Study Guide

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare Essay - War in Shakespeare's Plays

War in Shakespeare's Plays

Introduction

War in Shakespeare's Plays

The theme of war is a prevalent topic in Shakespeare's plays. Commentators on the subject address a wide range of issues, including Shakespeare's concern with questions of legal, ethical, and religious justifications of war, his representation of ties between church and state in promoting and waging war, and his depiction of the costs of war both in terms of monetary expense as well as the effects on common soldiers and civilian populations. Several critics call attention to Shakespeare's depiction of war against a foreign enemy as a political strategy used to downplay internal problems and unite a nation around a leader whose legitimacy is in question. This is illustrated by Henry IV's advice to Hal “to busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels” (2 Henry IV). Theodor Meron (1998), taking up the issue of “just war,” contends that Shakespeare's plays show that a nation's rationale for war is often spurious, having more to do with “exaggerated notions of honour” or saving face than with a sound and legitimate motive. Critical evaluation of Shakespeare's portrayal of war principally focuses on the history plays, which chronicle both the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453), when there were periodic military conflicts between England and France, and the Wars of the Roses, the term used to describe the civil strife between the houses of York and Lancaster between 1455 and 1485. Commentators point out that during the course of these conflicts, the cult of militarism changed dramatically and traditional notions of chivalric warfare declined, partly as a result of early modern developments in armaments. Scholars also note that Shakespeare's plays reflect contemporary public debate over whether to employ foreign wars to expand territory, an issue that was hotly contested during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras.

Critics consider Henry V to be Shakespeare's most important play on the topic of war. In her discussion of the legal requirements for a just war, Janet M. Spencer (1996) evaluates the play's perspective on the legitimacy of Henry's invasion of France as well as the legitimacy of his reign. Spencer remarks that although Henry violates moral and legal laws, he is the beneficiary of religious authority that, in effect, absolves him of guilt. Jean-Christophe Mayer (see Further Reading) also addresses the question of the legitimacy of Henry's rule and his war against France. Pointing to the king's use of pretexts and deceptions, Mayer asserts that Shakespeare depicted this war as a political act, not a “holy” undertaking. By contrast, John Mark Mattox (2000) argues that Henry's war is clearly represented as a just one. Mattox reaches this conclusion by examining the war in the context of Western legal traditions that define jus ad bellum (“the justice of war”)—that is, the criteria that must be met before one nation takes military action against another—and jus in bello (“justice in war”)—the standards of conduct that soldiers and their leaders should uphold. Theodor Meron (1993) focuses more narrowly on the legality of Henry's order to kill French prisoners. Meron maintains that this was not a violation of established laws of war and that Shakespeare represented this episode “in the best possible light.” The issue of the connection in Henry V between war and nationalism arises in both commentary on the play and in critiques of film adaptations by Laurence Olivier in 1944 and Kenneth Branagh in 1989. Noting the overtly “patriotic purpose” of the first film, Elizabeth Marsland (1995) argues that Olivier's idealization of Henry's French campaign is based on a national tradition that romanticized war. Though she discerns significantly different cinematic devices in the two adaptations, Marsland contends that Branagh was as committed as Olivier to simplistically depicting Henry as merely a heroic figure. Robert Lane (see Further Reading) similarly regards Branagh's treatment of Henry, asserting that Branagh represented the king and his war from a far more approving perspective than Shakespeare did. In her essay, Ellen C. Caldwell (2000) discusses how, over the centuries, English and French artists and writers have portrayed episodes in the Hundred Years' War, noting that on both sides the depictions have been invariably concerned with the idea of promoting a national ethos. Caldwell describes Shakespeare's Henry V as a much more complex delineation of the war and its effects than is typically found in earlier representations and characterizes Olivier's Henry V film as “a vehicle for nationalistic propaganda.”

