King-Commoner Encounters in the Popular Ballad, Elizabethan Drama, and Shakespeare
Smith, Rochelle, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
Thocht that I simpill be Do as I bid the The hous is myne pardie And all that is heir. --"The Tale of Rauf Coirgear" (l) "Some can't be that simple," she said. "I know E never could." --Flannery O'Connor, "Good Country People" (2)
When any man, but particularly one in a position of power, "turn[s] ass," as Jaques so bluntly puts it in As You Like It, "leaving his wealth and ease" to journey into the greenwood, (3) the resulting encounter with the simple life may produce the pastoral ideal of "a beautiful relation between rich and poor," (4) but then again it may not. Jaques is referring to Duke Senior and his "merry men," who live in the Forest of Arden "like the old Robin Hood of England" (Li. 111-2). His observation, though, could easily apply to any number of kings in the ballads of this period who leave the wealth and ease of the Court and try to pass for commoners in the forest.
The pastoral theme of the chance encounter between king and commoner was an especially popular one in the balladry of the period, second only, according to Francis James Child, to the Robin Hood stories to which these ballads are a close cousin. (5) At the end of the sixteenth century, the ballad motif was picked up by the London stage, which, in its search for material with a popular appeal, dramatized the encounter between king and commoner in the comic histories of the 1590s. Yet, despite its widespread popularity and direct influence on late Elizabethan drama, this group of ballads has received little critical attention. (6)
Shakespeare draws on the king-commoner motif in three plays that he wrote at the end of the decade: 1 Henry IV, Henry V, and As You Like It. Critics who have examined Shakespeare's use of this theme have regarded it primarily as a dramatic motif. (7) The comic history plays of the 1590s tended to idealize the encounter between king and subject; thus, when examined solely within a dramatic context, Shakespeare's satiric treatment appears to be unique. Anne Barton, for instance, in her discussion of Henry's meeting with Williams in act IV, scene i of Henry V, argues that Shakespeare's version of the king-commoner encounter is "far more ironic and complicated than the plays which belong properly to that genre." (8) Her observation holds true, however, only when we compare Henry V to the comic history plays of the period. I will argue that the ballad tradition provides a richer and more revealing context for understanding Shakespeare's distinctive treatment of the king-commoner encounter. (9)
The king-commoner ballad can perhaps be best understood by placing it within the tradition of the pastoral. Indeed, these ballads, especially the earlier ones, present an alternative version of pastoral, a commoner's perspective that contrasts with the aristocratic tone of the literary pastoral tradition. (10) If the essence of the literary pastoral is the "praise of simplicity," with rural folk who inhabit an "idyllic landscape" representing the pastoral values of "peace, innocence, and simple virtue," (11) then the king-commoner ballad can be seen as a kind of inverted pastoral. The "penalty of Adam, /The seasons' difference" makes itself felt very much indeed in the ballads' less-than-idyllic forests (As You Like It, II.i.5-6). Furthermore, the rural inhabitants of the greenwood are rarely innocent and far from content. As for the praise of simplicity at the heart of the pastoral experience, in these ballads it becomes a pretense of simplicity that masks, but only for a time, the truth that most commoners, given the choice, would prefer to live like kings. The ballad king who crosses class lines and enters the greenwood in search of a pastoral retreat is hoping to meet with fair weather, good hunting, and simple but loyal subjects. More often, however, he encounters a harsher reality that teaches not the pastoral virtue of contented innocence but rather the political virtue of humility gained from a broader experience of the world.
In the three plays he wrote at the end of the 1590s, Shakespeare draws on the ballad tradition's inversion of pastoral expectations in order to call into question conventional assumptions about social class in this period. Shakespeare's cross-class encounters can be seen as part of a larger popular tradition that satirizes and thereby subverts conventional assumptions about an inherent and natural basis for social class distinctions.
