Identity, though it dances to many tunes, stands on two legs: commitment and recognition. In the recent work on Shakespeare and identity that I’ve come across, the emphasis seems to be on the latter, on how characters are interpellated and interpreted, demand recognition through performance and performative gesture, and fashion themselves in the eyes of others; and Shakespeare is keenly attuned to all of these, in relation to power and desire especially, and in the theatrical space that is a court above all. The moments when characters beg, inspire, demand, and grant recognition are among the most powerful of the plays.
At the same time, recognition does not, on its own, explain what it is that sets and sustains the plays and characters in motion. For that, commitment needs to be given a fair shake.
Recognition is implicit whenever a character speaks; the opening of Measure for Measure, “Escalus,” “My Lord” is a moment of recognition calling also on the audience to attend. Commitment, though, except in the most attenuated sense, is not everywhere present. In Shakespeare, and other places, it is explicit in vows and oaths and promises, the subject of a recent tome by John Kerrigan. But commitment extends beneath and far beyond their borders, a subterraneous root system; in fact, when we speak of the depth of Shakespearean character, we need to account for all of their implied commitments which direct actions and speeches that do not explicitly commit much or at all.
Commitment, more than desire, drives action; for it is only when a character commits to realizing a desire that they act. And so the old Aristotelian apothegm, “Character is action,” makes a great deal more sense when we realize that who a person is, their identity, is not only a matter of publicly-facing role, but also of the private commitment to that role, as well as to the other commitments that a person might hold, however (social forces, ideology, psychological quirk) they come by them, then we realize that “character is commitment to act” and the mechanism of drama as drama comes into view. It has taken me too long to see this.
It’s hardly unique to Shakespeare, but the plausible and commonplace sense that Shakespeare does something new with character, or new with identity, or new with humanity, needs to mean not just that he does something new in presenting self-presentation and self-dramatization and the recognition and knowledge of others, but also that he does something new in making sense of human action as commitment.
For the plays—for any play at all—to get off the ground, someone must be committed to doing something. I’d not be at all surprised if actors were as inclined to ask “what’s my commitment” as they are, in the cliché, “what’s my motive.” What has been interesting to me, reading this summer through most of what I think of as Shakespeare’s not-quite-best, or more-vexing, works (Henry VI parts 1-3; Cymbeline; All’s Well That Ends Well; Taming of the Shrew; Comedy of Errors; Two Gentlemen of Verona; Love’s Labour Lost; King John; Henry VIII) is how sluggish many of them are in their opening scenes; how slow they are to come into focus, to find their animating conflicts and sense of shape; and how the histories especially do not have one shape at all, but contain several. It can’t be simply the case that the plays begin without any commitments. In the history plays at least, the overwhelming sense of necessary, lawful, or honorable action is present from the start.
But not all commitments are dramatically interesting, and in these plays it takes Shakespeare a longer time to root out what is most interesting about the commitment of a character, or to bring onto the stage a character with commitments that interest him. And sometimes, when he does, it is not quite worked out how and where their commitments can lead. Constance in King John is an example of a character whose commitments inspired some fine lines, the sort an actor would cherish, and yet who seems to inspire by Shakespeare by the repeated thwarting of her commitments—and commitment, not action and not desire, is the word here, since she is committed to her son’s kingship, but is constantly constrained in how she can realize it; it is not merely, or even, desire, since it is her mission in life to set him on the throne. Here is the ever-mild, milquetoast sweet Arthur attempting consolation after France’s King Phillip has betrayed their cause and allied with King John:
I do beseech you, madam, be content.
If thou, that bid’st me be content, wert grim,
Ugly and slanderous to thy mother’s womb,
Full of unpleasing blots and sightless stains,
Lame, foolish, crooked, swart, prodigious,
Patch’d with foul moles and eye-offending marks,
I would not care, I then would be content,
For then I should not love thee, no, nor thou
Become thy great birth nor deserve a crown.
But thou art fair, and at thy birth, dear boy,
Nature and Fortune join’d to make thee great:
Of Nature’s gifts thou mayst with lilies boast,
And with the half-blown rose. But Fortune, O,
She is corrupted, changed and won from thee;
She adulterates hourly with thine uncle John,
And with her golden hand hath pluck’d on France
To tread down fair respect of sovereignty,
And made his majesty the bawd to theirs.
