Friday, December 24, 2010
The Church Restored in Nature: Robin Hood and the Green World of Christianity
In the play The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington, the playwright Anthony Munday presents an immoral church hierarchy and a corrupt and illegitimate kingdom working in concert to serve themselves, and not the Christian souls and British subjects, in their increase of wealth and power. As Prince John “ascends” to the throne, one that rightfully belongs to his brother, family bonds are broken at every turn. Betrayal becomes both rampant and mundane, until all of the players are cast out in the forest. Munday reveals a political and ecclesiastical environment where nothing is sacred, and he who betrays the most people becomes the king. John usurps his brother’s crown, and Ely, the legitimate remnant of Richard’s government as the chancellor, betrays his sovereign lord. The prior not only abuses his role as church official, he also betrays his nephew, the Earl of Huntington, which is the central action that begins the play. Protection and justice are nowhere to be seen in Nottingham, while the church abandons the Social Gospel in pursuit of wealth and privilege. In this Renaissance treatment of the medieval legend, Robin Hood is changed from a virtuous outlaw and yeoman to a fallen noble. Moreover, he becomes the pious leader of a religious revival in Sherwood Forest. In The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington, the Green World of the forest is conflated with the restoration of the church and her sacramental system in a clear indictment of both church and state. Not only does Munday make this Robin Hood a nobleman, he also makes him a priest who restores the moral center of the British Kingdom in preparation for the homecoming of the true king, King Richard.
In the beginning betrayal of the play, the religious symbolism of Robin’s character is overt. Munday is not subtle. His servant Warman, who has been bribed with a hundred crowns, is the most intimate traitor in the downfall of the protagonist. Warman is an allegory of humankind working against his better nature; he is mankind at war with himself. He is Judas Iscariot. Warman is repeatedly referred to as Judas in the conspiracy against Robert, and this identification with Judas is driven home as the play progresses, including the possible suicide of Warman by hanging, the tradition of Judas’s demise. More subtly in the play, Prince John is like Pontius Pilate, and the prior is cast as Caiaphas in this drama that is both secular and sacred in the innocent earl’s “crucifixion.” The ostensible engagement dinner of Robert and Marian becomes the Last Supper of Robert as a nobleman, with troops surrounding the house, and the kingdom. What is the motive against Robert beyond the simple economic opportunity? The motives are not completely clear in the play, but they seem to mix, strangely, romance and greed. Robert owes his uncle money, so the prior is perhaps legally justified for liquidating some of the possessions and wealth of his nephew. However, this action is not justified by his family relationship, nor is this an appropriate action for a church leader to take against a nobleman. The deeper grievance against Robert is mentioned only in passing: ”Twas hee that urg’d the king to sesse the clergie/ When to the holy land he tooke his jorney” (343). Robert advocated a church tax to support the Crusades, and the prior has never forgiven him for it. The prior’s moral failure is comprehensive in the play. The prior hoards grain and corn when people are hungry. He is greedy and unscrupulous at every turn, and he treats church monies as his own slush fund. His object is the increase of wealth, along with his salacious appetites and adventures, which sadly are mentioned only in passing, and his abuse of his office seems to help his church career, rather than undermine his position in the community.
