Imperial Anxiety in Thomas Hughes’s The
Misfortunes of Arthur
Spradlin, Derrick. "Imperial
Anxiety in Thomas Hughes’s The Misfortunes of Arthur". Early
Modern Literary Studies 10.3 (January, 2005) 1.1-20 <URL:
- The late English Renaissance era saw a sharp decrease from previous centuries
in the number of texts using the Arthurian legend for its plot. William Ingram
points out that during the last two decades of the sixteenth century playwrights
readily made use of both legendary and contemporary British history, yet King
Arthur appears in almost no plays of the period. “We can’t know, of course,”
Ingram states, “whether this paucity is merely the random result of unrelated
individual preferences among playwrights or whether it represents a consensus
judgment” (37). In his explanation of this decline, Richard Helgerson writes
that “the militant aristocratic autonomy figured by the knight-errant was
potentially upsetting to reborn classicism, to civic humanism, to bourgeois
commercialism, to royal absolutism, and even … to the new strategic collectivism.
Humanist critics and scholars, merchants, ministers of state, and soldiers
might thus all find themselves at odds with the chivalric knight” (50). The
tyranny associated by Renaissance humanists with the age of chivalric knights
and with the knight figure caused romances that heroize the bygone age to
fall into disfavor.
- In addition to this humanist complaint against chivalric knights, Christopher
Dean finds a reason for Arthur’s decrease in popularity in “the newly aroused
interest in him as a historical figure, which came about through his being
used to bolster the claims of the reigning Tudor monarchs to the throne” (107).
Serious historical study found no evidence to support the larger-than-life
and fantastical achievements of Arthur and his knights of the Round Table.
To give credence to the genealogical linkage between the Tudors and Arthur,
the unbelievable elements of the Arthurian legend had to be dropped. From
the perspective of writers and storytellers, though, without what was sensational
about him, Arthur could not hold the attention of an audience. As Dean writes:
“Stripped of his mysterious origins, of his fellowship of knights, and of
his fatally attractive queen, Arthur emerged from the heated controversies
of the historians lacking much of his poetic appeal and significance” (108).
What would Hannibal of Carthage be without his elephants? What would George
Washington be without his crossing of the Delaware River? And what is King
Arthur without Excalibur and the quest for the Holy Grail? But, in general,
this was an Arthur of Renaissance England and the Arthur that Thomas Hughes
chose to use for his 1587 play, The Misfortunes of Arthur.
- What, then, did it mean for an English writer to invoke King Arthur? What
were the implications, the expectations, and the possibilities associated
with Arthur by an audience of that period? In this essay, a study of the Arthur
figure will reveal that during the early modern period Arthurian imagery perennially
included imperial conquest and the geographical expansion of the realm. In
fact, this aspect of the legend is elemental to Renaissance deployments of
Arthur. During this time in England, of course, enlargement of the realm through
colonization existed as an issue of great importance. Amid the widespread
and ongoing discussion of colonial endeavor stand some texts that promote
empire expansion and, at the same time, communicate a sense of regret and
unease about colonization, a sense that the imperial project has gone awry
before fully beginning. That these texts, like the texts that reference Arthur,
date from the early sixteenth century to several decades into the seventeenth
century reveals that these issues remained relevant throughout the early modern
era, even as the face of English colonialism shifted and developed at a rapid
rate. A reading of The Misfortunes of Arthur in light of these other
works allows an Arthur figure to emerge that, one, is quite different than
the more familiar chivalric, glorious king and, two, is helpful in piecing
together the multifaceted event of English Renaissance imperialism.
