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War in Shakespeare's Plays

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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.

R. B. Parker (essay date 1984)

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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 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 in war and the feminine concept of honour as chastity in love.1 However, whereas Knight goes on to interpret the conclusion as an almost mystical victory for transcendent chastity in which ‘sanctity aspires to sexuality’ (p. 160), I propose to pick up his puzzling concept of Helena's ‘bisexuality’ to suggest instead that the conflict of the play is resolved by having each ideal—war and love—modify the other, so that the conclusion takes the form of a wry accommodation between them in which the purity of both ideals has had to be abandoned. As in Troilus and Cressida (echoed in All's Well) where there is a similar intercontamination of war and sex, this accommodation is seen through a consciousness of passing time. Shakespeare has added to his source2 an important framework of death-haunted and nostalgic elders—the Countess, Lord Lafew, Lavache, and the melancholy King of France (who has a much more important part in the play than in Boccaccio)—which places the lovers' struggle in a perspective of succeeding generations, so that the young have to work out their relationships against their elders' fears and expectations for them. As Erik Erikson says in his essay ‘Youth: Fidelity and Diversity’:

It is the young who, by their responses and actions, tell the old whether life as represented by the old and as presented to the young has meaning; and it is the young who carry in them the power to confirm them and, joining the issues, to renew and to regenerate [as Helena does], or to reform and to rebel [which is Bertram's first reaction].3

Thus, we constantly see the actions of Bertram and Helena through the affectionate tolerance, exasperation, hope, and need of their elders; and though this focus is not exclusive or without its own ironies (and should not, therefore, be accepted uncritically),4 it does help to establish the note of cautious relief with which, as the title indicates, All's Well concludes.

The need for an accommodation between war and sexual love was an important and recurring motif in Renaissance art and thought. Edgar Wind illustrates this in his explication of such paintings as Veronese's Mars and Venus,5 where Cupid's binding together of the legs of the two deities produces milk from Venus' breast while another Cupid playfully uses Mars' own sword to drive away his war-horse. Plutarch reports that ‘In the fables of the Greeks, Harmony was born from the union of Venus and Mars: of whom the latter is fierce and contentious, the former generous and pleasing’,6 and this is restated by Aquinas in his Summa Theologica in terms of the concupiscible and irascible passions of man's middle, or ‘sensible’, soul: ‘The passions of the irascible appetite counteract the passions of the concupiscible appetite: since concupiscence, on being roused, diminishes anger; and anger, being roused, diminishes concupiscence in many cases.’7 Venus, the concupiscible, and Mars, the irascible, were thought to temper each other to produce Chastity, one of the virtues of temperance that stands not for virginity but for fruitful sexual union. And though, as Wilson Knight noted, Diana rather than Venus is the co-deity of All's Well, this is a Diana who is, as Helena tells the Countess, ‘both herself and Love’ (1.3.208)8—in other words, the combined Diana and Venus figure that Wind demonstrates was a recurrent Renaissance image for the combination of Chastity and Sex, in which perspicacity must surrender to passion and chastity itself can prove a weapon.9

My argument, then, will be that, as Bertram must be educated from war to accept first sexuality, then its responsibilities, so Helena too must learn to abandon the false religion of self-abnegation in sexual love and bring it to fruition by increasingly deliberate aggression. Such an approach allows both characters something closer to their proper due than is usual in criticism of the play. The extremes of both the irascible and the concupiscible are tolerated by the older generation as aberrations or ‘sicknesses’ natural to the young, and their accommodation brings the hero and heroine back to Roussillon to confirm and rejuvenate both family and state in a pattern that anticipates that of Shakespeare's Romances. All's Well is not one of the final plays, however, and the tone of its conclusion recognizes that such an accommodation may also have its losses and uncertainties.


For most people the chief stumbling block to All's Well is the hero's character; like Dr Johnson, they cannot reconcile themselves to Bertram.10 As Helena's raptures over his ‘hawking eye’, his curls, and so forth indicate, one of Bertram's problems is that he is so good-looking that people are ready to make excuses for him and eager to see a potential for nobility in him that he does not really possess. This then produces a more troublesome problem: people keep saying they hope he will live up to the virtues and achievements of his famous father. He is constantly called ‘boy’—by his mother, by the King, by Lafew, and most often (with provocation) by his crony, the impostor Parolles—so we may assume he is still very young, probably in his late teens.

Like any adolescent whose widowed mother insists that he live up to a formidable father, Bertram wishes to escape from Roussillon in order to establish an identity for himself, first at the court, then, when that fails him, in a foreign war where the adolescent pressures of aggression and sexuality can find freer expression. At the beginning we do not see much of what he is like, only what others think of him; but, characteristically, he seems not even to have heard of the King's illness though Lafew says it is ‘notorious’ (1.1.33), and his eagerness to be gone from the ‘dark house’ of mourning slips awkwardly out when he interrupts his mother's conversation with Lafew (1.1.55), a breach of decorum that brings a mingled blessing and reproof from the Countess to her ‘unseason'd courtier’ (1.1.57-9, 67).

Bertram finds the court no freer than his home, however. It too is death-haunted, shadowed with nostalgia and distrust of the future. The King pushes his responsibility as guardian to the point of claiming ‘My son's no dearer’ (1.2.76), and goes even further than the Countess in lecturing him about his father's splendid example (1.2.19-22). Clearly, however, he fears that Bertram will turn out no better than the other young ‘goers backward’ at court (1.2.48), who, in the King's opinion, sacrifice honour to levity and the pursuit of fashionable clothes. Since we have seen that Bertram's chosen confidant is the impudent Parolles whose extravagance of dress is a subject of general remark, the foreboding seems well founded.

In lecturing Bertram about his father's virtues, the King especially emphasizes the elder Roussillon's soldiership; but irritatingly, when war breaks out between Florence and Siena, he forbids Bertram to take part in it because of his youth, yet at the same time encourages the other young courtiers to fight ‘on either part’, bidding them ‘be … the sons / Of worthy Frenchmen’ (2.1.11-12). It is at this point too, from the King himself, that the idea of war as a rival, or substitute, for sexuality is introduced. He bids the French volunteers,

                                        see that you come
Not to woo honour, but to wed it, when
The bravest questant shrinks:


and warns them jocularly against

Those girls of Italy, take heed of them;
They say our French lack language to deny
If they demand; beware of being captives
Before you serve.


The comment is ironically placed, since the King will soon be insisting that Bertram, whom he has forbidden to serve, must marry against his inclination, and will himself deny all Bertram's attempts to protest.

Even before this happens, however, Bertram interprets the King's restraint as a denial of his virility by an effeminizing environment. ‘I shall stay here the forehorse to a smock,’ he complains, 'Till honour be bought up, and no sword worn / But one to dance with’ (2.1.30-3). Parolles suggests he steal from court, in phrasing that reminds Bertram of his youth and has a martial-sexual pun on ‘stand’—‘And thy mind stand to't, boy, steal away’ (2.1.29)—and this is supported by the other volunteers in a typical scene of young male camaraderie. So before ever the marriage to Helena is raised, Bertram has come to see the court as a place of womanly restraint, with escape to war as a means to virile honour and to his acceptance as an equal by the young courtiers among whom he must establish his independent status.

This war-sex opposition is exacerbated when the King forces Bertram to marry Helena, after she has gone through a face-saving ceremony of rejecting the King's other wards. Whether these young Lords are ready to accept her, as their speeches suggest, or whether, as Lafew's rage at them implies, their responses show merely polite relief at not having been selected, it is important to notice the reasons which Helena gives for turning them down: one is too much above her in rank, another is too young to wish to marry, and to a third she says, ‘I'll never do you wrong, for your own sake’ (2.3.90). All these reasons apply equally to Bertram, and there is therefore considerable excuse for his shock when she bashfully fixes on him.

Bertram's reasons for rejecting Helena are complex. Like all Shakespeare's young lovers, he wishes to choose love for himself: ‘In such a business give me leave to use / The help of mine own eyes’ (2.3.107-8); but this is followed by a burst of snobbery meant to contrast with the courtesy to social inferiors his father has been praised for: ‘A poor physician's daughter my wife!’ (l. 115)—a protective insistence on rank hinted at earlier perhaps when, at his departure from Roussillon, he bade Helena ‘Be comfortable to my mother, your mistress’ (1.1.73). There are deeper reasons than these for the rejection, however. His ‘I know her well: / She had her breeding at my father's charge’ (2.3.113-14) shows that he associates Helena with the home he is trying to escape; and there may also be in this a covert fear of incest,11 especially when we remember Helena's frantic, reiterated concern that the Countess should not regard Bertram as her ‘brother’ (1.3.150, 155, 157, 161).

But, most suggestive of all, in answer to the King's argument that he should marry Helena in gratitude for her having ‘raised’ his guardian from a ‘sickly bed’, there emerges what appears to be a recoil from sexuality itself, a fear not out of keeping (in those days at least) with Bertram's comparative youth: ‘But follows it, my lord, to bring me down / Must answer for your raising?’ (2.3.112-13). He can remain adamant, therefore, to the King's disquisition on virtue and nobility precisely because that really is not the issue for him, and only succumbs when the monarch asserts his double authority as ruler and surrogate ‘father’, browbeating the ‘proud, scornful boy’ with threats of ‘revenge and hate’ (l. 164) and insisting not only that Bertram marry Helena but also, quite unreasonably, that he love her too (ll. 182-3). Even allowing for the contemporary custom of arranged marriages and a ward's undoubted duty to obey his king, such a display of angry, personal pressure antagonizes us. As E. K. Chambers put it: ‘Even young asses have their rights, and one cannot but feel some sympathy for Bertram.’12

The recoil from sexuality beneath Bertram's social outrage issues in his determination not to bed Helena but to escape from marriage and the court to the masculine preserve of war. There is genuine, if slightly comic, adolescent despair in his cry,

O my Parolles, they have married me!
I'll to the Tuscan wars and never bed her

(ll. 268-9)

and he determines to escape ‘to those Italian fields / Where noble fellows strike’ because ‘Wars is no strife / To the dark house and the detested wife’ (ll. 286-8). The grounds for this decision are supported (but not, it should be noted, caused) by Parolles, who agrees that

He wears his honour in a box unseen
That hugs his kicky-wicky here at home,
Spending his manly marrow in her arms,
Which should sustain the bound and high curvet
Of Mars's fiery steed

(ll. 275-9)

and sums the situation up epigrammatically, ‘A young man married is a man that's marr'd’ (l. 294). Interestingly, the same argument is also advanced later by Lavache. At the point when the Countess receives Bertram's letter saying he will never sleep with Helena, the clown comments (playing like Parolles on ‘stand’),

… your son will not be kill'd so soon as I thought he would … if he run away, as I hear he does; the danger is in standing to't; that's the loss of men, though it be the getting of children.


Again military terms are used about a sexual situation, and it should be noted that the speech inverts Helena's praise of Parolles's cowardice earlier (in metaphors that also mocked his clothing): ‘the composition that your valour and fear makes in you is a virtue of a good wing, and I like the wear well’ (1.1.199-201). Helena approves of running away from war, Lavache from sexual debility.

In the parting scene (2.5) we feel great sympathy for Helena, whom Bertram harshly calls his ‘clog’; but the situation is presented as awkward and embarrassing for both of them, particularly when Helena works up courage to request a kiss and Bertram nervously evades her by insisting that she must immediately ‘haste to horse’. Once she is gone, his comment emphasizes what has become the basic opposition for him:

Go thou toward home, where I will never come
Whilst I can shake my sword or hear the drum


—where, for the first time, military life is associated with the drum which will later become the central symbol for experience of war in the play. Undoubtedly, as Richard Wheeler has recently argued,13 what we have here is a familiar picture of war embraced as a deflection of sexuality and a release for adolescent aggression, idealized by an ‘honour’ associated with bravery in the face of death and by the bonding of male companionship; but we oversimplify the situation if we forget the esteem in which such warrior courage was also held by Elizabethans or refuse sympathy to Bertram himself for the painful situation the King has placed him in.

