Monday, June 16, 2014

Shakespeare's Gentlemen

The unfailingly interesting Harold C. Goddard offers a typically provocative insight  inspired by what may be Shakespeare's least interesting play:
From The Two Gentlemen of Verona to The Tempest, without any deviation, he drew one portrait after another of the fashionable gentleman, either Italian or after the Italian model, and there is no possible mistaking what he thought of them, no matter how good their tailors or how "spacious" they themselves "in the possession of dirt" (as Hamlet remarked of Osric's real estate).  Boyer, Don Armando, Gratiano, Tybalt, the Claudio of Much Ado, Bertram, Parrolles, Si Andrew Aguecheek, the "popinjay" whom Hotspur scorned, Roderigo, Iachomo; these are just a few of the more striking examples, to whom should be added in spit of the anachronisms, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Osric, Paris (in Troilus and Cressida) and even, in some respects, men like Bassanio and Mercutio, not to mention many of the anonymous "gentlemen" and "lords" scattered throughout the plays.  Let anyone who doubts trace the word "gentleman" with the help of a concordance in the texts of Shakespeare's works as a whole. He will be surprised, I think, to find how often the situation or context shows it to be used with ironical intent.' 
There is a story that Abraham Lincoln, on being told that in England no gentleman ever blacks his own boots, asked in his quiet manner, "Whose boots does he black?"  If I am not mistaken, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, even more quietly, makes the same point.
So Goddard in The Meaning of Shakespeare, vol. 1, 47 (1951).  Yes.  Well.  But where exactly does that leave the most remarkable of young gentlemen, Hamlet himself, not to say Hamlet's staunch companion, Horatio?  One might object that that they are not "after the Italian model," but this is to confuse effect with cause.  The problem is not that Italians are popinjays; it is that popinjays adopt the Italian manner. And this is precisely what Hamlet and Horatio did not do. What saved them, I wonder, from so dismal a fate?

Afterthought:  And cf.:

    And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
    Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
    And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
    That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

So Henry V on the eve of Agincourt, in the play of his name, Act IV, Scene 3.   But then, where else would you expect to find a "gentleman?" when there is work to be done?


Dan Kervick said...

I think Shakespeare's targets are usually either a certain kind aspirant gentleman-courtier, or the worthless, brutal and indolent gentleman-aristocrat. But for every type that is portrayed unsympathetically in one character, you can usually find a closely corresponding character portrayed sympathetically. A few notes:

- Parolles isn't a gentleman. He is a vagabond rogue, and effectively Bertram's servant, who has managed to pass himself off as a gentleman to some but is seen through by LaFew, in part due to his gauche and flamboyant style of dress.

- The gentlemen abed in England that Henry V speaks of are only some of the gentlemen of England. Others are standing in front of him. So it's a mixed case.

- Shakespeare himself seems to have put in substantial effort to obtain a coat of arms and become a gentleman.

- There is a comic converstation near the end of the Winter's Tale among Autolycus, the shepherd and the shepherd's son. The father and son are newly-made gentlemen, go on funnily about being "gentlemen born."

- One of the best skewerings of the italianate courtier is Touchstone's discourse on the seven degrees of courtly quarreling.

-Postive and negative portrayals of gentlemanliness are sometimes preent in the same character, for example in Romeo's evolution from affected and infatuated Petrarchan melancholic to valiant and true lover.

-Troilus and Cressida sends up the decadent and ridiculous ceremonial chivalry of the late 16th century, where the Trojan War itself seems more of a tournamental tilt than an actual war, where the battles are just occasions for superstar preening and unserious "coping" in front of infatuated schoolgirls, and where rituals of courtly and gentlemanly devotion to virtuous ladies are acted out by people like the vain and irresponsible Paris and the lascivious bubblehead Helen. Yet the war does eventually become a real war, and when the chivalry of the very decent Hector is defeated by the ignoble Machiavellian scheming of Ulysses and cowardly brutishness of the lazy aristocrat Achilles, something very sad seems to have happened.

Buce said...

Fascinating Dan, thanks for your thoughts.