Thursday, July 19, 2007

Summer reading: George a Green, the Pinner of Wakefield

This play makes me happy. First of all, it is short. Secondly, it has Robin Hood, a 103-year-old guy kicking some ass, and a shoemaker saying "None shall pass!"

Stuff that happens: The Earl of Kendall and his troops come to Bradford, leading a rebellion against King Edward, ostensibly "to relieve the poore." Actually, they intend to make an alliance with the Scots and "make havoucke of those countrey Swaynes: / For so will the rest tremble and be afraid." Kendall sends Sir Nicholas Mannering to Wakefield to demand food. The Justice and townsmen of Wakefield refuse. George a Green tears up Kendall's commission and forces Mannnering to eat the seals. Old Musgrove argues with his son Cuddy about whether Musgrove is too old to do battle with the Scots (he is 103). Grime tries to marry his daughter Bettris to one of the rebels, Lord Bonfild, but she protests that she loves only George a Green, though he is poor. The King of Scots falls in love with a married woman, Jane a Barley; she turns him down, and then Old Musgrove comes along and takes him prisoner. Kendall and his men put their horses to pasture in George's wheatfield. George has words with Kendall and eventually strikes him when Kendall says he will be King Edward's beter within a month. Kendall tries to arrest him, and George defends himself: "Why my Lord, measure me but by your selfe: / Had you a man had serv'd you long, / And heard your foe misuse you behinde your backe, / And would not draw his sword in your defence / You would cashere him. / Much more, King Edward is my king: / And before Ile heare him so wrong'd / Ile die within this place."

Impressed with this, Kendall pardons George and offers to make him a captain. George asks if Kendall has any hope of winning, and Kendall tells him there has been a prophecy that says he and King James will defeat King Edward. George says he'll join Kendall if the local prophet, an old man who dwells in a cave, can also promise victory. George dresses his young servant Willy as a girl and sends him with a message for Bettris. Bettris's father falls in love with Willy and welcomes him into the house. George, meanwhile, disguises himself as the old prophet in the forest and prophesizes that Kendall and his men will be defeated by George a Green. He fights them, slays one of them, and takes Kendall and Lord Bonfild prisoner. He turns them over to the Justice and meets Bettris, who has sneaked out of her house.

King Edward shows up, pardons the rebels at George's request, and reconciles with King James. Maid Marian, who is jealous of Bettris, makes Robin Hood promise to beat him, so they go to Wakefield with Scarlet and Much the Miller's Son. Jenkin the Clown comes to Wakefield with a staff on his shoulders, and a shoemaker informs him that "here is a custome held, / That none shall passe with his staffe on his shoulders, / But he must have a bout with me." Jenkin doesn't feel like fighting, so they all go off to the alehouse instead. George defeats Scarlet and Much, fights Robin Hood, and finally makes a truce when he finds out who his opponent is. ("Robin Hood? next to king Edward / Art thou leefe to me.") King Edward and King James go to Wakefield in disguise and confront the shoemaker, who makes them trail their staves behind them. George calls them base-minded peasants and fights all the shoemakers in town. They recognize him after he beats them down and invite him to join them for a pot of ale. The Earl of Warwick brings out the king's garments, and everyone falls to their knees. "Come, masters, all fellowes," says the king. "Nay, Robin, you are the best man at the boord to day. / Rise up George." The king asks George if he can do anything for him, and George says he wants to marry Grime's daughter Bettris. Grime agrees, as long as he can marry the disguised Willy. Willy reveals that he is a boy, but Grime says he is content for George to have his daughter and his lands. King Edward offers to make George a knight, but George replies, "Then let me live and die a yeoman still: / So was my father, so must live his sonne. / For tis more credite to men of base degree, / To do great deeds, than men of dignitie."

Thoughts: This one dates from 1599, which makes it almost exactly contemporary with The Shoemaker's Holiday, Henry V, and Heywood's Edward IV plays, and I'm seeing a lot of common threads -- though George a Green is more of a feel-good play than any of the above, even TSH. The disguised-king scenes here are mostly warm and fuzzy -- in contrast to the far more problematic sequences in Heywood and Shakespeare. George's refusal of a knighthood reminds me of Matthew Shore's in 1 Edward IV, but without the baggage of future betrayal that makes the scene so painful in Heywood. This is a tale of loyalty rewarded, and all of the royal and noble characters are essentially decent (including Kendall, or George's request that Kendall judge him by his own measure wouldn't work). Kendall's claim that he "rise[s] not against king Edward / But for the poore that is opprest by wrong" is manifestly hypocritical (in fact, he's the one doing the oppressing), which makes for a nice tidy homily against rebellion -- but at the same time, we've got a pinner striking an earl and calling the king a coward, and getting away with it. The underlying debate, I think, is "do we judge a man by his birth or by his deeds" -- and interestingly, George makes the argument at the end that birth does matter, at least to a degree.

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