France is a bawd to Fortune and King John,
That strumpet Fortune, that usurping John!
Tell me, thou fellow, is not France forsworn?
Envenom him with words, or get thee gone
And leave those woes alone which I alone
Am bound to under-bear.
And here are her lines when John is kidnapped:
Thou art not holy to belie me so;
I am not mad: this hair I tear is mine;
My name is Constance; I was Geffrey’s wife;
Young Arthur is my son, and he is lost:
I am not mad: I would to heaven I were!
For then, ’tis like I should forget myself:
O, if I could, what grief should I forget!
Preach some philosophy to make me mad,
And thou shalt be canonized, cardinal;
For being not mad but sensible of grief,
My reasonable part produces reason
How I may be deliver’d of these woes,
And teaches me to kill or hang myself:
If I were mad, I should forget my son,
Or madly think a babe of clouts were he:
I am not mad; too well, too well I feel
The different plague of each calamity.
But Constance’s commitment can lead her nowhere in the plot and she dies soon after; there is only so much declaring of her commitment. Shakespeare is captivated by Constance, but cannot do enough with her; she is too peripheral to a drama in which everyone is peripheral. King John does not have a hero or villain, or even central conflict, because it cannot settle on which commitments are most important to it: John’s commitments themselves shift, from retaining France to holding the throne, but he does not have a great speech like Richard II in which the commitment to the crown and the recognition of himself as king and nothing else are fused. That is perhaps why the real moral center of the play is a character with an uncertain sense of what commitment might be: the Bastard. When he comes into the play, in its early scenes, he is schematically, in the structure of the drama, peripheral, but his voice, from the periphery, offers a blend of magpie humor (“and hang a calf’s-skin on those recreant limbs”), caustic cynicism, and honorable devotion that is distinct in Shakespeare, though maybe distantly related to Thersites and Jacques, though with more courage and generosity than either. He does not urge King John to fight only to seek to flee himself, and he is able to recognize what danger must unite France and England, to provide the opportunity for England to seize the advantage against France:
By heaven, these scroyles of Angiers flout you, kings,
And stand securely on their battlements,
As in a theatre, whence they gape and point
At your industrious scenes and acts of death.
Your royal presences be ruled by me:
Do like the mutines of Jerusalem,
Be friends awhile and both conjointly bend
Your sharpest deeds of malice on this town:
By east and west let France and England mount
Their battering cannon charged to the mouths,
Till their soul-fearing clamours have brawl’d down
The flinty ribs of this contemptuous city:
I’ld play incessantly upon these jades,
Even till unfenced desolation
Leave them as naked as the vulgar air.
That done, dissever your united strengths,
And part your mingled colours once again;
Turn face to face and bloody point to point;
Then, in a moment, Fortune shall cull forth
Out of one side her happy minion,
To whom in favour she shall give the day,
And kiss him with a glorious victory.
How like you this wild counsel, mighty states?
Smacks it not something of the policy?
Recognized as legitimate by his grandmother Eleanor and uncle King John, he has accepted their commitments as his own, not just in word but in deed (without which they would not truly be commitments). Critics forced to locate a center to the play’s action might settle on the Bastard’s speech on “Commodity,” the commitment to self-interest, that he cynically but plausibly seems all around him:
Mad world! mad kings! mad composition!
John, to stop Arthur’s title in the whole,
Hath willingly departed with a part,
And France, whose armour conscience buckled on,
Whom zeal and charity brought to the field
As God’s own soldier, rounded in the ear
With that same purpose-changer, that sly devil,
That broker, that still breaks the pate of faith,
That daily break-vow, he that wins of all,
Of kings, of beggars, old men, young men, maids,
Who, having no external thing to lose
But the word ‘maid,’ cheats the poor maid of that,
That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling Commodity,
Commodity, the bias of the world,
The world, who of itself is peised well,
Made to run even upon even ground,
Till this advantage, this vile-drawing bias,
This sway of motion, this Commodity,
Makes it take head from all indifferency,
From all direction, purpose, course, intent:
And this same bias, this Commodity,
This bawd, this broker, this all-changing word,
Clapp’d on the outward eye of fickle France,
Hath drawn him from his own determined aid,
From a resolved and honourable war,
To a most base and vile-concluded peace.
