We turn, then, to the first of our three kings. When Richard II opens, the threat of rebellion is already present, but from Thomas Mowbray rather than the later usurper, Henry Bolingbroke (who is first seen as the chief witness against Mowbray). Richard’s handling of this matter is at first ambiguous – he temporarily banishes both men – yet he seems to have good reason to worry. Richard notes the public’s mourning at Henry’s departure and how he appears to prey on the crowd’s sympathy (1.4.23-26). But while Richard banished his cousin from the kingdom, he cannot banish him from his thoughts. Instead, at the death of Henry’s father, John of Gaunt, Richard seizes John’s property to ensure Henry can never inherit. But as the Duke of York warns (2.1.186-208), in a kingdom without lawful succession of father to son, not even the kingship is sacred. Bloom notes that, “the first two acts are intended to establish Richard as an evil king who deserves to lose his throne.” He continues,
He is shown to be a murderer, a thief, a wastrel surrounded by flatterers, lacking in all the familial pieties—a monarch without care or conscience. He is convicted before our eyes of all the accusations made against him, and this portrait is relieved by no charming features. Bolingbroke’s schemes are thereby given the color of justice. (Bloom 62; see our first post for works cited)
Yet only in the end do we see just how subtle Shakespeare’s views and purpose can be, as Cowan goes on to show:
We complete the play with compassion for Richard and with terror at the sacrilege committed against his person . . . . The play, finally, makes us see . . . that Richard has been a bad king who abused power, but that his deposing is an offense that could destroy all England. (Cowan 72)
Shakespeare thus proposes a third way to deal with a ‘bad king’: reform him. Throughout the play, Carlisle seeks to do just this, respecting the inherent authority of the office, while recognizing the imperfectability of the one who holds it (3.2.27-62). Character is the only sure foundation for leadership. The primary political purpose of Richard II, then, is to set forth “a thoroughly traditional English concept of the sacredness and authority of the office, with the king deemed answerable not only to parliament and law but to the higher powers of justice and love” (Cowan 77). Royal humility is therefore the key to royal character, noble support, and popular consent.
Yet Henry Bolingbroke learns this truth only too late. He returns early from his exile merely to regain his rightful inheritance (Richard II 2.3.128-135), but when he realizes that he has both the support of the people and the assembled strength of the nobles, he loses his initial humility and prudence, and overreaches his rightful station to seek the crown itself (4.1.113). His “just cause” becomes self-righteousness, which degenerates into self-interest and self-assertion. Thus, Richard II is a tale both of Richard’s hubris and of “Bolingbroke’s grasping of the crown and thereby his loss of innocence. He thought he would purge the throne of a stain left on it by Richard’s having committed the sin of Cain, but he is constrained to commit the same sin in order to found his rule” (Bloom 59). Just as Richard is condemned for murder, theft and pride, Henry founds his reign on pride, murder and hypocrisy, and thereby commits moral and political suicide.
And by deposing the king and showing pleasure at his murder (Richard II 5.6.40) he removes all traditional grounds of legitimacy. “It is ridiculous to suppose that Henry can command instinctive loyalty. That is exactly his problem. Attachment to him must be born of wisdom, beneficence, and strength, for he is beginning afresh without the sanctions which were available to Richard” (Bloom 67). Henry has founded his reign upon violence, and so violent he must be, or else lose the authority he has seized. Henry finds that he cannot rely solely on the conservative customs of monarchy, nor on the filial obligation owed to him as king, so he must instead provide an outlet for his violent nature as well as a means to fulfill the expectations of his subjects. So at the close of Richard II, the newly crowned king finds himself drawn to the Crusades:
Just as Henry does not try to restrain that [violent] impulse in himself, his political program aims not at restraining his subjects but rather at channeling their violence outward toward foreigners. Peace is not his goal but rather a ‘well-beseeming’ foreign war which will remove the destruction from England, and from Henry himself. (Trafton 101)
Henry seeks to avoid the consequences of his actions at home by seeking glory and honor at the expense of other peoples. Unfortunately, for both Henry and for England, “Rebellion engenders rebellion” (Trafton 103), and so the subject of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 is a three-pronged uprising that is far more costly for Henry and his country than he could have possibly imagined. But while such consequences are not intentional, they are preventable. Pride can be temporarily overcome by greater pride, but such a victory comes with greater consequences as well. Richard’s pride leads to the death of a king; Henry’s pride nearly destroys a nation.
