The Challenge to the Desert in Shakespeare's Histories and Roman Plays

Par Claire Guéron
Publication en ligne le 25 juin 2010


Un topos récurrent des pièces historiques et romaines de Shakespeare consiste pour un personnage à provoquer un adversaire en duel en un lieu éloigné et désertique, ou, le plus souvent, à exprimer le souhait de voir se réaliser un tel duel. On pense à Richard II, où Mowbray et Bolingbroke, s'étant mutuellement accusés de trahison, se déclarent prêts à se battre aux confins du monde civilisé ; on pense à Macbeth enjoignant au fantôme de Banquo de le provoquer en duel dans le désert. Dans ces formules, la sémiotique du désert est complexe. Si au niveau diégétique la formule tire sa force des dangers que sous-entend l'évocation d'un lieu désertique, son efficacité dramatique et poétique tient au fait que le désert est conçu avant tout comme un espace privé. Cette caractéristique fait du désert un lieu polysémique, permettant de symboliser tour à tour la singularité du héros, sa solitude tragique, la dimension intérieure de l'honneur, et le mystère du passé historique. Par l'intermédiaire des codes du duel de la Renaissance, et notamment de son caractère semi-clandestin, ces thématiques sont rattachées au contexte historique, et à ses remises en question sociales, morales et épistémologiques. Le duel dans le désert reflète ainsi le déclin de la chevalerie, le scepticisme politique et religieux, et la glorification humaniste du langage qui caractérisent le début de l'ère moderne. Il s'agit en outre d'un topos éminemment shakespearien dans la mesure où il trahit une certaine fascination pour l'éloquence du vide.

Texte intégral

1Shakespeare's Richard II opens with the Dukes of Norfolk and Hereford (Thomas Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke) hurling charges of treason at each other. The men support their claims by expressing readiness to fight their opponent in a remote and deserted location:

Mowbray. I do defy him, and I spit at him,
Call him a slanderous coward and a villain;
Which to maintain, I would allow him odds
And meet him, were I tied to run afoot
Even to the frozen ridges of the Alps,
Or any other ground inhabitable
Wherever Englishman durst set his foot. (I.1.60-66)

Bolingbroke. Besides I say, and will in battle prove,
Or here or elsewhere to the furthest verge
That ever was surveyed by English eye,
That all the treasons for these eighteen years
Complotted and contrived in this land
Fetch from false Mowbray their first head and spring. (I.1.92-97)

2In a footnote to these lines, Charles R. Forker explains that “[d]aring one's opponent to meet at some remote, uncivilized place implied mortal combat since there would be no one present to separate the duellists or assist the wounded5”. The pattern occurs again in the second half of Richard II. There, Forker explains that the reason why Fitzwater pledges to meet Surrey “in a wilderness” (IV.1.75) is because the wilderness is a place “where no help is available6”. No help available means enhanced danger to the fighter and therefore added glory in the event of success. Forker thus explains the characters' invocations of the desert in their challenges as a way of expressing readiness to encounter danger of the gravest kind. He goes on to refer to examples of the same rhetoric in Macbeth and Cymbeline.

3Based on the study of several variations on the challenge to the desert in Macbeth, Coriolanus, Cymbeline and the English Histories, I would like to suggest that the semantics of desert fighting are based not just on the desert as a place of danger, but also, and primarily, on its being seen as a place of privacy. This notion, I will argue, goes far towards explaining why the challenge to the desert, which is entirely absent from the immediate sources of Shakespeare's plays, crops up so frequently in the tragedies and histories.

I. A Place Fit for Heroes Alone

4Challenging an opponent to the desert, in Shakespeare's Histories and Roman Plays, can often be construed as a wish to keep the encounter private, and thus free from outside interference. One example appears in Cymbeline, when Imogen, after her husband Posthumous is banished by the king, and her step-brother Cloten's treacherous attempt to attack him by surprise results in a soon broken-up skirmish, wishes they had been given the opportunity to battle it out “in Afric” (I.1.167)7. In this case, the attraction of the desert is that it is far from court and out of the King's reach. Similarly, Mowbray and Bolingbroke's yearning for a remote location, in view of King Richard II's ensuing interruption of the trial by combat at Coventry (RII, I.3.117), is retrospectively tinged with regret that the king could not be kept away from the proceedings altogether. A reversal of this social dynamic appears in Coriolanus, where the challenge to the desert involves a rejection not of kingly interference but of plebeian rule. After the Roman warrior is banished by the people's tribunes, his mother Volumnia wishes that her son could meet Sicinius “in Arabia, and [Sicinius's] tribe before him, / His good sword in his hand” (IV.2.26-27)8.