Evaluating the portrayal of war throughout the Henry VI trilogy, Gregory M. Colón Semenza (2001) suggests that the decay of chivalric ideals, radical changes in the nature of warfare, and the clash of personal rivalries chronicled in the Henry VI trilogy are enhanced by Shakespeare's use throughout these plays of sport as a metaphor for war. The critic points out that allusions to warfare as a kind of competitive sport increase as Henry's nobles discard traditional concern with political principles and the common good in favor of pursuing their own ambitions. R. Chris Hassel, Jr. (1984) focuses on Richard III, the play that chronologically follows the Henry VI trilogy. Noting the need of military leaders to convince their troops that God is on their side, he assesses the relative effectiveness of Richard's and Richmond's addresses to their soldiers before the battle at Bosworth Field. Laurence Lerner (2001) comments on several invocations of God made in King John to defend the legitimacy of rule and war. He also discusses the play's depiction of the wisdom of using either military force or diplomacy to settle the conflict between France and England, pointing out that peace is finally achieved neither by armed combat nor by treaty: instead of culminating in a pivotal battle, the war “simply fizzles out.” Remarking on a similar absence of a crucial battle scene in both Othello and Hamlet, Susan Snyder (1996) notes that Shakespeare did not dramatize the Turkish attack against Cyprus in Othello and represented Fortinbras's invasion of Denmark in Hamlet as a relatively bloodless one. Both tragedies, she contends, depict the enemy within as a greater threat than the foreign antagonist. Michèle Willems (1995) examines Hotspur (in Henry IV, Part 1) and Coriolanus as men who regard military prowess as the principal means of achieving self-fulfillment and honor. Willems calls attention to the way these plays depict the differences between professional warriors and common soldiers, as well as their similar portrayals of the challenges of managing peace when there is no identifiable, external enemy. The critic also argues that both Hotspur and Coriolanus, steeped in the cult of military honor, are victims of the political strategies of other, more pragmatic people. Robin Headlam Wells (see Further Reading) asserts that the principal concern of Coriolanus is the issue of military versus humanist values. In his judgment, the play focuses on the question of whether victory in battle is the most significant factor in defining masculine honor.

In Shakespeare's comedies, as Jonas Barish (1991) observes, war is generally a peripheral issue, a way for young men to acquire fame and honor, gain self-definition, and demonstrate leadership abilities. Indeed, R. B. Parker (1984) remarks that in All's Well That Ends Well, the reasons for the Italian conflict “are not only vague but more than a little dubious” and suggests that the principal function of the conflict is to provide an outlet for Bertram and the other French courtiers to express their aggression, achieve some measure of fame, and—in the case of Bertram—escape responsibilities. Parker also addresses the tension between ideals of love and war in All's Well That Ends Well. Jo Eldridge Carney (1991) comments on the treatment of this theme in The Two Noble Kinsmen, wherein, she concludes, it is never resolved, leaving audiences and readers struggling to accommodate the play's presentation of the rivalry between sexual desire and military obligations. One Shakespearean comedy whose portrayal of war has drawn a great deal of commentary is Troilus and Cressida. Lorraine Helms (1989) focuses on this play's presentation of the violence of war and calls attention to the correspondence between Cressida and the literary tradition that feminized the Trojans, making them active participants in their own victimization. With Cressida's surrender to and collusion with masculine aggression, Helms contends, she becomes a surrogate not only for other Trojan women but for the city as well. Steven Marx (see Further Reading) maintains that Troilus and Cressida marks a pivotal change in Shakespeare's view of war, for here the dramatist attacks the same arguments for pursuing war he endorsed in earlier plays. Marx proposes that in Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare does more than deprecate classical war heroes; he invalidates every value and symbol of Renaissance militarism.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

R. B. Parker (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Parker, R. B. “War and Sex in All's Well That Ends Well.Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984): 99-113.

[In the following essay, Parker addresses the tension between ideals of love and war in All's Well That Ends Well. The critic suggests that the principal function of the war in the play is to provide an outlet for Bertram and the other French courtiers to express their aggression, achieve some measure of fame, and—in the case of Bertram—escape responsibilities.]

I

I wish to pursue G. Wilson Knight's suggestion that All's Well That Ends Well is built on a conflict between the masculine concept of honour as prowess...

(The entire section is 10092 words.)

R. Chris Hassel, Jr. (essay date spring 1984)

SOURCE: Hassel, R. Chris, Jr. “Military Oratory in Richard III.Shakespeare Quarterly 35, no. 1 (spring 1984): 53-61.

[In the following essay, Hassel compares the rhetorical power and effectiveness of Richard's and Richmond's addresses to their forces before the crucial battle at Bosworth Field in Richard III. Citing sixteenth-century military manuals, the critic evaluates the two leaders' abilities to establish the justice of their cause and inspire their troops.]

