Shakespeare’s relationship to medieval literature has received comparatively little critical investigation. There have been two full-length books—Ann Thompson’s useful Shakespeare’s Chaucer (1978) and E. Talbot Donaldson’s disappointing The Swan at the Well (1985)—together with scattered essays in periodicals, but a great deal remains to be done. Now a volume of eleven essays has appeared, edited by Curtis Perry and John Watkins, which attempts to plug some of the gaps.1 Unfortunately, the contributors tend to examine how far Shakespeare can be made to fit in with contemporary ideas about medieval writing, rather than trying to start from where he himself started—from a position unencumbered by academic labels, categories, and theories.
When, in the 1590s, Shakespeare read a book claiming to be The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (which also contained a great deal by other authors), he must have been aware that the English language had changed since Chaucer died in 1400, but he obviously did not need a dictionary or glossary to read him. Would he think of Chaucer as “medieval” and of himself as “modern”? Dividing history up into periods may belittle both the continuity of human experience over time—scorned by some theorists as “the essentialist fallacy” but an indisputable fact, without which no reading would be possible at all—and the sheer randomness and messiness whereby the world of Chaucer turned into that of Shakespeare.
In the Kinsmen Prologue, Chaucer expresses indignation at being ranked “lighter than Robin Hood.”
Shakespeare drew on Chaucer early and late in his career, using the Knight’s Tale in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well as The Two Noble Kinsmen—in which Chaucer is mentioned in the Prologue—and composing Troilus and Cressida in reaction against, rather than to, Troilus and Criseyde. Shakespeare seems to have preferred the romances to the fabliaux among Chaucer’s works, in keeping with critical opinion from Caxton to his own day. In the Kinsmen Prologue, Chaucer expresses indignation at being ranked “lighter than Robin Hood.” Nor was Chaucer the only medieval poet Shakespeare knew: he used Gower’s narrative of Apollonius of Tyre, from Book Eight of Confessio Amantis, in both The Comedy of Errors and Pericles. Gower is the narrator in the latter play, and the style of his speeches is consciously archaic. The Tudor chronicles on which Shakespeare drew for his history plays incorporated large portions of the medieval chronicles on which they were modeled.
In fact, a surprising amount of medieval literature was readily available in the sixteenth century. Many of the mystery plays continued to be performed, at least outside London, where performances had been effectively suppressed by the government. Shakespeare almost certainly saw the Coventry cycle, which was last acted when he was fifteen; it is lamentable that texts of only two of its plays survive. Early Tudor lyrics show a marked medieval influence. The works of Langland and Malory were available. Most of all, as Helen Cooper showed in her book, The English Romance in Time (2004), over sixty medieval romances were in active circulation, in manuscript and print form, during Shakespeare’s working lifetime, and several were adapted for the stage, although most of the scripts are lost. The Reformation was no bar to acceptability for any of these works. Indeed, Chaucer and Langland had their popularity boosted among Protestant reformers by their (incorrectly) supposed sympathies with the medieval heretic John Wycliffe; Sidney and Spenser, both staunch Protestants, admired Chaucer on this account, and Spenser wrote The Shepherd’s Calendar in a pseudo-Chaucerian style, while suffusing The Faerie Queene with allusions to, and reworkings of, romance material.
Shakespeare seems to have felt at ease with medieval writing, to judge from the casualness with which it apparently floated into his head during composition. A band of outlaws, complete with references to “Robin Hood’s fat friar,” turns up in an Italian forest in Two Gentlemen of Verona; Duke Senior in As You Like It holds court in the Forest of Arden “like the old Robin Hood of England,” and the play shows extensive knowledge of popular festivity as well as the romance of Gamelyn; Justice Shallow and Ancient Pistol have their heads full of scraps of old ballads; Lear’s Fool claims to predate Merlin. These are all part of an unhistorical medley of the kind parodied by Christopher Sly’s claim, in The Taming of the Shrew, that “the chronicles” will prove that his family “came in with Richard Conqueror.” Shakespeare shows a far greater affinity for the medieval world than, say, Ben Jonson (who left his own play on Robin Hood unfinished)—it was a peculiar critical perversity that made him the standard-bearer of early modernism for so long.
