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« COMPARATIVE 9V9ÌÌ19 Volume 34 No. 3 · Fall 2000 Those Proud Titles Thou Hast Won": Sovereignty, Power, and Combat in Shakespeare's Second Tetralogy Jennifer Low Shakespeare depicts political tensions in the second tetralogy more through challenges and individual combats than through the group violence so prominent in the first tetralogy. In his cyclic portrayal of Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V, the challenge to the combat represents a critical juncture for each monarch's realization of his power.1 In the two plays that I shall examine here, Richard II and 1 Henry IV, the combat is proposed no less than four times: by Bolingbroke to Mowbray; by York's son Aumerle to his political enemies; by Hal to Hotspur during the parley; and by Hal again when he meets Hotspur on the battlefield. The staged duel is an ideal form for embodying concepts of royal power, for it presents the intersection of language and violence, the moment when statecraft can no longer be contained in speech.2 Staging the trial by combat (also known as the judicial duel) emphasizes its underlying rationale as a stylized performance of justice. The ritual deserves particular note when rule obscures justice, as it comes to do in these plays. As medieval historian Talal Asad asserts, the purpose of the 269 270Comparative Drama trial by combat is to "provide rules for producing an unequivocal outcome on which a clear decision about social relations can be made."3 But when first Richard's and then Henry's right to the throne comes under attack, the custom of the trial by combat is stretched in an attempt to make its outcome answer more complicated questions oflegitimacy and power. To understand how Shakespeare uses the trial by combat, we must be aware of its significance during the late medieval period. While Shakespeare may have been inspired to open Richard II with the Bolingbroke-Mowbray dispute because of the duel's popularity in his own time, we should be careful not to confuse the early modern duel of honor with the legally authorized medieval trial by combat or the single combat of military tradition.4 The trial by combat, introduced to England by eleventh-centuryNormans,was an alternative to other forms ofjudgment and judicial ordeal.The purpose ofthe combat was to settle legal disputes in which neither side had adequate evidence to prove its case; in England it was eventually restricted, at least for the most part, to accusations of treason or felony and in disputes about title to land.5 Although this kind of trial only took place at the request of one of the parties involved, it remained under the aegis ofthe presidingjustice, who represented the Crown. In contrast,the duel ofhonor was attached to no court at all; a method of resolving often trivial personal quarrels, it was frowned on by authorities.6 At the time Shakespeare was representing the State-sponsored trial by combat onstage, the duels fought in the alleys of London and the meadows of Calais were extra-legal, though not yet illicit. The duel of honor differed from the trial by combat in weaponry, purpose, and significance. The duel of honor rose to prominence in England with the introduction ofthe Italian rapier; the subsequent profusion of fencing manuals and the celebrity status of Italian fencing-masters point to the value placed on learning how to use this new weapon. Unlike the more traditionally "English" broadsword, the rapier gave no advantage to superior strength. Success with a rapier depended on skills that could be acquired through training. In contrast, the weaponry of the trial by combat varied. The judicial duel was not restricted to the sword—traditionally an aristocrat's weapon—and could even be fought with clubs and shields because in theory, at least, neither strength nor skill decided the outcome. The ritual was an appeal to God Jennifer Low271 for adjudication; its outcome presumably indicated God's appraisal of the merits of the case.7 Victory held a different meaning for each ofthese two types ofcombat . The trial by combat settled legal questions: its outcome revealed the truth ofthe matter in dispute, thereby indicating to the presiding justice...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 269-290
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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