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Friday, May 16, 2014

GRRM and Shakespeare, Part 3: Knight's Honour

(Note: Must spell it with a "u" to find it in the Shakespearean text.)

Jaime Lannister knows all about the downfall of this "honor" business. It didn't suit his personal code --- to keep his oath and obey King Aerys was to let the city burn to the ground and kill his father; to protect the weak (or at least not murder an 8-year-old boy) is to let his whole family get their heads lopped off. But he tried sometimes to varying degree of success.

Sandor Clegane knows a thing or two about knight's code. "I like dogs better than knights." and "Knights are for killing... Let them have their lands and their gods and their gold. Let them have their sers." His lines (from the novels) are the angriest rebuke to the hypocrisy of the medieval concept of chivalry expressed.

I searched my memory for any representation of medieval chivalry in Shakespeare's plays but basically failed. Perhaps our modern notion of chivalry is more derived from the nineteenth century Romantic poets (mostly English), starting with Walter Scott, than from the actual medieval reality and ideas. Even the "heroes" in Shakespeare's historical plays are of dubious moral code, and the men almost NEVER rescued or protected any women. On the contrary, plenty of Shakespearean women rescued themselves and their men and more. It's perhaps surprising how little the "mainstream" values and traditions made it into the plays.

Anyway, when I heard the following lines uttered by Sir Jack Falstaff in Henry IV, Part 1, I laughed --


Well, 'tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no; or
an arm? no; or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o' Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. 'Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I'll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.

What is honour? A WORD! Doesn't that blow you away?

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