Transvaluing violence and injured bodies


In Henry IV war and injuring are cleansed of their customary negative, destructive associations when placed within religious and chivalric discourses. The materiality of the mutilated or dead bodies is insisted upon, only to have it transcended. These bodies become essential to the legitimisation of military enterprises; they are relied upon to substantiate values.

A clear case of such transvaluation is Henry IV's employment of the crusade. (Mention should be made of the fact that initially, that is at the close of Richard II, Henry intended to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Significantly, plans for the pilgrimage have turned into a projection of crusade.) Henry IV insists on the redeeming and purging qualities of a crusade as an alternative to civil war. The assumed sacredness of the goal — war is now waged under the banner of the "blessed cross" — is expected to transfigure the participants and to cleanse off the inevitably negative effects of the military action. By chasing the "pagans in those holy fields/ Over whose acres walked those blessed feet" (24), Henry hopes to channel the potential for violence of his nobles away from home to "strands far remote". A crusade would further help him overcome internal division and armed feuds and replace the warring factions with " mutual well-beseeming ranks [which would] march all one-way". Apart from these obvious benefits for England, a crusade promises to recuperate the sacramental authority that Henry, being a usurper, could not possibly attain otherwise (Howard, 161).

Couched in the terms of religious piety, war no longer involves destruction and pollution. Injuring is either obscured or presented as a form of bloodletting that has purging effects. The King will only revert to a grim view of war in the final act of the play, when he blames his enemies for the destructiveness of "all-abhorred war", visualized as a "churlish knot" (a pun upon "not", denoting its function to negate whatever is natural), which they are going to "unknit". (5.115-16)

Chivalric values and codes can also transvalue pain and injuring. Pain and suffering are obliterated, whereas the wounded body is invested with positive values derived from the chivalric code. With a few notable exceptions this is the prevailing mode in which fighting is discussed in the play.

When Henry describes the defeat of the Scots by Hotspur he does focus upon dead bodies: "ten thousand bold Scots, two-and twenty knights/ Balked in their blood" (1.1.68-69) The editors of the New Cambridge edition of the play explain that "balked" means heaped up in rows.[3] The image of a pile of dead bodies would be shocking to a contemporary audience, Henry, however, reads it in a triumphalist key: the bodies stand for an "honourable spoil" and earn the King's sincere admiration for Hotspur's military feat. Hotspur is praised as "the theme of honour's tongue" (80) and is contrasted with his own son, whose brow is stained not with the enemy's blood but with riot and dishonour (84).

It should come as no surprise that it is in Hotspur's discourse, i.e. that of the greatest champion of chivalric values, that most of the work of transvaluation of violence in the play should be performed. Injuring and killing are glamorised and appropriated within the discourse of chivalric honour. In his poetic account of the single combat between Mortimer and Glendower the blood from their wounds turned the river Severn red. It was made to

"Run fearfully among the trembling reeds,

And hide his crisp head in the hollow bank

Bloodstained with these valiant combatants (1.3.106-109)

The language is that of old chivalric romances. However, the political context of both the fight and of Hotspur's account of it is one of political complicity and duplicity. Glendower, the head of the Welsh army, is a rebel. Mortimer is another danger to the throne as his claim to the crown was more solid than Henry's: Richard II had named Mortimer his legal successor. Hotspur will later lead a rebellion that justifies itself by claiming to return the crown to its legitimate heir, i.e. to Mortimer. No wonder that to King Henry the combat between Mortimer and Glendower is politically suspect from the very start. As Mortimer could not vanquish Glendower, the whole enterprise is devoid of glory and can only breed further trouble.