This basic antagonism also emerges in Bertram's next scene, in which a new father-figure, the Duke of Florence, promotes him with unrealistic speed to be ‘general of our horse’ (a very appropriate position for a character representing Mars). Bertram's response again polarizes love and war, the latter symbolized once more by the drum:

Great Mars, I put myself into thy file;
Make me but like my thoughts and I shall prove
A lover of thy drum, hater of love


and the Duke, in turn, invests war with sexuality when he bids fortune ‘play upon thy prosperous helm / As thy auspicious mistress!’ (3.3.7-8). At the same time, Shakespeare stresses that this promotion recognizes genuine achievement on Bertram's part. We hear later that he has ‘taken their great'st commander, and … with his own hand he slew the duke's brother’ (3.5.5-7); he is called ‘gallant’; his service is ‘honourable’ and ‘worthy’; people speak ‘nobly’ of him; the Duke sends letters to the King setting Bertram ‘high in fame’ (3.5.3-7, 48, 50; 5.3.31); and, at his return, Lafew is very willing to see the scar on his left cheek as ‘a good liv'ry of honour’ (4.5.95-6), ignoring Lavache's suggestion of a syphilitic incision (though we must remember also Parolles's boast of ‘Captain Spurio's’ cicatrice, also on his ‘sinister’ cheek, at 2.1.43, and Helena's disparagement of all such war scars at 3.2.121-2).

However, this masculine war honour is undermined in several ways: Shakespeare adds a certain ambiguity to the war itself; and nearly all act 4 is concerned with what Bertram calls the interlude of ‘the Fool and the Soldier’ (4.3.95), the exposure of Parolles's cowardice and treachery, during which the braggart makes some interesting accusations of sexual corruption throughout the army. These in turn reflect on Bertram's efforts to seduce the young Florentine whom Shakespeare has significantly named ‘Diana’.

The purpose and grounds of the Italian war are not only vague but more than a little dubious. The King of France, for mysterious ‘reasons of … state’ (3.1.10), refuses to send official aid to Florence because of a warning from his ‘cousin Austria’ (1.2.5-9), though the Duke of Florence appears able later to persuade the French volunteers that his cause is ‘holy’ (3.1.4). The drum that Parolles equates with war honour is lost because the cavalry (which are under Bertram's command) have mistakenly charged their own soldiers (3.6.46-7). And the conflict ends very vaguely with the Second Lord's announcement ‘there is an overture of peace’ capped immediately by the First Lord's ‘Nay, I assure you, a peace concluded’ (4.3.37-8), without further explanation. The war, in fact, is merely a convenience, a backdrop without clear purpose, circumstances, or outcome; so it is hard to take wholly seriously its danger or the honour won in it, especially since it is presented mainly as an outlet for the French courtiers' aggression and yearnings for fame, which are spoken of as a sickness of youth (as the Countess speaks of love). The war, we are told, serves as ‘A nursery to our gentry, who are sick / For breathing and exploit’ (1.2.16-17); it is ‘a physic’ for the ‘surfeit’ of their ‘ease’ (3.1.18-19). Moreover, as Parolles points out to Bertram, to volunteer is also very fashionable (2.1.49 ff.). Thus, war honour is qualified by the unsure principles behind the conflict, by the wholly self-centred, ‘sick’ motives of the volunteers, and by a sense of their conforming to fashion in this as in their clothes.14

This latter point is forcefully presented in the character of Parolles, Shakespeare's most significant addition to the source, who virtually dominates act 4. The spuriousness of Parolles is dramatized in three main ways. As his name suggests, he is a creature of words, not deeds; then, there is his costume, a confection of gaudy colours, feathers, and especially scarfs (2.3.246, 2.5.43-4, 3.5.85, 4.3.138-9, 312-13), which ensures that his first appearance is comic in itself, a discordant (but lively) blob of colour among the mourning clothes of Roussillon (like an inversion of the Marcade or Hamlet effects), as he elaborately salutes Helena while she anatomizes him aside; and lastly, there is the drum with which Parolles becomes identified and whose military summons is heard frequently thoughout act 4, signifying the noisy virility but ultimate emptiness of the whole Italian escapade. Appropriately, it is with the oath ‘I'll no more drumming. A plague of all drums!’ (4.3.288) that Parolles surrenders his pretensions as a soldier.

Helena and Lafew see through Parolles from the start, so Bertram's continued support of him in the face of Lafew's warning (2.5.7-8) indicates a serious immaturity of judgement; and it is mainly to disabuse this complacency that the French lords scheme to expose the braggart (4.3.30-3). It distorts Parolles's role, however, to condemn him too severely in terms of Bertram's evil angel or a vice figure. Though the Countess (3.2.87), Lafew (4.5.1), Mariana (3.5.16) and Diana (3.5.82) all alibi for Bertram by blaming Parolles's influence, in fact Bertram makes his own mistakes; Parolles merely supports them, and acts as a parodic reflection, not a cause, of Bertram's evils. Moreover, Parolles is a very amusing stage-figure: it should be noted that both French lords urge the drum trick not only to disabuse Bertram but also ‘for the love of laughter’ (3.6.32, 39); and the scene of the trick itself is kept from being painful by the fantastic gibberish with which his captors bewilder Parolles, by the impudent extravagance of his own lies, which makes the Second Lord exclaim gleefully ‘I begin to love him for this’ and ‘He hath out-villain'd villainy so far that the rarity redeems him’ (4.3.253, 264-5), and by the farcical breaking of stage decorum which has the First Lord's aside ‘How deep?’ apparently answered by Parolles's ‘Thirty fadom’ (4.1.56-7) and the braggart's wish for ‘A drum now of the enemy's—’ eliciting a prompt ‘Alarum within’ (4.1.63). At the end, moreover, Parolles reaches a disillusioned level of self-knowledge and acceptance of shame that can throw light on similar elements in the accommodations forced not only on Bertram but also, I would argue, on Helena as well.

The unmasking of Parolles is very carefully placed. It is preceded in act 4, scene 3 by the French lords' criticism of Bertram's callousness to Helena and his attempt to ‘pervert’ Diana (4.3.13-17). This leads them to a statement of the way that mankind proves a traitor to itself, drowning in its very virtues by swimming against their current, as the Countess warned earlier when she said that misused ‘virtues’ could be ‘traitors too’ (1.1.38-40). To the First Lord's ‘Now, God delay our rebellion! As we are ourselves, what things we are!’ (whose phrasing will be echoed later in Parolles's ‘Simply the thing am’), the Second Lord replies, in what is perhaps the crucial statement of the play:

Merely our own traitors. And as in the common course of all treasons we still see them reveal themselves till they attain to their abhorr'd ends; so he that in this action contrives against his own nobility, in his proper stream o'erflows himself.


Within this context of reproof, it is carefully emphasized that the tricking of Parolles between 10.00 p.m. and 1.00 a.m. (4.1.24) overlaps with Bertram's deception in the bed-trick between midnight and 1.00 a.m. (4.2.54-8, 4.3.28-9); so the parallels between them are obvious, though Bertram's realization of his disgrace will not occur till the end of the play. Parolles's treachery and increasingly desperate lies prefigure Bertram's ignoble contortions in the final trial scene; and, interestingly for the theme of Mars and Venus, it is sexual corruption that Parolles chiefly criticizes beneath the military show. Bertram, the heroic general of horse, becomes ‘a foolish idle boy, but for all that very ruttish’ (4.3.207), ‘a dangerous and lascivious boy, who is a whale to virginity, and devours up all the fry it finds’ (4.3.212-13); and a poem found in the braggart's pocket warns Diana that Bertram is ‘a fool … Who pays before, but not when he does owe it’ (4.3.221-2). It is not only Bertram who provokes such criticism, however. Captain Dumain too is accused of ‘getting the shrieve's fool with child, a dumb innocent that could not say him nay’ (4.3.181-3), and of the common soldiers, Parolles claims, ‘the muster file, rotten and sound … amounts not to fifteen thousand poll; half of the which dare not shake the snow from off their cassocks lest they shake themselves to pieces’ (4.3.162-5). Parolles's extravagances must not be taken at face value, of course, but his comments offer a comic reflection of the way that war can distort and be a distortion of sexual instinct, reminding us that Bertram himself describes his lust for Diana as his ‘sick desires’ (4.2.35). As the First Lord comments at the beginning of Parolles's exposure (more truly than he realizes), ‘'A will betray us all unto ourselves’ (4.1.92).

The resolution of the drum trick is also important for the light it sheds on the main dénouement. Parolles, who has several times, like a diminished Falstaff, pleaded ‘let me live’ (4.1.83, 4.3.236, 299), learns to welcome life as a value in itself and to accept his shameful defects for what they are, without more pretension. ‘Safest in shame’, he decides, ‘Simply the thing I am / Shall make me live’, since ‘There's place and means for every man alive’ (4.3.322-8); while his bitter ‘Who cannot be crush'd with a plot?’ (l. 314) looks forward to Bertram's later collapse in a way that mitigates some of its sharpness. Man is not the ideal, invulnerable creature he pretends to be, and, as the First Lord wonders about Parolles, it is indeed ‘possible he should know what he is, and be that he is’ (4.1.44-5)—or as Lavache says cynically about cuckoldry, ‘If men could be contented to be what they are, there were no fear in marriage’ (1.3.48-9). And it is on this level that Parolles is later accommodated by Lafew. Ironically, though earlier he repudiated Lafew's suggestion that Bertram or anyone else could be his ‘lord and master’ (2.3.186 ff.)—a title Helena was only too eager to bestow (1.3.153)—now he accepts Lafew's patronage with abject gratitude, anticipating in the farcical mode the chagrin with which Bertram will be brought to recognize his shame and the relief with which he too will finally acknowledge Helena as wife.

The shaming of Parolles runs counterpoint, in carefully matched scenes, to Bertram's attempt to seduce Diana and his own deception by the bed-trick. This seduction has both its bad side and its good. The bad is obvious. Bertram is trying to satisfy sexual relations impersonally in terms of war, translating male aggression into promiscuity, in which sex is treated as the taking and possessing of a woman's ‘spoil’, repudiating responsibility and abandoning the woman as soon as she has surrendered. As the Second Lord puts it, Bertram ‘fleshes his will in the spoil of her honour’ (4.3.15). The sexual double standard emerges clearly in Parolles's attempt to justify Bertram in the final scene, when he explains that Bertram ‘did love her, sir, as a gentleman loves a woman. … He lov'd her, sir, and lov'd her not’ (5.3.243-5). The emptiness of the seducer's oaths and promises is exposed by Diana, who recognizes them as mere ‘words’ (4.2.30), which her mother warned her all men swear to get their way (4.2.70-1); and the struggle between Bertram and Diana is consistently described in metaphors of war. Bertram's love gifts are ‘engines of lust’ (3.5.19), but Diana is ‘arm'd for him and keeps her guard / In honestest defence’ (3.5.73-4). Though he ‘Lays down his wanton siege before her beauty, / Resolv'd to carry her’ (3.7.18-19), Diana tells him when he talks of honour,

                              your own proper wisdom
Brings in the champion Honour on my part
Against your vain assault.


Setting him up for the bed-trick, she talks of the time ‘When you have conquer'd my yet maiden bed’ (4.2.57); and confronted by Diana at the end, Bertram tries to excuse himself with a last flicker of this misapplied imagery when he says he only ‘boarded her i' th' wanton way of youth’ (5.3.210). Yet when the issue comes to an open clash between the ‘honour’ of his ancestral ring, handed down through the males of his family from ‘the first father’, and the ‘honour’ of Diana's chastity, he surrenders the emblem of that very nobility he had appealed to as an escape from Helena, in a way that both symbolically, and in terms of plot manipulation, will involve him deeply in the responsibilities of sex that he has been trying to evade.

The attempt on Diana must not be seen as wholly negative, in fact; it has even been called Bertram's ‘fortunate fall’.15 Quite apart from the circumstance that, in the plot, it enables Helena to reclaim him as her husband, psychologically it also marks an effort to assert a sexuality that earlier he ran away from. It is, after all, perverse virility that is misleading him in this situation, a misapplication of the ‘virtu’ that in war has brought him honour, so that ‘in his proper stream he o'erflows himself’. Helena's comments here on his ‘important blood’ and ‘idle fire’ (3.7.21, 26) are caught up later when the Countess excuses his behaviour as

Natural rebellion done i' th' blade of youth,
When oil and fire, too strong for reason's force,
O'erbears it and burns on


—catching up the ‘oil and fire’ imagery of her dead husband, whom the King reported as saying, ‘Let me not live … After my flame lacks oil …’ (1.2.58-9). Bertram appeals against ‘cold’ Diana to his own ‘quick fire of youth’ (4.2.5) and persists, the Widow says, ‘As if his life lay on't’ (3.7.43), offering Diana his life as well as his honour (4.2.52); and, importantly, his arguments, though only half sincere, are the same arguments for ‘natural’ use and procreation that Parolles uses to persuade Helena to part with her virginity in act 1, scene 1, arguments which set her on the path to win ‘the bright particular star’ she thought too much above her. Mars here is kneeling to Venus-Diana (as in the Renaissance emblems cited by Wind16), the irascible is beginning to accommodate itself to the concupiscible.