- In her study of the dramas of Ben Jonson, Rebecca Ann Bach writes that “the
plays Jonson set in England are home-making fantasies that envision England
in terms of its colonial spaces and as a colonial space” (115). Hughes’s play
operates in similar fashion, using, in its case, the Arthur story to address
contemporary colonialism. This essay argues that Hughes’s The Misfortunes
of Arthur uses the Arthur legend to display a pronounced anxiety about
imperial efforts and to warn against pursuing shortsightedly these efforts
at the expense of domestic stability and security. Presented for Queen Elizabeth
on February 28, 1588 at Greenwich Palace, the play was penned by eight men
of Gray’s Inn, Francis Bacon notably one of them, but editor Brian Jay Corrigan
names Thomas Hughes as “the main author of the play” (3). Corrigan also notes
that The Misfortunes of Arthur “is among the earliest of the printed
plays from the English Renaissance. It should, as such, be afforded a special
place of interest in dramaturgical studies, if not for its artistry, at least
for its historical significance” (4-5). A study of Hughes’s use of King Arthur,
then, will contribute to Corrigan’s call for a fuller appreciation of the
- Richard Hakluyt includes Arthur in The Principal Navigations, Voyages,
Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation. In his 1598 Preface
to the work, in which he attempts to establish the credibility and breadth
of his work, Hakluyt writes that “I have not bene unmindefull (so farre as
the histories of England and of other Countreys would give me direction) to
place in the fore-front of this booke those forren conquests, exploits, and
travels of our English nation, which have bene atchieved of old” (li). With
this, Hakluyt begins his thorough catalogue of England’s explorations and
conquests with his translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account of Arthur’s
conquest of all
Scantia, which is now called Norway, and all the Islands beyond
Norway, to wit, Island and Greenland, which are apperteining unto Norway,
Sweveland, Ireland, Gotland, Denmarke, Semeland, Windland, Curland, Roe,
Femeland, Wireland, Flanders, Cherilland, Lapland, and all the other lands
& Islands of the East sea, even unto Russia … and many other Islands
beyond Norway, even under the North pole. (6)
Hakluyt’s decision to include Arthur’s conquests in his work seems to contradict
Christopher Dean’s argument that the inquiry into King Arthur by Renaissance
historians helped cause the decline of Arthurian literature, for Hakluyt intended
to write history, not fictional stories that would call into question the
legitimacy of the rest of the accounts of discovery in his text; he was chronicling
the factual exploits of English adventurers. However, regardless of the factual
validity of Arthur and regardless of any apprehensions associated with the
Arthurian legend, this legend implied for a Renaissance audience enlargement
of the British nation; Hakluyt’s inclusion of Arthur reinforces this, and
Hakluyt could probably have found no better figure than Arthur to set immediately,
in the opening section of his work, the mood of English conquest and national
expansion, a goal of later explorers included in Hakluyt.
- Arthur appears again in The Principal Navigations within John Dee’s
discussion of King Edgar. Dee adds Arthur in his list of English heroes buried
at Glastonbury. “O Glastonbury, Glastonbury,” Dee writes, “the treasurie of
the carcases of so famous, and so many persons … though I omit here the names
of very many other, both excellent holy men, and mighty princes, whose carcases
are committed to thy custody, yet that Apostolike Joseph, that triumphant
British Arthur, and nowe this peaceable and provident Saxon king Edgar, doe
force me with a certaine soroful reverence, here to celebrate thy memorie”
(18). Significantly, while Edgar is “peaceable and provident,” Arthur is memorialized
as “triumphant,” bringing to mind his military victories and conquests. Two
decades earlier, in the 1570s, Dee had made use of triumphant Arthur in Brytanici
Imperii Limites, his account of Queen Elizabeth’s imperial land claims.
By recounting Arthur’s territorial acquisitions, Dee’s “imperial idea itself,”
according to William H. Sherman, “was based on historical precedent: Dee’s
discovery and recovery enterprise would bring a return to origins and amount
to a dramatic rebirth of the British Empire” (181). During Elizabeth’s reign,
both Hakluyt and Dee found Arthur’s imperial past to be crucial to England’s
future imperial plans.
