what does Shakespeare tell us about war?

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This article by Robert White, Winthrop Professor of English at the University of Western Australia, originally appeared in The conversation April 22.

Only two days separate Anzac Day and Shakespeare’s (presumed) birthday and the day of the actual death. This proximity is fortuitous. But in the midst of a war in Ukraine, recounted in horribly graphic detail from the point of view of the victims, and given that Shakespeare is the most quoted, most performed and most studied writer in the world, it is reasonable to ask yourself: what does he tell us about the war?

In 26 of his 38 plays, Shakespeare includes a war in the foreground or background. In all of these, anti-war invective abounds in epigrammatic phrases: “O, war, son of hell” (Henry VI, part 2); “the hideous god of war”; “war and lust confuse everything” (Troilus and Cressida); “stubborn war hairs[s] his angry crest / And rumbles in the sweet eyes of peace” (King John).

Soldiers are seen by civilians as cruelly taking “our well-aged men by the beard” and engaging in unbridled sexual violence while “delivering our holy virgins to defilement / Of despicable, bestial, senseless warfare” (Timon d’ Athens).

For students and politicians accustomed to reciting Henry V’s moving speeches “Once more into the breach…” and “Saint Crispin” before and after the Battle of Agincourt, it is often assumed that Shakespeare must support the war and heroic values, embodied in an “ideal King”.

However, the respective dramatic contexts undermine the king’s rhetoric. There are also strong arguments in the play that his invasion of France is illegal and unjustifiable, and he is guilty of war crimes, such as conscripting children, murdering prisoners of war, and threatening genocide. ‘a town. The soldiers are “blood-hunting cutthroats”. In the “impious” war, we see bloodied corpses “spreading the plain”.

Meanwhile, in other plays, sympathetic and morally scrupulous characters denounce the tragic futility and violence of war. Hamlet meditates on a piece of “wasteland” of worthless and depopulated scorched earth, on which “the imminent death of twenty thousand men”… [will] to go into their graves like beds”, to fight “even for an eggshell” “which is not enough tomb and continent / To hide the slain”.

Saint and pacifist King Henry VI quotes the words of Christ while ruminating on the high moral ground of a hill overlooking the battle in the “civil butchery”, the intra-family and Mafia vendettas pitting families against each other and dragging the mutual slaughter of fathers and sons.

In revenge plays such as Titus Andronicus and Hamlet, the cessation of one conflict is only the prelude to the next in a succession ending only with the death of all antagonists, like today’s nightmarish specter. today of a sequence of retaliatory nuclear strikes.

A frank anti-war work

Troilus and Cressida are widely recognized as among the most vocal anti-war works of all time. It recounts a sordid war waged against the forced abduction of a woman, considered a symbolic trophy.

The prophetess Cassandra, addressing future generations as much as her own, condemns the Trojan War, inviting “virgins and boys, aged and wrinkled, / sweet childhood, whom nothing can but mourn”, to cry in protest against the “mass of groaning to come”.

The fate of the “heroic” Hector in the play is shamefully humiliating:

He is dead; and at the tail of the murderer’s horse, / As a bestial species, dragged across the shameful field… Hector is dead, There’s nothing more to say.

So much for heroism.

Another brutally dismissive epitaph – “Let’s make the best of it” – is uttered over the corpse of Coriolanus, the most stubborn professional soldier in Shakespeare’s canon. “People’s main enemy”, he is a sociopath and plagued by violent outbursts of anger.

More machine than man, its role resembles that of the modern arms industry, owing allegiance to no national state and selling arms indiscriminately to both sides.

After having turned against Rome then against his new comrades in arms, Coriolanus was finally massacred unceremoniously by the Volscians who shouted “kill, kill, kill…”

He is remembered as the one who, “in this town [Rome] … /Hath a widow and childless many one, /Who in this hour mourn injury”.

Morally fallible military officers

In these plays and others, Shakespeare places the blame for unjust and destructive wars on the heads of morally fallible military officers. For some reason, the playwright had a fascination with psychologically damaged high-ranking soldiers, portraying them as case studies of “the military spirit”.

Macbeth is presented as a soldier credited with “lifting off… nave to lads” and beheading enemies. He quickly descends into equally bloody regicide and embarks on a tyrannical reign, using hitmen to assassinate political rivals (Banquo) and slaughter innocent families of opponents (Lady Macduff and her children).

Othello’s default position as a general, even in marriage, is to trust his military ensign rather than his innocent wife, thus turning his marriage into a misplaced battleground of domestic violence and murder. .