An important development has occurred, therefore; but its significance will not be grasped till Bertram accepts responsibility for sex and is jolted out of the complacency with which he returns to Roussillon, a confidence nicely caught in Lavache's description of the showy feathers in the hats of the returning volunteers (4.5.100-2—Bertram, we remember, was identified as ‘That with the plume’ at 3.5.77-8).

The Countess had earlier sent word to Bertram ‘that his sword can never win / The honour that he loses’ by leaving his wife (3.2.93-4) and this is repeated at Florence by the Second Lord, on hearing of Helena's supposed death: ‘The great dignity that his valour hath here acquir'd for him shall at home be encount'red with a shame as ample’ (4.3.65-7). Yet ironically (and this should prevent us assessing the older generation's view too simply), when he first returns, with Helena supposed dead, his elders are quite ready to modify their principles to welcome him. The Countess and Lafew make excuses for his behaviour, laying the blame on Parolles; Lafew even offers his daughter as a second wife; and we hear, for the first time, that this match had been contemplated before the marriage to Helena ever cropped up, which Bertram—with wholly new aplomb—cleverly uses both as a sign of his readiness now to submit to the King and as an excuse for his earlier reluctance to accept Helena. He also expresses regret for Helena's death, claiming to have loved her once he lost her; so the King too, admitting Bertram has ‘Well excus'd’ himself (5.3.55), forgives him—though, significantly, the King now seems to have relapsed into the valetudinarianism from which Helena rescued him.

Remembering the casualness with which Bertram actually received the news of his wife's death (4.3.85) and aware that Helena is en route to Roussillon, we anticipate Bertram's deflation. This starts with Lafew's recognition of Helena's ring and the King's suspicions of foul play, is followed by Diana's arrival with Bertram's ancestral ring, and culminates in the appearance of Helena herself, not dead but pregnant with Bertram's child. Bertram's ignoble, Parolles-like failures of nerve under these successive blows turn all his elders against him, but it should not be forgotten that all the apparent disasters are false, and that we are perfectly aware of this: irony mitigates censoriousness. The King's suspicion that Bertram must have had Helena murdered, Parolles's blundering attempts to support Bertram that only worsen his case, the growing confusion and exasperation of the King, and Diana's pert, riddling answers, all complicate and lighten the tone,17 till the delayed but long anticipated entry of Helena herself. Bertram's reply to her comment that as a wife she is only ‘The name and not the thing’ (5.3.302)—‘Both, both. O, pardon!’—seems as much relief at having escaped from the avalanche of social disapproval that has fallen on him as true love or repentance. He has surely swung from one extreme to the other of Freud's diagnosis of inhibited sexuality:18 from an attempt to escape into sex with a woman whom he can consider degraded by it, to the opposite pole of surrender to the ‘magical’ security of a dominating woman closely associated with his mother. There is no speech of reconciliation, no acceptance of responsibility, merely what Wheeler calls Bertram's ‘dismal and conditional final couplet’,19

If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly,
I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly


in which he seems to be trying to reassert some feeble remnants of dignity and choice, only to be put down dourly by Helena's assurance of ‘Deadly divorce’ if he finds himself unsatisfied. Mars has indeed bowed to Venus, but the balance hardly seems an equal one; and it should surely not be only on Helena's behalf that we feel qualms about this marriage.


In fact, if one problem with All's Well is that we cannot be reconciled to Bertram, another is that we are tempted to identify with Helena too closely. However, as Bertram has to be educated to sex, Helena too has to cease idealizing her attraction to Bertram, to accept it at its most basic sexual level, and to learn to fight for her love even at some sacrifice of self-respect. And again we must remember Helena's youth: she is presumably younger even than Bertram. In the source, indeed, we are told that Giletta fell in love ‘more than was meete for a maiden of her age’.20

The persuasiveness of Helena's passion is unquestionable, and it has long been recognized that her experience draws heavily on the emotions explored in Shakespeare's sonnets;21 but there are qualifications to it even from the start. There is surely an initial shock intended in her denial of sorrow for her father's death (the timing of which Shakespeare changes to emphasize this point), particularly as we see it in the context of the Countess and Lafew's grief and piety:

                    I think not on my father, …
… What was he like?
I have forgot him; my imagination
Carries no favour in't but Bertram's.


Her feeling is wholly sexual, moreover, and totally visual, concerned with Bertram's ‘arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls’, with ‘every line and trick of his sweet favour’ (1.1.92-4), not with any quality of his character; and she herself seems to recognize the superficiality of this by using metaphors of false religion about it: ‘But now he's gone, and my idolatrous fancy / Must sanctify his relics’ (1.1.95-6). Her recognition of ‘ambition’ in her love issues in a death-seeking absolutism that is both impractical and servile:22 ‘there is no living, none, / If Bertram be away’ (ll. 82-3); the frustration of her love is twice compared to ‘plague’ (ll. 88, 90); and she concludes with a bizarre image of miscegenation, ‘The hind that would be mated by the lion / Must die for love’ (ll. 89-90), that reminds one irresistibly of Pyramus’ ‘Since lion vile hath here deflower'd my dear’ (A Midsummer Night's Dream, 5.1.284). In fact the emotional extravagances in this first soliloquy are very like those of the earlier, comic Helena in the Dream, who, according to Lysander,

Devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry
Upon this spotted and inconstant man.


The earlier Helena recognized that

Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind;


she had the same servile persistence as this Helena:

The more you beat me, I will fawn upon you.
Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you


and pushed it to a conclusion in the same sexual-death imagery:

I'll follow thee, and make a heaven of hell,
To die upon the hand I love so well.


It is in relation to this earlier, comic Helena, as much as to the sonnets, that we should see Helena's opening passion; and, indeed, the Countess recognizes that such a state of mind is part of ‘nature's truth’ in all young girls: ‘Such were our faults … Her eye is sick on't’ (1.3.130-1), where the mature tolerance but also criticism implied by ‘faults’ and ‘sick’ are an important guide to our response.

There is a certain despairing fancifulness about Helena's first soliloquy, then, but this is radically changed by the conversation with Parolles about virginity, in which Helena takes the initiative and shows an unexpectedly bawdy resilience. She recognizes Parolles as a liar, fool, and coward, but accepts him for Bertram's sake, and also, very acutely, recognizes that

                              these fixed evils sit so fit in him,
That they take place when virtue's steely bones
Looks bleak i' th' cold wind; withal, full oft we see
Cold wisdom waiting on superfluous folly.


This is mainly pejorative, of course, but it contains a recognition of the unloveliness of ‘steely’ virtue and ‘cold’ wisdom, and also of something enduring in Parolles's very ‘evils’ that prefigures his eventual survival. It may, perhaps, anticipate a certain element in her own later compromise with Bertram.

The crux of the virginity discussion is Helena's question, ‘How might one do, sir, to lose it to her own liking?’ (1.1.147), so that, as she puts it less bluntly to the Countess later, ‘Dian’ may be ‘both herself and Love’. Parolles's arguments for the sacrifice of virginity reflect mere libertinism, but with lines like ‘Get thee a good husband, and use him as he uses thee’ (ll. 210-11), he puts the idea of sexual action into Helena's head. In answer to his proposition, ‘Will you anything with it?’, the phrasing of her ‘Not my virginity; yet …’ (l. 161) suggests a determination to use virginity in the future—‘yet’ is an important modifier in this play—and it is followed by a day-dreaming passage about the paradoxes of love that Bertram will find in possessing it23 which concludes, with obvious sexual ambiguity,

                                        'Tis pity …
That wishing well had not a body in't
Which might be felt.

(ll. 175-8)

This virginity discussion, which represents Helena's swing to a more practical frame of mind with an obliquity typical of her whole characterization, is couched almost entirely in terms of warfare. Recognizing ‘some stain of soldier’ in Parolles, she asks, ‘Man is enemy to virginity; how may we barricado it against him?’, and the discussion is conducted throughout with wording such as ‘assails’, ‘though valiant, in the defence yet is weak’, ‘warlike resistance’, ‘setting down’, ‘undermine’, ‘blow up’, ‘blow down’, ‘military policy’, and ‘with the breach yourselves made you lose your city’, to conclude with Helena's ‘I will stand for't a little, though therefore I die a virgin’, where ‘little’ has the same force as the earlier ‘yet’ (ll. 109-132). A few lines later, her day-dream of what her virginity may mean to Bertram includes being his ‘captain, and an enemy’, ‘his sweet disaster’, and, significantly, his ‘traitress’ (ll. 164-9).

After this military interchange, Helena's second soliloquy shows a wholly new self-confidence:

Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to heaven; the fated sky
Gives us free scope;

(ll. 212-14)

she now trusts nature ‘which mounts my love so high’ to ‘join like likes, and kiss like native things’; and picks up the mention of the King's illness earlier to sketch out a plan of action:

The king's disease—my project may deceive me,
But my intents are fix'd, and will not leave me.

(ll. 224-5)

Thus, through Parolles's sexual realism couched in the imagery of war, Helena has arrived at a plan of aggressive action, a ‘policy how virgins might blow up men’ (ll. 119-20).

Our knowing this creates an ironic undertow in the next Helena scene, where she gradually admits to the Countess her love for Bertram and her plan to cure the King; and the tone of the scene is complicated further because their conversation is preceded by comments from the Countess's clown and steward. Lavache's request to wed Isbel puts Helena's love for Bertram in a decidedly fleshy context. Like Touchstone with Audrey, he says he is driven to marriage ‘by the flesh’ (1.3.27). Perverting the marriage service, but anticipating the bed-trick, he claims, ‘I think I shall never have the blessing of God till I have issue a' my body’ (ll. 22-3), then goes on to welcome cuckoldry and to distinguish between marriage and nature's unregulated sexuality:

Your marriage comes by destiny,
Your cuckoo sings by kind.

(ll. 60-1)

He also gives as another ‘holy’ reason, ‘that I may repent’ the wickedness of merely being a creature of ‘flesh and blood’, which seems to anticipate, in exaggerated form, the sense of accepted limitations in Helena's marriage at the end.

Lavache also picks up the military vocabulary of the virginity discussion by a song unexpectedly comparing Helena to the Helen of Troilus and Cressida, ‘King Priam's joy’ (as Helena will be the King of France's) who sent Grecians to sack Troy; but perverts the end of the song (according to the Countess) to claim that it is rare to find one good woman in ten (ll. 67-76), concluding with ironic wonder at the fact ‘That man should be at woman's command and yet no hurt done’ (ll. 89-90; ‘hurt’ is another key word in the play). This war imagery is then associated with Helena's own state of mind when the steward tells of overhearing her complaint that Diana was ‘[no] queen of virgins, that would suffer her poor knight surpris'd without rescue in the first assault or ransom afterward’ (1.3.110-12).

Though the interview with the Countess is very sympathetic to Helena, there is also a dimension of irony to it because both we and the Countess already know she loves Bertram, and we (though not the Countess) know also that she has a scheme to win Bertram through curing the King. Her agitated, oblique manoeuvrings thus have a comic, if kindly, tinge to them. Moreover, there is now a reversion to the opening soliloquy's self-abnegation and sexual embrace of death. Of Bertram she exclaims,

My master, my dear lord he is; and I
His servant live, and will his vassal die.

(ll. 153-4)

She describes herself as one

That seeks not to find that her search implies,
But, riddle-like, lives sweetly where she dies

(ll. 211-12)

and once again the imagery of love's false religion surfaces: ‘Thus, Indian-like, / Religious in mine error, I adore …’ (ll. 199-200). Such hesitations, and toings and froings, are typical of Helena, as witness her temporary retreats when she is not immediately admitted to see the King, or before she can bring herself to choose a husband, or after Bertram first refuses her. They help to prevent her losing our sympathy as too determined, too ‘irascible’ a character, a function that obliquity of plotting will be called on to sustain in the second half of the play.

With the Countess's support, Helena turns her negative reflections on religion and death to a positive purpose in venturing to cure the King, in which endeavour she believes she will have heaven's support and for which she is ready to risk her life. It is important to grasp why this is an inadequate enterprise, however, quite apart from Bertram's refusal to be impressed by it. For one thing, she is relying on the father she claimed so undutifully to have forgotten, in other words on an inheritance analogous to Bertram's reliance on social rank yet rebellious relation to his father. Then, although there is a very heavy emphasis on the aid of heaven, her comment,

But most it is presumption in us when
The help of heaven we count the act of men


directly contradicts the self-reliance of her second soliloquy:

Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to heaven


and though the idea of virginity's miraculous healing power is a traditional one, curiously it is less Helena's virginity than her sexual attractiveness that is invoked round the cure. Lafew first describes the ‘Doctor She’ as

                                                  a medicine
That's able to breathe life into a stone,
Quicken a rock, and make you dance canary
With sprightly fire and motion; whose simple touch
Is powerful to araise King Pippen, nay,
To give great Charlemain a pen in's hand
And write to her a love-line.


