Shakespeare’s war

No theme of Shakespeare’s resounds more powerfully with modern audiences than his treatment of war. At first glance, he may seem to glorify the experience, for in several works, monumental battles provide a dramatic conclusion. Shakespeare, however, never romanticizes the reality of warfare. Indeed, he emphasizes the barbarism of this ever-present aspect of existence. To be sure, he presents individuals who perform bravely in combat, but these exploits never supersede the images of brutality and death that are intrinsic to this most horrible of human enterprises. One way in which the playwright communicates the madness of war is through the structure of the plot.

For Shakespeare, warfare represented the breakdown of the social order, and he portrays this chaos in brief, uneven scenes that reflect such madness. In the final acts of Julius Caesar, for instance, the forces of Brutus and Cassius, assassins of Caesar, are opposed by the armies of Antony and Octavius, two of the three generals who will shortly compete for leadership of Rome. During the battle, characters run off and onstage, seemingly out of control, as rumors of the deaths of various soldiers swirl about. First Cassius is discovered dead, then his ally Titinius (V, iii, 90”“93), and gradually bodies drop with bewildering rapidity. The same technique is used to sharper effect in Antony and Cleopatra, in which scenes are more jarring in their brevity. Before and during the battle of Actium, the action moves rapidly among Octavius Caesar’s camp, Cleopatra’s palace, and Antony’s camp. This plot construction also mirrors Antony’s own dilemma: he is caught between duty to Rome and love for Cleopatra. Meanwhile reports of triumph and defeat follow on top of one another (IV, iii”“xiv), and like the characters themselves, we are never sure who is winning, nor where, nor why. Only when Antony bursts out in despair do we understand what we have witnessed: All is lost!

This foul Egyptian hath betrayed me. My fleet hath yielded to the foe, and yonder They cast their caps up and carouse together Like friends long lost.

(IV, xii, 9”“13) Antony’s misinterpretation of Cleopatra’s behavior, his conclusion that she has collaborated with his enemies, embodies the disorder of war. Shakespeare presents such discord even more thrillingly in his history plays.

In Henry VI, Part 1, the dominant figure is the Englishman Talbot, a paragon of a military hero. Even his enemies, the French, are in awe of him, as a messenger reports: The French exclaim’d, the devil was in arms;

All the whole army stood agaz’d on him. His soldiers, spying his undaunted spirit, “A Talbot! a Talbot!” cried out amain, And rush’d into the bowels of the battle.

(I, i, 125”“129) Courageous, yet noble, Talbot carries himself in a civilized manner through an uncivilized series of episodes. For instance, he speaks movingly about the slaying of a dear comrade, Bedford: A braver soldier never couched lance, A gentler heart did never sway in court; But kings and mightiest potentates must die, For that’s the end of human misery.

(III, ii, 134”“137) Talbot’s nobility is especially powerful before and during the battle of Bordeaux. After the French have rejected his offer to lay down their arms, Talbot anticipates the carnage to come: Sell every man his life as dear as mine, And they shall find dear deer of us, my friends. God and Saint George, Talbot and England’s right, Prosper our colors in this dangerous fight! (IV, ii, 53”“56) Moments later, Talbot orders his son to leave the battlefield, but the boy defies him, and stays to fight beside his father. After their reconciliation, Talbot’s parting words become an elegy over every son who risks his life in battle: In thee thy mother dies, our household’s name, My death’s revenge, thy youth, and England’s fame: All these, and more, we hazard by thy stay; All these are sav’d if thou wilt fly away.