More significantly, Shakespeare’s two history cycles, written in the 1590s, are a major effort to imagine the world between 1380 and 1485, the world of Chaucer, Gower, the mystery plays, Malory, and Caxton. In his contributions to Edward III, Sir Thomas More, and Henry VIII he explores earlier and later periods also. He had benefited from an educational curriculum shaped by Italian humanism, with its sophisticated sense of historical change, but he also shared Chaucer’s instinct to see the past in terms of the present. Moreover, his affinity with the Middle Ages is deeply un-Protestant, often strongly affectionate. His extensive circle of Catholic acquaintances and his familiarity with pre-Reformation liturgy and theology—facts uncontested even by those who resist the inference that he was a Catholic himself—suggest that Thomas Carlyle showed remarkable insight in calling him, as long ago as 1840, “the noblest product” of medieval Catholicism.
Turning to the volume of essays with these thoughts in mind, we may put aside at once Christopher Warley’s piece on A Lover’s Complaint, a poem which Brian Vickers has shown to be not by Shakespeare at all, but by John Davies—a conclusion which Warley astonishingly claims makes no difference to the relevance of his essay! As for “The Phoenix and Turtle,” studied by Patrick Cheney, the resemblances to The Parlement of Fowles, which he claims have been neglected, seem to me superficial; the poem develops in a quite un-Chaucerian direction. These two essays could well have been jettisoned to make room for consideration of other plays which are not included.
Shakespeare’s portrayal of the Cade rebellion is a good illustration of his creative treatment of history.
Given the centrality, noted above, of Shakespeare’s histories to his understanding of the medieval world, it is not surprising that several essays focus on them. Brian Walsh opens up a fruitful discussion of the various, sometimes conflicting, modes of historical representation in Henry V—most innovatively, the play explicitly addresses its own limitations as historical drama, placing itself alongside chronicles, oral history, and classical humanism. In a much less useful essay, William Kuskin proposes that 2 Henry VI “depicts the English fifteenth century as fundamentally textual” because it gives such prominence to written documents, ignoring the fact that the rebels in the play are opposed to the governing classes precisely on account of their literacy. Shakespeare’s portrayal of the Cade rebellion is a good illustration of his creative treatment of history. An event which occurred in 1450 is depicted with details clearly referring to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, as though to suggest that all rebellions are fundamentally similar. (Chaucer, we recall, has just one reference to the 1381 revolt, which he probably witnessed; it forms the basis of a flippant aside in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.)
Elsewhere in the volume, John Watkins reads King John as a skeptical scrutiny of Angevin dynastic politics, written during a time when the nation-state was becoming the preeminent European political model. There is this strand in the play, but it also exhibits debts to medieval romance, unexplored by Watkins, in the character of Falconbridge, with his evocations of Richard the Lionheart and Colbrand the Giant. Equally, it has an unmistakably Tudor slant: John refuses the Pope’s claim on his obedience (and is finally poisoned by a monk), there is a King Philip (of France) who loses “a whole armada,” and John’s nephew, like Henry VIII’s elder brother, is called Arthur.
Shakespeare complicates the one-directional movement of the historical chronicle by calling up such analogies, and by inserting elements of plot and characterization derived from atemporal romance. His political analysis is not “modern,” nor is his treatment of religion. Forbidden by law to engage in specific theological controversy onstage, he underplays this aspect in King John and Henry VIII, preferring to write plays which are like palimpsests, obliquely evoking biblical episodes, instantly recognizable to his audience.
The character of Falstaff is a striking example of Shakespeare’s transformation of medieval material. Originally Falstaff was named Oldcastle, after a real historical figure, once a close friend of Henry V’s, who was burned alive in 1417, having embraced Wycliffite opinions and plotted against the king. The central question about Oldcastle, as formulated by the Protestant historian John Foxe writing in 1583, was whether he was “rather to be commended for a martyr, or reproved for a traitor.” Protestants gave the former answer, Catholics the latter. In lampooning a Protestant hero, was Shakespeare also making a partisan, Catholic point? Or—given that Falstaff is not ultimately endorsed by the plays—was he suggesting the insidious attractiveness of the old faith from a less committed stance?
