Royal Envy

by David P. Gontar (January 2014)

I.  Introduction: Situating Royal Envy

Successive soliloquies of Kings Henry the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth reflecting desperate envy of peasantry and proletarians are challenging for readers of Shakespeare. What do these discourses signify, and what are we to make of an apparent transmission of heterodox desire across three generations? While there may be no satisfactory answers, recent scholarship at least offers a context in which these déclassé iterations can be situated. In King-Commoner Encounters in the Popular Ballad, Elizabethan Drama, and Shakespeare, Rochelle Smith draws attention to the traditions of the English pastoral on the one hand and the King-Commoner Ballad on the other. Though the passages of regental envy cited below are not expressly addressed, her treatment of ballad and pastoral conventions allows us to trace a movement from fanciful rustication to a more sober-minded realism climaxing in late scenes of the King Henry VI trilogy. Following King Henry's encounter with the gamekeepers in Act 3, sc. 2, the glorification of the lesser ranks which had preoccupied three royal Lancastrian characters ends. As the red rose bleeds to ghastly white, such romantic conceits vanish from England, never to return.

II.  Speeches of Royal Envy

 a)  Introit: The Anxiety of King Richard II

As Richard Plantagenet huddles in his bare cold cell awaiting fate, his mind turns to ordinary mortals not plagued by sovereign miseries. Their very lowliness has spared them.

Thoughts tending to content flatter themselves
That they are not the first of fortune's slaves,
Nor shall not be the last — like seely beggars,
Who, sitting in the stocks, refuge their shame
That many have, and others must, set there;
And in this thought they find a kind of ease,
Bearing their own misfortunes on the back
Of such as have before endured the like.
Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented. Sometimes am I king;
Then treason makes me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am.
(V, v, 23-34)

This early evocation of  pedestrian security arises in the context of Bolingbroke's confiscation of the throne. Given the hazards facing a king, is not a peasant's bovine condition to be preferred? Of course, the pendulum also swings the other way. 

Then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king.
Then am I kinged again, and by and by
Think that I am unkinged by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing.
(V, v, 34-38)

Then comes a prophecy.

But whate'er I be,
Nor I, nor any man that but man is,
With nothing shall be pleased till he be eased
With being nothing.
(V, v, 38-41)

The mention of Bolingbroke at this poignant juncture seems to imply that if Richard, the deposed King, is put in the awkward position of glancing wistfully at the peasant's hut, so one day may the usurping Henry.  As we will see, that is what comes to pass in the next installment, when it becomes Bolingbroke's turn to feel reduced to nonentity. 

b)  King Henry IV

Haunted by memories of the rebellion which catapulted him to supremacy, and hedged about by truculent lords who would pull him down, Henry IV has fallen ill. Beside his sick bed, he muses on the loneliness of life at the pinnacle of puissance.

How many thousand of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep? O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature's soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?
Why, rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee,
And hushed with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,
Than in the perfumed chambers of the great,
Under the canopies of costly state,
And lulled with sound of sweetest melody?
O thou dull god, why li'st thou with the vile,
In loathsome beds, and leav'st  the kingly couch
A watch-case, or a common 'larum bell?
Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast
Seal up the ship-boy's eyes, and rock his brains
In cradle of the rude imperious surge,
And in the visitation of the winds,
Who take the ruffian billows by the top,
Curling their monstrous heads, and hanging them
With deafing clamour in the slippery clouds,
That, with the hurly, death itself awakes?
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down.
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
(Henry the Fourth, Part Two, III, i, 1-31)

He seems not to think here of Richard, whom he cast down as others now seek his destruction, and yet, how can he not? For even in the midst of overturning him, Bolingbroke remained Richard's subject, and never asserted any colorable claim to divest him de jure of the diadem. Rather, coerced abdication was his modus operandi. Richard's eloquence throughout his deposition in King Richard II is that of a poet King whose muse is catastrophe. Henry's muse is mere actuality. He lets harsh facts speak for him. But all the while that stolid circumstances were serving as Bolingbroke's heralds, his pleading attorneys, he was in thrall to Richard's soaring rhetoric, in which it seemed that nobility itself was on the rack. Having assimilated  Richard's verbal pyrotechnics (as in, e.g., the well-known 'mirror scene', in which he inspects the image of his face in shattered glass) it is as though Richard's articulation of loss has infiltrated Henry's very soul and festered there, gnawing at him like a succubus, filling him with guilt if not remorse. Then, faced with his own political demise, Henry can conveniently re-enact Richard; his ventilations are echoes of poor Richard's painful descants on dissolution. 