Then, on leaving Helena to cure the King, he provides a second unexpected reminiscence of Troilus and Cressida which, at the same time, introduces the seemingly irrelevant term ‘traitor’ that is so central to the Bertram plot:

A traitor you do look like, but such traitors His majesty seldom fears; I am Cressid's uncle That dare leave two together.

(ll. 95-7)

Helena, moreover, not only lays her life as gage for the cure (as in the source), but also, and primarily, stakes her sexual reputation on it, venturing

A strumpet's boldness, a divulged shame,
Traduc'd by odious ballads; my maiden's name
Sear'd otherwise.

(ll. 170-2)

Clearly, for Helena curing the King's fistula presents some sort of sexual risk, though why this should be so is not made clear.24 After the cure, moreover, Lafew insists on an erotic element in the King's recovery; ‘your dolphin is not lustier’, he claims, and ‘Lustique, as the Dutchman says. I'll like a maid the better whilst I have a tooth in my head. Why, he's able to lead her a coranto’ (2.3.26, 41-3). This eroticism then seems to be projected into the King's insistence on Bertram accepting Helena in marriage, even when she demurs (whereas in the source the King makes the match reluctantly), as though Bertram is somehow serving as his guardian's representative or surrogate here and his refusal tarnishes the King's restored virility.25 Similarly, Lafew also wishes he were young enough to wed Helena (ll. 59-61, 78-9), and would like to ‘make eunuchs’ of the ‘boys of ice’ who seem to be refusing her (ll. 86-8, 93-5). There is thus a strongly sexual aura round the cure, but it is kept mysterious and symbolic.

Having earned her right to choose a husband, Helena hesitates again, then determines to abandon virginity and fly from Dian's altar to ‘imperial Love’ (ll. 74-6); but when she reaches Bertram her ‘irascible’ confidence drains away and she reverts catastrophically to the earlier humility:

I dare not say I take you, but I give
Me and my service, ever whilst I live,
Into your guiding power

(ll. 102-4)

and is even willing to back down entirely when Bertram protests (ll. 147-8). It is the King's authority, not Helena's worth or her determination, which forces the marriage through; and afterwards she shows the same masochistic submissiveness to Bertram's refusal to consummate the marriage and his instructions to leave court (2.4.45, 49, 52), agreeing meekly, ‘Sir, I can nothing say / But that I am your most obedient servant’ (2.5.72-3). She also retains her earlier sense of unworthiness and guilt:

I am not worthy of the wealth I owe, …
But, like a timorous thief, most fain would steal
What law does vouch mine own

(2.5.79-82; cf. 75-6)

—an image she will pick up again when she leaves Roussillon after Bertram's letter of rejection in act 3, scene 2: ‘poor thief, I'll steal away’ (l. 129). Her reaction to that letter is to blame herself for the danger Bertram will run in the war, seeing herself distractedly as his murderer:

Whoever shoots at him, I set him there;
Whoever charges on his forward breast,
I am the caitiff that do hold him to't;
And though I kill him not, I am the cause
His death was so effected.


For all our sympathy with her distress here, we know it was not all her fault; Bertram had determined to go to the war before the marriage was proposed. Moreover, her soliloquy is set ironically between scenes showing the high spirits of the volunteers arriving in Florence and Bertram's spectacular promotion to general of the horse. Clearly, Helena's guilty fear of war is no better grounded (at least in this play) than Bertram's fear of sex.

Her defeatism and self-blame are taken further in her letter to the Countess in act 3, scene 4, in which religion is again perverted to serve sexual chagrin. She claims to be going on a pilgrimage as penitence for the ‘ambitious love’ that has put Bertram's life at risk; she will ‘with zealous fervour sanctify’ his name (3.4.11); and, as usual, she offers to ‘embrace’ death herself in order to set him free (ll. 16-17). And once again this is ironically juxtaposed to a scene in which we hear of Bertram's further military success from a Florentine girl to whom he is now eager to pay court.

In terms of the concupiscible-irascible balance, therefore, Helena's first attempt to win Bertram has been too half-hearted: too self-doubting, too reliant on the skills and authority of others, too high-minded and self-pitying, and too oblique in its sexuality to succeed. She needs to grapple with her problem in a more aggressively sexual fashion; and this is exactly what she proceeds to do in the controversial bed-trick. However, just as her psychological hesitations softened aggression in the first half, in this part of the play it is diluted by diverting the dramatic focus to Bertram and Parolles and by keeping the exact nature of Helena's intentions at all times vague. The plot, however, reveals a complex and ruthless plan in two movements: the bed-trick and Bertram's public shaming.

Unlike Giletta in the source story, Helena makes no mention in either her soliloquy or the letter to the Countess of any plan to seek Bertram out or fulfil his seemingly impossible marriage conditions, but she does choose as her goal a shrine that will take her through Florence, where the Widow says the pilgrims to Saint Jacques habitually stay (3.5.92-4), and it is left unclear whether this was intentional. It is certainly chance that brings her into the company of Diana, the very girl Bertram is trying to seduce, but she is remarkably quick to grasp the situation (3.5.69-70) and then to exploit it. As she arranges for the Widow and Diana to aid her first in securing Bertram's family ring, then in the bed-trick, her means of persuasion are no longer the will of heaven and risk of her own life, but gold and the promise of royal favour; and the paradoxes with which she ends act 3, scene 7 reveal her own awareness of ambiguities in a plan that

Is wicked meaning in a lawful deed,
And lawful meaning in a lawful act,
Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact.

(ll. 45-7)

Helena is mostly kept absent from act 4, which focuses on Bertram and Parolles; but she turns up briefly in act 4, scene 4 with an important and disturbingly realistic reaction to the conventional bed-trick, reminiscent of Sonnet 129 (‘The expense of spirit …’):

                                                  O strange men!
That can such sweet use make of what they hate,
When saucy trusting of the cozen'd thoughts
Defiles the pitchy night; so lust doth play
With what it loathes for that which is away.

(ll. 21-5)

She has prostituted herself to Bertram's desire for a purely physical, impersonal union, and it is not her virginity she is lamenting here but her feelings of damaged self-worth. She no longer idealizes Bertram.

A little mysteriously (and going beyond the source), Helena then persuades the Widow and Diana to accompany her to Marseilles. Ostensibly, this is to get more rewards from the King of France, but she also drops a hint that she has further instructions for Diana and tells them she has spread a rumour of her own death—her romantic death-seeking is certainly being converted to practical uses now. And, echoing the play's title, she argues that means can always be justified by ends. This same argument, again echoing the title, is repeated in the apparently unnecessary scene at Marseilles (5.1), where she finds the King departed for Roussillon; and there she also hands over a letter, already written, to be taken ahead to him, which turns out later to be the letter signed ‘Diana Capilet’ which claims that Bertram promised Diana marriage. We may conclude, therefore, that a public confrontation of Diana and Bertram before the King was always part of Helena's plan; and all this journeying emphasizes the determination and effort she is putting into it.

She does not appear again till the end of Bertram's public humiliation, but we are aware that it is all stage-managed by her, working through her surrogate, Diana. Not only has she arranged for Diana to produce Bertram's family ring to claim a marriage contract, but there is also the business of the second ring (not in the sources), which Diana promised to put on Bertram's finger during the night (4.2.61-2). We learn now for the first time that this was given to Helena by the King and that she swore to him only to part with it to Bertram in bed. Obviously, Lafew's recognition of it and the King's consequent suspicions are accidental, but by having Diana demand it, it is clear that it was also always part of Helena's plan. Finally, Diana riddlingly announces Helena's pregnancy. We accept this as fulfilling the romance pattern, but it is worth noting that this is the first we have heard of the pregnancy, that it seems an extremely lucky hit (Giletta slept with Beltramo several times and had twin sons before she confronted him), and that there has certainly not been time for the pregnancy to be so advanced that Helena can feel ‘her young one kick’ (5.3.296).

In other words, though it is kept carefully obscured, oblique, and out of central focus, there are sufficient indications that Helena has a complex and aggressive plan, not only to inveigle Bertram into bed with her (with the double ring trick for validation), but also to challenge and humiliate him before the King. Helena's final comments are also worth more analysis than is usually given them. There is no servility or self-abnegation now, nor, sadly, any idealism. In response to the King's surprise, she says, ‘'Tis but the shadow of a wife you see; / The name and not the thing’ (5.3.301-2), and reacts to Bertram's relieved ‘Both, both. O, pardon!’ with a reminder of his behaviour during the bed-trick: ‘O my good lord, when I was like this maid / I found you wondrous kind’ (ll. 303-4). She follows this with the inquiry, ‘Will you be mine now you are doubly won?’ (l. 308), by ‘name’ and ‘thing’, that is, by ring and pregnancy (and once more confronting the King); and has an equally uncompromising riposte for Bertram's promise to love her if she can prove her story:

If it appear not plain and prove untrue
Deadly divorce step between me and you!

(ll. 311-12)

Then she turns away for a greeting to the Countess—‘O my dear mother, do I see you living?’ (l. 313)—the affection of which is all the more striking because such feeling is conspicuously lacking in anything she says to Bertram in the scene. To him she has become ironical: at best teasing, at worst distinctly tart.


Plainly, both lovers are now back in the fold of the French court, but the sense of qualified pleasure in their reunion is reflected also in their elders, who, we remember, had been willing to accommodate Bertram earlier when they thought Helena had died because of his desertion. The King is made to seem rather foolish by the convolutions of the plot. We know he is wrong to have Bertram arrested for Helena's murder and that Helena herself will soon appear; so his comment ‘I am wrapp'd in dismal thinkings’ (l. 128) is apt to get a laugh in performance (and seems phrased with that intention). His growing exasperation with Diana's riddling is also comically pettish (‘Take her away. I do not like her now’, l. 275) and Diana's replies to him are frankly pert: ‘By Jove, if ever I knew man 'twas you’ (l. 281; cf. 287). And his final offer to let Diana choose a husband too must surely be meant to seem ironic when we remember what happened to Helena earlier (particularly since Diana swore off marriage at 4.2.74). The wryness of tone here is underlined by Lafew who does not weep (as is often claimed) but says ‘Mine eyes smell onions, I shall weep anon’ (l. 314) and requests a handkerchief from the scarf-bepestered but now filthy and evil-smelling Parolles, only to be exasperated anew at the latter's ‘curtises’. There is also heavy repetition of ‘if’ and ‘seems’ at the end. Bertram promises love if Helena can prove her story; the King promises Diana a husband if she can prove herself a maid; and he concludes the play with the very qualified couplet,

All yet seems well, and if it end so meet,
The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet,

then extends the same note into the epilogue, begging applause with ‘All is well ended if this suit be won’.

So heavy a repetition must be intentional, and the mixed reaction it requires reflects a generalization made by the First Lord in act 4, in which moral categories are presented in irascible-concupiscible phrasing: ‘The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together; our virtues would be proud if our faults whipp'd them not, and our crimes would despair if they were not cherish'd by our virtues’ (4.3.68-71). All's Well is consummately a play of middle age, written by a poet who belonged to neither of the generations shown in it; it looks back to the golden comedies, and forward to the Romances. Its main effect is one of accommodation and balance, the interweaving of youth and age, vice and virtue, realism and romance; and not the least important part of this ‘mingled yarn’ is its rueful mixture of war and sex, an accommodation of the irascible and the concupiscible, Mars and Diana-Venus, that remains unsettlingly partial.26


  1. G. Wilson Knight, ‘The Triple Eye’, in The Sovereign Flower (1958), pp. 93-160.

  2. ‘Giletta of Narbona’, the ninth story of the third day of Boccaccio's Decameron (1348-58), as translated by William Painter, The Palace of Pleasure (3rd edition, 1575).

  3. Erik Erikson, ‘Youth: Fidelity and Diversity’, in The Challenge of Youth, ed. Erik H. Erikson (Garden, NY, 1965), p. 24.

  4. As it tends to be in the otherwise very acute article by Josephine Waters Bennett, ‘New Techniques of Comedy in All's Well That Ends Well’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 18 (1967), 337-62.

  5. Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (revised edition, Harmondsworth, 1967), pp. 86 ff. (see plate 76).

