakedness leaves him exposed to the lady’s judicial expertise, to the extent that he must set aside the usual procedure for admitting knights to that exclusive company and offer a seat at the Round Table to an unproven stranger. What began as an encounter with potential enchantment ends not with a dazzling display of unmatchable swordsmanship but with an out-of-court settlement, a legal compromise; and in this way the episode exposes the absurdity both of chivalric convention and of the narrative traditions Lancelot lives by.

Later in the same book, Lancelot is tricked into removing his armour and climbing a tree to rescue a lady’s falcon. Once he is safely in his breeches and astride a branch, the lady’s husband leaps out of a bush ‘all armed’ (p. 169, line 44), and explains that this was all a plot to get Lancelot into a state of undress so as to enable him to be summarily dispatched. Lancelot disarms the knight with a stick and kills him with his own weapon; but the episode neatly illustrates one of the perils of being a romance hero, which is that the landscape gradually fills up with people who hold a grudge against you, and whose only hope of besting you is by trickery. As a hero you can only trust that your own wiles, or the wiles of some well-disposed passing damsel, will permit you to escape from the tricks to which these grudgers are prepared to resort. And in the last two books of Malory’s work, a deadly web composed of grudges and trickery binds together all the major episodes that feature armour that doesn’t work.

Herbert James Draper, Lancelot and Guinevere

Lancelot’s relationship with armour in these last two books becomes increasingly difficult, as if to emphasize the increasing difficulty of reconciling his duty to King Arthur with his devotion to Arthur’s wife. In the tale of the Fair Maid of Astolat, Lancelot plays his old trick of borrowing armour in order to participate in a tournament. But the armour fails him – he is pierced through the side by his cousin Bors while wearing it; and during his long period of convalescence, necessarily unclothed, his body attracts the devotion of his nurse, the Maid of the title. The borrowed armour has meanwhile got him into trouble with Guinevere, since to complete the disguise he wore a token on his helmet, a red sleeve lent him by the Maid. The sleeve misleads the Queen into thinking he has transferred his affections to another woman, while encouraging the Maid to believe he might eventually fall in love with her. In ‘A Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot du Lake’, Lancelot’s appropriation of Sir Kay’s armour had no serious consequences; it was a game, as were the fights he undertook while bearing it. In the last two books, games turn to earnest, and borrowing armour becomes a problem, which interweaves itself with the personal and political problems that accumulate around the adulterous couple.

Armour is yet more problematic in ‘The Knight of the Cart’. The villain here is a kind of anti-Lancelot, Sir Melliagaunt, who shares his alter ego’s obsession with Guinevere but none of the chivalric qualities by which he justifies that adulterous passion. The difference between the two men can be summed up by their attitudes to armour. Melliagaunt captures the Queen while she is out a-maying with some unarmed knights, who are seriously wounded trying to defend her against the villain’s armed retainers. Lancelot sets out to rescue her, but his horse is shot dead by Melliagaunt’s archers, and as a result his armour ceases to assist him and becomes a burden. He cannot get at the archers because it weighs him down, and when he tries to continue his journey he finds himself ‘sore acombird of hys armoure, hys shylde, and hys speare’ (p. 653, lines 41-2).  Worse still, when he finally arrives at Melliagaunt’s castle – travelling in the requisitioned transport of the title like a prisoner carted off to punishment – the villain refuses to fight him, throwing himself on Guinevere’s mercy. The Queen grants him her protection, and as a result all Lancelot’s skills, as embodied in his harness, are rendered useless. At the end of the first part of this story, Lancelot has been reduced to a state of helpless jealousy, all his efforts to act as the conventional romance hero having been thwarted either by his enemy or by his lover, neither of whom play by the rules a knight’s harness represents. There could be no more devastating exposure of the many chinks in Lancelot’s emotional and physical defences.

Ben Cross as Malagant in First Knight (1995)

Next Melliagaunt succeeds in underscoring the moral link between himself and Lancelot, thus breaking down any clear distinctions that might have been signalled by their different attitudes to armour. The night after arriving at Melliagaunt’s castle, Lancelot disarms himself and slips into Guinevere’s bed, leaving blood on her sheets from a minor injury to his hand. Melliagaunt finds the blood, and accuses Guinevere of infidelity with one of the unarmed knights who were wounded defending her. Lancelot’s discarding of his harness here endangers his knightly colleagues, and he seeks to make up for this lapse by resorting to the chivalric rules of engagement by which he has always lived: rules that require full body armour for their fulfillment. He challenges the villain to trial by combat, as if Lancelot remained the impregnable entity he has always been thanks to his hitherto unquestioned identity as a top romance hero. But God is the ultimate judge in any such trial, ensuring that the fighter with the best cause will emerge triumphant; and in this case, the hero is saddled with a cause which is decidedly questionable.  Guinevere has indeed committed adultery, as Melliagaunt asserts, and Lancelot is forced to equivocate in order to place himself on the side of justice. He therefore challenges his alter ego on the basis, not that Guinevere has not been unfaithful but that she has not slept with any of the knights who were wounded in her defence. This is a blatant prevarication, and its problematic moral status is reflected in the peculiar nature of the trial itself. After a brief bout of hand-to-hand fighting, Melliagaunt surrenders tamely to Lancelot, and chivalry dictates that his opponent must accept his surrender. But Guinevere signals to the hero that her accuser must die, and if Lancelot is to obey her he must once again find a way to circumvent the rules of the judicial game. He persuades Melliagaunt to fight on by offering to disarm his own head and left side to make the contest more even; and he kills the villain, of course, despite this handicap. But the half-armoured state in which he does so confirms his morally compromised position, his susceptibility to the corruption his opponent embraces.  And the disarming of his body on the left side in particular, where the heart is, may be taken to demonstrate the extent to which the desires of that body are undermining his role as a knight.  The whole adventure, in fact, foreshadows the part that will be played by armour in the final book, which tells how Lancelot’s adultery with Guinevere brings about the dissolution of the Round Table and the fall of Arthur.

In this last book, the ‘Morte Arthur’, it is the lack of armour that takes centre stage rather than its failure. When Lancelot is finally caught in flagrante delicto in Guinevere’s bedroom, he blames his resulting predicament on his unarmed state: ‘Alas,’ he complains, ‘in all my lyff thus was I never bestad that I shulde be thus shamefully slayne, for lake of myne armour’ (p. 676, lines 24-5). The sentence recalls the wording of his earlier complaint when trapped up a tree in the story of the falcon: ‘Alas […] that ever a knyght sholde dey wepynles!’ (p. 170, line 17).  But on that occasion Lancelot could have been taken as a representative ‘knyght’, the equivalent of any romance hero trapped by treachery. In Guinevere’s room, by contrast, his situation is unique: he considers it only in the context of his private misfortunes (‘in all my lyff thus was I never bestad’), and sees the situation as ‘shameful’ to himself, not to those who have trapped him. The contrast between the two laments underscores his increasing alienation both from honour or worship and from his fellow knights. He succeeds, of course, in escaping; but he does so by killing one of his comrades of the Round Table, Sir Colgrevaunce, then donning his armour and fighting his way to freedom. The echo here of the many past occasions on which Lancelot borrowed armour serves only to underscore the extent to which what was once a game has become a disaster. And a lack of armour plays a yet more tragic role in the events that unfold in the wake of this episode.

N. C. Wyeth, Lancelot rescues Guinevere

Another knight killed at the door of the Queen’s chamber is Sir Agravain, brother of Gawain, Lancelot’s best friend. It is a measure of Lancelot’s worth that Gawain does not resent his killing. Indeed, Malory fills these late books with loyal friends who refuse to begrudge the hero his unfortunate propensity for causing the deaths of those who love him: the faithful horse in ‘The Knight of the Cart’ which is shot full of arrows by Sir Melliagaunt’s archers, yet continues to follow its master with its guts hanging out; the Maid of Astolat, who dies for love of Lancelot, and her brother Lavayne, who understands why she chose to do so: ‘for sythen I saw first my lorde sir Launcelot I cowde never departe frome hym’ (p. 639, lines 13-14).  Gawain’s younger brother Gareth is another of these paragons of loyalty, who never forgets that Lancelot was the man who made him knight.  He switches to Lancelot’s side in ‘The Great Tournament’ and fights against his brothers on his mentor’s behalf; and when Arthur orders him to accompany Guinevere on her final journey to execution as an adulteress, he refuses to wear his ‘harneyse of warre’ as a token of solidarity with her absent lover (p. 683, line 41).  Inevitably Lancelot rides to her rescue; and inevitably Gareth is killed with his brother Gaheris in the confusion, ‘for they were unarmed and unwares’ (p. 684, line 26).  At this point in the story Lancelot is once again the most efficient of killing machines, as he was before things got complicated. But his repeated compromising of the chivalric code means that his mechanical efficiency is no longer simple. Instead of being deployed in the service of some good cause, his force gets visited on the vulnerable flesh of the men he loves. Even Guinevere suffers from its effects, since the enmity brought about by Gareth’s death – the falling out it occasions between Gawain and Lancelot – is responsible both for her husband’s downfall and for her penitent demise.

Lancelot himself claims it is the brothers’ missing armour that was responsible for their deaths. ‘God wolde,’ he says at one point, that Gareth and Gaheris ‘had ben armed […] for than had they ben on lyve’ (p. 695, lines 41-2).  He duly offers to make reparation by forgoing his warrior status, as embodied in his harness, and walking from end to end of the kingdom ‘in my shearte’, founding religious houses along the way to sing masses for the dead men’s souls (p. 696, line 14). But Gawain, too, has by this stage become machine-like – welded, so to speak, into his martial persona. War against Lancelot is the only reparation he will accept. And since everyone knows by now that Lancelot will be victorious in any conflict, the reader sees at once that this mechanical insistence on revenge will usher in the end of Arthur’s reign. Malory has reversed the machinery of the romance narrative so that it destroys its most efficient components, the iron-clad knights; and it is the armour that doesn’t work which is largely responsible for changing the function of the armour that does, from protective covering to engine of (self) destruction.

Interestingly, what brings about this major change in the function of armour is a change in the form of Malory’s evolving Arthurian narrative. Many of his earlier works consist of a succession of largely disconnected episodes, such as ‘A Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot du Lake’, with its errant structure neatly but loosely bound together by certain recurrent themes: the tricks Lancelot has to play to get a fight, the tricks played on him to render him vulnerable. But the episodes in the laterBook of Launcelot and Guinevere’ are woven together by tangled chains of cause and effect. The consequences of each episode get played out in the next; and the final book, theMorte Arthur’ itself, is more tightly woven still, with each tale emerging organically from its predecessor. It is as if armour can only remain impervious in episodic narratives. Where one adventure has few links to the next, the simplicity of armour’s function as an emblem of the knightly ideal can be sustained, or can readily be recovered when that function has been compromised. But where competing allegiances – to friend and lover, to King and Queen, to knightly honour and a jealous mistress – get carried over from one episode to the next, armour too becomes permeable. In Malory’s interlinked narratives, harness loses its singular purpose and becomes instead, in its uneasy relationship with the flesh it covers (or fails to cover), an increasingly sophisticated device for undermining its bearer’s pretensions to honour, for exposing the fissures and flaws in his logic, the anarchic passions he seeks to hide or suppress.

Gawain and the Green Knight, illustration from original manuscript

The most sophisticated medieval study of the armour that doesn’t work is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; and here too it is the structure of the narrative that renders that armour problematic, as it accumulates associations through the successive sections or ‘fits’ of the poem. In the opening scene at Arthur’s court, where the mysterious Green Knight invites one of the king’s champions to strike off his head with an axe, the poet makes much of the stranger’s unarmed status: ‘Whe[th]er hade he no helme ne hawbergh nau[th]er,/ Ne no pysan ne no plate [th]at pented to armes’.  The Green Knight’s armourlessness is notable because he possesses a body so eminently suited to martial exploits (‘Hit semed as no mon my[gh]t/ Under his dynttez dry[gh]e’), and because the giant axe he carries underscores the violent nature of the strange game he proposes.[14] The relationship between flesh and steel, then, is implicitly foregrounded from the moment he rides into the court; and when Sir Gawain takes up his challenge, the blow he aims at the Green Knight’s neck constitutes perhaps the most graphic encounter between flesh and steel in English literature: ‘[th]e scharp of [th]e schalk schyndered [th]e bones,/ And schrank [th]ur[gh] [th]e schyire grece, and schade hit in twynne,/ [Th]at [th]e bit of [th]e broun stel bot on [th]e grounde’ (lines 424-6). And flesh and steel continue to dominate the poem. The Green Knight survives the blow, by supernatural means, and leaves the court; Gawain sets off to find him the following year, as the game dictates; and his journey begins, as in all proper romances (though not that of Sir Thopas), with a ritual arming, described in loving detail as the knight’s servants assemble his harness piece by piece around his torso, limbs and head. But even as this physical armour is assembled the reader is aware that it will prove useless, since the encounter Gawain has agreed to entails exposing his own ‘naked’ neck to the Green Knight’s axe. And that approaching moment of nakedness is recalled again and again throughout Gawain’s journey.

It is invoked in the physical rigours of his passage through wintry landscape, during which armour provides no protection against the cold: ‘Ner slayn wyth [th]e slete he sleped in his yrnes/ Mo ny[gh]tez [th]en innoghe in naked rokkez’ (my emphasis) (lines 729-30). It is recalled, too, in the Christmas game Gawain plays while staying at Bertilak’s castle. Each day Bertilak goes hunting while his guest remains at home, and at the end of the day they agree to exchange whatever they have obtained in their respective activities. This second contest, like the Green Knight’s, involves the conspicuous juxtaposition of flesh and steel: the lavish descriptions of Bertilak’s wife, who seeks to seduce her guest in her husband’s absence, being interlaced with passages that describe the mangling and butchering of animal flesh with steel on Bertilak’s hunting expeditions. And as the game goes on, the final encounter between flesh and steel at the Green Knight’s chapel draws steadily closer, until it hardly seems surprising when on his final day at the castle Gawain succumbs – not to the lady’s seduction, but to her offer of additional armour. The armour, however, is not metal, since we already know that metal is useless. Instead she offers him a girdle, whose virtue, she claims, is to protect its wearer so that ‘no ha[th]el vnder heuen tohewe hym [th]at my[gh]t,/ For he my[gh]t not be slayn for sly[gh]t vpon er[th]e’ (lines 1853-4). Gawain accepts the gift and does not declare it to Bertilak that evening, thus violating the terms of the game they have been playing; and next morning he ties it on over his harness like an extra layer of proofing. He never, however, wholly trusts in its protection – witness the flinch he gives when the Green Knight raises his axe. After all, the green girdle represents the love of the body, which is intimately connected through food, drink, desire and clothing with the beasts and growing plants in the world around it; and flesh is frail as grass, as the Bible reminds us.[15] The body’s frailty could not be better suggested than by the contrast between the soft silk girdle and the iron plates it binds, or between the fatty tissue of a man’s exposed neck and the steel blade that nicks it. The girdle confirms Gawain’s humanity, and as such it serves a similar purpose to the armour that doesn’t work which he is wearing, and which he knows full well will do him no good when he meets his enemy.

Michael Smith, Gawain and the Green Knight, linocut available for purchase

In tying on the girdle over his harness, as Cooper points out in The English Romance in Time, Gawain compromises the symbolic function of that armour in an effort to supplement its function as protection.[16] This symbolic function is indicated by the device he wears on his coat armour: a pentangle that stands for five interlinked virtues, each virtue possessing five aspects, together making up the combined qualities to which a knight is expected to aspire. In tying on the girdle, Cooper points out, Gawain obscures the ‘endeles knot’ of the pentangle with a lace which has two distinct ends (‘pendauntez’, line 2038) and which is also tied in a ‘knot’ (line 2376). As a man who knows he has an end – the death that awaits all mortals – Gawain shares with his readers the wish to defer it for as long as possible. He is not made of metal, and metal in any case has been inescapably connected with mortality throughout the poem. Most commentators agree with the Green Knight that Gawain’s love of life, as embodied in the girdle, makes him more, not less, attractive.[17]

Gawain’s useless armour, which gets trumped by a band of green silk, foreshadows the many varieties of non-functioning armour in the sixteenth century. Spenser, whose iron man Talus embodied the grimmer connotations of fully functional armour, opens The Faerie Queene with the portrait of a young knight whose ancient armour does not quite suit him, as if to alert us to the complex relationship between physical, spiritual and political struggle that the poem explores. In the first stanza we read about the ‘cruell markes of many a bloody fielde’ with which Redcrosse’s arms are covered, together with the paradox that ‘armes till that time did he never wield’; and Redcrosse certainly does not find it easy to acclimatize himself to his antique equipment.[18] At the half way point of the first book we find him cavorting with the sorceress Duessa, ‘Pourd out in loosnesse on the grassy grownd’ (I.vii.6), just at the moment when a ferocious giant happens by. Sir Thopas, too, met a giant when he was unarmed, but unlike Chaucer’s hero Redcrosse never gets time to dress for the occasion. ‘Ere he could his armour on him dight’ the knight finds himself the giant’s prisoner (I.vii.8), and has to be rescued by a better-furnished hero, Prince Arthur, whose worth is signaled by his ‘glitterand armour’ (I.vii.29). This hero, too, has something in common with Sir Thopas – he serves a fairy queen – but fortunately his excellent dress sense is better matched by his prowess and he slays the giant with ease (Sir Thopas never even gets close to his). The whole of Spenser’s poem, in fact, is populated by people whose outward garb bears a difficult relationship with their inward qualities, or lack of them, and by the time the reader meets Redcrosse’s rescuer Arthur she has become well used to scrutinizing the verbal and emblematic context of each character’s first appearance in the poem before passing judgement on them.

Redcrosse slaying the dragon, from the frontispiece to the first edition of The Faerie Queene

Even after his rescue by Arthur, who ought to have furnished him with a good example of a knight whose inward qualities match his harness, Redcrosse’s armour remains a problem to him. His climactic fight sees him face a dragon whose scales resemble a ‘plated cote of stele’ (I.xi.9), and whose weaponry (the fire he breathes, his claws, the stings in his tail) render armour a hindrance rather than a help to his antagonist. Finding himself ‘seard’ through his metal covering (I.xi.26), Redcrosse seeks to remove it and unlace his helmet.  Soon afterwards the monster pierces his shoulder with its stings, then grips his shield so fiercely he is forced to cut off its claw, which remains attached to the shield, much to the knight’s annoyance. In his ‘Letter to Ralegh’ Spenser explains that the ancient armour Redcrosse wears is the armour of Christ described by Saint Paul in Ephesians 6:10-18; but its emblematic associations (the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation) keep breaking down in this encounter, and the steel has to be reinforced with further injections of allegory – water from the well of life, balm from the tree of life – whose exact significance (baptism? Eucharist?) has never quite been settled. The intense pain Redcrosse endures in his battle with an enemy who is as well armoured as himself tends to overwhelm the allegorical function of his harness, and only the spiritual remedies applied to his scorched and damaged flesh can restore him to his symbolic identity as the champion of holiness.

Lorna Hutson has written brilliantly about how the feats of physical combat that had been central to medieval romance were displaced in many Tudor romances by verbal combat, in which the hero displays his prowess through eloquence rather than force.[19] It is for this reason, perhaps – the widespread emphasis on debate, and in particular the orator’s skill in arguing on both sides of any given question – that there are so many examples of armour that doesn’t work throughout the period: from the armour borne by Parthenia in Sidney’s New Arcadia, which she dons not to avenge her dead husband but to share his fate; to the borrowed armour worn by the hero to hide his identity in Robert Greene’s Gwydonius, which means that he nearly kills his own father in the romance’s climactic fight; or the poisoned helmet put on by Duke Brachiano in John Webster’s tragedy The White Devil. In each of these cases the tools of defence are transformed into agents of destruction – much as Redcrosse’s armour becomes a furnace when he fights the dragon.  The analogy with the way a skilful orator could deploy the same material to argue against a cause he had just been defending is irresistible.

Troilus, Cressida and Pandarus, Act 4 scene 2, by J. Coughlan

The most sophisticated post-medieval treatment of this anti-meme occurs in Shakespeare’s most knotty play, Troilus and Cressida. Like The Faerie Queene the play can be read as a response to Chaucer, though it also recalls the other English-language versions of the Trojan War that had circulated since the Middle Ages. By the sixteenth century Troy was best known, perhaps, as the focus of a conflict about which radically different accounts had been written, some biased towards the Greek perspective, others towards the Trojan. Debate, then, and many forms of falsification were inseparably attached to the Trojan myth, as we learn from the early fifteenth-century romance The Destruction of Troy: ‘sum poyetis full prist [th]at put hom [th]erto/ With fablis and falshed fayned [th]ere speche,/ And made more of [th]at mater [th]an hom maister were’.[20] And armour was the theme of one of the most celebrated debates of the conflict: the quarrel between Ulysses and Ajax over which of them should inherit the arms of Achilles, as described by Ovid in the thirteenth book of the Metamorphoses. Ulysses won those arms with his crafty tongue, a result that led to the suicide of Ajax; and in the process Ajax’s claim that Ulysses was dedicated to undermining his Greek comrades as much as his Trojan enemies was lent a large measure of credibility.

Shakespeare’s play is full of similar debates, between purported friends as well as deadly enemies. The Trojans squabble over whether they should continue to keep Helen from the Greeks; the Greeks contend over whether she is worth fighting for, and over how to maintain discipline in the ranks of the pan-Hellenic army. Caught up in these controversies, armour finally loses the chivalric connotations it possessed in romance, becoming instead a potent weapon in the war of words, fought out in a period of stalemate between the Greeks and Trojans when other forms of fighting have been temporarily suspended. Shakespeare punctuates this, one of his most verbally inventive plays, with allusions to armour, and these become increasingly contaminated by the anxieties and inconsistencies of the armour-bearers as the play wears on.

The performance opens with a ‘Prologue arm’d’, who delivers his speech clad in protective steel. His appearance may have resembled that of the actors illustrated in Henry Peacham’s near-contemporary sketch of a scene from Titus Andronicus: a peculiar fusion of ancient and modern costume, with Elizabethan vambraces and legharness tacked on to Graeco-Roman cuirasses.[21] The Prologue’s harness is, however, no sign of heroism, as it was for Shakespeare’s Henry V when he wore it at Agincourt. Instead it betrays his lack of ‘confidence’ in the play itself, an uncertainty that stems in part from his ignorance about which side the audience will favour in this particular version of the Trojan war: ‘Like, or find fault,’ he tells us, ‘do as your pleasures are:/ Now good, or bad, ’tis but the chance of war’ (Prologue, 30-1).[22] In these lines, as in the play that follows, values have become contingent, the quality of ‘goodness’ being assigned to whichever side emerges victorious from the conflict, while ‘badness’ is used to brand their defeated enemies regardless of any merits they might have had. Under such circumstances, armour is a political weapon, a means of gaining the upper hand in the confusion of battle. Its links with knightly honour have been severed, and with them the romance presumption that a common code of conduct binds together the men who sport it.

Theo Ogundipe as Ajax and Daniel Hawksford as Hector in 2018 RSC production

The first scene of the play confirms the central part that will be played by armour in the action that follows. Angered, we learn, by a recent defeat at the hands of Ajax, the Trojan hero Hector has ‘chid’ his wife that morning and ‘struck his armourer’ before going to battle (1.2.6). His chiding of Andromache, taken together with the blow against a nameless technician, points to the culture of violence that underpins the Trojan claim to be waging war for the best of reasons: in defence of honour and the women they love. Helen may be the official cause of the Trojan War, but she is in reality no more than an excuse to engage in the testosterone-fueled grapplings that define a young man’s standing in a warrior culture. To drive the point home, Shakespeare later makes Hector use Andromache as an excuse for a return match against Ajax, offering to engage in single combat with any Greek who refuses to acknowledge her as ‘a lady wiser, fairer, truer,/ Than ever Greek did couple in his arms’ (1.3.274-5). The terms of this challenge effectively explode the Trojan claim that Helen is worth fighting for (if Hector is right, she is neither as ‘fair’ nor as ‘true’ as his Trojan wife). This fact, however, is mentioned by nobody; and this is because everyone knows full well that the claim for Andromache’s pre-eminence among women has been swiftly cooked up for the single purpose of restoring Hector’s pre-eminence among fighting men. The real motive for the single combat is made clear when Hector enters the Greek camp, as enemies on both sides eye up each others’ muscles and embrace with more than soldierly enthusiasm. Men are far more interested in their own masculinity than in the women they claim as prizes; and this fact is reflected in the tendency of that most masculine of costumes, armour, to get caught up in the rampant infidelities of its bearers.

Ulysses, for instance, deploys armour prominently in his bid to set his fellow Greeks against each other, while ostensibly inciting them to honourable action. When he informs the Greek commanders that Achilles and Patroclus have been undermining their authority among their men, he reinforces the claim by re-enacting one of the scenes Patroclus is supposed to have acted for Achilles’s pleasure: a mocking imitation of the aged warrior Nestor ‘Arming to answer in a night alarm’, where the coughing and spitting old man ‘with a palsy fumbling on his gorget/ Shake[s] in and out the rivet’ (1.3.171-5). Whether or not Ulysses is telling the truth about Patroclus, his performance in front of Nestor of Nestor’s own ineptitude with his armour is clearly more subversive of the old man’s authority than any performance that may have taken place in Achilles’s tent. Later, when Ulysses urges Achilles himself to return to military action after an extended hiatus, he tells him that only ‘Perseverance’ will maintain his heroic status in the public eye: ‘to have done is to hang/ Quite out of fashion, like a rusty mail/ In monumental mockery’ (3.3.150-3). In saying so, Ulysses encourages Achilles to break his promise to the Trojan princess Polyxena, whom he loves, and who has made him swear he will not harm her fellow citizens. This is, then, another treacherous invocation of armour on Ulysses’ part. And when Achilles’s ‘rusty mail’ does indeed go to war, first enclosing the body of Patroclus (who dies in it), then on Achilles’s own body as he seeks revenge for Patroclus’s death, it is more a monument to his serial faithlessness than to his valour.  Achilles has betrayed Polyxena with his male lover Patroclus, betrayed the Greeks by making a promise to Polyxena, and betrayed Polyxena by going to war and breaking his promise. When he finally fights Hector in Act Five, the Greek hero is out of condition and unused to wearing armour or carrying weapons (‘my arms are out of use’, 5.6.16), and it is this that leads him to his final act of betrayal: to have the ‘unarm’d’ Hector slain by his men-at-arms, the Myrmidons, instead of fighting him hand to hand (5.8.9).