- Arthur’s ability to expand the nation through military conquest becomes
critically important in The Birth of Merlin, a play not published until
1662 but written around 1610 to 1615 by William Rowley. Set prior to Arthur’s
birth, the play envisions his future imperial conquests as his value as a
ruler. The play’s action is little more than a melodrama of marital relationship
quandaries, political intrigues, and commentaries on the benefits of sexual
purity, and editor Mark Dominik writes “that the play does a terrible job
of advocating its central theme” and that “there is moral confusion on various
levels in play” (130-1); nonetheless, the conniving and moral ineptitude of
characters in the play that cause the downfall of the kingdom become less
threatening because of the promise of the coming king. During the play, Merlin
tells the Prince, Uter Pendragon, who later fathers Arthur:
But of your Son thus Fate and Merlin tells:
Here again, both by Rowley to his Renaissance audience and by Merlin to his
audience within the play, Arthur is used to conjure up images of a British
nation expanding far beyond its boundaries. In this sense, Dean neglects to
recognize this essentially Arthurian feature of the play in his deduction
that The Birth of Merlin is an example of “what we today would call
‘costume-plays’ set ostensibly in the past” and is thematically “indistinguishable
from scores of other plays staged at this time” (117). Conquest and expansion
prove to be fundamental elements of the Arthur myth.
All after times shall fill their Chronicles
With fame of his renown, whose warlike sword
Shall pass through fertile France and Germany;
Nor shall his conquering foot be forc’t to stand,
Till Romes Imperial Wreath hath crown’d his Fame
With Monarch of the West, from whose seven hills,
With Conquest and contributory Kings,
He back returns to inlarge the Brittain bounds. (4.5.107-14)
- During this time of world exploration and land-grabbing, as national identities
in England and the rest of Europe developed in relation to the augmentation
of these nations with new lands, a national sense of regret over missed opportunity
formed in England. This missed opportunity was the acquisition of foreign
lands. For instance, for most of the sixteenth century England stood by and
watched Spain and France gain footholds in the New World and reap the subsequent
economic benefits and national pride that both countries enjoyed. Not until
1585 did England establish the first unsuccessful Roanoke colony. A Briefe
and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia by Thomas Harriot, a
member of this unsuccessful colonization attempt, provides an example of the
sense of urgency with which some felt England should establish a permanent
presence in America. Through his text, Harriot desired to counter “diuers
and variable reportes with some slaunderous and shamefull speeches” that had
circulated since the return to England of the colonizers and that “haue not
done a litle wrong to many that otherwise would haue also fauoured & aduentured
in the action, to the honour and benefite of our nation” (5). Harriot proceeds
to carefully detail Virginia’s exportable goods, its indigenous resources
for sustaining a colony, and the culture of its Algonkian Indians, all to
the effect that “there remaine no cause wherby the action [further colonizing
efforts] should be misliked” by potential colonizers and financiers (32).
With Harriot’s Report, then, two trends in Renaissance writings about
colonization may be seen: first, a sense of urgency to expand England’s national
boundaries; second, a sense that this effort has already been muddled, in
this case through returning colonizers criticizing the project and creating
apprehension about future colonization attempts.
- Mixed feelings about colonizing America, however, occur as early as John
Rastell’s morality play, The Four Elements, written around 1517 or
1519, in which a lament over England’s missed colonial opportunity gets voiced.
Experience, in a conversation with Studious Desire, says,
O, what a thyng had be than,
Rastell, himself, had recently attempted a North American colonization project
prior to his writing of The Four Elements. The ship’s crew, though,
revolted and left Rastell in Ireland. His personal experience with an unsuccessful
colonization effort surely influenced the writing of the character Experience’s
bewailing of missed opportunity. M. E. Borish, however, sees the play as more
than a mere complaint about personal loss; Rastell’s reasons for colonization
were nationalist-minded. Concerning this conversation between Experience and
Studious Desire, in which Experience describes many different regions of the
world, Borish writes that “Rastell was interested not only in disseminating
accurate geographical knowledge, but also in stimulating his countrymen to
grasp the opportunities afforded by the new world.” Borish continues by stating
that, for Rastell, “voyagers to the new country must be inspired by definite
aims, and first of all should come the enlargement of the king’s realm by
colonization” (158). Just as Harriot’s Report reveals ambiguities in
views of colonization, so too does Experience’s statement contain both the
promise of American exploit and a sense of regret and concern over England’s
failure to realize this promise.