Later, as the death of his father, Henry IV, approaches, Prince Harry slips into the bedchamber and, believing his father to be deceased, notices the crown and addresses it with these words.

Why doth the crown lie there upon his pillow,
Being so troublesome a bedfellow?
O polished perturbation, golden care,
That keeps't  the ports of slumber open wide
To many a watchful night! — Sleep with it now
Yet not so sound, and half so deeply sweet,
As he whose brow with homely biggen bound
Snores out the watch of night. O majesty,
When thou dost pinch thy bearer, thou dost sit
Like a rich armour worn in heat of day,
That scalds't with safety. — By his gates of breath
There lies a downy feather which stirs not.
Did he suspire, that light and weightless down
Perforce must move. — My gracious lord, my father! —
This sleep is sound indeed.  This is a sleep
That from this golden rigol hath divorced
So many English kings. — Thy due from me
Is tears and heavy sorrows of the blood,
Which nature, love, and filial tenderness
Shall, O dear father, pay thee plenteously.
My due from thee is this imperial crown,
Which, as immediate from thy place and blood,
Derives itself to me.
(IV, iii, 152-174)

And so Prince Harry sets himself on the path of becoming his father. The most excellent and model sleeper is not, again, the royal personage swaddled in comforts, but the lowly swain “whose brow with homely biggen bound snores out the watch of night.”  That is a brow most common.  

Yet this identification of father and son has its roots in much earlier scenes. Hal's notorious “I know you all” soliloquy in King Henry IV, Part One, is plainly nothing more than a restatement of Bolingbroke's firmly held philosophy and apparently oft given counsel to his eldest son. Both discuss the desired relationship of monarch and his people. Pay particular attention to the use of the term “seldom” in both discourses.


I know you all, and will a while uphold 
The unyoked humour of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle  him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wished-for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So when this loose behavior I throw off,
And pay the debt I never promisèd,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men's hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glitt'ring o'er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I'll so offend to make offence a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
(I, ii, 192-214)

From whence might such a manipulative policy be had? Like father, like son. And yet the King can hardly see it.

KING HENRY  [to Prince Harry]

God pardon thee! Yet let me wonder, Harry,
At thy affections, which do hold a wing
Quite from the flight of all thy ancestors.
Thy place in Council thou hast rudely lost —
Which by thy younger brother is supplied —
And art almost an alien to the hearts
Of all the court and princes of my blood.
The hope and expectation of thy time
Is ruined, and the soul of every man
Prophetically do forethink thy fall.
Had I so lavish of my presence been,
So common-hackneyed in the eyes of men,
So stale and cheap to vulgar company,
Opinion, that did help me to the crown,
Had still kept loyal to possession,
And left me in reputeless banishment,
A fellow of no mark nor likelihood.
By being seldom seen, I could not stir
But, like a comet, I was wondered at,
That men would tell their children, 'This is he.'
Others would say, 'Where, which is Bolinbroke?'
And then I stole all courtesy from heaven,
And dressed myself in such humility
That I did pluck allegiance from men's hearts,
Loud shouts and salutations from their mouths,
Even in the presence of the crownèd King.
Thus did I keep my person fresh and new,
My presence like a robe pontifical —
Ne'er seen but wondered at — and so my state,
Seldom but sumptuous, showed like a feast,
And won by rareness such solemnity.
The skipping King, he ambled up and down
With shallow jesters and rash bavin wits,
Soon kindled and soon burnt, carded his state,
Mingled his royalty with cap'ring fools,
Had his great name profanèd with their scorns,
And gave his countenance, against his name,
To laugh at gibing boys, and stand the push
Of every beardless vain comparative;
Grew a companion to the common streets,
Enfeoffed himself to popularity,
That, being daily swallowed by men's eyes,
They surfeited with honey, and began
To loathe the taste of sweetness, whereof a little
More than a little is by much too much.
So when he had occasion to be seen,
He was but as the cuckoo is in June,
Heard, not regarded, seen but with such eyes
As, sick and blunted with community,
Afford no extraordinary gaze
Such as is bent on sun-like majesty
When it shines seldom in admiring eyes,
But rather drowsed and hung their eyelids down,
Slept in his face, and rendered such aspect
As cloudy men use to their adversaries,
Being with his presence glutted, gorged, and full.
And in that very line, Harry, standest thou;
For thou hast lost thy princely privilege
With vile participation. Not an eye
But is a-weary of thy common sight,
Save mine, which hath desired to see thee more,
Which now doth that I would not have it do —
Make blind itself with foolish tenderness.
(He weeps)
(King Henry IV, Part One, III, ii, 29-91)

