Saturday, February 19, 2011

King Arthur

So today I was hanging out watching one of the many King Arthur movies, and a question dawned. Surely this story is far older than Shakespeare. Would Shakespeare have known this story? Do we have any idea why he chose not to tell it? I realize that there were many stories to retell and obviously he couldn't retell them all, just curious whether this one was significant back then and there was a reason why he never put his spin on it.



19 comments:

Dana Huff said...

I have been wondering that myself for years, especially when he tells more obscure stories about Leir (Lear) and Kymbelinus/Cunobelinus (Cymbeline), who are also in Geoffrey of Monmouth. It's a great gaping hole in the Shakespeare canon. What more "British" story is there? And it would have been so good with the Shakespeare treatment. I just can't believe Shakespeare wouldn't have known it, as Malory's version predates Shakespeare by 100 years. I think you probably find more Arthur stories in the Middle Ages than the Renaissance, but he never really went away completely.

Jon said...

I think the "he couldn't tell them all" idea is apt. As one looks through his canon, hardly any tell "classic" widely-known stories, am I right? The English and Roman historical narratives perhaps come close, and there had been other Hamlets (though I don't recall it being one of the central sagas). Otherwise, the nearest examples I can recall are Troilus and Cressida from the Trojan war legends and the collaborative Two Noble Kinsmen (both of which Chaucer had already told). Perhaps the also-collaborative Pericles, being an adventure story, belongs here too.

I can recall one reference to King Arthur in canonical Shakespeare, and maybe there are more: Mistress Quickly mourns the death of Falstaff, sure that he is 'in Arthur's bosom" -- in mistake for "Abraham's bosom," whereby she has confused two impressive A names.

In fact, one of the plays falsely attributed to Shakespeare does touch on the Arthur legends: The Birth of Merlin. It happens before Arthur's birth. Uther Pendragon and Merlin himself (born adult) are the only recognizable characters in it. The original title page names as authors William Shakespeare and William Rowley, but I think it is safe to say that no one now accepts the Shakespeare authorship.

Having seen the RSC's Arthur play last summer at Stratford, I have to also speculate (semi-frivolously, but partly seriously) that Shakespeare's good dramatic sense kept him away from it. It's very hard to make a good play out of it, it's just "one damn thing after another" and only toward the end does it acquire anything like a structure.

Cass said...

I know someone who actually wrote her Master's thesis about this. He absolutely would've known the story -- apart from it being in Geoffrey of Monmouth and other sources we know he pulled from, the stories were popular in "lesser" forms of theatre -- puppetry, May Day festivities, etc. But --

The Arthur myth was hugely connected with the Tudor mythos -- they connected to Arthur through their Welsh background -- yet not only Shakespeare, but most other playwrights of the era neglected the topic. There are only a couple -- I think perhaps literally two, though I could have that wrong -- plays on the Arthurian mythos. I believe my classmate hypothesized that the topic may have been considered more proprietary to royal prerogative, so it could've been safer to avoid it rather than risk offending. (Sort of like how Shakespeare didn't write about the Tudors until after Elizabeth was dead).

Dominic Hughes said...

Funny you should mention this...there is a novel coming out in April concerning a man named Arthur Phillips [the author's name is also Arthur Phillips]whose con artist father leaves him a lost Shakespeare play -- "The Tragedy of Arthur" [also the name of the novel]. One of the most interesting things about the book is that it contains the five-act play alleged to be Shakespeare's work. It is available in advance from Amazon at...http://www.amazon.com/Tragedy-Arthur-Novel-Phillips/dp/1400066476

Wee Katie said...

Cass is right. Not only did Arthurian legend not make it onto the Renaissance stage often, but the stories also didn't make it onto the stage at all before the contemporary age, which is frustrating for us Arthurian enthusiasts who study drama. Why not? I am as befuddled as anyone else; it seems like ripe material for the picking. Medieval romances (of which the Arthurian legend is the prime, but not only, example) were a very popular source of entertainment during late medieval/early renaissance times. By Shakespeare's time, they were not as in vogue, though. Maybe it's sort of like how the traditional family sitcom (Leave it to Beaver, etc.) has been ousted for sitcoms about non-family units--30 Rock, the Office, Seinfeld, Friends. Although Modern Family takes the old thing and makes it new again.

catkins said...

I think Wee Katie stumbled on the right word -- romance. Although some of the late plays are sometimes referred to as romances, they are nothing of the sort. The Shakespeare canon has nothing to do with romance. It is comedy, tragicomedy, and tragedy. Shakespeare did not write romances. I do not think that sort of stuff interested him. Tragedy and comedy are much more complex than romance and Shakespeare was, I think, interested in complicated interactions.
Just my opinion.
--Carl

Shakespeare girl said...

I've thought about this too, especially looking at the Arthurian revival in the 19th century - the pre-raphaelite painters wanted to their work to draw on noble literary source materials from the past, so they focused on Arthurian legend and Shakespeare, but the two source "worlds" don't really meet.

I agree that there is no way that Shakespeare would not have been familiar with the Arthurian legends - Arthur was an absolutely ubiquitous cultural reference through the mid and late Middle Ages and up into the Renaissance with Malory. One could take a simple romance about a lesser knight and simply by identifying the story as connected to Arthur and his court, we have all that baggage - of a lost golden age, treachery and loss - somehow linked to the story. To take Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Tale" as just one example, the narrator drops Arthur's name right at the beginning and just like that, we're oriented into a very familiar world of magical romance - Arthur as automatic shorthand to get us into the genre.

I agree with Wee Katie that Arthurian romance was probably just out of style at the time Shakespeare was writing. Malory was a hundred years before Shakespeare, after all; Morte d'Arthur is one of the latest of the important Arthurian texts, and Malory was drawing on literally hundreds of years of legend and romance for his shaping of the story.