5The notion of a desert setting as a place beyond the reach of the law is consistent with the status of duelling in Shakespeare's day. In Elizabethan and Jacobean England, duelling was not banned outright, but seems to have been frowned upon by the authorities, and only tolerated when kept out of the public eye, going by the Italian fencing master Vincentio Saviolo's claim that “it is not permitted by the lawes to bee done publikely9”. English noblemen would occasionally go abroad to fight, as when the Earl of Southampton and Lord Grey attempted to take their quarrel to the Netherlands, before the Queen stepped in and stopped them10. The legal status of duelling was somewhat murky, as Victor Kiernan points out, adducing Sir Edward Cooke's decision that: “to kill a man in a duel was murder, but there was no bar to sending a challenge or acting as a second11”.

6Coupled with this wish to avoid official hindrance is a concern with avoiding ignominious help. This is illustrated in Coriolanus, when Aufidius, after gleefully comparing the upcoming single encounter with his Roman enemy to killing a serpent in Africa (I.9.3), ends up berating the Volsces who have come to his rescue for their shameful assistance (I.9.14-15). Concern for single-handed victory also appears in the Histories, as when Hotspur, in 1 Henry IV, wishes:

To pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon,
Or dive into the bottom of the deep,
Where fathom-line could never touch the ground,
And pluck up drownèd honour by the locks
So he that doth redeem her thence might wear
Without corrival all her dignities. (I.3.200-205)12

7Such equations of desert landscapes with single-handed achievement and undivided glory do not appear in the direct sources of Shakespeare's plays, but they do seem to have been something of a commonplace in the preachings of his time. In what may be considered part of the Elizabethan chivalric revival, preachers sometimes gave a medieval twist to biblical imagery, resulting in evocations of Christian heroes fighting formidable opponents in the wilderness. In 1588, Lancelot Andrewes, one of the most prominent clergymen of Elizabethan and Stuart England, preached seven sermons on the temptation of Christ in the wilderness, in which Christ's struggle against the devil is explicitly framed as a medieval single combat. The contenders are referred to as “Champions”, and the wilderness as the “lists”13. Andrewes explains at length that it was important for the fight to take place in the wilderness, so that defeating the devil should be established as Christ's own accomplishment, with no other party claiming credit:

The sixth is the place, the lists, to wit, the wilderness, that so He might be alone, and that there might be no fellow-worker with Him in the matter of our salvation, that He alone might have the treading of the 'wine-press.' So in the transfiguration in the Mount He 'was found alone,' so in the garden in His great agony He was in effect alone, for His disciples slept all the while, that unto Him might be ascribed all the praise14.

8These elements of context (the depiction of biblical heroes as medieval knights and the semi-forbidden character of the Renaissance duel) give symbolic, as well as strategic, significance to desert duelling. Set against a cultural backdrop in which fighting a duel was a gesture of aristocratic defiance, the plays' deserts tend to become social rather than geographical spaces. Several commentators have pointed out that the early modern duel, viewed as an extension of chivalric combat and knight-errantry, was a matter of aristocratic pride. Victor Kiernan, for example, writes that “[d]uelling provided a warrant of aristocratic breeding15”, and argues for duelling as a way to close ranks against commoners. Most authors also see this class solidarity as a form of resistance to the monarch's centralizing authority16. In the plays, images of desert duelling allow noble warriors to express disdain for the common people (as in Coriolanus), as well as disgust for the corrupt and decadent courtier culture their sovereigns wallow in (as in Hamlet17 and Richard II). The desert is thus identified as an ideal place where chivalric and heroic values are protected from the taint of courtly corruption or common vulgarity. Taken to extremes, class pride gives way to individual pride, and the desert becomes a place of mythical sublimation.

9The desert projects mythical heroism thanks to the biblical resonances discussed above as well as to more specifically poetic devices. One involves the deliberate conflation of battles, duelling, conquest and single combat18. In Hamlet, the single combat between Old Hamlet and Norway that allowed Denmark to conquer Norwegian land is referred to in the same speech as the episode where “[h]e smote the sledded Polacks on the ice” (I.1.66). The metonymic “he” (supposedly, Old Hamlet did not fight alone), coupled with the emptiness usually associated with an ice-covered field, helps frame the battle against the Poles as yet another single combat. In Coriolanus, the Roman hero's single-handed victory at Corioles (I.5.14-34) resembles a single fight in the desert, to the extent that the lone man stood in for his entire army, in a place deserted by those who should have been there.  Such conflations of desert and battlefield suggest superhuman power, justifying the frequent references to Jove and Mars in connection with the warriors. They also suggest superhuman size, for in shifting from backdrop to object of conquest, the deserted landscape becomes an adjunct to the hero's person. Such an effect is consistent not only with the ideology of heroic conquest, but also with the spatial symbolism of the Renaissance duel, as analysed by Jennifer Low. In Manhood and the Duel, Low explains that the fencer's ward, or stance, in effect expanded his personal space:

A gentleman's understanding of spatiality derived in part from training in the use of the rapier, which influenced him to develop a sense of extended personal space that eventually became a visible sign of gentle birth19.

