Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Shame vs. Embarrassment

During last week’s class my professor went over a few more topics and issues concerning Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. For this week’s blog post, I have decided to focus on the themes of shame vs. embarrassment as they apply to this work. Hopefully I will succeed in differentiating between the two where I can, and showing how they play out during Sir Gawain’s adventures.

First off, shame is external while embarrassment is internal. Gawain finds out that the external and internal are not the same. Shame is assigned to you, while embarrassment comes out of you. Until the matter is in the public eye, there is no shame. Gawain becomes embarrassed when he realizes that he is not what he thought other people thought he was (now say it five times fast). He has an identity related to what people think he is, but his idea of what that is turns out to be wrong. He then goes back and attempts to reclaim his identity by publicly accepting that he did something wrong, thus assigning his own shame. He even decides to wear a bright green belt as a “badge of false faith” as a continual reminder to himself and everyone else of his failure. However, his attempt to redefine his identity fails as the others decided to also wear a bright green belt, seemingly in an act of solidarity, as they acknowledge his failure only as much as they acknowledge that they all have failed in some way. And to be completely fair, Gawain is the only one who stepped up to take the challenge so that King Arthur did not have to; therefore causing the others to fail the initial test of courage. So in a way, their act of solidarity makes perfect sense, even though it means Gawain is not special in his embarrassment. Plus, since Gawain is acknowledged as the best knight, it would make sense that the others would want to be like him, even if that means that they are all flawed individuals.

So is Gawain at fault? Is he the villain in this? The “confessions” of Gawain (or lack of them) seem to ask if Gawain has actually done anything wrong. He is still a hero in the end, he just also happens to be human. And with the theme of renewal and the start of the new year, and of course the fact that the Green Knight decides to not chop off his head, it is like Gawain gets a restart. And when he does put on his “badge of false faith,” everyone else laughs it off and decides to wear their own. Ultimately, he is just a human being who held himself up to a higher standard that not everyone has adopted.

Next week I’ll jump back to Shakespeare until the class goes over Pearl. I cannot believe that out of all of the sections on the M.A. exam reading list, I will actually be done with the earliest and most difficult period first. But I guess that is what happens when you avoid the poetry…

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Required Work: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

If I had actually paid attention to the syllabus for my Medieval Literature class I would have realized that while we are currently going over Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, we will not be covering Pearl until March 31st. Therefore, I will have the opportunity to spend two weeks on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and then we will explore Pearl later.

The translation we are using in class is the one by Marie Borroff. It contains great introductory material for each of the stories included and helped me sort of get my bearings before jumping into the poem.


There are a number of options to choose from here: alliterative romance, chivalric romance, adventure, etc. The story outlines the adventure of Sir Gawain, a knight from Arthur’s round table, as he takes on a challenge from the mysterious Green Knight. Our hero goes on a quest that tests his abilities, as well as his loyalty, courage, and honesty.


There seems to be a general theme of newness, or even of being young. It is springtime in Camelot, it is a new year, the knights are almost like boys in comparison to the Green Knight, and Camelot itself seems new and young. But while everything has a sense of being fresh and young, the Arthurian Court is still widely known, so the knights aren’t necessarily innocent. The story shows an Arthur that is established, but not quite the full-on Arthur we are used to seeing in most stories and movies. The Green Knight presents the court with an early test that they can all learn from.

The theme of tests and challenges is also present in the story. While Gawain undergoes a series of tests throughout the story, it is also a test for Arthur’s court as a whole. The Green Knight initially presents the challenge to Arthur, and if Gawain had not stepped in to take on the challenge, there is a great chance that Arthur would have been killed, and then they would have lost their king. It is a test for Gawain, the best knight, and a test to see if Arthur has the proper loyalty from his servants. And along with this theme of tests comes the idea of success versus failure.

