Sunday, May 31, 2020

Solus: A note on Ancient Pistol

What is going on here? From Shakespeare's Henry V:


The Folger edition exemplifies general editorial indifference to Pistol's diatribe. The endnote to "O viper vile!" reads, "Pistol's speech is characterized by scraps of poetry, archaic language, and echoes of ranting speeches (sometimes from other plays)." The editor's subtext seems to be: "This guy is really annoying, there is something that needs an explanation, but we just can't bring ourselves to do it." Pistol, it's worth mentioning up top, has a strong connection with Greece and Rome, via the braggart stock figure of the miles gloriosus or more generally the alazṓn.

Context: Nym and Pistol have cause to quarrel. Nym is asking to speak to Pistol solus, i.e. alone, i.e. to step outside for a fight (or even a dagger in the guts). It is interesting that solus is gendered, so Nym is clearly speaking to Pistol. Nym definitely wants a word with his ex's new husband Pistol, not with his ex Mistress Quickly herself.

The editorial consensus seems to be that glossing Pistol further would just encourage him. Actors, audiences, directors, dramaturges may all be baffled as to what this guy's on about. But that's OK, because quite likely his interlocutor Nym doesn't know either. Dramaturgically, the scene still works even if Pistol's speech is just noise, flashing fire from a muzzle which misses its mark. "You cannot conjure me": Nym's comeback seems to be, "I'm not some fiend you can control with words." So he could mean that Pistol's words are mere gibberish meant to sound magically frightening.

Those glosses I've found so far helpfully point out that Pistol takes 'solus' as an insult. Thanks everyone. But really, it feels like there's more to be said here. What is so special about this word solus? If Pistol takes it as an insult, what insult does he take it as? Would solus have been a pretentious word for Nym to have used, perhaps? Or could there be a play on 'soulless,' cohering with Nym's mention of conjuring a fiend? Or even better, a variant on Stolas, the demon prince (and Twitter bot)? Or is Pistol pretending to interpret Nym's words "I would have you solus" as "when I am solus, I would have you, that is to say, when I think about you I touch myself"? Might there be a link to 'Sol,' the sun, perhaps playing into that "flashing fire"? Is Pistol really misunderstanding or mishearing Nym, or pretending to? If he is pretending, are Nym and/or Quickly meant to be in on this pretence or not? If he's doing a bit, what is the bit?

Questions! There is apparently one sense of the homonym 'solace' to do with debt payment and corporal punishment, which is very intriguing. I haven't been able track down much about it. From Joseph Moxon's 1683 Mechanick exercises, or, The doctrine of handy-works : applied to the art of printing : the second volumne:

But it seems to be limited to printing houses, and connected with the sort of epic simile of the printing house as a chapel. See more about it here. On balance, I don't think it's relevant here.

Or perhaps there is nothing special about 'solus'! It's a standard bully move to pick something at random and hold it up for sneering inspection. So perhaps there is actually nothing odd about the word solus, but Pistol is messing with Nym, to make him feel like there is. That's a decent interpretation.

Unless ... could 'solus,' I wonder, be a play on 'solace', with its slightly larger contemporary sense of not only comfort but also entertainment, delight, also with a theological and/or sexual energy? When Pistol says that he 'can take,' does he mean that he can 'take solace'?

If so, then could this be Pistol's conceit? "I will feed you your solus so hard it will end up in your ass, and then I will find solace in your ass with my dick?" I am not sure. I think it could well be.
'Solus,' egregious dog? O viper vile!
The 'solus' in thy most mervailous face;
The 'solus' in thy teeth, and in thy throat,
And in thy hateful lungs, yea, in thy maw, perdy,
And, which is worse, within thy nasty mouth!
Clearly part of Pistol's retort involves him stuffing this word back in Nym's face, feeding it to him till he digests it and perhaps even poops or pees it out. Cf. "gives me the lie in the throat / as deep as the lungs" in Hamlet and Touchstone going no further than the Lie Circumstantial in As You Like It. The conventional comparison of language to something edible was pretty well-established around this time, enough so that an audience could probably follow Shakespeare putting some kind of extra spin on it. Cf. e.g. Donne's 'Satire II':
But hee is worst, who (beggarly) doth chaw
Others wits fruits, and in his ravenous maw
Rankly digested, doth those things out-spue . . .
The meate was mine, th'excrement is his owne.
Is Pistol perhaps even tracing the alimentary canal as a hidden "viper vile" within Nym? Is there some sense of Pistol as a haruspex, poking about in Nym's entrails for omens? Is that what Nym picks up on in his demonology-themed comeback? Well, perhaps. But the key thing to recognise is the peristaltic quality of Pistol's speech: the word moves steadily downward, and the "nasty mouth" is far likelier the "mouth" in Nym's butt than the one in his face.