Hotspur takes a radically different perspective. The valour displayed in the combat has a value in itself, which cannot be affected by the political context in which it is placed. Hotspur wants to place heroic valour beyond power games and beyond even the bonds of loyalty owed to the King. Chivalric honour is to enjoy an absolute status in a space free of political and hence of contingent determinations. Wounds are central to Hotspur's attempt to define his own particular version of honour, understood outside the conventional bounds of political allegiance. Wounds are repositories of absolute value and truth. Their very material existence confirms Mortimer's valour and honour —"to prove that true/Needs no more but one tongue for all those wounds, /Those mouthed wounds". (95-96). Wounds are invested with symbolic value, they are conferred the status of an "authentic" reality which is unambiguous and unquestionable. The symbolic reality of the wounds cancels out all negative political meanings that Henry associates with Mortimer, such as the label of a rebel.

Standing for some ultimate truth, wounds are pitted against the false appearances of Machiavellian politics: "Never did bare and rotten policy/ Colour her working with such deadly wounds" (106-107). What Hotspur is targeting at is of course the King, who is notorious for scheming and plotting and for being adept at "counterfeiting" and manipulating his political image.[4]

Hotspur's valuation of wounds as some ultimate, genuine essence or reality must be understood against the general anxiety of the play about the possibilities of "counterfeiting", that is of simulating and thereby of falsifying and debasing that which is genuine and unique. Hotspur's statement also anticipates the moment during the Shrewsbury battle when Douglas keeps encountering " counterfeit" figures of the king, namely soldiers dressed up as and passing for the king. Douglas is outraged at the series of simulacra, which are also simulacra of royalty questioning the very existence of the genuine thing. Douglas is determined not to give up and "kill the entire wardrobe" until he finds the real king.

Hotspur's account of battles constructs the world along binary oppositions— on the one hand the world of truth, structured around chivalric valour inscribed in wounds and on the other hand the "counterfeit" world of politics. In this dualistically conceived world, Henry IV is thought to have opted for politics and thus to have forfeited the role that he was expected to play in Richard II, where Northumberland hoped he would "make majesty look more like itself". Henry's position is contested. Paradoxically, Hotspur, the future rebel, is identified as the representative of the "true" values. The situation in Richard II is therefore reiterated. Henry's political position might actually be worse as he lacks Richard's legitimacy.

The ideals of chivalric action are invested with legitimating power and no ruler can openly dissociate himself from them. Though he can no longer claim to represent them in the political sphere, Henry IV professes his unflagging commitment to these ideals. This comes out of his praise of Hotspur, of his wish that Hotspur were his son and had been swapped with Hal at their birth. Neither has Prince Hal any choice but to endorse these values. Though "a truant to chivalry" during most of the play, he is aware that, in order to defend his position as heir apparent, he has to engage in a contest with Hotspur. His promise to his father to prove himself equal to his princely role is couched in the same chivalric language that transvalues injury and bloodshed:

I shall redeem all this on Percy's head,

And in the closing of some glorious day

Be bold to tell you that I am your son,

When I will wear a garment all of blood,

And stain my favours in a bloody mask,

Which, washed away, shall scour my shame with it. (3.2.131-137)

To return to Hotspur's discourse, it is not only wounds that are subjected to a process of resignification but so are corpses and their stench. In his account of his encounter with the King's foppish messenger in act one, scene three, the battlefield with corpses and everything on it are invested with an aura of heroic manliness. To reject this sight as something abject, as the King's messenger does, signifies utmost effeminacy. Effeminacy has to be understood as the demonised opposite of the virile virtue that is glamorised in the play. To be effeminate in the chronicle plays is to be the other. The role the fop plays in Hotspur's description is to enforce his position and substantiate his values while at the same time to indicate the extent to which the king, having such messengers, has fallen away from these values. The fop's emasculated appearance and behaviour is unanimously accepted as a justification for Hotspur's disrespectful treatment of the king. It is a valid excuse for Hotspur's capital transgression of having refused the king the prisoners that were due to him.