Hector, meanwhile, has a passion for armour that amounts to infidelity, not only to his wife Andromache but to the values he purports to be defending. In the central scene of the play, Act 3 scene 1 – our only extended encounter with Helen, the woman whose ‘worth’ is cited by both Greeks and Trojans as justification for their conflict – Paris exhorts his purloined lover to encourage Hector to keep fighting by indulging in a little erotic dalliance with his equipment:

Sweet Helen, I must woo you
To help unarm our Hector. His stubborn buckles,
With these your white enchanting fingers touch’d,
Shall more obey than to the edge of steel
Or force of Greekish sinews: you shall do more
Than all the island kings – disarm great Hector. (3.1.145-50)

Peter Paul Rubens, Achilles Kills Hector

Paris’s request links the act of disarming with a whole sequence of infidelities: Helen’s to her husband Menelaus; his own to Helen in encouraging her to seduce his brother; and Hector’s to Andromache in being aroused by Helen’s ‘white enchanting fingers’. Later, it is Hector’s armour that points up his forgetfulness of the value he earlier attached to his wife Andromache. When she begs him ‘Unarm, unarm, and do not fight today’ (5.3.3) – convinced by many omens that he will die if he ignores her warning – he threatens to ‘offend’ her, for the second time in the play, if she does not lay off (5.3.4). It seems appropriate, then, that armour should also prove his undoing. His last act of war is to pursue a weaponless soldier because he admires his harness (‘I like thy armour well’, 5.6.28). This is another mark of Hector’s inconsistency; he earlier told Troilus that he would never kill a helpless enemy because of his commitment to the rules of ‘fair play’. When he kills the fleeing soldier for the sake of his outer covering he describes him as a ‘putrefied core’ concealed in ‘goodly armour’ (5.8.1-2); and it is not entirely clear here whether he means that all mortal flesh is effectively putrid or that this soldier in particular was diseased, perhaps with syphilis, another mark of infidelity. There is certainly something rotten about Achilles’s actions when he catches Hector ‘unarm’d’ beside the victim’s body. The Greek hero orders his Myrmidons to kill him, which is bad enough; but he then dresses up the unequal contest in a garb of ‘fair play’, by ordering them to spread the word that Achilles killed the Trojan champion in equal combat: ‘On, Myrmidons, and cry you all amain/ “Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain”’ (5.8.13-14). In this scene the audience sees history being written; and it looks very much like a scam, fronted by the ‘goodly armour’ that conceals the cross-infected rottenness of the flesh within.

Shakespeare’s play completes the process of conceptually disengaging armour from its bearer and investing it with a grotesque life of its own; a process that had been steadily at work over the preceding two centuries. There are other manifestations of this process, some contemporary with this one, which would be worth holding up as exemplary representations of the complex relationship between human flesh and the rigid social, cultural and moral carapaces we don in a vain attempt to contain and define it. The most notable of these is the armour of Quixote. The inadequacy of this ancestral iron shell (most notably the various home-made helmets with which he seeks to complete it) reflects the weakness of the bearer’s ageing brain; but it also embodies his infectious delight in the imaginative glamour bestowed on the world by a romance sensibility, and his determination to invest the world with that glamour whatever the cost to his unguarded head. What is evident, however, is that armour that doesn’t work deserves the same close attention Cooper gave to non-functional magic; and that it has enabled equally startling transformations, down the years, of the romance tradition. It is time to polish up the rusty mail.[23]

John Waterhouse, La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Notes

[1] Cooper, Romance, ch. 3: ‘Magic that doesn’t work’.

[2] Cooper, Romance, pp. 148-51.

[3] Cooper, Romance, p. 138.

[4] My knowledge of medieval armour depends largely on two sources: Claude Blair’s European Armour circa 1066 to circa 1700 (London, 1958); and the kindness of Dr Ralph Moffat, Curator of European Arms and Armour at the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow. Warm thanks to Ralph for showing me round the museum’s remarkable collection and providing me with an invaluable reading list.

[5] ‘And so suddeynly departed hys soule to Jesu Cryste, and a grete multitude of angels bare hit up to hevyn evyn in the sight of hys two felowis’: Sir Thomas Malory, Works, ed. Eugène Vinaver (Oxford, 1977), p. 607, lines 6-8. All references are to this edition.

[6] See [Anon.], Virgilius (Antwerp, 1518), sigs. A5v-A6v; Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, eds. David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen (Manchester and New York, 1993), A-Text, I. i. 102-168. For Agrippa’s moving statues, see Three Books of Occult Philosophy Written by Henry Cornelius Agrippa, trans. J.F. (London, 1651), pp. 77-8.

[7] Italo Calvino, Our Ancestors, trans. Archibald Colquhoun (London, 1980), pp. 285-382.

[8] Sir Perceval of Galles, in Middle English Metrical Romances, ed. Walter Hoyt French and Charles Brockway Hale, 2 vols. (New York, 1930), 2: 530-603.

[9] T.H. White, The Sword in the Stone (London, 1959), p. 26.

[10] White, Sword in the Stone, p. 30.

[11] Cooper, Romance, p. 363.

[12] Sir Thopas, in Geoffrey Chaucer, Works, ed. F.N. Robinson, 2nd edn. (Oxford, 1977), p. 166, lines 867 and 882. All references are to this edition.

[13] Cooper, Romance, pp. 367-9.

[14] Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon, 2nd edn., ed. Norman Davis (Oxford, 1979), lines 201-4. All references are to this edition.

[15] Isaiah 40:6 and 1 Peter 1:24.

[16] Cooper, Romance, p. 160.

[17] Cooper, Romance, p. 52.

[18] Spenser, Faerie Queene, I.i.1. All references are to this edition.

[19] See The Usurer’s Daughter: Male Friendship and Fictions of Women in Sixteenth-Century England (London, 1994).

[20] Middle English Metrical Romances, ed. French and Hale, p. 811, lines 33-5.

[21] The sketch is reproduced in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et al., 2nd edn. (London, 2008), p. 89.

[22] All references to Troilus and Cressida are taken from Kenneth Palmer’s edition for the Arden Shakespeare (London, 1982).

[23] My thanks to Matthew Woodcock for his comments on this essay. He asked me a number of excellent questions I have no space to answer here, among them ‘do you have a sense of when the “armour that doesn’t work” anti-meme develops’? The fact that Beowulf is the first example I can think of (the episode in which the hero’s specially-forged iron shield fails him in his fight against the dragon, of course, but more interestingly the whole notion that Beowulf has never managed to fight with weapons because they have always failed him) suggests to me that it is as old as armour itself.

Shakespeare’s Merry England, Part 3: Falstaff’s Wholesomeness

Ralph Richardson as Falstaff, Laurence Olivier as Shallow

Time catches up with Falstaff in the end.  2 Henry IV resonates with the ticking of clocks – ‘we are time’s subjects’, says one of the elderly rebels as the insurrection gets under way (1.3.110) – and clocks are Falstaff’s enemy, bringing him always closer to humiliation and death.  It is full, too, of fragile and broken friendships, of which Falstaff has his share.  Justice Shallow masquerades as his lifelong bosom buddy despite the fact that they both know Shallow’s account of their wild youth together to be fraudulent, a crude and hasty fabrication designed to screen their mercenary desire to profit by one another.  ‘I do remember him at Clement’s Inn’, says Falstaff, ‘like a man made after supper of a cheese-paring.  When a was naked, he was for all the world like a forked radish, with a head fantastically carved upon it with a knife’ (3.2.303-7); and he later adds that he could make a dozen Shallows from the superabundant material of his own body (5.1.62-4).  Shallow clearly hopes that Falstaff will ‘make’ him in another sense by making his fortune, and this is the shallow foundation of their friendship.  The casting off of Falstaff is the moment when his accumulated debts catch up with him, as the newly-crowned Hal reminds him of what he said in Part One – that ‘thou owest God a death’ (1 Henry IV, 5.1.126) – and forestalls any ‘fool-born jest’ he might invent to inveigle his way out of due payment (2 Henry IV, 5.5.55).  Shallow at once calls in his loans (‘let me have five hundred of my thousand’ (5.5.84-5)) and Falstaff is clapped into prison to atone for his misdeeds, financial and moral.   The fat knight’s promised reappearance in Henry V, which is flagged in the epilogue, never materializes except in the account given by the hostess of his death (Henry V, 2.3.9-25) – as if he has managed one last time to escape shot-free from his creditors, in this case the theatre audience which is responsible for his success, and which clamoured for a sight of his curtain call.  Falstaff’s reign ends with Hal’s betrayal, and the ancient moral and social hierarchies of England are both reinstated at once, their restoration ushered in with tired old moral commonplaces such as ‘How ill white hairs become a fool and jester’ (5.5.48).

Shallow and Silence, by J. Coghlan (c. 1820)

But this is not the whole story; because Hal’s crowning coincides with the figurative crowning of Falstaff, and it is on the body of Falstaff, as it were, that Hal erects his kingdom.  Falstaff is the presiding spirit of the unhistorical ‘merry’ or comic England over which Hal plans to reign; the England where lions recognize the true prince ‘by instinct’ and where Shallow’s glowing account of his youth is true.  ‘Merry England’ is created in 2 Henry IV by the sheer force of Falstaff’s laughter.  ‘The brain of this foolish-compounded clay, man,’ he tells us, ‘is not able to invent anything that intends to laughter more than I invent, or is invented on me; I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men’ (1.2.7-10).  And he triumphantly bears out this claim in the rest of the action.  His arraignment by the Lord Chief Justice is transformed at his hands into a jest; Shallow’s falsifying of the past furnishes him with comic material to ‘keep Prince Harry in continual laughter the wearing out of six fashions’ (5.1.77-81); and even the grim Prince John, despite the fact that ‘a man cannot make him laugh’ (4.3.87-8), prompts one of his most brilliant flights of fantasy, the disquisition on sack.  The fat knight’s disease-ridden body, then, grown cold with age and huge with self-indulgence, generates wholesome hilarity, the healthiest of moods, which spreads from him like a benign virus until near the end of the play it erupts in the cheeriest party in theatrical history.  The party takes place in an orchard on the eve of Hal’s coronation, and in it a man called Silence bursts into song, a male servant is commended for being a good ‘husband’ to his master (5.3.10-11) – meaning both a good steward and a good marriage partner; Falstaff’s red-nosed retainer Bardolph is told he speaks like a king (5.3.68), a young page finds himself welcomed with the same enthusiasm as his old employer (‘Welcome, my little tiny thief and welcome indeed, too!’ (5.3.56-7)), and the company in general is urged to ‘Lack nothing’ (5.3.68), to discard the years of penury they have suffered and to feast instead on the fruits with which Shallow’s orchard, and England in general, is stocked.  The contrast with the orchard scene where the starving Jack Cade was killed in the midst of plenty could not be more pronounced.  And the party ends with a promise that this genial atmosphere will soon extend itself throughout the nation, as Falstaff hears the news of Henry’s death and declares that ‘the laws of England are at my commandment’ (5.3.136-7), while his comrade Pistol salutes a happy future: ‘welcome these pleasant days’ (5.3.141).

Kenneth Branagh as Henry V

Of course the casting-off of Falstaff puts a dampener on these celebrations.  The authority of a monarch could not tolerate a rival of Falstaff’s size and energy, and although we are assured that Hal’s former friends ‘Shall all be very well provided for’ (5.5.100), the fact that it is the odious Prince John who tells us so – and that such sensible provisions seem so much less glorious than the comic vision we glimpsed in Shallow’s orchard – detracts from the pleasure we might otherwise derive from these reassurances.  If Prince John delights in Hal’s transformation, we as an audience have good reason to distrust it.  And sure enough, there are plenty of Prince John moments in the career of Shakespeare’s Henry V.  Henry’s humour is as calculated as Hal’s, and recalls at times the cruelty of Prince John’s coldly jocular betrayal of the rebels.  We have already mentioned his witty exposure of the treachery of his friends Cambridge and Scroop, whom he mocks for having ‘lightly conspired’ against his throne (Henry V, 2.2.89); but far more disturbing is the gigantic jest that is the invasion of France.  It is one of a series of dazzling diversions designed to draw attention away from the problematic aspects of Henry’s inheritance.  If his claim to the throne of England is poor, he must stress his claim to the throne of France, obedient to his father’s advice to busy the ‘giddy minds’ of his subjects with foreign quarrels (2 Henry IV, 4.5.213-4).  If he is the aggressor in a war let him transfer the blame to his enemies, telling the besieged citizens of Harfleur that ‘you yourselves are cause, / If your pure maidens fall into the hand / Of hot and forcing violation’ (Henry V, 3.3.19-21) (he sounds here as if he is recalling a lesson from the laughing conquest of Asia by Marlowe’s Tamburlaine).  If military action is in his interest he must make sure it is represented as God’s war, divine punishment on any English criminals who die in battle.  It is the very lightness of touch, the comic sleight of hand involved in all these post-Falstavian evasions that makes them chilling.  Hal’s lies are not gross as a mountain, as Falstaff’s were, but breezy and scarcely visible.  And their breeziness kills people, like the jovial folksiness of a modern warmonger.

Felix Aylmer, Laurence Olivier and Robert Helpmann in the opening scene of Henry V

The link between laughter and slaughter in Henry’s reign is at its strongest in Act One, when the Archbishop of Canterbury – eager to divert Henry’s attention from his plans to tax the church by sending him to France – describes England’s former French campaigns as a grotesque spectator sport, in which the Black Prince’s father ‘Stood smiling to behold his lion’s whelp / Forage in blood of French nobility’ (1.2.109-10), while half the English army stood ‘laughing’ next to him, ‘All out of work and cold for action’ (1.2.113-4).  Henry at once catches the Archbishop’s tone, and seizes the pretext of the Dauphin’s mocking gift of tennis balls to represent his own French campaign as a still bloodier joke than the wars waged by his ancestors:

        …tell the pleasant Prince this mock of his
Hath turned his balls to gun-stones, and his soul
Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly with them; for many a thousand widows
Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands,
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down…
His jest shall savour but of shallow wit
When thousands weep more than did laugh at it. (1.2.282-97)

Henry’s campaign is designed to show that the English King is wittier than the French Prince, that all debts to him will be repaid with interest, and that all insults aimed at him will produce an instant and devastating retaliation.  Henry, in fact, must be the undisputed master of ceremonies in the play that bears his name.

Laurence Olivier as Henry V

But Falstaff leaves Hal with another legacy besides the ability to forge brilliant ripostes and improbable evasions.  The fat knight acted as a bridge between the Prince and the common people, whose language Hal learned in Falstaff’s company.  As Hal puts it in Part One, ‘I can drink with any tinker in his own language during my life’, and ‘when I am King of England I shall command all the good lads in Eastcheap’ (2.4.13-19); and the heir apparent even goes so far as to disguise himself as a tapster in Part Two.  This familiarity with the people and their language provides Henry with his most brilliant evasive stratagem: that of avoiding the issue of his shaky claim to the throne by rhetorically ennobling the entire population of his nation.  In Henry’s language, though not in his policies, the hopes of Falstaff and his gang to be elevated to the aristocracy are abundantly borne out.  As he storms the breach at Harfleur Henry urges all his men, not just the aristocracy, to remember their ancestry with pride: ‘On, on, you noblest English’, he cries, and describes their fathers as ‘so many Alexanders’ (3.1.17-19).  Later the Welsh captain Fluellen attests to the success of this stratagem when he compares Henry to Alexander partly on the strength of the resemblance between Monmouth in Wales and Alexander’s Macedonia (4.7.11-52).  Henry has clearly succeeded in giving his subjects – even his non-English subjects – a sense of ownership, of full participation in his triumphs.  ‘There is none of you so mean and base,’ he tells them, ‘That hath not noble lustre in your eyes’ (3.1.29-30), and in saying so he draws their attention away from the less than royal lustre of his own coat of arms.  The Prince John aspect of Henry’s humour prompts him to trick one of his common soldiers, Michael Williams, into being falsely accused of high treason (4.8.9ff.) – though he pardons his victim at the last minute and compensates him for his terror.  The Sir John aspect of his personality, by contrast, permits him to demystify the role of King (‘his ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man’ (4.1.104-5)), and to address his followers as ‘brothers, friends, and countrymen’ (4.0.34).[1]  When he imparts to both his ‘mean and gentle’ soldiers ‘A little touch of Harry in the night’ (4.0.45-7), he transforms them into aspects or clones of himself, thus strengthening his power to the extent that it can never be undermined.  The skill with which he achieves this he owes to the ‘tutor and… feeder of his riots’, Falstaff (2 Henry IV, 5.5.62).

Henry is no egalitarian.  All his rhetoric is designed to strengthen his position as undisputed monarch of England and France, not to establish a new English commonwealth based on fairer principles than the old.  But his reign involves due recognition of the central role played by the common people in the changing fortunes of England; and from this time forth their status as major players in history is confirmed.  Henry dies young, and his predictions of the future, like Falstaff’s, prove over-optimistic from his own point of view.  He never fathers a son who is capable of leading a crusade to Constantinople or of forging a lasting peace between the French and English peoples – or even between rival factions in the English aristocracy.  But the common people he figuratively ennobled, and whose power he understood, live on, and comprise the audience of Shakespeare’s Henry V, a play that reminds them repeatedly of their capacity to make a difference in affairs of state.  It is the common people, the play seems to say, who make or break monarchs, just as the collective power of the people’s imagination can recreate a Henry on the Elizabethan stage.  Without the precedent of Falstaff’s outrageous imaginings this Shakespearean revelation could never have acquired the force it has.

Falstaff in the laundry basket, by Eduard von Grützner

And Falstaff’s imaginative construction of ‘merry England’ has another outlet besides the career of Henry V.  The merry-making in Shallow’s orchard is recalled in the title of The Merry Wives of Windsor, the only Shakespearean comedy set in England; and the play provides a kind of escape from the nightmare of history.  There is just one mention in it of the grand narrative of the Second Tetralogy, when we are told that the impoverished aristocrat Fenton was once a companion of ‘the wild Prince and Poins’ (3.2.65-6); but this merely disqualifies him, in the minds of the middle-class married couples who dominate the play, as a suitable match for their daughter (3.4.4-10).  In the same way, the middle classes are carefully excluded from the Tetralogy, paying their way out of military service and thus avoiding the slaughters, betrayals and machinations that are the province of their nominal rulers.  The events of chronicle histories are irrelevant to these people’s lives; and this play narrates the histories of ordinary men and women, history as it is purveyed in the jest-books, whose pranks and japes are faithfully reproduced in the farcical situations with which it is filled.

The titular merry wives occupy an egalitarian rural space where nearly everyone can participate with equal enthusiasm in plots to make, break, prevent or preserve each other’s marriages.[2]  It is a space where women rule the roost, hatching stratagems designed to show, as Mistress Page insists, that ‘Wives may be merry and yet honest too’ (4.2.100), in contrast to the dishonest merriment of aristocrats and hereditary knights like Sir John.  And it is a space where jests do no harm, as all the characters repeatedly assure us.  The host’s deception of the doctor, Caius, and Hugh Evans the parson, is devised not to hurt them but to prevent them from doing each other damage in a duel; the wives’ deception of Falstaff aims to prevent him hurting their husbands by committing adultery; Fenton’s tricking of Anne Page’s parents proves that he has laid aside his aristocratic wildness and committed himself to the stability of middle-class matrimony.  As Parson Evans puts it, the play is driven by ‘admirable pleasures and ferry honest knaveries’ (4.4.79-80), and Master Page piously confirms his view: ‘God prosper our sport.  No man means evil but the devil, and we shall know him by his horns’ (5.2.12-13).  The authoritarian anti-theatrical lobby, then, is as irrelevant here as the iron hand of the law, or civil war, or bloody revenge; and so rigorously are these oppressive considerations excluded from the action that it would be fair to describe this as Shakespeare’s only pure comedy, the only play in his oeuvre that is unshadowed by the threat of death or the intimidating presence of rulers.29

Falstaff as Herne the Hunter, by Robert Smirke

The egalitarianism of the play asserts itself in the fact that nearly everyone in it has at least one prank played on them.  Falstaff is tricked more often than anyone else, and subjected to more painful physical abuse: half-drowned in a deep ditch, beaten in women’s clothes, pinched black and blue by children disguised as fairies.  But he is never isolated in his comic sufferings, as he so often seemed to be in Henry IV; his humiliation is shared by the bulk of the Windsor community.  Master Ford, Mr and Mrs Page, Slender, Shallow, Doctor Caius, the Host of the Garter and Parson Evans, are all conned as comprehensively as he is, and he himself notes the multiplicity of quarries there are for the play’s pranksters: ‘When night-dogs run, all sorts of deer are chased’ (5.5.232).  So if Falstaff is toppled from his position of supreme comic pre-eminence in this play, as many commentators have remarked, his former absolutist monarchy is supplanted by a commonwealth of merriment, the model for a new anti-authoritarian England.  In place of the crown of power and influence he hoped for in the Henriad, the fat knight is given a crown composed of the antlers of a Windsor stag, ‘the fattest, I think, i’the forest’ (5.5.12-13).  And while the stag is the most lordly of wild beasts, it is also the principal ingredient of the ‘hot venison pasty’ Master Page serves to his guests in the first scene of the play, in token of the amity between them (1.1.181).  In the play’s last scene, then, Falstaff has become a wholly wholesome dish, his predatory sexual desires transmuted into a harmless fairy-tale, his bulk made the centre of an inclusive social circle.  He has been defused, in other words, but not deflated, and the genial metamorphosis is completed at the end of the scene when Mistress Page invites him to ‘laugh this sport o’er by a country fire’ and enjoy, with his friends, ‘many, many merry days’ (5.5.234-7).  In The Merry Wives of Windsor merriness is vindicated, laughter liberated from slaughter, and the shadow of civil war dispersed from a land where everyone enjoys warmth and enough to eat.  It is not the land where the Elizabethans lived, but thanks to Falstaff and his friends they could go home from the performance nurturing the hope that one day it might be.

Falstaff, by Mihály Zichy

NOTES

[1] He again makes his followers his brothers – thus ennobling them – in the famous St Crispin’s Day speech (Henry V, 4.3.56-67).

[2] Leah S. Marcus argues that the version of the play printed in the First Quarto of 1602 is more egalitarian in its drift than the version in the Folio: ‘Levelling Shakespeare: Local Customs and Local Texts’, Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991), pp. 168-78.  For the relationship between the two texts see The Norton Shakespeare, pp. 1231-3.

[3] Apart, of course, from the ruler who may have been watching the play’s first performance.  For the theory that the play was written at the command of Elizabeth I for performance in her presence at the Garter Feast of 1597, see Peter Erickson, ‘The Order of the Garter, the Cult of Elizabeth, and Class-Gender Tension in The Merry Wives of Windsor’, Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, ed. Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O’Connor (New York, 1987), pp. 116-45.  It should be noted, though, that the one direct reference to Elizabeth in the play – as a future owner of Windsor Castle who is blessed by Mistress Quickly in her capacity as Fairy Queen – stresses her absence from the play’s world; the castle is blessed while it is seemingly empty (5.5.55-74).

 

 

 

Shakespeare’s Merry England, Part 2: The Fatness of Falstaff

Richard II, boy king

Besides being rooted in his nation’s present, Jack Cade’s campaign is also embroiled in its past: his insurrection could never have got under way if he had not claimed descent from the ‘legitimate’ successor to the deposed King Richard II.  The emaciated Cade, then, owes his rise and fall to the same conditions that permit the rise and fall of that ‘gross fat man’ Jack Falstaff: the disorder that followed Richard’s deposition from the throne of England.  But Falstaff’s body is far more intimately involved with the physical condition of his country than Cade’s is.   From the beginning of Richard II, when England succumbs to the social sickness that will plague it throughout the civil wars of the fifteenth century, the body forms the focus of Shakespeare’s Second Tetralogy – the epic series of plays comprising Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V.  And the mountain of flesh Falstaff, who dominates the two central plays of the series, is living, breathing proof both of England’s diseased condition and of its irrepressible vitality, its lively hope, like that of a pregnant mother, of better times to come.[1]

Falstaff is no commoner: he is a hereditary knight who has fallen on hard times but lives in expectation of rejoining the ranks of the nobility once Hal comes into his inheritance.[2]  But Falstaff’s body has been swollen by the attentions of commoners, especially brewers and barmen; it holds sway in the streets and taverns of the city where commoners throng; and it consumes the cheap luxury commodities that enrich the commoners’ leisure hours.  He links the material preoccupations of the commoners to the airy obsessions of the ruling classes as no-one else does in Shakespeare; and he does so through the miracle of his corporal vastness, which is as much a product of his exuberant language as it is of his physical presence on the stage of English history.

Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt

In Richard II, a king’s self-indulgent playfulness, his arrogant assumption that his royal powers are absolute and that he may therefore ignore the contracts that bind him to his subjects, unleash a sequence of consequences that are described in metaphors of physical debility.  Richard’s arbitrariness first manifests itself when he banishes two of his nobles in the opening act, with devastating effects on their bodies.  The pair, who are initially in perfect health (Bolingbroke describes himself as ‘lusty, young, and cheerly drawing breath’ (1.3.66)), abruptly find their limbs out of control, bereft of their former agility.  As the other exile, Mowbray, tells the King, by sending him to a foreign land ‘Within my mouth you have engaol’d my tongue, / Doubly portcullis’d with my teeth and lips’ (1.3.166-7), while Bolingbroke compares the severing of their flesh from English soil to the parting of soul from body (1.3.194-7).  Meanwhile Bolingbroke’s father, the dying John of Gaunt whose spirit is literally about to leave his body, accuses the King of damaging his own constitution as well as those of his nobles and his kingdom.  The fashionable monarch ‘limps after’ the trendy customs of Italy (2.1.23), ‘tires’, ‘chokes’ and ‘consumes’ himself with a ‘rash, fierce blaze of riot’ (2.1.33-9), and binds up that ‘teeming womb of royal kings’ England in crushing legal restraints to pay for his own excesses (2.1.51ff.).  John of Gaunt’s body, as emaciated as his name suggests, is for him the emblem of England’s decay, bled dry by the King’s frivolous rapacity (2.1.73-83).  But it also illustrates the accelerated decrepitude that Richard is bringing on himself as he commits his ‘anointed body’ to the care of ‘those physicians that first wounded thee,’ his reckless favourites (2.1.98-9).  And once old Gaunt is dead, Richard’s diseases multiply apace.  His Queen quickly detects ‘Some unborn sorrow ripe in Fortune’s womb’ about to fall on his head instead of the son he has failed to father (2.2.10); and when Bolingbroke reappears on the scene, proclaiming his intention to reclaim the ancestral property Richard stole from him during his exile, the Queen recognizes the ambitious young man as her ‘sorrow’s dismal heir’ (2.2.63) – metaphorically designating him both as a substitute prince of the royal blood and as an embodiment of his kingdom’s future misery.  In the same scene, the Duke of York compares Bolingbroke to an illness invading the nation’s bloodstream in response to the King’s lifestyle: ‘Now comes the sick hour that [Richard’s] surfeit made’ (2.2.84).  From this time forth, Richard with his ‘ruin’d ears’  (3.3.34) and eyes blinded with tears is marked as subject to a more powerful monarch, Death, who occupies the ‘court’ of the King’s living corpse, ‘grinning at his pomp’ with fleshless jaws (3.2.155-70).  Richard begets his own death, in other words, like a parodic heir apparent, a grotesque alternative dynasty to replace the dynasty that he never succeeds in founding.  At the end of his life he is still fathering imaginary, abortive heirs: ‘A generation of still-breeding thoughts’ that plague him in prison after his abdication (5.5.8), content with nothing till they are finally made nothing by Richard’s death.

