Tuesday, June 23, 2009

RE: King John and Shakespeare the Bastard

Randall writes:

Gentle friends,

I didn't want to let go of King John without responding to Gil's argument about Shakespeare and Philip Faulconbridge aka The Bastard. As I was reading the play, I shared Gil's question about whether there is another character like the Bastard in Shakespeare's works. The three "types" that occurred to me were "vice," "chorus" and "fool." I don't have my book in front of me (because I'm at a Shakespeare conference in New Hampshire and we're reading Antony and Cleopatra, so King John is at home on my desk) so I won't belabor the various supports and counter-arguments I might try Faulconbridge with. Instead I'll just toss out a few thoughts that occurred to me reading and have stuck with me since.

Outsider? Absolutely. I haven't put my finger on the right term for this yet but there's something about the way a character comments on action within a Shakespeare play that sets him/her apart. Faulconbridge has this quality, one that seems to me chorus-like, even though he is within the play. Gil points to Faulconbridge's freedom from class and "excess moral scruple" (this latter reminds me of some of Shakespeare's later fools: Feste in Twelfth Night, the Fool in King Lear), and I'd agree with both the categorization and the compelling argument that follows. What I'd add is this: Faulconbridge seemed to me fairly unique when I put the play down. Then finishing Antony and Cleopatra last weekend, I thought I found strong similarities in the character of Enobarbus.

In one scene in particular, Antony and Caesar are airing out their mutual grievances. Maecenas suggests that they cease arguing and focus on present needs -- the coming battle with Sextus Pompey. Enobarbus quips "Or, if you borrow one another's love for the instant, you may, when you hear no more words of Pompey, return it again. You shall have time to wrangle in when you have nothing else to do" (2.2.124-127). Antony shuts him down: "Thou art a soldier. Speak no more." And Enobarbus famously closes with "That truth should be silent I had almost forgot."

So here again is the outsider (soldier), whose anti-hypocritical comment on the primary action accords him the status of truth-speaker, elevating him above the action. Enobarbus in not quite as outside as Faulconbridge -- he lacks the same degree of ironic detachment -- but after his exchange with Antony, I think we as readers listen to him differently and he becomes an occasional chorus-like figure.

And I don't think Enobarbus is the only character like this. I wonder if the plays we're reading now signal a period in which Shakespeare consistently includes characters who have a portion of the quality that Gil defines, be they fools, friends, or foils. Even the quality of commenting on inflated rhetoric seems thematic in the plays we're currently reading (think Henry at the end of Henry V, wooing Katherine). Is this Shakespeare putting himself into his plays? I think we're always on dangerous ground when we say anything about Shakespeare the man (as I did in my last post), but I would find it hard to deny that in the outsider or commentator-type characters, a world view beyond character seems to emerge. I'd like to be more specific about this, so I'll note it as a characteristic to consider as we continue with our reading.For now I'll turn mute.

Your considerate stone,

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