Henry V is predisposed to behaviors of threatening, lying, and blaming others for his own insecurities and faults. He is also a hopeless lover, curiously swearing to love Katherine “cruelly” and with a stated preference in love to “go to bed like a butcher”.

His hope that she will prove herself to be “a good soldier raiser” comes as words spoken in the language of the “ordinary soldier”. (Katherine’s silence suggests that she is not expressing agreement!).

As a group, these military officers are a sad lot and (all but Henry) come to sad ends, but the root cause of their downfalls is the value system inherent in their training in a violent profession dedicated to war.

Respect for soldiers of low birth

However, Shakespeare respects and values ​​low-born, often conscripted soldiers who themselves have deep doubts about war. Their main emotions are fear and concern for their family and their future livelihood.

Immediately after Henry’s “the breach” speech, we have this exchange between low-ranking soldiers, first parodying the king’s rhetoric, then fearful, then nostalgic:

BARDOLPH
Light up, light up, light up, light up! to the breach, to the breach!
NYM
Please, corporal, stay: the blows are too hot; and, for my part, I do not have a case of lives…
BOY
If I was in a tavern in London. I would give all my fame for a pot of beer and safety.

Later, Henry (in disguise, a sort of identity lie), is challenged by his own soldier, the dignified John Williams, who speaks from the heart for many soldiers through the ages. He questions leaders using men to fight their own personally motivated battles:

But if the cause is not right, the king himself has a heavy reckoning to do when all those legs and arms and heads severed in battle will come together at the last day and all cry “We died in such a place “, some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some about their wives left poor behind, some about the debts they owe, some about their children brutally left behind..

I fear there are few who die well in battle, for how can they dispose of anything with charity when blood is their argument?

It is a silent rebuke to the king who led the invasion.

Mutilated Veterans

The Elizabethan drama and company are littered with “Captain Stump” characters, army veterans who return physically maimed and traumatized. Williams recalls those audiences in the “pit” of Shakespeare’s Globe playhouse, potential conscripts in Elizabeth’s army, scornfully dismissed by the recruiting officer as fodder for cattle:

Tut tut; good enough to throw; powder feed, powder feed; they will fill a pit as well as better…

Shakespeare also extends to civilians his innate gift of empathy with victims, viewing war from their point of view. Showing that the nature of warfare has barely changed over the centuries except for the size and scale of lethal weapons, Shakespeare’s descriptions of siege warfare are designed to shock and intimidate civilians to surrender, a strategy equally prohibited by medieval and modern chivalric laws. like the modern Geneva Conventions protecting civilians.

They are prescient scenes from Kabul, Baghdad, Tripoli, Mariupol and too many other modern cities. There are several Shakespearean examples (see Edward III in particular), but once again Henry V is the main culprit.

Calls to surrender

In a lengthy ultimatum to the citizens of Harfleur in the Norman town, Henry offers them “mercy” if they surrender. He then details the consequences if they don’t, speaking not as a king but “as I am a soldier, / A name which in my thoughts suits me best”:

If I restart the battery,
I will not leave the half-achieved of Harfleur
Until she is buried in her ashes.

The doors of mercy will all be closed,
And the fleshy soldier, rough and hard of heart,
Free from the bloody hand will stretch
With a conscience wide as hell, mow like grass
Your fresh virgins and your flowery babies.

Washing his hands of responsibility, he repeatedly asks, “What’s in it for me?” if his soldiers rape women and kill children, and the city is “bound in waste and desolation.” As if morbidly obsessed with allowing sexual violence, he repeats:

What don’t I have, when you’re yourselves cause,
If your pure virgins fall in hand
Of hot and forced violation?

Henry promises that the challenge will lead to “The dirty and contagious clouds / Of heady murder, waste and wickedness”. Again, the same threats arrive, always blaming the violence on the citizens themselves:

So then, men of Harfleur,
Defile the hair of your daughters with shrill cries,
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most respectable heads rushed against the walls,
Your naked children spat on pikes,
While mad mothers with their screams are confused
Break the clouds…

And all these consequences, Henry, indifferent to imaginary horrors or legal and moral constraints, outrageously warns, will be the fault of the helpless of Harfleur! : ” What do you think ? will you yield, and this will you avoid? / Or, guilty in defence, be thus destroyed? »

Surely there can be no more effective condemnation of the atrocities of war, from the mouth of one who is willing to authorize them. The speech is not just a no-frills indictment of a composite warlord and soldier, but of war itself.

Since Shakespeare’s plays are still performed internationally with ever-evolving contemporary applications, their treatment of war on stage can make the phrase “lest we forget” more than an empty slogan, implicitly raising the question “when will we ever learn?”

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