Shakespeare Undoes Chivalry

by David P. Gontar (May 2016)

Readers of The Weekly Standard must have fallen out of their armchairs recently on learning from Paul Cantor that Shakespeare was a dedicated despiser of chivalry. Surprised? Don’t be. These days you can get away with any sort of palaver about the “the Bard” as long as you’re appropriately cynical and denigratory. Cantor’s paper is remarkable not only in its counterintuitive hypothesis but also in being advanced without stooping to notice what the dramatist actually says on the subject. Why sweat the small stuff? The term ‘chivalry’ is used thirteen times by Shakespeare, and each of these employments is fully and distinctly positive. Cantor ignores all of them. 

We won’t.

Here’s a sample of what he misses.

  1.    King Henry IV, Part One  

In King Henry IV, Part One, Prince Harry heaps compliments on his loyal adversary, Hotspur. 

“The Prince of Wales doth join with all the world

In praise of Henry Percy. By my hopes,

This present enterprise set off his head,

I do not think a braver gentleman,

More active-valiant or more valiant-young,

More daring, or more bold, is now alive.

To grace this latter age with noble deeds.

For my part, I may speak it to my shame,

I have a truant been to chivalry

And so I hear he doth account me too.”

(King Henry IV, Part One, V, i, 86-95)

Hal’s admiration for Percy is direct and unfeigned, and reiterated throughout King Henry IV. It lacks any hint of ambiguity and is entirely free of irony. But there is no reciprocity; Hotspur speaks of Hal contemptuously, as a wastrel who neglects forwardness and the martial arts. Ultimately, then, it is not Hotspur who is most truly chivalrous, but Hal himself, who kindly overlooks his foe’s disdain to recall his nobility. This is the gracious and generous Hal who, as King Henry V, becomes a renowned specimen of English gentility and the hero of his nation in King Henry V. This lesson in dramatic politesse would of course have been impossible if chivalry had been for Shakespeare anything but the summum bonum. 

  1.  King Henry IV, Part Two

In the sequel Hotspur’s widow reinforces Hal’s point with particular stress on chivalry and its ability to inspire others to deeds of virtue. Her poignant words are directed to Lord Northumberland, Hotspur’s father.


O yet, for God’s sake, go not to these wars!

The time was, father, that you broke your word

When you were more endeared to it than now –

When your own Percy, when my heart’s dear Harry,

Threw many a northward look to see his father

Bring up his powers; but he did long in vain.

Who then persuaded you to stay at home?

There were two honours lost, yours and your son’s.

For yours, the God of heaven brighten it!

For his, it stuck upon him as the sun

In the grey vault of heaven, and by his light

Did all the chivalry of England move

To do brave acts. He was indeed the glass

Wherein the noble youth did dress themselves.

He had no legs that practised not his gait;

And speaking thick, which nature made his blemish,

Became the accents of the valiant;

For those that could speak low or tardily

Would turn their own perfection to abuse

To seem like him. So that in speech, in gait,

In diet, in affections of delight,

In military rules, humours of blood,

He was the mark and glass, copy and book,

That fashioned others.  And him – O wondrous him!

O miracle of men!  — him did you leave . . . .

(II, iii, 9-34)

In this heartfelt rebuke of Percy’s own father, Kate makes her late husband’s chivalry the centerpiece of her speech in his memory. Not only is it revealed as the superlative virtue of the time, but further, it served as the inspiration to his soldiers to do their own deeds of bravery. It is an active virtue which confers a benefit on society. Hotspur’s chivalry as displayed by Shakespeare in Lady Percy’s words is the crowning jewel in his character. If ever Shakespeare “attacked” chivalry, it certainly isn’t here. 

  1.   King Henry V

When Henry and his troops are struggling on the plain of Agincourt, at the height of the battle he inquires about the Duke of York. Exeter describes his grand demeanor.

In which array, brave soldier, doth he lie,

Larding the plain. And by his bloody side,

Yokefellow to his honour-giving wounds,

The noble Earl of Suffolk also lies.

Suffolk first died, and York, all haggled over,

Comes to him, where in gore he lay insteeped,

And takes him by the beard, kisses the gashes

That bloodily did yawn upon his face,

And cries aloud, ‘Tarry, dear cousin Suffolk.

