Subject to His Subjects: A Performative Reading of the Socially-Constructed King Arthur
Fourteenth and fifteenth century England saw significant social changes in the rise of the merchant class, the expiration of feudalism, competition over nobility, and in the nation’s struggle to form a cohesive national identity and security. All of this resulted in overall social and political instability that caused citizens to reevaluate and reconstruct internal identities and roles in society, particularly as the class structure in England was constantly altered. Sir Thomas Malory himself appeared to experience and internalize this fluctuation and consequential confusion over identity, evidenced by his turbulent public reputation and lifestyle. The confusion and struggle over one’s personal identity and the identity society imposes upon one was represented not only through discourse and social relations, but also through literature. In his work Le Morte D’Arthur, Malory indeed deals with such problems of identity in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and within his own self by projecting the phenomenon of constructed identity upon his main character, King Arthur. In the following essay, I argue that Arthur’s identity is a social construct inextricably linked to his kingship that must be accepted, believed, and performed by Arthur. To do this, I expand upon Judith Butler’s theories in Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. In this work, Butler claims that gender is a “constituted” or “constructed identity” that humanity feels “compelled by social sanction and taboo” to “perform in the mode of belief” (519-520). I apply and adapt Butler’s assertions to the examination of Arthur’s identity in this essay by demonstrating that his identity apart from gender similarly “suffers a certain cultural construction,” and that he too comes to believe in this constituted identity and “perform[s]” it (Butler, 520 and 523).
There are several distinct events in Le Morte d’Arthur in which Arthur’s identity is as socially constructed and constrained by cultural expectations, just as Butler argues gender is, the first occurring prior even to Arthur’s conception. Arthur’s fate and identity are prophesied and predetermined by Merlin in the first book of Malory’s work, speaking as he does of “the great importance of the child” (Malory, 4) to come (Arthur). By vocalizing what his identity must be in greatness and importance, Merlin becomes the first to construct the fundamental identity of Arthur’s being. This construction becomes a social one the moment Merlin shares these expectations with Uther, and with this discourse the initial expectations of a society for Arthur to be a great and important king, albeit only the small society of two men, are espoused and provide a slim foundation for similar future constructions that fix Arthur’s identity with his “greatness” and nobility.Succeeding this, Uther’s and Igraine’s relations, otherwise known as Uther’s seducing of Igraine under the guise of her newly deceased husband, similarly establish Arthur’s identity as king. During their time together, the two literally create Arthur’s being, but by extension also construct his identity through the rules of lineage. As Uther’s only male heir, Arthur is required by law to ascend the throne, and his identity is therefore constituted by the regulations of society that coerce him into the position of king as soon as he is conceived. Butler claims that identity is often “constrained by available historical conventions” (Butler 521), and so it is with Arthur, whose identity is constrained within the title of “king” by the traditional lines of succession. Shortly after Arthur is born, the formulation of his sole identity and birthright as king persists vocally, first as Uther is on his deathbed, as Merlin asks, “Sire, shall your son Arthur be king of this realm after you with all your appurtenance?” to which the king answers in the affirmative, saying “I give him God’s blessing and mine, and bid him pray for my soul, and righteously and worshipfully that he claim the crown upon forfeiture of my blessing” (Malory, 6), and then again as Merlin proclaims to the populace of the kingdom that Jesus himself would, at Christmas, “show by some miracle who was to be the rightwise king of the realm” (Malory, 6). In the first instance, the men who initiated Arthur’s constituted identity by discussing their expectations of him continue their work, bidding Arthur to take the throne, even assuming it of him. In the second, Merlin spreads Arthur’s identity as “king” beyond the society of the two men and into the world that Arthur will most immediately required to interact with and abide by the rules of.
The final case exposing the ongoing community construction of Arthur’s identity as king within the first few chapters of Le Morte d’Arthur is found in the inscription on the stone that holds Arthur’s future sword. It reads, “WHOSO PULLETH OUT THIS SWORD OF THIS STONE AND ANVIL IS RIGHTWISE BORN KING OF ALL ENGLAND” (Malory, 7). The inscription imparts a very specific and seemingly simple standard for the man who pulls out the sword; that he be king. This is in accordance with the aforementioned passages that legally and orally charge Arthur with the same standard.Thus the societal construct of Arthur’s identity is initiated, extended, and completed; from Merlin’s claims to Uther of the kingliness of Arthur, the “rightwise” and “great” king of England handpicked by divinity and destiny, the expectations of Arthur to maintain a certain identity connected to the title of “king” spread to include the entire society that Arthur will come into contact with as he grows and attempts to define himself apart from his nobility. In these events both preceding and following Arthur’s birth, but prior to his rise to the throne, Merlin ties Arthur eternally with kingship and causes all of society to do the same, making it clear that Arthur’s future position as the King of England is “not predetermined by some manner of interior essence” (Butler, 521), but is fabricated through social interactions. Although the British know not who is to be this divine monarch, they already have expectations of him upon his arrival, working to construct his identity before he himself is even aware of his true lineage or is obliged to assume a certain role in the world. Arthur is not born king; he is made into one by the laws and constitutions of society, just as Simone de Beauvoir says that a woman is not born a woman, but becomes one (Butler, 519). Arthur’s identity follows the formulaic construction of gender that Butler presents in her work, saying as she does that gender is “an identity tenuously constituted in time- an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts” (519). In reiterating Arthur’s identity throughout the numerous aforementioned instances or “acts,” Malory constructs Arthur’s identity as king in much the same way that Butler indicates gender is constructed in society.