But for Bolingbroke, too, as Richard’s heir, the prognosis is none too good.  If he is Richard’s and England’s sickness, the time will inevitably come when the disease will grow to a crisis, when ‘foul sin gathering head / Shall break into corruption’, as Richard puts it (5.1.58-9).  Richard predicts that this crisis will be brought about by Bolingbroke’s friend and ally, the Earl of Northumberland: and his prediction is remembered eight years later by the ailing Bolingbroke – now Henry IV of England – in the third act of 2 Henry IV (3.1.76-7).  The two parts of Henry IV chart the progress of England’s infection, and Falstaff is at once its most visible symptom, its most eloquent diagnostician and (perhaps) its comic cure.[3]

Tom Hiddleston as Hal, Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff

Every detail of the environment he inhabits was predicted in Richard II.  Richard’s addiction to laughter forms the model for Hal’s tavern-haunting, as Henry IV points out (‘For all the world / As thou art to this hour was Richard then’ (1 Henry IV 3.2.93-4)), and Hal’s drinking-bouts with Jack recall Richard’s rowdy exploits with his boon companions Bushy, Bagot and Green.  Bolingbroke’s rise to power in Richard II, sustained by the commoners who love him, is described by Richard’s Queen as a process whereby ‘triumph is become an alehouse guest’ (5.1.15), and spurs Hal to nurture a still greater intimacy with the residents of alehouses.  Falstaff’s commentary on affairs of state, too, has a precedent in Richard II, in the commentary of an egalitarian gardener on the state of England in Act Three (3.4.24ff.).  More unsettlingly, the brittle and temporary nature of the friendship between Falstaff and Hal – a brittleness that is repeatedly emphasized by the Prince – resembles the superficial friendships cultivated by Bolingbroke in his rise to power.  ‘I count myself in nothing else so happy,’ Bolingbroke tells Northumberland as he returns from exile, ‘As in a soul rememb’ring my good friends’ (Richard II, 2.3.46-7); but it is the breakdown of friendship between Bolingbroke and Northumberland that precipitates rebellion when Bolingbroke is King.  In his relationship with Falstaff Hal comically recreates the history of the monarchs who preceded him, scrutinizing the conditions that led first Richard and then Henry to lose control over the course of events, as they presented their subjects with every opportunity to reinvent them at will, to trespass on the royal prerogative of self-definition.  Through Falstaff Hal acquires the art both of reinventing himself and of evading definition by others: a comic skill, but the art of the wit rather than the fool, of the acknowledged master of delightful improvization rather than the helpless butt of collective laughter.  With Falstaff, too, Hal learns the art of controlling others – even the most uncontrollable people of all, the clever clowns.  Or at least, so Hal presumes; how far he succeeds has always been a matter of debate.

The splitting of the reign of Henry IV into two plays corresponds to the splitting of his kingdom into factions – another symptom of the disease of state contracted first by Richard and then by Henry.  It structurally reinforces, too, the astonishing multiplication of would-be kings and heirs that emerge as a direct result of Henry’s illegal seizure of power from the legitimate monarch.  Both plays are full, not so much of pretenders to the throne as of competing versions of the King himself and the Prince his son.  The First Part opens with Henry wishing it could be proved that his son Hal had been substituted at birth for the young war-hero Hotspur, who seems so much more princely in his conduct than the prince (1.1.77-90).  Later, Henry tells Hal how his younger brother Prince John has acted as Hal’s substitute in the Privy Council (3.2.32-3); and this is what stings Hal to predict the moment when he will substitute himself for his rival Hotspur, making him ‘exchange / His glorious deeds for my indignities’ in a deadly encounter on the battlefield (3.2.145-6).  Hal, then, is regularly ‘performed’ both by his subjects and in his father’s imagination; and Henry IV finds himself performed yet more often by those beneath him.  The rebel lords see him as their creation (he enjoys ‘that same greatness… which our own hands / Have holp to make so portly’ (1.3.12-13)), and take it on themselves to read his thoughts, assuming that he ‘studies day and night’ to pay his debt to them with their deaths (1.3.182) – an assumption that is directly responsible for their insurrection.  In Act Two, Hal and Falstaff take it in turns to play the King in an impromptu comedy performed in an Eastcheap tavern (2.4.368ff.).  In Act Four it is Hotspur’s turn to be christened by Douglas ‘the king of honour’ (4.1.10) (Hal has earlier dubbed himself ‘the king of courtesy’ (2.4.10)).  And in the battle of Shrewsbury there are dozens of men playing the King, ‘marching in his coats’ as decoys for the rebels’ blades (5.3.25).  As a result, the battlefield seems to be comically thronged with Henries, a host of visored monarchs whose outsides give no clue to their inward identity, so that the frustrated Douglas finds he must ‘murder’ all the royal wardrobe ‘piece by piece’ before he can reach the King (5.3.27).  This giddying multiplication of Henries slows down in 2 Henry IV, but even here Falstaff and the Lord Chief Justice contend with Henry for the position of father to the Prince of Wales.  Henry IV, then, is not two parts but many, as if his expert performance of the previously restricted role of king has inspired all ambitious men to think they can emulate his acting skills with impunity.  As with Macbeth, the leap of imagination he took in usurping the monarchy unleashes the power of his subjects’ imaginations, so that nothing is unthinkable – no act of treason, courage or ambition – for as long as he retains the throne of England.

Jeremy Irons as Henry IV

But the two parts of Henry IV also indicate a split within Henry himself, a deadly separation of his vital components that is one physical consequence of his failure to commit himself, in Richard II, on the subject of whether he was or was not a legitimate contender for the crown.  According to early modern medical theory, derived from the teachings of the Roman physician Galen, the human body is composed of four elements or humours, the microcosmic equivalents of the four elements that make up the world: earth, air, fire and water.[4]  A healthy body has its four humours in perfect harmony, holding each other in a precarious equilibrium, whereas in an ailing person one or more of these humours dominate, reducing the others to a secondary role and enfeebling the whole constitution as a result.  The two parts of Henry IV suggest through metaphor that the humours in the body of the English nation have been radically destabilized.  In the first part, the elements of fire and air hold sway; the emphasis is on the self-destructive energies of youth, on the dangerous love of sheer speed that is one of youth’s characteristics, and on the violent rivalries between young men that had such damaging effects in Romeo’s Verona.  In the second part, earth and water prevail over fire and air, old age supplants youth as the presiding genius of the time, a chill settles on the language of the contesting English factions, and everyone seems to stir themselves reluctantly into sluggish action, forcing their bodies to move – whether in rebellion or counter-rebellion – with pain and difficulty, and desisting from motion with obvious relief.  In Part One, the heat of the times engenders warm friendships between men and loving exchanges between husbands and wives.  Hal’s affectionate farewell to Falstaff when he thinks him dead is the high point of their relationship (5.4.101-9), and the exchanges between Harry Hotspur and Kate his wife evoke an atmosphere of marital closeness, strong desires and cheerful bickering that endears them to the play’s spectators.  In the second part, relationships are at best cooler, at worst shattered by rejection and betrayal.   Family members are distant from one another: Hotspur’s wife Kate, who has survived her husband’s death at the end of Part One, urges her father-in-law Northumberland to break his word to his fellow rebels for no better reason than that he has already broken his word to Hotspur his son, the man she loved (2.3.9ff.); while the mood of the play is incapsulated in Henry IV’s despairing cry to his own sons – from whose number at this moment Hal is conspicuously absent – ‘O me! Come near me, now I am much ill’ (4.3.111).  The contrast between the two parts may best be summarized by the climactic encounters between the rebels and the forces of the crown in each play.  The first culminates in a duel between two young men, fuelled by hot words and ending with the gushing of youthful blood.  The second culminates in an act of treachery, where a rebel force headed by old men are tricked into disbanding with a promise of mercy, then massacred by the army of the cold-blooded Prince John.  Heat and cold, youth and old age, and the elements associated with these conditions, seem to have undergone an agonizing divorce in Henry’s reign, and the instability of a state has never been more brilliantly realized in artistic form than it is in this astonishing diptych.

Orson Welles as Falstaff

Falstaff provides a satirical running commentary on the divorce between the humours and their associated elements that afflicts the plays.  In Part One he absurdly masquerades as a man of Hal’s and Hotspur’s generation, bellowing ‘young men must live’ as he robs the travellers at Gadshill (2.2.90) and melting his fat in streams of perspiration as he flees from the scene of the crime (2.2.107-8), in grotesque imitation of the ‘beads of sweat’ shed by the sleeping Hotspur as he dreams of battles to come (2.3.56-9).  The tavern scenes over which Falstaff presides are lit by fires – the ‘everlasting bonfire-light’ of his retainer Bardolph’s inflamed nose (3.3.41), and the infernal conflagrations conjured up by repeated references to devils and hell (Jack himself is ‘a devil… in the likeness of an old fat man’ (2.4.441-2)).  In the second part the fat knight’s pretensions to youth are exploded early on by the Lord Chief Justice, and for the rest of the action Falstaff is acutely conscious of his age, reminded of it repeatedly by the nostalgic ramblings of Justice Shallow and the tendency of the whore Doll and others to ‘speak like a death’s head’ by bidding him ‘remember mine end’ (2.4.34-5).  If Falstaff’s constitution is never quite cold in the Second Part – unlike that of other old men, such as Northumberland, the Archbishop of York, and the King  – it is because his blood has been artificially heated by alcohol, as he explains in his famous speech on the inflammatory qualities of a ‘good sherris-sack’ (4.4.85-124).  Nevertheless, this speech ties in with the many allusions to water and other chilling liquids that fill the play; and a look at these ties will help to show how the Falstavian comic ‘subplot’ operates with relation to the political ‘main plots’ in the two Parts.

In Part Two, water metaphors dominate the language of the rebels, who associate their insurrection with one of the sudden deluges that brought periodic devastation to the English countryside.  In the first scene, Northumberland declares that the death of his son Hotspur has unleashed a flood of grief in him that will overwhelm the nation.  ‘Now let not Nature’s hand / Keep the wild flood confin’d’, he cries (1.1.153-4), and later the Archbishop of York takes up the theme, telling the King’s representative that he and his colleagues were ‘enforc’d from our most quiet… / By the rough torrent of occasion’ (4.1.71-2), and promising that if their demands are met ‘We come within our aweful banks again’ (4.1.176).[5]  Henry IV’s followers, too, associate water with insurrection and impending anarchy.  As the king lies dying his younger sons speak of the omens that announce his imminent death, and the chaos that will follow once his wild son Hal assumes the crown: ‘The river hath thrice flow’d, no ebb between’, says Clarence, ‘And the old folk… Say it did so a little time before / That our great-grandsire Edward sick’d and died’ (4.4.125-8).  Hal responds, when he inherits the throne, by proclaiming the return of moderation to the ‘tide’ of his blood:

          The tide of blood in me
Hath proudly flow’d in vanity till now.
Now doth it turn, and ebb back to the sea,
Where it shall mingle with the state of floods,
And flow henceforth in formal majesty. (5.2.129-33)

Falstaff’s speech on sack, then – the fortified Spanish wine that stirs up the forces of ‘this little kingdom, man’ (4.3.108), and has made Hal ‘very hot and valiant’ (4.3.121) – contributes to the many references to liquid that distinguish this play from its fire-filled predecessor.  And although the liquid Falstaff mentions is a fiery one, counteracting with its warming properties the ‘cold blood’ he says the Prince inherited from his father (4.3.117), its effects are only temporary, and its after-effects as cooling as those of any other inundation.  We have good reason to be aware of this when Falstaff delivers his eulogy, because in the previous scene we have seen Hal’s brother Prince John drinking with the rebels in token of the settlement reached between them and the King; and this loving cup turns out to be a poisoned one.  ‘Let’s drink together friendly and embrace,’ Prince John proposes to the gullible insurgents, ‘That all… eyes may bear those tokens home / Of our restored love and amity’ (4.2.63-5); but as soon as the drink has been taken and the rebel army disbanded he has his new ‘friends’ arrested and carted off to ‘Treason’s true bed’ (4.2.123) – the executioner’s block – like drunks carried home after a night of over-indulgence.  Drink makes men sick, as Falstaff himself informs us at the beginning of the play when he complains of the gout it has given him (1.3.244-5).  And Falstaff’s celebration of Hal’s drink-induced warmth, too, turns cold when Hal freezes him out in the final act, rejecting him as irrelevant to his new kingly role.  The old man’s sickness and death, so touchingly reported in Henry V, follow on naturally from the fact that Hal no longer needs either him or sack – or indeed ‘small beer’, the poor man’s tipple that Hal recalls with fondness early in Part Two (2.2.5-11) – to counteract the natural coldness of his dead father.

Carlos Àlvarez in Verdi’s Falstaff

If Falstaff’s encomium of sack meshes with the metaphorical fabric of Part Two, his equally celebrated speech or ‘catechism’ on honour occupies a similar place in the figurative design of Part One (5.1.127-41).  Honour is the preferred currency of the hot-blooded aristocrats who lead the rebellion in this part, and as Falstaff suggests, it is entirely constructed from air.  At the beginning of the play Hotspur declares his intention of lifting his favoured claimant to the throne, Lord Mortimer, ‘As high in the air as this unthankful King’ (1.3.134); and the phrase makes insurrection sound like a kind of trapeze artistry, a dangerous and futile exercise in acrobatics.  When he later boasts of the ease with which he might ‘pluck bright honour from the pale-fac’d moon’ (1.3.200) his uncle Worcester notes the emptiness of his rhetoric: ‘He apprehends a world of figures here, / But not the form of what he should attend’ (1.3.207-8).  His speeches are glowing castles in the air, constructed and dismantled at a moment’s notice.  The anonymous letter he receives warning him of the ‘lightness’ of his plot (2.3.12) triggers a lengthy speech from Hotspur dismissing the writer’s objections, which ends by blowing away the young man’s own anxieties in a trice and rendering itself superfluous: ‘Hang him, let him tell the King, we are prepared’ (2.3.33-4).  Similarly, his lengthy speech detailing the rebels’ grievances in Act Four is retracted as soon as uttered: when Blunt asks, ‘Shall I return this answer to the King?’ the young man replies, ‘Not so, Sir Walter.  We’ll withdraw awhile’ (4.3.106-7).  Hotspur’s nightmares, which so worry his wife, are insubstantial visions, and made more so by Hotspur’s airy dismissal of Lady Percy’s worries.  And the rebel is equally quick to dismiss his co-conspirator Glendower’s claims to supernatural powers as so much wind.  The portents that occurred at the Welshman’s birth were for Hotspur merely a ‘kind of colic’ suffered by the earth (3.1.26), while Glendower himself is no more than a windbag: ‘I had rather live / With cheese and garlic, in a windmill, far, / Than feed on cates and have him talk to me / In any summer house in Christendom’ (3.1.155-8).[6]   The insubstantial airiness of Hotspur and his confederates has been well established, then, by the time Falstaff composes his catechism on honour, and the speech is the pin that finally bursts the rebels’ balloon.  The word honour, he says – the groundwork of their action – is nothing but a sign without a referent, an empty cipher: ‘What is honour?  A word.  What is in that word honour?  What is that honour?  Air.  A trim reckoning!’ (5.1.133-5).  The last phrase sums up the fat knight’s attitude: honour will not pay any bills (reckonings), and its thinness makes it Falstaff’s meagre opposite, reduced to non-existence by comparison with his massive girth.  Its lightness betrays the lightness of the insurgents, who aspire or mount upwards to power like the fire and wind that dominate the play’s imagery, and who crack jokes – something Hotspur does in the midst of his most serious business as enthusiastically as Hal or Jack – while leading their followers to a futile and unnecessary death.  If Falstaff is disgraceful in his willingness to lie, bluster, con and steal his way through life, he is of infinitely greater substance or weight – as Cade was, despite his thinness – than the aristocratic men of honour he mocks, who (as Henry IV points out) justify their rebellion with washed out ‘water-colours’ (5.1.80) instead of sound political argument.

But the importance of Falstaff’s role as commentator stems not so much from his sensitivity to the governing metaphors of his time – after all, every character shares this sensitivity to some degree – as from his mastery of the arts of comedy.  He is the greatest improviser in Shakespeare’s work, the greatest springer of outrageous verbal surprises and inventor of fire-new phrases; and these abilities come into their own in the age of Henry IV, when uneasy laughter reigns supreme in England.  This is Shakespeare’s astounding contribution to the legend of Henry V as purveyed in the Famous Victories.  Where the earlier play gives young Prince Harry a virtual monopoly on laughter – a monopoly that is reinforced, not undermined by the admiring mimicry of the clown Derrick – in the Second Tetralogy nearly every major political player has his own peculiar brand of humour, and Falstaff has unrivalled access to them all.  It is this all-embracing comic vision to which Hal gains access by seeking Falstaff’s company; and in acquiring it he gains directorial control over the spectacular theatrical performance that is kingship, outmanoeuvring all his rivals with his carefully cultivated wit.[7]

Joe Armstrong as Hotspur

For Hal’s father Henry IV, the dominance of the comic in England began in the reign of Richard, the ‘skipping King’ who ‘ambled up and down, / With shallow jesters, and rash bavin wits’ until his subjects got sick of his constant playing and got rid of him (1 Henry IV, 3.2.60-1).  But his death did not rid the land of his jesting spirit: Hotspur is one of its inheritors, and the most noteworthy thing about his rebellion, like that of Jack Cade, is how funny it is – and how relentlessly its humour directs itself against the King.  On his first appearance, Hotspur transforms the King’s messenger into a contemptible fop, a ‘popinjay’ whose misplaced arrogance clearly reflects on the master he serves: ‘he made me mad / To see him shine so brisk, and smell so sweet, / And talk so like a waiting-gentlewoman / Of guns, and drums, and wounds, God save the mark!’ (1.3.49-55).[8]  By implication, the King who sent him is equally alien to military action, equally willing to belittle the military achievements of his victorious generals – and equally funny.  The morose Henry IV seems an unlikely candidate for comic status, but Hotspur assures his fellow conspirators that he is a ‘king of smiles’ (1.3.243) whose ‘jeering and disdain’d contempt’ has ‘fool’d, discarded’ and shaken them off (1.3.176-81).  And in saying so Hotspur lays the grounds for treachery and rebellion.  Reducing the King to the stature of a clown makes his overthrow seem easy, a matter of training a starling to shriek ‘Mortimer’ constantly in the monarch’s ear (1.3.221-3), of finding a ‘noble plot’ (1.3.273) – it hardly seems to matter which one – and of hurling yourself bodily into the bloody ‘sport’ of the battlefield (1.3.296).  The Hotspur rebellion is an elaborate joke – a joke that turns sour at the end of the play – and this is what Falstaff’s commentary on it graphically demonstrates.

At each stage of the play the scenes dominated by Falstaff parody the actions of the rebels.  Falstaff’s absurd self-inflation – his claims to heroism at Gadshill and the battle of Shrewsbury, his accusation of Mistress Quickly for stealing valuables he never possessed, even his baseless insults of the Prince in Part Two – exposes the self-inflation of the rebels, whose claims to honour and condemnation of Henry rest on an equally insubstantial basis.  Falstaff is the master of the ‘incomprehensible lie’ or preposterous fib (1.2.181-2), which is, like his body, ‘gross as a mountain, open, palpable’ (2.5.222), but which he can defend or disown with the agility of a master fencer; and the palpable grossness of his lies alerts us to the equal grossness of the rebels’ fabrication of their case against their monarch.  Besides these general resemblances, there are specific echoes of the rebels’ plot in Falstaff’s, some of which we have already noted.  In the second scene, Falstaff asks Hal to change the designation of highway robbers when he is king; instead of thieves, he says, they should be rechristened ‘Diana’s foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon’ (1.2.25-6); and his efforts to mythologize their lawlessness are no more absurd than the rebels’ efforts to dignify their cause with resonant titles.  Later in the same scene, Falstaff looks forward to seeing the ‘true prince… prove a false thief’ when Hal takes part in the robbery at Gadshill (1.2.151-2); and in doing so he anticipates the following scene, where the rebels effectively accuse Henry of stealing the crown like a common criminal (1.3.138-57).  Later still, Hal and Poins betray Falstaff after the robbery at Gadshill, robbing him of his ill-gotten booty in the interest of producing ‘laughter for a month, and a good jest for ever’ (2.2.94-5).  Immediately afterwards Hotspur enters reading a letter from an unnamed friend, which tells him that ‘The purpose you undertake is dangerous, the friends you have named uncertain, the time itself unsorted, and your whole plot too light, for the counterpoise of so great an opposition’ (2.4.9-12).  Hal’s plot against Falstaff, designed to deflate his monstrous pretensions, is no lighter than Hotspur’s light plot against his monarch, which aims to immortalize the names of its perpetrators through blood.  And Hal’s betrayal of Falstaff – in Part One, at least – is a harmless one, a source of perpetual merriment to be commemorated in successive generations of jest-books and farces; where Hotspur’s betrayal of his former friend the King, and his later betrayal by his own allies (Glendower, Mortimer and his own father Northumberland fail to join him at the decisive battle of Shrewsbury) have dreadful consequences for his followers as well as for himself.  Hotspur’s lightness, then, is exposed by Falstaff and Hal as a deplorable lapse in comic taste.  And the nastiness of this lapse becomes more obvious as the play goes on: when Hal describes Hotspur telling his wife that killing ‘six or seven dozen of Scots at breakfast’ is ‘a trifle’ (2.4.101-7), for instance, or when Falstaff leads his company of ‘ragamuffins’ to be slaughtered on Shrewsbury field (5.3.35-8).  By Part Two, insurrection is no longer comic – or if it is, the humour it produces is of the grimmest kind, like the horrible joke played on the insurgents by Prince John, who tells them as he sends them to the block, ‘Most shallowly did you these arms commence, / Fondly brought here, and foolishly sent hence’ (4.2.118-9).  At this stage in the Tetralogy, nobody is inclined to laugh at the disastrous shallowness and folly of the ruling classes.

Prince Hal at the Boar’s Head, artist unknown

Like Hotspur’s humour, Hal’s is closely connected to betrayal.  Shakespeare’s contemporary John Donne saw all humour as a form of betrayal: a betrayal of the expectations of its audience, who are surprised or shocked into laughter by its spontaneous reversals of their settled assumptions about what is to come.  Of all humorists in the Second Tetralogy it is Hal who is most concerned to overthrow the expectations of his audience.  His carefully-planned career constitutes an elaborate prank whose punch-line he sets up at the beginning of Part One: in the end, he says, he will ‘falsify men’s hopes’ with his abrupt reformation (1.2.206) and display himself as he is, like the sun breaking through ‘base contagious clouds’ in order to intensify the glory of his half-forgotten form (1.2.193).  That Hal sees this as a joke is confirmed by his description of this future moment as a ‘playing holiday’ (1.2.199) – a break from, rather than a continuation of, the apparent holiday he has enjoyed in Falstaff’s company.  As many commentators have noted, there is something cruel about this well-laid comic plot; and indeed Hal’s laughter at Falstaff’s expense often smacks of cruelty, even in the genial Part One.  He is always insulting, needling or threatening him – most famously when Falstaff tells him that to banish ‘plump Jack’ would be to banish all the world, and Hal replies, ‘I do, I will’ (2.4.473-4).  In response Falstaff is always threatening half-seriously to break off relations between them, like a lover conscious that his relationship is hurtful to his own health and may eventually end his life.  Hal’s father fears that his relationship with Falstaff will do him moral harm, and this conventional view – that the young are always corrupted by the old, never vice versa – is reiterated by Falstaff himself when he plays the role of the King in an impromptu play: ‘pitch (as ancient writers do report) doth defile[.]  So doth the company thou keepest’ (2.4.408-10).  But the Prince proves wholly impervious to Falstaff’s gracelessness, and it is Falstaff who is always the loser by their connection.  ‘Thou hast done much harm upon me, Hal,’ he says in their very first scene together, ‘God forgive thee for it’ (1.2.90-1); and the element of pain in their relationship is later summed up in a phrase of Hal’s: ‘Were’t not for laughing, I should pity him’ (2.2.109).  The power is always on Hal’s side, and it is in teaching him how to take advantage of this power that Falstaff proves most useful to the heir apparent.

Hal’s humour, then, is a calculated matter, and as such it is the obverse of Falstaff’s.  The Prince lays down careful comic plots: the robbery of Falstaff at Gadshill, the plan to expose the fat knight’s hypocrisy by eavesdropping on him disguised as a tapster in Part Two (2.2.163-70) – whereas Falstaff specializes in fashioning spontaneous responses to other people’s machinations.  Jack’s only long-term plan is to get power and influence when Hal inherits the crown, and from the beginning it seems inevitable that Hal will overthrow this plan with a counter-plot of his own, prepared and executed with almost bureaucratic precision.  The Prince displays the same cold, bureaucratic sense of humour when he exposes a conspiracy against him in Henry V by presenting the traitors – his former friends – with scrolls detailing their treason at the point when they least expect it (2.2.13ff.).  In a treacherous world, Hal is the master traitor; though oddly enough, his treason consists in keeping his word rather than breaking it, since honesty is the last thing anyone expects from a ruling class riddled with oath-breakers.

The contrast between Hal’s and Falstaff’s comic styles is at its sharpest in their differing attitudes to time and money.  The rebellion in Part One is sparked off by the rebels’ awareness that the King is irrecoverably indebted to them for supporting him in his rise to power: ‘The King,’ says Worcester, ‘will always think him in our debt, / And think we think ourselves unsatisfy’d, / Till he hath found a time to pay us home’ (1.3.280-2), and the insurgents therefore think themselves obliged to deny him this valuable time, to forestall his attack on them with a speedy attack of their own.  Hal’s aim, then, is to avoid debts as far as he can, to put others in his debt as much as possible, and to pay off any debts he owes instantly, before they can accumulate interest.  At Shrewsbury he tells the rebel Douglas that ‘It is the Prince of Wales that threatens thee, / Who never promiseth but he means to pay’ (5.4.41-2); and sure enough, Hal is always dispensing funds to defray expenses, from the bills Falstaff owes at the Boar’s Head to the money stolen at Gadshill.  This is one source of his power over Falstaff; and it is also a source of his power over Hotspur, who is in Hal’s debt for the advantages he gains by occupying Hal’s rightful position as apparent heir to the kingdom.  The Prince describes Hotspur as his ‘factor’ or financial manager, employed to ‘engross up glorious deeds on my behalf’ until such time as Hal ‘will call him to… account’, when Hotspur will ‘render every glory up, / Yea, even the slightest worship of his time, / Or I will tear the reckoning from his heart’ (3.2.147-52).  For Hal, then, time is money, and even his seeming period of idleness with Falstaff is productive, since his investment in Hotspur accumulates interest in the Prince’s absence.  He has an instinctive grasp of the principles of emergent capitalism that marks him out as a member of a new generation, as Hotspur, with his adherence to a redundant code of chivalry, or Henry, with his abiding conviction of the inherent sanctity of kingship, are not.

Orson Welles as Falstaff, Keith Baxter as Hal

Falstaff, meanwhile, is an inveterate evader of taxes, an accumulator of debts he never means to repay, a shameless sponger.  Time for him is to be stretched and distorted at will, beguiled with amateur dramatics, lost in an alcoholic haze, falsified as he falsifies his age.  ‘What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day?’ Hal asks him on his first appearance (1.2.6), and in doing so introduces us to a world that is governed by different priorities than those of Henry IV, who in the previous scene was urgently seeking ‘a time for frighted peace to pant’ (1.1.2), but whose efforts to free himself from the tyranny of time are repeatedly frustrated in the course of the two central plays of the Tetralogy.  Falstaff and his tavern, then, are a place of retreat for Hal, an escape from the pressures of the official calendar and a breathing-space in which to draw up a calendar of his own; and both these functions vindicate comedy from the common Elizabethan charge of being a waste of time – the charge Richard II memorably invoked when he said, in the scene of his death, ‘I wasted time, and now doth time waste me’ (5.5.49).  The tavern is also a location in which the nature of capital can be contemplated at leisure.  For Falstaff, money like time is subject to the imagination: insubstantial, governed by no fixed rules, and therefore incapable of getting any kind of hold on him – just as he is unable to get any hold on it.  The credit with which he pays for his drink – credit he derives from his friendship with Hal, whose financial prospects are theoretically boundless – is wholly imaginary, like the money he claims was stolen from him as he slept.  He obtains money by imaginative improvisation: taking advantage of his command of a company in the civil wars to garner cash from prosperous men who are too scared to fulfil their feudal duty of fighting for the crown (4.2.11-47); or collecting from Hotspur the debt he owes to Hal (it is for his non-existent part in killing Hotspur in Part One that he climbs to social pre-eminence in Part Two).  Falstaff matches Hal’s ability to collect debts from other people with a seemingly boundless capacity for escaping ‘shot-free’ (1 Henry IV, 5.3.30) – a skill that helps him to avoid injury from gun-shots in battle as easily as he avoids paying bills in peacetime.  This capacity for transferring one’s obligations, debts and guilt to other people is another thing Hal will find invaluable when he inherits the kingdom, at which point Hal begins to exert all his imaginative faculties, in Falstavian fashion, to offload the obligations, debts and guilt he inherited with it.  But the price Hal pays for acquiring Falstaff’s skills of comic evasion is his casting-off of Falstaff; a deed for which audiences have found it hard to forgive him, despite the seeming success of his efforts to obtain forgiveness for his deeds from heaven.