Yf that they that be englyshe men
Myght have ben the furst of all
That there shulde have take possessyon,
And made furst buyldynge and habytacion,
A memory perpetuall!
And also what an honorable thynge,
Bothe to the realme and to the kynge,
To have had his domynyon extendynge
There into so farre a grounde,
Whiche the noble kynge of late memory,
The moste wyse prynce the seventh Herry,
Causyd furst for to be found.
And what a great meritoryouse dede
It were to have the people instructed
To lyve more vertuously,
And to lerne to knowe of men the maner,
And also to knowe God theyr maker,
Whiche as yet lyve all bestly. (49-50)
- A century after Rastell penned The Four Elements, another writer,
Michael Drayton, calls on Englishmen to colonize America while simultaneously
chastising them for delaying to do so. Drayton opens his 1619 poem, “Ode To
the Virginian Voyage,” with the following:
You brave heroic minds,
Despite the passage of thirty years between Harriot and Drayton and of a century
between Rastell and Drayton, here again is the Thomas Harriot-like sense that
colonization is failing to proceed in a proper manner. England’s colonization
prospects are heralded while at the same time Drayton complains of a shameful
apathy that has stalled the colonial effort and of the absence of larger numbers
of colonizers to achieve those possibilities.
Worthy your country’s name,
That honor still pursue,
Go, and subdue,
Whilst loit’ring hinds
Lurk here at home, with shame.
Britons, you stay too long;
Quickly aboard and bestow you,
And with a merry gale
Swell your stretched sail,
With vows as strong
As the winds that blow you. (lines 1-12)
- A sentiment similar to those expressed by Drayton, Rastell’s Experience,
and Harriot occurs in Edmund Spenser’s A View of the Present State of Ireland,
though not about the colonization of America but of Ireland. In the beginning
of A View, Eudoxus says to Irenaeus, “But if that countrey of Ireland,
whence you lately came, be of so goodly and commodious a soyl, as you report,
I wonder that no course is taken for the turning thereof to good uses, and
reducing that nation to better government and civility” (11). What follows
is a long dialogue between these two characters in which Irenaeus explains
how and why England should forcefully colonize Ireland. Eudoxus’s opening
statement reveals an astonishment and concern over England’s failure to have
already done so. For Irenaeus and Eudoxus, the ability and willingness of
England to colonize its westward neighbor proves to be an important element
of national identity.
- Thomas Hughes’s The Misfortunes of Arthur positions itself within
these conventions of equating the Arthur myth with empire expansion, of using
the Arthur myth to comment on contemporary national issues, and of conveying
trepidation about imperialist undertakings. Portraying Arthur and other figures
from a distant British time in an imperialist situation that suggests early
modern era English imperialism displays how, as Donald Hedrick writes, “history
serves as rhetorical weapon” (471). Hughes displaces the anxieties of contemporary
imperialism in a remote, pseudo-fictional past and lets Arthur and company
remark across the years upon it; more specifically Hughes utilizes Arthur
to caution against unsound imperialist projects. Conan, a minor character
in the play, specifies the connection between ancient past and present. He
When Fame shall blaze these acts in latter yeares,
Taking for its subject Arthur’s own efforts at kingdom augmentation, the play
depicts these conquests, these “toyles and Brytish paynes,” as not
only his primary virtue but also as the reason he fails to maintain control
over his kingdom. Hughes, in fact, lays upon Arthur the responsibility for
his own death and the dissolution of his realm. In doing so, Hughes questions
the soundness of such imperialist-minded efforts and the means by which they
And time to come so many ages hence
Shall efts report our toyles and Brytish paynes:
Or when perhaps our Childrens Children reade,
Our woefull warres displaid with skilfull penne:
They’l thinke they heere some sounds of future facts,
And not the ruines olde of pompe long past. (4.3.26-32)
- Set in Britain as Arthur and his army return from a victorious nine years
war in Europe, Hughes’s play, as its title indicates, moves toward the inevitable
downfall of Arthur. The play opens with a monologue by the ghost of the late
Gorlois, the man whose wife became pregnant with Arthur by Uther Pendragon,
who, with the help of Merlin, disguised himself as Gorlois for the seduction.