My soul shall keep thine company to heaven.

Tarry, sweet soul, for mine, then fly abreast,

As in this glorious and well-foughten field

We kept together in our chivalry.’

(IV, v, 7-19)

A broadside fired at chivalry? Or one of the most passionate perorations on this quality in all of literature? Here chivalry is presented as the essence of brotherhood and shared courage. In the face of such simple usages and invocations of chivalry the sophisms of literary criticism blow away like so much chaff. 

  1.  King Henry VI, Part One

When Lord Talbot and his son John are surrounded by the hostile French, and that son refuses to escape alone, he rescues his father from an assault. Talbot cries to him:

Art thou not weary, John? How dost thou fare?

Wilt thou yet leave the battle, boy, and fly,

Now art thou sealed the son of chivalry?

(IV, vii, 27-29)

Of course we can see that as the calamities and barbarisms of the Wars of the Roses reach a bloody climax, acts of true chivalry are more widely dispersed. But it is not chivalry which has brought about that titanic struggle, nor does Shakespeare mean to imply that internecine battles somehow invalidate the chivalric ideal. Rather, again and again the dramatist is at pains to show that virtue is never outmoded, and that chivalry is at all times, in the metaphysician’s phrase, “a perpetual possibility of being.” At the root of this civil strife of two noble houses, York and Lancaster, is the usurpation of the English throne by Henry Bolinbroke, who morphs into King Henry IV. The House of York would resolve this dilemma by its own usurpation of the throne. In the course of terrible clashes one unspeakable cruelty is answered by another, even more monstrous, deed, as we witness the gross coarsening of the human spirit in just a few generations. As we behold each incident of chivalry in the course of the war we see that Shakespeare is setting them as lights in the path of humanity capable of leading us back to decency and good government. The lesson is that though we may abandon our ideals they never abandon us. Their assiduous cultivation is the only way we can recover from social chaos and its attendant savagery. 

  1. Henry VI, Part Three

For example, in the third part of Henry VI, York kills Clifford’s father, whereupon Clifford stabs poor Rutland, the innocent young son of York, who pleads in vain for mercy. This is followed by Margaret’s taunting of the defeated York with a napkin dipped in his son’s blood. Edward laments:

Sweet Duke of York, our prop to lean upon,

Now thou art gone, we have no staff, no stay.

O Clifford, boistrous Clifford – thou hast slain

The flower of Europe for his chivalry,

And treacherously hast thou vanquished him –

For hand to hand he would have vanquished thee.

Now my soul’s palace is become a prison.

Ah, would she break from hence that this my body

Might in the ground be closed up in rest.

For never henceforth shall I joy again –

Never, O never, shall I see more joy.

(II, i, 68-78)

What is attacked in this dirge is hardly chivalry. On the contrary, it is precisely the chivalric ideal by which we can take the measure of the unfolding litany of horrors which this awful war leaves in its wake. Yet Cantor can chortle that “undermining” chivalry is a “literary job well done.”

  1.  Pericles

When the wanderings of King Pericles of Tyre bring him to the shores of Pentapolis, where he is shipwrecked, he learns that esteemed young gentlemen from the world over are there to joust for the hand of Thaisa, princess and daughter of good King Simonides. No sooner does Pericles decide to enter the lists than he finds his own suit of armor washed up by the waves nearby. The other contestants are all of good birth and name and sworn to the principles of knightly duties, the chief of which is chivalry. Indeed, that concept is etched on the escutcheon of one of them (from Antioch) in the form of a “wreath of chivalry” identified by Thaisa herself. (Sc. 6, 30) Needless to say Pericles is victorious. He and Thaisa wed and soon have a daughter, Marina. The play is significant for us in that it conjoins the romantic ardor of chivalry with marriage and parenthood, aspects of life which Mr. Cantor sets asunder in a bizarre misunderstanding of text and life. Pericles, of course, is a late Shakespearean “problem play.” Its position as one of the concluding pieces in the corpus shows that Shakespeare cleaved to chivalric standards from the very outset of his literary career (King Henry VI, The Rape of Lucrece) to the very end. The symbolism of the found armor from the sea is plain: chivalry for Shakespeare is a virtue expressive of nature itself. It is not, as some would have it, an ethereal ideal so transcendent as to be antithetical to common interests, but is rather an animating moment which leads on to family and fidelity. Hence there is no “undermining” of chivalry in Shakespeare but rather its apotheosis.

