It would be obvious to say that society changes over the years.
Yet as the years grow farther apart we tend to forget how those before us
lived their lives. These historic ways of life are thankfully preserved in
literary works put down and documented centuries before us. The goal of
this paper is to examine the extinct life style of chivalry and show how it
relates to William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. Specifically The final act
As I began researching chivalry I found that there was a lot more
to it than draping my cape over a puddle for a lady. It actually began not
as a way to conduct ones life but rather as a social and economic class.
The word chivalry has its roots in the middle French word for horseman,
chevalier. Chivalry as defined in Webster’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary
means “mounted men-at-arms.” Chevalier also gave birth to a word almost
identical to chivalry: cavalier. Webster’s defines cavalier as “a
gentlemen trained in arms and horsemanship.” These are also synonymous
with knight. An interesting contradiction though is that the English
etymology of the word knight is trusted servant. This comes form the
Anglo-Saxon word “cnyht” (De La Bere 35). The idea of a knight being a
servant does not fit most people’s ideas of knighthood or chivalry, but in
essence that is what a knight is. A knight’s duty is always to his king.
The duality of these roles is what makes chivalry unique. (Barber 9).
So where did chivalry get its start? Many believe it started with
the barbaric Huns or the Roman Empire. Both civilizations had soldiers who
can be called knights, but there is controversy over which really
influenced what we now consider chivalry. The Hun soldiers were
inseparable from their horses realizing the effectiveness of mounted attack.
A classical writer referred to them as “shaggy centaurs.” The Romans had
a class of soldiers they called the “equites.” These examples are related
to chivalry but different because of the way in which it began. Chivalry
actually begins with the end of the empire of Charlemagne during the mid
eighth century. A knight basically began as a horse mounted solider. No
elaborate armor or weapon system was developed at first. Soon, changes
were becoming evident. During this time most who fought in battle were
free men and were called to do so only because they owed service to their
leader. It was an obligation to duty, not a situation where they had to
participate if they really didn’t want to. Military equipment was very
expensive during this time and forced men to pool their resources. Four
men may pool their resources and equip a fifth (9). This is where a life
of service comes into play. Notice that this warrior’s sole responsibility
is to render his war fighting skills to both the people who appointed him
and the leader he is to fight for. This is the underlying purpose of the
knight and soon shapes the traits of chivalry. The use of stirrups and
horseshoes in the ninth century made the horse mounted warrior much more
useful. These new technologies enabled a rider to deliver a blow with a
lance at full charge while on horseback. Before this he would have been
knocked off his mount due to not being able to grip onto the horses back.
The horseshoe enabled him to cover long distances and rough terrain (12).
With these developments weapons began to change. The lance became longer
and more sophisticated. Training regiments began to emerge. One such
regiment was the “practicing of mock warfare known as tournaments.
Tournaments were central to the world of chivalry: they acted both as
training grounds for knights.and as focal points for a literature and
culture based on knighthood” (19). A knight had to be trained in all
aspects of combat from horsemanship to fencing. The well equipped knighted
that we tend to think of today did not appear until the very beginning of
the eleventh century.
So, what made a knight during this time of chivalry? The author
Sidney Painter, in his book French Chivalry, broke down the character of a
knight in to four basic virtues. The first of these is prowess. Prowess
is described as “the ability to beat the other man in battle” (Painter 29).
Some consider prowess to be the most important virtue of the four seeing
that the knights main chivalric obligation is to fight. To pay a knight a
compliment that he possessed prowess was the highest one could pay him. A
knight who did not have prowess was often not useful to his benefactors and
often ridiculed by his peers (29).
With the nonexistence of organized government, personal obligations
and agreements carried a considerable amount of weight. During this time
of chivalry society was held together by contracts between lords and the
knights he employed. These contracts were often verbal, and a great deal
was placed on ones word. Therefore, loyalty became the second of the four
virtues of chivalry (30). The sense of trustworthiness kept people from
being at each other’s throats and helped promote peace and stability in a
leaders area of rule.
Along with prowess and loyalty came another much admired quality,
generosity. Though some times exaggerated, generosity was admired mostly
by the people under the jurisdiction of the nobility. This is because the
knights worked for the nobility, and the nobility were responsible for the
people who lived in their jurisdiction. This was especially the case for
wandering minstrels who relied on the knights for their income. They
composed long epic tales of knightly deeds, and in return expected generous
payment for this twelfth century publicity. This was the ruin of many
knights, who bankrupted themselves in the name of generosity. A quote by a
money wise baron Philip de Novarre said, “Every man should be generous
according to his wealth and social position.Not all acts that fools call
generosity are really generous; for waste is not generosity. One should
give reasonably.” Philip de Novarre realized that a rich man could hide
his flaws behind his wealth, and thus not really be chivalrous ( 31).
