The pursuit of honour as destructive expenditure


The transvaluation of the injuries produced in war within the discourse of chivalry has to be related with the pursuit of honour. When conceived of in the terms of the military codes, within a militarist ideology, honour feeds on the injuries inflicted.

To what extent was chivalric honour still a key value in the late 1560s? Michael Hattaway considers it a both a residual ideology, which is registered in archaizing texts, such as Spencer's Fairie Queen, and a dominant one as registered in the way Queen Elizabeth turned her chastity to power. (Hattaway, 133) Originally chivalry was an ethic for legitimating war, hence the importance of the injured bodies to the honour of the knight. In the Elizabethan period, however, as Lawrence Stone has pointed out, the capacity of the barons to carry on warfare on their own and challenge the monarch had been seriously impaired by the absolutist policy, whereby the state monopolized violence in the country.(Stone, 73) The danger of aristocratic violence that the chronicle plays dramatize, was considerably reduced by the convergence of a number of factors, most important among which was the all-pervading influence of central government. The very notion of loyalty underwent a significant change as local loyalties were subsumed under allegiance to the king. As the nobles increasingly spent more time at Court, their relations with the client gentry weakened, their castles fell into ruins and their military equipment rusted in their armoires. They were further discouraged from keeping either armed bodyguards or numerous retainers. The nobility was losing the military capacity to challenge the sovereign as well as the technical capacity for leadership in war. Further to the crucial victories of the Crown over the nobility, the latter eventually abandoned their age-old habits of casual violence. As I noted in the previous chapter, the popularity of militarism and of heroic, chivalric values in the Elizabethan period was by and large the product of nostalgia. Sir Walter Raleigh described this situation and signals the transfer of power from the nobles to the king and his administrative apparatus, represented by the justices of peace:

The lords in former times were far stronger, more warlike, better followed, living in their countries, than now they are. Your lordship may remember in your reading that there were many earls could bring into the field a thousand barbed horses, many a baron five or six hundred horses, whereas now very few of them can furnish twenty to serve the king. But to say the truth, my lord, the justices of peace in England have opposed the injustices of war in England; the king's writ runs all over, and the great seal of England, with that of the next constables, will serve the turn to affront the greatest lords in England, that move against the King. The force therefore by which our kings in former times were troubled is vanished away, but the necessities remain. (Raleigh, 130)

The rising fortunes of the Earl of Essex during the last decade of the sixteenth century seem to gainsay this and to show that there was still a lot of political value and power left in the ideas of military honour and chivalry. As Mervyn Jones has shown, Essex defined himself and his objectives through a proud and militant code of honour, which preserved medieval features.[7] Essex's move was basically a nostalgic one: he looked for a pattern of behaviour in the actions of the historical Percy and used the chronicles and their theatrical dramatization as a source for information and suggestions. Herbert and Judith Weil consider that Essex couched his justification for his treacherous behaviour in terms that were reminiscent of the excuse the Percy family gave. In the rebellion of 1405, which he lead with Northumberland, the Archbishop of York maintained that he was in arms "for fear of the king, to whom we have no free accesse, by reason of such a multitude of flatterers as were about him."[8] Essex, too, described his rebellion as a way of circumventing the flatterers surrounding Queen Elizabeth.

John Guy thinks that Essex took the chivalric model to excess, fighting duels, cultivating a military clientele and posturing as a hero. Guy is mainly interested in models of the recent history that might have influenced Essex and mentions the Protestant militant nobles such as Leicester, Walsingham and the Sidneys. When admitted to the Privy Council in 1593, Essex championed an offensive strategy, urging land campaigns in Europe and even tried to resume Leicester's efforts at sponsoring a Protestant coalition. (Guy, 440-41) What, however, made Essex famous was less the religious aspect rather than the reinvestment of feudal values. His intentions were to change the administrative system and the balance of power in England and to resort to the martial law. Thus he would institute military rather than civil patronage. This system had been introduced in Ireland but was basically alien to the English common law. This meant that the power and rule in the provinces should go to the military nobility and should no longer be wielded by the civil magistracy (i.e. the justices of peace that Raleigh presents in the excerpt quoted above). Since the late fifteenth century, this "politics of violence" had been eschewed in England and was only employed in Ireland. But if Essex's rebellion had succeeded, Guy speculates, things might have been different.( Guy, 443-43)

Essex's understanding of power was intimately related to his views on honour and chivalric values. He made frequent references to his rights under the "law of nature", by which he meant his belief in the nobility's right to use violence in the defence of honour and the pursuit of "legitimate" political ends.

The relationship between honour and violence in Essex's career bears close relevance to the way Shakespeare treated Hotspur's pursuit of honour. Hotspur's decision to join the rebellion planned by Northumberland is motivated and legitimated at the same time by the need he feels to preserve his own and his family's honour. An action of revenge might help Hotspur set time back and set it right at the same time, by washing off the shame that is attached to his family's name. Notice how Hotspur wants to re-write history:

Shall it for shame be spoken in these days,

Or fill up chronicles in time to come,

That men of your nobility and power

Did gage them both in an unjust behalf-

As both of you, God pardon, have done-

To put down Richard, that sweet lovely rose,

And plant this thorn, this canker Bullingbrook?