(IV, vi, 38”“41) Equally moving are his words when he learns that his courageous son has died: And in that sea of blood my boy did drench His overmounting spirit; and there died My Icarus, my blossom, in his pride. (IV, vii, 13”“15) No matter how heroic the pageant of war may seem to the historical observer, the truth is the awful cost of human life. In Henry VI, Part 3, which dramatizes the War of the Roses between the York and Lancaster families for possession of the English crown, the nightmarish quality of battle takes center stage, when a young man drags in the body of a soldier he has killed, only to realize that the corpse is that of his own father (II, v, 55”“70). At this sight, the weak Henry VI helplessly reflects on the irony: O piteous spectacle! O bloody times! Whiles lions war and battle for their dens Poor harmless lambs abide their enmity. (II, v, 73”“75) The imagery of lions fighting for their dens suggests that the King sees all the destruction before him as pointless savagery, in which innocent lambs, who have no stake in the outcome, nonetheless sacrifice their lives. Seconds later, a nameless father pulls in one of his victims, whom he discovers to be his own son: O, pity, God, this miserable age! What strategems! how fell! how butcherly! Erroneous, mutinous, and unnatural, This deadly quarrel daily doth beget! (II, v, 88”“91) The word “quarrel” accentuates the private origins of this war that has extended throughout the country, leading to the slaughter of countless fathers and sons. Shakespeare presents other aspects of war in Henry IV, Part 1, particularly through the contrasting figures of the rebel Henry Percy (Hot spur) and Sir John Falstaff, Prince Hal’s tavern crony.

Years earlier, Hotspur supported Henry IV in his usurpation of the throne from Richard II, but the new King has not proved as amenable to the Percy family as they expected. Hotspur resents such cavalier treatment and forsees deposing the newly enfranchised monarch in favor of Mortimer, once Richard’s heir apparent, but now prisoner of the rogue Welshman Glendower: But I will lift the down-trod Mortimer As high in the air as this unthankful king, As this ingrate and cank’red Bullingbrook. (I, iii, 135”“137) Hotspur’s motivation, however, extends beyond this cause: By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap, To pluck bright honor from the pale-fac’d moon, Or dive into the bottom of the deep, Where fadom-line could never touch the ground, And pluck up drowned honor by the locks, So he that doth redeem her thence might wear Without corrival all her dignities”¦ (I, iii, 201”“207) Hotspur’s private agenda includes a desire for individual glory, and his exploits are as much for self-gratification as for any political wrongs he seeks to redress. Indeed, he remains oblivious to the inevitable slaughter that his desire for retribution will bring: O, let the hours be short, Till fields, and blows, and groans applaud our sport! (I, iii, 301”“302) With all his dynamism, Hotspur is an attractive figure. But the more he speaks, the more we realize his foolishness. As Prince Hal himself says to the drawer Francis in the tavern: I am not yet of Percy’s mind, the Hotspur of the north, he that kills me some six or seven dozen of Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands, and says to his wife, “Fie, upon this quiet life! I want work.” (II, iv, 101”“105) Hotspur’s pursuit of glory assumes a more manic quality after his father, Northumberland, communicates that he is ill and unable to fight. Hotspur’s uncle, Worcester, hesitates (IV, i, 60”“75), but Hotspur chooses to carry on relentlessly: Come let us take a muster speedily Doomsday is near, die all, die merrily. (IV, i, 133”“134) At last, before the great battle of Shrewsbury, toward which the play has been building, Hotspur’s enthusiasm over meeting Prince Hal in battle verges on madness: O gentlemen, the time of life is short! To spend that shortness basely were too long If life did ride upon a dial’s point, Still ending at the arrival of an hour. And if we live, we live to tread on kings, If die, brave death, when princes die with us! (V, ii, 81”“86) In a way, Hotspur is like war itself: from a distance, all medals, ribbons, and romance; up close, shocking brutality. When he dies in single combat with the Prince, Hotspur falls like the relic of a bygone age, a remnant of a chivalric spirit sadly out of place in the modern world. His attitudes are also set off by values and words of the Prince’s ribald companion, Falstaff, whose very presence mocks the military machine. We are first conscious of his influence when he brings forth his group of ragtag recruits before Hal (IV, ii), then describes how he tried to “press” better men into service: ”¦and they have bought out their services; and now my whole charge consists of ancients, corporals, lieutenants, gentlemen of com panies””slaves as ragged as Lazarus in the painted cloth, where the glutton’s dogs lick’d his sores, and such as indeed were never soldiers, but discarded unjust servingmen, younger sons to younger brothers, revolted tapsters, and ostlers trade-fall’n, the cankers of a calm world and a long peace”¦ (IV, ii, 22”“30) Hal scorns this bunch: “I did never see such pitiful rascals” (IV, ii, 64). But Falstaff answers blithely: Tut, tut, good enough to toss, food for powder, food for powder, they’ll fill a pit as well as better. Tush, man, mortal men, mortal men. (IV, ii, 65”“67) He implies clearly that the quality of a soldier means little, for war requires only bodies to throw at the opposing army. Here is a side of combat often unacknowledged, but in this play we see that wealthy and noble men declare war, while poor and helpless men die in war””in this case, to satisfy the frustrated egos of Hotspur, Worcester, and the rest. When the battle begins, Falstaff’s meanderings across the battlefield shatter whatever dignity the proceedings might contain. First he comes across the dead body of the King’s loyal aid, Sir Walter Blunt, whom he dismisses with a single remark: “There’s honor for you” (V, iii, 31”“32). Earlier Falstaff had offered his “catechism” on honor, dismissing it as “a mere scutcheon” (V, i, 140”“141). That speech and this echo of it may both be said to answer Hotspur, for whom honor in the form of military glory becomes a cause unto itself (a subject explored further in the chapter on “Honor”). When Hal rushes onstage, he demands that Falstaff give him a weapon, but all Falstaff can bring forth is a bottle of sack, or wine. Hal has no patience with such shenanigans: “What, is it a time to jest and dally now?” (V, iii, 55). At this moment, our reaction is probably mixed.