  6. De Iside et Osiride, 48 (Moralia 370D - 371A), quoted in Wind, p. 86.

  7. Summa Theologica, I, Q.81, Art.2, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 21 vols. (1912-25).

  8. Quotations from All's Well are from the new Arden edition, edited by G. K. Hunter (3rd edition, 1959).

  9. Wind, pp. 74-80.

  10. Samuel Johnson, The Plays of William Shakespeare (1765), in Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Sherbo (New Haven and London, 1968), vol. 7 of The Works of Samuel Johnson, p. 400.

  11. This point is developed in Arthur Kirsch, Shakespeare and the Experience of Love (Cambridge, 1981), chapter 5, and Richard Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Play (Berkeley, 1981), chapter 2.

  12. See Discussions of Shakespeare's Problem Plays, ed. Robert Ornstein (Boston, 1961), p. 40.

  13. Wheeler, p. 37.

  14. For discussion of ironic aspects in the war, see Alexander Leggatt, ‘All's Well That Ends Well: The Testing of Romance’, Modern Language Quarterly, 32 (1971), 21-41.

  15. See Robert Hapgood, ‘The Life of Shame: Parolles and All's Well’, Essays in Criticism, 15 (1965), 269-78. This essay develops the idea of an interconnection between acceptance of life and acceptance of shame.

  16. See Wind, plate 77.

  17. Many of these details are pointed out by Clifford Leech, ‘The Theme of Ambition in All's Well That Ends Well’, ELH, 21 (1954), 17-29.

  18. ‘On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love’, in Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey, 24 vols. (1953-74), vol. 11 (1957), pp. 179-90.

  19. Wheeler, p. 56.

  20. Quoted in Hunter, p. 145.

  21. This relation is developed at length by Wilson Knight and by Wheeler; see also Roger Warren, ‘Why Does It End Well? Helena, Bertram, and the Sonnets’, Shakespeare Survey 22 (Cambridge, 1969), 79-92.

  22. See Denis de Rougemont, Passion and Society, trans. Montgomery Belgion (rev. edn. 1974), for a discussion of the ‘liebestod’ tradition in Western love literature.

  23. The ‘There’ in ‘There shall your master have a thousand loves’ (1.1.162) can be interpreted as either ‘at court’ or ‘in my virginity’.

  24. If the fistula were (as often) in the anus, this might be explicable; but it is never said that this is so, and in the source the fistula is in the King's breast (Hunter, p. 146).

  25. Wheeler makes this point very effectively, pp. 76 ff.

  26. A version of this paper was delivered at the Shakespeare Association of America meeting at Ashland, Oregon, in April, 1983.

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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4501

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 Shakespeare's Richard III remains alive. Are Richmond's orations to his troops as aesthetically unsatisfying as some of his most vocal critics claim? Are they “flat,” “stiff,” “pious,” and “platitudinous?” Or are they instead ringing assertions of what is right and just, powerful enough to circumscribe even Richard's dramatic and rhetorical power? Does the “artist in evil” continue to beguile us, even as he falls? Or does God's chosen Richmond drown Richard's book, even as he takes his crown?1 Because the interpretive questions involve at least two non disputanda, questions of taste and questions of doctrine, the issue is unlikely ever to be resolved. That adds to its fascination.


The influential treatises of Niccolo Machiavelli, Thomas Sutcliffe, Barnabe Rich, and others on the art of war often address the topic of military oratory. They therefore become a useful Renaissance prism through which we can view and try to judge the relative attractiveness of Richmond and Richard during their controversial final scenes.

In The Art of War Machiavelli calls a good oratorical style essential to military leadership:

It was requisite that the excellente Capitaines were oratours: for that without knowyng how to speake to al the army, with difficultie maie be wrought any good thing. … This speakyng taketh awaie feare, incourageth the mindes, increaseth the obstinatenes to faight, discovereth the deceiptes, promiseth rewardes, sheweth the perilles, and the waie to avoide theim, reprehendeth, praieth, threateneth, filleth full of hope, praise, shame, and doeth all those thynges, by the whiche the humaine passions are extincte, or kendled.2

Machiavelli's contemporaries add such crucial particulars as the effective exploitation of God and good cause, and the favorable interpretation of signs. They say that a military leader should stress the weaknesses of the foe and the potency of the leader's own valiant past. Finally he should invoke love of captain and of country.

In A Distant Mirror, Barbara Tuchman discusses the importance of God and of just cause in Medieval and early Renaissance warfare.

While desirable in any epoch, a ‘just war’ in the 14th century was virtually a legal necessity as the basis for requisitioning feudal aids in men and money. It was equally essential for securing God on one's side, for war was considered fundamentally an appeal to the arbitrement of God.3

Matthew Sutcliffe's influential military manual begins with a lengthy argument for just cause: “first, I require religion,” he says, for “God he is Lord of Hostes, and giver of victories; and sure it is not probable, he will give it to those, that aske it not at his handes.” Elsewhere Sutcliffe writes that the “Generall [must] be religious, and a mainteiner of religion, … if hee expect the favour of God, and good successe in his affaires.” In other Renaissance military manuals the appeal to God and good cause can smack as much of opportunism as it does of piety. Onosander suggests that “the sugred talke of the Captaine maye move thym … unto great actes for the love of vertue.” Machiavelli writes, “Enterprises maie the safelier be brought to passe by meanes of religion.” Machiavelli even advises citing dreams as evidence of God's favor, whether or not they have occurred:

Many have tolde how God hath appered unto them in their slepe, who hath admonished them to faight. In our fathers time, Charles the seventh kyng of Fraunce, in the warre whiche he made againste the Englishemen, saied, he counsailed with a maide, sent from God, … the which was occasion of his victorie.4

Whether pious or practical, the invocation of God and just cause was an essential weapon in the arsenal of the military orator.


Though with none of this cynicism, Richmond can honestly and effectively report to his captains:

Me thought their Soules, whose bodies Richard murther'd
Came to my Tent, and cried on Victory:
I promise you my Heart is very jocond,
In the remembrance of so faire a dreame

(ll. 3695-98)5

We have seen these souls and heard their unanimous testimony that “God, and our good cause, fight upon our side” (l. 3706).

Think how often the motif occurs. “Vertuous and holy be thou Conqueror,” says the Ghost of Henry VI. “Good Angels guard thy battell, Live and Flourish,” says Clarence. The two young princes bless Richmond: “Good Angels guard thee from the Boares annoy.” Richard's Anne promises: “Thou quiet soule, / Sleep thou a quiet sleepe: / Dreame of Successe, and Happy Victory.” Buckingham completes this chorus affirming God and good cause: “God, and good Angels fight on Richmonds side” (ll. 3575-3636, passim). Richmond and his allies often claim God and good cause in their military oratory. They march “In Gods name, cheerely on.” Their good “Conscience is a thousand men” (ll. 3419-27, passim). Richmond is assured of God and good cause in his devout prayer and in his battle oration (ll. 3551-57, 3706-36). When Richmond reminds his men of these two potent allies, we know that he is telling the truth as well as exploiting an effective first strategy of military oratory. Richmond and his forces believe in God and just cause. They believe in their opponent's depravity. In the last battle they are strengthened in these beliefs.

Richard, in sharp contrast, can neither shake off the horrifying effects of his dream of despair and death nor dissemble otherwise before his allies:

O Ratcliffe, I have dreamd a fearefull dreame,
What thinkst thou, will our friendes prove all true?

(ll. 3674+ 1 & 2, Q 1)6

By the Apostle Paul, shadowes to night
Have stroke more terror to the soule of Richard,
Then can the substance of ten thousand Souldiers
Armed in proofe, and led by shallow Richmond.

(ll. 3677-80)

Again we have witnessed the unanimous testimony of the ghosts. As Richard knows, it is more substance than shadow. He has stabbed a king, butchered two princes, punched another king “full of holes,” washed a brother to death, killed Rivers, Grey, Vaughan, Hastings, “wretched Anne,” and Buckingham. His cause is overwhelmingly bad; all of these “wrongs” are in Richard's bosom, weighing him down like lead. “Bloody and guilty” becomes the countering epithet to Richmond's “Vertuous and holy”—that and “dispaire and dye.” Near the middle of this chorus, all chant to Richmond, “Awake, / And thinke our wrongs in Richards bosome, / Will conquer him. Awake, and win the day” (ll. 3564-95, passim).

Not only is Richard without supernatural sanction or good cause for the upcoming battle; he is also without the wit or the will to pretend to have them. This is true when he wakes; it is also true during his battle oration. Not incidentally, Hall's Richard is more than equal to this challenge. Shakespeare's is not. Apparently he knows that he is “One that hath ever beene Gods Enemy.” Richmond's corollary is inescapable: “Then if you fight against Gods Enemy, / God will in justice ward you as his Soldiers” (ll. 3718-20). Only Richmond can invoke such an ally in Shakespeare's version of the battle orations or during the final act. By any standards, then—whether Sutcliffe's idealism or Machiavelli's cynicism—Richard is Richmond's clear inferior in terms of God and good cause. He does not even invoke them as an oratorical technique.


On the other hand, Richard is probably better than Richmond at the time-honored strategy of putting down his enemy, even though Richmond has better material to work with. Machiavelli advises his military orator to “make thy men to esteme little the enemie, as Agesilao a Spartaine used, who shewed to his souldiou[r]s, certain Persians naked, to the intent that seyng their delicate members, thei should not have cause to feare them.”7 Sutcliffe suggests declaring “the enemies wantes, and weakenes, and disadvantages.” Harault cites the example of Lisander at the siege of Corinth, who said to his troops, “Are you not ashamed to be afraid to assaile those enemies, which are so slothfull and negligent, that hares sleep quietly within the precinct of their walles.”8

Richard's speech is composed almost exclusively of such deprecation of his enemies. He insults Richmond's troops:

Remember whom you are to cope withall,
A sort of Vagabonds, Rascals, and Run-awayes,
A scum of Brittaines, and base Lackey Pezants,
Whom their o're-cloyed Country vomits forth
To desperate Adventures, and assur'd Destruction.

(ll. 3785-89)

He calls them “straglers,” “over-weening Ragges of France,” “famish'd Beggars,” “poore Rats,” “bastard Britaines” (ll. 3785-3803, passim). He insults Richmond in the same key:

And who doth leade them, but a paltry Fellow?
Long kept in Britaine at our Mothers cost,
A Milke-sop, one that never in his life
Felt so much cold, as over shooes in Snow.

(ll. 3793-96)

Without just cause or God's name, Richard's recourse to this tactic smacks of desperation and of pettiness. But he does play this Machiavellian card for all it is worth.

Richmond is not totally deficient, incidentally, in this strategy. Against Richard he says,

For, what is he they follow? Truly Gentlemen,
A bloudy Tyrant, and a Homicide:
One rais'd in blood, and one in blood establish'd;
One that made meanes to come by what he hath,
And slaughter'd those that were the meanes to help him:
A base foule Stone, made precious by the soyle
Of Englands Chaire, where he is falsely set:
One that hath ever beene Gods Enemy.

(ll. 3711-17)

Earlier, Richmond had also attacked Richard as

The wretched, bloody, and usurping Boare,
(That spoyl'd your Summer Fields, and fruitfull Vines)
Swilles your warm blood like wash, & makes his trough
In your embowel'd bosomes: This foule Swine.

(ll. 3412-15)

Both speakers, then, use this tactic freely. The differences in their usage deserve notice. A fourth of Richmond's military oratory is ad hominem, as against nearly three-fourths of Richard's. Further, Richmond's assaults against Richard are mostly true. That is to say, they are not so much ad hominem argument as articulations of just cause; witness the deserved final epithets as “Gods Enemy.” That Richard speaks ad hominem almost exclusively attests further to his loss of wit and vitality at this crucial moment. He himself admits “I have not that Alacrity of Spirit, / Nor cheere of Minde that I was wont to have” (ll. 3513-14). In Richmond's mouth, attacking the man asserts Richard's unjust cause. Paradoxically, it may also add some attractive dents of humanity to the surface of Richmond's shining armor. Shakespeare follows Hall more closely in this respect than in others. Perhaps he too wanted that healthy dose of anger, which sometimes “hath a privilege” even in God's minister.

Incidentally, Richard may also take his own oratory too literally here. Harault advises against overconfidence before battle, a fault Richard betrays in his oration. Of Darius' defeat by Alexander, he says: “The thing that undid him, was his overweening opinion that he should overcome Alexander with ease, which is the thing that overthroweth all such as upon disdain to their enemies, do set no good order in their affairs, and in the leading of their armies.”9 Richmond's oration acknowledges the military power as well as the moral impotence of his foe.