The ghost of Gorlois reveals that Arthur’s downfall will ensue forthwith:
And when the Trumpet calles them from their rest
With this foregone conclusion, Hughes presents his play in a manner that puts
greater importance on the reasons for Arthur’s demise than on the death itself.
These reasons, then, make up the central theme of the play and hold the audience’s
interest instead of any elaborate intrigue or twisting plot. Corrigan sees
this structure as indicative of Hughes’s reliance on Senecan tragedy. According
to Corrigan, Arthur’s death and the death of Arthur’s son, Mordred, adheres
to the Senecan “theme of a royal family doomed to expiate its sins” (21).
However, in addition to Arthur and Mordred simply being caught up in a long
line of familial sin for which, for poetical reasons, there must be atonement,
Arthur also must die to pay for his own sins that stem from his foreign conquests:
he has made many enemies; he has been overly ambitious; he has neglected his
rule of his family; and he has neglected his rule of the homeland. His imperial
efforts permit the occurrence of all of these transgressions.
Aurora shall with watry cheekes behold
Their slaughtered bodies prostrate to her beames.
And on the banckes of Cambala shall lye
The bones of Arthur and of Arthurs knightes:
Whose fleete is now tryumphing on the seas,
But shall bee welcom’d with a Tragedie.
Thy natiue soyle shalbe thy fatall gulfe
Arthur: thy place of birth thy place of death. (1.1.41-9)
- As Arthur’s return to Britain draws close, Mordred assembles an army to
oppose his father and maintain his usurped control of the land. Allied with
Mordred are the Irish, the Saxons, and the Picts, peoples attacked by Arthur.
Gilla, the leader of the Irish force, explains to Mordred his willingness
to join him:
It doth suffice me to discharge my Realme,
So many enemies has Arthur made through attack and occupation and so successful
is Mordred at organizing these enemies that they prove to be evenly matched
with Arthur’s army when the battle is fought. Arthur’s imperial ambitions
clouded his ability to foresee the obvious fact that conquered nations may
hold grudges and may one day retaliate.
Or at the least to wreke me on my foes.
I rather like to liue your friend and piere,
Then rest in Arthurs homage and disgrace. (2.4.13-6)
- The Chorus condemns such ambition, a trait that Arthur has passed down to
his son, and a trait that needlessly leads “many Millions to their losse”
(2.4.ch.27). In a passage that anticipates the lessons Shakespeare’s Macbeth
learns about “Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself / And falls on th’other”
(2.4.27-8), the Chorus states,
The mounting minde that climes the hauty cliftes,
Moreover, “Such is the sweete of this ambitious powre, / No sooner had, then
turnde eftsoones to sowre” (2.4.ch.21-2). Ambition, according to the Chorus,
should be held in check, something Arthur has failed to do. After pursuing
his imperialist ambitions, Arthur returns from abroad to this censorious atmosphere,
and within this context his foreign conquests garner commentary and reaction
from the other characters in the play. Just as Arthur’s propensity for making
enemies points to his inevitable demise, so too does his excessive ambition.
And soaring seekes the tip of lofty type,
Intoxicats the braine with guiddy drifts,
Then rowles, and reeles, and falles at length plum ripe. (2.4.ch.9-12)
- More damning in the play, though, than Arthur’s ambitious over-attentiveness
to foreign military exploits is the absent king’s corresponding neglect of
his role as father and husband. In her first lines of the play, Arthur’s wife,
Gueneuora, declares her loathing of her seldom seen spouse:
AND dares he after nine yeares space returne,
She follows by contemplating and justifying means to seek revenge upon and
frustrate the efforts of Arthur, means, she craves, “beyonde Medea’s
wiles” (1.2.12). Finally, she settles upon entering a cloister, “there to
professe, and to renounce the world” (1.3.77). So frustrated with Arthur’s
absence has been Gueneuora that she has been having an affair with his son,
Mordred. As the Chorus puts it, “Whiles Arthur warres abroade and reapes
renowne, / Gueneuora preferres his sonnes desire" (1.4.ch.13-4).
