Arms and the Book: "Workes," "Playes," and "Warlike Accoutrements" in William Cavendish's the Country Captain

By Pasupathi, Vimala C. | Philological Quarterly, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Arms and the Book: "Workes," "Playes," and "Warlike Accoutrements" in William Cavendish's the Country Captain


Pasupathi, Vimala C., Philological Quarterly


IN THE OPENING SCENE of The Country Captain (ca. 1639), a play by William Cavendish, Earl (and later Duke) of Newcastle, the titular Mr. Underwit reports that he has been newly "made a Captain of the traind band" (9). (1) When his servant Thomas commends his master for the "desert, and vertue" (39) that earned him this new office, Underwit admits willingly that he is possessed of neither: "thou art deceaued," he says; "it is the vertue of the Com[m]sion, the Commission is enough to make any man an officer without desert" (41). Endowed with the power to make a man something he is not, the commission functions something like an actors part, a sense that Newcastle reinforces as his "Paper Captaine" (11) attempts to perform his role convincingly. He declares, "I must thinke how to provide mee of warlike accoutrements, to accommodate, which comes of Accommodo. Shakespeare the first, and the first" (42-44).

Thomas's glib response--"No, Sir, it comes of so much money disburs'd" (45)--provides a comic end-rhyme for the final clause of his master's statement, highlighting, even as it nearly elides, an explicit reference to Shakespeare and an allusion to the discussion between Bardolph and Justice Shallow at a Gloucestershire muster in 2 Henry IV. Cavendish's direct (if also somewhat confusing) invocation of "Shakespeare the first" invites comparisons between the Earl of Newcastle's own developing dramatic craft and that of the dramatist who had died more than two decades prior.2 More particularly, it encourages audiences to recall Shakespeare's send-up of military provisioning in 2 Henry IV and to see Newcastle's country Captain as an heir of sorts to the comic bumblers in that earlier play. Underwit's musing on the etymology of accomodo is a clear allusion to an exchange at the muster that begins when Justice Shallow inquires after Falstaff's (nonexistent) wife. In that scene, Bardolph's reply that "a soldier is better accommodated than with a wife" (3.2.66-67) initiates what amounts largely to nonsensical parsing:

SHALLOW. It is well said, in faith sir, and it is well said indeed too. Better accommodated! it is very good, yea indeed is it. Good phrases are surely, and ever were, very commendable. "Accommodated"--it comes of accomodo. Very good, a good phrase.

BARDOLPH. Pardon, sir, I have heard the word. Phrase call you it? By this day, I know not the phrase, but I will maintain the word with my sword to be a soldier-like word, and a word of exceeding good command, by heaven. Accommodated: that is, when a man is, as they say, accommodated, or when a man is being whereby 'a may be thought to be accommodated--which is an excellent thing.

(3.2.68-80) (3)

It is difficult to put much stock in either Bardolph's or Shallow's "exceeding good command" of any "soldier-like word," of course, but their "most gallant leader" (3.2.62) Falstaff is proof that being "accommodated" is "an excellent thing." His commission not only gives him and Bardolph the authority to "give the soldiers coats," but also allows him to purchase "two and twenty yards of satin" for his own "short cloak and ... slops" (1.2.42, 30). (4)

Like his Shakespearean predecessor, Underwit orders a "Buff coat, and a pair of breeches" (51-52) and a "london dutch felt ... with a feather" (60) for himself. But where Falstaff exalts in the opportunity to "turn diseases into commodity" (1.2.248) by pressing the "spare men" and releasing the sturdy for a price, Underwit simply boasts about his newly attained authority: "He that was Mr. Underwit is made a Captain," he tells his friend Monsieur Device; "You may, if you please take notice of his title" (200-1). Monsieur Device (who has artificially enlarged his own title) apologizes to Underwit for saluting him "with a wrong preface" (205), a comment that reinforces Underwit's status as a "Paper Captain," but also suggests that members of socially aspirant classes could assert their own place in the social world by performing their familiarity with books. …

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