Shakespeare, War, and Peace

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.


  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