On the one hand, Falstaff’s carrying such supplies in combat is amusing. At the same time, the Prince’s life is in danger, and however misguided the cause for which his opponents fight, we expect that Falstaff would care enough to support the boy he so loves. Finally, Falstaff parodies all military exploits when he stabs the corpse of Hotspur, then picks up the body and carries it off with the expectation of recompense (V, iv, 120”“128). Even more outlandish is his demand for reward, then his dramatizing the hard fight with Hotspur that he supposedly conducted (V, iii, 140”“153). Afterwards, we have difficulty taking seriously any report of battlefield bravery. Henry V climaxes with perhaps the most famous military triumph in English history: the battle of Agincourt. Yet even though that victory is presented as the product of extraordinary English skill and courage, and even though Henry V is dramatized as a military leader of incomparable inspiration, we are never allowed to forget that the universal result of warfare is the death of hundreds or thousands of soldiers. When King Henry stands with his forces at the Gate to Harflew, he rouses his troops, beginning with: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more” (III, i, 1). The invitation sounds almost patrician. Quickly, though, his tone changes: But when the blast of war blows in our ears, Then imitate the action of the tiger; Stiffen the sinews, [conjure] up the blood, Disguise fair nature with hard-favor’drage”¦ (III, i, 5”“8) He urges his troops to sink to the level of beasts. True, he ends with an uplifting sentiment: The game’s afoot! Follow your spirit; and upon this charge Cry, “God for Harry, England, and Saint George!” (III, i, 32”“34) But such exalted words are undercut by the opening line of the next scene, as Bardolph, one of Falstaff’s disreputable cronies, shouts: “On, on, on, on, on! To the breach, to the breach!” (III, ii, 1). King Henry may try to infuse his campaign with dignity, but Bardolph and the more repugnant mercenary Pistol clarify that their participation in the conflict serves only their own greed. For instance, Bardolph loots a conquered church and steals a holy relic, a crime for which the King must have him executed (III, vi, 107”“113). Thus Henry temporarily reasserts order, but the underlying selfishness that motivates elements of his forces remains with us. Even the supreme English victory is tainted by the intrinsic horror of warfare. At the conclusion of the action at Agincourt, Henry reflects on French losses: This note doth tell me of ten thousand French That in the field lie slain; of princes, in this number, And nobles bearing banners, there lie dead One hundred twenty-six; added to these, Of knights, esquires, and gallant gentlemen, Eight thousand and four hundred”¦ (IV, viii, 80”“85) This passage continues with the names of many French nobles who died in the conflict, and therefore has at least two effects. One, it elevates Henry V by showing him to be not a crass boaster who finds joy in the suffering of his enemy, but a compassionate leader who mourns the terrible loss of life. On the other hand, earlier we saw Henry reluctantly issue a cruel directive: The French have reinforc’d their scatter’d men. Then every soldier kill his prisoners, Give the word through. (IV, vi, 36”“38) This decree invites the slaughter of countless of helpless, unarmed soldiers. Thus Henry’s later sorrow over French losses reminds the audience that Shakespeare wanted Henry’s image as an ideal general and King to remain untarnished.