Henry’s eldest son, Henry Monmouth, provides our final example of the moral and political causes and consequences of rebellion. Richard hides himself beneath the veil of divine right, regardless of his injustice. Henry Bolingbroke, does his best to keep up the conventional customs so that he might at least appear to be just. Henry Monmouth, however, follows a third path: he knows what it means to be just, but waits for the perfect moment to reveal just how just he can be. Prince Hal reveals his intent in the second scene of 1 Henry IV.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
To Hal, then, “justice” is merely a tool to control the masses, to unite the affections of his people to himself as an individual, rather than to his royal office. Hal therefore rejects both Richard’s arrogant self-righteousness and Henry’s proud piety and turns to naked, self-willed pragmatism.
Yet here, Hal merely exemplifies what has already been implied by the examples of his immediate predecessors: you cannot be just without doing what is right and doing it for the right reasons. Each of these kings struggles in his own way with an understanding of justice that “would subordinate all his actions, public or private, to the good of England” (Alvis, “Spectacle” 117). But once this natural and divine standard is rejected one can only turn inwardly, for to reject good government is to reject its sacramental reflection of a higher reality. To the mind of the young prince, “God will favor Henry not because he is king but because he is Henry” (Alvis, “Spectacle” 118). But Hal receives no such favor. When confronted with his sins, Richard repents but loses his kingdom, Henry regrets but loses his soul, and Hal languishes on, neither penitent nor sorrowful, master of many but slave to all.
William Shakespeare is perhaps the single greatest writer in the English language. His themes and his characters stand both as representatives of his own age as well as windows into ours. Such timelessness allows each generation to see something of itself in his work, leading to a realm of study and enjoyment that is in a perpetual state of flux. One trend, which has emerged within the last generation or so, reveres Shakespeare not only for his affective power as a poet, but also for his wisdom as a philosopher, particularly in his views on things political. That politics is a concern for Shakespeare at all should be apparent by the subject of many of his plays, particularly his histories and tragedies, though even in a comedy like The Tempest we glimpse something political.
Yet Shakespeare is neither a political pundit nor an artist with an axe to grind. Instead, he views politics in the classical sense, “in terms of education, manners, morals, religion, and ethics” (Alvis, Introductory 8), an emphasis supported by his repeated use of Greek, Roman, and Christian sources throughout his works (Alvis, Introductory 5). Of his several works, The Henriad (Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V) is particularly conducive to such an emphasis. Throughout these plays, Shakespeare presents the causes and consequences of rebellion in a way that invites us to delve into the religious and moral aspects of what is now regarded as a purely political act. Our discussion here will examine these aspects by focusing on the character of each of these kings before tracing the consequences of their choices for the kingdom as a whole.
In modern democracies, such as our own, politics and religion maintain distinct and distant spheres. Yet for the audience of Shakespeare’s day, government was always religious (even sacramental) in its form and function. Toward the end of Richard II, a parliament has convened to try and convict Richard of crimes against the nation so that Henry Bolingbroke might assume the throne “Without suspicion” (4.1.157). The king’s only defense comes from the aged and loyal Bishop of Carlisle:
What subject can give sentence on his king?
Carlisle begins by invoking the nobles’ sense of justice. Any one of them would cry foul if he were summarily arrested, prosecuted and executed by the authorities. The bishop, however, is not merely concerned with the illegality of their actions; he reminds them that their relationship to the king is divinely sanctioned. God Himself has providentially set Richard on the throne, placed him as their lord and master, and has set them under his authority. To remove Richard from the throne is to usurp God Himself and to deny His authority and their need for His favor.