King Henry incoherently complains about Hal's failure to maintain his place in Council while boasting of his own royal hide-and-seek. Yet, whether from example, tutelage or instinct, Hal practices the same guileful tactics his father employed. As an usurper, Bolingbroke had to pay special attention to the masses. He could not rely on descent of the crown. In his fawning over the commons he is ridiculed by King Richard. 


He is our cousin, cousin; but 'tis doubt,
When time shall call him home from banishment,
Whether our kinsmen come to see his friends.
Ourself and Bushy, Bagot here, and Green
Observed his courtship to the common people,
How he did seem to dive into their hearts
With humble and familiar courtesy,
What reverence he did throw away on slaves,
Wooing  poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles
And patient underbearing of his fortune,
As 'twere to banish their affects with him.
Off goes his bonnet to an oysterwench.
A brace of draymen bid God speed him well,
And had the tribute of his supple knee
With “Thanks, my countrymen, my loving friends',
As were our England in reversion his,
And he our subjects' next degree in hope.
(King Richard II,  I, iv, 19-35)

And while it is true that much of Bolingbroke's demonstrative populism can be chalked up to rallying public support, we can also detect in Richard's contemptuous anecdotes the not far-fetched idea that Bolingbroke's affinity for the common herd runs with an embarrassing depth. In his chastising of his own son and heir, then, for his carousing in Eastcheap, he forgets his own unusual affiliations with the commons. It is only at the end, however, that we discover his actual distaste for the rough reins of power, and his envy for those not so burdened. Like his predecessor Richard, King Henry IV is revealed as one unhappy as a subject and equally miserable as a monarch. Thus it is that when in King Henry II, Part Two, Henry receives good news about the discomfiture of the rebels, he reacts with a sudden nausea:

Will fortune never come with both hands full,
But write her fair words still in foulest letters?
She either gives a stomach, and no food —
Such are the poor, in health — or else a feast,
And takes away the stomach — such are the rich,
That have abundance and enjoy it not.
I should rejoice now at this happy news,
And now my sight fails, and my brain is giddy.
(IV, iii, 103-110)

What is left such a one but perpetual envy?

c)  King Henry V

Let us stride once more unto the breach, and listen with new ears to the oft-quoted soliloquy of King Harry on the dark morn of Agincourt.


'Let us our lives, our souls, our debts, our care-full wives,
Our children, and our sins, lay on the King.'
We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness: subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing. What infinite heartsease
Must kings neglect that private men enjoy?
And what have kings that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
And what art thou, thou idol ceremony?
What kind of god art thou, that suffer'st more
Of mortal griefs than do thy worshippers?
What are thy rents? What are thy comings-in?
O, ceremony, show me but thy worth.
What is thy soul of adoration?
Art thou aught else but place, degree, and form,
Creating awe and fear in other men?
Wherein thou art less happy, being feared,
Than they in fearing,
What drink'st thou oft, instead of homage sweet,
But poisoned flattery? O be sick, great greatness,
And bid thy ceremony give thee cure.
Think'st  thou the fiery fever will go out
With titles blown from adulation?
Will it give place to flexure and low bending?
Canst thou, when thou command'st the beggar's knee,
Command the health of it? No, thou proud dream
That play'st so subtly with a king's repose;
I am a king that find thee, and I know
'Tis not the balm, the sceptre, and the ball,
The sword, the mace, the crown imperial,
The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,
The farcèd title running fore the king,
The throne he sits on, nor the tide of pomp
That beats upon the high shore of this world —
No, not all these, thrice-gorgeous ceremony,
Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave
Who with a body filled and vacant mind
Gets him to rest, crammed with distressful bread;
Never sees horrid night, the child of hell,
But like a lackey from the rise to set
Sweats in the eye of Phoebus, and all night
Sleeps in Elysium; next day, after dawn
Doth rise and help Hyperion to his horse,
And follows so the ever-running year
With profitable labour to his grave.
And but for ceremony such a wretch,
Winding up days with toil and nights with sleep,
Had the forehand and vantage of a king.
The slave, a member of the country's peace,
Enjoys it, but in gross brain little wots
What watch the King keeps to maintain the peace,
Whose hours the peasant best advantages.
(IV, i, 228-281)

