Monday, September 21, 2009

Woe to That Land

Most people know the story of the Holy Grail through Monty Python, but the actual Grail saga--which has been reworked many times over many centuries--began with a 12th-century French romance, the Conte du Graal, or the Story of the Grail. Ah, now you're thinking, where the hell is she going with this? There's no Holy Grail in Richard III.

Right you are. But actually, I was thinking about the Fisher King. The Fisher King, also called the Maimed King in some versions of the story, probably derives from an even more ancient myth about kings and their mystical connection to the lands they rule. In the Grail story, the holy chalice is the only thing that can heal the wounded king. Often the wound is said to be in the thigh or groin area, which makes sense, since the king's ailment causes the land itself to become infertile and barren. While the king languishes, dying but not dead, the land and its people suffer famine and disease. As I discussed in an earlier post ("Kiss Me Deadly," a few days back), the body of the king is both a metaphor for and a realization of the body of the nation. For those of you who are academically inclined, there's a classic study on this subject by a guy named Ernst Kantorowicz. It's called The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology. It's not about the Grail story; rather, Kantorowicz argues that medieval and early modern kings had two "bodies"--one was "profane," and subject to desires and human weaknesses, while the other was sacred insofar as it represented the nation itself. A king's reign unfolds as the struggle between these two bodies--the human/profane and the divine/sacred.

Elizabeth I, Will's queen, used this idea to her advantage in creating myths about her virgin body (she may have actually been a virgin, but no one can prove it, obviously). The queen's inviolate body represented the inviolable island nation. By insisting on her virginity, mythologizing it, she drew on and implicitly invoked many ancient and medieval stories about the superhuman power of virginal women. The myth of Atalanta, German/Norse folklore about Brunhild, and the Christian belief in the Virgin Mary all reflect this notion. Elizabeth's unmarried status became a bargaining chip internationally (she kept hinting that she might marry), while her mythologized virginity countered national anxieties about her failure to produce an heir.

But back to the Fisher King. The reason I started thinking about this myth was because of Edward IV, who, at the beginning of Act 2, is just about to drop dead. According to Richard in Act 1, his brother "hath kept an evil diet long,/And overmuch consumed his royal person." In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, this kind of euphemism usually referred to sensual excess of all sorts, from gluttony to alcoholism to sexual promiscuity. Richard, however, has made much of his brother's salacious appetites; he no doubt wants the audience to think of Edward's affliction in sexual terms. For a king to ruin his health--and ultimately lose his life--because of his sexual immoderation is the the worst kind of weakness, particularly when the kingdom is still reeling from the effects of civil war. Edward's profane body has obviously murdered his sacred one.

Bill Clinton springs, unbidden, to mind here. But I'll let you finish the thought...

In the play, as in the Arthurian myth, it's the nation that suffers. This is made explicit in scene 3, which takes place after Edward's death. Three nameless "citizens" are discussing the new regime. "Woe to that land that's ruled by a child," says one. Another remarks that the Duke of Gloucester is "full of danger," and the Queen's kin are "haught and proud."

And were they to be ruled, and not to rule,
This sickly land might solace as before.

"This sickly land" can only prosper if a leader emerges who can rule both factions. This line obviously looks forward to the victory of the Tudor king, Henry VII, at the end of the play. But it seems clear that Will was at least thinking about the Fisher King myth when he wrote about Edward's dissipation--rather like the Fisher King's sexual wound--and the "sickly" land that is his legacy.

But this is history, and not myth--or rather, it's myth that purports to be history--so no Grail is going to save England from Richard's ruthless ambition. We see Edward in one last ineffectual scene at the beginning of Act 2, when he forces the warring factions to make peace. That this reconciliation is a sham is obvious to all, but Edward is dying, and must be placated. I couldn't help thinking about the kind of empty talk of "bipartisanship" that always seems to accompany regime change in this country. Our recent election was accompanied by all sorts of promises, wishes, and assurances of good faith. Less than two months later, the accusations and defensive rebuttals were flying, and "bipartisanship" was once again just a word with no purchase on the bone-deep political divisions in the country.

In the first scene of Act 2, the divided nobles put on a pretty good show for Edward's benefit--at least until Richard drops his bomb, putting an end to pretty speeches. In response to Elizabeth's wish that her husband include Clarence in the love-fest, Richard turns on her:

Why, madam, have I offered love for this,
To be so flouted in this royal presence?
Who knows not that the gentle Duke is dead?

Richard pretends to be offended that Elizabeth would make light of his brother's death, knowing full well that he's announcing it to the unsuspecting court. All are understandably shocked, but no one more than the King himself, who had rescinded the execution order. Richard explains that the messenger bearing the death order was "a winged Mercury," while the other--the one bearing the order of clemency--was "some tardy cripple." One is reminded here of the speed with which Richard himself is orchestrating events, and the "tardy" responses of his opponents.

Edward then gives his last speech, bemoaning the fact that no one begged him for his brother's life. This, of course, makes him look even more pathetic--as if he has to be persuaded to take a moral stand, and has no mind of his own. In the next scene Elizabeth announces that the King has died. Although the future looks gloomy, one can't mourn the loss of such a lame monarch. He's left his two young sons without a father--and with a murderer as their Protector--all because he couldn't rule his own appetites. What a total loser.

Well, I didn't get to Richard's mom yet. This has been a hectic week, and I'm behind on my posts--the date at the top of the post, in case you haven't figured it out, is the date I started the post, not the date I finished and published it. But my work week is over now--I'll finish Act 2 next time.

No comments:

Post a Comment