Here, Carlisle draws on the teachings of the apostle Paul himself, a passage commonly used throughout history as prima facie evidence for the ‘divine right’ of kings:
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. (Rom 13:1-2 NKJV)
In other words, our outward submission is indicative of an inward reverence; when we submit to the authorities, our soul is in harmony with God’s providential will. But as is seen in the sentence that follows, the opposite is also true: outward resistance indicates a disorder of the soul, a rejection of God’s will both for the individual and the community—both of which incur judgment. Rebellion, then, says as much about the rebel as it does about the ruler.
2017 State of the Bible
American Bible Society
The Earliest Example of Christian Hymnody
Congregational Singing in the Early Church
Everett Ferguson, For Acapella
How the Medieval Church Read Through the Bible
Michael Marlowe, Bible Research
How Communal Singing Disappeared from the US
Karen Loew, The Atlantic
The Top 100 Classic & Contemporary Hymns
Demian Farnworth, Fallen + Flawed
Uncovering a 1,500 Year-Old Church Building
Daniel Esparza, Aleteia
Worship in the Early Church
Christian History Magazine
Over the last few weeks we have surveyed some of the ethical content contained in the Middle English poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK). We have discussed the general nature of trawthe as “faith, fidelity, and integrity,” we have unpacked its religious character, and we have seen how such forthrightness might clash with social expectations. Yet when we left Gawain on his third and last day at Sir Bertilak’s castle, the good knight believes himself to have done quite well against his hostess’s advances. He has remained faithful to his host not only by mitigating the dishonorable intentions of the lady but also by returning to that man the kisses he won each day from the lips of that man’s wife!
Yet here is Gawain at his most vulnerable point in the work: in the rush of victory. “At the moment when Gawain believes he has safely emerged from his ordeal for the last time, the lady launches an attack more difficult to recognise or resist” (Winny 149; see our first post for works cited). She implores him to accept from her a token of unfulfilled love but when he refuses it, she instead offers him a girdle or belt that can strengthen his body to sustain the blow he is to receive the next day. “For whoever is buckled into this green belt, / As long as it is tightly fastened about him / There is no man on earth who can strike him down, / For he cannot be killed by any trick in the world” (SGGK 1851-1854). The lady therefore follows up her obvious assault upon Gawain’s virtue with a subtler tactic, appealing to the knight’s fear of impending death rather than his natural desire for carnal pleasure. After all, what is more right than seeking to preserve a life, even one’s own? But can he accept the girdle with her added stipulation not to reveal it to her husband that evening? For the first time, Gawain breaks one of his compacts. As Engelhardt notes, by accepting the girdle,
Gawain was enabled to appease her and thus conveniently to preserve his reputation for courtesy toward women. But in that very act he proved ungenerous, and therefore discourteous, to her husband; he sinned against piety and derogated his valor . . . . Thus Gawain had willfully placed himself in a new dilemma; he could not fulfill one compact without breaking the other. (222)
Yet there is something more at stake here. To this point in the plot, Gawain has sought protection and strength through his faith alone. By accepting the girdle, not only is he acting out of disdain for his host, but perhaps even for the Lord Himself:
As he goes to his fate, he is faced with conscious choice between the dictates of self-interest and Christian honor—between faith in Christ and Mary that he will be saved by grace, or at least granted the courage necessary to end his life with dignity and moral perseverance, and faith in himself that he will be able through his own wits either to prepare himself in such a way as to be invulnerable to the knight’s ax blow or to avoid the confrontation altogether. (Champion 416)
Accepting the girdle therefore violates every one of the five senses of trawthe represented by the pentangle. Just as “the pentangle on Gawain’s shield [is] a symbol of truth . . . the green sash is a symbol of falsehood” (Champion 421). He has determined to face the Green Knight not in courage but through deception; he has broken his agreement with the host to trade his winnings at the end of each day; he has denied the spiritual strength given by Christ through Mary; and he has surrendered his character for the sake of courtesy and his reputation. In the words of Myer, “His acceptance of the girdle, normally an item worn by a knight in tournament and therefore part of chivalric array, will ironically strip him of his internal virtues.”