It is hard ton say whether Gawain fails or not. At the end of the story, he seems to be berating himself while everyone else wants him to lighten up and accept that everyone makes mistakes. But what was the failure? He breaks the oath he gives to the man whose house he is staying at when they each promise to share with the other what they gain during the day. The man shares with Gawain what he gets from his daily hunt, but Gawain neglects to share the girdle he receives from the man’s wife that will keep him safe from physical harm. Granted, Gawain is on a journey that he believes will end in him having his head chopped off, so we can’t really blame him for wanting to keep the girdle, but it breaks this oath he has made with this man. So is he guilty of breaking the oath? Or of being a coward? Or both? Or is he just guilty of loving his life a little too much? Whichever it is, it is clear at the end that he believes he has done something wrong and he feels guilty about it. However, not only do his colleagues laugh it off, but even the Green Knight understands his reasons for attempting to cheat and decides not to chop off his head (whew!).

I just want to point out that the Green Knight can live while having his head severed from his body, so how fair was this game in the first place? I would say that Gawain using a belt that will save his life in this game should be allowed given that the Green Knight has his own unfair advantage. Just saying…

There is also the theme of oaths or pledges, and Gawain breaks pretty much every single one that he makes. The thing about this story is that it is hard to pin down Gawain’s sins and guilt. How do we know that Gawain knows that doing something like taking the girdle was wrong? The story tells us he has done something wrong without actually saying it. We can infer it all due to context. The stories narrative perspective (from where do we see these events) allows us to have Gawain’s perspective at times without it being a first person narrative. When the Green Knight is being described we see the details as one of the crowd, while other times we are given more of a general overview instead of focusing on one thing. We can also infer meanings by using the poems contrasting juxtapositions such as the ones used for the hunting scenes in opposition to the bedroom scenes. We also somehow know, without the story saying it, that Gawain is constantly aware and worried about having his head chopped off. I mean, who wouldn’t be?

The color red makes its appearance several times, as Gawain is typically known to have worn red, all three animals from the hunting scenes would have been seen as red in England, and the color contrasts nicely with the green of Gawain’s challenger.

There are also lots of threes, lots of fives, lots of knots and untying. The numerological construction gives the idea that this is a world that is shaped by an external hand. The humans don’t know the plot of the adventure they are undertaking, but they try anyway. Gawain’s failure is ultimately inevitable, but he has to try.


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written in the midst of the restart of English literature. The Gawain Poet also would have been a contemporary of Chaucer. However, we read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in translations because the Gawain poet wrote in a different dialect than Chaucer. During this time, there was no standard written dialect as people wrote the way they heard the sounds, so Chaucer’s dialect from London would be very different from the Gawain Poet’s dialect from the north. The standardized dialect that was eventually developed came out of the need to understand bureaucracy, and would have come from London and Westminster, which is where the crown resided. For this reason, Chaucer’s English is more accessible to us today. Plus, he was trained as a court clerk, so he worked within this dialect as well. The Gawain Poet wrote in a provincial dialect from a provincial language. England began to standardize the language in the 15th century, and there isn’t a full-fledged grammar system until the 18th century.

This was also an age of chivalric accomplishment for England. King Edward III declares himself king of France after years of both countries being under constant threat of being taken over by the other. He establishes the Order of the Garter, which basically makes it cool and trendy to be a knight. So there are elements of chivalric idealism , but also interrogation of it. Also, in the English tradition, Gawain is a hero; in the French tradition, Gawain is a cad.

Next week will be more of the same with even more questions being answered about this complex poem. After that, we will return to Shakespeare with The Tempest.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Optional Work: Henry IV Part II

Thanks to my Shakespeare app on my iPhone and the mostly quiet atmosphere of the UTSA library during my lunch hour, I managed to finish Henry IV Part II. It is not as exciting as Part I, and it is not as humorous, mostly due to Falstaff and Hal almost entirely separate story lines. The play even borderlines on the tragic side as Falstaff is ultimately rejected by the newly crowned King Henry V. It is one of the scenes that is painful to read because we all know what is about to happen, and yet Falstaff is more confident as opposed to even just hopeful, and why wouldn’t he be? The rejection of Falstaff is when one those issues in literature that has been solved, and yet it remains unresolved (if that makes any sense). I would not be surprised if the issue does not come up during the exam for those people who choose to add this play to their exam reading list.


