‘We’re sitting here like a couple regular fellas. You do what you do. I do what I gotta do. And now that we have been face-to-face, if I am there and I got to put you away?
I won’t like it. But, if it’s you, or some poor bastard whose wife you’re going to turn into a widow, brother, you are gonna go down.’ [a]
What if Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots had met … ?
‘How do they know it’s him (or her)?’
This question comes up more often than you’d think, in teaching Shakespeare.
My Dearest Partner of Greatness might (and does) snort a contemptuous ‘harrumph‘ every time I mention a play that involves disguises, but IDENTITY – how you fashion yourself, but how others fashion you – is at the centre of many of the plays, and indeed the Elizabethan era.
What I’m interested in most, today, is the way others see us. I’m probably nudged in this direction by my current reading of 1 Henry IV, and last Friday’s forensic treatment of Hal’s first soliloquy. So I’m focusing exclusively on histories and tragedies.
First, how do we recognise others?
Remember (and I do have to remind students, sometimes), that the plays pre-date social media, and indeed photography. So, we ought to be a little more spooked when the witches ‘all hail Macbeth, Thane of Glamis‘: they can have had no real way of recognising the random, bloodstained men they accost on the heath. Similarly, in several battles (examples in 1 Henry IV and Richard III) we see people employing decoys – Sir Walter Blunt pays for this service to his boss with his life towards the end of the former. Clearly the strategy is effective, and yet it always smacks of ‘cheating’ somehow, almost cowardly, and I’ve noted that it’s invariably characters I dislike (Henry IV and Richmond) who employ it. Elizabethan England was, of course, governed by strict Sumptuary Laws, so if you couldn’t recognise the face, you could at least make a decent guess as to the station, based on apparel. The rest comes down to those elaborate battlefield introductions we see so frequently. They sound clumsy to us, sometimes, but ‘back in them days‘, as I read far too often …
The other question, and the subject of this week’s QotW is how we perceive others, others who we haven’t met. I’m interested in how reports of a rival, which can’t be fact-checked or put into perspective by a face-to-face meeting, invariably monsterize that opponent.
I think we see this now, in the UK in 2019, in all sorts of intolerances towards foreigners and other cultures. I think it’s one reason why more multi-cultural areas voted ‘remain’ in 2016: it’s hard to be racist or xenophobic about immigrants when you live and work alongside them, and can see for yourself that they are no different to you …
Back to Shakespeare, and his Queen. In 1 Henry IV, I often wonder what might have happened had Hal and Hotspur met before the battle of Shrewsbury. This week’s quotation comes from Jane Dunn, but could equally apply to the play as to the two regnant queens she is describing:
“To have a rival living next door presents its own particular problems. To have a rival in such proximity, but one you never meet, inflates the imagination. Character lours into caricature, conversations relayed through third parties inevitably grow distorted and facts become sullied with the interests of others. When that rival claims not only one’s God-given vocation, the very purpose of one’s life, but also one’s identity and birthright, threatens even life itself, the rivalry becomes a mortal combat.” [b]
Dunn suggests that Elizabeth I studiously avoided meeting Mary, Queen of Scots, because she was wary of the latter’s reputed ability to charm everyone she came into contact with. Mary, on the other hand, unceasingly requested such meetings all through her correspondence with her rival, perhaps confident in such abilities. The queens both asked for detailed descriptions, of each others’ appearances and skills.
‘Only connect!‘, EM Forster said. [c] What might have happened had these two women connected, face to face?
[a] Heat (dir. Michael Mann, 1995) Quotation taken from here
[b] Jane Dunn, Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens, (London: Harper Perennial, 2004)
[c] EM Forster, ‘Howard’s End’ (1910)