This new reliance on the girdle above the faith and fidelity represented by the pentangle (the five-pointed star which adorns his shield) is seen in the manner in which Gawain arms himself. Not only is the account of his rearmament absent of any mention of that star, but the placement of the girdle seems to remove it from sight completely. “The implications is that in wearing the green girdle over his red surcoat (lines 2035-6), Gawain gives it pride of place over the pentangle (the symbol of his trawthe), and possibly that the pentangle is actually hidden by it” (Anderson 313). Even as he prays to God for deliverance, then, he is in fact “not relying on God but on the belt to save him” (Winny 152). It therefore comes as quite a shock to Gawain when the Green Knight reveals the cause for the scar he has given him at the Green Chapel. Arthur’s knight immediately understands his fault. “Gawain accuses himself of cowardice because fear for his life led him to accept the girdle from the lady, and covetousness because he kept the girdle instead of giving it to his host” (Anderson 314). Yet in spite of these things, the Green Knight seems more than willing to forgive him.
Bertilak acknowledges Gawain’s fault, but considers Gawain absolved of it (2395–99), and although Gawain lacks absolute perfection, he is still pre-eminent among other knights ‘in god fayth’ – which may mean both the good faith with which Bertilak is speaking and also the quality in which Gawain surpasses other knights. (McCarthy 305)
But how can Gawain maintain his prominence among other knights in the face of this humiliating revelation of his untrawthe? For an answer, McCarthy replies simply that “If Gawain fails in his trawthe in concealing the girdle, his subsequent actions prove that his fear of death has caused him to lapse, not to abandon his trawthe entirely” (McCarthy 304). Forgiveness, sought through confession and repentance, is the knight’s only path back to virtue. For this reason, Champion interprets this final scene with the Green Knight in terms of grace. Since “Gawain’s fault in accepting the protective girdle is clearly presented . . . in Christian terms . . . it behooves us to consider the Christian conditions under which the poet wrote,” namely, “whether salvation is achieved by divine grace or by human merit” (Champion 415). He continues:
In effect, Gawain’s devious attempts to save himself have been ignominiously exposed as shameful and worthless. Both the scar on his neck . . . and the sash which he now insists upon wearing outwardly as a symbol of his guilt and subsequent repentance . . . betoken his dependence upon an outside force superior to his own for his personal and spiritual safety . . . . Indeed, his fellow knights insist upon donning similar green sashes to betoken their gladness and to acknowledge their analogous human condition and dependence upon grace for salvation. (416-417)
Engelhardt adds that this is the poet’s intention from the very beginning. “The moral of his poem is not merely that man should curb his fear or rein his lust or keep his word” but that “the pride of magnificent kings, or gray-eyed queens . . . is illusory” (Engelhardt 224).
The pentangle is a symbol full of meaning both morally and spiritually. It is the heart of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in that it conveys the ideal of the complete man as depicted in Gawain himself. Yet even after the pentangle is removed from sight, its characteristics are seen in the trials Gawain faces and the choices he makes throughout the remainder of the poem. Clearly, the story could be taken at face value but there is a meaning that requires more than a superficial reading. “Thus, while there is no consistent allegorical level to which all significant details in the narrative cohere, the poet uses symbols to express moral values through the literal story” (Champion 425). He reminds us of the values of a martial society, of the importance of the spoken word, of a faith that transcends earthly circumstances, of one’s need for a consistent character, and (perhaps most of all) that in the end, we simply can’t do it by ourselves.
In the summer of 2015 we ran a series of posts on American religion by the numbers, how we as Christians should be preparing for exile in the post-Christian age, and Rod Dreher's idea of The Benedict Option. Later on, we addressed what this means for the church and for Christian civics. This week, we pick up where we left off, with several reviews of Rod Dreher's new book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017). I've also created a new category so you can follow our discussion of the Body of Christ in one thread.
The Benedict Option's Vision for a Christian Village
Rod Dreher, Christianity Today
Becoming Redemptive Change Agents
Robert Osburn, Wilberforce Academy
The Centurion Option: Not Retreat, but Engagement
James Mikolajczyk, Christian Origins, Modern Faith
Living Comunally in God’s Good Creation
David T. Koyzis, First Things
Thinking Locally & Historically
Alan Jacobs, First Things
Tough Questions, Tougher Answers
Rowan Williams, The New Statesmen
Demonstrating the Beauty of The BenOp
Rod Dreher, The American Conservative