The list of French dead, however, contributes in another way. It reminds us that no matter how gloriously the English triumph, the price of victory includes the death of thousands of men who did no more than fight for their country. That Shakespeare portrays the French as arrogant or buffoonish does not detract from the reality that so many of them die serving their nation’s cause. This theme of loss is underscored most movingly by the French Duke of Burgundy, who appears before Henry V to appeal for peace. Speaking of France, he relates the tragic condition of the land: Her vine, the merry cheerer of the heart, Unpruned dies; her hedges even-pleach’d, Like prisoners wildly overgrown with hair, Put forth disorder’d twigs”¦ And all our vineyards, fallows, meads, and hedges, Defective in their natures, grow to wildness. Even so our houses, and ourselves, and children, Have lost, or do not learn for want of time, The sciences that should become our country, But grow like savages””as soldiers will That nothing do but meditate on blood”” To swearing and stern looks, defus’d attire, And every thing that seems unnatural. (V, ii, 41”“62) Here is the inevitable result of war: the “unnatural” destruction of a land and a people. Whatever individual heroism has occurred, Shakespeare suggests, the concomitant horror must never be forgotten. Perhaps the starkest vision of war in all of Shakespeare’s works may be found in Troilus and Cressida. Here is the playwright’s version of the most famous military episode in history: the Trojan War. We are familiar with Homer’s retelling of this event in The Iliad, but Shakespeare’s portrait of the celebrated figures from legend and history is shockingly different. Here are no larger-than-life heroes fighting boldly in a struggle complicated by the interference of the gods. Here instead are petty, vicious plotters caught up in an endless conflict that never made much sense, and now, after seven years of slaughter, makes even less. As Shakespeare writes in the Prologue: Sixty and nine, that wore Their crownets regal, from th’ Athenian bay Put forth toward Phrygia, and their vow is made To ransack Troy, within whose strong immures The ravish’d Helen, Menelaus’ queen, With wanton Paris sleeps””and that’s the quarrel. (Prologue, 5”“10) As it did in Henry VI, Part 3, the word “quarrel” diminishes the significance of the story. Throughout the play, Thersites, a cynical member of the Greek army, comments on this folly, mocking even his own participation: Agamemnon is a fool to offer to command Achilles, Achilles is a fool to be commanded [of Agamemnon], Thersites is a fool to serve such a fool, and this Patroclus is a fool positive. (II, iii, 62”“65) Moments later, he adds: All the argument is a whore and a cuckold, a good quarrel to draw emulous factions and bleed to death upon. (II, iii, 72”“74)

He captures the essence of this undertaking with a clear-sightedness that escapes all the other characters.

Furthermore, such descriptions reduce this mammoth struggle to a pointless cartoon and leave us almost unable to take what follows seriously. Yet we must do so, particularly when Hector, the noblest of the Trojans, is challenged to fight Achilles one-on-one. Despite warnings by his family, Hector cannot resist joining the horrific conflict, which Shakespeare dramatizes in familiar style by offering several short scenes. When Achilles and Hector at last engage each other, the Trojan’s death seems inevitable, as does Achilles’ brutalization of the body: Come tie his body to my horse’s tail, Along the field I will the Trojan trail. (V, viii, 21”“22) Here is no glorious triumph, but the humiliation of a worthy foe, whose manner of death reflects the degeneracy of his world. Perhaps the most memorable line of the play is offered by Thersites: Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery, nothing else holds fashion. A burning devil take them! (V, ii, 194”“196) He not only captures the spirit of Troilus and Cressida, but also may be said to reflect the nature of warfare in Shakespeare’s plays. Despite occasional moments of heroism, we often find that lechery, or what we might also term “greed,” whether for power or territory, underlies much of the military conflict. Thus for Shakespeare, war represents the breakdown of order, the ultimate descent of humanity from civilization to brutishness.

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