And why rail I on this Commodity?
But for because he hath not woo’d me yet:
Not that I have the power to clutch my hand,
When his fair angels would salute my palm;
But for my hand, as unattempted yet,
Like a poor beggar, raileth on the rich.
Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail
And say there is no sin but to be rich;
And being rich, my virtue then shall be
To say there is no vice but beggary.
Since kings break faith upon commodity,
Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee.
But his deeds do not bespeak a worship of gain in any especially nefarious, cynical, or harmful way. And as King John falters in his pursuit, the Bastard finds instead a commitment to a nobility of vision that takes wing in the final words of Act IV, after the death of Arthur:
Go, bear him in thine arms.
I am amazed, methinks, and lose my way
Among the thorns and dangers of this world.
How easy dost thou take all England up!
From forth this morsel of dead royalty,
The life, the right and truth of all this realm
Is fled to heaven; and England now is left
To tug and scamble and to part by the teeth
The unowed interest of proud-swelling state.
Now for the bare-pick’d bone of majesty
Doth dogged war bristle his angry crest
And snarleth in the gentle eyes of peace:
Now powers from home and discontents at home
Meet in one line; and vast confusion waits,
As doth a raven on a sick-fall’n beast,
The imminent decay of wrested pomp.
Now happy he whose cloak and cincture can
Hold out this tempest. Bear away that child
And follow me with speed: I’ll to the king:
A thousand businesses are brief in hand,
And heaven itself doth frown upon the land.
And it is the Bastard who props up King John for his final stand:
So, on my soul, he did, for aught he knew.
But wherefore do you droop? why look you sad?
Be great in act, as you have been in thought;
Let not the world see fear and sad distrust
Govern the motion of a kingly eye:
Be stirring as the time; be fire with fire;
Threaten the threatener and outface the brow
Of bragging horror: so shall inferior eyes,
That borrow their behaviors from the great,
Grow great by your example and put on
The dauntless spirit of resolution.
Away, and glister like the god of war,
When he intendeth to become the field:
Show boldness and aspiring confidence.
What, shall they seek the lion in his den,
And fright him there? and make him tremble there?
O, let it not be said: forage, and run
To meet displeasure farther from the doors,
And grapple with him ere he comes so nigh.
And lastly, it is the Bastard who spits when Rome’s emissary Pandolph announces that the Dauphin Lewis will not retreat in his invasion:
By all the blood that ever fury breathed,
The youth says well. Now hear our English king;
For thus his royalty doth speak in me.
He is prepared, and reason too he should:
This apish and unmannerly approach,
This harness’d masque and unadvised revel,
This unhair’d sauciness and boyish troops,
The king doth smile at; and is well prepared
To whip this dwarfish war, these pigmy arms,
From out the circle of his territories.
That hand which had the strength, even at your door,
To cudgel you and make you take the hatch,
To dive like buckets in concealed wells,
To crouch in litter of your stable planks,
To lie like pawns lock’d up in chests and trunks,
To hug with swine, to seek sweet safety out
In vaults and prisons, and to thrill and shake
Even at the crying of your nation’s crow,
Thinking his voice an armed Englishman;
Shall that victorious hand be feebled here,
That in your chambers gave you chastisement?
No: know the gallant monarch is in arms
And like an eagle o’er his aery towers,
To souse annoyance that comes near his nest.
And you degenerate, you ingrate revolts,
You bloody Neroes, ripping up the womb
Of your dear mother England, blush for shame;
For your own ladies and pale-visaged maids
Like Amazons come tripping after drums,
Their thimbles into armed gauntlets change,
Their needles to lances, and their gentle hearts
To fierce and bloody inclination.
His loyalty to England, to King John, and to victory over the French (all of which melt together in his words) cannot find voice in the rhetoric of a Henry V or noble aspirant to the crown; being oblique from power, he does not speak in a high style. But in his voice, instead, is something different from what I’ve read elsewhere in Shakespeare: a satirist-skeptic’s visceral, concrete vituperation serving high ideals. He is kindled by a commitment that kindled Shakespeare’s imagination; it is a commitment limited in its capacity to shape or dictate the plot, so that the play’s action cannot be his, even as, by virtue of being nobody’s at all, by being disowned, he becomes its natural heir.