Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1126
Sir Hudibras, a Presbyterian knight, is among those who rode out against the monarchy during England’s civil war. He is a proud man, one who bends his knee to nothing but chivalry and suffers no blow but that which was given when he was dubbed a knight. Although he has some wit, he is shy about displaying it. He knows Latin, Greek, and Hebrew; indeed, his talk is a piebald dialect, so heavily is it larded with Greek and Latin words and tags. He is learned in rhetoric, logic, and mathematics, and he frequently speaks in a manner demonstrating his learning. His notions fit things so well that he is often puzzled to decide what his notions are and what reality is.
In figure he is thick and stout, both before and behind, and he always carries extra victuals in his hose. He rides a mealy mouthed, walleyed, skinny old nag whose tail drags in the dust, and he encourages his horse with a single old spur. Sir Hudibras has a squire named Ralpho, who is an Independent in religion—a fact that accounts for his partisanship and his dogmatic approach to the many discussions and arguments that he has with his master on matters of faith. Ralpho is a tailor by trade, but his belief in the efficacy of divine revelation to the individual makes him something of a religious oracle, at least in his own opinion.
Sir Hudibras and Ralpho ride forth from the knight’s home to reform what they call sins and what the rest of the world regards as mild amusement. After they go a few miles on their journey, they come to a town where the people dance to a fiddle and, even worse in Sir Hudibras’s eyes, indulge themselves in the sport of bearbaiting. To the knight’s resolve to end these activities Ralpho adds his agreement that they are certainly un-Christian. When the knight advances, however, he is met by an unsympathetic crowd. Among the rabble are several leaders. One is Crowdero, a fiddler with a wooden leg, who plays his instrument for the mob in the absence of more martial fifes and drums. Another leader is Orsin, the bear keeper, who leads his charge at the end of a rope fastened to the creature’s nose. Talgol, a butcher, is also in the van, as is a woman named Trulla, an amazon of a damsel. When Sir Hudibras calls upon the people to disperse and return quietly to their homes, leaving Crowdero a prisoner, a fight begins.
Ralpho is soon bucked off his horse when someone puts a burr under the animal’s tail. Sir Hudibras, pulled from his steed, falls on the bear, who becomes enraged and escapes from his keeper. The bear’s escape scatters the crowd and Crowdero is left behind, the prisoner of Sir Hudibras and Ralpho, because the fiddler’s wooden leg is broken in the melee. Swooning from fear, Sir Hudibras lies helpless for a time, but he is soon revived by Ralpho. The pair take their prisoner to the end of the town and place his good leg in the stocks. They hang his fiddle, bow, and case above the stocks as a trophy of victory.
The people dispersed by the enraged bear overcome their fright and plan to attack the knight and release his victim. Sir Hudibras and Ralpho sally out of their quarters to the attack. A blow on Ralpho’s horse causes the animal to unhorse his rider. Sir Hudibras, at first frightened, summons his courage and charges. The crowd disperses once again, and Sir Hudibras goes to the aid of his squire. When the knight’s back is turned, Trulla attacks him from behind and quickly overpowers him. Rejoined by her friends, the woman marches Sir Hudibras to the stocks to take the place of Crowdero. Placed in the stocks, Sir Hudibras and Ralpho argue about their situation and what occasioned it. Then a widow who hears of the knight’s plight comes to see him in the stocks. After much discussion, she agrees to have Sir Hudibras set free if he will consent to a whipping. He agrees to the condition and is released.
Sir Hudibras, once out of the stocks, is reluctant to keep the bargain he made. He is anxious for the widow’s hand, too, but for her money rather than for her love. Sir Hudibras and Ralpho argue long about flagellation. Sir Hudibras suggests that the whipping be administered to Ralpho, as a proxy for the knight. Ralpho refuses and an argument ensues. When the two are almost at swords’ points, they hear a terrible din. They look about and see coming down the road a party of people making a noisy to-do over a poor man who let his wife take over his authority. Sir Hudibras tries to break up the crowd, but a volley of rotten eggs and other filth defeats him and cools his ardor for reform. The knight, going to clean himself after his most recent encounter with sin, decides to lie to the widow about having received a whipping.
Before approaching the widow’s house, Sir Hudibras consults Sidrophel, an astrologer. Sir Hudibras and Ralpho agree that a godly man might reasonably consult with such a man if the godly man is on a Christian errand. Sir Hudibras, soon convinced that Sidrophel and his apprentice, Whachum, are frauds, perhaps dabblers with the devil, sends Ralpho off to find a constable. Meanwhile, Sir Hudibras overcomes the pair and goes through the astrologer’s belongings. Instead of going for a constable, however, Ralpho decides to go to the widow. He is afraid that the authorities might think Sir Hudibras is involved in black magic.
Ralpho, telling all to the widow, reveals that Sir Hudibras is going to lie about having received a whipping and that he is only after the widow’s money. When Sir Hudibras arrives a short time later, the widow hides Ralpho and lets the knight tell his long string of half-truths and lies. The widow, knowing the truth, treats him to a somewhat frightening masquerade, with Ralpho as the chief sprite. Sir Hudibras and the squire decide to escape before worse can happen to them. They go through a window and escape on their saddleless horses.
The poet then turns in the last part of the poem to talk directly about the religious groups for which Ralpho and Sir Hudibras stand—the Independents and the Presbyterians—and how they fell out with one another after the end of the civil war and eventually, in their weakness, paved the way for the Restoration of the Stuart line in the person of Charles II.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 148
Bond, Richmond P. English Burlesque Poetry, 1700-1750. New York: Russell & Russell, 1964. This classic study places Hudibras in the burlesque tradition. Argues that the poem is not, on the other hand, a travesty.
Butler, Samuel. Hudibras. Edited by John Wilders. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1967. This edition provides much useful information. Copious notes.
Jack, Ian. Augustan Satire: Intention and Idiom in English Poetry, 1660-1750. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1957. Calls Hudibras a “low satire” and places the poem in the context of other major satiric poems through most of a century.
Richards, Edward Ames. Hudibras in the Burlesque Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1937. Gives an account of the influence of Butler’s poem in colonial America. Places the poem in the context of the burlesque tradition.
Wasserman, George. Samuel “Hudibras” Butler. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. A chapter on Butler’s thought is followed by two chapters on Hudibras. Bibliography.