Though Richmond's victory over Richard Hunchback at Bosworth Field was memorialized in chronicle and verse throughout the sixteenth century, the question of the aesthetic victory in...

(The entire section is 4501 words.)

Lorraine Helms (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Helms, Lorraine. “‘Still Wars and Lechery’: Shakespeare and the Last Trojan Woman.” In Arms and the Woman: War, Gender, and Literary Representation, edited by Helen M. Cooper, Adrienne Auslander Munich, and Susan Merrill Squier, pp. 25-42. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Helms analyzes Shakespeare's treatment of male and female notions of war and honor in Troilus and Cressida.]

Concidit virgo ac puer.
Bellum peractum est.

—Seneca, Troades

Throughout Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, Thersites' bitter cry echoes and reechoes: “Lechery, lechery, still wars...

(The entire section is 6296 words.)

Jonas Barish (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Barish, Jonas. “War, Civil War, and Bruderkrieg in Shakespeare.” In Literature and Nationalism, edited by Vincent Newey and Ann Thompson, pp. 11-21. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Barish discusses the portrayal of war in Shakespeare's histories, comedies, tragedies, and romances, concluding that the dramatist consistently viewed the pursuit of both foreign and domestic wars as a lamentable but natural human activity that almost inevitably ends with a Pyrrhic victory.]

I want to ask who the participants are in some of the wars dramatized by Shakespeare, and what the circumstances are in which war is undertaken,...

(The entire section is 4063 words.)

Jo Eldridge Carney (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Carney, Jo Eldridge. “The Ambiguities of Love and War in The Two Noble Kinsmen.” In Sexuality and Politics in Renaissance Drama, edited by Carole Levin and Karen Robertson, pp. 95-111. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Carney comments on the tensions between love and war and between heterosexual desire and single-sex friendship in The Two Noble Kinsmen, suggesting that these antipathies are never resolved.]

The Two Noble Kinsmen, usually attributed to Shakespeare and Fletcher, is a play seldom examined and seldom produced,1 though perhaps it will receive more attention now that it has been...

(The entire section is 5765 words.)

Theodor Meron (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Meron, Theodor. “Agincourt: Prisoners of War, Reprisals, and Necessity.” In Henry's Wars and Shakespeare's Laws: Perspectives on the Law of War in the Later Middle Ages, pp. 154-71. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Meron considers Shakespeare's portrayal of Henry V's order to kill the French prisoners (in Act IV, scene vii) in light of medieval rules and customs of war. The critic concludes that Shakespeare depicted the order as both legal and justified.]

The events at Agincourt are comprehensible only if we consider how outnumbered the English forces were and how great their fear must have been. The tension which was felt in the...

(The entire section is 7561 words.)

Michèle Willems (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Willems, Michèle. “‘Women and Horses and Power and War’: Worship of Mars from 1 Henry IV to Coriolanus.” In French Essays on Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, edited by Jean-Marie Maguin and Michèle Willems, pp. 189-202. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Willems evaluates Hotspur and Coriolanus as exemplars of the cult of military heroism. The critic compares Henry IV, Part 1 and Coriolanus in terms of their depictions of heroic and antiheroic value systems, differences between professional and common soldiers, disparities between warriors and politicians, and conflicts between masculine and feminine...

(The entire section is 6114 words.)

Elizabeth Marsland (lecture date 1995)

SOURCE: Marsland, Elizabeth. “Updating Agincourt: The Battle Scenes in Two Film Versions of Henry V.” In Modern War on Stage and Screen, edited by Wolfgang Görtschacher and Holger Klein, pp. 5-19. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, the published version of a lecture delivered at a conference in Salzburg, Austria, in October 1995, Marsland compares Laurence Olivier's and Kenneth Branagh's representations of the Battle of Agincourt in their cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare's Henry V. Although the critic calls attention to the difference between Olivier's romantic view of war and Branagh's more realistic one, she contends that both...

(The entire section is 5227 words.)

Janet M. Spencer (essay date summer 1996)

SOURCE: Spencer, Janet M. “Princes, Pirates, and Pigs: Criminalizing Wars of Conquest in Henry V.Shakespeare Quarterly 47, no. 2 (summer 1996): 160-77.

