Shakespeare, War, and Peace

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With
so many high-toned writers these days recommending a return to the
warlike "wisdom" of classical thinkers and their Renaissance
interpreters, it is worth our while to look at other points of view.
In an interesting essay entitled "Shakespeare's
Pacifism
," Professor Steven Marx writes that Renaissance
Humanist writers were keenly interested in issues of war and peace.
Sustained debate arose between "martial vs. irenic — that is
militarist vs. pacifist" values.1
On the one side were Caxton, Guiccardini, and Machiavelli; on the
other, Sir Thomas More, Juan Vives, and Desiderius Erasmus.

In
Marx's view, the differences between Shakespeare's Henry
V
(1599) and his Troilus
and Cressida
(1603) reveal a "shift in outlook"
connected with changes in English foreign policy.

Shakespeare's
early plays share in the martial values espoused by such figures
as Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Walter Raleigh. For such men of action,
war "was an end in itself, the fundamental condition of social
life, individual psychology and all creation." Shakespeare
expressed this point of view, with its fascination with antique
wars, through such characters as Fluellen.

That
Shakespeare's characters show conflicting points of view does not
of course tell us exactly what his own commitments were.

Marx
notes that the writings of Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469?–1536)
greatly advanced pro-peace attitudes in his time. Under the influence
of Erasmian notions, Cardinal Wolsey briefly influenced Henry VIII
to proclaim "universal peace" with France, which was celebrated
in the Festival of the Cloth of Gold in Honor of Perpetual Peace
in 1518. Of course within a few years, Henry was up to his old tricks
and making war on France.

The
tension between martial and irenic writing and art ran through the
reign of Elizabeth I. The plays Shakespeare wrote in these years
(Richard
II
, Henry IV, parts one and two, and Henry V)
brought in "a recurrent critique of militarist behavior absent
in the previous tetralogy." In Henry V, the king famously
stresses "his concern for the welfare of non-combatants"
— a theme of which we ourselves hear much today.

These
plays, writes Marx, still provide pragmatic and providential justifications
for war. With the reign of James I, pro-peace views came into their
own. Marx says: "The dominant Stuart mode of expression might
be characterized as a culture of pacifism." This affected popular
culture, and "After 1603, the Jacobean theatre took on a strong
pacifist slant that reflected u2018the influence of the king's assertive
political creed.'"

James's
attempt to maintain the peace through treaties and marriages did
not please everyone, and this is as true of later historians as
of his contemporaries. What is most interesting is that sundry Shakespeare
scholars, whom Marx quotes as highly critical of James I, agree
that he was peaceful (relatively, anyway) and use it as an
accusation against him. I suppose this means that the long
campaign against the Stuarts was, at least in part, waged in behalf
of Whig mercantilist war-mongering and empire-building, as well
as anti-Catholicism. And so much for Whig history, as Murray Rothbard
always said.

In
Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, set in the Trojan War,
war is no "providential tool" but has become "an
instrument of chaos." There are excesses and atrocities on
both sides, and it is clear enough that the initial cause was hardly
just. As the action of the play goes forward, war is seen as leading
to "the breakdown of meaning, the triumph of the random."
This "metaphysical decomposition" is shown by "the
psychological disintegration of all the major characters."
In the end, Troilus "has succeeded only in projecting his
inner disorder outward and inflicting it on the world"
(my italics).

Any
comment on US foreign policy in relation to this last item would
be superfluous.

Under
James I, antiwar plays and satires abounded: "Just as in the
earlier plays like Henry V or Tamburlaine,
pacifist views provided an u2018irritant' to stimulate a militarist
rebuttal, so, in the Jacobean theater, militarist sentiments provided
an occasion to reaffirm the dominant anti-war position." Many
such works portray the downfall of military heroes as grounded,
as Marx puts it, on "failures of insight, compassion, and self-control
attributable to an identity forged in battle."

Shakespeare's
Coriolanus
raises the critique a level or two. Here the protagonist is deeply
flawed by a violent psychology that threatens to bring down
the whole society of which he is a part. And here we find ourselves
faced with a very old mythic theme indeed.2

An
interesting essay by Janet M. Spencer on Shakespeare's Henry
V complements Marx's commentary.3 Among other
things, Spencer is interested in what light this play sheds on such
issues as "the origin of power" and the justice or injustice
of wars of conquest. She finds evidence that the ancient story of
Alexander the Great and the pirate helps tie Shakespeare's narrative
together.

To
be brief, the story — repeated by Cicero, St. Augustine, Erasmus,
and others — has the pirate asking to know just how it is that he,
who robs others using a little ship, is held a criminal, whereas
Alexander, who has robbed whole nations with his armies, is not?
Henry's early association with thieves speaks to this point, and
his power as king to "exceed" the law may do so as well.

Spencer
notes that "Henry's ceremonial entrance immediately follows
the exit of Pistol, confessing this intention: u2018To England will
I steal, and there I'll steal' — a sequence that underscores the
king's association with thieves and cutpurses, the underworld that
lives in excess of the law." The association of criminals and
war has the effect of criminalizing war.

Another
low character, the Welsh officer Fluellen, directly compares the
king with "Alexander the pig." This, too, invokes the
comparison of Alexander and the pirate, while allowing Shakespeare
to have some fun with Fluellen's Welsh accent. (The character means
to say "big.")

Joseph
Sobran has made suggestions along these same lines in his speech,
"Shakespeare
on War and Empire
," given at the Costs of War Conference
in Atlanta, May 1994; scroll down to The Costs of War). He remarks
that Shakespeare's many "unforced ironies" give his audience
both sides of war in Richard II and the Henry plays. Troilus
and Cressida, on the other hand, completely de-romanticizes
the Trojan War, and with it, all war.

Whether
or not these are the most plausible readings of the plays in question,
I find it entertaining, at least, that many of the speeches in them
are tailor-made for contemporary Neo-Conservatives. Thus Henry V:
"God Almightie, there is some soule of goodness in things evill,
would men observingly distill it out." Or the Bishop of Canterbury:
"It must be so; for Miracles are ceast; and therefore we must
needes admit the meanes, how things are perfected."

There
indeed is the authentic voice of the Neo-Pagan foreign policy lately
urged on us by worthy gentlemen. Shakespeare did not necessarily
admire those sentiments. There is no reason for us to do so.

It
is necessary to take a firm position on the Shakespeare question?
Probably not. There's a lot in the plays – great breadth and "catholicity,"
as Joe Sobran says — and, anyway, there are some bloody great yarns
in there.

Notes:

  1. Steven
    Marx, "Shakespeare's Pacifism," Renaissance Quarterly,
    45, 1 (Spring 1992), pp. 49–95.
  2. See Georges
    Dumezil, The
    Destiny of the Warrior
    (Chicago: University of Chicago
    Press, 1970 ).
  3. Janet M.
    Spencer, "Princes, Pirates, and Pigs: Criminalizing Wars
    of Conquest in Henry V," Shakespeare Quarterly,
    47, 2 (Summer 1996), pp. 160–177.

November
22, 2002


Joseph R. Stromberg [send him
mail
] is holder of the JoAnn B. Rothbard Chair in History at
the Ludwig von Mises Institute
and a columnist for LewRockwell.com
and Antiwar.com.

Joseph
Stromberg Archives

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