10Similarly, the desert setting can be viewed as an oversized extension of the hero's personal space.

11Though such amplification is relevant to heroes of epic and romance, the desert setting may also help establish the hero's greatness, in the Aristotlelian sense20, as a tragic one. In Mowbray's image of the Alps as in Hotspur's speech about “pluck[ing] honour from the moon”, evocations of vertical descent and ascension substitute for the horizontal emptiness of the desert, adding to heroic pride a suggestion of hubris. Similarly, in Coriolanus, the fiery or lunar landscapes where the Roman and Volscian heroes meet allow them to paint themselves as gods21. In addition to emphasizing the character's hubris, the desert setting may project a character's tragic solitude by virtue of both its emptiness and its barrenness. This is the case in Macbeth, where the desert evoked as a backdrop to the duel with the ghostly Banquo (“dare me to the desert”, III.4.105) connects with the well-established issue of childlessness:

Macbeth. What man dare, I dare.
Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear,
The arm'd rhinoceros, or th'Hyrcan tiger;
Take any shape but that and my firm nerves
Shall never tremble. Or be alive again,
And dare me to the desert with thy sword.
If trembling I inhabit then, protest me
The baby of a girl. Hence, horrible shadow,
Unreal mock'ry, hence! Why so, being gone,
I am a man again. Pray you sit still. (III.4.100-109)

12The wish that Banquo, whom the childless Macbeth has killed for his fertility, should “be alive again”, coupled with the reference to a baby a few lines below, betrays Macbeth's obsession with others' ability to give life and his desire to appropriate that life-giving power. Fighting a resurrected Banquo in the desert appears as a way to draw life from the wasteland in the fashion of the redeeming hero of medieval romance22. In a play that seems to be entirely about killing fathers, mothers, and children, the ghostly challenge to the desert points to Macbeth's fantasy of being the ultimate and only life-giver. As a symbol of thwarted fertility, the desert can be contrasted both with the heath, a parody of feminine fertility, and the hills of Dunsinane. The symbolic reappearance of vegetation on the barren hills of Dunsinane on the occasion of the final combat indicates that the yearned-for role of male life-giver has been appropriated by Macduff, the man not “of woman born” (IV.1.94). The lonely desert can also be contrasted with the dinner table, where a fellowship of knights sit looking on in dismay as their king raves suspiciously about dead men and deserts. The desert setting thus establishes Macbeth's tragic solitude as both that of the killer, estranged from his fellow men, and as that of the heir-less king, denied any purchase on the future of his country.

13Thus in a vividly visual way, the trope of desert duelling foregrounds the singularity of the hero, a singularity that may, somewhat paradoxically, apply to a class as well as an individual. To this extent, the trope is relatively straightforward and unproblematic, illustrating, as it does, a feature of heroism that has been acknowledged since Aristotle. However, the trope of desert duelling also reflects the growing complexity of heroism in Shakespeare's day, as instanced by the vexed question of honour.

II. Public and Private Facets of Honour

14A paradox of Shakespeare's duels is that a rite whose overriding purpose was public vindication of honour should so often be envisaged as taking place in a desert23. The paradox reflects the Renaissance debate around the nature of honour24, envisaged alternately as a public virtue and as a private one. Reta A. Terry, among other historians and critics, points out that Renaissance definitions of honour were both multiple and changing. In particular, the Renaissance saw a gradual shift from the medieval definition of honour, with its emphasis on valour and loyalty to one's lord, to a more modern definition, with an emphasis on virtue, conscience, and loyalty to the state and sovereign. Overlapping with the valour/virtue opposition is the public/private opposition, the issue of whether honour was a matter of reputation or of inner worth. Terry sums up the shifting conception of honour in the following way:

One of the most complex changes in the code of honour was a move from an external code to an internalized concept of what it is to be an honorable man. Men were no longer considered honorable simply by birth, nor were they able to claim to be men of honor by producing a long list of heroic deeds. Rather, honor was becoming, by the seventeenth century, a matter of conscience; honorable men needed to seek, in every situation, to behave in such a way as to please both their state and their God25.

15Following C. L. Barber, Alice Shavi distinguishes four principle ways of defining honour in the Early Modern age: reputation and honours conferred, the acts for which a person is honoured, the inner impulses driving honourable deeds, and the code of honour26. These headings show that honour in the Renaissance involved both a private and a public component. Jennifer Low, after mentioning that “Scipione Maffei found that authorities on honor had given nearly twenty definitions of the term”, identifies a common thread: “the equivalence of honor and manhood, and, up to a certain time in the English Renaissance, an almost universal understanding of honor as the spiritual quality that enables a man to gain glory in feats of war27.”

