The legend of Robin Hood was a prominent figure in English folklore, and his legend was a popular source of good dramatic material on stage, including for Shakespeare’s plays.
Welcome to Episode #034 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare's plays mention Robin Hood by name three separate times. Numerous members of Shakespeare’s contemporaries were writing and staging plays about Robin Hood. Queen Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, famously had himself and his court to dress up as Robin Hood and his merry men for a celebration. There were songs and ballads about Robin Hood being sung in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and during the Gunpowder Plot, Robert Cecil even called Guy Fawkes and his associates “Robin Hoods” in 1605.
With the current reputation of Robin Hood as a good folk hero, contrasted with the bad reputation Robert Cecil obviously had of him, I wondered exactly what we as a 21st century audience need to know about 17th century associations with Robin Hood when we encounter the mentions and references to this popular folktale in Shakespeare’s plays.
To help us sort out this mystery and learn more about Shakespeare’s Robin Hood, is our guest Kathryn Roberts Parker.
Kathryn Roberts Parker is a PhD candidate in English and Musicology at The University of Sydney. She received her BMus at Sydney Conservatorium of Music and a BA (Hons) in Performance Studies at The University of Sydney. Kathryn completed an MA in Shakespeare Studies at King’s College London in 2015, with the support of the John Monash Cultural Scholarship, a prestigious Australian award for leadership in the arts.
Kathryn’s current PhD research is examining the cultural significance of vocal music in Shakespeare’s comedies. Supervised by Professor Liam Semler and Dr. Alan Maddox.
Kathryn has previously worked as a dramaturg and musician with ABC Radio National. She is a founder of Matriark Theatre, an independent children’s theatre company specialising in Commedia dell’Arte, puppetry and slapstick. Kathryn is also the founder of Bardology, an online hub for exploring new ways of teaching, reading and performing Shakespeare in the twenty-first century.
In this episode, I’ll be asking Kathryn about :
- Justice Silence sings a line from an unnamed Robin Hood ballad, the line is “Robin Hood, Scarlet, and John” in Act 5 scene 3 of Henry IV, part 2; Was this a real song telling the tale of Robin Hood, or was Shakespeare inventing music in this scene?
- Was Robin Hood and celebrating May Day by dressing up in that character part of the customs in Shakespeare’s region of England?
- In 1584, when Reginald Scot identified Robin Hood with Robin Goodfellow, which was the same character of Puck that Shakespeare portrays in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Is Puck a Robin Hood character?…and more!
Robin Hood: The Legend
This picture is from a woodcut of Robin Hood, from a 17th-century broadside. The first definitive reference to ‘rhymes of Robin Hood' is from the poem, Piers Plowman, thought to have been composed in the 1370s. The earliest surviving copies of the narrative ballads that tell his story date to the second half of the 15th century, or the first decade of the 16th century. By the time Shakespeare was writing plays like “As You Like It,” and mentioning Robin Hood by name, the legend was a solid piece of English Folklore. Unique to the 16th century, though, was the establishment of Robin Hood as a supporter of Richard the Lionheart, which was not an opinion held by the earlier ballads.
The copy of the Robin Hood legend that Shakespeare was most likely to have read (though in all honesty, we don't know if he used some of the older ballads, or even copied of things like Piers Plowman, and he could have been working from memory, so ingrained in the culture was this story of Robin Hood), but the copy that was written in 1500 is the Gest of Robyn Hoode. It is the first attempt to string together all of the pieces of story about Robin Hood into one single narrative. This picture shows a piece of what it looked like. By the 15th century, Robin Hood was an essential part of the celebration of May Day, often being named King of the day, presiding over the festivities, and churches would host performances of his story as a fundraiser.
They say he is already in the Forest of Arden, and a many
merry men with him; and there they live like the old RobinHood
of England. They say many young gentlemen flock to him every day,
and fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world.
As You Like It, I. 1
Douglas Fairbanks portrays Robin Hood here in this picture, and the sword he is holding was the sword commonly used in the ballads of Robin Hood. Interestingly, the swords marked travellers as a certain class, and Robin Hood himself did not assume a quarterstaff, as modern images portray him, until the 17th century ballad “Robin Hood and Little John.”
In 1598, Anthony Munday wrote and staged a set of plays about Robin Hood which compiled several different Robin Hood legends into one production. His work was one reason the story of Robin Hood remains attached to the period of Richard I. In analyzing this play by Munday, the author Kathryn Roberts Parker recommends, Stephen Knight, concluded that Munday must have used a historical account from the 12th century to establish his Robin Hood, as Munday's version is also an outlawed nobleman and enemy of King John. The play was a little revolutionary in terms of Robin Hood, because it is the first time the identity of Robin Hood was connected with a real person. Munday's play suggests that Robin Hood is the Early of Huntington, and that Maid Marian is one of the women thought to have been persecuted by King John, which Robin Hood is saving. The connections to legend and theory, as well as popular culture, are constant throughout the play including nods like a play within a play presented at Henry VIII's court, and the play has it written by John Skelton, who was a real coutier, poet, and priest thought to have acted the part of Friar Tuck.
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