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Meeting the Enemy: Point of Friction on the Battlefield

Page Two Audio File

1.1 French: A Barbarous Language

1.2 Naming the Alien in Familiar Terms
1.3 A Lascivious Beast: Playing on Stereotypes

1.1 French: a “Barbarous” Language

Right from the beginning of the scene, Pistol peevishly insults the French soldier: “Yield, cur!” (4.4.1). The disparaging word “cur”, which is uttered a second time (4.4.18), is but the beginning of a series of caustic remarks targeting Le Fer’s language and identity. Pistol does not understand his interlocutor’s response and repeats the last word he has heard, “qualité” (4.4.3), the sound of which brings to his mind the refrain of an Irish song, “Qualtitie calmie custure me” (4.4.4). Pistol’s non sequitur exposes his erroneous association of the French and Irish languages that are both presented as unintelligible and inarticulate for the soldier; it is as if Le Fer were not communicating in a proper way.  

This idea is also conveyed through the term “cur” which, according to Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin, “is often related to the onomatopoeic verb Old Norse kurra (to murmur, grumble) and thus its primary sense seems to have been ‘growling or snarling beast’ (OED).”  The French soldier is incomprehensible, which is the reason he is misunderstood, and therefore associated with an animal. Because Le Fer is speaking a foreign language, his language corresponds to the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “barbarous” (OED, 2), which leads Pistol to define him with uncivilized and animal-like attributes (OED, 3). 

1.2 Naming the Alien in Familiar Terms

Unable to comprehend the French discourse, Pistol creates a new identity for the soldier, an identity he designs with what he is familiar: the English language. Pistol misunderstands the soldier’s oath “Ô Seigneur Dieu” (4.4.6) and imposes it on Le Fer as if it were his proper name.  The new name, O Seigneur Dew (4.4.7), has a semantic motivation since in early modern dictionaries the word “dew(e)” refers to “due”: that is to say, something that is owed to someone.  “O Seigneur Dew” encapsulates what the French man is for Pistol: a “due” is the amount of money he will earn once he exchanges his hostage. In the same way, when the Boy finally finds out Le Fer’s name, Pistol cannot help commenting on it using an alliteration: “Master Fer? I’ll fer him, and firk him, and ferret him” (4.4.27-8). Once again, the English soldier criticizes the cacophonous sound emanating from his French counterpart’s mouth through the harsh and aesthetically unpleasant sound of the letter “f,” the latter constituting his name (Le Fer) and his nationality (French). 

1.3  A Lascivious Beast: Playing on Stereotypes

If Le Fer’s language is presented as nonsensical and bestial, the name Pistol coins for him is not flattering either. “Dew(e)” has an economic connotation, but it also alludes to animals, since it stands for the dewlap of an ox (“the dewe lap of a rudder beast, hanging down vnder his necke”)  and a slug (“Lumaca, the dewe snaile that hath no house”) as can be seen below. 
Through the name, Pistol makes use of the animal imagery to deprecate his interlocutor. In a more direct manner, he asserts that Le Fer is a “luxurious mountain goat” (4.4.18-9), thus suggesting licentious misbehavior. Proverbially lecherous,  the image of the goat associated with a human being may easily recall the figure of the satyr, a Roman god with goat-like features who would live in the wood, seizing the opportunity to assuage his concupiscence as soon as a nymph was around. In his Encyclopedia of Swearing, George Hughes states that by 1530, “France and Italy were already stereotyped in England as hotbeds of vice and promiscuity.”  The word “goat” applied to this French soldier reduces the latter to a stereotype attached to French people in early modern England: lecherous animals spreading sexually transmitted infections or, in Pistol’s words, the “malady of France” (5.1.86), that is to say syphilis. 


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