More comically, but no less dangerously, the romantic obsession of the queen is the second strike against Robert, and her son’s romantic desires for Marian are strike three: “I, that same jealous Queene, whose doting age/ Envies the choice of my faire Marian,/ She hath a handle in this”(311). Robert is quite aware of the queen’s perverse ardor. The queen is probably old enough to be Robert’s mother, but that obstacle doesn’t seem to dampen her desires. It apparently excites her. She is an inappropriate competitor with Marian, her son’s desired beloved, though Prince Richard is apparently already married, according to Fitzwater/Lacy: “Seeing I knowe/ Earle Clepstowes daughter is thy married wife”(338). The Oedipal folly of this royal family is funny on one level, but it is also clearly treacherous in its strange and lustful ambitions. In the atmosphere of betrayal, verging on a kind of political and sexual cannibalism, human beings are objects of consumption, and, if you can’t have someone, you can kill them, according to the queen: “Of treason capital I will accuse him…And guerdon his disdaine with gultie death”(315). She is in love with Robert, but she is willing to have him executed if she doesn’t get her way romantically. Even in his downfall, Robert knows a simple appeal to the mature lady queen could remedy his situation of disgrace and poverty. The Oedipal dynamic between the queen and Robert hearkens to Hamlet’s too close relationship with his mother, but this taboo obsession is out in the open as a possibility. It isn’t even taboo. Hamlet was contemporary with The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington. The queen is as oblivious and randy as Gertrude, but she is ruthless like Claudius. She combines the worst of both characters. Prince Richard sounds like Claudius, but he is Hamlet’s age and station, conspiring against King Hamlet in the form of heroic King Richard. He doesn’t put poison in his brother’s ear, but he has no plans to pay the ransom to Austria either. Hamlet’s integrity transforms him into a tragic protagonist on the edge of madness. He is a failed trickster, and a failed hero in significant ways (except perhaps at the end), while Robert moves with complete success into the role of virtuous outlaw, his new identity in the woods as Robin Hood. In fact, Robin is so virtuous; he is hardly an outlaw at all. He is the saint of Sherwood Forest, the Good Samaritan lying in wait. Both Hamlet and The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington highlight the insidious nature of political corruption, and Skelton the actor/writer wonders, perhaps on behalf of both Anthony Munday and William Shakespeare, how the current king will respond to their productions. This, of course, imitates the action where King Claudius likes not Hamlet’s play of The Mousetrap, a knavish piece of work, for the resemblance of the king to the villain of the play. The leaders of the church should also be watched closely for their resemblance to, and identification with, the prior.
The possible dialogue with William Shakespeare and Elizabethan theater may be one way of understanding the playfully invasive characters of Skelton and Eltam, and the self-conscious play within the play. Perhaps we are actually being encouraged to bring this play into relationship with other plays. The characters of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and Warman have even more resemblance than those with the Hamlet characters, and Anti-Semitism plays a significant, and similar, role in both plays. Warman is a Shylock figure, but he doesn’t appear to be Jewish: “Damned Judaisme, false wrong, abhorred treachery”(368). The striking element of this accusation is that it comes from Warman’s cousin, who would logically follow the same family Judaism. Warman is being insulted for being the Jewish character of the play, the shadowy Shylock figure of pecuniary lust and abject cruelty. But he isn’t actually Jewish. The jailer subsequently deepens this accusation, which condemns obviously immoral behavior rather than simple religious affiliation: “A reprobate, a rascall, and a Jewe”(369). Munday is perhaps providing a subtle corrective to Shakespeare’s Anti-Semitism by showing that the hated Jewish character can be found in a non-Jewish man—it can be found in anyone. But that is probably giving the playwright too much credit for the genuine Anti-Semitism present in his play as well, and which was certainly acceptable in the Elizabethan time or nearly any period of Christian Europe. Warman is playing Judas after all, the traitor who helped Caipahas and the other Jewish “Christ killers.” It is also too easy to miss that the first accusation of Jewish treachery comes from a blood relation in the play. The counter balance to Shakespeare’s Anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice is that Shylock’s cartoon cruelty is balanced by the comical extremes of Antonio’s Christian virtue. Antonio is willing to die for Bassanio, and he actually seems eager to do it, like the suicide patrol in Life of Brian who would rather happily kill themselves at the foot of the cross than actually rescue an innocent Brian, the comic Christ figure of the film. If Robin Hood were really as good as he purports to be in this play, he wouldn’t last a day in the old Nottingham or Sherwood Forest. Munday and Shakespeare should not be excused for their much accepted Anti-Semitism, but they both arguably poke some significant holes in Christian virtue as well.
In addition to the similarities with other Elizabethan works, there is a striking self awareness, and even confusion, about the Munday genre. The actors and the characters refer to this play as a tragedy, at least at the beginning: “Beleeve mee love, believe me (I beseech)/ My first scene tragick is, therefore tragicke speech,/ And accents, I strive to get”(311). Robin says this as a way to get himself into the right mood for his downfall genre. Marian reluctantly assents to the tragic mode as well: “If it be but a play, Ile play my part”(311). Of course, Little John will also play his assigned role in the same vein: “Its but a tragicke scene we have in hand”(311). The trinity of characters believe they are part of a tragic play. Of course, the great and amusing irony is that the play isn’t tragic at all; it is a work of complete restoration, of comedy in the classical sense. Like The Divine Comedy, The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington portrays the salvation of humankind: as this Robin Hood version progresses, from tragedy to comedy, until the community of the woods becomes something like the Kingdom of God, or at the very least the church triumphant, all clad in green. To continue with the comic confusion of genre, the play is also referred to as a history by the writer/player Skelton, perhaps with the same tragic tongue in cheek: “And I as Prologue, purpose to expresse/ The ground whereon our historie is laied”(305). But Robin Hood is a legend, not a history, and Munday substantially changes the familiar legend. Whether the play is tragedy, comedy, or history, the actor characters of Skelton and Eltam encourage the audience to experience the production playfully, even though its import and message may be quite serious in the significant modification of Robin Hood’s legend.