  1.  The Rape of Lucrece

To win her confidence, Sextus Tarquinius regales the chaste Lucrece with tales of her husband’s military accomplishments.

He stories to her ears her husband’s fame

Won in the fields of fruitful Italy,

And decks with praises Collatine’s high name

Made glorious by his manly chivalry

With bruisèd arms and wreaths of victory.


Notice that although this reference to chivalry is made by the villain, the fact remains that it is an accurate assessment: Collatine’s “manly chivalry” had rendered him “glorious” in the eyes of his Roman peers. Shakespeare presents this idea early on (1594) as one which would be intelligible and attractive to his Elizabethan readers, a trope which still retained its vitality and legitimacy in that era, not all that far from our own.

  1.  The Tragedy of Richard II

In ordering trial by combat in the dispute between Bolingbroke and the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Mowbray, a frustrated King Richard invokes the idea of chivalry.

We were not born to sue, but to command;

Which since we cannot do to make you friends,

Be ready, as your lives shall answer it,

At Coventry upon Saint Lambert’s day.

There shall your swords and lances arbitrate

The swelling difference of your settled hate.

Since we cannot atone you, we shall see

Justice design the victor’s chivalry.

(I, i, 196-203)

Of course matters were considerably more complex than their first appearance at this hearing.  Bolingbroke yearned to hoist himself to the throne, as Mowbray implies, and it is quite likely that it is King Richard who is responsible for the death of the Duke of Gloucester. (See, the “Woodstock” manuscript.) Thus the trial by combat can only be inconclusive and is rescinded on Saint Lambert’s day by Richard. But whatever the realpolitik of the situation and the vagaries and vicissitudes of the institution of trial by combat, the principle of chivalry is independent and unscathed. Thus when the banished Duke of Lancaster returns from France to England and rises up against his sovereign, there is no impeachment of chivalry as such but only of Bolingbroke’s character, a character light years removed from that ideal. Through Richard’s invocation of chivalry and its link to justice, Shakespeare means to recall and reinforce these cultural norms, not discard them. 

Later, in the famous speech of John of Gaunt with its metaphors of sceptered isle and precious stone set in the silver sea, we hear once more the call to “Christian service and true chivalry” as ideals being traduced by Richard and his squad of flatterers. (II, i, 54) The placement of chivalry in this radiant context shows beyond peradventure the importance it had for Shakespeare, and that his work may be considered an invitation to the English people to return to it. 

  1.  Troilus and Cressida

In the elusive but intellectually rich masterpiece Troilus and Cressida, three times does Shakespeare have recourse to chivalry. It first occurs in Act 1, scene two, when Pandarus points out Troilus in the parade to his niece, Cressida. As he wants to set him off in alluring terms he chooses his epithet wisely.

‘Tis Troilus! There’s a man, niece, h’m? Brave Troilus,

the prince of chivalry!

(I, ii, 225-226)

As the attorneys say, “Res ipsa loquitur.”  

The second occurrence of the term may be found  in Act 4, scene five, when Hector prepares to fight to the death with Achilles. Declares Aeneas:

Yea, with a bridegroom’s fresh alacrity

Let us address to tend on Hector’s heels,

The glory of our Troy doth this day lie

On his fair worth and single chivalry.

(IV, v, 145-148)

Here is the highest praise one soldier can give another.

Finally, in Act 5, scene three, Hector himself speaks, relieving Troilus of his armor.

No, faith, young Troilus. Doff thy harness, youth.

I am today i’ th’ vein of chivalry.

Let grow thy sinews till their knots be strong,

And tempt not yet the brushes of the war.

Unarm thee, go – and doubt thou not, brave boy,

I’ll stand today for thee and me and Troy.

(V, iii, 31-36)

While we are pondering these many magnificent passages, all of which valorize the concept, wondering how they might be construed as an “attack” by Shakespeare on chivalry, we should remember a few other instances in which chivalry is reflected without naming it. For example, we might glance again at Ophelia’s lament over the deterioration of Prince Hamlet, a fall indeed from former eminence. Do we not hearken back to Lady Percy in this?