As further advice, Sutcliffe urges the military orator “to confirme them with hope and report of their former valiant actions.” Garrard stresses “the example of magnanimitie in their forefathers.”10 Richard has the better of Richmond in this area. He can effectively remind his troops of the battles of Poitiers and Crecy and Agincourt, all major English victories over the French: “And not these bastard Britaines; whom our Fathers / Have in their owne Land beaten, bobb'd, and thump'd, / And on Record, left them the heires of shame” (ll. 3803-5). Richard's troops should be encouraged that they are again engaging these French. In the light of recent history, Richmond's men must be more than a little unsure.

In fact, Richmond might be countering that fear by leaning so heavily on God's help and on the theme of hope: “In Gods name cheerely on, couragious Friends, / To reape the Harvest of perpetuall peace, / By this one bloody tryall of sharpe Warre.” Again he urges, “Then in Gods name march, / True Hope is swift, and flyes with Swallowes wings, / Kings it makes Gods, and meaner creatures Kings.” Even at the end of his oration, he encourages them similarly, “Sound Drummes and Trumpets boldly, and cheerefully, / God and Saint George, Richmond, and Victory.” Without the precedent of recent victory, Richmond must emphasize his good hope in God's cause and their own. He must encourage them as Englishmen, invoking St. George. His reassurances have a psychological validity, an insight into human nature and human need, an awareness of his own vulnerability and that of his troops, that further humanize Richmond. Like Hal inspiring the troops before Agincourt, Richmond is effective because he is one of them. They are truly “Fellowes in Armes,” and “most loving Frends” (ll. 3406-29, passim; 3735-36). Richmond may thus turn this apparent disadvantage to his favor; in the process he becomes a more attractive character as well.


With “Encourage them with promises, and hope of rewarde,” Sutcliffe sounds another common theme of military oratory. Garrard urges reciting “benefits to soule and bodie,” crisply combining the appeal to greed with that to just cause. Machiavelli says that any good orator “promiseth rewardes.”11 Interestingly, Richmond is much more lavish than Richard in numbering the rewards of battle. However, Shakespeare has refined his appeal considerably from that recounted in Hall:

Therefore labour for your gayne and swet for your right: while we were in Brytaine we had small livynges and litle plentye of welth or welfare, now is the tyme come to get abundance of riches and copie of profit, which is the reward of your service and merite of your payne.


Shakespeare's Richmond replaces material gain with these nobler spoils:

Then if you fight against Gods Enemy,
God will in justice ward you as his Soldiers.
If you do sweare to put a Tyrant downe,
You sleepe in peace, the Tyrant being slaine:
If you do fight against your Countries Foes,
Your Countries Fat shall pay your paines the hyre.
If you do fight in safegard of your wives,
Your wives shall welcome home the Conquerors.
If you do free your Children from the Sword,
Your Childrens Children quits it in your Age.

(ll. 3719-28)

God's reward, peaceful sleep, a welcome home, love, honor in old age—these are the rewards of noble combat in Richmond's good cause. “Countries Fat” is his one concession to the more materialistic interests of his men. Even Brutus would not be embarrassed by this Cassius.

Richard, being in power, leans instead on threats to the status quo, fear of shame and fear of loss:

You sleeping safe, they bring you to unrest:
You having Lands, and blest with beauteous wives,
They would restraine the one, distaine the other.

(ll. 3790-92)

Lost lands, stained wives, unrest—these are the threats of the established but reeling King. “Shall these enjoy our Lands? lye with our Wives? / Ravish our daughters?” (ll. 3806-7). The repetition again suggests desperation. It also betrays a lack of cause and a loss of ingenuity, not to mention a dearth of abstract value in Richard's universe. On the other hand, all of these arguments are also established parts of the arsenal of military oratory. Sutcliffe says, “Feare them with shame.” Machiavelli and Garrard urge threatening “present peril.”12 Richard uses what little stock he has. However, his inventory of invention is running almost as low as the number of causes he can claim.


Of “love of Captain and country”13 we must infer the effectiveness of Richard and Richmond from their words and from the responses of their men. Both leaders invoke the patriotic hero and patron saint of England, St. George. Richmond connects him with God, Richard with “the spleene of fiery Dragons” (l. 3822). Hope and despair are fairly obviously the respective companions of Richmond and Richard in this little counterpoint. Both men harp on defending their land, their wives, and their children. Richard can have little moral leverage with the last two points. Richmond addresses “most loving Frends” and “loving Countrymen,” and seems surrounded by them in Oxford, Blount, Herbert, and Stanley. Richard has Surrey, Norfolk, Ratcliffe, and Catesby, loyal chiefs if not loving friends. But when Blount says “He hath no friends, but what are friends for fear” (l. 3425), we cannot believe him far wrong. Richard addresses no friends in his oration, only the “Gentlemen of England” (l. 3809). Their only true cause is country, not king. Even the diminished Richard is apparently aware of this liability in his words of address.


Elaborate signs precede the battle, and the public reactions of Richard and Richmond to them are instructive. Proctor says, “some people doe stumble muche at sygnes or tokens which befall before battaill, … wherefore the wyse captayne will chearefullye expounde all suche chaunces for his advauntage … [as] a happy sygne of the victorye fallinge unto him.”14 Richmond has an easy time of this, because his signs are good and his heart is jocund. He has had “the sweetest sleepe, / And fairest boading Dreames, / That ever entred in a drowsie head.” The ghosts have promised “Successe, and Happy Victory.” Therefore Richmond does not have to feign when he cheerfully proclaims, “Me thought their Soules, whose bodies Richard murther'd, / Came to my Tent, and cried on Victory” (ll. 3623, 3691-96, passim).

Richard does have to feign good cheer, and he cannot. His vaunted ingenuity fails him yet again, as it has failed him consistently ever since he became king. To Ratcliffe he admits, “I have dreamd a fearefull dreame.” He adds, “shadowes to night / Have stroke more terror to the soule of Richard, / Then can the substance of ten thousand Souldiers / Armed in proofe, and led by shallow Richmond.” To the troops there is a similar admission, only barely masked by ineffective bravado: “Let not our babling Dreames affright our soules: / For Conscience is a word that Cowards use.” Unless all of his troops are as cynical, as skeptical, as Richard himself, this piece of oratory does not augur well for his cause, or speak well of his presence of mind. Richmond ignores the darkling sky. Richard is enveloped by it, as by guilt: “Who saw the Sunne today?” he asks; “Then he disdaines to shine. … A blacke day will it be to somebody.” All of this is spoken out loud, before Ratcliffe and Catesby. Then “The Sun will not be seene to day, / The sky doth frowne, and lowre upon our Army. / I would these dewy teares were from the ground.” Even when Richard rouses himself to shake off the omen, he still attests unconsciously to its power: “the selfe-same Heaven / That frownes on me, lookes sadly upon him” (ll. 3674 + 1-3779, passim).

Heaven frowns on Richard; on Richmond it looks sadly. They are not the same. Richard knows it, and he cannot feign otherwise. The good face that he puts on immediately afterward remains colored gray by these frowning skies. The desperation and emptiness of the oration which follows is darkened too by Richard's encounters with these signs and tokens. His despair must affright the souls of all but the most depraved of his men.


Finally, Richmond is simply a better orator than Richard. Richard is superb in one-on-one conversations. His soliloquies and his earliest dialogue are masterpieces of personal, colloquial rhetoric, full of energy, wit, and inspiration. But Richard is no public speaker. By nature chaotic, Richard is no good at the ordered, formal flourishes that characterize most good oratory. When he tries to use them, his crude images, downward comparisons, and base epithets are incongruent with the high style. As in so many other ways, Richard as military orator is finally a victim of himself. “What shall I say more then I have inferr'd?” (l. 3784) is an interesting admission of this victimization. Richard has denied God. He has forsaken all traditional values, all abstractions even. “Conscience is a word,” says this nominalist, “Air—a trim reckoning.” Like Falstaff's “catechism,”15 Richard's comment here dooms him to ultimate impotency. He is himself alone. So his language is limited to his condition of being. After the brief interlude of the Vice, he is base, inferential, uninspiring.

Richmond, in contrast, because he is allied with God and good cause, is eloquent precisely because he is not alone. He believes in God, in virtue, in family, friends, and country; he believes in order, in justice. Shakespeare's Richmond knows truth; he does not infer it. Thus he can assert truth and be believed in that assertion. Richmond exploits this advantage to the hilt, but because he also believes it, there is no dissimulation. Truth arms his oratory. Style and being are one. Richard is no longer clever enough or sufficiently in command of himself to use Richmond's rhetorical strategies, even cynically. Words, so often abused by Richard, continue to take their revenge.

Barnabe Rich says of the captain's oratory that “it encourageth the minds either of hope, either else of despair.”16 There could hardly be a clearer illustration of these opposites than during the battle orations in Richard III. Richmond unequivocally ends on the note of hope, as he should since his cause is just and his conscience clear: “Sound Drummes and Trumpets boldly, and cheerefully, / God and Saint George, Richmond, and Victory.” Richard's strains are much as the ghosts predicted, chaotic, sulphurous, full of valiant fury, signifying nothing. He prefaces his oration, “March on, joyne bravely, let us too't pell mell, / If not to heaven, then hand in hand to Hell.” He ends it with “Our Ancient word of Courage, faire S. George / Inspire us with the spleene of fiery Dragons: / Upon them, Victorie sits on our helmes” (ll. 3735-36, 3782-83, 3821-23). It does, like a vulture or a leering Beelzebub. St. George is not the Dragon, nor is he just a word. If Richard had the time or the composure, even he might appreciate this last revenge of language and truth upon himself.

In the final act of Richard III, and in the chronicle tradition too, military oratory consistently, though not simplistically, proves to be one of Richmond's strengths and one of Richard's weaknesses. After Richmond's oration, Hall reports, “These cherefull wordes he sett forthe with such gesture of his body and smylyng countenance, as though all redye he had vanquyshed hys enemies” (fol.1viv). The effect of Richard's oration was quite different:

This exhortacion encouraged all such as favoured hym, but suche as were present more for dreade then love, kyssed them openly, whom they inwardely hated other sware outwarde ly to take part with suche whose death thei secretely compassed and inwardely imagened, other promised to invade the kynge's enemies, whiche fled and fought with fyrce courage against the kyng. … So was his people to hym unsure and unfaithfull at his ende.


Shakespeare seems to have followed Hall very closely in these respects. Richard's battle oration simply did not work, in Hall or in Shakespeare. “So was his people to hym unsure and unfaithfull at his ende.” The murderous Machiavelli could have schooled Richard better on military oratory. But then, there was no “good thing” that Richard could have wrought by the final scene of his life, except his death.

According to the standards of the foremost military manuals of the time, Richmond overwhelms Richard before the Battle of Bosworth Field. Richard knows the oratorical rules, but his speeches remain vacuous and desperate. In contrast, Richmond is a savvy military orator who is also a good man. Further, he has good men to respond to his good words. If God and good cause fight on Richmond's side, so do considerable rhetorical skills. The power of his ordered rhetoric predicts his subsequent success at arms. Richmond's words have been weighed too lightly in the critical and the theatrical traditions. Perhaps filtering them through these military manuals will help to right the balance.


  1. Many critics accept Richmond as a benevolent agent of divine providence but are unimpressed by his oratorical or personal styles at play's end: Robert G. Hunter, Shakespeare and the Mystery of God's Judgments (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1976), p. 73; John Palmer, Political Characters of Shakespeare (London: Macmillan, 1945), p. 116; M. M. Reese, The Cease of Majesty (London: Edward Arnold, 1961), p. 212; A. P. Rossiter, “Angel With Horns,” in Shakespeare: The Histories, ed. Eugene Waith (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1965), pp. 71-75, 80. Those who question the play's providential scheme are even more inclined to find his orations unattractive: David L. Frey, The First Tetralogy (The Hague: Mouton, 1976), pp. 130-32; Nicholas Brooke, Shakespeare's Early Tragedies (London: Methuen, 1968), p. 78; Wilbur Sanders, The Dramatist and the Received Idea (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1968), p. 109. A small third group finds Richmond's orations aesthetically and morally satisfying: E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (New York: Macmillan, 1946), pp. 201-2; Emrys Jones, The Origins of Shakespeare (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), pp. 231, 204. I join their diminishing ranks in this article.

  2. Nicholas Machiavelli, The Arte of Warre, trans. Peter Whitchorne (London: 1560), sig. R1.

  3. Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978), p. 73.