While a family fraught with such epic sin seems perfectly positioned to suffer
a bloody, Senecan tragedy, the role of Arthur’s imperial undertakings nonetheless
plays a central role in the inescapable calamity because they allow the situation
to develop at home that leads to war between Mordred and Arthur, as the Chorus
here suggests. Only when Arthur “warres abroade” can the relationship between
Gueneuora and Mordred advance. Paul Brown writes of Shakespeare’s The Tempest
that “the proof of Prospero’s power to order and supervise his little colony
is manifested in his capacity to control not his, but his subjects’
sexuality, particularly that of his slave and his daughter” (51). Similarly,
Arthur’s failure to control the sexuality of those in his household not only
fails to prevent the adulterous liaison of Gueneuora and Mordred but also
reveals Arthur’s obvious and utter inability to supervise his household. Such
an inability, as Susan Dwyer Amussen indicates, denotes a failure on a national
level to maintain order. Amussen writes “that the family and the state were
inextricably intertwined in the minds of English women and men of the sixteenth
and seventeenth centuries, and that we cannot understand politics (as conventionally
defined) without understanding the politics of the family. Or, to put it another
way, the ordering of households provided a model for ordering villages, counties,
church and state” (2). Thus, both Brown and Amussen point to a critical connection
in The Misfortunes of Arthur between the king’s rule of his household
and his rule of Britain, and Arthur fails to keep order in his household;
his wife maintains a sexual relationship with his son, and he and his son
war against each other and kill each other in battle. In the end, Arthur will
preside over neither his wife nor his accumulated foreign lands.
And see her face, whom he so long disdain’de?
Was I then chose and wedded for his stale,
To looke and gape for his retirelesse sayles,
Puft backe, and flittering spread to euery winde? (1.2.1-5)
- Extending the manner of Arthur’s remiss governing of the home to the nation
paints a bleak picture of Arthur as a ruler. In addition to being symbolic
of his rule of the state, Arthur’s mismanagement of the household stands as
a telltale feature of his neglectful rule of the state. Arthur has created
another reason for his impending death through his military expedition through
Europe, which causes his command of the homeland to disintegrate and permits
Mordred to set up an army to contest the king’s return to Britain. Cador,
the Duke of Cornwall, tells his king that Mordred’s rebellion can be hardly
surprising given Arthur’s neglect to keep order in Britain while away on his
almost decade-long conquest, on which Cador accompanies him. Cador asks:
Since Arthur thus hath rensackt all abroade,
Cador clearly implicates Arthur in the king’s own death and the disunification
of the realm that will follow, and Cador reveals that, at the heart of The
Misfortunes of Arthur is the warning against allowing situations to develop
in the homeland that lead to civil war. Arthur’s imperialist-mindedness overlooks
his duty to prohibit domestic unrest and instability.
What meruaile ist, if Mordred raue at home?
When farre and neere your warres had worne the world,
What warres were left for him, but ciuill warres? (3.1.26-9)
- This Arthur proves to be far removed from the Arthur of Spenser’s Faerie
Queene, who is worthy to marry Gloriana, Spenser’s representation of Queen
Elizabeth. Arthur laments his transgressive behavior before the battle with
What, that my Country cryes for due remorse
As flawed as Hughes’s Arthur may be, though, he has still successfully conquered
a vast territory for Britain, and even if his death means that the newly expanded
nation will not be sustained, the conquest itself is worthy of honor. After
being fatally wounded by Mordred, whom he has killed during the fight, Arthur
positions his nation enlarging feat as his greatest achievement. Before dying
And some reliefe for long sustained toyles?
By Seas and Lands I dayly wrought her wreke,
And sparelesse spent her life on euery foe.
