Biting More Than "We" Can Chew: The Royal Appetite in Richard II and 1 and 2 Henry IV

By Hoffmann, Christine | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Biting More Than "We" Can Chew: The Royal Appetite in Richard II and 1 and 2 Henry IV


Hoffmann, Christine, Papers on Language & Literature


Shakespeare's contemporary Edmund Spenser dedicates an entire book of his Faerie Queene to criminal Justice. His knight, Sir Artegall, is educated in the virtue by Astraea, a former immortal who kidnaps Artegall as a child, rears him apart from civilization in an isolated cave, and there teaches him the secrets of heavenly justice. Artegall practices his judicial skills "vpon wyld beasts" (5.1.7) (1) until, his training finally complete, he reenters the unfamiliar human world from which he was abducted. Spenser's knight of Justice disciplines and punishes his way through book 5 with a ruthlessness that is often bewildering, linked as he is to his "immoueable, resistlesse" man of iron, Talus (5.1.12). Ultimately, it is Artegall's disconnection from civilization--initially provided by Astraea and consistently reinforced by Talus--and thus his disconnection from the taint of criminal activity bred in such an inevitably debased atmosphere, that gives him the authority to criminalize.

If we find no men of iron in Shakespeare's history plays, we do find a similar concern for an efficient system of judgment and justice. More particularly, in Shakespeare's kings we find the similar assumption that disconnection from civilization is necessary if good judgment is to appear, and that "vile participation," of which Henry IV accuses Prince Hal in 1 Henry IV, will cause any royal to lose his "princely privilege" (3.2.86-87). (2)

It is an uncomfortable hypothesis, one that Foucault implicitly urges us to discard in his efforts to describe privilege or power as "exercised rather than possessed" (26). We must, according to Foucault, "abandon a whole tradition that allows us to imagine that knowledge can exist only where the power relations are suspended [...]" (27), and this includes knowledge of criminal activity. Prince Hal, after the accusation of "vile participation," promises his father to remove himself from "common sight" (3.2.88) and to "be more myself" (93)--self-knowledge in this case depends on distance from all the other "selves" whose company Hal has previously seemed to enjoy, depends on a suspension of participation in favor of a static appreciation for an equally static royal privilege. But according to Foucault the development of any knowledge hinges inevitably on participation in what he calls "power-knowledge relations" (27). Neither power nor knowledge exists alone as either privilege or property, but as strategy and activity (26). (3)

Unlike Spenser's work, Shakespeare's history plays were not explicitly written as guidebooks for hopeful courtiers. Yet his works on the Lancastrian ascendance include portraits of characters confronted with similar questions of how to rule, to judge, and thus to punish nobly, virtuously, and effectively. More often than not, Shakespeare's royals exercise poor judgment because of their very assumptions about the vileness of participation. It is when they are most eager to remove themselves from the taint of a despoiled social order that they reveal their own relations to it most undeniably, for the "crimes" they are quickest to condemn are "crimes" of participation--Bolingbroke and Mowbray, Exton, Hotspur, and Falstaff are deemed "vile" by the grossly physical reminders they display of their own associations with the material world. The criminals in Richard II and 1 and 2 Henry IV possess hearty and very literal appetites; the justice sought against them is a reaction to and against an intemperate, immoderate participation in the physical world. Justice and Temperance are linked in these plays as immediately and insistently as they are in The Faerie Queene.

In that work, Spenser's knight of Temperance, Sir Guyon, is gradually educated in the virtue, and it is such a thorough education that allows him, in the last of the cantos dedicated to him, to administer a justice that stems immediately from his earthbound experiences. His destruction of the villainous Acrasia's Bower of Bliss, while not as gruesomely violent an act as many of Sir Artegall's punishments, is certainly as severely absolute.

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