[In the following essay, Spencer assesses the justice of Henry's invasion of France and the legitimacy of royal power in Henry V, concluding that the play casts a deeply ironic shadow on the king's reliance on religious authority to validate his conquest and absolve him from responsibility for the deaths and violence that ensue. The critic is particularly interested in the way that Shakespeare's many allusions to the legends associated with Alexander the Great, especially his encounter with the pirate Diomedes, enhance...

(The entire section is 10130 words.)

Susan Snyder (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Snyder, Susan. “‘The Norwegians Are Coming!’: Shakespearean Misleadings.” In Elizabethan Theater, edited by R. B. Parker and S. P. Zitner, pp. 200-13. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Snyder remarks on a similar absence of a crucial battle scene in both Othello and Hamlet, noting that Shakespeare did not dramatize the Turkish attack against Cyprus in Othello and represented Fortinbras's invasion of Denmark in Hamlet as a relatively bloodless one. Both tragedies, the critic suggests, depict the enemy within as a greater threat than the foreign antagonist.]

To explore what seems to me a...

(The entire section is 5462 words.)

Theodor Meron (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Meron, Theodor. “War and Peace.” In Bloody Constraint: War and Chivalry in Shakespeare, pp. 16-46. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Meron compares Shakespeare's treatment of war to medieval and Renaissance legal, religious, and chivalric doctrines of “just war.” Focusing on the English histories and Troilus and Cressida, the critic contends that characters in these plays articulate a message that is essentially pacifist.]

In this chapter, I will examine attitudes towards war and demonstrate the anti-war bent of many of Shakespeare's characters. War was a major theme, perhaps the most important theme, in...

(The entire section is 13668 words.)

John Mark Mattox (essay date spring-summer 2000)

SOURCE: Mattox, John Mark. “Henry V: Shakespeare's Just Warrior.” War, Literature and the Arts 12, no. 1 (spring-summer 2000): 30-53.

[In the following essay, Mattox evaluates Shakespeare's portrait of Henry V in terms of well-established tenets of “just war” theory, arguing that the king has the right to wage war against France and that his conduct of that war meets traditional legal and ethical standards. The critic also maintains that Shakespeare affirmed Henry's claim that he has divine sanction to pursue war.]

Despite the wide spectrum of perspectives that Shakespeare's commentators bring to bear on Henry V,1 they seem to agree that the...

(The entire section is 10034 words.)

Ellen C. Caldwell (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Caldwell, Ellen C. “The Hundred Years' War and National Identity.” In Inscribing the Hundred Years' War in French and English Cultures, edited by Denise N. Baker, pp. 237-65. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Caldwell analyzes Henry VI, Part 2 and Henry V in the context of French and English historians' and artists' representations of the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453).]

The sequence of invasions and expulsions known since the nineteenth century as the Hundred Years' War may be read in such divergent historical narratives today as to question whether those narratives refer to the same events. Their...

(The entire section is 12250 words.)

Laurence Lerner (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Lerner, Laurence. “King John, König Johann: War and Peace.” Shakespeare Survey 54 (2001): 213-22.

[In the following essay, Lerner compares Shakespeare's King John with Friedrich Dürrenmatt's König Johann (1968), an adaptation of Shakespeare's work with marked changes in tone and characterization. The critic considers such issues as the more overt cynicism of Dürrenmatt's play with respect to political motivations for the pursuit of war and Shakespeare's subtle treatment of whether to use military force or diplomacy to settle the conflict between France and England.]

Friedrich Dürrenmatt's König Johann, published in...

(The entire section is 6181 words.)

Gregory M. Colón Semenza (essay date winter 2001)

SOURCE: Colón Semenza, Gregory M. “Sport, War, and Contest in Shakespeare's Henry VI.Renaissance Quarterly 54, no. 2 (winter 2001): 1251-72.

[In the following essay, Colón Semenza suggests that the decay of chivalric ideals, radical changes in the nature of warfare, and the clash of personal rivalries chronicled in the Henry VI trilogy are enhanced by Shakespeare's use throughout these plays of sport as a metaphor for war. The critic points out that allusions to warfare as a kind of competitive sport increase as Henry's nobles discard traditional concern with political principles and the common good in favor of pursuing their own ambitions.]

When,...

(The entire section is 8898 words.)