Eche where my Souldiers perisht, whilest I wonne:
Throughout the world my Conquest was their spoile.
A faire reward for all their deaths, for all
Their warres abroad, to giue them ciuill warres.
What bootes it them reseru’d from forreine foiles
To die at home? What ende of ruthelesse rage? (3.1.211-20)
Yet goe we not inglorious to the ground:
Amid his adulterous, deceitful parentage and his most grievous flaw, his failure
to keep order in and keep intact his kingdom, Arthur’s imperial conquest remains
as his most remarkable achievement and as his most important contribution
to the culture.
Set wish a part: we haue perfourmd inough.
The Irish King and Nation wilde we tamde:
The Scots and Picts, and Orcade Isles we wanne:
The Danes and Gothes and Friseland men with all
The Isles inserted nere those Seas, And next
The Germaine King, and Saxons we subdude.
Not Fraunce, that could preuaile against our force,
Nor lastly Rome, that rues her pride supprest.
Ech forreine power is parcell of our praise,
No titles want to make our foes affraide. (5.1.158-68)
- Without this imperial accumulation of foreign lands, Arthur would seemingly
have no value for Hughes or for Hakluyt or Rowley, for enlargement of the
British realm is precisely what Arthur accomplishes in these works, and the
significance of the Arthurian legend to a Renaissance audience was Arthur’s
ability to conquer other nations to expand his own. Arthurian quests in the
name of chivalry, knight-errants fighting for the love and honor of a virtuous
woman lose out in these Arthurian storylines to Arthur’s subduing of countless
lands. After Conan, quoted above, states that the early modern audience of
The Misfortunes of Arthur will draw parallels between their era and
Arthur’s, he celebrates the increase of Britain’s bounds through the legendary
figure’s successful empire expansion and declares that “Arthurs cause
shall still be fauour’d most” (4.3.35). Nevertheless, alongside the positive
images of empire expansion provided by Conan and Arthur, Thomas Hughes illustrates
that Arthurian imagery of his day could contain more pessimistic views of
nation building, that the inclusion of Arthur and his knights in a literary
work could imply, to the audience, not only the romanticized glamour of his
national conquests but also the contemporary apprehension towards the legend
about which Helgerson and Dean write. After all, in Hughes, Arthur dies an
ignominious death and the realm falls apart. Antithetically, the message seems
to be that Arthur’s expansion efforts are worthy of praise, but they come
at too great a cost. Hughes’s use of Arthur clearly displays convoluted and
mixed feelings about, not only the Arthur figure, but about early modern English
- Nvncius, a messenger who reports on-stage the result of the battle, perhaps
best summarizes Arthur’s ambiguous achievements and the imperial anxieties
felt in Renaissance England: “Arthur hath woonne: but we haue lost
the field. / The field? Nay all the Realme, and Brytaines bounds” (4.2.26-7).
Hughes uses this Arthur and this empire expansion effort to comment on England’s
Renaissance-era expansion efforts. Hence, when, despite the inkling that colonization
has already been somewhat botched, Rastell’s Experience hails empire expansion
as “an honorable thynge” and “a great meritoryouse dede” performed, as Harriot
writes, “to the honour and benefite of our nation,” Hughes’s Arthur replies
that “bad things haue often glorious names” (3.1.163). The Misfortunes
of Arthur refrains from a complete condemnation of English imperialism,
though Hughes is more pessimistic about it than is Rastell, Drayton, Harriot,
or Spenser. Instead, the play acts as a stern warning against flawed colonization
projects that achieve control over foreign lands while failing to control
the homeland and letting it slip into unsupervised turmoil. In Hughes, the
misfortunes of Arthur are the misfortunes of imperial efforts gone awry.
- Amussen, Susan Dwyer. An Ordered Society: Gender and Class in Early Modern
England. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988.
- Bach, Rebecca Ann. Colonial Transformations: The Cultural Production
of the New Atlantic World, 1580-1640. New York: Palgrave, 2000.
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