So where is all that chivalry? I recently spoke to the San Diego Shakespeare Society about chivalry and Shakespeare — and the fact is, once you start looking for knighthood and chivalry in Shakespeare’s plays, you’ll see them practically everywhere. You can’t sit through a performance of Romeo and Juliet (“Give this ring to my true knight”), Hamlet (“The adventurous knight shall use his foil and target”), or The Merry Wives Of Windsor (“If I would but go to hell for an eternal moment or so, I could be knighted”) without coming across them. In fact, references to knights and knighthood are found in 25 of Shakespeare’s plays — a testament to just how firmly embedded the idea of chivalry is in his writing.
Of course, it’s not strange to find mention of knights and chivalry in Shakespeare’s history plays. Those plays are about the dynastic struggles for the English throne in a time when knights in armor were the dominant force on the battlefield. But Shakespeare’s treatment of chivalric themes isn’t limited to his 10 medieval political dramas. You’ll find referrence to knights and chivalry in plays like Cymbeline, Titus Andronicus, All’s Well That Ends Well, and King Lear. Why would Shakespeare mention knighthood in those works — and what does it tell us about his concept of chivalry?
As an answer, consider an exemplary “knight” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the woods, when Lysander is affected by Oberon’s love potion and wakes to look on the face of Helena (thus transferring his affections to her, instead of Hermia) he says:
“She sees not Hermia. Hermia, sleep thou there,
And never mayst thou come Lysander near;
[…] And all my powers, address your love and might
To honour Helen and to be her knight.”
This passage may not seem remarkable until you realize that this play is set in the time of Theseus — about 1200 BCE. The very word “knight” is anachronistic by more than 2,000 years! In this passage, as in many of his references to knights and knighthood, Shakespeare is using the word as cultural shorthand. He lived in a time of chivalric revival, in a time we might call the “Indian summer of chivalry.” He knew that his audience was so familiar with the knightly concept of chivalry and the rules of courtly love that he didn’t need to have Lysander explicitly vowing to write poetry, perform heroic feats, and endure hardships in Hermia’s name in order to prove the strength of his feelings for her. All Lysander has to say is that he will “be her knight” and we know what he’s talking about. He isn’t implying that Helena is raising an army, and he’s going to be conscripted as a soldier. Rather, Lysander is ready to undertake great deeds to prove he has a courageous heart and noble spirit worthy of her love – the very image of a gallant knight from the lore of Camelot and King Arthur.
The fact that a passage like this still rings true to us is an indication of just how deeply rooted the traditions of chivalry are, even in the 21st century. When Lysander vows to “be her knight,” we don’t scratch our heads or wonder what on earth he’s talking about. The reference seems natural and thoroughly understandable. Next time you’re seeing or reading Shakespeare, pay attention to his references to knighthood and their inferences of chivalry — you’ll be surprised to see just how often they turn up. Shakespeare’s “tan from the sun of chivalry” still glows on us today as we encounter the concepts of romance, honor, nobility, and valour in his plays.