Is this not remarkable consistency — and bad faith? In the battles for the throne there are no spoils, save ceremony, a mere empty show. A Richard of Gloucester may decapitate dozens as he carves out a bloody path to the crown, but, when he gets it, he finds it is an empty prize. It imposes the most unsettling of duties and cares, yet affords no corresponding rewards. Duke Humphrey's ambitious wife Eleanor urges her husband to put forth his hand, “reach at the glorious gold” which is the crown of England (King Henry VI, Part Two, I, ii, 11), but, as we will confirm again below, it turns out to be only a burden and mirage of happiness. Genuine fulfillment, ironically, is available not to distressed sovereigns but to the huddled masses yearning to breathe the salubrious atmosphere of court. Both sides dwell in interminable envy.

d)  King Henry VI

We come at last to that most unlikely and tormented English King of all, Henry VI.    He is portrayed by Shakespeare as a congenital pacifist and amateur theologian, precisely the opposite of his warlike father and grandfather.  Never one to willingly take up arms against a sea of troubles  (“frowns, words, and  threats shall be the war that Henry means to use,”  Part Three, I, i, 3-4)  Henry VI is outmatched by the aggressive House of York, which presses on the illegitimacy of Lancastrian claims to vigorously and successfully prosecute the Wars of the Roses.   Yet despite vast differences in temperament and policy, Shakespeare's Henry VI recapitulates the inverted class envy of his royal predecessors.

Reduced to the status of a mere spectator in his own fractured realm, Henry sits on a molehill and contemplates the civil clash of arms in eerily familiar terms.

This battle fares like to the morning's war
When dying clouds contend with growing light,
What time the shepherd, blowing of his nails,
Can neither call it perfect day nor night.
Now sways it this way like a mighty sea
Forced by the tide to combat with the wind,
Now sways it that way like the selfsame sea
Forced to retire by fury of the wind.
Sometime the flood prevails, and then the wind;
Now one the better, then another best —
Both tugging to be victors, breast to breast,
Yet neither conqueror nor conquerèd. 
So is the equal poise of this fell war.
Here on this molehill will I sit me down.
To whom God will, there be the victory.
For Margaret my queen, and Clifford, too,
Have chid me from the battle, swearing both
They prosper best of all when I am thence.
Would I were dead, if God's will were so —
For what is in this world but grief and woe?
O God! Methinks it were a happy life
To be no better than a homely swain.
To sit upon a hill, as I do now;
To carve out dials quaintly, point by point,
Thereby to see the minutes how they run:
How many makes the hour full complete,
How many hours brings about the day,
How many days will finish up the year,
How many years a mortal man may live.
When this is known, then to divide the times:
So many hours must I tend my flock,
So many hours must I take my rest,
So many hours must I contemplate,
So many hours must I sport myself,
So many days my ewes have been with young,
So many weeks ere the poor fools will ean,
So many years ere I shall shear the fleece.
So minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years,
Passed over to the end they were created,
Would bring white hairs unto a quiet grave.
Ah, what a life were this! How sweet! How lovely!
Gives not the hawthorn bush a sweeter shade
To shepherds looking on their seely sheep
Than doth a rich embroidered canopy
To kings that fear their subjects' treachery?
O yes, it doth — a thousandfold it doth.
And to conclude, the shepherd's homely curds,
His cold thin drink out of his leather bottle,
His wonted sleep under a fresh tree's shade,
All which secure and sweetly he enjoys,
Is far beyond a prince's delicates,
His viands sparkling in a golden cup,
His body couchèd in a curious bed,
When care,mistrust, and treason waits on him.
(II, v, 1-54)

This is the most emphatic and unequivocal paean to simplicity in all the soliloquies we have examined. Henry's profound dejection and undisguised envy are palpable. Like his forebears, Henry VI has shouldered the cares of state with sincerity, but the weakness of his title (I, i, 135), the ruthlessness of his adversaries, and his monkish personality all conspire to bring his reign to a bad end. Though his envy is ironically incongruent with the Tenth Commandment, as Henry might admit, his childlike admiration for the shepherd's way of life, seems over-determined. In the back of his mind are all those biblical tropes involving shepherds and lost sheep, and, in Henry's case, it seems he might have better taken on the role of sheep than shepherd. For after all, what protection had he to offer anyone?

