Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Rank, Insults, and Weaponry in Shakespeare's Second Tetralogy

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Rank, Insults, and Weaponry in Shakespeare's Second Tetralogy

Article excerpt

Shakespeare's Second Tetralogy enacts a shift in the conventions of single combat that is tied to both changing English notions of honor and the evolving technology of weaponry in the period between the late-fourteenth and late-sixteenth centuries. Richard II begins by preparing the audience for a legally sanctioned encounter between two presumably mounted knights with spears. By this contest the knights each propose to "prove" (1.3.37) a truth affirmed by God and relevant to the moral health of the English commonwealth. The king prevents the encounter, and the remainder of the four-play history cycle dramatizes the decline of this knightly tradition. Later in Richard II, challenges to single combat are issued by men concerned less with justice than with the preservation of their reputations. In Henry IV, Part One the passion for personal reputation that motivates Hotspur's challenge to Prince Hal is only loosely tied to a desire to manifest God's truth and improve England's future. Hal, an untrained swordfighter with no reputation for heroism, defeats Hotspur not "horse to horse," as Hotspur has wanted (4.1.122), but on foot, and then relinquishes his victory laurels to Falstaff. By this event Shakespeare subtly implies that the single combat does not reliably demonstrate the moral superiority of the champion. In Henry IV, Part Two and in Henry V, challenges to the single combat are increasingly passionate, self-interested, and meaningless, like the reckless challenges issued by young rapier-wearing men in Elizabethan and Jacobean London. They devolve into "brawl ridiculous" (Henry V 4.0.51).

Traditions of honor are invoked by all the spear- and swordfight challenges in the Second Tetralogy, though the honor fought for declines from that of a nation to that of a single swordsman, and though the encounters sometimes disclose a participant's failure to meet honor's standard. But in these four plays Shakespeare's allusions to gun technology propose a new moral problem. Honorable conflict first depends on distinctions of rank, by which, even in large-scale battle, horsed knights fight horsed knights and footsoldiers each other. God's chosen victor is presumed to triumph when battle is fought on these fair terms. Yet how can distinctions of rank obtain, and God's victory be credited, when guns are the chief arbiter of victory? Henry V also raises this ghostly question: how might the eventual use of pistols instead of swords murder the honor of single-man combat? (1)

The locus classicus from which man-to-man combat devolves in these plays is Henry Bolingbroke's and Thomas Mowbray's aborted joust in the first act of Richard II. Jennifer Low has helpfully distinguished between this "legally authorized medieval trial by combat" ("'Those Proud Titles'" 270)--called the "treason duel" by the historian George Neilson (178)--and the "early modern duel of honor" more familiar to Shakespeare's audience. While the duel of honor was a mere "method of resolving often trivial personal quarrels," the trial by combat, rooted in eleventh-century Norman tradition, was a royally sanctioned means of settling disputes of great import to the commonwealth. These disputes arose from "accusations of treason or felony" or disagreements about the title to great landed estates (Low, "'Those Proud Titles'" 270), and the entire country was presumed to have an interest in, and God to control, their outcomes. Thus Bolingbroke's formal, deliberate charge that Mowbray is a traitor (because he has allegedly murdered a man of royal blood) is delivered before the king and couched in terms of appeal to God's oversight. "[H]eaven be the record to my speech," Bolingbroke begins (1.1.30). In issuing his challenge before Mowbray and the king, honoring the "rites of knighthood" (1.1.75), Bolingbroke is not impulsively responding to an insult that concerns his honor alone. Rather, he is showing reasoned anger at Mowbray's alleged affront to the well-being of the royal house on whose health he thinks England depends. …

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