What seems to have been particularly irritating to Hotspur about the foppish messenger was not exactly his clothes (all neat and trim), or his sweet smell (he was perfumed like a milliner), nor his talking " so like a waiting gentlewoman", but his pouncet-box.(1.3.35) This is a box with aromatic herbs which " he held between the thumb and his finger" and "which ever and anon/ He gave his nose, and took't away again" because he could not stand the smell of blood and of decaying bodies.[5] The foppish messenger, who anticipates Osric in Hamlet or Oswald in King Lear, cannot abide the world of battles and implicitly of bodies and their stench. To him dead bodies are not transfigured, they are just "slovenly unhandsome" and their stench is abusive. (42). His response to the grim situation of the battlefield serves as a foil to set off and legitimate Hotspur's actions. His very effeminacy ensures Hotspur's masculinity, his weakness and cowardice enhance Hotspur's valour.

Another most interesting instance of transvaluation in Hotspur's speech is his equation of war with hard work. After the battle, Hotspur felt exhausted with "rage and extreme toil". War and fighting thus takes on the positive and constructive connotations that work enjoyed in the Reformation period. When parodying Hotspur, Hal also insists on the equation of fighting/killing with work: "he that kills me some six or seven dozen Scots at breakfast, washes his hands, and says to his wife, `fie upon this quiet life, I want work.' " (2.4.89-90). Henry IV's repeated efforts to put down rebellions are also perceived as a piece of work. When the last rebel is quashed, his illness sets in, fact which is read as fortune's way of telling that he has finished his job. Not all wounds are subjected to transvaluation, not all violence in the battlefield is glamorised. Wounds inflicted in the border warfare against the Welsh are shown to be debasing. The margins - Scotland and Wales - are perceived as potentially dangerous areas inhabited by the "other" who challenges the authority of the English. The Welsh pose a particular threat. "The irregular and wild Glendower" and his men are said to have "butchered" a thousand English soldiers. Particularly outrageous is the violence committed by the Welsh women who are reported to have committed shameful crimes such as castrating the bodies of the English soldiers fallen on the battlefield:

Upon whose dead corpse there was such misuse,

Such beastly shameless transformation,

By those Welshwomen done, as may not be

Without much shame retold or spoken of" (1.1. 44-46)

The materiality of wounds is no longer resignified and glorified. In these cases injuring is revealed to debase the body. The wounds inflicted by the Welsh women go counter the chivalric code and values. This is the only instance where the abject vulnerability of the injured body is thematized.

As Howard and Rackin have shown, Wales is identified as the scene of emasculation and female power. (Howard, 170) When the Welsh do not "butcher" the English, they bewitch and seduce them so as to eventually emasculate them. This is what happens to Mortimer, who having been captured by Glendower marries his daughter. Doting upon his wife, Mortimer turns from a chivalric warrior into a chivalric "servant".[6] Glendower's poetry and his daughter's singing do nothing but displace the Welsh women's barbarism in the battlefield. Glendower's daughter shares with her countrywomen the wild spirit that refuses to be domesticated: she will intrude upon the masculine space of the battlefield—"She'll be a soldier too, she'll to the wars" (3.1.193).Having lost his manhood to female enchantment, Mortimer prefers what he calls the "feeling disputation" (3.2.203) of kisses with his wife to military battle. He all but abandons the pursuit of his right to the throne and when it comes to joining the battle he is "as slow/ As hot Lord Percy is on fire to go" (3.1.263-4). Mortimer's dotage on his wife, his decision to learn Welsh, the language of the other, instead of having his wife learn English, emasculate him and render him unfit to rule the kingdom. Though his claim to the throne is valid from a legal perspective, theatrically it is discredited. Mortimer cannot be an acceptable alternative to Henry IV. One could argue that Shakespeare insisted upon his effeminate aspects on purpose so as to have enough room to manipulate the audience's sympathies towards the King and his son. The fact that Mortimer and Hotspur joined hands with the Welsh definitely pleaded against him as an alternative to Henry IV.

Mortimer is not the only one who is discredited in an enterprise that rallies the enemies from the margins. Hotspur also is "contaminated". His enterprise incurs heavy losses in legitimacy and political capital. The most critical moment is when he is shown together with Glendower and Douglas casually dividing the country into three parts. This mutilating injury inflicted upon the body of England is neither transfigured nor can it be forgiven.

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