It wasn’t till I got to University that I came across Malcolm’s ‘king becoming graces’ in Macbeth. I thought them startling – an almost impudent challenge to James I about what the country expected from their new monarch, in a play which, I’m increasingly convinced, is all about what it means to be a ‘man’:
As justice, verity, temperance, stableness,
Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,
Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude, (IV, iii) [a]
But what of those in the level below? What were the expectations placed on nobles and courtiers?
AL Rowse‘s book cost just £1, and it was slightly tangental to what I am / should be reading at the moment. Still, it’s fairly readable – even if the scope does extend into areas like architecture – so it’s found it’s way off the slopes of Mount Tsundoku and into the tent I’ve been sleeping in this week (hence this being a little late).
I’ve a feeling that, as so many books do, Rowse has given me a lead to something else I’ll meander through at some stage: Castiglione‘s Il Cortegiano (or The Book of the Courtier) – which, luckily, is available for free here. The book was first printed in England in 1561, which I think places it nicely into the kind of reading our playwrights would be doing as they matured. It feels like a decent complementary follow-up to my ambles round Bacon‘s ‘Essays’ earlier this week – I find the advice given by people like Machiavelli and Bacon (and perhaps in time Castiglione) utterly compelling.
We see here works which must have influenced Shakespeare in his characterisation. Where those characters make decisions which seem unfathomable to us today, their motivations become clearer, the plotting less ludicrous, the overall experience of the plays that much more satisfying, with a little of this sort of knowledge under your belt.
Anyway, here’s Rowse, referencing Castiglione, in another version of the ‘king becoming graces’. Immediately, I thought of the conversation between Spenser and Baldock in Edward II, where the latter is urged to ‘cast the scholar off, and learn to court it like a gentleman’ if he wants to succeed. It’s the nearest I have found to Marlowe speaking autobiographically in the play.
In terms of Shakespeare, my first thought here is of Don Pedro’s party in Much Ado …
‘However cynically we may be inclined to reflect that Castiglione was more honoured in the breach than in the observance, it is more remarkable how closely the profession of courtier, even in England, adhered to his specification [as outlined in Il Cortegiano]. The courtier should be born a gentleman and of a good house. He should have a comely shape of person and countenance, be intelligent and have a certain grace. (We have seen how true this was of the men Elizabeth delighted to honour, Leicester, Hatton, Oxford, Ralegh, Essex, Mountjoy.) A courtier, above all, should be a man of courage, good at feats of arms, and skilled in the use of his weapon, quick to make use of advantage in the quarrels that arise. […] The courtier should be a skilled rider, an addict of manly exercises, especially hunting.’ [b]
Benedick is all these things – and a rubbish poet, to boot …
[b] A.L. Rowse, The Elizabethan Renaissance: The Life of the Society (Cardinal: London, 1974)