16The plays, through challenges to the desert, explore the nature of honour by separating its public and its private components. Most saliently, such challenges may convey a characters' wish to dissociate acts of valour from the taint of public performance. In the Henriad, public display is often spoken of as vulgar and debasing, be it Richard's comments about Bolingbroke's histrionic leave-taking (RII,I.4.23-36), or Bolingbroke's about Richard's crowd-pleasing ubiquity (1HIV, III.2.39-88). In Coriolanus, thehero's belief in a private dimension of honour is evidenced by his repugnance at the public display of his wounds, in spite of Menenius's insistence that he join “[his] honour with [his] form” (II.2.143). Volumnia's vision of her son fighting the tribunes in Arabia, counterpointing the degrading public display, establishes honour as something that is won away from vulgar eyes. The challenge to the desert thus pinpoints the problem of how to display honour without tainting it.

17In Cymbeline, desert fighting dramatizes the tension between honour defined as inner nobility and honour defined as the public perception of that nobility, i.e. reputation. In the course of the play, the envisaged “African duel” between Posthumous and the unspeakable Cloten materializes as a fight to the death between Guiderius and Cloten, on the rugged heath where Belarius has secretly raised Imogen's two kidnapped brothers. The off-stage fight, which ends with Guiderius brandishing Cloten's severed head, has Belarius musing about how honourable blood will tell, even in the wilderness, where nature is unaided by nurture:

Belarius. O thou goddess,
Thou Divine Nature, how thyself thou blazon'st
In these two princely boys! They are as gentle
As zephyrs blowing below the violet,
Not wagging his sweet head; and yet as rough,
Their royal blood enchafed, as the rud'st wind
That by the top doth take the mountain pine and
And make him stoop to th'vale. 'Tis wonder
That an invisible instinct should frame them
To royalty unlearned, honour untaught,
Civility not seen from other, valour
That wildly grows in them, but yields a crop
As if it had been sowed. (IV.2.169-181)

18Honour, through nature imagery and its location in an “invisible instinct”, is here identified first and foremost as an essential quality, manifesting itself in physical action, but not dependent on outward recognition for existence. However, that inner sense of honour eventually drives the young princes to seek public validation in war, and to feel shame at being “so long a poor unknown” (IV.2.43). Conversely, the villain Jachimo is ashamed of the public honours he wears, for they are at odds with his sense of inner worthlessness at having slandered a lady. After suffering defeat at the hands of Posthumous (dressed in peasant's clothing) on the battlefield, he acknowledges the vanity of outer signs of honour: “Knighthoods and honours borne / As I wear mine are titles but of scorn” (V.2.6-7). That same awareness of a gap between outer appearance and inner worth has led Posthumous to dress up as a peasant, hoping thus to shift the balance of honour inward:

Posthumus. Let me make men know
more valour in me than my habits show.
Gods, put the strength of the Leonati in me.
To shame the guise o'th'world, I will begin
The fashion – less without and more within. (V.1.29-33)

19A thematics of concealment appears here both in the relative privacy of the meeting (the men have become separated from the rest of the fighters) and in the disguise the contenders are both wearing (Jachimo is in borrowed honours and Posthumous in borrowed rags). In the man-to-man encounter between Jachimo and Posthumous, the deserted venue emphasizes the irrelevance of outer form, and helps establish honour as a quality that originates in the inner man, before working its way outward.

20In Macbeth, the notion of honour as an inner disposition is taken a step further, in that desert fighting amounts to an attempt to dissociate honour from action. The challenge to Banquo's ghost, which we have seen expresses a wish to undo the crime(s) committed, also involves an attempt to establish an inner disposition to honour as a valid substitute for public performance of honourable deeds. Macbeth's pledge to the ghost of Banquo raises the question of how real the private impulse to honour is when it is dissociated from the possibility of public or even private performance. The problem is an extension of Claudius's recognition that he cannot be forgiven for the murder of his brother “since [he] is still possessed / Of those effects for which [he] did the murder” (Hamlet, III.3.53-54). On a lighter note, virtual willingness to fight is mocked in As You Like It, where Touchstone, in a parody of Saviolo's treatise, expounds on the usefulness of the concept of “if” in avoiding a fight without losing one's honour:

Touchstone. All these you must avoid but the Lie Direct; and you may avoid that too, with an If, as, 'If you said so, then I said so'. And they shook hands and swore brothers. Your If is the only peacemaker: much virtue in If. (V.4.96-101)28

21Macbeth's tragedy is that he premises his duel on an impossible “if”, which makes him the possessor of virtual honour. The desert then becomes a mental landscape, both an image of Macbeth's formerly unspotted soul and of the private place in the mind where honour might reside as pure volition. Fighting in the desert with a dead man thus comes to stand for the impossibility of displaying the inner mind, a problem of representation that runs through the corpus, most famously in Hamlet's: “I have that within that passes show” (I.2.85)29. More than an issue of representation, though, the issue is the very existence of honour that cannot be translated into action. The precedence of action over thought appears a few lines after the challenge when Macbeth says: “Strange things have I to head that will to hand, / Which may be acted, ere they may be scanned” (III.4.140-141).

