William Shakespeare

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Food for Words: Hotspur and the Discourse of Honor

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Harry Berger, Jr., University of California, Santa Cruz

In Richard II, Thomas Mowbray, the Duke of Norfolk, having been accused of grievous crimes and challenged to judicial combat by Henry Bolingbroke, addresses the following piece of ceremonial bluster to the throne:

However God or Fortune cast my lot,
There lives or dies true to King Richard's throne,
A loyal, just, and upright gentleman.
Never did captive with a freer heart
Cast off his chains of bondage and embrace
His golden uncontroll'd enfranchisement,
More than my dancing soul doth celebrate
This feast of battle with mine adversary.
Most mighty liege, and my companion peers,
Take from my mouth the wish of happy years;
As gentle and as jocund as to jest
Go I to fight: truth hath a quiet breast.

(1.3.85-96)

Such ritual self-representation has the obvious purpose of turning the speaker as completely as possible into a conventional icon, of emptying out his particularity so that he may fully embody and signify the discourse of honor. It is insurance against potential detraction should he be defeated. Its value is commemorative: in what may be his last performance the speaker designs his own death mask, speaks his own epitaph, tries to preempt the honor-giving function by stamping his ritualized idea on the future. The speech concludes not with one but with two rhymed couplets—double insurance. The message Mowbray intends is that he has already been enfranchised, that he is inwardly untouched by the "chains" of falsehood and corruption that bind him, and therefore that his truth, his probity, can't be affected by the outcome. Everything in this speech, however, strains against this message, qualifies it, contradicts it.

The initial strain is felt in the parallelism of the first two lines: his lot will be cast by God if he lives but by Fortune if he dies. This distinction may serve the rhetorical purposes of his message, but it is, to say the least, theologically difficult, and it is an evasive modification of the juridical logic that governs trial by combat, in which to lose is to be judged guilty by God. Another strain is suggested by Mowbray's insistence that he is true to "King Richard's throne"; his effort in I.I discreetly to distance himself from complicity with Richard insinuates a distinction into this phrase: truth to the throne may not be identical with truth to Richard. Mowbray is implicated in the Gloucester murder as well as in other unpalatable Ricardian projects. After he deflects blame for the murder from himself to Richard he goes on gratuitously to mention his participation in another failed ambush directed at John of Gaunt (1.1.133-41). Since nothing more is said about this episode we are left to wonder whether that was another Ricardian project, and the speculation only increases our sense of the snarled factional networks, the deep divisions, papered over by the ritual formulas that shape the language and actions of these public scenes.

Given the conventional demands of ceremonial speech, Mowbray's assertion of complacent conscience need not be belied by the catachrestic violence of his wild figurai dance. Such a dance is expected to fulfill the pastoral function of ritual without succumbing to the deadly iterability of the clichés of self-praise. The function is pastoral because it is a simplified and artificial procedure that conspicuously excludes and therefore alludes to the complicated network of motives, purposes, and interests to which it responds. Yet because of his unhappy relation to this network Mowbray's defense of his probity and freedom from guilt is compromised from the start. He is not only placed in a false position; he is also in a no-win situation. He would be disgraced if Bolingbroke were to defeat him, but were he to win he would uphold the disgraced regime that taints him by association, and he would validate the king he had all but accused of murder (1.1.132-34). Furthermore, it seems clear to everyone involved that both Richard and Bolingbroke are using...

(The entire section is 16,947 words.)