And shall it in more shame be further spoken,

That you are fooled, discarded, and shook off

By him for whom these shames ye underwent? (1.3.167- 178)

Hotspur judges the events taking an opposite perspective to the one endorsed in Richard II. Hotspur's use of words such as "plant this thorn, this canker", "rose" recalls the Gardener's political meditation in Richard II, but he reverses the roles in which Richard and Bullingbrook were initially cast. It is Bullingbrook now who is the "canker", whereas in Richard II Bullingbrook's mission was precisely to rid the country of cankers such as Richard. What follows from this inversion, where the King is described as the "canker", is that Hotspur should now assume the mission that Bullingbrook once had, namely to root out the weeds and clean the overgrown garden of the commonwealth. Henry IV notices the similarity in position between his former self and Hotspur, but, of course, does not identify himself with the "canker". The characters seem to make up a chain of similar and interchangeable subject positions, a chain which spans past and present — there is Bullingbrook and Hotspur on the one hand and Essex on the other.

Hotspur, not unlike Essex, thinks he has the right if not the duty to use violence (revenge) to scour the shame off his family's name, "to redeem" their "banished honours" and to write a new script for later chronicles. He conceives of his mission as one of redemption:

No yet time serves wherein you may redeem

Your banished honours, and restore yourselves

Into the good thoughts of the world again:

Revenge the jeering and disdained contempt

Of this proud King... (178-182)

In a way Hotspur vies with Hal in trying to redeem the past. Hotspur has the past of his family to redeem and the prince has his own frivolous life to make up for. In the famous monologue at the end of act one, scene one, Hal promises to make amends for his own past and to "redeem time" (1.3.176). The prince intends to pay a debt he never promised (169). Although his words refer to the narrow context of his own "reformation", as will be shown later on, the religious overtones inscribe a messianic dimension in which Hal is supposed to redeem English history.

Hotspur's insistence upon honour as a way to legitimate his actions must have sounded convincing, even if rather old-fashioned, to the Elizabethan audience. Shakespeare reduces the favourable impact he makes upon the audience by exaggerating his chivalric posture. His aristocratic spiritedness, his human explosiveness is made to appear almost comic. Hotspur is so carried away with fantasies of honour that he keeps talking like a woman. Northumberland loses his patience listening to him:

Why, what a wasp-stung and impatient fool

Art thou to break into this woman's mood,

Tying thine ear to no tongue but thine own. (1.3.233-235)

Gail Pater Kern associates Hotspur's physical impulsiveness and restlessness with an outmoded feudal pattern of behaviour which the new discipline that the Renaissance had introduced tried to suppress. (Kern, 21) Hotspur's pursuit of honour eventually appears un-realistic, remote and hence archaic:

"By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap,

To pluck bright honour from the pale fac'd moon

Or dive into the bottom of the deep,

Where fathom-line could never touch the ground,

And pluck up drowned honour by the locks.. (1.3.199-2003).

Hotspur's total commitment to honour even to the point of flouting his instinct of self-conservation could be analysed in terms of the depense, the destructive expenditure, which Richard Halpern has described as follows:

Depense resembles aristocratic expense but perfects it, in a sense, by refusing to recoup its losses... it moves to the realm of the gamble, the challenge, suicide, madness and hence it has available to it not only material wealth but a wider range of symbolic materials, including life itself.(Halpern, 264) When Hotspur finds out that neither Northumberland nor Glendower will join him and that the King's army outnumbers them, he cries out: "Doomsday is near. Die all, die merrily." (4.2.134) Hotspur's readiness to meet death has a touch of orgiastic joy that is suspect from the perspective of Christian values. This attitude is indicative of lack of responsibility. Hotspur's investment in military, chivalric honour is questioned and eventually dismissed. The dramatic economy of the play as well as the delicate balance Shakespeare strikes between supporting and questioning the authority of the king requires that Hotspur should eventually be deflated. His own death is a kind of anti-climax and channels all sympathy towards Prince Hal.

Unlike the injuries he himself has glamorised, Hotspur's wounds are no longer invested with heroic value. They have to be read against a different system of meaning than the one he has previously employed. The dying Hotspur senses that there is a void of value hollowing out his life, now that he has lost out to Hal:

But thoughts, the slaves of life, and life and time's fool,

And time, that takes survey of all the world,

Must have a stop......

........ No, Percy, thou art dust,

And food for- (5.7. 79-85)

Alexander Legatt has compared Hotspur's dying speech with Macbeth's speech uttered upon hearing of his wife's death: "And all our yesterdays have lighted fools/ The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle (5.1. 22-24).[9] Hotspur's dying perception of life is like Macbeth's drained of all meaning and purpose.

His dead body is also deprived of all military aura. The injuries no longer stand for the absolute values of chivalry: his face is "mangled" which suggests a loss in integrity, dignity and honour. Hal has to hide it with his "favours", presumably the ostrich feathers stuck to his helmet. In doing so he does his former rival a "favour". It is Hal who has won a new face and Hotspur who has lost his. Violence substantiates one, previously unanchored self- presentation and de-realizes and undoes the other. (Scarry,132) Further focus on the radical materiality of Hotspur's dead body is designed to signify the derealization, the reduction of the world of power that the living Hotspur had managed to create around him. Now this world of ambition and glory has "shrunk" dramatically. When the body contained a spirit "A kingdom for it was too small a bound/ But now two paces of the vilest earth /Is room enough" (5.4.87-89)..

Having been drained of value, Hotspur's dead body can easily be appropriated to various purposes and can be debased in the process. Falstaff claims that it is his and carries it around on his back. Worse still, he injures the dead body in a way that is reminiscent of the castrating mutilations perpetrated by the Welsh women upon the bodies of the English soldiers.


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