Henry IV Part II is of course a history play just like Part I. Just like with my previous post, I will save the rest of my comments on the actual history for the history section of this post.


In this play, King Henry IV actually has a more prominent role in this play, and there is less focus on Prince Hal and Falstaff. Falstaff is still around, and he is still unreliable. Hal is still playing tricks on him. Hal is also in the process of going down the final road to becoming king, as his father is ill and it is generally assumed that he will not be alive much longer. There is even a moment when the King and his prodigal son of sorts are able to have a type of reconciliation. For me, this pinpoints the moment when Hal begins his “change” that he had been planning on all along. There is also some focus on Falstaff’s age and the fact the he himself may be close to death. In Henry V, the fat knight actually dies and his death is attributed to Hal’s rejection.

This play also includes yet another uprising against King Henry IV, but this one is defeated not by a battle, but by the machinations of Hal’s brother, Prince John. It would appear that trickery and manipulative behavior are not traits that are exclusive to Hal when it comes to the royal family. But I suppose it cannot really be that surprising as their father took the crown from Richard II with much of the same type of behavior.

Meanwhile, Falstaff appears to be even more involved in the London underworld, and even looks for a wife among the prostitutes. After Hal inevitably rejects him, there is an epilogue at the end of the play that promises the story will continue with Falstaff in it. However, anyone who has read Henry V knows that Falstaff is not in it, and he is only mentioned when others are discussing his sickness and eventual death.


Last week I discussed the history of the text more than I did the actual history during the time of King Henry IV’s reign. He came to the throne after the deposition of his cousin, Richard II. Henry’s father was John of Gaunt, someone who enjoyed a position of considerable influence during the reign of Richard II. And while Henry actually participated in a rebellion against his cousin, he wasn’t punished, but was actually elevated by the king from the position of an Earl to that of a Duke. Of course, their relationship did not remain this close, especially after Richard had him banished then attempted to take away the land he was to inherit from his father. Henry manages to gain enough military support to have himself crowned king, and have Richard thrown in jail. And then, enter the rebellions and assignation attempts. Many have argued that the issues he had while he was king came from the fact that he was never meant to take the throne. I could go on and on with all of the different issues considering the Lancaster branch of the Plantagenets, but that would be a never-ending discussion.

Next week I will return to medieval literature with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Hopefully I will survive, because I really want to discuss Shakespeare’s The Tempest afterwards.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Required Work: Henry IV Part I

I am pretty excited about beginning the series of posts on the three required William Shakespeare plays, as well as the additional three I have chosen for my personal list. I think I will alternate between the required plays and the optional ones…plus it makes more sense for me to follow Henry IV Part I with Henry IV Part II, as I will do next week. Then I will continue with The Tempest, Twelfth Night, Hamlet, and Titus Andronicus (one of my personal favorites). There will be an interruption in a few weeks with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Pearl. But aside from that, the next few weeks will be focused mostly on Shakespeare.

Pictured at right is the The Norton Shakespeare, second edition. This is the edition we used in my Shakespeare class and I found it very useful. I do have to say though that I haven’t actually read any of the plays using this edition. Because this book is so big, I refused to carry it around on days I didn’t have class. Instead, I read the plays using an app I downloaded to my iPhone that includes the complete works of Shakespeare (and it is free!). I am not one who will probably ever get a Kindle, or Nook, or iPad, as I don’t enjoy reading off of a screen. I just felt that this situation called for another solution.