Anthony Munday fundamentally changes the Robin Hood character and legend. Robin is not the familiar and saucy trickster and righteous jackanapes. He is terribly reluctant to deceive anyone, and he doesn’t steal in this play. Robin uses disguise once, and he only lies to save the lives of Scarlet and Scathlock. Prince Richard is much more of the trickster in this play; or rather he lies, cheats, steals, and deceives in his role as the clear villain. The early use of disguise by the prince and queen underscore the danger of a society where the royal leaders are the tricksters in regular practice. In such a dangerous world, a virtuous man must head to the woods. As the last dominos of betrayal fall completely in this kingdom, everyone ends up in the woods, including Prince John, the first mover of the play’s treachery. In contrast to Prince John and the prior, Munday meticuously constructs a character of near moral perfection in his Robin Hood. While Hamlet delays in his revenge against Claudius, Robin Hood turns naturally, and instinctively, to a Christian character of complete and unshakable integrity. Robin creates the church in the woods.
What inspires this new and saintly Robin Hood? The unique character of Robin is inspired by a fresh vision of Christian love and charity. The first step in his transformation from an earl to a yeoman is to patiently bear his cross, the language of exhortation in the gospels to the second generation Christians: “Patience hath power to beare a greater crosse/ Then honours spoyle, or any earthly loss” (309). The new covenant of the merry men eventually emerges in full-fledged vows and a near religious ceremony: in the collective bearing of their crosses as outlaws. But the first references to this nascent religious vision and community are in terms of love itself: “In spite of griefe, thy love compels me smile” (312). This is said by Robin to Marian, but the sentiment begins to be widespread in the heart of the erstwhile earl, a feeling of charity for everyone. A new identity is stirring and singing in Robin, and love is the genesis of the transformation. There are many references to love in the woods, but this love is explicitly not sexual. Robin considers love as a kind of prime mover of human community, and the microcosm of creation in the woods: “Love is a flame, a fire, that being mov’d,/Still brighter growes”(320). In light of the heavy religious symbolism of the play, this may be considered a possible statement of divine love, a first mover in the cosmos. Free from the chaos of a corrupt society, Robert responds like Adam, the first man, or rather he is becoming Christ like Robin, the first man redeemed. There are continued references to love as the woodland community grows. Robin feels it for, and from, Little John as well as Marian: “Well, there be on us, simple though we stand/ here, have as much love in hem as Little John”(326). The woods are a setting for the merry men, Marian, and Robin to learn to love again. They are relearning Christianity, or perhaps understanding it for the first time. Munday is presenting a Christian primer to an Elizabethan community which perhaps thinks it knows the story of Christ by heart. With church leaders like the prior, the church in the play offers no such opportunity for love or its expression collectively. While romantic love may be a beginning point in the engagement at the play’s beginning, Robin’s love quickly goes much deeper. The love of this new community will be Platonic, or courtly, for as long as needed in the woods. Sexuality is clearly tied to a form of consumption and greed, and a period of abstinence is needed, and demanded. This Christian fellowship will transcend romantic love, and all are sworn to chastity, not just Maid Marian. The chastity of the new community is a departure from the Green World as a potential place of sexual exploration and dreamlike magic without consequences. These woods are barely coeducational and effectively monastic. The last vow of the new community is perhaps the most important because it invokes the Social Gospel as the true purpose of this community. This is the purpose of their chastity and their new way of being in the world: “Lastly, you shall defend with all your power,/ Maids, widows, orphants, and distressed men”(342).
