Monday, May 18, 2009

King John and Shakespeare the Bastard

Gil writes:

Long "lost" friends,

Despite the linear mile of shelf-feet in libraries of such titles as Shakespeare’s Ideas, Meaning by Shakespeare, Materialistic Shakespeare, or Shakespeare Right and Left, I am reluctant ever to assert “according to Shakespeare.” Instead, I’m more comfortable with ‘Othello believes, while Iago insists’ or ‘according to King Henry IV, but alien to Falstaff.’ In King John, Cardinal Pandulph denounces King Philip: “So mak’st thou faith an enemy to faith,/ And like a civil war set’st oath to oath,/ Thy tongue against thy tongue” (III.i.262-4) and follows with a perfect example of strict and rigorous ratiocination, an example, I’m told by Garber and EAJ Honigmann, of the doctrine of equivocation. This casuistry, impossible, I imagine, for an audience to follow, proves all form is formless, all order orderless. Yet it does not “prove” Shakespeare is a nihilist; rather it articulates flawlessly a Roman Catholic doctrine, anathema to Elizabethan Protestants. Pandulph, and the Church he represents, is intelligent, powerful, arrogant, and — twisted. This argument creates dramatic tension within the play between the Church and the pusillanimous Kings Philip and John. Shakespeare the playwright speaks in many tongues.

Nevertheless, I am tempted to equate Philip Faulconbridge, the Bastard, to Shakespeare himself allowing his personal perspective and ironic asides into this chronology play. Faulconbridge is a fictional creation, not subject to the template of events, politics, betrayals, or even the history overseen by father Holinshed. From the first, he is an outsider, beyond hereditary class and freed of any excess moral scruple. After witty and bawdy calumniation of his mother’s honesty, thereby gaining an (unhistorical) lineage as the bastard son of Richard I, Coeur-de-lion, he can resign his rights in the English landed gentry and rely on his merit and virility, taking his chances with Queen Elinor when she, remarkably, declares “I am a soldier” (that is, she is man enough for him). His one constant is devotion to English patriotism. He declares independence: “And I am I, howe’er I was begot”― freedom, though still within the limits of time and place.

Is there another such character in Shakespeare? Berowne? Much of Richard III? Later some of King Lear’s Edmund (as a bastard)? Outside Shakespeare, perhaps some of Ernst’s malcontents such as Chapman’s Bussy d’Ambois, or Dryden’s blustery Almanzor (“For I alone am king of me”) though neither has a sense of irony. But preventing him from being a tragic figure, the Bastard maintains a detached, ironic counterpoint to politics, mores, hypocrisy. After John knights him as Sir Richard, Plantagenet, he muses on how he must behave now he is nominally a courtier, ‘a foot of honour better than he was,’ and he wonderfully parodies the artifices of court life, how to ‘make a leg,’ suck his teeth, and memorize pickup lines from an absey-book, and “from the inward motion to deliver/ Sweet, sweet, sweet poison for the age’s tooth.” An outsider’s aside, outside the plot. Where else does Shakespeare just fool around with phony court behavior? Maybe with Bushy, Bagot, and Green in Richard II, but they are historical figures, integral to the plot and elemental to Richard’s character and reputation.

In the military action before the besieged city of Angiers, we return to warrior virility, the Bastard as a man of action, so forceful that Austria calls him a “cracker.” The Bastard dismisses wavering by both kings: “O now doth Death line his dead chaps with steel;/ The swords of soldiers are his teeth, his fangs/ … Cry ‘havoc!’ kings (II.i.352-3, 357), poetry so rhetorically rich as to border on satire if we still remember his send-up of courtly artifice. The next time one hears “Cry havoc!” it will be Henry V, the perfect warrior. But here, the Kings of England and France, after all their threats and bloodshed, compromise into an emasculating truce negotiated by the marriage of Louis the Dolphin to John’s niece, Blanche of Spain, and the Bastard muses on how self-interest and opportunism dilute patriotism, honor, and human character in his analysis of “commodity,” prefaced with “mad world, mad kings, mad composition!”

I find the commodity soliloquy one of the great pieces of commentary in Shakespeare, akin to Henry V on “ceremony” or Ulysses on “degree.” It is personal, illustrated by images from observed life (even noting that self-interest will cheat the poor maid of her only possession, her virginity), yet at the end of the soliloquy the Bastard deflects it with an ‘or not!’

Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail,
And say there’s no sin but to be rich;
And being rich, my virtue then shall be
To say there is no vice but beggary.
Since kings break faith upon commodity,
Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee! (II.i.503-8),

a sing-song pair of couplets deflating the penetrating philosophy. I hear Shakespeare seeing into the mad world, then Philip the Bastard joking his way out of high seriousness.

Yet, in the field before Angiers, Austria has worn a lion’s skin, a trophy from killing Coeur-de-lion, and the ‘cracker’ Bastard again and again baits him by calling it a calf’s skin—four times!—deflating the strutting warrior image as he has earlier been bemused by court artifice. Yet he is not a Dogberry (‘write me down an ass’) or a Thersites, because, despite his seeming levity, he still avenges his ‘father’s’ death, and displays Austria’s head on his pike. Finally, the Bastard is wryly amazed at Hubert’s swollen rhetoric relative to the truce of Angiers: “Here’s a large mouth indeed…zounds, I never was so bethumped with words/ Since I first call’d my father dad” (II.i.457, 466-67). So commenting, the Bastard is a critic of rhetoric (written, remember, by Shakespeare) akin to Hamlet’s famous advice to the players. It is often acknowledged that “Hamlet” is Shakespeare lecturing his acting company. Does it not seem that the Bastard steps outside the chronicle to comment on the rhetoric of chronicle plays?

Shakespeare the Bastard nears the end of his fifth chronicle play: “I am amaz’d, methinks, and lose my way/ Among the thorns and dangers of the world” (IV.iii.140-1). So he steers through the maze [Ernst—I’m placing King John before the Henriad] to four unified plays — that most lyrical exploration of sovereignty and the king’s two bodies, Richard II; the perfectly navigated course between King Henry IV and Falstaff toward sovereignty in 1 Henry IV; the touching display of old age in Northumberland, Falstaff and King Henry in 2 Henry IV; and the perfect portrait of the public political figure of King Henry V, all rising thanks to the objective outsider’s eye from the rather disjointed and sometimes overblown chronicle of King John.


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