22Transcending the opposition between inner and outer forms of honour is the idea that an honourable gentleman is someone who keeps his word. Because of this close association of honour and truth-telling, desert fighting poses epistemological problems.

III. Truth and Lies

23In a history play, establishing hidden honour can metonymically stand for establishing historical fact. The difficulty consists in ascertaining the ontological status of an event for which there were no witnesses, or whose witnesses are no longer present.

24The purpose of the medieval trial by combat was to establish the truth. In the same way, “giving the lie” was a central feature of the Renaissance duel. In the heavily scripted unfolding of a duel, words would come to blows when, after having his honour impugned (being called a coward or a traitor for example), a gentleman called the charges a lie. It was then up to his opponent to prove, or maintain, his claim by challenging the target of his verbal attack to a duel. The whole process presupposes that the outcome should eventually become public knowledge, at least in the restricted aristocratic circle of those who mattered.

25Thus the duel in the desert poses an ontological problem in the plays: its function is to establish truth, but establishing its own truth depends on the report of the participants, whose unreliability is the very premise of the duel. Of course, the victor can be determined if one of the participants returns alive, and the other is found dead, but nothing guarantees that the combat was a loyal one, or even a single one, as Achilles's treacherous murder of Hector demonstrates in Troilus and Cressida. In the second part of his Practice, in a passage I have already quoted from, Saviolo warns his reader against holding the duel in “secret places” for this reason:

My intention is, to give gentlemen warning how they appoint the field with their enemies, seeing it is not permitted by the lawes to bee done publikely, as by ancient custome it was wont to be allowed. For it may so fall out, that a Gentleman hauing passed his word to meet his aduersarie in some secret place, after hee hath valiantly wounded him, and reported the victorie of him in the appointed place, his sayde aduersarie may accuse him of fellonie, and saie that he robbed him, and so where the quarrel should haue an end he shalbe forced to enter into newe troubles and begin againe. It may also chance that his aduersarie hath ambushes prepared for him, & so he may be murdered, & being dead, his enemie may vaunt of hauing brauely conquered him by right and valour30.

26Awareness of this problem appears in Cymbeline, when the Frenchman vouches for the truthfulness of his report of the quarrel between Posthumous and another Frenchman in Orléans: “'Twas a contention in public, which may without contradiction suffer the report” (I.4.52-53). The problem is also underscored in 1 Henry IV, when King Henry and Hotspur have words about the “single opposition” (I.3.98) between Mortimer and Glendower on the “Severn's sedgy banks” (I.3.97). While Hotspur contends that his cousin Mortimer defeated Glendower in single combat, the King maintains that no such fight ever took place, Mortimer being too cowardly to meet Glendower. As in Saviolo's caveat, there is a potential here for an old quarrel to generate an infinite chain of new quarrels, with Mortimer and Henry “giving each other the lie”, which, had it not been for the difference of degree between the two men, might have led to a duel. In the event, it leads to war. At the root of the quarrel, ostensibly a disagreement about whether Mortimer deserves to be ransomed,  is the need for King Henry to bolster his claim to the throne by tarnishing his rival claimant's reputation and making sure he stays out of the way. This is matter-of-factly pointed out by Hotspur's ally Worcester who, following a purely Machiavellian logic, says of the King's refusal to ransom Mortimer: “I cannot blame him. Was he [Mortimer] not proclaimed, / By Richard that dead is, the next of blood?” (I.3.143-144). In the transition from medieval honour to pragmatic politics, the truth is no longer established by single combat, but constructed through brute force and negotiation. The desert thus becomes the page where history and fiction meet in the activity of national myth-creation.

27On a gentler note, The Tempest also demonstrates the process of historical construction. In Act V, scene 1, Miranda and Ferdinand are “discovered at chess”, the game being a symbolic substitute for a duel. Before the eyes of the dramatized and real audiences, Miranda accuses Ferdinand of cheating, and Ferdinand “gives her the lie”.

Miranda. Sweet Lord, you play me false.
Ferdinand. No, my dearest love,
I would not for the world.
Miranda. Yes, for a score of kingdoms you should wrangle,
And I would call it fair play. (V.1.172-175)

28With two male participants, this kind of exchange could be read as a challenge. Here, the opponents agree on a story, which involves calling “foul” “fair”, in a manner recalling the weird sisters in Macbeth (I.1.11). The game itself was not witnessed by either the other characters or the audience31, but we do witness the process by which the public story takes precedence over the facts. Keeping in mind that “for the world” sounds exactly the same as “'fore the world”, we become aware that the stakes of the game are bound up in public recognition of the outcome.

