In book XI, Guido, of Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book, Count Guido pleas for his life to Cardinal Acciaiuoli and Abate Panciatichi. His arguments take many forms, all of which fit his character. He appeals to class solidarity, and to the half of Rome that supports him. He explains that the church would be more in keeping with its mission if it forgave, rather than punished. He argues that he acted as his ancestors acted, but laws have changed in modern times and no one bothered to warn him. His justifications go on and on: He’s unfairly being made an example; the Pope has lost his judgment in old age; guillotines are inhumane; the Comparini family was deeply evil; if he had killed his victems under different circumstances he would be free, etc. In the end he hints that he could have the cardinal elevated to Pope if he finds a way to spare his life. In his arguments he makes a claim that his nature is not in line with Christianity, but with old Roman paganism. This classical theme appears again in the following lines:

                                         So, the living truth
Revealed to strike Pan dead, ducks low at last,
Prays leave to hold its own and live good days
provided it go masque grotesquely, called
Christian not Pagan? Oh, you purged the sky
Of all gods save One, the great and good,
Clapped hands and triumphed! But the change came fast:
The inexorable need in man for life —
(Life, you may mulct and minish to a grain
Out of the lump, so the grain left but live, —
Laughed at your substituting death for life)
And bade you do your worst, — which worst was done
— Pass that age styled the primitive and pure
When Saint this, Saint that, dutifully starved,
Froze, fought with beasts, was beaten and abused,
And finally ridded of his flesh by fire,
Keeping the while unspotted from the world! —
Good: but next age, how goes the game, who gives
His life and emulates Saint that and this?
They mutiny, mutter who knows what excuse?
In fine make up their minds to leave the new,
Stick to the old, — enjoy old liberty,
No prejudice, all the same, if so it please,
To the new profession: sin o’ the sly, henceforth!
Let the law stand: the letter kills, what then?
The spirit saves as unmistakably.
Omniscience sees, Omnipotence could stop,
Omnibenevolence pardons, — it must be,
Frown law its fiercest, there’s a wink somewhere. [ll. 1975-2004]

Guido argues that the Christian world is really just the Pagan world with some superficial changes. In his society there is a Christian emphasis on death and the next life, rather than a pagan emphasis on this life — but humanity grumbles at this and prefers an emphasis on this life. The old ways should be honored and Guido’s life should be spared.

Questions

1. This passage argues that Christianity is hypocritical. It is merely a Pagan tradition wearing a “mask”. Does this passage undermine Guido in the eyes of the reader (or Cardinal) for its blasphemous take on Christianity? Or, is it bringing the nature of Christianity into question?

2. The last lines of the passage seem contradictory (ll. 1997-2004). Guido seems to be saying that the law is overly punitive, and although the law should stand, he should be pardoned. This sounds like a Christian plea for clemency rather than someone appealing to the old law. Yet Guido has just accused Christianity of being the old system with a new face. Is this a contradiction or is there a logic here?

3. Line 1991 refers to James 1.27, an instruction to look after orphans and widows and keep oneself from worldly corruption. Guido is corrupt and has created an orphan. Is Guido arguing that he is representative of the world that has fallen away from the generation of saints he describes, or is simply a moment of dramatic irony?

4. The final line in the passage continues the theme of hypocrisy in Christian society — there is a “frown” and a “wink&rdquo.; Is the wink also a more concrete allusion to corruption, i.e. is Guido offering a bribe here?


Victorian Overview E. B. Browning Leading Questions

Last modified 4 March 2011