Monday, November 27, 2017

continuing with Cymbeline ... Honour

Posthumus and Imogen

Carrying on from my previous chatter:

Cymbeline and the pundonor.

(Cym.)Thou art welcome, Caius.
Thy Caesar knighted me; my youth I spent
Much under him; of him I gather'd honour,
Which he to seek of me again, perforce,
Behoves me keep at utterance.

(Act III.1.67-71)

The "point of honour" (Spanish pundonor) is not  a new theme in Shakespeare - see e.g. Claudio in Much Ado - but now it's restlessly recycled in Cymbeline. [In modern Spanish, pundonor means "self-respect".]

In modern European languages, there's a half-buried connection between "point" and "honour" (as in the word "punctilious").  The Swedish supermarket that announces: "Därför sätter vi en ära att hitta den bästa råvaran" (That's why we make a point of sourcing the best raw materials) is using the word "ära" (honour). Company honour has a definite existence in marketing and strategy and even in practice. It does not exist within the breasts of a team of passionate staff, as the publicity always tries to convey; its expression is a hard-headed marketing decision that may be changed in the future and may be ignored where convenient and undetectable. No-one regularly oversees the consistency of such expressed points of honour with practice. But still, it's something that can be appealed to.

As for office colleagues who "make a point of", say,  shopping around for the best home insurance deals, this may sound like pure self-interest. However one must take into account the absolute aversion of office males to speaking of emotions or moral values. This punctilious financial control, derided by flouncy imaginative types like me, is no doubt part of a much wider scheme of life that will educate their young children and ensure their financial stability. The concept of honour is really there, though submerged.

Oh yes, Cymbeline

"At utterance" is connected with "utter" in the sense of extreme or total,  rather than enunciate. Cymbeline is saying that he feels obliged to defend his honour to the very last gasp. He attempts to suggest to Lucius  that since Augustus originally conferred the honour, Cymbeline owes it to Augustus to take good care of it, to maintain it at all costs. Even should it be Augustus himself who loses out as a result (i.e. by not receiving his tribute). 

Cymbeline is "punctilious", both in his defiance and in his contrasting courtesy to the ambassador Gaius Lucius, a friend of long-standing, and one to whom Cymbeline feels obligations ("his goodness forespent on us" II.3.56).
Typical of this play, that the otherwise anodyne Cymbeline suddenly speaks so well here. Typical too, that it eventually turns out that Cymbeline never wanted to withhold the tribute, but was set on to it by the Queen and Cloten.

Points of honour are serious things, but they can also be convenient post-rationalizations when you want to provide a public explanation for a chosen course of action.


The crucial point of honour is of course Posthumus's wager in I.4. The wager appears to gain nothing for Posthumus, yet he's manoeuvred into feeling compelled to take it up. The wager is about Imogen's "honour" (in male eyes --- i.e. chastity).

(Jac.) .. and I will bring from thence that honour of hers which you imagine so reserv'd.

Accepting this infamous wager is increasingly a point of honour: Jachimo leads Posthumus into a position from which he can't draw back without disgrace.

Imogen calls out Jachimo correctly:

    Thou wrong'st a gentleman who is as far
    From thy report as thou from honour...

That's right. As Jachimo himself confesses much later, " Knighthoods and honours borne / As I wear mine are titles but of scorn".

But Jachimo is too skilled an operator to be caught by Imogen. He promptly and smoothly retracts his slander about Posthumus, making good use of the magic word:

    He sits 'mongst men like a descended god:
    He hath a kind of honour sets him off
    More than a mortal seeming...

Thus mollified, soon it's Imogen who is putting her honour (not, as she thinks, her chastity) on the line:

     (Jac.) 'Tis plate of rare device, and jewels
    Of rich and exquisite form, their values great;
    And I am something curious, being strange,
    To have them in safe stowage. May it please you
    To take them in protection?
  IMOGEN. Willingly;
    And pawn mine honour for their safety. Since
    My lord hath interest in them, I will keep them
    In my bedchamber.

"Honour", the word if not the reality, opens all doors.

Cloten too has an inflamed sense of honour, though he's a bit dim about it.

Even a Remainer has to admire the force of some of his Europhobic statements in III.1. " Why
should we pay tribute? If Caesar can hide the sun from us with a
blanket, or put the moon in his pocket, we will pay him tribute for
light ..."

The queen is thoroughly pleased with their hard-line approach.

  QUEEN. He goes hence frowning; but it honours us
    That we have given him cause.

But if Cloten is a baying dog in politics, he's less effective in private life, where he believes his honour is best manifested by being grossly offensive to social inferiors.

Unfortunate that he tries it out on Guiderius who, when he encounters Cloten's rudeness, doesn't agonize about it too much. He cuts Cloten's head off. But it's clear that even this rough-hewn youth is acting from motives of honour.


Shakespeare had aimed some shafts at honour before, for example in Act I of Titus (where the hero makes disastrous calls on the basis of honour),  and most memorably of course in  1 Henry IV.  Inevitably Cymbeline casts a glance at it:

(Bel.) the toil o' th' war,
    A pain that only seems to seek out danger
    I' th'name of fame and honour, which dies i' th'search,

But warlike honour is only one kind. In this play, "honour" mostly means impeccable behaviour in the eyes of society. Cymbeline, in many ways so backward-looking, also looks forward to the comedy of manners.

Guiderius and Arviragus lamenting the "death" of "Fidele"

(Picture by Arthur Rackham, 1899. Image source: , where it is said to come from the Folger Shakespeare Library, but I couldn't see it in their current list of Cymbeline images.



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