Oldcastle’s descendants, the Cobham family, had no doubt.
Oldcastle’s descendants, the Cobham family, had no doubt. Having ignored a previous representation of Oldcastle on stage, in the anonymous play The Famous Victories of Henry V (late 1580s), presumably because the character’s religious views were not mentioned, they complained about Shakespeare’s Oldcastle, whose speech is rich in scriptural allusion and Protestant idiom. Shakespeare changed the name, and apologized in the epilogue to 2 Henry IV, where he specifically states that Oldcastle “died [a] martyr, and this [Falstaff] is not the man”. Yet even here, there may be a sly joke; no, Falstaff, of all people, is not going to be a martyr! But was he a traitor either? He didn’t hope to overthrow Hal as king, only to have influence over him. His hedonism and sensual indulgence belong more to an unreformed mode of life. It is Hal who undergoes the real reformation (a word he actually applies to himself).
One of the most quicksilver characters in the canon, Falstaff resists all final definition, including that proposed in Perry and Watkins by Karen Sawyer Marsalek. Examining the “resurrection” of Falstaff towards the end of 1 Henry IV, she sees him as an Antichrist figure (the real Oldcastle actually promised to rise on the third day after his execution) and devotes some pages to the play of Antichrist in the Chester cycle. This is a play which we can be virtually certain Shakespeare did not know: no other extant complete cycle contains a treatment of Antichrist, so the likelihood of his being included in the Coventry cycle is minimal. Granted that, through Oldcastle/Falstaff, Shakespeare makes play with the tendency of Catholics and Protestants to label each other Antichrist, still the tone of the scene is far from being as serious as Marsalek implies. It is comic precisely because it is not a real resurrection but a sham, born of a cowardly strategy to avoid being killed on the field of battle. When Death does come for Falstaff, as reported by Mistress Quickly in Henry V, there is nothing comic about it, and his destination, in Quickly’s miraculous malapropism, is not Abraham’s bosom but Arthur’s. Shakespeare bids farewell to one of his greatest characters, a knight, by making him a member of the Round Table.
The coming of death to another character, King Lear, is examined by Michael O’Connell, who finds Lear indebted not only to the mystery plays but also to the morality plays. There are touches of morality characterization (Oswald as Vanity, Kent as Plain Speech, Edgar as a variant on repentant Mankind) and stagecraft (the use of the stocks). The Fool is, among many other things, a cynical Vice who is also a virtuous counselor. O’Connell thinks, however, that the deepest echo is of the Summons of Death trope, of which the only complete surviving English dramatic example is Everyman (c. 1510).
The problem, as O’Connell admits, is that there is no evidence that Shakespeare knew the play, although Rebecca Krug, another contributor to the volume, assumes he did. He may have known others like it, but O’Connell’s sketch of the similarities is tenuous: a movement “from ignorance to knowledge, from penitence and reconciliation, to the vision of death in the final scene.” “Vision of death” is loose talk. True enough, as O’Connell says, Lear acquires the self-knowledge and wisdom that “have always been thought requisite before the coming of death,” but he is summoned by Death only as we all are, in the sense that he dies; no personification of Death appears onstage, not even allusively as with Marcade at the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost, and no mention is made of the consolations of the afterlife; instead, Lear laments that Cordelia will “come no more.” In contrast to his source play, King Leir, Shakespeare avoids explicit Christian touches. O’Connell’s way of putting this is that the play “confronts death in a way devoid of the ideology that supported the tradition.” But religion is not about ideology, it is about doctrine, and without doctrine there is no tradition. Lear seems a weak example to choose, if one wants to show Shakespeare drawing on medieval ideas.