29The episode is remarkable in the sense that if, based on formal similarity, we consider that the game of chess is the duel and the following exchange the challenge, the standard order of challenge and duel is reversed. This would mean that truth is no longer established by action, but by speech.

IV. Speech and Action

30The upshot of desert duelling is that speech takes precedence over action. It is significant that none of the duels in the desert mentioned in the plays actually takes place. Nor are they likely to. Macbeth has challenged a ghost. Mowbray and Bolingbroke's readiness to meet in the Alps is belied by their horror at the prospect of leaving England, expressed just two scenes later. Besides, the Englishness they associated with conquering the wilderness in their challenges is now entirely subsumed in speaking English (I.3.159-173). What's more, the landscapes the contenders evoke dissolve into linguistic metaphor if we compare the terms of the description with other uses of these terms in the scene. The words “ground”, “further”, “highness”, and assorted topographic terms are all used to designate verbal argument32. The duel's propensity to degenerate into rhetoric is taken to circular extremes in 2 Henry IV, when Bardolph offers to fight for the word “accommodated”: “I will maintain the word with my sword to be a soldier-like word” (III.2.74). Not only is the challenge nothing more than an empty oath, but its object is to defend the honour of a word!

31As the Tempest chess scene shows, desert duelling reverses the action/speech hierarchy implicit in single combat. Duelling is a form of action whose semiotic validity is premised on its being a physical action. Challenging to the desert, however, is speech attempting to appropriate the legal or mystical automatic validation of single combat. This is underscored in a dramatic performance, where the challenge to a desert duel may emphasize its own spuriousness by taking place on a stage devoid of any landmarks. The stage, so suggestive, by virtue of its semiotic neutrality, of the desert being referred to, tends to turn the bandying of challenges witnessed by the audience into the duel per se. The staged challenge to the desert then becomes a meta-dramatic metonymy for what any History play does, which is to substitute report for action, while giving the illusion that the audience is witnessing history in the making.

32This speech/action dynamics may reflect a difference in the epistemological assumptions underlying the medieval trial by combat and the Renaissance duel. If we go by Saviolo's Practice, it seems that the notion of God choosing the victor in a situation of man-to-man fight had all but disappeared by the end the sixteenth century. Regarding proof by way of arms, Saviolo explains that it is preferable to refute a false charge by reason than by fighting:

But I see amongst gentlemen much to be noted such an abuse that they thinke themselves to have committed villainye, to attempt any other meanes than by the sworde: wherein how much they deceiue themselues which thinke so, I will say nothing else at this present, but that the ciuile proofe is the profe of reason, & fighting but the profe of force: and that reason is proper to man, and force to wilde beastes33.

33The gradual loss of faith in God's choice of the victor can be traced through Shakespeare's English Histories. In 1Henry VI, Somerset pledged to maintain his accusation against the Earl of Cambridge “on any plot in Christendom” (II.4.89)34. The emphasis is not on a desert location, but on the Christian dimension of the fight, and the implicit conviction that the better Christian will carry the day. The idea is also expressed in Richard II. After these early examples, the reference to religion is dropped. There is no longer any suggestion that God will take a hand in determining the outcome. In keeping with the gradual shift from a medieval and early sixteenth-century belief that God spoke in signs, to a seventeenth-century belief in the semiotic pre-eminence of man-made linguistic signs35, the duel in the desert tends to become a trope. In this respect, the desert takes on a metaphorical dimension, as when a rugged landscape becomes the mirror of a proud or noble mind. This is the case in Cymbeline (IV.2.173-176, quoted above), where the princes' rough surroundings are both metonymy and metaphor for their nobility, and in Hamlet, where the ice the old King fought on reflects the purity of his soul, and of bygone days. In Troilus and Cressida, desert imagery is given an ironic twist, when, in the context of a possible duel between Hector and Ullysses, a sardonic Nestor images Achilles's overweening pride as an arid desert: “Achilles, were his brain as barren / As banks of Lybia – though Appolo knows, 'Tis dry enough [...]” (I.3.328-330)36.

34Jennifer Low suggests that in Renaissance duelling, the rhetorical preambles came to upstage the actual fighting: “the mechanisms of the challenge actually derive from the humanist glorification of language and public performance37”. In desert duelling, the prominence of rhetoric is emphasized by dint of its being the only part of the process available to public scrutiny38.


35Shakespeare's challenges to the desert constitute a topos in his Histories and Roman Plays, drawing on a semantics of privacy to bring out the metaphysical, political and epistemological issues at stake in the characters' heroic posturing. The emphasis on privacy is what makes such a poly-semic signifier of the desert, allowing it to stand for social exclusiveness, tragic solitude, inner integrity, and the remoteness of historical past.