Then what? Solace can certainly be a euphemism for sex (or vice-versa). I'm not sure I can find Shakespeare clearly using it that way yet. However, cf. a Middle English Seven Sages of Rome:
Dame, sho said, bi Goddes grace,
Mi husband dose me solace.
Þharfore no better nede I can
Bot I most luf sum oÞer man.
And there are plenty of later examples too. And where has the 'solus/solace' ended up? Usually a word is thrown back in your face, or at most in your throat. But here:
I do retort 'solus' in thy bowels;
For I can take, and Pistol's cock is up,
And flashing fire will follow. 
Now, we could suppose that Pistol introduces something new with this play on his name (the cocked pistol / hard cock bit), rather than continuing a thought that began in the lines before. Take is obviously a hugely polysemous word, so there are plenty of options to play with. (And since Pistol is apparently engaging on wordplay on his own name, it might be worth mentioning that "nim" could mean "to take, to nick"). Just possibly, Pistol has abandoned his previous thread, and is simply saying: "I can take you [in a fight]," or "I can take [aim]," or "I can take [i.e. strike, hit]," and the innuendo of "cock is up" may not even be that important.

But I think we might want to take Pistol's "For" seriously: the fixation on 'solus' is flowing into some kind of climax. And I think we need to take the innuendo seriously too. Is the "flashing fire" not just a gunshot, but cum? I mean, yes, it is cum. It's not like this is his first time: "I will discharge upon her, Sir John, with two bullets" (Henry IV part 1). Where is this flashing fire headed? Mistress Quickly (which we can call the "no homo-Nym" interpretation, a cuckold-energy brag)? Or toward somebody else? Is it Nym himself, a sort of threat of sexual violence?

So then . . . is this the conceit? "I will feed you your solus so hard it will end up in your ass, and then I will take solace in your ass?" On balance, I think yes. The two sections of Pistol's speech are neither totally separate, nor a smooth progression. There's a kind of sonnety turn at "For," once the notional solus is safely lodged in the notional bowels. Pistol's witticism is that he will make Nym eat his words and then shoot him in the butt, but this is overtly blended with the promise that he will take solace in Nym's bowels. Flashing fire will follow.

Are we missing anything? Let's also quickly run through some of the other words. Perdy is an asservation (like "by God" or "for real" or "done know"). Maw is a funny word which probably means "stomach" but could also mean "throat" or "jaws" or even "appetite." Nasty probably connotes more "loathsome, dirty" than it does "cruel, vicious." So the "nasty mouth" is credibly read as butt-hole, given the apparent progression of the "solus" through the digestive tract. Mervailous isn't too different from its modern sense, with a bit more emphasis on "wondrous, strange, striking," and a bit less emphasis on "great, lovely, splendid." Retort is "throw back." Bowels could certainly mean specifically the intestines, but could also mean abdominal organs more generally, or the insides of the body. Barbason: I can't see much on this, but evidently he's some fancy fiend (see note).

So if this is indeed Pistol's conceit, it's gross and kind of stupid, but also kind of ingenious. Crucially, it's not mere noise: it's noise and signal, a decodeable bluster, an extended witticism, a cohesive rhetorical performance that feels like it's going nowhere yet knows where it's headed all along. Indeed, it could even be a little more layered. Conjure seems to be roughly "bind, constrain, control with magic words." But it is very flexible, and the common modern sense of "magically summon" was certainly in use in Shakespeare's time. I think this passage affords potential for genuine flirtation. Macho, deniable, deranged, extraordinarily flamboyant flirtation. You want me by myself? How dare you. You two used to sleep together, now we're sleeping together, and now you want me by myself? Oh my god, you big brute, how rude is that! The three of us should be together. I'm joking obviously. Am I? I'm joking. Am I? I conjure you, Nym ...

And it might just be one more clue to help with recovering a character that, I have a hunch, has drifted beyond the interpretative resources of most modern readers, audiences, actors, directors and dramaturgs. It strikes me that the attitude that "braggarts are just liars and cowards" -- which underlies modern interpretations of Pistol, or rather, modern lack of interest in the character -- does not really reflect Shakespeare's typically nuanced concern for the nuanced relationships of linguistic virtue and moral virtue, of seeming and being, of war and finance, and of agency and chivalry.

