Saturday, August 4, 2012

There's Toys Abroad

This is a follow up to my earlier post The Mysterious James Gurney. In that post, I discussed the possibility, first raised by E.A.J. Honigmann in his 1954 Arden edition of King John, that the following passage in that play might be an allusion to Sparrow in Guy of Warwick:

Enter Lady Faulconbridge and James Gurney

Bastard O me! ‘tis my mother. - How now, good lady?
What brings you here to court so hastily?

Lady Faulconbridge Where is that slave, thy brother? where is he,
That holds in chase mine honour up and down?

Bastard My brother Robert? old Sir Robert’s son?
Colbrand the giant, that same mighty man?
Is it Sir Robert’s son that you seek so?

Lady Faulconbridge Sir Robert’s son! Ay, thou unreverend boy –
Sir Robert’s son? – why scorn’st thou at Sir Robert?
He is Sir Robert’s son, and so art thou.

Bastard James Gurney, wilt thou give us leave awhile?

Gurney Good leave, good Philip.

Bastard  Philip? – sparrow! – James,
There’s toys abroad: anon I’ll tell thee more.

Exit Gurney.

In her recent book, Shakespeare: Upstart Crow to Sweet Swan: 1592-1623, Katherine Duncan-Jones points out that standard explanations of the Bastard’s reaction to being called Philip are “distinctly strained”, and that an alternative interpretation, consistent with the passage being an allusion to Sparrow in Guy of Warwick, is possible:

“Though it has been suggested that the Bastard rejects the name ‘Philip’ because he should now, since being publicly acknowledged as the son of Coeur de Lion, be called ‘Richard’, this seems distinctly strained, for it is not the Christian name that is definitive of his descent. I wonder whether there may not, rather, be an allusion here to The Tragical History, in which Guy of Warwick’s jesting companion, who is at his side in both England and Palestine, is called ‘Philip Sparrow’. Audience members familiar with The Tragical History may have recognized this as the Bastard staking out a claim for analogous proximity to King John, as his mirthful sidekick.”   

Standard editorial efforts at explaining that mysterious one-line wonder, James Gurney, are also ‘distinctly strained’:

James Gurney Shakespeare rarely names plebian characters so precisely unless there is an ulterior motive. Perhaps the precision here hints that the Bastard has been ‘democratically’ friendly with his mother’s servants, as does Gurney’s addressing him by his first name;” [A.R.Braunmuller, King John, Oxford Edition, 1989]

Braunmuller’s unconvincing attempt to explain the precise naming of James Gurney demonstrates how hard it is to make sense of this passage in King John when you have no inkling that Shakespeare’s ‘ulterior motive’ may have been to allude to Guy of Warwick.

Even Honigmann, who obviously did have an inkling, finds it hard. In the last line of the passage, the Bastard tells James Gurney “There’s toys abroad: anon I’ll tell thee more”. Honigmann reads ‘There’s toys abroad’ as ‘There’s rumours abroad’, suggesting that it is “curious” that “Shakespeare drags in the Guy story” then adds “there’s rumours abroad”.

It is curious, but even more so than Honigmann himself thought. His suggestion would have been more convincing if instead of using a strained interpretation of ‘toys’ as ‘rumours’ he had just assumed that ‘toys’ meant what it generally meant in the Elizabethan period.

A check of the OED shows that in the abstract sense, ‘toy’ meant:

1. Amorous sport, dallying, toying; with pl., an act or piece of amorous
sport, a light caress.

2. A sportive or frisky movement; a piece of fun, amusement, or
entertainment; a fantastic act or practice; an antic, a trick.

3.a. A fantastic or trifling speech or piece of writing; a frivolous or
mocking speech; a foolish or idle tale; a funny story or remark, a jest,
joke, pun; a light or facetious composition.

3.b. (a) A light, frivolous, or lively tune. Obs.  (b) A particular turn or
phrase of melody in a bird's song

4.a. A foolish or idle fancy; a fantastic notion, odd conceit; a whim,
crotchet, caprice.

4.b. spec. A foolish or unreasoning dislike or aversion

5. gen. A thing of little or no value or importance, a trifle; a foolish or
senseless affair, a piece of nonsense; pl. trumpery, rubbish.

All these meanings convey the same general sense for ‘toy’ i.e. something trifling, light, foolish or idle, and this is the sense in which Shakespeare always uses it e.g.

More strange than true: I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.        (Midsummer Night’s Dream)

‘Rumours abroad’ is really not a good fit for ‘toys abroad’, and Honigmann missed an opportunity here. ‘There’s toys abroad’ could easily have been understood at the time as ‘there’s a foolish or idle tale ... a light or facetious composition ... abroad’ - perfectly apt, if the words were meant to allude to Guy of Warwick.