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Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet: The King and the Beggar
David Blixt -- Shakespeare Expert, Author of Historical Fiction, David Blixt -- Shakespeare Expert, Author of Historical Fiction,
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Chicago, IL
Sunday, October 29, 2023


In the space between the Capulet Ball and the famous Window Scene, we have a terrific mockery of love performed by an inebriated Mercutio, with a tipsy Benvolio laughing and shushing him. Early on, Mercutio tries to summon Romeo by invoking ‘love’:

Romeo, Humours, Madman, Passion, Louer,
Appeare thou in the likenesse of a sigh,
Speake but one rime, and I am satisfied:
Cry me but ay me, Prouant, but Loue and day,
Speake to my goship Venus one faire word,
One Nickname for her purblind Sonne and her,
Young Abraham Cupid he that shot so true,
When King Cophetua lou’d the begger Maid,
He heareth not, he stirreth not, he mouethnot,
The Ape is dead, I must coniure him…

Of the many references he makes, one is clearly a favorite of Shakespeare’s, because he references it so often. In no less than five times in four different plays, Shakespeare alludes to the story of King Cophetua (R&J, HENRY IV PART 2, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, and, appropriately, twice in LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST). So too does Ben Johnson in EVERY MAN IN HIS HUMOUR, which indicates the tale was popular enough to be well-known to Londoners. Some have advanced that there was a lost play about the lovestruck king, or else a poem or song. Alas, the first version we have of the tale is a poem published in 1612 by Richard Johnson in A Crowne Garland of Goulden Roses. With a nod to Ross W. Duffin’s SHAKESPEARE’S SONGBOOK, which is where I first discovered it, I offer the whole poem here:

“A King And A Beggar Maid” by Edmund Leighton

I read that once in Affrica
A princely right did raine,
Who had to name Cophetua,
As poets they did faine:
From natures lawes he did decline,
For sure he was not of my mind.
He cared not for women-kinde,
But did them all disdaine.
But marke what hapened on a day,
As he out of his window lay,
He saw a beggar all in gray,
The which did cause his paine.

The blinded boy, that shootes so trim,
From heaven downe did hie;
He drew a dart and shot at him,
In place where he did lye:
Which soone did pierse him to the quicke,
And when he felt the arrow pricke,
Which in his tender heart did sticke,
He looketh as he would dye.
“What sudden chance is this,” quoth he,
“That I to love must subject be,
Which never thereto would agree,
But still did it defie?”

Then from the window he did come,
And laid him on his bed,
A thousand heapes of care did runne
Within his troubled head:
For now he meanes to crave her love,
And now he seekes which way to prove
How he his fancie might remoove,
And not this beggar wed.
But Cupid had him so in snare,
That this poor begger must prepare
A salve to cure him of his care,
Or els he would be dead.

And, as he musing thus did lye,
He thought for to devise
How he might have her companye,
That so did ‘maze his eyes.
“In thee,” quoth he, “doth rest my life;
For surely thou shalt be my wife,
Or else this hand with bloody knife
The Gods shall sure suffice.”
Then from his bed he soon arose,
And to his pallace gate he goes;
Full little then this begger knowes
When she the king espies.

“The Gods preserve your majesty,”
The beggers all ‘gain cry:
“Vouchsafe to give your charity
Our childrens food to buy.”
The king to them his purse did cast,
And they to part it made great haste;
This silly woman was the last
That after them did hye.
The king he cal’d her back againe,
And unto her he gave his chaine;
And said, “With us you shal remaine
Till such time as we dye.

“For thou,” quoth he, “shalt be my wife,
And honoured for my queene;
With thee I meane to lead my life,
As shortly shall be seene:
Our wedding shall appointed be,
And every thing in its degree:
Come on,” quoth he, “and follow me,
Thou shalt go shift thee cleane.
What is thy name, faire maid?” quoth he.
“Penelophon, O king,” quoth she;
With that she made a lowe courtsey;
A trim one as I weene.

Thus hand in hand along they walke
Unto the king’s pallace:
The king with curteous comly talke
This beggar doth imbrace:
The begger blusheth scarlet red,
And straight againe as pale as lead,
But not a word at all she said,
She was in such amaze.
At last she spake with trembling voyce,
And said, “O king, I doe rejoyce
That you wil take me from your choyce,
And my degree’s so base.”

And when the wedding day was come,
The king commanded strait
The noblemen both all and some
Upon the queene to wait.
And she behaved herself that day,
As if she had never walkt the way;
She had forgot her gown of gray,
Which she did weare of late.
The proverbe old is come to passe,
The priest, when he begins his masse,
Forgets that ever clerke he was;
He knowth not his estate.

Here you may read, Cophetua,
Though long time fancie-fed,
Compelled by the blinded boy
The begger for to wed:
He that did lovers lookes disdaine,
To do the same was glad and faine,
Or else he would himselfe have slaine,
In storie, as we read.
Disdaine no whit, O lady deere,
But pitty now thy servant heere,
Least that it hap to thee this yeare,
As to that king it did.

And thus they led a quiet life
Duringe their princely raigne;
And in a tombe were buried both,
As writers sheweth plaine.
The lords they tooke it grievously,
The ladies tooke it heavily,
The commons cryed pitiously,
Their death to them was paine,
Their fame did sound so passingly,
That it did pierce the starry sky,
And throughout all the world did flye
To every princes realme.

Some feel the last two stanzas should exchange places, and I agree. 

One can see how the tale of a man who swears never to love being felled by Cupid’s arrow would have an appeal to so many of Shakespeare’s characters. Benedick jokes about it—‘hang me up at the door of a brothel-house for the sign of blind Cupid’—and Don Adriano says to Mote, ‘Is there not a ballad, boy of the blind king and the beggar?’ Most apt is Mercutio, however, comparing Romeo to the king. Later he will say of Romeo:

Alas poore Romeo, he is already dead, stab’d with a white wenches blacke eye, runne through the eare with Love song, the very pinne of his heart cleft with the blind Bowe-boyes but-shaft.

To Mercutio, being struck with love is as good as being dead. Or at least, the Romeo they knew has been killed. Benedick shares the same sentiment about Claudio: 

Is ’t come to this? In faith, hath not the world one man but he will wear his cap with suspicion? Shall I never see a bachelor of threescore again? Go to, i’ faith, an thou wilt needs thrust thy neck into a yoke, wear the print of it, and sigh away Sundays.’

“King Cophetua And The Beggar Maid” by Edward Burne-Jones

Yet for all their protestations, it’s a tale that continued to resonate for at least two more centuries. There’s Edmund Blair Leighton’s painting The King and the Beggar-Maid, and a truly gorgeous painting entitled King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones hanging in the Tate Gallery in London, inspired by a short poem Tennyson wrote in 1833:

Her arms across her breast she laid;
She was more fair than words can say:
Bare-footed came the beggar maid
Before the king Cophetua.
In robe and crown the king stept down,
To meet and greet her on her way;
“It is no wonder,” said the lords,
“She is more beautiful than day”.

As shines the moon in clouded skies,
She in her poor attire was seen:
One praised her ancles, one her eyes,
One her dark hair and lovesome mien:
So sweet a face, such angel grace,
In all that land had never been:
Cophetua sware a royal oath:
“This beggar maid shall be my queen!”

In fact, Lewis Carroll’s most famous photograph, in a collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is of young Alice Liddell in 1858 in the role of the ‘beggar girl’ from this story. 

It’s only in the last century that this story has ceased to resonate—or rather, been replaced with a whole new set of references. The film Pretty Woman comes to mind.

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