Adolf Schrödter, Falstaff and Page

NOTES

[1] Valerie Traub compares Falstaff’s body to that of a pregnant woman in Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama (London, 1992), pp. 56-61.

[2] For Falstaff’s class see Paul N. Siegel, The Gathering Storm: Shakespeare’s English and Roman History Plays: a Marxist Analysis (London, 1992), ch. 6.

[3] For the health-giving properties of laughter, attested to by Hippocrates, as well as its ill effects on the body, see Laurent Joubert, Treatise on Laughter, especially Book 3, chs. 14, 15 and 16, pp. 126-33.  The English physician Andrew Borde, who studied like Joubert at the University of Montpellier, thought that mirth could be both therapeutic and dangerous: ‘there be many… myrthes and consolacions, some being good and laudable, and some vytuperable… myrth is when a man lyveth out of det, and may have meate and drinke and cloth, although he have never a peny in his purse; but nowe a dayes, he is merye that hath golde and sylver,, and ryches with lechery; and all is not worth a blewe poynte.’  Elsewhere Boorde opines: ‘A mery herte and mynde, the whiche is in reste and quyetnes,, without adversyte and to moche worldly busyness, causeth a man to lyve longe, and to loke yongly, although he be agyd.  Care and sorowe bryngeth in age and deth, wherefore let every man be mery; and yf he can not, let hym resorte to mery company to breke of his perplexatyves.’  Andrew Boorde’s Introduction and Dyetary, ed. F. J. Furnivall, Early English Text Society (London, 1870), pp. 88 and 300.

[4] For an account of the humours see F. David Hoeniger, Medicine and Shakespeare in the English Renaissance  (Newark, London and Toronto, 1992), ch.5, esp. pp. 102-7.  The chapter culminates in an analysis of Falstaff’s defence of sherris-sack.  The centrality of the humours to the Second Tetralogy is hinted at in the title of the 1600 quarto of 2 Henry IV: The Second Part of Henry the Fourth, Continuing to his Death, and Coronation of Henry the Fifth.  With the Humours of Sir John Falstaff, and Swaggering Pistol.  For metaphors of the body in early modern England see Leonard Barkan, Nature’s Work of Art: The Human Body as Image of the World (New Haven, 1975).

[5] Northumberland uses the same metaphor when he decides to betray his fellow rebels: ‘’Tis with my mind / As with the tide swell’d up unto his height, / That makes a still-stand, running neither way’ (2 Henry IV, 2.3.62-4).

[6] Before the battle of Shrewsbury, too, Hal notes that ‘The southern wind / Doth play the trumpet to his purposes, / And by his hollow whistling in the leaves / Foretells a tempest’ (1 Henry IV, 5.1.3-6) – a bad omen for the rebels who have been associated with air and wind.

[7] Leonard Tennenhouse gives an account of what Hal learns from Falstaff in ‘Strategies of State and Political Plays: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VIII’, Political Shakespeare: Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, second edition (Manchester, 1994), pp. 109-28.  For another perspective see Graham Holderness, Shakespeare Recycled: The Making of Historical Drama (New York etc., 1992), ch. 6.

[8] In this speech, too, air dominates the elements: Hotspur is ‘breathless’ from his  exertions during the battle, and the ‘perfumed’ courtier is offended by the smell of a corpse that comes ‘Betwixt the wind and his nobility’ (I Henry IV, 1.3.31-44).

 

 

Shakespeare’s Merry England, Part 1: The Emaciation of Jack Cade

[Here is the first part of a chapter cut out of my book Shakespeare and Comedy; a lost chapter, then, rather than a lost book. If you like it, print it out and put it between the last chapter of the book and the conclusion!]

For the Elizabethans, the past was populated with laughter-mongers.  Jest-books disinterred the buried careers of the great clowns of English history: Scoggin and Will Summers, John Skelton and Long Meg of Westminster, Dobson, Hobson and the magician Roger Bacon.[1]  These were clever, tough commoners whose brushes with authority made them all too familiar with the insides of prisons and the danger of death, but the political impact of whose escapades was softened by the cushion of intervening generations.  The jest-book gave birth to the historical novel of the 1590s, in which the cheerful Clothier Jack of Newbury has run-ins with Cardinal Wolsey, or the page Jack Wilton finds himself whirling through early sixteenth-century Europe, getting caught up in the wars of the Reformation and fleeing from outbreaks of the Plague.[2]  On the stage, too, non-Shakespearean English history plays were often dominated by wayward comedians, who were either commoners or fraternizers with the commonalty: the Robin Hood figure George a Green, who beats up treacherous lords but remains fiercely loyal to the English throne;[3] Robin Hood himself, who teamed up with George a Green in the 1580s and starred in two tragicomedies of his own in the late 1590s, skirmishing with the despicable Prince John;[4] the parson-highwayman Sir John of Wrotham, who gave Henry V a taste of his own medicine by robbing him on the king’s own highway in Sir John Oldcastle Part 1;[5] and young Prince Harry of England himself, who with his drinking companions bears a striking resemblance to Robin Hood and his merry men in the anonymous Famous Victories of Henry V.  If chronicle histories narrated England’s past as a series of solemn encounters between kings, nobles, and powerful churchmen, the prose and drama of the late sixteenth century put certain lords on intimate terms with their humblest subjects, and thrust clowns ‘by head and shoulders’, as Sidney put it, into the affairs of state that formed the English nation.[6]

Shakespeare’s Falstaff is the prodigal heir to this rich tradition of historical clowning.[7]  As a boy he fought with Scoggin at the Inns of Court (so Justice Shallow tells us) and broke his head; and his fake death at the battle of Shrewsbury is a feat he borrows from Scoggin’s Jests.[8]  He mimics the exploits of Robin Hood on the king’s highway at Gadshill, and clashes with authority, as represented by the Lord Chief Justice, in parodic imitation of the clashes between Skelton or Jack of Newbury and the upstart Lord Chancellor of England, Cardinal Wolsey.[9]  He takes on himself the wilder aspects of Prince Harry’s conduct in the Famous Victories, and shares with Jack Wilton both a skill in impersonating aristocracy and a perception of history as a sustained assault on the human body, bloating, starving, infecting or dealing wounds on its victims in an unholy alliance with succeeding generations of powerful men.[10]

Above all, like these jest-book heroes and theatrical wise-crackers he demonstrates the extent to which laughter permeates history, and the centrality of those things to which laughter is addicted (improvisations, quixotic quests for material gain, hunger, alcohol, sexual voracity, the cutting down to size of misplaced arrogance) to the past and present of Elizabethan England.   Falstaff’s bulky presence – its sheer size a testimony to the awe-inspiring effects of excessive laughter on the human frame [11] – threatens to reshape our perceptions of the ruling classes who dominate the chronicles, confirming for us the absurdity of their priorities, the appalling destructiveness of their swollen ambitions.  If actors are, as Hamlet says, ‘the abstract and brief chronicles of the time’ (2.2.525), Falstaff makes these chronicles look both more substantial and more true to life than other forms of history, written as these are at the behest of monarchs. At the same time, the comic lessons Falstaff imparts to his protégé Prince Hal help to shape him into a powerful and popular monarch, Henry V.  His comic performance instructs the young prince in the art of wittily rewriting the past, an accomplishment that permits him to consolidate his position as king by a deft deployment of the power of comedy.  For Shakespeare as for Marlowe, the humour that transcends class boundaries is a potent political tool, capable of making and destroying kings; and it is in the series of plays known as the Second Tetralogy [Richard II, 1 Henry IV2 Henry IVHenry V], with Falstaff in the middle of them, that he explores this notion most intensively.

Falstaff carries with him strong echoes of Shakespeare’s most disturbing earlier representation of the clown in English history: the rebel Jack Cade from the First Tetralogy (1 Henry VI, 2 Henry VI, 3 Henry VIRichard III), a ferociously anarchic revision of George a Green, who refuses to offer any consistent rationale for the massacres he perpetrates among the ruling classes.  The popular hero George a Green kills nobles who betray their king;[12] Jack Cade betrays his king by killing nobles.  More disturbingly, Jack is a king, in his own imagination and that of his followers, and so confirms the fear of Stephen Gosson that comedy could simulate and perhaps even stimulate insurrection.  He is the clown as king, just as in the Famous Victories young Prince Harry is the king as clown.  Cade’s proximity to this early version of Henry V, written by an anonymous playwright before 1588, is one of the many disturbing elements in his spectacular career, and helps to link him with the Shakespearean Hal’s ambiguous companion Falstaff.

In the Famous Victories, young Prince Harry leads a troupe of riotous knights round the taverns of London and shares with them a radical vision for his future kingdom that anticipates Cade’s plans for it in more ways than one.[13]  Harry and his friends intend to share power equally (‘we would be all kings’ (1.79-80)); to abolish ‘prisoning’, hanging and whipping – at least, for courageous highwaymen, who will instead get royal pensions for their courage (5.10-12); and to turn the prisons into fencing-schools, where Harry will fight a decisive ‘bout’ with the Lord Chief Justice (5.20-2). Later Harry undergoes a conversion to orthodoxy like his Shakespearean counterpart Hal; but the Henry V of the 1580s never forgets his experience as a tavern-haunting prankster.  When the Dauphin of France sends him tennis balls, ‘meaning that you are more fitter for a tennis-court than a field, and more fitter for a carpet than the camp’ (9.112-3), this Harry responds with the jocular bravado made famous by Hal (‘tell him that instead of balls of leather we will toss him balls of brass and iron’ (9.114-6)); but unlike Shakespeare’s hero he repeats the joke throughout his French campaign.  On hearing that the Dauphin will not fight at Agincourt Harry says he is disappointed to have lost the chance to thrash him at tennis (12.24-33); and when a French herald asks him to set the terms of his ransom Harry replies that he will give ‘not so much as one poor tennis-ball’ to free himself in the event of his capture (14.41).  His humorous courtship of the French king’s daughter forms part of an unbroken continuum of aggressive wit that stretches from his tavern days in London to the successful completion of his continental campaign.  Continuity is emphasized by the fact that his actions are periodically echoed by a bevy of insubordinate commoners led by Derick – originally played by the great Dick Tarlton [14]– who starts out as a carrier robbed by one of Harry’s wild companions and ends as the most timorous soldier at the battle of Agincourt.

The Harry of the Famous Victories, then, represents a wish-fulfilment fantasy for regulars at the London taverns.  If he does not fulfil his promise to turn prisons into fencing-schools, he retains his keen appetite for sports, and never loses the sense of humour so essential for a good night on the town.  But he is also a wish-fulfilment fantasy for his father, effortlessly reconciling this role with his reputation as a fun-loving criminal.  Before his death Henry IV foretells the prince’s smooth transition from bold, bad youth to world-class conqueror, predicting that ‘he will prove as valiant and victorious a king as ever reigned in England’ (8.4-5), as if Harry’s adolescent exploits are a form of training for his role as a military leader.  In this early play, laughter is the secret weapon of the English monarchy, binding subjects to the king’s service with ties stronger than those of feudal duty, and forming a powerful element in the rhetorical arsenal with which England differentiates itself from, and seeks to assert its superiority to, its continental neighbours.

In Shakespeare’s 2 Henry VI, by contrast, royalty has signally failed to differentiate itself from the ambitious subjects who seek to acquire it, just as England’s foreign battles have failed either to unite its warring factions at home or to establish its supremacy in Europe.  Jack Cade is the product of a domestic tiff among the English aristocracy that culminates in civil war, and his antics, much more than Derick’s, amount to a devastating critique of the ruling class.  In this, perhaps the first of Shakespeare’s history plays – scholars have argued that 1 Henry VI was written later [15] – the health of the nation can be gauged by the state of relations between the classes, and by the time Cade’s insurrection takes place these relations have effectively collapsed.  Warring nobles articulate their hatred for one another by contemptuous references to poverty or low birth.  York describes the supporters of the King as ‘Pirates’ (1.1.220), the Queen thinks her arch-rival the Duchess of Gloucester a ‘Contemptuous base-born callet’ (1.3.84), and at the point when Cade’s rebellion breaks out Suffolk and Warwick are trading insults concerning one another’s connection to the peasantry (Warwick’s mother, says Suffolk, ‘took into her blameful bed / Some stern untutored churl’, while Warwick childishly retorts that ‘it was thy mother that thou meant’st’ (3.2.211-23)).  The one noble who is loved by the common people – the good Duke Humphrey of Gloucester – is held in contempt for his ‘base and humble mind’ by his own ambitious wife (1.2.62), and eventually murdered by his aristocratic colleagues.  Meanwhile ordinary subjects have their petitions to the King torn up by his unfaithful Queen (‘Away, base cullions!’ (1.3.41)), are reduced to conning one another ‘for pure need’ (2.1.149), and find themselves reluctantly embroiled in the squabbles among the nobles, taking justice into their own hands for want of adequate legal representation in the courts.  An apprentice accuses his master of high treason for saying that the Duke of York has a better claim to the throne than King Henry, and afterwards kills him in a parodic trial-by-combat (2.3.47ff.); and later Suffolk finds himself put on trial at sea by a crew of real pirates, who sentence him to death for crimes against the ‘good Duke Humphrey’, Henry VI, the house of York, and the state (4.1.70-103).  Suffolk is amazed and horrified that such lowly subjects should have power to kill him.  He calls the pirate captain an ‘Obscure and lousy swain’ (4.1.50), leader of a gang of ‘paltry, servile, abject drudges’ (4.1.105), and insists ‘it is impossible that I should die / By such a lowly vassal as thyself’ (4.1.110-1).  But die he does, and his death marks the temporary transference of power in the play from the aristocracy to the commoners: the kind of hierarchic inversion that would have horrified theatre-haters such as Stephen Gosson, John Rankins and Philip Stubbes.[16]  The arrival of the commoners at the heart of history is signaled by the arrival of full-blooded comedy – the theatrical mode associated with commoners – in Act 4 scene 2.  And the mock-king who presides over the play’s comic climax is the cloth-worker Jack Cade.

Cade’s ferocious directness comes as a welcome relief after the stifling spectacle to which we have been subjected before his appearance, in which aristocrats barely conceal their loathing for one another beneath a brittle veneer of courtesy.  Cade never pretends, as they do, to be honourable or consistent. He readily admits, for instance, what the audience already knows, that it was the Duke of York who encouraged him to assert his claim to the throne, and that he invented the details of his royal pedigree for himself.  As he explains this pedigree to his followers, his friends Dick the Butcher and Smith the Weaver undermine it with a running commentary: his father was ‘an honest man and a good bricklayer’ (4.2.37-8), his mother a midwife, his valour is attested by his open practice of illegal beggary, his endurance by his experience of being frequently whipped (presumably as a vagrant; we are later told that he has no home to go to).  But there is something exhilarating about the repeated deflation of Cade’s pretensions. The arrogant nobles who have dominated the play are equally inconsistent in their claims and counter-claims, and much less amusing in their inconsistency.  Cade’s birth and background, matters by which the nobility set so much store and over which they have wrangled since the opening scene of the play, clearly do not matter very much to Cade or his men, and his real claim to deserve a stake in England’s government derives from a much sounder principle: that ‘Adam was a gardener’ (4.2.126), so that all pedigrees in the end are equally ancient, and anyone has an equal right to join the competition to seize the crown.  Besides, Cade’s programme for reforming the kingdom – or refurbishing its garments, as his followers put it, in honour of his trade (4.2.4-6) – is full of disarming details.  Seven halfpenny loaves are to be sold for a penny, there will be a ban on weak beer, all land will be held in common and the monetary system abandoned, everyone will eat and drink at the king’s expense and wear the same clothes so that ‘they may agree like brothers’ (4.2.70-1), the aristocracy and gentry will be wiped out, and in the first year of his reign one of the London fountains shall ‘run nothing but claret wine’ (4.6.3-4).  No noble in the play has a vision to match these.  Indeed, not one of them seems to have imagined instituting any kind of programme for social reform – a failure that Cade’s programme helps to expose, despite its absurdity.  For much of Shakespeare’s audience one suspects the laughter that accompanied Cade’s campaign would have been more delighted than derisory.

At the same time, there is a frightening aspect to Jack Cade.  He is prone to outbreaks of Tamburlainian violence, either sudden – as in the hanging of the Clerk of Chatham and the impromptu killing of a soldier who calls him by the wrong name – or calculated, as in his proposal that ‘there shall not a maid be married, but she shall pay to me her maidenhead ere they have it’ (4.7.114-6).  And his sense of humour is as aggressive as that of the aristocracy he aims to supplant.  After decapitating Lord Say and his son-in-law he has their heads put on poles and gives the order that they be made to ‘kiss’ at every street corner, in token of their supposed conspiracy to surrender England’s possessions in France (4.7.123-9).  Most disturbing of all, perhaps, is the reasoning that underpins his most extreme acts of violence: his rooted antagonism to learning in all its manifestations.  The Clerk of Chatham is executed because he can write his name, while Lord Say condemns himself to death by the very skill with which he begs for mercy: ‘He shall die,’ Cade decides, ‘an it be but for pleading so well for his life’ (4.7.100-1).  Surely, we may think, Shakespeare is here working to undermine any sympathy we might have conceived for the rebels.  As an educated man he could hardly have disagreed with Lord Say’s view that ‘ignorance is the curse of God’ and ‘Knowledge the wing wherewith we fly to heaven’ (4.7.68-9), and Cade himself confesses he feels ‘remorse’ for his determination to execute the apparently deserving noble (4.7.99).  At such times Cade’s behaviour seems to set him on the high road to hell, to which Anthony Iden consigns him at the end of Act Four (4.10.76-8), as if in vindication of the beliefs of the educated middle class (the class that included Erasmus, Luther, Marlowe, Gosson, Jonson and Shakespeare himself) who saw education as the road to personal success, if not to a more widespread social redemption, and ignorance as a vice akin to idleness.

Yet our discomfort with Cade’s aggression is based on shaky premises.  Above all, it relies on the too-easy assumption that everyone in a given historical epoch shares a consistent set of values, with learning, reason and benevolence near the top of the moral hierarchy and rape, murder and betrayal near the bottom.  In 2 Henry VI this assumption has been exploded long before Cade’s arrival by the behaviour of the English nobles, who blithely arrange for the assassination of the innocent Lord Protector, and whose predatory sexual behaviour belies their stated respect for uncontaminated bloodlines.  Cade’s most outrageous actions, in fact, merely parody those of his social superiors.  His announcement that he will have the right to sleep with all virgins in the realm before their marriage revives an old feudal privilege claimed by local lords, as well as further undermining an aristocratic system of heredity that has already been seriously compromised by the aristocrats themselves.[17]  And his contempt for learning echoes his former master York’s contempt for the ‘bookish’ Henry VI (1.1.257).  Cade, however, has far better reason than York for his hostility to letters, since learning has very different connotations for the powerful than for the powerless.  As applied by lawyers, learning makes possible the atrocious situation that ‘parchment, being scribbled o’er, should undo a man’ (4.2.75-6); that judges are able ‘to call poor men before them, about matters they [are] not able to answer’ (4.7.38-9); and that the setting of a seal on a written contract may sign away a person’s freedom (‘I did but seal once to a thing,’ claims Cade, ‘and I was never my own man since’ (4.2.77-8)).  As a remedy for these abuses Cade proposes to kill all lawyers, burn all written records and distribute justice orally: ‘My mouth,’ he says, ‘shall be the parliament of England’ (4.7.12-13).  His oral form of government is no more arbitrary than the regime it replaces; and in proposing it he strikes a blow in the ongoing struggle between the social classes in early modern Europe, exposing the complacency of the intellectual assumptions on which the polemics of the theatre-haters – and indeed the whole humanist educational enterprise on which they drew for their arguments – depended.

Cade’s career is a short one, but even its ending reveals the moral vacuum at the heart of the English hegemony. Lord Clifford seduces his followers to turn against him by invoking the name of the dead national hero Henry V: a warlord whose popularity rested on his appeal to English xenophobia rather than his birthright (from one point of view, his claim to the throne was not much better than Cade’s).  As we have seen, young Henry’s plans for England in the Famous Victories and Cade’s plans for a new commonwealth in 2 Henry VI have much in common – except that Harry renounces his plans when he gets the crown, whereas Cade never ceases to urge his followers to ‘recover your ancient freedom’ (4.8.26-7).  Lord Clifford invokes Henry’s name in a spurious promise to channel the commoners’ aggression into a new assault against their old enemies the French, whose recent successes against the English form part of the general resentment against the current administration.  ‘Will [Cade] conduct you through the heart of France,’ Clifford asks, ‘And make the meanest of you earls and dukes?’ (4.8.36-7).  As the Elizabethan audience knew full well, Clifford has no intention of doing any such thing: the only wars in prospect for the English are civil ones.  The empty call to arms that closes his speech, and to which Cade’s followers respond so enthusiastically (‘To France!  To France!  And get what you have lost!’ (4.8.49)), perfectly demonstrates the lack of a shared set of values or a trustworthy system of communication between the rulers and the ruled in England.  The land is fundamentally split, Henry V and his heroic deeds are dead and buried, and Cade’s efforts to reinvent England on a new model are founded on an accurate perception of its irreversibly damaged current state.

Cade is a home-grown threat, rooted in English soil as firmly as any noble.  Yet he is able to mimic England’s foreign enemies with the same skill he displays in mimicking the aristocracy.  He looks exactly like Lord Mortimer, heir to Richard II, York tells us (3.1.371-2); yet during England’s war with Ireland Cade has often spied on the Irish disguised as a ‘shag-haired crafty kern […] And, undiscovered, come to me again / And given me notice of their villainies’ (3.1.366-9).  England’s most despised antagonists overseas and her most privileged native sons have become indistinguishable in the current climate; and this loss of distinction is underscored when York invades England at the head of an Irish army while announcing himself as ‘England’s lawful king’ (5.1.4).  Clearly England under Henry VI nurtures the seeds of its own destruction.  At the same time, its abundantly fruitful soil is incapable of sustaining all the English equally under the current regime; a fact we are apprised of by the death of Cade.  In a final gesture of defiance the starving rebel confronts a prosperous landowner, Anthony Iden, in his orchard: and the comparison that follows between the landowner’s sturdy body and Cade’s emaciated corpse offers an animated picture of the commoners’ grievances against the wealthy.  ‘Thy hand is but a finger to my fist,’ Iden points out (4.10.47-8), ‘Thy leg a stick compared with this truncheon’ (meaning his own swelling thigh and calf).  The garden of England is only Eden to those like Iden with the means and the name to take advantage of it; everyone else is an enemy of the nation, regardless of nationality.  The rights of men as the common descendants of Adam have no place there, and ‘ancient freedom’ has been replaced with backbreaking ‘slavery to the nobility’ (4.8.28).  If nothing else, the comic mock-history of Jack Cade graphically illustrates the amount of mental and physical ‘labour’ that will be necessary before ‘the public good’ takes precedence over private interest in this divided country.[18]  And after its suppression, the claims of the nobility to be working in the interests of the people of England look thinner and more self-deluding than their comic shadow Cade did at his death.

Cade’s history displays the extent to which the commoner’s medium – laughter – may both comment on and affect the course of public events, despite the claims of the ruling classes to have a monopoly over national politics.  The Famous Victories showed this too, of course, but in 2 Henry VI laughter undermines the monarchy instead of sustaining it.  Cade proves the power of comic fooling both to subvert ‘legitimate’ claims to power and to forge outrageous new ones; and the lesson is taken up after Cade’s death by the funniest and most alarming of Shakespeare’s monarchs, Richard III, who effectively laughs the heads off his rivals as he jests his way to power.  Richard fails, however, to harness popular support as Cade does, so that his reign gets increasingly humourless as it staggers towards its end, unable to sustain the tide of anxious mirth that swept this despot to power with the horrified approval of the playhouse audience.  It remains for Prince Hal to learn the trick of popularity from Cade’s successor Falstaff, whose ample body gives weight and lasting sustenance to Hal’s serio-comic campaign for the crown, as Cade’s skeletal corpse and Richard’s twisted frame were unable to do for theirs.

NOTES

[1] Will Summers – jester to Henry VIII – was celebrated in A Pleasant History of the Life and Death of Will Summers(1637).  The heroic Long Meg, who also lived in Henry’s time, starred in The Life of Long Meg of Westminster (1620).  Dobson the early Elizabethan chorister-cum-practical-joker held court in Dobson’s Dry Bobs (1607), while his contemporary the haberdasher Hobson was commemorated by Richard Johnson in The Pleasant Conceits of Old Hobson the Merry Londoner (1607).  Roger Bacon’s career was recorded in The Famous History of Friar Bacon (1625).  Some of these texts were published in Elizabethan times, although the early editions have been lost; the Famous History, for instance, was the likely source of Greene’s play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (c. 1592).

[2] See Thomas Deloney, Jack of Newbury (1597), and Thomas Nashe, The Unfortunate Traveller (1594), both reprinted in Paul Salzman (ed.), An Anthology of Elizabethan Prose Fiction (Oxford and New York, 1987).

[3] Star of the anonymous play George a Green, The Pinner of Wakefield (c. 1590).

[4] The tragicomedies are Anthony Munday, The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon and The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon (1598).  Robin Hood fights with George a Green in lines 1049-1106 of the anonymous play: see Joseph Quincy Adams (ed.), Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas (London, Calcutta and Sydney, n.d.), p. 708.

[5] See Sir John Oldcastle, Part 1, in The Oldcastle Controversy: Sir John Oldcastle, Part 1; The Famous Victories of Henry V, ed. Peter Corbin and Douglas Sedge, The Revels Plays Companion Library (Manchester and New York, 1991), sc. 10.

[6] The phrase ‘by head and shoulders’ comes from Philip Sidney’s discussion of Elizabethan clowning, An Apology for Poetry, ed. Geoffrey Shepherd, revised R. W. Maslen (Manchester, 2002), p. 112, line 3.

[7] The classic account of Falstaff in the context of Shakespearean comedy is C. L. Barber, Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and its Rellattion to Social Custom (Princeton, 1959), especially ch. 8.

[8] See W. Carew Hazlitt (ed.), Shakespeare Jest-Books, 3 vols. (London, 1864), vol. 2, p. 155: ‘Scogin seeing that he had lost the favour of  the King and Queene, hee mused how he might be pardoned of the King and of the Queene.  Hee heard say that the King would ride a progress, and at a convenient place, Scogin said to his servant: cast a coverlet over me, and say that I am dead, and say that, at my departure, I desired thee to pray to the King and Queen to forgive me.   When the King and Queene did come by, Scogin lying under the coverlet by the high way, his servant said: here doth lye Scogin dead, and when hee departed, hee prayed both your Graces to forgive him.  Now (said the King and Queen) God forgive him, and wee do.  Scogin start up, and sayd: I do thank both your Graces, and hereafter I will no more displease you: for I see it is more harder to keepe a friend, then to get one.’

[9] For Skelton’s clashes with Cardinal Wolsey see Shakespeare Jest-Books, ed. Hazlitt, vol. 2, pp. 18 and 34.  For Jack of Newbury’s run-ins with the cardinal see An Anthology of Elizabethan Prose Fiction, ed. Paul Salzman (Oxford, 1987), pp. 346-7 and 364-6.