THE BALLAD TRADITION
In the English ballad tradition, the comic motif of the accidental encounter between king and commoner dates back at least to the mid fifteenth century. (12) There are five extant poems from this period: "John the Reeve," (13) "A Tale of King Edward and the Shepherd," (14) "The King and the Hermit," (15) "The Tale of Rauf Coilzear," (16) and "The King and the Barker." (17) During the latter half of the sixteenth and throughout the seventeenth century, the theme remained a popular one in the broadside press. The Stationers' Registers record fourteen king-commoner ballads between the years of 1578 and 1690; seven are extant. (18) In some cases the later broadside ballads are clearly versions of the earlier poems, demonstrating the continuing popularity of these tales. (19) New or original ballads on this old theme were also composed throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (20)
In broad outline, the king-commoner ballads are fairly formulaic. The king leaves the Court, usually to go hunting in the woods. He becomes separated from his royal train either by accident--he gets lost--or by choice. In the forest, he meets a common laborer such as a reeve, collier, tanner, tinker, shepherd, or hermit. The commoner does not recognize the king, and the king, though usually not disguised, deliberately conceals his identity. After some discussion, the commoner brings the king home and feasts him, often on venison poached from the royal forest. At the end of the ballad, the king reveals his identity and rewards the commoner with some combination of land, title, and money. In some ballads, the king invites the commoner to Court, and the second part then recounts the commoner's experiences there. (21)
The seventeenth-century versions tend to present greater variation. In "King James I and the Tinker," king and commoner spend the afternoon drinking together in a tavern and then ride off into the greenwood. Martin Parker's "The King and Northern-Man" describes a countryman's visit to the Court. King William in "The Royal Frolic" stops at a country farmhouse for dinner, while in "The King and the Forester" he disguises him self as a commoner who is then prevented by his loyal keeper from hunting in the royal preserve.
The formula is a familiar one, following the general structure of pastoral romance: a departure from the Court, a sojourn in the country, and a return to the Court. (22) The main actors are also characteristically pastoral: nobility in humble disguise and common laborers who can be seen as "equivalent" to the herdsmen of traditional pastorals. (23) The rural hospitality or simple feast in the forest is common to the literary pastoral, while the greenwood setting and the meal of poached venison evoke the popular pastoral of the Robin Hood ballads. (24) It is here, though, that the resemblance ends. A closer examination of the king-commoner motif will reveal it to be as different from the popular pastoral of the Robin Hood stories as from the literary pastoral so prevalent in this period.
The first unusual characteristic of the king-commoner ballad is the unexpected chill that sweeps across the pastoral landscape. Renato Poggioli observes, "all true pastoral lands are blessed with the pleasant mildness of an unchanging climate." (25) While the king-commoner ballad often begins in a pastoral mood, with the king riding off to hunt in a forest where "leaves grew green, /and birds were singing on every tree," the idyll does not always last ("King Edward the Fourth and a Tanner of Tamworth," stanza 1). In "John the Reeve," an early ballad that can serve as a prototype for this discussion, King Edward spends the day chasing wayward falcons through the woods, accompanied only by two of his men, a bishop, and an earl. As night falls, they realize they are lost. The holiday tone changes abruptly as the weather turns bad, and the Bishop anticipates an unpleasant night spent wandering in the wet woods:
the whether happned wonderous ill, all night wee may ryde vnskill, not wotting where wee bee. ("John the Reeve." lines 40-2)
The monarchs in "The King and the Hermit" and "King Henry II and the Miller of Mansfield" similarly find themselves lost ands alone in the dark forest at the end of a long day of hunting, while Charlemagne in "The Tale of Rauf Coilzear" endures a full-blown tempest: "Him betyde ane tempest that tyme hard I tell/The wind blew out of the Eist stiflie and sture" (lines 14-5).