The expectations assigned to the adolescent from before birth are finally projected on Arthur as he draws the sword from the stone; in doing so, Arthur simultaneously imposes on himself the already pre-existing identity and expectations that will forever accompany “whoso pulleth out the sword” (Malory, 7). Although prophesied and betrothed to the throne since before birth, even as God himself selects him to be king, Arthur initially struggles to accept the identity thrust upon him in this moment. Because of this uncertainty, according to Butler, Arthur’s identity is not yet “constituted.” He has not entered into “the mode of belief,” has not yet been convinced of the “compelling illusion” of his enforced identity, and hasn’t yet “performed” his identity (Butler, 519-520).He accepts his newfound role in time, but does not do so because he feels that he is the true king of Camelot or because he believes being king coincides with his interior essence, but because the only father he has ever known tells him explicitly, as the rest of society already has, that he is to be king; “I understand that you must be king of this land… because God would have it so, for never should a man have drawn out this sword except that he were rightwise king of this land” (Malory, 8). Once again, Arthur only concedes because he is “beholden” to Sir Ector, dreading the thought of “failing” or disobeying him (Malory, 8). Arthur also tentatively accepts the weight of the kingship because of his subjects’ pleas. As soon his accomplishment is recognized, society, in due form, presumes that Arthur will accept the throne, crying, “We will have Arthur as our king. We will put him no more in delay for we see that it is God’s will that he shall be our king…” (Malory, 9). Finally, Arthur buckles under the petitions of his immediate society, his subjects and his father, consenting to shoulder the identity of “a true king… from thence forth all the days of his life” (Malory, 9). These facts, in addition to the previously discussed events that construct Arthur’s identity as king initially, are further evocative of Butler’s theory that identity is fabricated by external factors rather than by internal intuition, as well as her belief that a primary reason people comply with fabricated identities is a fear of social punishment.
With all of the prior establishment of Arthur’s identity long solidified, the boy has little choice but to incur the expectations and take them upon himself after he attains the sword; as a young man, Arthur has as of yet not had the opportunity to arrive at his own conclusions about his identity, has not been allowed the time to construct it himself, to discover what his internal essence truly is. Because of this, his inexperience and youth, Arthur wholly submits to the preordained notions and identity indivisible from the kingship, making this his only identity, believing as humans are wont to do that what society tells you to be, you automatically are. Yet not only does Arthur take on the persona because of his inexperience. Butler claims that often people comply with and perform traditional gender roles and stereotypes because “those who fail to do their gender right are severely punished” with “clearly punitive consequences” (Butler, 522), and so we can assume it is for Arthur and his identity as king, particularly since he explicitly states that he accepts the kingship because he fears the consequences of “failing” either his family or his subjects. Arthur acts in this way, as Butler says we all do with gender identity, “in obedience to an historically delimited possibility,” and “in accord with certain sanctions and proscriptions” (Butler, 522 and 525), namely the standards and expectations of Arthur’s subjects as delineated above. Although Arthur’s identity has long been constituted by society and constrained by historical circumstances, and although he has grown more accustomed to his imposed identity and adopted it at least outwardly by the time of his battle with the twelve kings, Arthur’s formation is incomplete in that the identity has not been performed repeatedly and is not wholly assimilated into Arthur’s being; for the identity to be completely realized, social or cultural construction, utter individual confirmation, and performance in the identity are all necessary.In the battle that directly follows the paramount realization and tentative acceptance of Arthur of his ready-made identity, this same identity is taken in stride and performed, as Butler requires.
As Arthur’s God- and society-given identity is challenged, the king clings to the identity and fights for it, as evidenced by his “great deeds of arms,” and his becoming “mad as a lion” (Malory, 18) with effort to defend his title against the kings who question him; the more pressing the battle becomes and the more Arthur’s position is challenged, the more he accepts it as his own and and grapples for it, finally growing into the identity he was born to wear. Through his acts on the battlefield, Arthur embraces his identity, entering into the mode of belief that completes the identity, which must be both imposed and accepted. By claiming his identity as king and even going so far as to fight for it, Arthur finally participates in the socially constitutive process of identity formation; he once again acts “in obedience to and historically delimited possibility” in accepting his identity publicly, and displays his belief in this identity by performing it and exercising the power that comes with it in battle, reproducing and enacting his identity as a “sustained and repeated corporeal project” (Butler, 522). Much as the gender binary is “repeated” and “reexperienc[ed],” Arthur “reenact[s]” his role as it has been laid out by society (Butler, 526). As Butler argues about gender, Arthur’s kingship is only “real to the extent that it is performed” (Butler, 527). In taking the identity of king fully upon himself and performing his role on the battlefield, Arthur makes his fabricated identity real.
Malory’s work thus seems to be reflective of the series of identity crises that pervaded medieval England and of Malory’s personal experiences with confusion over identity, while also being evocative of Judith Butler’s future theories on gender identity; although she emphasizes the societal constitution of gender identity and the subsequent compulsion of humanity to fulfill such identities, Butler’s arguments are easily applicable to other facets of identity, including Arthur’s identity as king, depicting as Malory does the phenomenon of social construction and the human tendency to conform to societal pressures and ideals.
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