Monday, June 15, 2009

King John - Mere Echoes or More?

Randall writes:


A number of us have concurred with the chronological placement of King John's writing between the two tetralogies. Some critics that I've looked through, though, place Richard II immediately prior to King John (Edmund Chambers, Sylvan Barnet, Derek Traversi), dating it 1595-96 to John's 1596-97. Whatever the order, I am interested in certain echoes in character and sentiment that turn up, which I believe point to Shakespearean attitude. We praise Shakespeare for his nearly unlimited variety in character, in fully developed and unique motivation, in tone. Yes. But I want to look sometimes at those moments when characteristics recur or similar speeches are mouthed by different people because I think these kinds of repetitions allow us to examine concepts imported to the play.

One frequently cited example is Shakespeare's views on theater which turn up in characters as diverse as Hamlet and Jacques. But Richard II and King John provide a different echo, and one question might be: do such confluences occur because the two (history) plays are written so close together, or because Shakespeare takes opportunities regardless of the common moment of the two plays to mount some soapbox?

Take dying John of Gaunt's cornucopia of patriotic epithets in Richard II:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear'd by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry,
Of the world's ransom, blessed Mary's Son,
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out. (Richard II 2.1.40-59)

I wouldn't be surprised to see this speech excerpted and put on inspirational posters in English classrooms. It's something of a diva speech, recalling Shakespeare's early willingness to pull out all the language stops in plays like Love's Labor's Lost and Romeo and Juliet. The overwhelming abundance of appositional phrases, not to mention the hugely delayed predicate whose absence emphasizes the preceding phrases all the more, shift our attention from Gaunt to Shakespeare. It's like when, in the blues or rock, a guitarist finds a brief phrase and repeats it over and over and over, until the crowd begins to cheer, recognizing that their focus has been shifted by the repetition from art to artist. Hence, it's easy to lose sight in this speech of what it's about ― pride in one's country and disappointment that others have failed in their allegiance.

A slight echo emerges in King John, when the Duke of Austria pledges allegiance to Arthur, whom he believes to be the rightful King of England. He promises:

That to my home I will no more return
Till Angiers and the right thou hast in France,
Together with that pale, that white-faced shore,
Whose foot spurns back the ocean's roaring tides
And coops from other lands her islanders,
Even till that England, hedged in with the main,
That water-walled bulwark, still secure
And confident from foreign purposes,
Even till that utmost corner of the West
Salute thee for her king. (King John 2.1.21-30)

While Austria reduces Gaunt's 17 versions of England to a mere five, his words elaborate on Gaunt's "fortress built by Nature" and expand Gaunt's epithets by adding personification. But in both we hear the clear tones of patriotic reverence, in one even from a foreigner (something that will occur again in Henry V when members of the French court speak in awed tones about the English power).

Certainly many characters in Shakespeare love their country (Othello commits himself to Venice, Titus kills a son for Rome, Hamlet is concerned about something rotting in Denmark), but Gaunt's effusive speech, Austria's addition of a paean to England to his promise of support for Arthur, and the King of France's quaking fear of Edward the Black Prince strike me as more than moments of rounded character. In repetition, in echo, they become themselves evidence of a motif that goes beyond character and highlights Shakespearean attitude.

So, while he prepares plays about recent kings that explore the complexities of usurpation, the confusion of political discord, the instability of allegiance, and the imprecision of moral choice, and then sets those stories in front of Elizabethan aristocracy, it must be reassuring to Shakespeare to know that at some point, some character is delivering a speech to remind his audience that, above all, Shakespeare loves England, and that England should be the god of one's idolatry. I'd cue up England's national anthem about now, but England doesn't actually have one (they have a commonwealth anthem). Perhaps someone should nominate a version of Gaunt's speech. Something like this:

(To the tune of "God Save the Queen.")

This royal throne of kings,
this earth of majesty,
this scepter'd isle.

This land of such dear souls,
this blessed plot, this earth,
this other Eden, this dear dear land.

This precious stone set in
the silver sea, this realm, this little world.

This happy breed of men,
Renowned for distant deeds,
For Christian service and
true chivalry.

This teeming womb of kings
feared for their lineage, famous by birth.
This fortress Nature-built
dear for her reputation through the world.
This England.

Oh, my stars and stripes,

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