In Act III, sc. 1 Henry, now a refugee, appears disguised as the commoner he has always wanted to be. He thus encounters two conniving gamekeepers who overhear his complaint.


Say, what art thou that talk'st of kings and queens?


More than I seem, and less than I was born to:
A man at least, for less I should not be;
And men may talk of kings, and why not I?


Ay, but thou talk'st as if thou wert a king.


Why, so I am, in mind — and that's enough.


But if thou be a king, where is thy crown?


My crown is in my heart, not on my head;
Not decked with diamonds and Indian stones,
Nor to be seen. My crown is called content —
A crown it is that seldom kings enjoy.
(King Henry VI, Part Three, III, i, 55-65)

For a brief moment, garbed as an ordinary man, Henry feels he has sloughed off the cares of state. In that moment he relishes what he supposes is the peace of mind enjoyed by quotidian mortals. But the commoners he meets are not bucolic shepherds, but a pair of canny hirelings, who drag poor Henry back into the royal nightmare.

III.  Pastoral versus Ballad

The remarkable sequence of soliloquies we have canvassed may be aptly characterized as proto- or quasi-pastoral. Though in none of these plays does the lamenting monarch actually retire to woodland or meadow to frolic with sheepherders, the contrastive discourse that sets the life of the care-worn ruler against the sans souci world of flocks and verdant valleys is implicitly pastoral. These are conceits of royal imagination.   While King Henry IV tosses and turns in insomniac frustration, he conjures in his jealous mind images of the “smoky cribs” of his meanest subjects, who sleep their blessed nights away untroubled by the strife of nations. The days of a king distill the substance of urban existence into a toxic essence that renders them intolerable. Nature is seen not as ravenous, but as a bucolic sanctuary, nurturing and thereby ultimately liberating. A tempestuous ocean is not a maw of death but a hand that rocks the cradle in which the ship boy snores. The rest that nature denies to the great king she bestows on a meager lad in the crow's nest.   Counting sheep in these circumstances is the last thing one would try. Bolingbroke's envy is obvious.

The “peasant” who “sweats all day in the eye of Phoebus” gets to close his eyes at night, observes the rueful King Harry on the eve of Agincourt. The dread responsibilities of a sovereign which must compel him to engage in wars in which thousands of innocent subjects are slaughtered are sources of guilt and angst. It is no wonder the invading English commander stalks his camp the whole night before the battle.

It is when we reach King Henry VI, however, that the implicit pastoralism which animated the ruminations of Bolingbroke and Hal finally breaks into the open. Seated on his molehill, right from the very start Henry identifies as a shepherd. (II, iv, 3) Sidelined in a war for which he has no stomach, he sings the praises of the “homely swain” whose life is a well-regulated chronicle of satisfaction. How much better are the ordinary shepherds gazing “on their seely sheep,” than is the king living in shadow of wolfish lords. Everything about the retired life is better: not just the joy of sleep, but the 'homely curds,” the pure drink from a leather bottle, and peaceful solitude. It is an enchanting vision of vigorous, healthful years designed by nature herself, in which everything has its season in just proportion. “Ah, What a life were this!” he exults. “How sweet!  How lovely!” Using the first person singular (“So many hours must I tend my flock”) Henry shows he is no mere spectator; he has a rustic heart himself. Thus he finds refuge from the chaos erupting all about him. Disguised as a humble fellow of low estate, he wanders about, prayer book in hand. For perhaps the first time in his earthly career, Henry is happy, happy, that is, until the bubble bursts and he is accosted by two gamekeepers. Overhearing his talk about the war, they perceive a prize. What is a king doing in such a place? Where is his crown? And as if in a beautiful dream, Henry answers:

My crown is in my heart, not on my head;
Not decked with diamonds and Indian stones,
Nor to be seen. My crown is called content —
A crown it is that seldom kings enjoy.
(III, i, 62-65) 

In the space of a few days, Henry has been pacified, the anguish in his heart bated. This contentment is depicted as expressly pastoral, borrowed from the romantic conceptions of the day. Unfortunately, the characters he meets are not jolly men of hill and dale, but rascals scavenging for opportunity. Henry is taken prisoner, and away contentment flies, like a bird which merely perched an hour on his shoulder. The kindly, sporting natives Henry probably expected to find never materialize.