The unexpected realism in the depiction of landscape is paralleled by a social realism that marks the representation of daily life in the forest. In "John the Reeve," the harshness of rural poverty becomes apparent when the king requests a fire because "our weeds are wett and cold." John replies,
that you shall want, ffor ffuell heere is wonderous scant, as I heere haue yee told. ("John the Reeve," lines 193-5)
In "A Tale of King Edward and the Shepherd," the king who leaves the Court "To pley hym be a ryver side/In a mornyng of may" (p. 36) encounters a shepherd who complains that the king's men help themselves to his livestock, make free use of his house, and abuse his daughter. In "King Edward the Fourth and a Tanner of Tamworth," the king hopes to amuse himself with the tanner he meets in the forest, but the tanner is tired and hungry, and in no mood for play:
"Away, with a vengeance," quoth the tanner, "I hold thee out of thy wit, For all this day have I ridden and gone, And I am fasting yet." (stanza 8)
The king's query, "What news dost thou hear?," produces from the tanner a complaint about the economic realities of his trade: "I hear no news ... but that cow-hides be dear" (stanza 14). (26) While such complaints do not overshadow the comic tone of these ballads, the underlying social realism counteracts the pastoral's tendency to idealize country life.
The roughness of the king's encounter with the natural landscape also marks his encounter with the rural inhabitants of the forest. In the literary pastoral, "the wandering noble is greeted by a most polite Arcadian host." (27) Such praise does not fit John the Reeve. When King Edward, accompanied by an earl, meets up with this "carle stout" in the woods and begs from him a night's lodging, the reeve refuses point blank, declaring, "ffrom me thou gett oft noe other guide, /I sweare by sweete St. Iohn!" The earl's plea for a more courteous response, "thou canst litle of gentrise!/say not soe ffor shame!" elicits from the reeve the reply, "with gentlenesse I haue nothing to doe" ("John the Reeve," lines 62-3, 65-6, 68). Equally rude is the hermit who refuses King Edward's request for a night's lodging with the abrupt reply, "Ffor sych a lord as ye be,/I have non herborow tyll" ("The King and the Hermit," lines 121-2). The tanner in "King Edward the Fourth and a Tanner of Tamworth" deliberately misleads the king with his directions to Drayton Basset:
The ready way to Drayton Basset, from this place as thou dost stand, The next pair of gallows thou comst to thou must turn up [on] thy right hand. (stanza 6)
This prompts the king to protest, "That is not the way" (stanza 7). The commoner's unrefined manners may seem to emphasize what David Young calls "the social antitheses" of pastoral, the opposition of Court and country manners. (28) Although some ballads do develop this theme, especially those with a second part in which the commoner visits the Court, the commoner's lack of courtesy seems, rather, an extension of the realism that pervades the pastoral setting. The king who visits the greenwood meets with people who are tired, hungry, and suspicious of strangers. John the Reeve's initial lack of courtesy is thus excused several lines later. when he offers a reasonable explanation for his unwillingness to invite the king and his men home: "the night is merke, I may not see/what kind of men that you bee" ("John the Reeve," lines 103-4).
John the Reeve claims that he cannot identify the king and his men in the dark, but even after they return to his home, he never realizes that his guest is the king. The commoner's inability to recognize the monarch is common to all of these ballads. His lack of recognition is not due to the king's great skill in disguising; in most ballads, the king does not even adopt a disguise, yet never once does the commoner begin to suspect the true nature of his richly dressed guest. (29) In fact, most often he errs by moving in the wrong direction on the social ladder as he mistakes the king for a thief. The tanner of Tamworth, for example, observes the king's rich garments, "The aparrell thou wearst on thy back/May seem a good lord to wear" and concludes, "Thou art some ruffian of the country, /thou rid'st in the midst of thy good" …
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Publication information: Article title: King-Commoner Encounters in the Popular Ballad, Elizabethan Drama, and Shakespeare. Contributors: Smith, Rochelle - Author. Journal title: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. Volume: 50. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 2010. Page number: 301+. © 1999 Rice University. COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.
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