36Though apparently not a feature of Renaissance duelling, the challenge to the desert belongs resolutely to Shakespeare's time, both aesthetically and culturally. Aesthetically, it is a mannerist element, in its amplifying effect and its unsteady juxtaposition of such opposites as secrecy and display, truth and fiction, heroic action and persuasive rhetoric. Culturally, the topos foregrounds some of the issues that made the Renaissance duel emblematic of the shifting paradigms of its time, including the decline of the chivalric order, the growth of secularism, humanist relativism, political pragmatism, and perhaps even the general move towards privacy and domesticity. Its involvement in these changes, as Jennifer Low and Markku Peltonen39 have argued, infused the Renaissance duel with a sense of nostalgia for an idealized heroic past. The plays tap into that nostalgia by associating desert fighting with simpler and nobler times (as in The Henriad and Hamlet) or lost innocence (as in Macbeth).

37The topos is also representative of its time in its syncretic merging of multiple influences. Turning the challenge to the desert into a dramatic topos meant combining the Christian symbolism of the wilderness (a place of error and illusion) with the mythological connotations of the desert (a wasteland awaiting redemption) and the practical features of the “field” in Renaissance duelling (privacy and secrecy). To this should be added the sixteenth-century fascination with faraway lands, viewed as places of conquest and discovery. More generally, the trope of desert duelling is an example of the early modern concern with the symbolic and discursive value of place, a development that has been discussed by Mary Hazard40 in relation to art and courtly behaviour, and by Marion Trousdale41 in relation to rhetoric.

38Further research would be required in order to determine whether challenges to the desert are an exclusively Shakespearean artefact. At this stage, one may venture to call them typically Shakespearian in the sense that, in the dramatic context of the plays, they consist in endowing emptiness with maximum discursive meaning, in a meta-dramatic nod to the artist's activity.


1 Dans And That's True Too, New Essays on King Lear, ed. F.Laroque, Cambridge, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009.

2 Eds. Isabelle Schwartz-Gastine et Michèle Vignaux. LISA e-journal, Vol VI, n°3, 2008. 232-245.

3 Dans Lectures de Coriolan, eds. Delphine Lemonnier-Texier & Guillaume Winter, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2006, p.59-76.

4 Dans Potins, cancans et littérature, eds. Nathalie Solomon & Anne Chamayou, Presses Universitaires de Perpignan, 2006, p.240-252.

5  William Shakespeare, Richard II, ed. Richard Forker, London, Thomson, coll. “The Arden Shakespeare”, 2002, see footnote p. 184.

6  Ibid., p. 382.

7 William Shakespeare, Cymbeline, ed. John Pitcher, London, Penguin, 2005.

8 William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, ed. R. B. Parker, Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, coll. “Oxford World's Classics”, 1998 [first published by the Clarendeon Press, 1994].

9 Vincentio Saviolo, Vincentio Sauiolo his practise In two bookes. The first intreating of the vse of the rapier and dagger. The second, of honor and honorable quarrels. Both interlaced with sundrie pleasant discourses, not vnfit for all gentlemen and captaines that professe armes, At London, Printed [by Thomas Scarlet and Joan Orwin] for William Mattes, and are to be solde at his shop in Fleetestreete, at the signe of the hand and Plough, 1595. http:\\ image 132, viewed June 24th, 2010. Copy from: Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery. (Though Italian-born, Saviolo wrote his Defence in English and was teaching fencing in London at the time. He is therefore referring to the laws of England, and not of Italy).

10  See Victor Kiernan, The Duel in European History, Honour and the Reign of Aristocracy, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1988, p. 80.

11  Ibid., p. 82

12 William Shakespeare, 1 Henry IV, ed. Peter Davison, London, Penguin, coll. “Penguin Shakespeare”, 2005 [1968]. The same lust for undivided glory is King Henry V's rationale for rejoicing that the fighters are only a “happy few” (IV.3.69) at the battle of Agincourt (William Shakespeare, Henry V, bilingual edition, éd. Gisèle Venet, Paris, Folio/Gallimard, 1999).

13  Lancelot Andrewes, Works, Seven sermons upon the Temptation of Christ in the Wilderness, Sermons, Volume Five, Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology, Oxford, John Henry Parker, 1841-1843, p. 479-490: http:\\, viewed May 1st, 2010. See also Richard Johnson, The most famous history of the seauen champions of Christendome, with their victories against the enemies of Christ, London, printed by J. Danter for Cuthbert Burbie, 1596, Early English Books Online, reproduction of the original in the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery:, viewed May 6th. To some extent, the revival was a European phenomenon. Both Nordic and Italian Renaissance painters frequently depicted Christian saints as knights in armour, as in Raphael's depiction of Saint George fighting the dragon. In what was a set piece of Renaissance art, Saint George is seen in full body armour, slaying a dragon in an Egyptian landscape empty but for the King's daughter cowering in the background.