[10] For a comparison of Nashe’s Jack Wilton and Falstaff see Neil Rhodes, Elizabethan Grotesque (London, Boston and Henley, 1980), Part 2: ‘Shakespearean Grotesque: The Falstaff Plays’.

[11] For the notion, derived from the Greek physician Hippocrates, that laughter makes you fat, see Laurent Joubert, Treatise on Laughter, translated and annotated by Gregory David de Rocher (University, Alabama, 1980), Book 3, ch. 13, pp. 124-6.

[12] George kills the traitor Sir Gilbert Armstrong at lines 693-781 of Adams’s edition.

[13] All references are to the edition of The Famous Victories in The Oldcastle Controversy, ed. Peter Corbin and Douglas Sedge.

[14] On Tarlton’s performance in Famous Victories see The Oldcastle Controversy, ed. Corbin and Sedge, pp. 25-8.

[15] For a detailed account of the dates and sequence of the Henry VI plays see King Henry VI Part 2, ed. Ronald Knowles, The Arden Shakespeare (Walton-on-Thames, 1999), pp. 111-21.  See also Stanley Wells, Gary Taylor et al., William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion (Oxford, 1987), pp. 111-3.

[16] For Cade’s relationship to the real fears of the Elizabethan authorities see Annabel Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Oxford, 1989), ch. 2.

[17] See The Norton Shakespeare, The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster (2 Henry VI), 4.7.112n.

[18] Salisbury and Warwick promise to ‘labour’ for the ‘common profit’ of the land at 1.1.180-204.

Aspects of the Early Modern Fantastic in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Part 2.

[This is the second part of a paper I gave this week at the University of St Andrews. The first part considered some general approaches to the early modern fantastic. The second part considers Shakespeare’s The Tempest as an example of what might happen if we applied the modern concept of fantasy to an early modern work of art.]

Giorgione, The Tempest (c. 1508)

The Tempest is set on a non-existent island like More’s Utopia, which combines characteristics of the East and West Indies with the epic resonances of the Mediterranean islands. It’s a secondary world, then, which can’t be placed by conventional means; we are given no help in locating it on the global map. Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, reached it in a boat without sail or oar, like a medieval saint. The men who banished him arrived there twelve years later in a more conventional vessel, steered in that direction by the agency of Christian Providence, or pagan Fortune, or Prospero’s magic, we never know exactly which. Our ignorance, even by the end of the play, of the precise mechanisms by which any of these people reached the island makes the story look like modern fantasy. Science fiction would invite us to speculate as to how it was done, while Shakespeare only asks that we consider the strangeness of the eventuality, and the equal strangeness of the nameless place where they come together.

On the island, the usual rules of the world as we know them no longer apply. The laws of nature don’t obtain: water doesn’t moisten clothing, salt doesn’t stain, dead men come back to life, old pagan myths and folkloric superstitions turn out to be true, in open defiance of the English sceptic Reginald Scot. Social rules, too, get flouted. Sailors dismiss the commands of their royal passengers, servants become kings, slaves liberate themselves, political and poetic thoughts keep surfacing at awkward moments, sometimes articulated by commoners in blank verse, sometimes expressed by slaves in song or story. All these things violate decorum, the theatrical convention whereby the social elite get to think, speak, act and even dream in a more exalted fashion than their inferiors. In these ways, too, the work plays out like modern fantasy fiction, which makes up new rules or revives old ones in the interests of representing alternative ways of living never encountered in the historical record, though often yearned for.

Isabelle Pasco as Miranda, John Gielgud as Prospero, in Peter Greenaway’s movie Prospero’s Books

The play makes much, too, of the mechanics of storytelling. It begins, after the initial flurry of attention-grabbing special effects that evoke the tempest of the title, with an old man settling down to tell his daughter a story. Further stories get told in the course of it, or acted out by supernatural performers, and it ends with the promise of further stories still, told over several nights like the traditional winter’s tales of an English Yuletide. The stories are as full of wonders as any traveller’s lying narrative or old wives’ tale; yet some of them, at least, get supported by the empirical testimony of the listeners’ senses. Impossibilities become possible within the island’s limits, persuading even hardened cynics to keep an open mind about the extravagant anecdotes they may have heard in the past or may hear in future.

In its hospitality to wonders Shakespeare’s island recalls the Fairy Land of Spenser, Sidney’s Arcadia or More’s Utopia; but where it differs from those other non-existent places is in the extent to which its ownership and identity are contested, as if in mimicry of war-torn Europe or the lands and trade routes throughout the world over which the European powers were also squabbling. The island’s namelessness is a symptom of its contested ownership. A name would give it specific cultural and historical associations; instead it is firmly marginal, set beyond the borders of the known or spoken, the mapped or painted. Many of its occupants arrived there against their will, by compulsion or chance: the pregnant Sycorax, banished for witchcraft from Algiers; Duke Prospero, a political exile from Milan, with his infant daughter; a load of shipwrecked Neapolitans. As a result, the play that contains the island presents itself as an excursion to the periphery, an unplanned trip to a strange location something like Sidney’s journey of discovery into the world of poetry or fiction as he describes it in the Apology. Sidney claims in his essay that he never meant to be a poet, summing up his leisure-time literary activities as an ‘unelected vocation’, which suggests a certain transgressiveness about them, since they represent a time-consuming departure from the more serious work in the world for which he was divinely ‘elected’ by a Calvinist God (though of course the term ‘unelected’ could just as easily mean simply ‘unchosen’ or ‘inadvertent’).[1] In the same way, Prospero became a scholar-magician by accident rather than design. As a young man he dedicated himself to his books at the expense of his dukedom, expecting the country to run itself – or rather, expecting his brother to run the country – and then thoroughly outraged when that same brother made himself popular enough to raise a ‘treacherous army’ strong enough to oust him from the throne (1.2.128).[2] Prospero’s exile was an effect of clashing perspectives: the Duke’s assumption that he was the natural born ruler of Milan, and his brother’s that running the country gave him the right to rule it as well, a perspective the Milanese people seem to have shared.

Michael Clark as Caliban in Prospero’s Books

Accordingly, the island too is a place where perspectives clash. For Prospero the place represents a sign that ‘Providence divine’ (1.2.159) shares his opinion as to how badly he has been treated, and that it will support him in regaining his inheritance – a perspective that seems to be confirmed by the arrival off its shores of his brother and the man who helped him seize the dukedom, the King of Naples. For the sole surviving native of the island, Caliban, on the other hand, Prospero is as much of a usurper as Prospero’s brother was for Prospero. And as the ship’s occupants land in scattered groups on the island’s shore, each group takes a different view of who should rule it and how it should be ruled. A single perspective on the appropriate government or governor for this particular patch of ground simply doesn’t exist; and this of course casts doubt on Prospero’s claim to have a unique arrangement with Providence that his hereditary rights will be restored to him.

For one thing, Providence is a Christian concept and there are competing religious affiliations on the island. Caliban worships Setebos, and is still worshipping that god in the final act when he swears to ‘be wise hereafter, / And sue for grace’ (what, I wonder, might the ‘grace of Setebos’ consist of?) (5.1.294-5). At one point Caliban takes Stephano for a god, but returns to his old faith when Stephano fails him. Prospero himself repeatedly links his magic art with varieties of paganism: ‘bountiful Fortune’ (1.2.178), who may or may not be the same as Providence; the Greek and Roman gods he invokes in the masque he puts on for Ferdinand and Miranda, deities whose blessings (and potential curses if the pair disobey his ‘hests’) he evidently expects will have a material effect on the young couple; rural English folkloric beliefs in the ‘elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves’ (5.1.33). Meanwhile other people on the island can imagine other theological arrangements. The spirit Ariel describes himself and his fellow spirits as ‘ministers of Fate’ (3.3.61), which he puts in the hands of what he calls the ‘powers’ (3.3.73) – perhaps again the classical gods, since he is disguised at this point as a classical Harpy, though their namelessness makes them a kind of placeholder for whatever deities you choose to put there. And Miranda sees her father Prospero as a deity. When she thinks he has sunk the ship and drowned its crew she tells him:

          had I been any god of power, I would
Have sunk the sea within the earth, or ere
It should the good ship so have swallowed, and
The fraughting souls within her. (1.2.10-13)

Her implied recognition of her father as a ‘god of power’ here is importantly qualified by her ability to imagine herself in his position, with the same magical abilities; and this capacity of people to imagine themselves as other people, and in particular as other people of power, is precisely what led to the supplanting of Prospero by his brother as Duke of Milan, and what threatens to supplant him on his island.[3]

Mark Quartley as Ariel

The same capacity to imagine himself as someone else is shared by Prospero’s slave-spirit, Ariel. When he reports the impact of Prospero’s magic on the human castaways from the ship he tells his master that ‘Your charm so strongly works ’em / That if you now beheld them, your affections / Would become tender’; and when Prospero asks ‘Dost thou think so, spirit?’ Ariel replies ‘Mine would, sir, were I human’ (5.1.17-20). Ariel, then, here balances Miranda at the beginning of the play, who visualized herself as a godlike alternative Prospero; though the spirit whose power the magician exploits doesn’t see him as godlike. For Ariel, Prospero is human, and the question of who is human in the play – Caliban is variously referred to as beast, devil or man – opens up a range of other perspectives as to the possibilities available to the occupants of Shakespeare’s island. If Prospero is neither a god nor the darling of a Christian Providence then he can claim no divine sanction for what he is doing; his dream of avenging the perceived wrong done to him becomes a personal fantasy, a quirk or daydream, which would be on a par with everyone else’s daydreams if it weren’t for the power he wields – which is itself entirely dependent on the powers of the slave-spirit Ariel.

The capacity of characters to imagine themselves taking each other’s places becomes increasingly apparent as the play goes on. In many cases, as with Prospero’s brother Antonio and Caliban, their claim to have the right to take someone else’s place is pretty good. Caliban’s foiled attempt to rape Miranda is an example; it’s a bid to confirm his claim to the island by ‘peopling’ it with his offspring, begotten on the body of the only child of the colonial oppressor (1.2.352-3). In this it directly equates to Prospero’s plans to regain his power in Italy through his daughter’s marriage to Ferdinand, son and heir to the King of Naples. The difference, of course, is that Miranda is in love with Ferdinand (something Prospero may have engineered with his charms), whereas she never saw Caliban as a potential sexual partner. But what would have happened if she had not been in love with the Neapolitan prince? In that case she might have found herself in the position of Alonso’s daughter Claribel, who was married to the King of Tunis against her will (this is the traitor Sebastian’s assertion, but no one denies it). Forced marriage is rape, so Caliban’s intention to rape Miranda could well have been a behaviour he has imbibed from the values of his Italian tutors. He did it because he imagined himself in Prospero’s place as king of the island, with heirs enough to found a dynasty. The ‘darkness’ of Caliban’s nature, as Prospero calls it in the final act (5.1.275), reflects the darkness of Prospero’s – just as Miranda’s perception of Caliban may well have been based on her father’s view of him.

Ferdinand and Ariel, by Sir John Everett Millais (1850)

Other characters who legitimately imagine themselves in the positions of others include young Ferdinand, Alonso’s heir, who on arriving at the island believes his father to be dead and so assumes the title King of Naples. Ariel encourages this inadvertent usurpation by singing him a song about his father’s corpse – ‘Full fathom five thy father lies’ – which imagines the royal body being supplanted or replaced by submarine wildlife: ‘Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange’ (5.2.399-404). Yet Prospero, who put Ariel up to this exercise in misdirection, pretends to believe that Ferdinand has committed an act of treason in claiming the Neapolitan crown. He enslaves him as he enslaved Caliban and Ariel, and in the process again casts doubt on the validity of his own claims to stand for justice, whether human or divine.

Stephano (centre), Trinculo and Caliban, by Johann Heinrich Ramberg (early 19th century)

More surprisingly, Stephano the drunken butler has an excellent claim to imagine himself king of the island when we first meet him. Like Ferdinand he assumes that the rest of the crew were drowned in the tempest of the opening scene; and after drinking from his bottle – itself serving as a replacement for the Bible that confirms a subject’s oath of allegiance and a monarch’s obligation to serve the people (‘kiss the book’, 2.2.131) – the legitimate ruler of the island, Caliban, swears fealty to him. So Stephano’s statement at the end of his first scene in the play, ‘Trinculo, the King and all our company else being drowned, we will inherit here’ (2.2.174-5), has a far stronger mandate than Prospero’s claim to be monarch of Caliban’s country. In addition, his rule is far more egalitarian. He begins by thinking of enslaving Caliban, just as Prospero did; but he quickly sets Caliban free and begins to elevate him in his commonwealth, first to the position of his ‘lieutenant’ (3.2.14), who will not be allowed to ‘suffer indignity’ (3.2.35), and then to his ‘viceroy’ (3.2.106), whose status equals that of Trinculo, and whose title puts him next in line to the king himself (a viceroy takes the king’s place at official functions, becoming him, so to speak, when he is unavailable). Ironically, it’s only Prospero’s belongings that break up this miniature utopia of liberated servants, and their quasi-egalitarian philosophy remains undamaged by their humiliation and capture. In Act III they sing a round declaring that ‘Thought is free’ (3.2.121) – whose ribald primary sense doesn’t mask its political application;[4] while in the final act Stephano is still proclaiming his commitment to social equality: ‘Every man shift for all the rest, and let no man care for himself; for all is but fortune. Coragio, bully-monster, coragio!’ (5.1.256-8). Prospero’s repeated promises of freedom to his slave spirit Ariel – whose implementation gets deferred till after the play’s ending – sound profoundly unconvincing by comparison.

Chris Cooper as Antonio, Alan Cumming as Sebastian in Julie Taymor’s movie of The Tempest

The most extended meditation on imaginative replacement of others occurs in Act 2 scene 1, where we first meet Prospero’s usurpers – Alonso, Antonio, Alonso’s brother Sebastian – along with his benefactor, Gonzalo. In this scene Gonzalo playfully imagines himself as the replacement king of the island, inadvertently deposing Caliban and Prospero from power in his mental exercise as well as his monarch, Alonso, and that monarch’s next of kin (Ferdinand, Claribel, Sebastian). Like Stephano’s, Gonzalo’s lighthearted act of treason enables a utopian alternative island to form temporarily in the mind’s eye of the audience, a place where ‘All things in common Nature should produce / Without sweat or endeavour […] To feed my innocent people’ (2.1.155-60). Sebastian and Antonio mock the inconsistency of Gonzalo’s fantastic commonwealth, since like Stephano he plans to be king of this egalitarian paradise, but their scorn may also stem from the fact that their own views on supplanting other rulers have no truck with equality. As Antonio seeks to persuade Sebastian to kill his brother in his sleep – imaginatively replacing the king’s sleeping body with a dead one – he points out how he himself has flourished since replacing his brother: ‘look how well my garments sit upon me, / Much feater than before. My brother’s servants / Were then my fellows; now they are my men’ (2.1.267-9). In this their views on governance are close to Prospero’s, who never seems to have thought to make his fellow human beings coequals with him in his new home; and like Prospero they take themselves to be the darlings of a Fortune who has given them the opportunity to make their imaginings real by putting Alonso and his lords to sleep, leaving them at the mercy of the would-be usurpers’ blades.

Tom Conti as Gonzalo in Julie Taymor’s The Tempest

It’s in this scene, Act 2 scene 1, that the island seems first to be identified as a fantastic space, where the impossible is made real. Interestingly, its most fantastic property is that it can be seen in such radically different ways by different people; in other words it’s a contested imaginative location from the very beginning. For Gonzalo and the young courtier Adrian it’s a lush paradise ‘of subtle, tender and delicate temperance’ (2.1.41-2), where clothes miraculously dry shortly after immersion, while for Antonio and Sebastian it’s a marshy desert and their clothes remain soaked and salt-encrusted. Interestingly, there’s no way of knowing whether the two factions of courtiers are really having different experiences; it’s perfectly possible that Gonzalo and Adrian are only claiming the island is pleasant to cheer up the king, or that Antonio is exaggerating the wretched state of his clothes. But in describing the island as paradisal Gonzalo is exercising the prerogative of poets, as Sidney saw them: makers of fictions whose imaginings could bear substantial fruit in the conduct of those who listened to them. One such poet was the classical musician Amphion, who raised the walls of Thebes with the power of his music; and Gonzalo’s earlier imaginative transformation of Tunis, where Claribel’s recent marriage took place, into the legendary city of Carthage (he tells Adrian that the two places were the same) changes a disastrous liaison into the promise of future cultural glory (Carthage was both a great civilization in itself and a staging post on the road to the founding of Rome). In doing so, Antonio and Sebastian claim, he accomplishes miracles greater even than Amphion’s elevation of the walls of Thebes:

Antonio: His word is more than the miraculous harp.
Sebastian: He hath raised the walls, and houses too.
Antonio: What impossible matter will he make easy next?
Sebastian: I think he will carry this island home in his pocket, and give it his son for an apple.
Antonio: And, sowing the kernels of it in the sea, bring forth more islands. (2.1.83-9)

The vision of further paradisal, temperate islands springing up all over the ocean reaffirms Sidney’s conviction that the poet could change the world by summoning up attractive impossibilities. This impression is only reinforced when Gonzalo goes on to imagine the island as a political utopia. For Protestants, the age of miracles is over; but for Sidney the best secular poets may have taken on the mantle of the Catholic miracle-workers, and Gonzalo’s view of Prospero’s atoll as a place where poetic wonders can be made real seems to be confirmed by subsequent events.

This happens in a number of ways. First, Miranda discovers in the castaway Ferdinand the ideal man she has always dreamed of:

          I would not wish
Any companion in the world but you,
Nor can imagination form a shape,
Besides yourself, to like of. (3.1.54-7)

This is hardly surprising, as Prospero points out, given her lack of experience; but the more experienced Ferdinand shares her view that he has met an ideal human being: ‘you, O you, /So perfect and so peerless, are created / Of every creature’s best’ (3.1.46-8). Both Ferdinand and Miranda, in other words, each fulfil the function of poetry according to Sidney, in offering the reader an ideal by which to be stirred to emulation. Again, this exchange could be dismissed as the habitual hyperbole of all new lovers. Later, however, the island also confirms the more extravagant impossibilities of travellers’ tales, as strangely shaped spirits serve food to the courtiers and the sceptics Antonio and Sebastian find themselves converted to belief in the most ridiculous of reports:

          Now I will believe
That there are unicorns; that in Arabia
There is one tree, the phoenix’ throne; one phoenix
At this hour reigning there. (3.3.21-4)

The spirits’ kindness beyond the customary practices of human beings extends the impossibilities they stand for to include Gonzalo’s utopian vision (and suitably enough, it’s Gonzalo who remarks on it). Meanwhile the island’s native, Caliban, who was capable of perceiving the island as a marshy wasteland when he was cursing his owner (‘All the infections that the sun sucks up / From bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall’, 2.2.1-2), treats Stephano and Trinculo to a vision of its paradisal aspect: ‘the isle is full of noises, / Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not’ (3.2.133-4). Caliban associates these ‘sweet airs’ with the pleasure of dreaming – a state that makes him forget his enslaved condition and find himself a king once more – so we can’t be certain they’re anything more substantial than psychological projections. His account of these happy moments, though, reinforces our sense of the island as a place that generates Sidneian poetic fantasies in astonishing abundance; and it also indicates, as Gonzalo’s perspective did, that not all these fantasies are conjured up by its self-styled ruler, Prospero. It’s hard to imagine that the ‘sounds and sweet airs’ Caliban experiences were provided for his delectation by Prospero’s orders. Throughout the play, Ariel shows an independence of mind that allows him to improvise wonders when they occur to him – like Robin Goodfellow in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as Frank Kermode has pointed out.[5] Could the other spirits have done the same in blessing Caliban’s rest, by virtue of the inhuman kindness Gonzalo notes in them?

Helen Mirren as Prospera in Julie Taymor’s The Tempest

The greatest miracle the island produces is a radical change of heart in Prospero himself. The process of change begins after a feast of impossibilities he has himself served up – a masque performed by spirits, featuring non-existent classical deities. As the masque comes to a sudden close, Prospero suddenly seems to realize that he is not the only human being capable of conjuring up wonders; that they are, in fact, integral to human experience, since even the most extraordinary and seemingly permanent structures we encounter in our lives have the evanescent quality of dreamscapes:

The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a wrack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. (4.1.152-8)

This new perspective is precipitated by an abrupt recollection of Prospero’s would-be usurpers, Stephano, Trinculo, and that master of dreamscapes Caliban – drunkards whose magic bottle has liberated their imaginations from submission to conventional hierarchies. Their challenge to his hierarchical point of view would seem to be what yields his famous vision of transience, which makes castles in the sky of substantial structures and associates them with dramatic performances (‘pageants’) as well as dreams. The magician remains unable to imagine things from Caliban’s point of view – he continues to typecast the islander as a ‘born devil’ till the end of the play – but not long afterwards he succeeds in seeing things from the perspective of another slave of his, Ariel. When the spirit tells him he would pity the distraught courtiers if he were capable of human pity, Prospero recalls his own capacity for the sympathy – the act of putting oneself in someone else’s place – that so many of the other characters have displayed in the course of the action:

Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply
Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art? (5.1.21-4)

In recognizing himself as of the courtier’s ‘kind’ or kin – no better, no worse – Prospero is especially moved by the presence among them of his saviour Gonzalo, the man whose kindness in stocking his boat with supplies enabled him to survive the voyage to the island so many years previously. As he studies the Neapolitans, Prospero finds himself ‘sociable’ to Gonzalo’s feelings (5.1.63), weeping the same tears of contrition and pity, occupying in effect the same emotional space. This sympathy makes it possible for Prospero to imagine himself as being legitimately supplanted or replaced by other human beings in time to come. His revelation to the exhausted courtiers of the long-lost Ferdinand playing at chess with Miranda displays them in Prospero’s own cell, a space which is in effect his ducal ‘court’ as well as his habitation (5.1.166). Their presence in that simultaneously private and public location predicts their eventual usurpation of Prospero’s place at the court of Milan, as well as of Alonso’s place in Naples. And this may explain the exiled Duke’s later observation that when he returns to his dukedom ‘every third thought will be my grave’ (5.1.311): once he is buried, after all, he will be replaced by the next generation, like every other mortal. Those third thoughts of his might well be about the interchangeability of human beings, and hence about their kinship and equal status, regardless of the greater or lesser titles they have been accidentally endowed with.

Ferdinand and Miranda Playing Chess, by Gillot Saint-Èvre (1822)

The revelation of the lovers in Prospero’s cell marks the culminating moment of two miraculous events: the discovery that the former Duke of Milan is still alive, against all odds, and the seeming resurrection of the King’s dead son. These are ‘wonders’, as Prospero points out, and as such typical of the contents of old wives’ tales, the winter’s tales that gave an earlier Shakespeare play its title – itself recalling the title of another work of the 1580s, George Peele’s extravagant comedy The Old Wives’ Tale (printed 1595), which contains many of the ingredients of The Tempest (an enchanter, a servant spirit, lost travellers, slaves, metamorphoses, musical interludes, etc. etc.). The final scene of The Tempest sees the play we have watched being gradually transformed into a traveller’s tale full of impossibilities, a ‘most strange story’, as Alonso puts it (5.1.117), which nevertheless has substance to it (Prospero calls it ‘the story of my life’, 5.1.304). And the play’s epilogue sees the whole imaginative shebang acknowledged as a collective exercise on the part of the spectators as well as the cast of Shakespeare’s company.

If Prospero could achieve wonders on the stage, it was with the help of the ‘good hands’ of his willing audience. The audience worked as crew on the imaginative ship of the production, helping to make the tempest happen in the opening scene, to accept that Miranda was a woman, not a cross-dressed boy, that the goddesses in Prospero’s masque were played by spirits rather than ordinary members of Shakespeare’s company, and that the surface of the stage was made of rocks and sand and mud, not the wooden planks of an early modern playhouse. The audience must therefore also assist with the final wonder, Prospero’s return to Naples. The sails of his ship must be filled by their ‘gentle breath’ in a benign inversion of the violent winds that sent Odysseus off on his ten-years’ journey round the Mediterranean in Homer’s epic. Their sympathy with him, their capacity for putting themselves in his place, must be activated for one last time to send him home, their applause signaling the willingness of their busy imaginations to do the work of crafting him a happy ending. Prospero’s epilogue, in other words, invites us to imagine ourselves as Prospero, endowing us all with ducal status, making us all the beneficiaries of a fairy tale conclusion we ourselves construct. It also invites us to imagine ourselves as Prospero’s spirits, those newly liberated slaves whose abscondment is what drove him to appeal for our assistance in the first place. The epilogue, then, identifies the stage as the space where for a strictly limited time the utopian egalitarianism of Gonzalo’s and Stephano’s visions is necessarily achieved every time a successful performance takes place.

Miranda, by John William Waterhouse (1916)

The possibility of that final replacement – of hierarchy with utopian egalitarianism, of a dukedom with a theatrical collective – was made available in the final scene by Prospero’s own revelation of that ‘wonder’ Miranda in his cell, alongside that other wonder, the resurrected Ferdinand. Miranda’s name, of course, means ‘wonderful’ (from Latin miranda), and so suggests that she embodies the condition of wonder in the play: that is, the immediate emotional response to astonishing novelties, the state that preexists any effort to rationalize them – something close to the experience of ‘hesitation’ Tzvetan Todorov makes central to his understanding of the fantastic.[6] The young couple’s bodies are one of the wonders of the island, as we’ve seen: both represent ideals of the male and female forms. And Miranda makes a yet more remarkable wonder happen on stage in the final act, when she briefly allows the audience to see all humankind as wonderful, despite – well, despite everything the audience knows about the species in general, and the characters on stage in particular. ‘O, wonder!’ she exclaims as she catches sight of the Neapolitan courtiers:

How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in it! (5.1.181-4)

Prospero’s response to her reaction sounds cynical: ‘’Tis new to thee’; and Aldous Huxley’s use of one phrase of it for the title of his famous dystopia makes it hard to avoid reading both the response and the phrase itself as anything but ironic. But at that particular moment in the play the Neapolitan courtiers themselves seem to be as wonder-struck as young Miranda. Alonso briefly endows the girl with the divine status she imagined for herself in the second scene: ‘Is she the goddess that hath severed us / And brought us thus together?’ (5.1.187-8). And although Ferdinand at once claims Miranda as his possession (‘I chose her when I could not ask my father / For his advice’, 5.1.190-1), Gonzalo promptly steps in to make the couple equal again by endowing them both with royal status: ‘Look down, you gods, / And on this couple drop a blessed crown!’ (5.1.201-2). The old man’s timely reminder that the young couple will shortly replace both Alonso and Prospero makes possible the impossibility of some sort of genuine ‘brave new world’, free from the rivalries and acts of treason that characterized the older generation. The extent and nature of that possibility will depend on how cynical the collaborative audience is feeling (or has been made to feel by any given production) as the play draws to a close.

Djimon Hounsou as Caliban in Julie Taymor’s The Tempest

Which brings us back to the question of whether or not the play is a fantasy. Frank Kermode’s Arden edition of the play includes appendices that remind us of the early modern technologies that could make Prospero’s magic a practical possibility for the play’s Jacobean spectators.[7] The play makes a distinction between the mendacious travellers’ tales, for which the island appears to offer material proof when in fact that proof is largely supplied by Prospero’s spirits, and the magic of Prospero, which is genuinely effective in the world of the play. Those spirits, as Kermode also demonstrates, have much in common with the fairies and elves that had been rendered non-existent by Protestant orthodoxy. Does this mean the fairies have been restored to the status of the possible, since they could simply be mischief-making devils? On the other hand, there’s no sign that Prospero’s supernatural slaves are damned, and Ariel’s relative humaneness compared to the usual habits of humanity distinctly suggests otherwise. For a strict Protestant the idea of blessed spirits being at work in the world was heretical; so we return to the notion of Shakespeare’s spirits as fantastic inventions, or of course to the possibility that strict Protestants were wrong in their perception of how the universe operates.