The fourth and final virtue was courtesy, and applies directly to
the interaction between noblemen. Since the noblemen were of a higher
class, they felt they owed it to each other to treat each other with a
certain amount respect. They were almost always required to be polite to
one another, even in when in disagreement. This also carried over to
warfare, fighting and duels. It was never ethical for a chivalrous
nobleman to attack and unarmed man, or in any other unfair circumstance.
Fights were to be conducted under completely fair circumstances (33).
William Shakespeare exemplified chivalry in many of his plays. He
derived most of his knowledge of chivalry from two books; The Order of
Chivalry and The Law of Arms (Scholfield 216). Shakespeare studied
chivalry in depth before attempting to write a work which chivalry was
deeply involved in all aspects (189). In his play Hamlet, chivalry can be
seen in several places. The play never gives anyone in particular the
title of knight. This is due to the fact that the play is about the highest
nobles in the kingdom of Denmark. Knights were generally the lowest in the
noble class structure. This does not mean that the male characters were
exempt from fulfilling their chivalric duties. In fact, their abilities
were expected to be the best if they were to be respected as military
Examine the character of Hamlet. “Hamlet was endowed with
chivalric qualities” (227). Through out the play are mentions of his
nobility. For example, Horatio saw him off referring to him as a noble
prince, and Fortinbras hailed him as a solider (227). The playwright
suggests Hamlets training in the line “I do not think so, since we went
into France, I have been in continual practice” (Shakespeare 1340). The
same can be seen with Laertes. French horsemen praised him because he was
well trained in the area of the equestrian arts. Again, a regimented
training was to be undertaken in order to acquire a chivalrous status.
The chivalric use of the sword is well displayed in the final scene
of the play. A duel with the sword is known today as fencing. It takes
years to master such brutal yet graceful art. Before the advent of the
firearm, the object of a duel with swords was to kill your opponent. With
the development of gunpowder in Europe during the seventeenth century, the
use of the sword became less frequent and fencing became a sport. Modern
fencing is the ability to present ones self offensively and defensively
with the sword, and to touch your opponent before he touches you. This
should occur without injury to either participant (Bower, Mori 1). This is
the sport of fencing and is obviously the style used in the play. We know
this because of two clues given to us in the lines of the play. First of
these was the line in which Hamlet sarcastically says he should carry
cannons on a belt (Shakespeare 1339). This obviously suggests the use of
gunpowder and firearms. The second clue is in the ground rules f or the
wager placed between Claudius and Laertes: “The king sir, hath laid sir,
that in a dozen passes between yourself and him, he shall not exceed you
three hits; he hath laid on twelve for nine, and it would come to immediate
trial, if you lordship would vouchsafe the answer” (1339). These rules of
the bout show that the object is to touch not injure ones opponent.
Therefore it can be determined that the contest between Laertes and Hamlet
is for sport and honor.
As for chivalry in the duel between Hamlet and Laertes the four
virtues of chivalry are clearly evident. Prowess is what the entire point
of the duel is in the first place. This duel however, will show who out of
the two combatants possesses greater prowess. The winner will undoubtably
hold great honor. Loyalty is displayed grandly by Hamlet, not to the king
but to the queen. This is seen when Hamlet finds out that the queen
consumes the kings poisoned cup intended for him. Hamlet then injures the
king saying “The point envenomed too: Then venom, to thy work” (1343). The
virtue of generosity is shown not by the contestants but by the king
himself. The king asks Hamlet to stay by him and have a drink to his
health and to give a pearl to him (1342). Even though the request has a
devious purpose, no one would have thought it odd considering displaying
generosity is a chivalric virtue. The fourth virtue, courtesy, is
displayed throughout the entire play. It is interesting to see that even
du ring the duel, they continue to stick to this virtue. As soon as the
duel begins and they are in the midst of combat, they still refer to each
other using courteous titles such as “sir” and “my lord” (1342).
Upon completion of my research I gained deeper knowledge of a
society that I merely thought of as barbaric in nature. Until this point,
I had thought that chivalry had lived in a much more modern area. I now
see that chivalry brought order and peace to a time in slow transition.
What better way of seeing how this societal structure worked than through
the play Hamlet and its creator William Shakespeare.