  4. Matthew Sutcliffe, The Practice, Proceedings, and Lawes of Armes (London: Christopher Barker, 1593), pp. 37-38; Onosandro Platonico, Of the General Captaine, and of his Office, trans. P. Whytehorne (London: W. Seres, 1563), sig. B3; Machiavelli, sig. R1v. William Garrard, The Arte of Warre, corrected by Captain Hitchcock (London: Roger Warde, 1591), p. 145, also prescribes exploiting “the love toward God.”

  5. William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Richard the Third, in Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (London: Isaac Jaggard and Ed. Blount, 1623). Throughout, quotations from Richard III will refer to the First Folio edition and the Through-Line-Numbering system (TLN) adopted by Charlton Hinman for the Norton Facsimile of the First Folio (New York: W. W. Norton, 1968). Kristian Smidt's parallel text edition of The Tragedy of King Richard the Third (New York: Humanities Press, 1969) is an accurate and useful edition of the Folio and Quarto texts.

  6. This Q notation indicates lines from the First Quarto of 1597, and will subsequently occur in the text.

  7. Machiavelli, sig. R1v.

  8. Sutcliffe, p. 157; Jacques Harault, Politicke, Moral, and Martial Discourses, trans. William Golding (London: Adam Islip, 1595), p. 424.

  9. Harault, p. 398.

  10. Sutcliffe, p. 157; Garrard, p. 145.

  11. Sutcliffe, p. 157; Garrard, p. 145; Machiavelli, sig. R1.

  12. Sutcliffe, p. 157; Machiavelli, sig. R1v; Garrard, p. 145.

  13. Garrard, p. 145.

  14. Thomas Procter, Of the Knowledge and Conducte of Warres (London: Richardi Tottelli, 1578), sig. K1v.

  15. 1 Henry IV, V.i.134, in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969).

  16. Barnabe Rich, A Path-way to Military Practice (London: John Charlewood, 1587), sig. H2.

Lorraine Helms (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6296

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 and lechery; nothing else holds fashion” (5.2.194-95). It is a cry from which Shakespeare scholars long turned in disgust, dismissing Troilus and Cressida as vicious and cynical, a cruel misrepresentation of both Homer's heroic warriors and Chaucer's courtly lovers. For commentators who have turned to Troilus and Cressida in the aftermath of twentieth-century wars, the play has become a “great dispute about the sense and cost of war, about the existence and cost of love”; its action seems “all part of the game of war” and its arguments “all ceremonies of rededication to the code that maintains the war.” On the eroticized battlefields and in the militarized bedchambers of Troilus and Cressida, we have come to see the bleak and violent sexuality our world has bred from martial pomp and circumstance.1

Yet Shakespeare's “great dispute about the sense and cost of war, about the existence and cost of love” rises from the traditional discourse of the Trojan War. Even in its earliest literary formulations, the “matter of Troy” was distant and mythical, without fixed ideological content. When, in the later tradition, Rome and London fancifully traced their ancestry to the vanquished Trojans rather than the victorious Greeks, they could celebrate neither the rape of Helen nor the fall of Troy as a nationalistic exploit of martial prowess. Nor had the legends ever fully silenced the voices of the Trojan women. Even through the mediated texts of Homer, Euripides, Virgil, and Chaucer, the Trojan women speak of contradictions in the narrative and dramatic representation of war. This “matter of Troy” is the prehistory of Troilus and Cressida. It is not by devaluing but by assimilating it that Shakespeare arrives at his bitter appraisal of “wars and lechery.”

The Iliad has served men as a monument to martial glory. It represents a masculinist world in which women are at best the mothers of heroes; at worst, slaves and war prizes.2 The separate spheres of men and women are divided by the gates through which Troy's warriors go to confront the Greek invaders.3 But the violence of war cannot be cordoned off; it threatens to spill from the field to the polis and from the polis to the oikos where the Trojan women wait. In Book 6, Hector returns from the battlefield to find Andromache mourning at the city wall. She offers advice to resolve “the pain of the warrior's role, of the man who, on behalf of his family must leave his family, so that his very defense of them becomes a betrayal”:4

Please take pity upon me then, stay here upon the rampart, that you may not leave your child an orphan, your wife a widow, but draw your people up by the fig tree, there where the city is openest to attack, and where the wall may be mounted.


Andromache's strategy would not keep Hector from battle, but from the forefront of battle where personal danger and hence personal glory are greatest.5 She asks him to fight defensively, to shore up the weakness of the ramparts and protect the citadel. Hector rejects her plan: he must “fight always among the foremost ranks of the Trojans / winning for my own self great glory, and for my father” (6.445-46).

With the Greek army camped before Troy, Andromache does not challenge the war's necessity. Yet her intervention exposes the disjunction between the motive and the pretext for war. For Andromache, dominance and submission are not sources of glory and shame, but the terms of destruction or survival. Her advice to Hector initiates a challenge the Trojan women will repeatedly offer to the Homeric warriors. They do not counsel pacifism, but defense. Their fugitive and cloistered warfare does not sally forth to meet its adversaries. But neither does it respect chivalric rules of combat. Unlike the ritualized combat through which the Homeric warrior establishes hierarchy, its object is survival, not glory. Andromache fights a woman's war, a guerre à outrance to defend her home and children.6

In Homer's narrative, women's voices are audible only in occasional notes of warning and supplication. They are absent from the battlefield and silent in the councils of war. In Euripides' The Trojan Women, however, women's voices resound in the stillness that follows the noise of battle. Euripides transfers the focus from the epic siege of Troy to the tragedy of its sack. He transforms a narrative of the violence that accompanies war into a theatrical representation of the violence that follows it, acknowledging that the oikos has claims as great as the polis on a tragic dramatist's attention. A woman's wartime experience of rape, deracination, and concubinage can, like a man's death in battle, provide a locus of articulate suffering.

For the chorus of The Trojan Women, the aftermath of war is an interstice between marriage and concubinage. No longer the wives of Trojans, they are not yet the concubines of Greeks. As they cross the threshold of the oikos, they respond to the violence in this postwar exchange of women. For Cassandra, in whose own fate marriage, concubinage, rape, and death are interwoven, violence begins to obscure distinctions between male and female experience:7

The Achaeans came beside Scamander's banks, and died day after day, though none sought to wrench their land from them nor their own towering cities.

The Trojans have that glory which is loveliest: They died for their own country. So the bodies of all who took the spears were carried home in loving hands, brought, in the land of their fathers, to the embrace of earth and buried becomingly as the rite fell due.

[374-76, 386-90]

Through Euripides' metaphors of the embracing earth, the slaughtered Trojan warriors begin to merge with the women who survived them. They participate in the private world of the oikos, emerging from its protective walls only because they must, in self-defense. Their fates are intertwined with their city's; their bodies are bound to the earth that outlasts the battlefield the invaders have erected upon it. In defeat, the Trojans' military stance comes to resemble Andromache's strategy. It is the feminized stance of those for whom defeat means not only dishonor but destruction.

Euripides takes the Trojans' perspective to challenge the xenophobia and androcentrism he locates at the heart of war. When Virgil tells the story of Troy's fall, in Book 2 of the Aeneid, he too takes the Trojans' perspective. The Aeneid is a national epic that serves to create a patriotic prologue for Roman imperialism, and yet the metaphors of Virgil's narrative resonate with Euripides' tragedy. In The Trojan Women, the destruction of the city and its ruler's death are the prelude to rape; in the Aeneid, they are indissolubly twined in a language of sexual violation:

And then, before the very porch, along the outer portal Pyrrhus leaps with pride; his armor glitters with a brazen brilliance he is like a snake that, fed on poisonous plants and swollen underground all winter, now his slough cast off, made new and bright with youth, uncoils his slippery body to the light; his breast erect, he towers toward the sun; he flickers from his mouth a three-forked tongue.

[Pyrrhus] takes up a two-edged ax and cracks the stubborn gates. He rips the bronze-bound portals off the hinges, cuts through a beam, digs out tough oak: the breach is vast, a gaping mouth. The inner house is naked now, the long halls, open; naked, the private rooms of Priam and the ancient kings.

[2.627-35, 640-48]

As the serpentine Pyrrhus penetrates first Priam's chamber and then his flesh, the king merges symbolically with the feminine citadel. By placing war's cruelest violence in Troy's most private chambers, the Aeneid identifies erotic and military domination, representing the breached walls and the mutilated body as a unified locus of violence.

The eroticized violence of Virgil's description reemerges in recurring analogies between the rape of women's bodies and the conquest of walled cities, analogies from which Renaissance literature creates its “patriarchal territories.”8 For Shakespeare, the metaphor of Troy's rape serves as an image and archetype of sexual violence. In The Rape of Lucrece, Lucrece stands before a tapestry of Troy's fall after Tarquin has raped her, finding in the images of Troy's ruin the horror of her own. As Sinon came to Priam and betrayed him, so Tarquin came to her: “As Priam him did cherish, / So did I Tarquin; so my Troy did perish” (1541-47). Shakespeare, like Virgil, identifies the citadel with its ruler; he associates the penetration of Troy's defenses with violent sexual penetration. Whatever is besieged, whatever is penetrated, becomes by analogy female. Defensive warfare becomes a feminine enterprise.9

Like The Rape of Lucrece, Troilus and Cressida draws on the legends of classical Troy, but the play also explores medieval traditions derived from Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. Chaucer's romance, like Euripides' tragedy, explores women's wartime struggle against rape and concubinage. In the romance, however, the protocols of courtly love and honor obscure, though they cannot obliterate, the force that drives the Trojan women from the citadel. The violence of war is represented as a symbolic violence for which the Trojan women, with Criseyde as their surrogate, can themselves be blamed.

Criseyde is a composite of two Homeric characters: Chryseis, whom Agamemnon returned to her father, the Trojan priest Chryses, and Briseis, whom Agamemnon took from Achilles after relinquishing Chryseis. For medieval chroniclers, there was “no essential difference between Homeric slave-girls … and a medieval lady who could be used as a slave-girl if it seemed militarily desirable”;10 thus Criseyde became a lady of the Trojan court infamous for betraying her lover. Yet the chroniclers do distinguish between slave-girl and lady when they claim that Criseyde freely chose Diomedes for her lover. In condemning Criseyde, they deny the violence of deracination and concubinage.

For Criseyde, unlike earlier Trojan women, it is not the destruction of the citadel that exposes her to the Greeks' rough pleasures. The Trojans themselves trade her to regain Antenor, a valuable prisoner of war. Only Hector challenges this ancient ceremony of war:

“Syres, she nys no prisonere,” he seyde;
“I not on yow who that this charge leyde,
But, on my part, ye may eftsone hem telle,
We usen here no wommen for to selle.”


Hector is shouted down, and the exchange goes forward:

“Ector,” quod they, “what goost may yow enspyre,
This womman thus to shilde, and don us leese
Daun Antenor—a wrong wey now ye chese.”


Although Troy still remains standing at the close of Troilus and Criseyde, violence nevertheless penetrates the citadel at this moment. Criseyde's exchange brings the war into the daily life of the besieged city. The demands of the battlefield determine the values of the marketplace: Criseyde can be bartered as a slave, since she has no other military value. Her expulsion confirms her marginal status. But in exchanging Criseyde for Antenor, the Trojans have forced Criseyde to exchange Trojans for Greeks. From Criseyde's perspective, the exchange exposes the interchangeable roles of her protectors and her assailants. As Criseyde rides to the Greek camp in Diomedes' custody, her Troy, like Lucrece's, perishes.

The exchange of Criseyde anticipates the fate of the other Trojan women, who will pass from the conquered city into the possession of the victorious Greeks. Like the other Trojan women, Criseyde is a victim of the war. But since the force that imposes her fate has been obscured, her strategy for survival can be equated with Helen's ambiguous complicity in violation. Helen can manipulate the patriarchal exchange of women at her pleasure. Criseyde is Helen tamed and conquered, Helen rendered vulnerable to men who may trade and barter her, Helen expelled from the citadel and punished at last for her lawless sexual choices. As a surrogate for the Trojan women, Criseyde obscures the violence of concubinage; as a surrogate for Helen, she invalidates women's power to take the offensive in their own survival. Her vulnerability transforms Helen's aggressive sexual posture into the defensive stance of the Trojan women.