The symbols of this new community, the new collective identity, are their green clothing and the name of Robin Hood itself: “First no man must presume to call our master,/ By name of Earle, Lord, Baron, Knight, or Squire,/ But simply by the name of Robin Hoode”(341). There is an intentional and meaningful equality in the forest, but Robin is the master. Robin is the natural noble unshackled from a corrupt society. When Fitzwater arrives in the woods, he neatly summarizes the moral failure of the society they have left behind: “When I was taught, true dealing kept the schoole:/ Deeds were sworn partners with protesting words./ We said and did, these say and never meane”(333). Eventually Robin will go much further than the old expectations of a nobleman. He is essentially taking on the responsibility of the church as well, a sacred status like Holy Orders; he is a holy priest in nature. Once again, the Green World element of magic and nascent or even overt Paganism has been fully converted by the Christian mission, the forgotten purpose of the church. Robin is a celibacy symbol, not an impish figure of fertility. As the back to nature movement, this is a pretty pious revival. Robin describes the beauty of nature, and he is more of a preacher than a Puck figure: “For what in wealth we want, we have in flowers,/ And what wee loose in halles, we finde in bowers”(343). He sounds like Jesus in his teaching on anxiety in Matthew: “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them…Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these”(Mt. 6:26-29). Everyone who comes into the woods has an opportunity to learn or relearn a right relationship with the Creator; they convert to the Golden Rule in the Green World as Robin functions as both nobleman and clergyman. Beyond just providing protection and justice to his merry men and the parade of penitent souls into the woods, he offers salvation for their souls.
Robin’s messianic back to nature movement offers the penitent soul an efficacious sacramental system, one that includes confession, absolution, and the Eucharist. Everyone who comes to the forest is given a feast in their honor, a subtle reinvigoration of the church sacraments of eating bread and wine, which once was a complete meal for the faithful meeting in secret for fear of the powerful and corrupt Romans. In the Agape meal of Sherwood Forest, family members are reunited as Fitzwater, Jinny, and even Robin’s uncle are welcomed home in nature. Eventually even Prince John and King Richard are reconciled with the king arriving dressed in green, the colors of the new Christian Green World. Prince John, initially still full of tricks, lies, and violence in the woods, becomes instead the Prodigal Son: “Forgive me, Ely; pardon me, Fitzwater./ And to thy hands myselfe I yield”(379). With absolution comes the Eucharist for the penitent. Fitzwater’s sacramental meal even references the two remaining elements of the ancient Christian meal: “Here’s wine to cheere thy hart. Drink aged man. There’s venson and a knife, here’s manchet mine.”(347) Special bread and wine are readied for Marian’s father. This is in marked contrast to Robert’s Last Supper as a noble when his conspirators ate with him and Marian as they plotted to bring him down. For Anthony Munday, Robin Hood is a new identity of Christ consciousness, alive and well in the forest. Robin even refers to himself in the third person, this Christ consciousness, several times at the end of the play, as the rightful Christian king arrives, clad in green: “Now please my King to enter Robins bower,/ And take such homely welcome as he finds/ It shall be reckoned as my happiness”(382). The crusading king is now a pilgrim too in this growing community of grace. Though there are hints of suffering and the pains of the world in the next play to come, this particular Robin Hood play ends in complete restoration. It concludes with a comedy of grace offered to everyone. Munday is offering a significant criticism of the church in his holy Robin Hood; he is showing the dangers of society when church officials behave too much like political leaders. Munday presents a critique, both playfully and seriously, of political leaders leading the church, as was the literal case with the English Reformation: with the king as the spiritual head of the English Church. For this criticism to be overt, an English king would have to see himself in the character of the prior, not simply as Prince John. At the very least, church leaders would have to worry about their resemblance to the prior in this “mouse-trap.” Munday has plenty of political cover as the prior and the prince are both welcomed back among the faithful in the play. They are separate figures, just as Robin and the king are separate characters of godly virtue. Church and state are effectively separated by Munday. Everything is in its proper order in nature, the Green World of restored Christianity. But the political rulers and the leaders of the church have been duly chastened. They should not fail to read, mark, and learn that they are being watched; to the end that they may faithfully dispatch their roles to provide protection and justice for all, as well as “defend with all your power,/ Maids, widows, orphants, and distressed men”(342). To that end of repentance has the character of Robin Hood been changed before the audience.
“Me thinks I see no jeasts of Robin Hoode,
No merry morcies of Friar Tuck,
No pleasant skippings up and downe the wodde,
No hunting songs, no coursing of the bucke.
Pray God this play of ours may have good lucke,
And the Kings Majestie mislike it not”(366).
Works Cited List
1. Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000.
2. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard Version. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.