For example, we may read into Nym's comeback, "I am not Barbason, you cannot conjure me," a rejection of an offer of verbal conflict, in favour of a deferred material resolution: a punch-up, maybe with a stabbing on the side. But the rejection is an uneasy one, and not based on on a simplistic distinction of words and deeds or things, of verba and res. Rather, Nym seems to entertain different potential modes of materiality in which language may be enacted: there may well be tenuous beings for whom language becomes so substantial that it can engage like ectoplasm with their very flesh, the clockwork gears of rhetoric and hearts and legs and arms and daggers all elegantly meshing and turning, only Corporal Nym -- so he insists, using words to do so -- is not one of those beings. What about Ancient Pistol though? Is he a demon who, knowing his own name, can use it to conjure himself? Ancient Pistol: is there a bit more to him?

Well, that's the best I can do so far. This speech remains a little mysterious to me. I'd welcome any suggestions about any of this, or more generally about early modern braggarts and their precursors.

Here's another bit of Pistol:

Note: "Evidently a fiend." I haven't found Barbason anywhere else, except in Merry Wives of Windsor, in passing, and very definitely naming a fiend there. But cf. Reginald Scot's 1584 The Discovery of Witchcraft:
Marbas, alias Barbas is a great president, and appeareth in the form of a mightie Lyon: but at the commandement of a coniuror commeth up in the likenes of a man, and answereth fully as touching anie thing which is hidden or secret: he bringeth diseases and cureth them; he promoteth wisdom, and the knowledge of mechanicall arts, or handicrafts; he changeth men into other shapes, and under his presidency or governement are thirtie six legions or divels conteined.
Barbatos, a great countie or earle, and also a duke, he appeareth in Signo sagittarii sylvestris, with foure kings, which bring companies and great troopes. He understandeth the singing of birds, the barking of dogs, the lowings of bullocks, and the voice of all living creatures. He detecteth treasures hidden by magicians and inchanters, and is of the order of vertues, which in part beare rule: he knoweth all things past, and to come, and reconcileth freends.
"Barbason" was quite possible a mis-remembering or deliberate adaptation of one of these. "Barbason" could have been in Shakespeare's head because it was in his Holinshed: Barbason was a French knight supposed to have fought personally with Henry V in a countermine. This can't be the person Nym's talking of, surely: the timeline is all wrong.

But why Barbas, Barbatos, Barbason? The thing is, with fiends, you have so many to choose from, you'd think you'd select one with some significance. But what? Barbason might suggest 'barbarian,' as a counterpoint with the Pistol's weird complicated Roman energy. Barbason and Barbas and Barbatos could all suggest 'beard' (cf. barbate, maybe a later term), which at least feels vaguely relevant in some kind of proto toxic masc way. Cf. these beards: Henry IV: "No man so potent breaths upon the ground, / But I will beard him"; Othello: ""Good sir, be a man; / Think, every bearded fellow, that's but yok'd, / May draw with you: there's millions now alive, / That nightly lie in those unproper beds; your case is better." To cut someone's beard could be to outwit them, so perhaps a beardy demon is appropriate way to decline an invitation to a battle of wits. And in Merry Wives of Windsor, Ford laments: "Terms, names! Amaimon sounds well; Lucifer, well; Barbason, well: yet they are devils' additions, the names of fiends. Yet cuckold?" And then in Henry IV part I, Falstaff talks of how the Prince of Wales "gave Amamon the bastinado and made Lucifer cuckold." So there is a kind of very tenuous association between Barbason and jealous and controlling husbands, but that association is entirely created within scenes written by Shakespeare himself, so far as I've found. Another possible association is Barbary, perhaps bringing connotations of racialised power. And gendered power: 'Barbary hen' is slang for sex worker, used in Henry IV part 1. But can "I'm not Barbason" really retain even a tincture of "I'm not your Barbary hen," outside of an exigetical trance? I doubt it. I think it's more likely there is some reference I'm missing.

Maybe Shakespeare knows about some demons we don't.

Just one final possibility to consider: could Nym's retort be based on the idea that Pistol has been addressing him as Solas? Could he be saying, "Look, I'm not some demon called Solas or Barbason or whatever, forcefully and bodily interpellated by my secret name"? Also from Scot's Discovery of Witchcraft:
Stolas is a great prince, appearing in the forme of a nightraven, before the exorcist, he taketh the image and shape of a man, and teacheth astronomie, absolutelie understanding the vertues of herbes and pretious stones; there are under him twentie six legions.
Saleos is a great earle, he appeareth as a gallant soldier, riding on a crocodile, and weareth a dukes crowne, peaceable, &c.

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