Rochelle Smith properly identifies a body of king-commoner encounters in English literature as pastoral. In Shakespeare, such interludes may be found inter alia in Henry IV, Henry V and As You Like It. Focusing largely on Prince Hal and his interactions with the denizens of the Boars-head Tavern, she points out that he is well received by the associates of Poins and Falstaff, which whom he can drink and revel. Once Hal assumes his father's position, however, these patrician/plebeian exercises end. As Bolingbroke remains in the royal sphere, entering into no similar overt dealings with hoi polloi, the king-commoner leitmotif applies not to him. 

Opposed to the pastoral theme, Ms. Smith helpfully suggests, are the conventions of the English ballad, which frequently feature king-commoner encounters. But while such gatherings in the greenwood are in the pastoral convention idyllic and charming, the ballad tradition strikes a different chord. Ms. Smith writes:

The ballad king, who crosses class lines and enters the greenwood in search of pastoral retreat is hoping for fair weather, good hunting and simple loyal subjects. More often he encounters a harsh reality that teaches not the pastoral virtue of contented innocence but rather the political virtue of humility gained from a broader experience of the world.

In copious examples drawn from extant ballads, Ms. Smith shows that rude indifference – or worse-  greets the straying  monarch. Instead of fair weather, uncomfortable storms dampen his spirits. The forest cottages are poor, and cruel hunger drives their occupants to poach the sovereign's deer, an enterprise fraught with risk. In the pastoral theme the king is frequently recognized as royal or at least suspected of being some sort of VIP.  But in the ballad, the king travels incognito, and is frequently not trusted. Trying to accommodate himself to a strange and harsh environment, the king, though at times guided by his hosts, proves himself an inept learner, and is chastened for his lack of skill. “The king-commoner ballad,” notes Ms. Smith, “refuses to idealize either king or subject, instead presenting in comic form the conviction that those in the highest seats of power have much to learn from a rough encounter with common life.” Most importantly, what the king discovers amongst the wood-notes wild is not contentment, but envy of aristocratic advantages and luxuries. Most of the hard-scrabble peasantry, it turns out, would gladly exchange their subsistence lifestyles for the feasts and pastimes of the court.  

And this is what makes these plays so fascinating. For while in the ballad tradition the serfs envy the nobility, in Shakespeare's pastoralism there is a marked tendency for the nobles, including the king, to envy the serfs. In As You Like It, though the jester Touchstone upbraids the rustic Corin for never having been educated in the ways of the court, a close reading will show that it is Corin who has the better part.   Touchstone's comic condescension is understood to be largely facetious, while the words of the countryman ring true.


Sir, I am a true labourer. I earn that I eat, get that I wear; owe no man
hate, envy no man's happiness; glad of other men's good, content with
my harm; and the greatest of my pride is to see my ewes graze and my
lambs suck.
(III, ii, 69-75)

The truth is that Touchstone does well in the greensward,  taking as his bride no courtly maid, but Audrey, a buxom goatherd. She will be his precious memento of a better life when they return to the Duke's court.

IV.  Conclusion

Applying the categories of pastoral and ballad as presented by Ms. Smith to the family of kings in the Henry plays, we can at once diagnose all three Lancastrian rulers as suffering from a pastoral syndrome. The sleeplessness which afflicts them is a symptom of urban malaise magnified by the tribulations of leadership.  This was an historical reality, and surely resonated with Queen Elizabeth I herself, who wrote:

To be a king and wear a crown is a thing more glorious to them that see it than it is pleasant to that bear it. The cares and troubles of a crown I cannot more fitly resemble than to the drugs of a learned physician, perfumed with some aromatic savor, or to bitter pills gilded over, by which they are made acceptable or less offensive, which indeed are bitter and unpleasant to take. And for my own part, were it not for conscience' sake to discharge the duty that God hath laid upon me, and to maintain His glory, and keep you in safety, in mine own disposition I should be willing to resign the place I hold to any other, and glad to be freed of the glory with the labours; for it is not my desire to live or reign longer than my life and reign shall be for your good. (Strachey, 280)

We can see in these words precisely the sort of personage to whom the pastoral drama would have had such an appeal.