Sarah Beckwith focuses on the “resurrection” of Hermione at the climax of The Winter’s Tale, one of several such moments in Shakespeare (we have already noted Falstaff as another example). Beckwith provides a useful discussion of the resurrection episodes in the mystery plays, establishing their theme of the disciples’ recognition, not only of the risen Jesus but of the baseness of their own previous denial and desertion of him. Peter, naturally, bears the brunt of this shame. Beckwith draws a parallel with Leontes, whose sixteen years of penitence and remorse cannot win him forgiveness until he confronts the returned Hermione. For the beholders of her statue, as for the disciples at the empty tomb or in the upper room, “It is required/ You do awake your faith.” Faith is the precondition rather than the consequence of recognition.
All that is well said, yet Beckwith does not do justice—who could?—to the extraordinary atmosphere of the scene, whose power resides in its very inexplicability. Hermione is not a “Christ-figure” (nor is Marina, whose reappearance brings her father Pericles back to psychic life), and Leontes is not Peter. His doubt of her fidelity “killed” her; that was betrayal, in a way, but there is no point in forcing an unsustainable analogy. We cannot even say for certain that Hermione has died, as distinct from having fainted and been kept hidden (an explanation of Jesus’ empty tomb which was, and sometimes still is, proposed, and which Christianity rejects). She says “[I] have preserved myself,” but before she can explain further, Paulina interrupts with “There’s time enough for that.” Well may Leontes say that Hermione’s survival “is to be questioned; for I saw her/ (As I thought) dead.” Most unusually, Shakespeare has kept not only the characters but also the audience in the dark about this key fact of the plot; we are not party to the deception—if such it is—as we are with Juliet’s supposed death. Shakespeare’s main concern here is with the transforming, reviving power of human love, rather than with the miraculous power of divine love: yet he allows the one to suggest the other.
Elizabeth Fowler and Rebecca Krug tackle what is now one of the most controversial plays in the canon, The Merchant of Venice. Fowler gestures vaguely towards the Christian/Jewish opposition in the play as symbolic of pre- and post-Reformation theories of social contract. Krug begins from an acknowledged medieval source for The Merchant, the collection of preachers’ homilies known as the Gesta Romanorum. She examines four stories which Shakespeare used, noting that he was more interested in the social morality of these tales than in their allegorical depictions of the relationship between God and the individual soul. Her essay concludes with a wise caution: “Perhaps what Shakespeare saw in the material, an opportunity to think about moral choices and their importance in the secular world, was, in fact, what medieval audiences also appreciated about the stories.” Perhaps, in other words, Shakespeare was reading his medieval source in a medieval way.
Yet there is more to The Merchant than this. Its elements of folklore and romance coexist with an enigmatic use of the figure of the substitute victim, which suggests that Shakespeare is grappling, at some level, with the problems of the doctrine of the Atonement, a major topic of controversy in the Reformation (another label which is more a hindrance than a help, at least if it suggests a smooth process of change—for many parts of the country, remote from the control of London, there hardly was a Reformation, and nowhere did medieval Catholicism cease to exist overnight).
Despite numerous local insights, Shakespeare and the Middle Ages is a flawed volume.
Despite numerous local insights, Shakespeare and the Middle Ages is a flawed volume. It does not sufficiently examine its own premises, and its contributors write with insufficient imaginative sympathy. The choice of plays is questionable; there is nothing, for instance, on Richard II, All’s Well that Ends Well or Troilus and Cressida, all of which, one would have thought, were strong candidates for inclusion. But indeed, any adequate consideration of this topic would have to cover the whole canon, and adopt a much more systematically historical approach. Again and again, Shakespeare shows us the medieval feudal and chivalric code, which had been sustained as a kind of communal idealized fiction by the court of Elizabeth, giving way to a new world of pragmatic Realpolitik. To answer the questions posed at the beginning of this essay: the plays strike me as the products of his engagement with a past from which he felt distant, but not completely alienated; a past which he heard calling to him with an intermittently audible and intelligible voice, the voice of his parents’ and grandparents’ generation. The philosopher Michael Dummett, in the title of one of his essays, coins a brilliant phrase: “Bringing About the Past.” That is what Shakespeare did to the Middle Ages, and there is a sense in which he is our last great medieval author.
- Shakespeare & the Middle Ages, edited by Curtis Perry and John Watkins; Oxford University Press, 295 pages, $99. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 Number 4, on page 64
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