‘Some Scurrilous King’: Judge Holden and the Spectre of Shakespeare’s Monarchs in Blood Meridian

Judge Holden, by Betatesthighlander1, via Wikimedia

Though the political world in Shakespeare’s day may seem different to our own, Shakespeare’s representation of nationhood, identity and power continues to exert an influence on contemporary writers. In his new article in our Postgraduate English journal, Ronan Hatfull (University of Warwick) looks at the connections between Shakespeare’s kings and princes, and the character of Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, Blood Meridian. 

William Shakespeare remains literature’s most referenced playwright, whilst Cormac McCarthy is regarded not only as one of America’s greatest living authors, but as a creator of contemporary fiction that debunks and reconstructs notions of the violent origins and potential future of his nation. This paper presents an intertextual reading of McCarthy’s 1985 novel, Blood Meridian, focusing on the principal antagonist, Judge Holden. Firstly, I will consider what parallels link Blood Meridian’s central relationship between Holden and its protagonist, the kid, to Falstaff and Prince Hal’s connection in 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV. My analysis will continue by moving to the final play of Shakespeare’s second historical tetralogy, Henry V. This section will involve close investigation of the novel’s various Shakespearean allusions, references and evocations, which include Holden’s misquotation of the play and Henry’s address to the people of Harfleur in grotesquely violent terms. The final section will draw comparison between Holden and Lear, exploring McCarthy’s image of ‘some scurrilous king stripped of his vestiture and driven together with his fool in the wilderness to die’ and Blood Meridian’s dystopian landscape of inescapable oppression and dominance, which recall King Lear’s blasted heath.

My objective is not to catalogue the moments of Shakespearean occurrence that are visible in McCarthy’s construction of Judge Holden, but to use this intertextual reading to address questions about the character’s origins, history and motivations. Holden has received the most widespread critical attention of any Blood Meridian character, primarily because of his enigmatic roots in the novel, which McCarthy makes clear by saying that ‘whatever his antecedents he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there a system by which to divide him back to his origins for he would not go’. Is he, as the author’s ambiguous representation suggests, beyond human categorisation or comprehension: more grandiose and ominous than the mere exponent of a crude hegemonic agenda, specific to his own historical setting? Or, to what extent can Holden be understood as a military leader with nationalistic motivations, inherently rooted in the language and setting of the post-Vietnam America in which McCarthy was writing, despite the novel’s setting against the backdrop of historical events that took place on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s? Is he a meta-textual representation of McCarthy’s own anxiety of influence, with Shakespeare’s spectral ‘ghost in our cultural machinery’ haunting the author’s confession that ‘books are made out of books’?

This article is available to download free in issue 35 of our open access Postgraduate English journal, where you’ll also find a complete archive of research dating back to 2000.


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