Henry IV Part I is a history play and is the second play in the tetralogy that deals with the successive reigns of Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V (with Henry IV getting two plays). The play qualifies as a history as it deals with an English ruler that actually existed and a civil war that actually happened (I think…history is not my strong suit). However, issues always when it comes to placing Shakespeare’s plays in certain categories, even with the ones that seem obvious. For instance, Julius Caesar was also a real person; however, Shakespeare’s play of the same name is most often placed in the category of tragedy. And there are several of Shakespeare’s plays that end up being labeled as “problem plays” because they cannot effectively be placed in any single genre. For me, The Tempest, on of the plays I will explore later, is one of those plays.

History is one of the three main genres of Western theater (the other two being tragedy and comedy). It is takes place in the past, and once again, involves real events and real people in history.

Since Henry IV Part I is one of the less troublesome plays when it comes to genre, and it is categorized as a history play, I will save the rest of my comments on the actual history for the history section of this post.


What has always interested me about this play, and also Henry IV Part II, is the King Henry IV doesn’t seem to be the main character. Our focus, well at least mine away, seems to be drawn to Prince Henry, or Hal. His antics with his band of misfits, including the hilariously ridiculous Sir John Falstaff, are what always kept my attention while reading this play. Because of this focus on the prince, the play has been seen as a coming of age story for Hal, as by the end of Henry IV Part II, he does a complete 180 and becomes a different person, actively rejecting his old life and old friends. However, can this be called a coming of age when at the very beginning of Henry IV Part I, Hal actually alludes to the change he will reveal at the end of the next play? Is it really a change if admits that he is faking the life he is currently leading?

These questions raise the issue of Hal being an admirable figure and a good friend. He reasons that him acting like a rogue and then faking a significant change once he receives the crown will cause his people to admire him even more than if he was a good person all along. For me this is issue #1, as he is pretending to be something he is not in order to further gain loyalty from the people of his future kingdom. To me, he is justifying having fun while he is young instead of acting like the prince he should. My issue #2 is that he really isn’t that great a friend to the people he is currently hanging out with, at least not to Falstaff. He rarely says anything nice about the guy, and enjoys playing cruel jokes on him.

To be completely fair, Falstaff is not that great a guy. Sure he is funny, but so are Bart Simpson and Ferris Bueller (warning: the following statements will be made with a soapbox under my feet). Bart Simpson is the guy that every 10 year-old boy wants to be and wants to be around. However, to be his little sister or even his closest “friend” is absolute hell. He is selfish, egotistical, and thoroughly enjoys making other people suffer for his own amusement. He is also the last guy you want to ever have to depend on for anything (I am stepping of the soapbox now). Falstaff is much the same. He takes the money from the King that he is supposed to use to get soldiers for the ensuing civil war and instead keeps it for himself, and then accepts bribes from potential soldiers so that they do not have to fight, and gets together the most pathetic bunch of troops ever amassed (all of which end up dead, by the way, because they were not fit for fighting). He also takes credit for killing Hotspur, something he witnessed Hal do himself. But even with all of these very serious character flaws, Shakespeare allows us to feel as if even he does not deserve the deception and trickery that Hal is subjecting him to. But, if I want to have anything left to say for Henry IV Part II, then I must stop here.


It is generally believed that this play was written no later than 1597. As mentioned, it is part of a tetralogy with three other plays, including its own sequel. Shakespeare wrote another tetralogy that deals with the reigns of Henry VI (three plays) and Richard III. What is interesting about these tetralogies is that while Henry VI and Richard III obviously come after Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V in history, he wrote that set of plays first and wrote the histories that include King Henry and Prince Hal later. This second tetralogy was also more popular than the first, and Henry IV Part I was Shakespeare’s most popular printed text.

Next week we will conclude the story of King Henry IV with part II of Shakespeare’s story. I am sure some of you are wondering why I did not pick Henry V as my other history as opposed to Henry IV Part II, as the former is much more widely read. The answer is simple: I don’t like Henry V. I think it goes on for way too long and the actual character of Henry gets on my nerves exceedingly. I just don’t want to spend any more time with that play than I have to. There, I feel better now…