Barbary

I had another Shakespeare professor back at UCLA (not the great Rodes, but someone else). I’d say that I will not cite his name out of kindness, but it’s really that my old mind just can’t reach that far back and snatch that nugget of info from the dusty crevasses at the base of my skull.

He gave the most ridiculous tests (or so I thought at the time).

He asked for the name of the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. At the time, it just felt a little self-indulgent; it’s only mentioned once in the play. In retrospect, it’s very important very important. The Nurse is so far from fitting the name Angelica that the irony is crucial to her character.

WTF?

He also asked the name of Richard the Second‘s horse.

Used twice in the play, in back-to-back speeches by the groom and Richard, when the former visits the latter at Pomfret Tower (just before the murder of the deposed king):

GROOM
I was a poor groom of thy stable, king,
When thou wert king; who, travelling towards York,
With much ado at length have gotten leave
To look upon my sometimes royal master's face.
O, how it yearned my heart when I beheld
In London streets, that coronation-day,
When Bolingbroke rode on roan Barbary,
That horse that thou so often hast bestrid,
That horse that I so carefully have dressed!
RICHARD
Rode he on Barbary? Tell me, gentle friend,
How went he under him?
GROOM
So proudly as if he disdained the ground.
RICHARD
So proud that Bolingbroke was on his back!
That jade hath eat bread from my royal hand;
This hand hath made him proud with clapping him.
Would he not stumble? would he not fall down,
Since pride must have a fall, and break the neck
Of that proud man that did usurp his back?
Forgiveness, horse! why do I rail on thee,
Since thou, created to be awed by man,
Wast born to bear? I was not made a horse;
And yet I bear a burthen like an ass,
Spurred, galled and tired by jouncing Bolingbroke.

— V.v.72-94

The horse’s name is Barbary, and like Richard’s throne, Barbary has been usurped and sat upon by Bolingbroke. We hear that the horse walked proudly (as if he belonged in the sky [“disdained the ground”]) under the riding of Bolingbroke. Richard immediately links this pride to that of carrying a king, but that positive view of pride is short-lived and Richard then turns to wishing the horse had thrown and “(broken) the neck // Of that proud man that did usurp his back.” Not surprisingly, Richard returns to the idea of usurpation in regards to Bolingbroke. And by the end of Richard’s speech, he himself has become the beast of burden, “spurred, galled and tired.”

I said the name of the horse was used twice in the play. And while this is true, these are not the only REFERENCES to the horse in the play. Earlier in Act Five, Scene Two, when York describes the same riding event as the groom (Bolingbroke’s entrance into London upon Barbary), York says that Bolingbroke’s head was “lower than his proud steed’s neck” (V.ii.19). Bolingbroke is below or less than Barbary.

So what then IS Barbary?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Barbary’s main meaning during Shakespeare’s time was “Barbarous nationality, state, or speech,” in specific “Barbarity, barbarism, barbarousness” (Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0]). Thus, Bolingbroke is below barbarism. In deposing a gentle king, one could make the case for this.

However, around the time of the play’s composition, another meaning for the word was gaining popularity: “The Saracen countries along the north coast of Africa” (OED). Since the word Saracen itself is used in the play (Carlisle states of Norfolk fighting for Christ against “black pagans, Turks, and Saracens” [IV.i.95]), we’re probably safe in making the leap to say that this is a valid interpretation for Barbary as well.

So what is a Saracen? “Among the later Greeks and Romans, a name for the nomadic peoples of the Syro-Arabian desert which harassed the Syrian confines of the Empire; hence, an Arab; by extension, a Muslim, esp. with reference to the Crusades” (OED)

So now, Bolingbroke is worse than an Muslim. He’s an unbeliever, one who cannot abide by the Divine Right of Kings. He has not only usurped Richard, but also everything that is right and Christian.

No wonder Bolingbroke feels he must “make a voyage to the Holy Land // To wash this blood from (his) guilty hand” (V.vi.49-50).

Yes, it’s a very tiny detail, this name of a horse, but I haven’t forgotten it (even if I have forgotten the name of professor who etched it with acid onto my brain-pan).

Comment?