01 April, 2006

William III of Portugal

One of my subscribers recently asked me about the neglected figure of William (Guilherme) III of Portugal (1689-1750). I've never been much interested in kings-and-bishops history, but the occasional character sticks out—the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II Hohenstaufen, for instance. William was another fascinating monarch; little information can be found about him online, so I have done some library research, and turned up quite a profile. A child prodigy, he acceded to the throne in 1707, and immediately began consolidating Portuguese power in Brazil, expanding the territory from a small enclave in Spanish lands almost to the gigantic country it is today. Like all the best kings, William was a great patron of the arts, so much so that his enemies began to nickname him o Esbanjador, the profligate. Unusually for his age, he regarded 16th-century culture and fashion as the pinnacle of elegance. In this bizarre portrait, for example, he poses mocked up in the costume of the 16th-century Valois dynasty, which he admired in particular. William also commissioned a definitive edition of Luis de Camoes' famous epic the Lusiads, which since its 1572 editio princeps had been a mess of pirate copies and badly-printed manuscripts. William, according to popular tradition, was personally involved in the recension of this fragmentary masterpiece, considering himself a modern-day Pisistratus of Athens. It is quite probable, indeed, that much of what has traditionally been ascribed to Camoes was in fact the work of William himself.

If William III had a great impact upon Portuguese national poetry, he had an even greater effect on philosophy. In 1729, while a guest at William's court, negotiating commerce-rights for a prospective Bristol employer, the young David Hume had his well-known epiphany about the irrationality of causation, which would eventually lead to the 1739 Treatise of Human Nature, completed in France. It is now generally accepted that Hume's ideas were heavily influenced by his conversations with the king, who had himself been meditating along similar lines at least since his letter to his father-in-law Leopold I in 1727: "When we observe in nature," he wrote, "the constant conjunctions of two events, we are often inclined to interpret cause and effect, where in fact there is only conjunction" (my translation). Hume retained his admiration for William throughout his professional career, dedicating to him a revised 1744 edition of his Essays Moral and Political.

Less auspicious was William's encounter with another genius of the age, Gottfried Leibniz. At the age of 13, the prince had already learnt, in addition to his native Portuguese, fluent English, French, German, and Latin, with some Greek and Hebrew, and he had read the works of Leibniz and Newton with great interest. In 1702, accompanied by his uncle on a diplomatic journey to Italy, William happened to meet the philosopher, then acting as a courtier to Georg Ludwig of Hanover, soon to become George I of England. In his later memoirs, George recounted with some affection the meeting between the boy and his aging courtier; the latter, it seems, was piqued by William's impudent and unpetitioned rebuttal of several arguments from the 1686 Discourse on Metaphysics. Their dispute continued for some time, the prince refusing to back down, his subtle motions of philosophical reason finally degenerating into crude name-calling, even spitting and threats of violence. Leibniz, wrote George, was "quite ruffled," his characteristic dignity "stripped away by the prince's fiery impertinence".

Still, it wasn't until much later that William really became a character. His obsession with the 16th century, and particularly France, grew ever more pronounced in the 1740s. He invited Louis XV to his court in 1743, though he rapidly became disenchanted with the French king, calling him "disgusting. . . uncivilised," a judgement he might have tempered two years later, when Louis began his relationship with the beautiful Madame de Pompadour. William began to insist on spoken French at his court, at one point going so far as to cultivate Renaissance idioms, improvising Ronsard-esque verses at table, and quoting the most vulgar passages of Rabelais at every available opportunity. William even had books printed with type modelled on the fantastical designs in Geoffroy Tory's 1527 Champfleury. He would refer to himself in the third person as 'Guillaume', delighting in such imagined Gaulish delicacies as sugared oysters, elk pastries and roast chaffinch. The court grew dissatisfied with his antics, and in 1749, after attending a performance of Handel, William set sail for Africa. It is not known today how he died, but many stories proliferated of his adventures among natives; some spoke of children conceived with a Mali priestess, others of his induction into some tribe or another, disappearing altogether from Western society.


Richard said...

Thanks for this. I quite liked another Holy Roman Emperor, Charles the fifth, who was in the habit of staging full scale rehearsals of his own funeral.

Mrs. Roth said...

Roast chaffinch...aughhh(insert drooling sound here). I, personally, don't care for sugared oysters, though some find them simply delightful.

Pedro Eduardo said...

''...much of what has traditionally been ascribed to Camoes was in fact the work of William himself.''

I find that highly unlikely. As to the Lusiads, there are reliable editions prior to Guilherme's time, and we have (two, I believe) princeps editions. The ecdotic work has been done there. But, although the philological work on Camões corpus has been extensive, it has also suffered from the low and diffuse intelectual life in Portugal-Brazil; several brilliant people have worked at it, but some of the studies are obscure, no researchers have kept extensive contact etc. The result is that the lyrical corpus is still very far from being securely established, and it's extremely complicated and unreliable textual tradition makes all the worse. So, there could perhaps be something by the king 'mongst the sonnets and other pieces. In the larger framework, there is stuff there by almost everyone. It's maddening.

P.s.: I just realized your suggestion that Guilherme III wrote something of Camões' work could bear more truth than you know. There is an apocryphal (very good, by the way) section of The Lusiads which was only printed in an edition from 1700-something and dismissed by exegetes soon after. Recently it has been reprinted in Brazil, but almost no one in Portugal seems to know about it. I just linked the dots...

Anonymous said...

A superior article, Mr. Roth, in which you literally gave new life to this forgetten king. However, you should had stressed the incommensurable role of William III in the establishment of religious freedom in Portuguese domains, and his patronage of French painters who, centered in Coimbra, shaped the later "Escola de Fonteazul".

You are indeed a pleasure to read. :)

- TT

Conrad H. Roth said...