What Shakespeare’s play does do without any doubt at all is to set belief systems and notions of what is and is not possible at odds with one another, thus enacting on stage the ideological and religious conflicts that were being acted out all over the world at the time of writing. For different characters different things are deemed to be possible or impossible at different times. Gonzalo’s belief in Ferdinand’s survival, or in the beneficial properties of the island, are as absurd for Sebastian and Antonio as his evocation of an island utopia, though the former at least turns out to be true in the final act – ands the latter too, if my reading of the ambiguously utopian atmosphere of the play’s ending is a convincing one. Meanwhile Sebastian and Antonio begin the play not believing in traveller’s reports but become believers when faced with Prospero’s spirits – though we have no way of knowing if they retain this belief after they’ve learned who is pulling those spirits’ strings. Miranda’s belief that the courtiers of Naples are things of wonder is an extravagant fantasy of her own, which can hardly be shared by Shakespeare’s audience any more than by her father, given both what we’ve seen of Sebastian and Antonio and the general reputation of Italians in early modern England.[8] The notion that Miranda is a wonder, in the sense of an ideal human being, is something even Prospero doesn’t seem sure of, given his anxiety over whether or not she is listening to his story in the opening act, and whether or not she will listen to his injunctions to stay chaste till marriage, as expressed in the masque scene and elsewhere. Ariel and his fellow spirits are perhaps the most conspicuous fantasies in the play, being benevolent supernatural beings of the sort unacknowledged by Protestant orthodoxy and having much in common with the diminutive fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Ariel can lie in a cowslip’s bell, which makes him no bigger than Peaseblossom). Even they, however, are treated as possible beings by all in the play, and members of the audience might well have seen them as possible in their own world too: Ariel’s name is biblical, and Elizabeth I had a personal magician, John Dee, who claimed to have dealings with benevolent spirits – which he called angels – rather than damned ones.

Another term for what is possible is what Kathryn Hume refers to in Fantasy and Mimesis as ‘consensus reality’, and in The Tempest there’s no final consensus about the nature of what is and isn’t real.[9] There is, however, a consensus invoked in the play’s epilogue, as we’ve seen, which makes real the possibility of collectively imagining a happy ending for Prospero, and perhaps even for Naples under the benevolent watch of a new generation who have shown themselves open to the condition of protracted wonderment. The question of how far the play is a fantasy, in other words – and how extravagant that fantasy might finally become – is left firmly in the hands of the spectators, whose multiple perspectives have been briefly combined to invoke the multiple perspectives of the play’s diverse characters. In the end, one might say, early modern fantasy lay in the eye of the early modern beholder. Which is precisely what makes it so interesting to consider early modern literature and drama in the light of the modern fantastic.

 

Notes

[1] An Apology for Poetry, with Geoffrey Shepherd (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2002), p. 81, line 27.

[2] The Tempest, ed. Frank Kermode, The Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1970). I have changed some punctuation slightly.

[3] For Shakespeare’s interest in replacing, substituting or supplanting people, as worked out in Measure for Measure, see R. W. Maslen, Shakespeare and Comedy, Arden Critical Companions (London: Thomson Learning, 2005), Afterword, pp. 213 ff. 

[4] ‘Thought is free’ is often used mockingly in early modern English to suggest unvoiced suspicions about another person’s sexual activities…

[5] See The Tempest, ed. Frank Kermode, Appendix B: ‘Ariel as Daemon and Fairy’, pp. 142-5.

[6] On hesitation, see Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975), pp. 24-5.

[7] See The Tempest, ed. Frank Kermode, Appendix B.

[8] For the early modern English response to Italian culture see R. W. Maslen, Elizabethan Fictions: Espionage, Counter-espionage and the Duplicity of Fiction in Early Elizabethan Prose Narratives (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), Introduction etc. Naples in particular gets a bad press in one of the most popular prose romances of Elizabethan times, John Lyly’s Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578).

[9] See Kathryn Hume, Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature (New York and London: Methuen, 1984), p. xi etc.

 

 

Aspects of the Early Modern Fantastic in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Part 1.

[This is the first part of a paper I gave this week at the University of St Andrews. It considers some general approaches to the early modern fantastic. The second part considers Shakespeare’s The Tempest as an example of what might happen if we applied the modern concept of fantasy to an early modern work of art. My thanks to Professor Neil Rhodes for asking me to speak, and for getting me thinking along these lines!]

Fantasy has often been defined as the literature of the impossible;[1] but deciding what that means isn’t always easy. The term ‘impossible’ raises historical as well as cultural questions; what can’t be done in one period is perfectly feasible in another, and the magical technologies available in the sixteenth century (for instance) far outstripped the pathetically limited technical resources of the twenty-first. In any case, how could anything be described as impossible at a time when spirits walked the earth and the atmosphere of every room was alive with trickster devils, as Thomas Nashe suggests in The Terrors of the Night (1594)? Or when the English countryside swarmed with elves and fairies, mermaids preened themselves on beaches, monsters lolloped in the ocean depths, and the wildest imaginings of Ariosto, Shakespeare or Spenser (animated brass men, bridges in the sky, humans morphing into beasts, the transformation of base metal into gold) could be accomplished by any reasonably adept witch or conjurer or alchemist? The question has led many historians of the fantastic to trace its rise to a time two centuries later when the world began to be viewed as a material entity, whose dimensions, composition and contents could be catalogued and recorded in encyclopaedias, those multi-volume compendiums that aspired to include all that could ever be known about the physical universe. Only when what is possible has been properly categorized can the impossible be clearly distinguished from it. Fantasy could be said to have originated, then, in the Enlightenment, which gave birth to its irrational or monstrous antitheses Romanticism and Gothic fiction, which in turn gave birth to the fantastic, as exemplified in the fairy tales of George MacDonald, the romances of William Morris or the children’s fiction of Edith Nesbit.

Pirated first US edition of The Lord of the Rings

Except, of course, that this is not an accurate account of the rise of the genre. As Jamie Williamson (among others) has argued, fantasy did not really emerge as a recognized literary kind until the early 1960s, when the popularity of the paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings in the United States led to the foundation of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series under the editorship of Lin Carter[2]. The series served, among other things, to establish a genealogy for fantasy, reprinting a range of key texts from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries which had inspired Tolkien and his circle or were in some way analogous to their works. Like the printed books and pamphlets of the early Reformation which sought to trace a genealogy for Protestantism running from the days of the primitive Church to the Tudor present – a genealogy which included Chaucer and Langland as proto-Protestant satirists of the Catholic clergy – Carter’s project deftly located a golden thread of narratives of the impossible that extended throughout the century or so before The Lord of the Rings made its first appearance in the 1950s. He didn’t reprint much from before the 1850s, and for the most part histories of fantasy have tended to accept his model of the genre’s emergence, despite the fact that it describes (like the history of Protestantism) a literary lineage that didn’t exist until he invented it.

Lin Carter took as his source for the series the various references to modern texts (MacDonald, Morris, Dunsany, Chesterton, Lindsay, Eddison, Peake) which are touched on by Lewis and Tolkien in their prefaces and essays, along with a number of texts he himself identified as similar to these. What united most of these texts was the kind of passion for the medieval and early modern periods that manifests itself on every page of The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia books. George MacDonald’s Phantastes draws on Wolfram von Eschenbach and Edmund Spenser; William Morris’s The Well at the World’s End is deeply indebted to Malory; Lord Dunsany’s early fantasies use the style of the King James Bible, while two of his later novels are set in the Spanish Golden Age of Don Quixote; E. R. Eddison peppers his secondary world romances with quotations from Jacobean poets and playwrights; Hope Mirrlees evokes the Netherlands of the seventeenth century. For Carter, then, modern fantasy has its roots firmly embedded in English Literature of the late medieval and early modern periods – although some of them reach as far back as the early medieval period of Beowulf and the sagas, as represented by the works of Tolkien and the early romances of William Morris. What is it that links the hundred years between MacDonald’s first fairy tale and the publication of The Lord of the Rings with the turbulent world of the Wars of the Roses, the Tudor dynasty and the Jacobean succession? Can a case be made for the late medieval and early modern periods as having given birth to the fantasy genre – not just in the sense of having inspired it, but also perhaps of having invented an early form of fantastic discourse?

If such a case is to be made it needs to rest, I think, on whether or not it was possible for something to be impossible in the period. Or perhaps we should put it another way: for fantasy to exist in early modern times it must have been necessary for people to claim that certain things were impossible. The latter formulation gets to the heart of what was happening between 1450 and 1650, when major political forces in Europe found themselves ranged against each other, each cleaving to a different sense of how the material and spiritual worlds were organized, each convinced that their political rivals were peddling untruths to their credulous subjects – pushing monstrous impossibilities in the interests of seizing or retaining power. I’d like to suggest that the Reformation lent an intensity to the debate over what was true and what was false – and increasingly, over what was and was not possible – which laid the foundations of what would become the fantasy genre.

Illustration from Reynard the Fox

Lurid imaginings were of course thoroughly familiar in pre-Reformation England – as was the notion that they were lurid imaginings, making no claim to truth. These included the extravagant stories known as ‘winter’s tales’ or ‘old wives’ tales’ – narratives in which astonishing events occurred with unusual frequency, such as encounters with dragons, elves, goblins, giants, ghosts and enchanters; travellers’ tales, which acquired a reputation for hyperbolic mendacity; animal fables, in which beasts spoke with human voices – the most popular and elaborate of which was the so-called ‘beast epic’ Reynard the Fox; and more literary forms of extravagance, such as the dialogues of the late Greek satirist Lucian so beloved of Thomas More and his friend Erasmus.

Illustration from Beware the Cat

With the advent of the Reformation in England, however, these over-the-top narratives got caught up in religious controversy. The Old Wives became proponents of the Old Faith, their willingness to tell extravagant tales an index to the superstition in their minds. The travellers with their lying anecdotes had become infected by continental Catholicism; the talking animals had been invented as a means of circumventing censorship, whether by the Catholic Church or the secular powers that worked hand in glove with the so-called ‘Bishop of Rome’; while the sceptic Lucian, who was a noted atheist in the days of the pagan gods, became a model for effective literary assault on all false religions[3]. Polemical writers who brought together these forms of extravagant fiction in their work included William Baldwin, author of the brilliant Lucianic fable Beware the Cat (c. 1553), and William Bullein, whose Dialogue against the Fever Pestilence (1568) ascribed the rise of plague in Europe to the sins of Catholics and wavering reformers and featured a lying Catholic traveller called Mendax.[4] Roger Ascham’s treatise, The Schoolmaster (1570), eloquently summarized the case against extravagant fictions, condemning chivalric romance as the invention of lewd monks who reveled in ‘open manslaughter and bold bawdry’ and dismissing the newly popular and erotically charged Italian novella as Catholic propaganda, unwelcome travellers’ tales come to infect the brains of the English with continental follies.[5]

Circe by Dosso Dossi

There came a time, though, when the extravagant stories associated with Catholicism began to lose their polemical punch and acquire instead an air of exoticism which links them, again, with modern fantasy. It’s tempting to suggest that this turning point came in 1570, when Elizabeth I was excommunicated by papal bull, thus confirming England’s opposition to Catholic culture and paradoxically liberating English writers to treat aspects of that culture as a form of extravagant fiction. Certainly it was in the 1570s that English writers began to write prose fiction in a pseudo-continental Catholic style – ornate in diction and syntax, packed with mythological references, wordplay, and formal experiment, peppered with references to Italy – as if in deliberate emulation of the Italianized English travellers condemned by Ascham[6]. For Ascham these travellers underwent what he called a Circean metamorphosis, transformed into strange new shapes as though by the sorceress Circe in the Odyssey, who came to stand for continental Catholicism in general and Italian culture in particular. The papal bull could be said to have fictionalized the Catholic imaginary, opening it up to be treated with the same imaginative freedom as classical mythology, itself associated with Italy through its transmission by way of ancient Rome.

Venus and Adonis by Titian

Meanwhile classical mythology underwent a modernization at these writers’ hands, becoming cross-contaminated with the Italian novella. The novella in turn picked up elements of the newly discovered ancient Greek and Roman prose romance, whose extravagance of incident furnished Elizabethan writers with the equivalent in plot of the elaborate prose styles (euphuism, Arcadianism and the rest) they delighted in.[7] Kidnappings by pirates, followed by an enthusiastic embracing of the pirate’s life; visits to pagan shrines and oracles, whose powers proved highly dependable; coincidental encounters, confirming the operation in the pagan world of a decidedly pagan fate or fortune, in competition with the more solemn operations of Christian Providence – these ingredients militated against the moral purpose of literature as promulgated by Saint Paul and the humanist education system, promoting a new culture of rebellious youth which was being celebrated in many inventive variations on the Prodigal Son story.[8] Classical myths, which had gained respectability through their use in Christianized versions in schools and universities, detached themselves from their contexts in the Metamorphoses and became excursions into bizarre alternative universes (Coleridge famously described Shakespeare’s mythical poem Venus and Adonis as having been written ‘as if he were of another planet’). Infested by the absurdities of Lucianic satire and seizing every opportunity to foreground the outrageous eroticism that had been sedulously glossed over by Elizabethan schoolteachers, the Ovidian epyllion or ‘minor epic’ reinvented itself as a fresh new form, like the novella, evading the familiar generic categories into which classical literature had traditionally segregated itself.

Northern European influences, too, fed into that highly spiced soup or gallimaufry, the literary melting pot of 1570s and 80s England. Chivalric romances took to the stage as well as the printed page, their association with the medieval church endowing them with a radical detachment from contemporary Protestant life that delighted audiences as greatly as it enraged religious hardliners. Supernatural biographies, such as the stories of Doctor Faustus and Friar Bacon, lost their polemical edge (although not always their anti-Catholic slant) and began to revel in the magic tricks of their protagonists, more concerned with the adventures and jokes made possible by the skills of their protagonists than with the damnable consequences of their necromantic dabblings. By the early 1590s, the jestbook describing the life of the medieval English magician Roger Bacon allowed him to evade any consequences at all by a timely repentance, while the condemned Doctor Faustus redeemed himself as a ghost in the Second Report of Doctor John Faustus (1593) by helping the combined armies of Christendom to lift the Turkish siege of Vienna.[9] By the early 1590s, even Purgatory had made itself available for imaginative exploitation. If the spirits of the dead couldn’t exist in the Purgatorial fires, since Protestant doctrine holds that the spirit dies with the body and is only resurrected at the Day of Judgment, then fictions could be stored there instead, merry tales or romances that laid no claim to historical accuracy. A series of anthologies sent the goblin Robin Goodfellow down to Purgatory to collect these fictions and presented them to readers with prefatory comments by the elvish editor.[10]

Joseph Noel Paton, Oberon and Titania

By the time Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1594), in fact, both Purgatory and fairies or goblins had become relatively acceptable material for literary or theatrical treatment – though Oberon still has to explain to Puck that they are ‘spirits of another sort’ than the damned beings who must return to Hell at cockcrow, like Old Hamlet’s ghost.[11] Shakespeare’s miniaturization of his supernatural beings was a declaration of their detoxification: no one could believe in, or at least be afraid of, a little person who could be overwhelmed by the bursting of a honey bee’s bag full of pollen. Romeo and Juliet consigns the fairies to the realm of dreams, while Thomas Nashe in The Terrors of the Night identifies a whole category of the dream state as the product of a poor digestion, their extravagant contents attributable to eating cheese at bedtime. Meanwhile the association of a belief in fairies with the Old Religion was confirmed by William Warner in his epic poem Albion’s England (1586), where a half-forgotten Robin Goodfellow laments the loss of that universal faith in the existence of fairies which obtained in the reign of Elizabeth’s Catholic sister, Mary I.[12] Reginald Scott’s Discovery of Witchcraft (1584) helped to spread the idea that the end of superstition should mean the end of other folk beliefs; and by the time William Corbet wrote the much-loved early seventeenth-century ballad ‘The Fairies’ Farewell’ – whose first line, ‘Farewell rewards and fairies’, furnished Rudyard Kipling with the title of his fantasy of 1910 – the loss of faith in both fairies and Catholicism could be spoken of in the regretful terms that set the tone of so much modern fantasy literature. The same nostalgic note suffuses the various near-contemporary accounts of the loss of the old classical myths, such as Milton’s ode ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ (1629). This wistfulness is increasingly the tone of the religious moderate, as against the puritan or the militant Catholic, and their propensity for nostalgia is surely one of the chief reasons for the frequent invocation of early modern times in fantasies of the first half of the twentieth century.

The imaginative spaces made available by Purgatory and the dreams of incautious diners were lighthearted equivalents of the invented secondary worlds celebrated by Sir Philip Sidney in his Apology for Poetry (1595), which first appeared in print around the time when A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet were holding the stage. Sidney’s observations on the capacity for poetry to invent worlds anticipate Tolkien’s in his essay on Fairy Stories – especially his comments on the capacity of the storytelling imagination to activate ‘recovery’, the process of enabling its readers to see the world they live in with fresh, more-or-less unfallen vision. The passage in the Apology is deservedly celebrated:

Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow in effect into another nature, in making things either better than Nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in Nature, as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclops, Chimeras, Furies, and such like: so as he goeth hand in hand with Nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit.

Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done; neither with pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too much loved earth more lovely. Her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.[13]

Sidney’s well-known association of poetry with fiction – things that have been made up or imagined, as against history or philosophy – here gets extended to suggest that the most exalted form of fiction is what we would now call fantasy, the invention of hybrid ‘forms such as never were in Nature’: impossibly gifted heroes, pagan divinities and chimeras, as well as non-existent ‘golden’ worlds fit to contain them. Like Tolkien he is convinced that the justification of such escapist dreamscapes lies in their capacity to materially change the people who read about them – they are not ‘wholly imaginative, as we are wont to say by them that build castles in the air’, but work ‘substantially’ by inspiring readers to emulate the impossible heroics and altruistic adventures they celebrate. Coming into print at the high point of the transition of the Catholic imaginary to fictional status, Sidney’s essay provided a theoretical basis for the widespread enjoyment of extravagant fictions over the preceding two-and-a-half decades.

Meanwhile his great work of prose fiction, the second draft of his Arcadia (1590), provided an example of the ‘golden’ secondary world he spoke of, stuffed as it is with evil enchantresses and high-minded cross-dressing heroes or heroines endowed with improbable eloquence, whose paths crisscross in a fictionalized Mediterranean which clearly bore little resemblance to the place itself. At the same time Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1590-6) provided readers with a fictionalized Britain where enchanters tangled with intelligent lions, book-spewing monsters, dragons, men made of brass, women made of flowers. I suggested at the beginning that none of these things were strictly impossible for an early modern readership, but the immeasurable distance between the golden world of Faerie and the squabbling, plague-ridden country it was based on, together with the sheer abundance of rare wonders with which it was stocked, precipitated Spenser’s inventions into the realm of impossibility described by Sidney. In the latter half of the 1590s, Richard Johnson’s Seven Champions of Christendom (1596) took Spenser’s appropriation of the Catholic saint’s life for fictional purposes (Saint George in the opening book of The Faerie Queene) several stages further, sending the patron saints of England, Scotland, Ireland and the rest in knightly form across a fantastical Europe whose geography bears no relation to the one you might find in contemporary maps.[14]

In his essay, Sidney gives as a key example of the poet’s capacity to invent models for good conduct Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), which supplies its readers with the ideal rhetorical technique for describing a perfect commonwealth, even if Sidney has reservations about how that technique was used: ‘that way of patterning a commonwealth was most absolute’, he observes, ‘though he perchance hath not so absolutely performed it’. Sidney was a militant protestant, keen to see Elizabeth involve herself in the continental wars of religion in the 1580s, so his praise of More is striking; he puts the shortcomings of Utopia down to the failings of More the man (‘where Sir Thomas More erred, it was the fault of the man and not of the poet’), and this distinction between the writer with his erroneous convictions (More was of course a fierce defender of Catholic orthodoxy against the inroads of Lutheranism) and the secondary world he generated marks out the imagined island as a more-or-less neutral zone, tainted by its writer’s religious affiliations but by no means undermined by them in principle. The Apology itself declares its intention to steer clear from religious topics, ostensibly because these are too exalted to be brought into a discussion of imaginative literature, and so both theorizes and justifies the development of a field of fiction that embraces and expands upon the rich heritage of stories inherited from the pre-Protestant epoch.

In the 1590s Shakespeare was at the centre of the fictionalizing of Catholic culture – a process that remained tinged with an air of real danger, treading as it did on ideological ground that was being fought over with unprecedented savagery. His most fantastic inventions of that decade – Venus and Adonis (1593), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1594-5), the Queen Mab speech in Romeo and Juliet (c. 1595), the Herne the Hunter episode in The Merry Wives of Windsor (c. 1597-8), the god- and lion-infested forest of As You Like It (c. 1598-1600) – draw their energy from a passionate union of Catholic art and literature with the Protestant repudiation of Catholicism and other forms of superstition, including native folklore as well as classical mythology – producing a hybrid literary-theatrical child of a kind that hadn’t been seen before. I’d like to proceed, though, by skipping a decade and looking at the point when Shakespeare seems to have gone back to the white-hot period of literary fusion that helped to generate his early writings. The series of plays known as the late romances rode on a wave of Jacobean nostalgia for the Elizabethan period which may well have gained impetus from a certain discontent with the reign of James I. Shakespeare returned to the genre of Greek romance, of the kind popularized by Robert Greene in the 1580s, with Pericles (c. 1607-8), Cymbeline (c. 1609-10), and The Winter’s Tale (c. 1609-11), which introduced impossible wonders, astonishing coincidences and spectacular special effects into his oeuvre, while reminding audiences of the giddy time of Greene’s prolific fiction-writing heyday. The Tempest (c. 1610-11) seems to me (as to many others) most richly to reimagine the liberation of the imagination in which Shakespeare had participated; and in harking back as it does, the play also seems to me most vividly to anticipate fantasy fiction of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, summarized by Rosemary Jackson as a ‘literature of desire, which seeks that which is experienced as absence and loss’.[15] What might happen, then, if we were to read it through the lens provided by modern fantasy? That’s the question I’ll try to answer in the second of these two posts.

 

Notes

[1] For fantasy as literature of the impossible, see Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn’s summary of the broad consensus among its theorists and commentators: ‘The major theorists in the field – Tzvetan Todorov, Rosemary Jackson, Kathryn Hume, W. R. Irwin and Colin Manlike – all agree that fantasy is about the construction of the impossible whereas science fiction ay be about the unlikely, but is grounded in the scientifically possible.’ The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, ed. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (Cambridge etc.: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 1.

[2] See Jamie Williamson, The Evolution of Modern Fantasy: From Antiquarianism to the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series (New York: Palsgrave Macmillan, 2015), Introduction, and Edward James and Farah Mandlesohn, A Short History of Fantasy (Farringdon: Libri Publishing, 2012), p. 76.

[3] On early modern travellers’ tales and magical journeys see R. W. Maslen, ‘Magical Journeys in Sixteenth-Century Prose Fiction’, Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 41, no. 1 (2011), pp. 35-50.

[4] For more on Baldwin and Bullein see R. W. Maslen, ‘The Cat Got your Tongue: Pseudo-Translation, Conversion and Control in William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat’, Translation and Literature, vol. 8, Part 1 (1999), 3-27, and ‘The Healing Dialogues of Dr Bullein’, Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 38, nos. 1 and 2 (2008), ed. Andrew Hiscock, pp. 119-35.

[5] For Roger Ascham’s views on Italian fiction see R. W. Maslen, Elizabethan Fictions: Espionage, Counter-espionage and the Duplicity of Fiction in Early Elizabethan Prose Narratives (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997),pp. 41-51.

[6] See Maslen, Elizabethan Fictions, Introduction.

[7] For the English imitation of Greek and Latin prose romance see Robert H. F. Carver, ‘English Fiction and the Ancient Novel’, in Thomas Keymer (ed.), Prose Fiction in English from the Origins of Print to 1750, The Oxford History of the Novel in English, Volume 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017, Chapter 8, pp. 123-45.

[8] The classic work on representations of the Prodigal Son in Elizabethan fiction is Richard Helgesson, The Elizabethan Prodigals (Berkeley, Ca.: University of California Press, 1976).

[9] For a detailed account of this little-known work of early modern prose fiction see R. W. Maslen, ‘Marlowe’s Ghost: The Second Report of Doctor John Faustus’, Airy Nothings: Imagining the Otherworld of Faerie from the Middle Ages to the Age of Reason: Essays in Honour of Alasdair A. MacDonald, eds. Karin E. Olsen and Jan R. Veenstra (Leiden: Brill, 2014), pp. 1-24.

[10] For Robin Goodfellow in the early 1590s see R. W. Maslen, ‘Dreams, Freedom of Speech, and the Demonic Affiliations of Robin Goodfellow’, Journal of the Northern Renaissance, Issue 1.1 (March 2009), pp. 129-44.

[11] See R. W. Maslen, Shakespeare and Comedy, Arden Critical Companions (London: International Thomson Publishing, 2005), pp. 141-54.

[12] See Maslen, ‘Dreams, Freedom of Speech, and the Demonic Affiliations of Robin Goodfellow’, 3.

[13] Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, with Geoffrey Shepherd (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2002), p. 85, lines 17-27.

[14] See Richard Johnson, The Seven Champions of Christendom (1596/7), ed. Jennifer Fellowes, Non-canonical Early Modern Popular Texts (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003).

[15] Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London and New York: Rutledge, 1981), p. 3.

Comedy Comes of Age in Shakespeare’s All’s Well

[I gave a version of this piece as a lecture at the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon, in 2009, at the invitation of John Jowett. It’s pretty closely in dialogue with my book Shakespeare and Comedy (Arden, 2005), especially Chapter 3, ‘Lightness, Love and Death’ and the Afterword, ‘Comedy for a New Reign’. I’m putting it here because All’s Well is in effect a Lost Book among Shakespeare’s plays.]

Michael Denison as Bertram, Jill Dixon as Diana

‘All’s well that ends well’ was already an old saying in early modern England; the only non-biblical proverb to be used as a title for one of Shakespeare’s plays. The story on which the play is based was also old by the time he adapted it. It derives from Boccaccio’s tale ‘Giletta of Narbonna’ in The Decameron (c. 1350), as mediated through an English translation first published in Shakespeare’s infancy.[1] The sense of going back to the past to gain a new perspective on the present is pervasive in the play. In itself, this idea is nothing new; but Shakespeare’s understanding of how the past manifests itself in the present and comes into conflict with it is subtly different here than in any of his other works – subtly different, too, from anything by his contemporaries. Above all, he’s concerned with the changes undergone by language in each generation, and with the forms of discourse – proverbs, old stories, riddles, prophecies, jokes – which may be used to maintain a sense of continuity between one generation and another.

Kimberly Parker Green as Helena, James R. Winker as the King of France, Graham Hamilton as Bertram

To put it crudely: All’s Well That Ends Well – which is generally dated to the early days of the reign of James I, between 1603 and 1607 – dramatizes a conflict between two discourses or verbal attitudes. The attitude to language it presents as modern, and which it seeks to challenge, is an excessive reliance on what has come to be called the ‘cold light of reason’ – or simply ‘sense’; the notion that one can argue one’s way to the truth using the structures of formal logic, based on an understanding of the world that perceives it as always and everywhere the same, and that therefore fails to recognize its subjection to the transformative operations of time. The means by which the play mounts this challenge is by way of a variety of time-worn discourses which were branded by contemporary moralists folly or nonsense. The seriousness of this encounter between two conflicting philosophies of language is stressed by the quasi-legal structure of the play’s last act, in which an informal trial is staged at a point when one might expect a formal trial to have been set up. But the triumph of nonsense at the end of the play – its success in engineering a happy ending against all odds, in supplanting a legal sentence with what is in effect a punchline – makes it an endorsement of comedy, a genre that would seem to be directly at odds with the notion of trials, judgements or any other form of legislation. An ambiguous endorsement, to be sure; but then verbal comedy (as opposed to slapstick) has always thriven on ambiguity.

