Tanned by Chivalry

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William Henry Schofield, an early 20th century scholar of comparative English literature, once said, “Shakepeare’s whole face was tanned by the sun of chivalry.” That may seem an odd statement – after all, we think of Shakespeare as a Renaissance playwright, not a medieval troubadour. There are no questing knights, Round Tables, or damsels locked in high towers in Shakespeare’s plays.

So where is all that chivalry? I recently spoke to the San Diego Shakespeare Society about chivalry and Shakespeare — and the fact is, once you start looking for knighthood and chivalry in Shakespeare’s plays, you’ll see them practically everywhere. You can’t sit through a performance of Romeo and Juliet (“Give this ring to my true knight”), Hamlet (“The adventurous knight shall use his foil and target”), or The Merry Wives Of Windsor (“If I would but go to hell for an eternal moment or so, I could be knighted”) without coming across them. In fact, references to knights and knighthood are found in 25 of Shakespeare’s plays — a testament to just how firmly embedded the idea of chivalry is in his writing.

Of course, it’s not strange to find mention of knights and chivalry in Shakespeare’s history plays. Those plays are about the dynastic struggles for the English throne in a time when knights in armor were the dominant force on the battlefield. But Shakespeare’s treatment of chivalric themes isn’t limited to his 10 medieval political dramas. You’ll find referrence to knights and chivalry in plays like Cymbeline, Titus Andronicus, All’s Well That Ends Well, and King Lear. Why would Shakespeare mention knighthood in those works — and what does it tell us about his concept of chivalry?

As an answer, consider an exemplary “knight” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the woods, when Lysander is affected by Oberon’s love potion and wakes to look on the face of Helena (thus transferring his affections to her, instead of Hermia) he says:

“She sees not Hermia. Hermia, sleep thou there,
And never mayst thou come Lysander near;
[…] And all my powers, address your love and might
To honour Helen and to be her knight.”

This passage may not seem remarkable until you realize that this play is set in the time of Theseus — about 1200 BCE. The very word “knight” is anachronistic by more than 2,000 years! In this passage, as in many of his references to knights and knighthood, Shakespeare is using the word as cultural shorthand. He lived in a time of chivalric revival, in a time we might call the “Indian summer of chivalry.” He knew that his audience was so familiar with the knightly concept of chivalry and the rules of courtly love that he didn’t need to have Lysander explicitly vowing to write poetry, perform heroic feats, and endure hardships in Hermia’s name in order to prove the strength of his feelings for her. All Lysander has to say is that he will “be her knight” and we know what he’s talking about. He isn’t implying that Helena is raising an army, and he’s going to be conscripted as a soldier. Rather, Lysander is ready to undertake great deeds to prove he has a courageous heart and noble spirit worthy of her love – the very image of a gallant knight from the lore of Camelot and King Arthur.

The fact that a passage like this still rings true to us is an indication of just how deeply rooted the traditions of chivalry are, even in the 21st century. When Lysander vows to “be her knight,” we don’t scratch our heads or wonder what on earth he’s talking about. The reference seems natural and thoroughly understandable. Next time you’re seeing or reading Shakespeare, pay attention to his references to knighthood and their inferences of chivalry — you’ll be surprised to see just how often they turn up. Shakespeare’s “tan from the sun of chivalry” still glows on us today as we encounter the concepts of romance, honor, nobility, and valour in his plays.

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Scott Farrell is co-author of the book Steampunk Shakespeare. He is director of the Chivalry Today Educational Program, which provides lectures and demonstrations of arms and armor, falconry, jousting, and other aspects of the Age of Chivalry to schools, camps, and libraries throughout Southern California. He also works as one of the teaching artists with San Diego’s Intrepid Shakespeare Company, giving one-hour performances of Shakespeare’s plays for more than 5,000 students each year.
  • http://44calibreshakespeare.com Humphrey

    I wonder if our notions of chivalry are exaggerated because of the rise of youthful arrogance (you know, like mine)? Perhaps respect for those sorts of things (i.e. ladys, duelling, elders, people of status etc.) in Shakespeare’s day was just considered the norm because there was no masking their true value with dreams of Sex-factor, Wastebook and MyFACE. Yet, on the other hand, perhaps what makes Shakespeare’s chivalry feel so special at times are the touches of diabolical knavery that dart between ceremony and proper conduct! Isn’t there something so chivalrous about Mowbray, despite being a thuggish aggressor? Isn’t there the promise that Mercutio could dine with kings, if only he behaved himself? Isn’t the miracle of Casca that he speaks using all the finest rhetoric, yet comes off like a total asshole? The Gatekeeper’s ‘equivocation’ speech says it all…

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