Thursday, January 6, 2011


Third Outlaw.  By the bare scalp of Robin Hood's fat friar,
This fellow were a king for our wild faction!

Third Outlaw.  Know, then, that some of us are gentlemen,
Such as the fury of ungovern'd youth
Thrust from the company of awful men:
Myself was from Verona banished
For practising to steal away a lady,
An heir, and near allied unto the duke.

Second Outlaw.  And I from Mantua, for a gentleman,
Who, in my mood, I stabb'd unto the heart.

First Outlaw.  And I for such like petty crimes as these,
But to the purpose—for we cite our faults,
That they may hold excus'd our lawless lives;
And partly, seeing you are beautified
With goodly shape and by your own report
A linguist and a man of such perfection
As we do in our quality much want—

Second Outlaw. Indeed, because you are a banish'd man,
Therefore, above the rest, we parley to you:
Are you content to be our general?
To make a virtue of necessity
And live, as we do, in this wilderness? 

Third Outlaw. What say'st thou? wilt thou be of our consort?
Say ay, and be the captain of us all:
We'll do thee homage and be ruled by thee,
Love thee as our commander and our king.

First Outlaw. But if thou scorn our courtesy, thou diest.

(4.1.1589-1590, 1596-1620)

Valentine. These banish'd men that I have kept withal
Are men endued with worthy qualities:
Forgive them what they have committed here
And let them be recall'd from their exile:
They are reformed, civil, full of good
And fit for great employment, worthy lord.

Duke of Mantua. Thou hast prevail'd; I pardon them and thee:
Dispose of them as thou know'st their deserts.


First: if you haven't read the play or read a synopsis, what are you waiting for? I'm going to be giving away the story here right, left, and center, so you've been warned!

The entrance of the outlaws in Act 4, for me, signals a shift in the whole tone of the play. Prior to this moment, we've seen action taking place in the orderly world of courts; noble people seek advancement through such standard procedures as climbing the ladder of courtly favor and pursuing a suitable marriage. Even the dark deeds done by Proteus are all rather clean - though spurred on by passion, he schemes coldly, presenting a false face to Valentine and going through official channels for approval of his actions. In this way he's more frightening than an open enemy - he has characteristics of an Iago or a Claudius, who can "smile and smile and be a villain." He deceives the Duke; Valentine is banished; it's a bloodless coup.

THEN - we get away from the city, get away from the court to "The frontiers of Mantua. A forest," and everything explodes. In contrast to the tightly controlled political culture of the cities, here we've got armed brigands running around! Notice how passionate and warm their crimes are – one wants to elope with a woman who is forbidden to him, another has stabbed a man, not in the back, not cutting the throat, but in the heart. They really need a captain for their outlaw band, however, and as the opening quotation shows, they seize upon Valentine as just the man - handsome and well educated! Outlaw chieftain – perfect new career path!

The new life that Valentine finds in the forest with the exiled outlaws is a major, major diversion from everything he had planned for his future. Recall Valentine's ambition to better himself by his travel experience, and Antonio's shame that his son Proteus was not doing likewise - "... he cannot be a perfect man, /Not being tried and tutor'd in the world" (1.3.324-325). I guess that Valentine's new gig would perhaps be the modern-day equivalent of someone pursuing an M.B.A. at an Ivy League school, only to be expelled and rebound by joining a motorcycle gang. However, though Valentine may feel that his prospects are blasted by his banishment and new criminal career, ultimately his sojourn in the forest ends up being the catalyst for the healing and reconciliation that ends the play.

 This theme of journeying into the forest, or what the critic Northrop Frye called the "Green World," in Shakespeare's comedies is something I'll look at in more depth when we get to As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but for a quick summary: essentially the "Green World" is a natural environment where, free from the trappings of the city and court culture, the true self is revealed, and can be a place where magic or miracles happen. I'll talk more later in the week about the impact of the Green World on the final reconciliation between Proteus and Valentine and the troubling aspects of the ending, but today I’ll concentrate on the outlaws and how their story relates to the character of the forest world.

The outlaws are separated from acceptable society and are truly dangerous. They steal, some of them are murderers - no worries, they've only committed "such like petty crimes as these" - and they threaten Valentine's life. Here’s the dark side to this forest freedom! Yet the outlaws are also honorable, and their reference to Robin Hood plants them firmly in fairy-tale land, identifying them with the heroic cut-purses of legend and song. Their redemption at the end - forgiveness and reacceptance into society - shows the healing power of the Green World, yet also underscores the fact that they really weren't cut out to be outlaws from the beginning. Their identities as "gentlemen" redeem them, and they are restored to respectability.

Though this de-banishment and redemption, if taken seriously, is touching, the outlaws can also be read as chiefly comedic characters. They are wild. They make snap decisions. They're not very tough, letting everyone they capture either escape or join their ranks. They remind me as nothing so much as the Pirates of Penzance (possibly a Gilbertian spoof of this very play!), whose pathetic attempts at sea-thievery end when they are revealed to be

“No members of the common throng; They are all noblemen who have gone wrong!”

However we may distrust the outlaws’ morals and competence, they do serve a very important role. Their intervention in detaining Valentine in the woods allow him to be on the spot to rescue Silvia from the lecherous clutches of Proteus, and their re-acceptance into society also serves as a symbol of the softening of the governmental rigidity that has caused so much havoc in Silvia and Valentine’s lives. The Duke finally relents and consents to the marriage of the young lovers; the wild men of the forest, previously banished, are welcomed home. All is happiness – yet one still hopes that the outlaws will bring some of their Robin Hood-ish freedom and openness with them from their Green World back into the world of the city, court, and the clean, smiling, back-stabbing crime.

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