For what it's worth though, there's a tiny reference to Pendragon in Act 3 scene 2 of Henry VI part 1.

Alexi said...

Carl, I think saying "Shakespeare didn't write romances" is a bit broad of a statement. I agree that Shakespeare didn't write any plays that focus primarily on feats of heroic derring-do. But is that really the only criterion for a romance? If we define romance slightly more broadly, as a heavily rhetorical work with a complex plot involving journeys and reunions, exotic locales, and magical elements, then the set of Shakespeare's works that are usually classified as romance (Tempest, Winter's Tale, Pericles, Two Noble Kinsmen, Cymbeline) fit right in. Of course these are qualitatively different from Arthurian romance, but they are romance nonetheless.

Why do I resist resorting to the term tragicomedy? Because it is hopelessly broad. What work in Shakespeare could not be defined as a tragicomedy? Even Comedy of Errors starts out with a very dark situation onstage. Tragicomedy is useless as a category when applied to Shakespeare.

Duane said...

You know, it just goes to show you never can guess at which topics are going to draw the conversation. 5 years, we've never mentioned King Arthur. I throw out a "Hey I just realized...." post off the top of my head and look at all the comments :)

Ed said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ed said...

Also, 'Robin Hood' was an extremely popular tale in the Elizabethan imagination, but is absent from Elizabethan drama. Some critics have argued that the story never hit the stage because censors wouldn't like 'Robin Hood's rebellious content, which makes sense to me. Having that said, here's what Shakespeare's 'Robin Hood' might have sounded like: http://www.robinhoodplay.com/

Alexi said...

Ed, there's an anonymous play of the period called "Look About You" which apparently features Robin Hood. I haven't seen it, but it's playing on the American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Stage in Staunton, Virginia. It could well be worth checking out. I'll listen to their podcast, that's for sure.

Fretful Porpentine said...

There are several Robin Hood plays, actually; there's also George a Greene, The Pinner of Wakefield, and a two-part series by Anthony Munday, The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon (a.k.a. Robin Hood) and The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon.

catkins said...

Alexi, I did not mean to get into a semantic argument. One can define romance and tragicomedy in different ways. I would simply say that Shakespeare did not write the sort of romantic tales that make up Arthurian legend. And I am not sure how much (if any) he wrote of Pericles and Two Noble Kinsmen, for that matter.
Or, if you prefer, I would just say he probably thought the legend too corny or lacking in dramatic interest.
--Carl

Unknown said...

Though I agree about the notion of Shakespeare rejecting the 'romance' part of the story of Arthur, it is also a tragedy of betrayal and familial feuds.
Much of the modern interpretation of Shakespeare's works being thematically centres on the nature of 'kingship' would seem totally central to much of the story of Arthur. The uniting of the kingdom under Arthur, the love story between Gwenivere and Lancelot and the plot of Morgane and Mordred: all these seem, in some ways, more Shakespearean than a lot of the Bard's own works.
It must, in my view, go down as one of the great lost opportunities in the history of culture!
As to Robin Hood, that I really think is a romance and without the metaphysical frisson of Shakespeare.

Unknown said...

Though I agree about the notion of Shakespeare rejecting the 'romance' part of the story of Arthur, it is also a tragedy of betrayal and familial feuds.
Much of the modern interpretation of Shakespeare's works being thematically centres on the nature of 'kingship' would seem totally central to much of the story of Arthur. The uniting of the kingdom under Arthur, the love story between Gwenivere and Lancelot and the plot of Morgane and Mordred: all these seem, in some ways, more Shakespearean than a lot of the Bard's own works.
It must, in my view, go down as one of the great lost opportunities in the history of culture!
As to Robin Hood, that I really think is a romance and without the metaphysical frisson of Shakespeare.

RachelAanstad said...

I suspect the religious turmoil of the time made any Arthurian themes impolitic to use. The legend of Arthur became very entwined with Catholic dogma.

Most likely Shakespeare avoided writing plays about Arthur for the same reason he wrote nothing about Christ or anything biblical at all.

It was just too dangerous.

John Wake said...

As an ex senior Detective, not an academic, not an historian just a realist I believe that Shakespeare DID actually construct a 'King Arthur'. It is known that Henry V11, the first Tudor and a Welshman, actually believed he was of King Arthur's lineage. He even called his son Arthur. This of course would not go down well in an English court and when Henry V111 became King he separated himself from any such lineage talk. I personally don't believe in Arthur anyway (wrote a police investigation into it, 'Camelot Inquisition') but basing a lot of circumstantial evidence in line I could imagine that Shakespeare's lineage (if looking back at Henry V11's propagation) could well have upset a later Tudor Court and it was banned. I looked at the Secret Society of King Arthur, Shakespeare's tutor, Jenkins and his overall knowledge of Mabinogion, Geoffrey of Monmouth's influences et al it is hard to imagine that there wasn't a 'King Arthur'. As with the Dissolution, the Tudors did what they wanted, including suppression by fear.

Anonymous said...

Two lovely Merlin references: Henry Hotspur in Henry IV, Part I, Act III, scene 1:

sometime he angers me
With telling me of the mouldwarp and the ant,
Of the dreamer Merlin and his prophecies,

and the Fool in King Lear, Act III, scene 2:

This prophecy Merlin shall make; for I live before his time.

What of the Faerie Queene, nothing if not Arthurian - in its own distinctive way!

Would a Shakespearean Arthurian play have resembled Francis Beaumont's The Knight of the Burning Pestle, or might he, like John Masefield in his day, have produced one largely serious, another, comical?

David Llewellyn Dodds