O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!

The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s eye, tongue, sword,

Th’ expectancy and rose of the fair state,

The glass of fashion and the mould of form,

Th’ observed of all observers, quite, quite down!

And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,

That sucked the honey of his music vows,

Now see that noble and most sovereign reason

Like sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh;

That unmatched form and feature of blown youth

Blasted with ecstasy.

(III, i, 153-163)

In other words (and Mr. Cantor seems to recognize this), chivarly was at the heart of the late medieval and Renaissance views of the courtier, famously set forth in the writings of Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529). To this was allied the notion of courtly love, a literary convention which exercised some influence in the royal courts of Europe. (See, e.g., Story Ten in The Heptameron of Marguerite de Navarre, (1492-1549)). Ophelia gives a perfect statement of the nature of the courtier which catches its chivalric temper. Prince Hamlet is thus just one of Shakespeare’s figures of chivalry, which include Prince Hal, Hotspur, Pericles, Lord Talbot, and many, many more. (See, also, “Courtly Love,” by Dr. L. Kip Wheeler and “Medieval Chivalry,” by Richard Abels, United States Naval Academy) Aptly described by the term “chivalrous” are Orlando in As You Like It, the male characters in Love’s Labour’s Lost (the “Nine Worthies” featured at the conclusion are figures representing the chivalric legacy), and Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing (who challenges Claudio to a duel to honor Hero). And scholars have long recognized Falstaff’s duel with Pistol at the Boar’s Head Tavern in defense of Doll Tearsheet and Mistress Quickly in King Henry IV, Part Two as a moment of levity within the chivalric tradition.   Where in all of this is chivalry “attacked”? 

Mr. Cantor places much of the blame for chivalry’s baleful influence on, of all things, Romeo and Juliet, a play he seems to have squinted at. We can rest the entire issue on this one point. Let’s give him the floor.

. . . Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet and in his comedies portray[s] what goes desperately wrong when lovers take their idea of love from books, when they chase after windmills of poetic romance rather than settling down to the business of falling in love with real people, founding families, and thereby taking their place in society.

Yes, there it is, folks. Romeo and Juliet just read too many cheap novels. Unfortunately, there’s no textual evidence to support this odd and somewhat anti-intellectual notion. Shakespeare has no problem showing us readers. We see Prince Hamlet reading, we see Brutus reading, we see Imogen reading. But Shakespeare doesn’t show us either of his teenage protagonists in R&J reading anything except the invitation to the banquet at the Capulet residence. With no authority in the text, it’s a mighty small peg to hang so large an exegetical hat on. One might have expected Professor Cantor to at least cite other scholars who whistle the same tune. Alas, there are none. We are to rely on him alone. If it’s so clear why have others not noticed this?  

But there’s more, much more. Romeo and Juliet fail to “settle down to the business” of falling in love with “real people.” May one ask in what sense “falling in love” is a “business”? In what sense are these kids not “real people”? What are “real people” anyway, subscribers to The Weekly Standard? Here language begins to desert our writer as ideas vaporize and we seem to sail off into clouds of curmudgeonly resentment. “Real people,” you see, are not those who succumb to the risks of passion in life but those who rather engage in the sober discipline of living. After Shakespeare, are we all Puritans now? In the world inhabited by Romeo and Juliet parents arranged suitable matches for their offspring. In the case of Juliet, she was supposed to accept the County Paris as a husband. Is Mr. Cantor arguing that that is what she should have done? If so, why not make that contention?    

Let us bear in mind as we pursue this that in the mind of this critic what is really to blame for the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is chivalry. Isn’t it obvious? No? Perhaps this will help.

Romeo and Juliet seek out an absolute love, one incompatible with their ordinary social obligations. They fall in love not despite the fact that that their families are feuding but precisely because they are. Courtly lovers to the core, they crave a love that will end unhappily. The only way they can validate the infinite power of love is to sacrifice everything for it, which means to die for each other. They do not want their love to integrate them into the community – that would be too conventional for them. Instead their love becomes a way of isolating themselves and transcending all conventional roles.   . . . Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet reveals the destructive power of love when it seeks a radical break with the everyday world of social reality in its quest to achieve an otherworldly transcendence.