14  Lancelot Andrewes, op. cit., p. 490

15  Victor Kiernan, op. cit., p. 53.

16  Jennifer Low goes so far as to claim that “one attraction of the duel was probably that enacting it flouted the wishes of the sovereign”, in Jennifer Low, Manhood and the Duel, Masculinity in Early Modern Drama and Culture, New York and Houndsmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, p. 21.

17  In Hamlet, for instance, the Italianate double-poisoning that ends the play and its courtly setting are to be contrasted with Old Hamlet's victory over Norway in loyal combat (Hamlet, ed. Harold Jenkins, Walton-on-Thames, Methuen & Co, coll. “The Arden Shakespeare”, 1997 [1982]).

18  Typically, a duel is understood as a private quarrel between two individuals, while a single combat occurs between the heads of two warring armies, as a way of preventing a bloodbath.

19  Jennifer Low, op. cit, p. 7.

20  “[...] The change of fortune should [...] come about as the result [...] of some great error or frailty, in a character [who is highly renown and prosperous]”. Aristotle, Poetics, tr. S. H. Butcher, part XV: http:\\, viewed June 21st 2010.

21  Aufidius refers to himself and Coriolanus “scarring the moon with splinters” (IV.5.110), in the same speech in which he claims to believe Coriolanus before he would Jove.

22  In the anonymous Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain similarly goes into the wilderness to fight with a man whom he has in theory already killed, by cutting off his head, which wound turns out not to be fatal.

23  The duel thus became, as Richard Wilson puts it, “a spectacle without a spectator”, in Richard Wilson, Shakespeare in French Theory, King of Shadows, London and New York, Routledge, 2007, p. 212.

24  Which is famously dramatized in Falstaff's 1 Henry IV speech (V.1.127-141).

25  Reta A. Terry, “‘Vows to the Blackest Devil’: Hamlet and the Evolving Code of Honor in Early Modern England”, Renaissance Quarterly, Vol 52, n°4, (Winter 1999), p. 1070-1086, p. 1071.

26  See Alice Shalvi, The Relationship of Renaissance concepts of Honour to Shakespeare's problem plays, ed. Dr. James Hogg, Salzburg, Salzburg studies in English Literature, 1972, p. 35-36.

27  Jennifer Low, op. cit., p. 97.

28 William Shakespeare, As You Like It, ed. Agnes Latham, London, Methuen & Co, coll. “The Arden Shakespeare”, 1975.

29  In Richard II, the problem appears in the Aumerle episode, in which Aumerle's life hinges on his ability to show that “[his] heart is not confederate with [his] hand” (V.3.52).

30 Vincentio Saviolo, op.cit., http:\\, image 132.

31  Privacy here is over-determined: the game of chess takes place on a desert island, in an empty cell and off stage.

32  See I.1.11: “some known ground of treachery”; I.1.98: “further I say”; I.1.109: “How high a pitch his resolution soars”; I.1.105: “tongueless cavern”; I.1.125: “false passage of thy throat”.

33  Vincentio Saviolo, op. cit., http:\\, image 92.

34 William Shakespeare, 1Henry VI, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, New York, Gramercy, 1975, p. 523-551.

35  See Michel Foucault, Les Mots et les Choses, Paris, Gallimard, 1966, p. 19-91.

36 William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, ed. David Bevington, London, Thomson Learning, coll. “The Arden Shakespeare”, 2001 [first published by Thomas Nelson and Son, Ltd., 1998].

37  Jennifer Low, op. cit, p. 2.

38  Richard Wilson makes a similar claim for the cartel, or written challenge (Richard Wilson, op. cit., p. 215).

39  See Markku Peltonen, The Duel in Early Modern England: Civility, Politeness and Honour, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 93.

40  See Mary Hazard, Elizabethan Silent Language, Lincoln and London, University of Nebraska Press, 2000, p. 144.

41  See Marion Trousdale, Shakespeare and the Rhetoricians, Chapel Hill, University of Carolina Press, 1982, p. 73.

Pour citer ce document

Par Claire Guéron, «The Challenge to the Desert in Shakespeare's Histories and Roman Plays», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], Shakespeare en devenir, N°4 - 2010, mis à jour le : 28/07/2010, URL :

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Claire Guéron est Maître de Conférences à l'Université de Bourgogne (Dijon), où elle enseigne la littérature élisabéthaine et l'histoire britannique. Elle a soutenu une thèse intitulée « Retour et retournement : la poétique du déracinement dans Richard II, Coriolan, Le Roi Lear, Timon d'Athènes et La Tempête » en décembre 2008 et publié plusieurs articles portant sur les thèmes de l'exil et du langage dans l'œuvre de Shakespeare. Elle s'intéresse également à la figure de l'animal et prépare un a ...