In a law-court, the proper and improper use of language may be a matter of life and death. And the fact that the quasi-trial in Act 5 of All’s Well does not take place in a law-court stresses the extent to which every verbal act is a risky business – the extent to which you take your life in your hands, put yourself on trial as it were, every time you open your mouth. I have argued elsewhere that Shakespeare’s comedies are pervaded by the notion that the word-play which is the medium of comedy is the riskiest business of all; and I would like to suggest here that the period of Shakespeare’s life when he’s most aware of the riskiness of the comic is just before and just after the accession of James I. Mock-trials occur with astonishing frequency in the plays of this period; trials in which men of power accuse, convict and sentence their inferiors – usually women – without giving them the benefit of a jury or a formal defence. The most extreme example of such a mock-trial is the final scene of Othello (c. 1603-4), in which Desdemona’s husband appoints himself her judge, jury and executioner. But Othello’s precursors include Claudio and Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing (c. 1598), who condemn Hero without listening to her plea of not guilty; Hamlet, who accepts as the only witness of Claudius’s guilt what might well be a ‘goblin damned’; Troilus, whose summary sentencing of Cressida has no interest in exonerating circumstances; and the Duke in Measure for Measure (c. 1604), who passes a series of arbitrary judgements on Isabella, Mariana, Angelo and Lucio in the play’s last scene. The implication of all these plays is that grammatical sentences may become quasi-legal sentences at a moment’s notice in the sophisticated discourse of the 1600s. And since the word ‘sentence’ could mean ‘proverb, saying, aphorism’ (from Latin sententia), the right use of proverbs as a means of swaying judgement – your own or other people’s – becomes a particularly urgent issue in this play ruled by a proverb.

Othello is the play of Shakespeare’s that most fully exploits the more sinister aspects of sententia, as well as of the quasi-legal sentence. Iago’s manipulation of Othello deploys well-known proverbs, which are supposed to articulate ancient wisdom, as a means to instigate prejudice – that is, pre-judgement, the bane of all efforts to set up an equitable trial. He persuades Othello to see Desdemona through the lens of the proverbial licentiousness of Venetian women, and tricks him into conforming with the proverbial stereotypes of ‘changeable’ Moor and jealous old husband, the commedia del arte Pantaloon with a murderous twist. And Iago does this by convincing Othello of Iago’s own simple honesty, as exemplified in a style of speech that’s liberally sprinkled with old sayings. As has been often pointed out, the success of Iago’s proverb-fuelled project would be comic if its consequences had not been so appalling.

Helena as pilgrim, by John William Wright

All’s Well inverts Othello. The play’s protagonist Helen is honest, deriving her honesty from her father – whereas Iago, as a Spanish stranger in Venice, has no known forebears to guarantee his honesty. Helen’s parents were poor but honest; but finding herself in a world where honesty is despised, she resorts to tricks that might be construed as dishonest, allying herself through word and action with the professional fool Lavatch (whose brazen honesty in telling harsh truths to his mistress often gets him into trouble) and the foolish professional soldier Parolles (whose brazen dishonesty gets him into trouble till he learns to be honest about it by becoming a professional fool).

The proverb that emblazons All’s Well, however, furnishes it with a title as unsettlingly knotty as any scheme Iago could come up with – as knotty as the play it introduces. It carries with it, for example, the notion that meaning in discourse is always deferred – that is, contingent on the passing of time; a notion Shakespeare was to play with at length in his late romances.   It implies, too, that this comedy is concerned with happy endings; though the phrase also incorporates the sense that all happiness has an ending. And it raises the question of what an ending is (many commentators have pointed out that the play’s conclusion, like that of Johnson’s Rasselas [1759], is one ‘in which nothing is concluded’). The end of one epoch, after all – such as the reign of Elizabeth, which also signaled the end of the Tudor dynasty – is the beginning of another – such as the reign of James I, which inaugurated the age of the Stuarts; a single life can span both epochs without changing significantly; the structure of the realm may not change a great deal between the end of one historical period and the beginning of another; measurements are always contingent, even the measurement of a life, which may not end when the quietus comes, as Hamlet reminds us. Until we can ascertain that an ending really has taken place, and agreed both what has ended and what the significance of that ending is, the proverb of the play’s title cannot come into play; it remains always a promise or possibility rather than an assertion, an illustration of the crassness of proverbs rather than a trusted piece of familiar wisdom passed down from one generation to the next.

But the play is not solely concerned with endings; it’s equally concerned with beginnings that may or may not be happy – a topic of keen interest to a nation at the beginning of a new century and a new reign. And the play’s attitude to the new epoch is quite different from that of Shakespeare’s other theatrical salute to the Stuart dynasty, Measure for Measure. Where the latter begins with a set of characters who nurture unrealistic expectations of protecting their absolute principles in a degenerate world, All’s Well that Ends Well introduces us to a set of men and women who are acutely conscious that they must deal with a flawed world on its own terms, and that they will probably not be able to protect their most cherished principles from becoming compromised by these worldly dealings as one age or period or fashion gives way to another. This is another implication of the title: that happy endings may be held to justify the means used to reach them, and that not all of these means may be good ones. But the title also invites us to consider from the beginning the question of what it means to be ‘well’, either physically or morally speaking. There’s a sense, then, both of resignation and of doubt about the title – of the conditional mode, as it were, the big ‘if’ that governs its proceedings – that perfectly suits it to the play it emblazons.

James R. Winker as the King of France, Kimberly Parker Green as Helena

Like Measure for Measure, the comedy has much to say about the difficulty of dialogue – and indeed it contains some of Shakespeare’s most complex and elusive poetic language. Verse is its medium, where prose was the dominant medium of Measure for Measure – especially in the second half of that play. And an astonishing proportion of the verse in All’s Well is rhymed. The play’s protagonist Helen uses rhyme repeatedly, and the formal closure rhyme gives to her lines imparts to many of them a proverbial feel, like that of the play’s title, as if she is quoting long-established, carefully formulated philosophical truths – drawing, perhaps, on the same store of ancient knowledge that formed the basis of her father’s reputation as a man of letters. ‘Who ever strove / To show her merit that did miss her love?’ she asks (1.1.212-3), and despite the uncertainty of the answer, the question becomes an assertion by virtue of the euphonic link it establishes between striving and desire. ‘He that of greatest works is finisher / Oft does them by the weakest minister’ (2.1.135-6), she tells the King of France as she undertakes to cure him of a terminal illness, and the rhyme lends an authority to her verbal empowering of the weak that both testifies to her confidence and gives confidence to her hearers. The other great users of rhyme in the play are Helen’s adoptive mother, the superannuated Countess of Roussillon, and the aged King of France himself, whose cure she effects using a drug invented by her father, and who becomes a replacement father-figure to her. Helen’s, the Countess’s and the King’s rhymed exchanges make them sound as though they are singing to the same tune, as it were.   The King and Helen in particular establish a family resemblance in the scene where they first meet, as their speeches gradually get closer to each other in rhyme, in despite of reason – a contest between sound and sense, euphony and probability, which gets reignited by the King at the end of the play when he celebrates Helen’s return to his court with a tentative restatement of the play’s title: ‘All yet seems well; and if it end so meet, / The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet’ (5.3.326-7, my emphasis). There’s a mutual understanding between Helen and the King that unites genders and generations through the medium of melodic utterance. Here, then, is yet another meaning of the title: that a conversation goes well when each of its metrical units ends (meetly and sweetly, as the King might say) in a rhyme. There’s clearly something contrived about such a claim; it cannot be said to be true in any obvious sense. But its very contrivedness stresses the extent to which this play is preoccupied with the elaborate engineering of a happy ending, against all odds, by all means necessary, regardless of improbabilities – or even impossibilities. Helen and the King acknowledge that they live in a universe that resists happy endings. They are determined nevertheless to achieve one, and the way they talk articulates that determination.

As with the Duke and Isabella in Measure for Measure, their plan to engineer happiness flies in the teeth of the ferociously anti-romantic environment they inhabit. Both Helen and the King are old-fashioned in their belief that happiness is a condition worth having – or even possible to have. The play is full of elderly people who lament the passing of old-time excellence and the ascendancy of a self-centred new generation. The Countess of Rossillion, who cannot countenance her son Bertram’s treatment of Helen; the elderly courtier Lafeu, who is disgusted that the young aristocrats of his time cannot appreciate Helen’s beauty and wit; the King, who in the first act wishes that he, like Bertram’s father, had not lived ‘to be the snuff / Of younger spirits, whose apprehensive senses / All but new things disdain’ (1.2.59-60) – all note the course of the world’s decline, its gradual loss of affection with each succeeding age. Helen allies herself with these nostalgic old folk both by her deployment of old knowledge – her use of her father’s medicine to cure the King – and by their adoption of her as their imaginative offspring. The Countess adopts her as her daughter in the first act, the King effectively adopts her in the second, and she substitutes herself for Lafeu’s daughter in the final act, when she reclaims Bertram’s hand just after he has contracted it to the old man’s child. By the end of the play, the base-born Helen has effectively forged a new lineage for herself, an ancestry that extends into the mists of French antiquity, linking her to the past as strongly as the ancient wisdom she inherited from her father.

Sir Thomas Elyot, by Hans Holbein

The nostalgic attachment to the past shared by Helen and her adoptive parents is not, then, a reactionary one. It seems to liberate them from reactionary class positions, making them prize a person’s words and actions more highly than her birth, in marked contrast to young men like Bertram, who do not understand that it’s necessary to inherit their ancestors’ ‘moral parts’ as well as their facial features (1.2.21). Early modern conduct manuals very often stress the notion that aristocracy was first bequeathed to certain families by common consent of the people, as a reward for their achievements. Perhaps the richest and most intriguing assertion of this view comes in Sir Thomas Elyot’s The Governor (1532) – a favourite book of Shakespeare’s. ‘In the beginning,’ Elyot tells us in his chapter on nobility,

when private possessions and dignity were given by the consent of the people, who then had all things in common, and equality in degree and condition, undoubtedly they gave the one and the other to him at whose virtue they marveled, and by whose labour and industry they received a common benefit, as of a common father that with equal affection loved them.[2]

It’s therefore necessary, Elyot asserts, for each new generation of nobles to reassert their nobility in action if they wish to retain their hereditary privileges; and Shakespeare’s King of France concurs. ‘Honours thrive,’ the King tells Bertram, ‘When rather from our acts we them derive / Than our fore-goers’ (2.3.133-5). Those nobles who fail to act nobly not only forego their right to the title they inherit, but show symptoms of a more general sickness in the world they inhabit. Elyot puts it like this:

Where virtue joined with great possessions or dignity hath long continued in the blood or house of a gentleman, as it were an inheritance, there nobility is most shown, and these noble men be most to be honoured; forasmuch as continuance in all thing that is good hath ever pre-eminence in praise and comparison. But yet shall it be necessary to advertize those persons, that do think nobility may in no wise be but only where men can avaunt them of ancient lineage, an ancient robe, or great possessions, at this day very noble men do suppose to be much error and folly. Whereof there is a familiar example, which we bear ever with us, for the blood in our bodies being in youth warm, pure, and lusty, it is the occasion of beauty, which is everywhere commended and loved; but if in age it be putrefied, it loseth his praise. And the gouts, carbuncles, cankers, leprosy, and other like sores and sicknesses, which do proceed of blood corrupted, be to all men detestable. (p. 104)

What this passage reveals is the fact that the past is the location of radical thought and action. It was as a result of a communal decision, a revolutionary rethinking of the problem of how best to live together, that people first established the institution of nobility. Elyot’s identification of nobility as having been granted to certain men by democratic agreement implies that it can be taken away just as easily (notice that resonant phrase ‘as it were an inheritance’ – Elyot denies that inheritance is ever either essential or automatic). The political implications of this position were taken up much later in the century in the notorious French treatise Vindiciae contra tyrannos (1579), by Philippe du Plessis Mornay and Hubert Languet, which argued that kings as well as nobles were originally elected by the people, and might be deselected – deposed – should their merits become subject to ‘degeneration’. And Elyot’s comparison of successive generations of nobles to the ageing of the human body implies something more: that later generations are in a sense older than those that went before them, since they are further removed from the vigorous, innovatory convictions that motivated the institution of nobility. The younger generation is therefore more vulnerable to the ravages of disease – to what he calls putrefaction – than the old. Bertram is sicker than the King of France, his body less responsive to Helen’s loveliness, his concern for the public weal, as Elyot calls it – for the wealth and/or wellness of the state (Elyot was an amateur physician as well as a politician) – almost non-existent. The notion that he is to be healed in the second half of the play, as the King was in the first, is a structuring principle of the comedy. And the play implies too that the world Bertram represents – the world occupied by the theatre audience – is as sick as he is, and needs restoring to health by similar means if it’s not to fall apart under the burden of its own decrepitude.

Sir Thomas Elyot was a lexicographer like Samuel Johnson. He authored the first Latin-English dictionary, and his Book Named the Governor is also a kind of lexicon, passionately committed to the belief that the right use of words, the respect for their etymology and proper deployment, is essential to the wholesomeness of any early modern society.[3] His chapter on nobility is more concerned with restoring that word to its proper signification in the here and now than it is with antiquarianism. All’s Well is similarly concerned with the use and misuse of words; and its title implies a similar reading of the world as having gone off track, as needing to return to where it started, to the common weal, which depends on a common or mutual understanding of what words mean – an understanding that has almost been lost, with disastrous political and social consequences.

The nostalgia of Helen and the old people of All’s Well is for a very distant past; perhaps even for the days before the nobility was founded, that golden age when the idea of nobleness mattered more than any social institution. They speak of the age when miracles occurred (as they do again in this play: the miracle of the King’s recovery, the miracle of Helen’s return from the dead to reclaim the hand of her husband); or when goddesses like Diana walked the earth (as she does in this play from Act Three, in the person of the mortal girl Diana). Above all, they speak of the days when words were inextricably linked with their simplest meanings, as Helen insists they are when she addresses people like Diana who share her integrity, or as the King says they were whenever Bertram’s father opened his mouth. ‘His honour,’ says the King of his dead friend, ‘Clock to itself, knew the true minute when / Exception bid him speak, and at this time / His tongue obeyed his hand’ (1.2.38-41). Words in those days were carefully weighed, sparingly spoken, sincerely meant; and once again, the King’s and Helen’s deployment of rhyme would seem to replicate the careful timing and placing of words that characterized this legendary epoch.

Of all the good qualities of the past, this exemplary use of language is the most difficult to recover in the present. The Countess’s desperate efforts to get Helen to confess her love for Bertram, the Countess’s son, are rendered necessary by the time they live in; a time when the tongue is hobbled by the knowledge that its owner’s best intentions may be wilfully misread, its most direct and honest utterances subject to misprision. ‘Only sin / And hellish obstinacy tie thy tongue,’ the Countess tells Helen, ‘That truth should be suspected’ (1.3.170-2); but she is wrong. Helen is merely concerned to defer her declaration of love until she knows she will be pardoned for it; that she will not be condemned out of hand for ambition in loving a man above her station, or brazenness in giving her desire expression. These days, Helen finds, well-meaning people must convey their thoughts in riddles if they wish to avoid instant misprision. She speaks ‘riddle-like’ to the Countess when she finally confesses her love for the Countess’s son (1.3.208); and in the final scene, her friend Diana speaks in riddles to the King in her efforts to explain the convoluted paths by which the play’s happy ending is being achieved. Riddling is the language of oracles, another of the ancient sources of knowledge that Helen resurrects. When she promises the King that she can cure him, she relies on the ‘help of heaven’ to substantiate her promise (2.1.151), just as the priestess did at the Delphic oracle when she begged Apollo for answers to his worshippers’ questions. The King is both amazed and impressed by Helen’s confidence: ‘Methinks in thee some blessed spirit doth speak / His powerful sound within an organ weak,’ he tells her, ‘And what impossibility would slay / In common sense, sense saves another way’ (2.1.174-7). Her claims to occult knowledge, in other words, seem to him senseless, like the verses delivered by the Delphic oracle; yet in one way or another the ‘sense’ of the Delphic verses was always confirmed by the outcome of events, just as the sense of Helen’s riddles will assert itself before the play is done. The plot of All’s Well is an elaborate device to give substance to the latter-day oracular riddle spoken by Diana in the final scene: or to put it another way, to extract sense from a senseless world by uttering seeming nonsense.

Conleth Hill as Parolles, Michelle Terry as Helena

In the modern age, words are wayward, treacherous, suspicious, and must be circumvented by discovering a new discourse composed (perhaps) of riddles and rhymes. Yet even words as used in the modern age can serve to bring people together if cleverly used – like the wheelings and dealings of a crafty pimp. This is confirmed in All’s Well by the words and actions of Parolles; a braggart soldier who helps to lead Helen’s husband Bertram astray, but who also helps to bring him back to the wife he abandons; a pimp who lends his services in an effort to help Bertram commit adultery, but who ends instead by introducing the wayward husband to the deferred delights of his wedding night. As his name suggests (it means ‘words’ in French), Parolles embodies the way words are used in the here and now, the duplicitous ambiguity of latter-day discourse. Words lead people away from truth, just as Parolles encourages Bertram to be untrue to Helen; yet they also inadvertently restore truth to those who have lost it, as Parolles restores Bertram to his lost spouse. This verbal double action is present in everything Parolles says. In the first act, for instance, he delivers an oration to the virgin Helen on the uselessness of virginity (‘Loss of virginity is rational increase; and there was never virgin got till virginity was first lost’, 1.1.117-9). Yet despite his obviously salacious motives in speaking thus (he wants to sleep with Helen himself), Helen is not insulted by Parolles’s oration. On the contrary, she finds it intriguing: it impels her to ask him what is (for her) the million dollar question: ‘How might one do, sir, to lose [virginity] to her own liking?’ (1.1.141). Yet the same speech serves Bertram’s turn as well; the young man later parrots it when attempting to seduce Diana: ‘When you are dead, you should be such a one / As you are now, for you are cold and stern; / And now you should be as your mother was / When your sweet self was got’ (4.2.7-10). Parolles, in other words, speaks both for the loyal Helen and for the disloyal Bertram. He gives voice to Helen’s desire, which she cannot easily voice herself without being condemned for it like her Homeric namesake; and he furnishes Bertram with the language of seduction, thus initiating the young man into the pleasures of sex – the first step on the way to reconciliation with his wife. This dual action of Parolles’s words is apparent, too, in the message he delivers to Helen from Bertram after their marriage, telling her that Bertram has left her for the theatre of war. For Parolles, this abandonment – which seems so disastrous to Helen’s adopted parents – is merely a deferral of the couple’s pleasure, an erotic technique (familiar to frequenters of brothels) for enhancing the ecstasy of their future love-making. Bertram’s departure, says Parolles, will ‘make the coming hour o’erflow with joy / And pleasure drown the brim’ (2.4.44-5). And despite the fact that Parolles doesn’t mean this – that at this point he doesn’t expect Bertram and Helen ever to meet again – this quasi-pornographic fantasy proves prophetic. The King’s last words before the play’s epilogue (‘The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet’, 5.3.327) effectively repeat Parolles’s sentiment. Parolles, then, is a vehicle for truthful utterance – a servant, like Helen, of the gods, or of whatever forces lend structure to chaos, bring sense out of nonsense. The difference is that Helen is conscious that she has this function, whereas Parolles is not.

If Parolles acts as a kind of inadvertent soothsayer or prophet, then Helen and the older generation to which she allies herself sometimes act as pimps. When the old courtier Lafeu first leaves Helen alone with the King he compares himself to the most famous of pimps: ‘I am Cressid’s uncle, / That dare leave two together’ (2.1.96-7). His pimping has a positive effect: the King is cured, and Lafeu alludes to the King’s restored health in sexual terms: he is ‘Lustig, as the Dutchman says… he’s able to lead her a coranto’ (2.3.38-40). The newly cured King then acts as a pimp with Helen as his client: first parading his courtiers before her like whores in a brothel, then using threats to make her chosen partner, Bertram, accept her advances. The comparison of King to pimp may seem a trifle strained; but it does not seem so to Lafeu, who is disgusted by the young courtiers’ failure to respond to Helen as compliant whores should do: ‘An they were sons of mine I’d have them whipt; or I would send them to th’Turk to make eunuchs of’ (2.3.84-6). And the comparison occurs, too, to Bertram, who is appalled by the role reversal whereby a woman becomes the client and himself the sexual partner she chooses: ‘In such a business’ he says, ‘give me leave to use / The help of mine own eyes’ (2.3.105-6, my emphasis). Later in the play, Diana’s widowed mother uses the same word, ‘business’, to refer to pimping: she tells Helen that she is well brought up and therefore ‘Nothing acquainted with these businesses’ (3.7.5), such as that of getting a strange woman into bed with a man. But at this point Helen is urging the widow to act as a legitimate pimp between herself and Bertram, just as Lafeu and the King acted as legitimate pimps in the play’s second act. Bertram has fled to Italy without consummating his marriage to Helen, and Helen prostitutes herself with the aim of producing lawful effects from Bertram’s unlawful desires. In Italy, Bertram is attracted to Diana, the widow’s daughter, and makes an arrangement through Parolles to sleep with her; but Helen substitutes herself for Bertram in Diana’s bed, thus creating the context for yet another redemptive riddle. Her plot to sleep with Bertram, she says, ‘Is wicked meaning in a lawful deed, / And lawful meaning in a lawful act; / Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact’ (3.7.45-7). In a world where men react with horror to lawful sex and instead seek pleasure with unlawful partners, pimping, prostitution and the playing of sexual practical jokes may be legitimate practices, and dealing in double meanings may be the only way to circumvent more damaging forms of duplicity.

Jim DeVita as Parolles

Parolles is the presiding spirit of this decadent modern world, self-centred, dishonest, bombastic, morally hollow; and what happens to him demonstrates how this world can most effectively be dealt with. Parolles, like the duplicitous words invoked by his name, can be worked on to generate useful meanings. His particular brand of nonsense can be exploited to produce sense, just as the more elevated nonsense of prophecy can make sense when properly applied. In the fourth act Parolles is subjected to a terrifying practical joke that unleashes a torrent of verbiage from him. A band of his fellow soldiers, attached like him to the Florentine army, disguise themselves as members of the army with which Florence is at war. They capture Parolles, then interrogate him in a nonsensical made-up language cobbled together from fragments of European dialects ancient and modern. Under their interrogation and in terror of his life, Parolles regales them with a flood of truths and half-truths, treacherously telling them all he knows and more about the composition of the Florentine forces and the private lives of the Florentine generals. At the end of the dreadful interview the traitor’s eyes are unbound and he finds himself confronted with the men he has been betraying and traducing. And his exposure betrays not only Parolles but the man who took Parolles at his word, Bertram. The young man’s trust in the protestations of a fool who is so palpably untrustworthy suggests that he himself is not to be trusted. The interrogators find in Parolles’s pocket evidence of both his and Bertram’s unreliability: a letter from Parolles to Diana, urging her not to trust Bertram (‘After he scores, he never pays the score… He ne’er pays after-debts’, 4.3.208-210) and to transfer her favours to Parolles instead. Later, Parolles again betrays the truth about Bertram, inadvertently testifying to his attempted seduction of Diana at a crucial moment in the play’s last scene. Parolles, like Helen, makes sense out of nonsense if properly ‘found’.

The man who ‘finds’ Parolles’s dishonesty is old Lafeu (‘I have now found thee,’ he crows in Act Two, 2.3.203); and it’s Lafeu who employs him as a fool at the end of the play. The old courtier notes the danger of taking Parolles seriously – of lending excessive credence to the kinds of insubstantial words he represents. He tells Bertram that ‘there can be no kernel in this light nut’ and warns him to ‘trust him not in matter of heavy consequence’ (2.5.42-5). At the same time, Lafeu sees too that properly handled Parolles’s lightness can be wholesome. The Countess of Roussillon’s fool Lavatch urges him to find the fool in himself: ‘much fool may you find in you, even to the world’s pleasure and the increase of laughter’ (2.4.34-5); and it’s ‘to the increase of laughter’ that he is tricked into betraying what he knows about Bertram and the Florentine army, since the French lords who plan the prank do it ‘for the love of laughter’ (3.6.29). As a result of their exposure Parolles becomes an honest man – or rather, honestly dishonest, dedicating himself to a career in making people laugh with his blatant lies and petty treasons. From being a corrupting influence when given too much weight, he becomes an invigorating one when taken as what he is, the epitome of lightness. And this transformation of Parolles from heavy and corrupt to light and wholesome is masterminded by a man whose name allies him with light, an ennobled reincarnation of Measure for Measure’s Lucio, Parolles’s new master Lafeu.

Parolles the Captive, by Francis Wheatley

Lafeu specializes in well-timed humour, distinguishing the serious from the frivolous with a tact and sensitivity that recalls the King’s description of Bertram’s dead father. When introducing Helen to the King he begins by associating her with a chain of sexual allusions. ‘I have seen a medicine’ he says, ‘That’s able to breathe life into a stone… whose simple touch / Is powerful to araise King Pepin’ – Pepin being a long-dead ancestor of the French King’s whose name comically distorts the word ‘penis’ (2.1.71-5). But Lafeu goes on to testify seriously to Helen’s apparent worth, ‘If seriously I may convey my thoughts / In this my light deliverance’ (2.1.80-1). He thus becomes the first to warn of the ease with which women may be taken too lightly, the substance of their ‘light’ – that is, their knowledge, wit and wisdom – left unrecognized, to the detriment of all. Bertram’s mother the Countess of Roussillon is the next to see it. Instructing her steward to write to Bertram about Helen’s departure from France she tells him, ‘Let every word weigh heavy of her worth / That he does weigh too light’ (3.4.31-2). And the King is the last; speaking of Helen’s supposed death he tells Bertram that ‘Our rash faults / Make trivial price of serious things we have, / Not knowing them until we know their grave’ (5.3.60-2). Lafeu has helped to teach his elderly contemporaries the distinction between different forms of lightness; and at the end of the play he proposes to go on using Parolles as a tool for illustrating the distinction.

Bertram, by contrast, goes on devaluing women till the last possible moment. When Diana accuses him of seducing her in the final scene he dismisses her as a plaything, a disposable toy: she is ‘a fond and desp’rate creature / Whom sometime I have laugh’d with’ (5.3.177-8). No wonder, then, if women have recourse to light strategies to get justice from men of his generation. Helen poses as a ‘light’ woman, a whore, to get him back when he deserts her; and Diana has recourse to the ‘light’ or frivolous language of riddles to explain Bertram’s actions to the King (‘So there’s my riddle: one that’s dead is quick’, 5.3.297). Diana’s jokes almost kill her; exasperated by their seeming senselessness, the King orders her to prison and adds that he will put her to death ‘within this hour’ if she cannot give him a more satisfactory account of herself (5.3.278). Luckily, Diana is able to provide a visual clue to the ‘meaning’ of her riddle by presenting the King with the living body of Helen, who was thought to be dead; a body that is also ‘quick’ with child, that is, pregnant by Bertram. There is substance to her quibbles, sense to her senselessness, as there is not to Bertram’s lying protestations of honour and fidelity. It is Bertram, not Diana or Helen, who is light – as hollow as the drum with which Parolles is repeatedly linked. And at the end of the play one cannot help but wonder if he can ever acquire the substance to keep his promise to Helen and ‘love her dearly, ever, ever dearly’ (5.3.310).