Again, why are there no references to the thoughts of others in all this? It seems that it is Mr. Cantor who proffers an “absolute” exposition of the play isolated from the perceptions of his predecessors and collaeagues. The fault he commits is willy nilly projected onto Shakespeare’s hero and heroine. Are his paradoxes compelling?

Is Mr. Cantor aware that Romeo and Juliet marry? Their second meeting is their nuptial ceremony. The reason Friar Laurence consents to this union is because he believes the marriage may be instrumental in bringing the two warring factions together. “In one respect,” he says to Romeo, “I’ll thy assistant be; For this alliance may so happy prove to turn your households’ rancour to pure love.” And Romeo promptly seals to this bargain. It would be sufficient to turn aside Mr. Cantor’s animadversions simply by observing that this couple does indeed satisfy their social obligations through marriage. What more could be expected of them? But beyond that, it is the shared intent of the presiding religious official and the groom that the marriage be used to nudge the feuding families together, as when in history, say, a Mark Antony marries Octavia in order to bring peace between his faction and Caesar’s. Romeo’s wish is not merely that he and his bride be “integrated into the community” but that that love and marriage integrate the community and heal its deadly schism. It is therefore entirely misguided to assert that Romeo and Juliet seek a private pseudo-celestial affair outside the structure of Verona, and that they want this on account of the pernicious influence of courtly love and chivalry. Nor, for that matter, does Mr. Cantor establish or show on the basis of reliable authority and argument that those who do choose to invest themselves in largely private affairs of the heart are always, or more often than not, productive of misery. It is one of the little luxuries of being a professor of English literature that we can offer social speculations without having the burden of actual research. There is certainly no historical or sociological evidence offered by Mr. Cantor to make credible his thesis that chivalry has been a source of ills and that Shakespeare labored in his verses to demonstrate this.

Nor is there a showing in the article in question that Romeo and Juliet fall in love because they are separated by the alienation of their families. It is one thing to make claims in cleverly balanced sentences, quite another to render those claims plausible or persuasive. At the beginning of the play Romeo is in love with Rosaline. Was he so because she, too, belonged to a social group hostile to the Montagues? As for the question of how the troubles of this couple came upon them, the obvious accidents that befell them explain much. It should also be observed that Juliet is now recognized as the more puissant of the pair and deeply thanatotic. Her death wish with respect to Romeo is thoroughly explored in Chapter 3 of Hamlet Made Simple, “Is Juliet Tragic?” At any rate, with respect to Romeo and Juliet, the reading by Mr. Cantor is tendentitious and uncharitable. It may be more serviceable to be chivalrous to chivalry.  

We have examined an argument that chivalry and courtly love were aesthetic ideals which, as they sought perfection and chastity, moved people away from healthy and beneficial practices such as matrimony. But this is to place chivalry in a purely spiritual realm, when in fact it was an aspect of civil society, armed conflict and the relations between the sexes. Out of it came a vision of confidence, mutual esteem and elevated conduct, and a great respect for women, something in rather short supply these days. As such chivalry exercised and continues to exercise a salutary impact. As for courtly love and chastity, these literary tropes or fancies have over time evolved to form the modern idea of romance. As we have passed from arranged marriages to ones based on love and preference, romance has become the antechamber to marriage rather than a route to dyadic delusions. Perhaps more than anyone, Shakespeare paved the way for this development, always praising and promoting chivalry and the virtues of courtly life. After all, it is well known to close students of the authorship question that “Shakespeare” was himself a gallant courtier. It was he who brought chivalry down from the heavens to earth, where it remains an important and still satisfying aspect of our lives. 



Richard Abels, “Medieval Chivalry,” United Stares Naval Academy.

Paul Cantor, “Against Chivalry,”  The Weekly Standard,  May 2, 2016.

David P. Gontar, Hamlet Made Simple and Other Essays, New English Review Press, 2013.

Marguerite of Navarre, The Heptameron,  Penguin Books, 1984.

William Shakespeare The Complete Works, Second ed., Taylor and Wells, eds. Clarendon, 2005.

L. Kip Wheeler, “Courtly Love” online.



David P. Gontar’s latest book is Unreading Shakespeare. He is also the author of Hamlet Made Simple and Other Essays, New English Review Press, 2013.



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