What sets the pastoralism of the three 'Henry' kings apart from the normal variety is that it is not so much a function of actual encounters as it is of royal fantasy. We see it primarily in the day dreams of distressed monarchs who give expression to a fantasy of genteel rustication. 

The idealization of country life (or its remnants) endured well after the English renaissance. It was still thriving in late 18th century in France, where its votaries ventured well beyond the confines of mere conjecture. Parisian aristocrats would physically troop out to the villages to observe the happy peasant festivals and dances. Marie Antoinette, having even greater resources at her disposal, constructed at Versailles an entire farm, Le Petit Hameau, complete with residence, dairy and poultry yard. Attendant ladies clad themselves in simple gauze dress tied at the waist with ribbons and played at being shepherdesses. Of course, inside the mock farmhouse were sufficient goodies to keep Marie safely within the standard of indulgence to which she had become so richly accustomed. One commentator remarks dryly, “And even more than the money spent on the Petit Hameau, the many hours spent there in the company of other women, outside the sight and supervision of her husband, gave rise to rumors that were not innocent at all.” (“Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution,” online) In the following century, American intellectuals still cultivated the ideal of woodland innocence and peace. Thus, Harvard graduate Henry David Thoreau built with his own two hands a cabin at Walden Pond out of used boards obtained from neighbor's torn down homes and barns. There in prosperous Concord he sought to pursue the life of a noble savage, and when he was in need of foodstuffs or other amenities of a corrupt and decadent civilization, he would clamber up onto the railroad tracks beside the pond and march over to his mother's house, whose ample cupboards contained whatever he might desire. For what is pastoralism, after all, but the perfection of the urbane?

In the Henriad, then, Shakespeare illustrates the conceptual pastoralism of three generations of English kings. Under the weight of their transgressions, overreaching, war-making and incessant undermining by belligerent lords, it was evidently hard for monarchs to get a decent night's sleep. It was easy, however, to suppose that yokels starving in the forest were dozing soundly. Pastoralism was therefore largely a creature of the aristocratic fancy. Hence, its purveyors, e.g., Spenser, Sidney, were typically court personalities. Things were otherwise with the ballad, which bubbled up from the recesses of the autochthonous population. The ballad was perhaps the principal exemplar of the English oral traditions, and the “bard” was he who collected and polished the ballad and carried it forward. For the balladeers, the kingly visitor was the outsider, a suspect vagabond who shows up one day looking for a free lunch. It is a wonder kings were tolerated at all. As for Shakespeare, his case is more complex, but as a pastoral poet we must place him squarely in court. It is the content of his writings, not any “snobbery,” that compels us to do so. We may therefore say that the difference between the pastoral and ballad conventions is that the pastorals idealized the rural commons, while the ballads treated royal interlopers in a spirit of realism, resentment and smoldering envy.

Taken together, Shakespeare's envious soliloquies in the Henriad form a spiritual interregnum within a series of bloody wars and insurrections, and show a succession of kings  seeking  intellectual solace from the trials of monarchy and its attendant struggles. It is not surprising that the peasants should have been so marveled at, so coveted. But the pacific trajectory which culminated in the shepherd worship of Henry VI, comes to grief the moment that king steps outside his palatial cocoon and encounters those ruffian  gamekeepers. At that moment, the pastoral ceases as a valid literary form, and Shakespeare's voice becomes ever more resolutely realistic. 


“Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution,”  online

Rochelle Smith, “King-Commoner Encounters in the Popular Ballad, Elizabethan Drama and Shakespeare,”  Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 50, Number 2, Spring 2010, pp. 301-336

William Shakespeare The Complete Works, 2d ed., S. Wells, & G. Taylor, eds., Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2005

Lytton Strachey, Elizabeth and Essex:  A Tragic History, 1928; Mariner Books, 1969



David P. Gontar's latest book is Hamlet Made Simple and Other Essays, New English Review Press, 2013.



To comment on this essay, please click here.

To help New English Review continue to publish thought provoking essays such as this one, please click here.

If you have enjoyed this essay by David P. Gontar and would like to read more, please click here.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

New English Review Press is a priceless cultural institution.
                              — Bruce Bawer

Order here or wherever books are sold.

The perfect gift for the history lover in your life. Order on Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon, Amazon UK, or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon or Amazon UK or wherever books are sold

Order at Amazon, Amazon UK, or wherever books are sold. 

Order at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Available at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Send this to a friend