In an earlier French play by Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost (c. 1594-5), words grew wings and flew away from meaning. The play’s repeated references to children and childishness reflected the immaturity of the witty courtiers who set its tone, and its unsatisfactory ending stressed the difficulty of reuniting what they had divided: sound and sense. All’s Well introduces us to another set of French courtiers many of whom are elderly, as if they have long ago completed the rigorous course of instruction imposed on Navarre and his companions by the youthful Queen of France. In All’s Well comedy comes of age, its destructiveness and its wholesomeness held in a delicate balance. Throughout the play, as has often been noted, there’s an emphasis on healing that reflects yet another meaning of the title: all’s well that ends in a state of health. And good comedy was said to be one of the most potent medicines of all, reviving and restoring its auditors through the healing influence of laughter. At the beginning of the play Helen wishes Bertram well as he leaves for the court of France, although she is uncertain that his departure will bring him wellness. ‘Tis pity,’ she tells Parolles,

That wishing well had not a body in’t
Which might be felt; that we, the poorer born,
Whose baser stars do shut us up in wishes,
Might with effects of them follow our friends
And show what we alone must think, which never
Returns us thanks. (1.1.166-74)

In the rest of the play Helen does indeed give a body to her wishes and follow Bertram, like an embodiment of the base-born comic playwright, who gives body to his thoughts for the benefit of the highest as well as of the lowest social classes. She plays an audacious comic trick on him to marry him, and a yet more audacious prank to consummate their marriage; and she contrives a comic ending to their adventures in defiance of hatred, infidelity and death. She is a mistress, then, of the related arts of medicine and comedy; and her early success in healing the King permits us to hope that she will finally succeed in healing Bertram, too, despite all appearances to the contrary. After all, less plausible things have happened, both on and off the comic stage.

Kristin Villanueva as Helena, Timothy Douglas as the King of France

[1] William Painter’s The Palace of Pleasure (1566-7), Volume 1.

[2] Sir Thomas Elyot, The Book Named the Governor, ed. S. E. Lehmberg (London and New York: Dent and Dutton, 1962), pp. 103-4.

[3] See my Elizabethan Fictions (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), chapter 1, for more on Elyot’s The Governor as lexicon.

Generals and Degenerates in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida

Mask of Agamemnon
So-called Mask of Agamemnon

Shakespeare wrote Troilus and Cressida in 1602, after the execution for treason of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, in the protracted final years of Elizabeth I. With the death of Essex a phase of Shakespeare’s life came to an end. When the Earl staged an abortive coup in 1601, one of his co-conspirators was Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare dedicated his poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Another co-conspirator was Shakespeare himself, since his company had staged one of Shakespeare’s plays, Richard II, with its controversial deposition scene, two days before the rising at the behest of the Earl’s supporters. After that performance Shakespeare stopped writing English history plays for over a decade. It’s hardly surprising, then, if the Greek history play he wrote the following year has an air of bitter retrospection, inverting the triumphalist rhetoric of Henry V – the final play in the Second Tetralogy, which refers to Essex as the heroic ‘general of our gracious empress’ – in an amazingly tortuous and orotund prologue.

Robert_Devereux,_2nd_Earl_of_Essex_by_Marcus_Gheeraerts_the_Younger
Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex

Troilus and Cressida is Shakespeare’s long farewell to English history, and to the particular history of England under Elizabeth. It concerns itself with the question of the ‘indirect, crook’d ways’ by which the past gets written, and with the function of history as theorized by the humanist education system that shaped Shakespeare’s mind. Its chief target is the humanist claim that you can draw general principles or rules from the disconnected fragments and wilful distortions of conflicting historical narratives. I’d like to suggest that this concern was already implicit in his choice of topic – Troilus, Cressida, the war over Helen – and that he and his audience would have approached it with a strong sense of their own complicity with the notoriously treacherous dispositions of the ancient Greeks.

by William Hole (Holle), after Unknown artist, line engraving, published 1616
George Chapman

In Tudor times the Trojan War was bound up with English history. The English traced their ancestry to Brutus, grandson of Aeneas, who founded a city as great as the city state of Aeneas’ birth: Troynovant or New Troy – later rebranded as London – in the land of Albion – later rebranded as Britain. It was easy, too, for Elizabethans to connect the Trojan War with recent history. Like the Essex rebellion, the Trojan war was an internecine conflict, with relatives on both sides taking arms against each other; the motive of the war was a woman; it involved a tangled web of betrayals; and one of its central figures was Achilles, who had been linked with Essex by the poet George Chapman in his 1598 translation of seven books from Homer’s Iliad. Chapman’s translation is dedicated to ‘the most honoured now living instance of the Achilleian virtues eternized by divine Homer’, the soldier-earl, and this sentence transforms Robert Devereux into an instructive example of the kind historians and poets seek to supply when penning their texts. At the same time, Chapman argues in his prefatory epistle that poets are more reliable than historians – or indeed their living subjects – in offering exemplary nourishment for the soul, that is, the moral and intellectual life of the mind. In the real world, Chapman contends, the soul is trapped in what he calls ‘the scum of the body’, that ‘wormeaten idol’ which invariably fails to manifest the soul’s ‘excellency’ – or worse still, contrives through its actions to ‘murder and bury her’. Great poems, on the other hand, like those of Homer, offer the perfect bodily vehicle for the soul, communicating its qualities as no human actions can, and resurrecting past heroes with a few well chosen syllables. As a result, ‘the lives of […] poets’ can be seen as the heroes’ ‘earthly Elysiums, wherein we walk with survival of all the deceased worthies we read of; every conceit, sentence, figure and word being a most beautiful lineament of their souls’ infinite bodies’. If this is so, then the Earl of Essex – who at the time of writing still occupied the ‘wormeaten idol’ of his living body – could never have represented Achilles as accurately as Homer’s verse does; and it was only one year later that the Earl’s Achillean virtues found themselves buried, so to speak, in the dismal failure of his campaign against the Irish (1599). Those who remembered Chapman’s dedication, then, would have seen the irony in Shakespeare’s portrayal of Achilles, whose body is verbally infested with so many diseases by the satirist Thersites. Once Achilles, always Achilles – so long as Achilles is merely a verbal rather than a corporeal construct, and hence not subject to old age, lack of fitness, or infectious diseases of body and mind.

2015-11-23_zu-Art_Giovanni-Domenico-Tiepolo_The-Procession-of-the-Trojan-Horse-in-Troy_WGA22382Despite Chapman’s praise of poets, Homer’s account of the Trojan War was viewed with distrust in early modern England. The war, in fact, was the perfect example of the untrustworthy nature of history itself, since there were so many competing versions of what happened, each weighted in favour of one of the warring sides, each accusing the other camp of inventing lies to support their cause. The versions of Homer and Dictys of Crete were said to be biased towards the Greeks, while Virgil and Dares the Phrygian sided with the Trojans. There were even suggestions from serious historians, such as Polydore Virgil, that all accounts of the Trojan War had been fabricated, and that the ancient history of Britain was therefore entirely fanciful. The body of evidence, then, as well as the bodies of the people who took key roles in the ten-year siege, was subject to corruption, and the question of whether the exemplary function of history was damaged or enhanced by its fabricated elements was fiercely debated in the sixteenth century.

The proto-novelist Geoffrey Fenton gives one of the most detailed accounts of the uses of history in early modern England. In the preface to his story collection Certain Tragical Discourses (1567) he states that like all arts, narratives of the past contain embedded in their particular details ‘certain special principles and rules for the direction of such as search out their disposition’, and that the responsible reader’s task is to extricate these general ‘precepts’ from the specific examples scattered so liberally through their pages. In the process the reader makes use of the past to plan for the future, on the presumption that ‘the nature of man in all ages, although the singular persons be changed, remaineth still one’, so that consequences of the same action or situation will be always and everywhere the same.

The point of reading history, then, is not so much to know what happened as to anticipate what will happen, in the interest of constructing policies. The ‘chief gain derived of such travail,’ he writes, ‘is in that we shall see set forth good and wholesome lessons of all sorts, whereof we may take to ourselves and benefit of our country such as we like to follow; and which presents to us the true picture and report of such enterprises as had both sinister beginnings and much worse endings’. In a well-written history, ‘good and wholesome’ actions must be made alluring – we need to like to follow them – while ‘sinister’ actions must be made repellent; something which, as Philip Sidney points out, is not always the case in authentic records. Unlike Sidney, however, Fenton seems to believe that the archives always show virtue rewarded and viciousness punished – that’s one of the general ‘rules’ he’s extracted from history. He acknowledges that ‘description figurative’ as used by poets has been readily accepted by many thinkers as a fine substitute for true history, but asserts that we are far more inclined to emulate our ancestors than to mimic invented figures with no connection to us. Truth is always preferable to feigning, and truth always yields instruction, because it comes from God.

Working Title/Artist: Giovanni Battista Scultori, Naval Battle between the Trojans and Greeks Department: Drawings & Prints Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: photography by mma, 30E_CP52R3M_cv scanned and retouched by film and media (jn) 2_2_04

The problem with the Trojan War is that it’s neither wholly fictional nor wholly factual, so that the truth of it can’t easily be located. For some commentators its hybrid nature as part fact, part fiction is unproblematic. Writing in 1531, the humanist Sir Thomas Elyot defines history much as Fenton does, as a record of past events which can be used to supplement our personal experience, and he considers the question of whether it’s true to be largely irrelevant to this function. ‘Admit that some histories be interlaced with leasings [lies]’, he writes,

why should we therefore neglect them, since the affairs there reported nothing concerneth us, we being thereof no partners, nor thereby […] may receive any damage? But if by reading the sage counsel of Nestor, the subtle persuasions of Ulysses, the compendious gravity of Menelaus, the imperial majesty of Agamemnon, the prowess of Achilles, the valiant courage of Hector, we may apprehend anything whereby our wits may be amended and our personages be more apt to serve our public weal and our prince, what forceth us [what does it matter] though Homer wrote leasings?

Eliot here suggests that we need not bother about the accuracy of Homer’s account of the Trojan War because modern Englishmen have no stake in it – they are ‘thereof no partners’. As we’ve seen, he’s being disingenuous, since the myth of Britain’s Trojan origins meant that the Tudor regime, at least, might be said to have had a stake in whether or not the story of their forebears had been made up. In 1600 an expert in heraldry, William Segar, wrote a passage that neatly summarizes some of the difficulties with Eliot’s position:

True it is […] that many enterprises in times past attempted and achieved above the expectation of men, are now thought rather fabulous than faithfully reported: either because we that now live did not know, or see them, or that ignorant men cannot conceive how they might be done, or that want of courage doth disable them to take the like actions in hand. […] And who so shall well consider how difficult a thing it is to write an history of so great truth and perfection, as cannot be controlled, will easily excuse these writers that have taken in hand matter so far from our knowledge and understanding. For like unto all other men, moved with love, hate, profit, or other private passion, they are either willing or ignorantly induced to increase or extenuate the actions and merits of those men, of whom their histories have discoursed. Howsoever that be, I verily think the acts and enterprises of Ulysses, Aeneas, Hector, and other famous captains […] were indeed of notable men, and some of their doings such, as writers have made mention.

Segar here presents us with a historical record that is always subject to the vicissitudes of ‘love, hate, profit or private passion’, where historiography is always ‘controlled’ – a word that could mean either ‘censured, criticized’ or ‘censored, kept in check’ – and where writers are always exaggerating or excusing the behaviour of the men they favour. If some of the deeds of the Greek and Trojan heroes were authentic, which ones were they? It’s important to know the answer if we’re to use their actions and those actions’ consequences as a means of planning our future enterprises.

150px-William_Segar_1603
William Segar

Another way in which the Trojan War is mixed is in the examples it contains. These are divided along gender lines: men represent ideals to be followed, women vices to be shunned. But surely a man’s particular qualities can’t be disengaged from the larger project in the interests of which he chooses to use them? It’s all very well to say that Agamemnon is the perfect example of an enlightened general, or that Ulysses is the model counselor, or Achilles the ultimate warrior – but each of these men has undertaken a ten-year war to retrieve a woman who is widely cited as the ultimate example of infidelity and its consequences. And what if the judgement of women recorded by history is itself profoundly unsafe? Throughout the sixteenth century there’s a tradition of defending women like Helen and Cressida – especially the latter – as having been traduced by the faithless historians mentioned by Segar. In the much-reprinted poetry collection A Paradise of Dainty Devices (1576), for instance, Troilus tells Cressida that she has become an example to all women of the effects of what he calls ‘caterwauling’ (sleeping around like a lustful cat), and Cressida replies with a counter-accusation of her own:

No gadding moods, but forcéd strife,
Compelléd me retire from Troy:
If Troilus would have vowed his wife,
We might have dwelt in former joy.

Screen-Shot-2015-05-26-at-17.53.51If Troilus had simply married Cressida, in other words, or fought to keep the woman he loved, she wouldn’t have been forced to seek the protection of his Greek enemy, Diomedes; and she adds that she has been misrepresented by tradition largely thanks to Troilus’s willingness to blacken her name. Shakespeare’s Lucrece (1594) is equally conscious of her dependence on the untrustworthy narratives of men for the example she will be deemed to have set for other women. Her urgent task after her rape by Tarquin is to pass on an accurate speaking picture of herself to future generations: she hates the idea of being fictionalized, transformed into a distorted image which is rendered convincing by the scraps of evidence from which it’s partly assembled. Her body is one such scrap of evidence, and she pleads with the personified Night to keep it concealed:

Make me not object to the tell-tale day.
The light will show, charáctered in my brow,
The story of sweet chastity’s decay,
The impious breach of holy wedlock vow;
Yea, the illiterate, that know not how
To cipher what is read in learned books,
Will quote my loathsome trespass in my looks.

As she seeks some answer to the question of how to transmit the brutal facts of her rape to her husband and the world in general, she finds herself looking at a painting of the siege of Troy, where she instantly recognizes the exemplary heroes, Ulysses and Ajax – though both seem a little ambiguous as moral examples:

In Ajax and Ulysses, O what art
Of physiognomy might one behold!
The face of either ciphered either’s heart;
Their face their manners most expressly told:
In Ajax’ eyes blunt rage and rigour rolled,
But the mild glance that sly Ulysses lent
Showed deep regard and smiling government.

The most puzzling image in the picture, however, is the treacherous Sinon, the Greek whose pretended defection to the Trojan side helped convince Priam to bring the wooden horse within the city walls. Sinon seems to be the direct opposite of exemplary, in that his appearance completely obscures his disposition:

But, like a constant and confirméd devil,
He entertained a show so seeming just,
And therein so ensconced his secret evil,
That jealousy itself could not mistrust
False-creeping craft and perjury should thrust
Into so bright a day such black-faced storms,
Or blot with hell-born sin such saint-like forms.

In this disconnect between his appearance and his treacherous behaviour Sinon confirms Lucrece’s experience of the rapist Tarquin, whose appearance disastrously misled her into trusting him. From now on, she declares, she will always assume that beautiful looks can only serve as the index of a vicious mind. At this early stage in Shakespeare’s career, in other words, Troy is already associated with the problem of assigning values to a man or woman on the basis of a reading of those ‘wormeaten idols’, their bodies. It’s also linked with the problem of extracting general ‘principles and rules’, in Fenton’s phrase, from particular examples: even after Lucrece has identified Sinon the general rule she derives from his looks is scarcely a credible one. Add to this that the best known account of Sinon’s treachery occurs in a version of Troy narrated by a biased poet, Virgil, and the relationship between the particular and the general, the example and the precept, is plunged into crisis by the ambiguities of Trojan history.

4fdee66d2782c1e397c6186f86116e1d.391x633x1When Shakespeare opened his Trojan history play, then, with a prologue who wears full body armour because he has no confidence in ‘author’s pen or actor’s voice’, and when that prologue ends his speech with the couplet ‘Like or find fault, do as your pleasures are; / Now good or bad, ’tis but the chance of war’ – I suggest that the Elizabethan audience would have found itself in familiar territory. The competing versions of the Trojan War demonstrate exactly this: that the outcome of any particular conflict, and the factional bias of its poets and chroniclers, determines the general moral lessons it is deemed to impart. And the play that follows is given over to an extended analysis of the mechanics of making examples out of men and women in a time of crisis.

b91af9ae77b696780f964ea13bf8a188In the play, examples are made in different ways depending on your gender and the moral and political priorities of the side you’re on. At the centre of this version of the Trojan War are two women: Cressida, who is deemed exemplary by Troilus in particular, and Helen, who is theoretically deemed exemplary by both Greeks and Trojans but is also the topic of heated debate in Troy over the current status of her exemplarity. Both are valued, it seems, only for their beauty, so that their exemplary function is limited and questionable (is bodily beauty a value or merely a trigger for erotic desire?). In fact a third woman is fought over during the play, but it would be easy to forget her presence in it. In the second scene we hear that Hector is angry because he has been humiliated on the battlefield by Ajax, and his reaction to the humiliation is to lose his temper with his wife – and hence to jeopardize his own exemplary status: ‘He chid Andromache, and struck his armourer’, as Cressida’s servant tells her. In the following scene, however, he sends a challenge to the Trojan camp which proclaims Andromache to be the most exemplary woman of all, and urges the Greeks to fight him in single combat if they disagree. Aeneas, who brings the challenge to the Greeks, expresses it thus:

Hector, in view of Troyans and of Greeks,
Shall make it good or do his best to do it:
He hath a lady wiser, fairer, truer,
Than ever Greek did couple in his arms.

This kind of challenge is of course familiar from chivalric romance, but in the context of the matter of Troy it is problematic: if Andromache is so much better than any Greek lady, past or present – and if a Greek challenger is prepared to fight on the basis that his own lady is supreme – what precisely is the war about? Moreover, Andromache – who was rebuked by Hector before he issued the challenge – quickly disappears as a motive for the single combat; and when we see her again it’s once more as the target for her husband’s wrath. She tries to make him change his mind over fighting on a day of ill omen, and his response is to say: ‘Andromache, I am offended with you. / Upon the love you bear me, get you in’. Clearly Hector’s reputation as a man of war is always his first priority, and the women he fights for are always and only ever the excuse for combat, the context in which Hector’s own exemplarity can best be displayed.

Troilus, by contrast, consistently identifies Cressida as lying at the heart of his system of values – as the centre of his world. This too, however, is problematic, since his image of her is entirely imaginary. His description of her in the first scene makes this patently obvious:

O, that her hand
In whose comparison all whites are ink
Writing their own reproach; to whose soft seizure
The cygnet’s down is harsh, and spirit of sense
Hard as the palm of ploughman!

Cressida_-_Edward_J._PoynterIf the whiteness of Cressida’s hand makes other whites seem black as ink, the term ‘white’ has lost all meaning – and the argument that black is white was the classic instance of chop-logic or sophistry as taught in Elizabethan schools. Again, if her skin is so soft it makes a cygnet’s down seem harsh then the term ‘softness’ no longer has a function; while if the ‘spirit of sense’, which is the faculty by which we convey sense impressions to the brain, has lost its sensitivity, then we can no longer distinguish one thing from another by touch. This view of Cressida, Troilus says to Pandarus, is not merely true – it falls short of truth; so that truth itself would seem to be both imaginary and inaccessible through the senses. There’s no chance at all, of course, that any woman could live up to this kind of hyperbole, and sure enough at the point when Troilus finally sleeps with Cressida his main concern is that she won’t match his expectations – the onanistic fantasies with which he has satisfied himself during their courtship. This, at least, is one interpretation of his speech before their union:

Th’imaginary relish is so sweet
That it enchants my sense. What will it be
When that the wat’ry palate tastes indeed
Love’s thrice-repuréd nectar? Death, I fear me;
Swooning destruction; or some joy too fine,
Too subtle-potent, tuned too sharp in sweetness,
For the capacity of my ruder powers.

In other words, Troilus fears he will be unable to feel the delights of sex about which he has been fantasizing for so long. His private fantasies are the zenith of his sex life, and sexual action can only be a disappointment by comparison.

Cressida herself is fully aware that it’s the male imagination that makes women exemplary, and that women have no agency in the process (apart from Lucrece, of course, whose technique of doing so is hardly appealing). She holds Troilus off as long as she can, as she informs the audience:

Women are angels, wooing.
Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing.
That she beloved knows nought that knows not this:
Men prize the thing ungained more than it is.

Helen, too, has good reason to know that she is a construct of the male imagination. Troilus points this out, unaware that his words ironically underscore the fantastic nature of his image of Cressida; ‘Helen must needs be fair,’ he tells his Trojan compatriots, ‘When with your blood you daily paint her thus’. The painting here is that of cosmetics, an art form that stood for deceit in Elizabethan culture; so Troilus is suggesting that Helen is not what the Greeks and Trojans make her out to be – that she is, in fact, made up in another sense. Troilus’ rival Diomedes has a similar view of her:

For every false drop in her bawdy veins
A Grecian’s life has sunk; for every scruple
Of her contaminated carrion weight
A Troyan hath been slain; since she could speak,
She hath not given so many good words breath
As for her Greeks and Troyans suffered death.

popular_helen_of_troyHere Helen’s painted body has become carrion – another ‘wormeaten idol’, in Chapman’s phrase – hideously overwhelmed by the male corpses who have fought to uphold the myth of her exemplarity. The association of her with cosmetics and rotting flesh suggests that she is ageing, like the late portraits of England’s queen, so that the one quality that’s been ascribed to her, bodily beauty, is fading fast. The Trojan debate over her value in the play’s second act therefore focuses on time: if she was deemed worth taking from her husband in the first place, she must of necessity be deemed worth keeping seven years later. Hector objects that her value cannot be determined by a ‘particular will’ – presumably that of Paris – but must instead be inherent in her if she’s to be kept; he’s therefore in favour of giving her back, since ‘doing wrong extenuates not wrong, / But makes it much more heavy’. Troilus and Paris, on the other hand, insist that the ‘will’ that imputed value to her was a general one. But the upshot of the debate is a rejection on Hector’s part of the philosophical principles for which he’s been arguing; he dismisses what he claims is ‘truth’, that Helen is worthless, and chooses to retain her because ‘’tis a cause that hath no mean dependence / Upon our joint and several dignities’. A general rule – that two wrongs don’t make a right – is supplanted by a different kind of generality: that the collective honour of the Trojans would be impugned by any belated admission they were wrong; and thus the myth of Helen’s exemplarity is prolonged for another three years. The scene makes it plain, if it wasn’t already, that the Trojan War is not about women but about men, and that the women who are its ostensible motive are essentially male inventions.

brad-pitt-as-achilles-in-troy-1080p-desktop-pc-backgroundMen’s exemplarity, meanwhile, would seem to be yet more unstable than women’s. Distinguishing one man from another is a difficult matter; in the second scene, for instance, Pandarus fails to distinguish Troilus at a distance from his brother Deiphobus – a mistake Cressida takes great pleasure in mocking; and later Aeneas finds it hard to tell Agamemnon apart from his fellow Greeks, despite repeated heavy hints from the general himself. This difficulty explains the Greek insistence that the purpose of their continued siege of Troy is to establish the difference between heroes and ordinary men; it takes something as calamitous as a war to separate the masculine wheat from the effeminate chaff. Agamemnon’s anonymity also identifies the source of the problem he faces within his camp: that of insubordination. The general is simply not sufficiently distinguished to take his place at the head of a military hierarchy – and this is not just the fault of Achilles, who refuses to recognize Agamemnon as his general. The same attitude is spreading through the lower orders, with the result that Agamemnon can no longer be seen as generally representative of his people. His exemplary status as the ideal general is therefore at risk, and he responds – on the advice of Ulysses – by hatching a plot to undermine Achilles’ reputation, in turn, as the exemplary warrior. Agamemnon, then, agrees to undermine a hierarchy in a bid to restore a hierarchy, to discredit an example in a bid to restore his own exemplarity; a situation which, as Ulysses points out in his great speech on order, erases the distinction between right and wrong by erasing the basis on which such distinctions are made. The scene in which all this takes place, the third in the play, contains, I think, not a single mention of the woman who is ostensibly at the centre of the Trojan War; so in this way too the hierarchy of values has been undermined. The Greeks are clear, then, about their real motive in fighting the war: to achieve distinction; but they are also clear about the extreme difficulty of obtaining and retaining such distinction – and contribute to this extreme difficulty by their willingness to destroy each other’s reputations.

Agamemnon_head-_Marie-Lan_Nguyen_from_Louvre_CollectionThe Trojans make Helen central to their cause, though they betray their real priority as being their honour. The Greeks put their honour squarely at the centre of the conflict, while admitting that it’s badly tarnished. The Trojans look to the past for justification of their present commitment to retaining Helen. The Greeks look to the future to justify their long campaign, and take every chance they can get to bequeath a positive image of themselves to their descendants. The Trojans pride themselves on their consistency – what we valued once, Troilus insists, must always be valued. The Greeks don’t care about being consistent so long as they come out of it smelling of roses. But the Trojans are not consistent, whatever they claim. Troilus swiftly loses interest in Cressida after a single night of pleasure: ‘Sleep kill those pretty eyes’, he tells her next morning as he arms for battle, and Cressida sees at once that her prophesy has been fulfilled: ‘You men will never stay,’ she complains as she tries to dissuade him. Hector, who has a reputation for sparing unarmed men, forgets it completely when he sees a fine suit of armour on a fleeing enemy; and we’ve already seen how consistent he is when it comes to women. The Greeks and the Trojans, in other words, are indistinguishable, and it’s the duel between Hector and Ajax that points this up. The duel ends before it’s begun because it turns out that the ox-like Greek is partly Trojan. ‘Were thy commixtion Greek and Trojan so,’ Hector tells him,

That thou could’st say ‘This hand is Grecian all,
And this is Troyan; the sinews of this leg
All Greek, and this all Troy; my mother’s blood
Runs on the dexter cheek, and this siníster
Bounds in my father’s’; by Jove multipotent,
Thou should’st not bear from me a Greekish member
Wherein my sword had not impressure made
Of our rank feud.

But Ajax is neither one thing nor another, and neither are the warring armies between which he is so evenly divided. Cressida, too, is neither one thing or another, as Troilus finds; ‘This is and is not Cressid,’ he tells himself when he catches her with Diomedes; and even at this point he seems reluctant to let go his fantastic image of her as the touchstone by which the value of everything else is to be measured. Human beings, it seems – whether actual or fantastical – are not the best material to fashion simplistic examples out of. There is too much ‘commixtion’ in them, as Hector puts it. They are too subject to change, through time, through shifting moods, through illness, desire, the chance of war, and basic rottenness. Thersites nails it when he verbally spreads venereal disease throughout both factions: ‘Lechery, lechery! Still wars and lechery! […] A burning devil take them!’ The exemplary bodies Shakespeare has given us are already falling to pieces before this curse can take effect.

The process of making history, meanwhile, is best summed up by the death of Hector. Achilles finds himself too out of shape to defeat him man to man, and like Ulysses decides to deal with the problem by trickery. He orders his personal guard, the Myrmidons, first to isolate Hector on the battlefield, then to murder him. Having done so, the Myrmidons raise the cry ‘Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain’. A general murder becomes a particular triumph, and the two opposing versions of the Trojan War are brought into being: the version we’ve seen, in which Hector is murdered, and the version favoured by Homer, in which he’s killed by Achilles’ prowess. Neither history, nor the examples drawn from history, could ever look simple again after Shakespeare penned this episode. But then these things hadn’t looked simple for decades, thanks in part to the conflicting versions of the tale of Troy. The death of Essex may have brought this home to Shakespeare; and Shakespeare’s version of the death of Hector bequeathed his unease with the processes of making history to men and women in the twenty-first century. In the age of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage I suspect we share it.

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