Like Chaucer's romance, Shakespeare's play inserts a Euripidean focus on women's wartime experience into the framework of the Homeric siege. In a theatrical representation, however, Cressida's response first to Troilus's militarized courtship and then to the Greeks' violent eroticism is mediated through an actor's voice and body, not through a Chaucerian narrator who, taking her guilt for granted, explains that she “sory was for hire untrouthe” (5.1098) and excuses “hire yet for routhe” (5.1099). Shakespeare's “Arm'd Prologue” explicitly disavows responsibility for such mediation, noting that the interpretation of a play emerges from the dynamic relation between actors and audience: “Like or find fault, do as your pleasures are, / Now good or bad, 'tis but the chance of war” (Prologue, 22-31).11

The Prologue does not refer to the romance from which the play takes its title. The story of Troilus and Cressida is merely an episode of a war in which the casus belli, “the chance of war,” dominates eros. For the chance of war gives time and circumstance their keenest weapons against humanity. Time and circumstance, empowered by violence, turn occasions for love and bravery into furtive moments of pleasure and ignominious rites of domination. Wars and lechery hold fashion, and make battlefields of public and private life.

This world of wars and lechery transforms the traditional contrast between the aggressive masculinity of the Greek camp and the feminized world within the citadel. Shakespeare's Troy takes the political form of a chivalric fraternity that contrasts with the patriarchal hierarchy of the Greek army.12 But the Trojans too are warmongers. Troilus and Cressida reexamines the tradition that feminizes the Trojans, making Troy participate actively in its own victimization. The Trojans keep Helen, for the Greeks keep Priam's sister Hesione (2.2.80). Greek retaliations follow Trojan raids; Trojan retaliations follow Greek raids. The Trojans' defensive stance merely logs their current military position in a long conflict during which the exchange of women has repeatedly served as a pretext for the circulation of violence.

Violence underwrites the power of every cultural rite and representation in both the Trojan citadel and the Greek camp. The Greeks speak of ending the stalemate; the Trojans speak of ending the siege. Neither can end the interminable agon from which the stalemate and the siege result. Their councils are merely the war's epiphenomena. They display the forms of power that Michel Foucault describes when he inverts Clausewitz's aphorism: “Politics is a continuation of war by other means. … The role of political power … is perpetually to inscribe [the disequilibrium of war] in social institutions, in economic inequalities, in language, in the bodies themselves of each and every one of us.”13

In Troilus and Cressida, the political continuation of war assimilates a Machiavellianism that anticipates Foucault's remarks. In the Proheme to The Arte of Warre, translated into English in 1560, Machiavelli argues that war is the foundation of public life and military structure society's best model. Whatever diligence has been employed in civil life “to maintain men faithful, peaceable, and full of the fear of God, in the service of war, it was doubled.” In the interests of civic order, military life should be “with all study followed and imitated.”14 Machiavelli's statecraft enables rulers to direct violence with a technician's skill. Yet they can only create order sufficient to continue war by the “other means” of political discourse.

In Troilus and Cressida, the creation of this Machiavellian order is Ulysses' task. His degree speech, sometimes celebrated as Shakespeare's most eloquent statement of “the Elizabethan world picture” of a divinely instituted hierarchy,15 seems, in its dramatic context, rather to expose the fragility of an arbitrary social structure of power and privilege:16

                                                            O, when degree is shak'd,
Which is the ladder of all high designs,
The enterprise is sick. How could communities,
Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenity and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark what discord follows.


For Ulysses, “it is not the differences, but the loss of them that gives rise to violence and chaos.”17 He pits the forms of power against the chaos of violence; he creates authority by molding force into shapes that will serve the state. Social structure depends, not on cosmic harmony, but on political power, and political power, as Tudor statesmen recognized, consists of monopolizing violence.18 Like Machiavelli, Ulysses predicates his statecraft on the art of war. His hierarchical society, with its “specialty of rule,” its “primogenity and due of birth,” and its “prerogative of age,” is a well-organized army.

In the degree speech, Ulysses addresses the leaders of a military expedition. While his subject ostensibly encompasses all arts and sciences, all products and processes of peace, Ulysses' vision, like Machiavelli's, makes military subordination the foundation for social relations. He describes academic communities, civic associations, commercial trade, and, as his instance of familial order, the obedience a son owes his father. These homosocial relationships are all analogues to the military hierarchy that is his real concern. But he ignores entirely one cornerstone of “the Elizabethan world view,” the subordination of wife to husband. He silently suppresses the military significance of the hierarchy of gender. A subsequent speech, however, reveals the patriarchal foundation for his militarization of peacetime institutions:

[Achilles and Patroclus] tax our policy, and call
          it cowardice,
Count wisdom as no member of the war,
Forestall prescience, and esteem no act
But that of hand. The still and mental parts,
That do contrive how many hands shall strike
When fitness calls them on, and know by measure
Of their observant toil the enemies' weight—
Why, this hath not a finger's dignity.
They call this bed-work, mapp'ry, closet-war;
So that the ram that batters down the wall,
For the great swinge and rudeness of his poise,
They place before his hand that made the engine,
Or those that with the fineness of their souls
By reason guide his execution.


With the petulance of neglected age, Ulysses advocates a gerontocracy. Young men become instruments of violence in the hands of the old, the means by which the power of the elders is maintained. By giving old men the political power to send the young to war, gerontocracy controls violence; by giving them the domestic power to silence and sequester women, it controls eros. Ulysses' hierarchy requires the isolation of the field from the polis and the polis from the oikos. To maintain it, he must keep Achilles in combat; and he must keep Cressida silent, for in her eye, cheek, and lip there is a speech “so glib” (4.5.58) that it seems to challenge his power.

Achilles is Greece's greatest warrior. He is also bisexual, and, when Troilus and Cressida opens, has withdrawn to his tent with his lover Patroclus, mingling military comraderie with sexual companionship. In rejecting the agonistic activity that defines masculinity, Achilles has become as vulnerable to men's judgments as the Trojan women. Unlike the women, Achilles withdraws from the public world voluntarily and temporarily, but in his privacy he too becomes subject to incursions from the public discourse of violence:

                                                                                                    But 'gainst your privacy
The reasons are more potent and heroical.
'Tis known, Achilles, that you are in love
With one of Priam's daughters.
                                                            Ha? known?
Is that a wonder?


There is a mystery (with whom relation
Durst never meddle) in the soul of state,
Which hath an operation more divine
Than breath or pen can give expressure to.
All the commerce that you have had with Troy
As perfectly is ours as yours, my lord,
And better would it fit Achilles much
To throw down Hector than Polyxena.

[3.3.191-95, 201-8]

The rationally apprehensible cosmos of the degree speech gives way to a fideistic resolution that further mystifies the power of the state. In capitulating to it, Achilles does “throw down” Hector rather than Polyxena, in a combat more eroticized than his courtship had been. In his desire for battle, Achilles suffers

                                        a woman's longing,
An appetite that I am sick withal,
To see great Hector in his weeds of peace,
To talk with him, and to behold his visage,
Even to my full of view.


When, during a truce, Hector comes to the Greek camp, Achilles watches him with a still keener passion:

Now Hector, I have fed mine eyes on thee;
I have with exact view perus'd thee, Hector,
And quoted joint by joint.


Achilles' ambiguous sexuality becomes an element in his military power, since his “woman's longing” arms him with intimate knowledge of his adversary's body. Combat is a form of intimacy, for it demands empathy to foresee and forestall the enemies' maneuvers. But the erotic valence of combat becomes particularly lethal in Achilles because he is an androgynous warrior who exploits both masculine strategies for dominance and feminine tactics for survival. Achilles wages a guerre à outrance, killing Hector in an ambush, not in the face-to-face combat to which Hector's chivalric credo restricts him.

Thus concludes the representation of war's eroticized violence. In the parallel representation of lechery's militarized sexuality, the art of war is adapted for the battle of the sexes. There is a Machiavellianism for the citadel as well as the camp. For Machiavelli, only sexual violence can control the feminine power that would otherwise disrupt the state. “Fortune,” Machiavelli warns the ruler, “is a woman, and it is necessary, if one wishes to hold her down, to beat her and fight with her” (The Prince, 25). The goddess Fortuna, thus tamed by the man of virtù, grants him power and prestige. Machiavelli's imagery eroticizes political power and military conquest, while sexuality becomes a campaign of conquest, with advances, retreats, feints, strategic and tactical failures and successes.19 To control Fortuna, the Machiavellian must control the sexuality of those he would govern, weaving and reweaving patterns of eros and domination. When a woman triumphs in the battle of the sexes, Fortuna conquers virtù, to universal disaster. When Helen transforms abduction into conquest, she destroys the Machiavellian structures of erotic domination on which patriarchal hierarchy depends: “This love will undo us all. O Cupid, Cupid, Cupid!” (3.1.110).

Shakespeare's Trojan women retain the defensive roles the literary tradition has given them. Andromache exposes the “bloody … intent” (5.3.8) of Hector's martial credo; Cassandra mourns the common ruin of “virgins and boys, mid-age and wrinkled [eld]” (2.2.104); Cressida, the last Trojan woman, defends herself against the violence of deracination and concubinage. Like the warriors and politicians, she too pits virtù against fortuna. But fortune and virtue operate rather differently for women than they do for men. In women's lives, the acts of Machiavelli's capricious goddess are mediated by her equally capricious worshippers among the warriors and politicians. Virtù, an offensive weapon for Machiavelli's statesmen, devolves into the defensive virtue of female chastity.

Troilus and Cressida's two plots open with this distinction between masculine and feminine virtù. Initiating the war plot, Agamemnon insists that the army must, despite the apparent futility of their seven years' siege, continue actively to pit valor against fortune (1.3.1-30). In his first scene, Troilus also describes a long and wearing siege: “Why should I war without the walls of Troy / That find such cruel battle here within?” (1.1.2-3). Troilus has laid siege to Cressida, as the Greek army has laid siege to Troy, and he too complains of the time involved: “Still have I tarried” (1.1.22). Where wars and lechery hold fashion, cities and women are on the defensive:

You are such a woman, a man knows not at what ward you lie.
Upon my back, to defend my belly, upon my wit, to defend my wiles, upon my secrecy, to defend mine honesty, my mask, to defend my beauty, and you, to defend all these; and at all these wards I lie, at a thousand watches.


Besieged by Troilus, Cressida tries to defend herself by taking the position of abject surrender. She cannot take the offensive in this martial courtship:

                                                                      I wish'd myself a man,
Or that we women had men's privilege
Of speaking first.


Cressida's defensive tactics do not permit a frontal attack. Yet she practices a martial art of love to escape erotic domination, to transform her sexual surrender into a strategic triumph:

Perchance, my lord, I show more craft than love,
And fell so roundly to a large confession,
To angle for your thoughts.


At best, these tactics can camouflage her weakness for a little while, during which the besieged Cressida is, if not “hard to win,” at least “hard to seem won” (3.2.116-17). In playing the role of the coquette, Cressida is imitating Helen, the femme fatale who is so “hard to seem won” that she alone, of all the women in Troy, is not vulnerable to the inconsistency of male desire.20

In practicing the martial art of love, Cressida encounters the dangers with which the Machiavellian strategist must contend. If, Machiavelli advises, the statesman remains flexible, he can perfect his control over destiny: “If one could change one's nature with time and circumstance, fortune would never change” (The Prince, 25). But time and circumstance are even more problematic in the wars of love than in the wars of state:

Women are angels, wooing:
Things won are done, joy's soul lies in the doing.
That she belov'd knows nought that knows not this:
Men prize the thing ungain'd more than it is.
That she was never yet, that ever knew
Love got so sweet as when desire did sue.
Therefore this maxim out of love I teach:
Achievement is command; ungain'd, beseech;
Then, though my heart's content firm love doth bear,
Nothing of that shall from mine eyes appear.


There is a biological and psychological disparity between men and women that makes Cressida's love for Troilus a source of despair. Cressida, like the warriors and politicians, must move through a wartime world, a universe in continual flux. But men and women experience that flux at different rates. Troilus's desire will be satisfied only too quickly. Cressida can anticipate but cannot alter the course of war or lechery:

                                                                                                    Prithee tarry,
You men will never tarry.
O foolish Cressid! I might have still held off,
And then you would have tarried.


Cressida's complaint illuminates the course of courtly love: if she wishes Troilus to believe that “Her bed is India” and “there she lies a pearl” (1.1.100), she must lie in it alone.

The chance of war forbids such refinements of thwarted sexuality. Cressida will be sent to the Greek camp, bearing the memory of Troilus's eager return to the homosocial world of war. Ulysses will construct a ceremonial welcome in which the Greek generals, begging kisses from their prisoner, give a courtly color to their sexual demands: “Despite the elaborate courtesy of begging kisses, the Greek generals are taking what Cressida, essentially a captive, has no real power to refuse.”21 Yet Cressida uses her wit, as she had told Pandarus, to defend her wiles; she eludes the full humiliation Ulysses requires:

                                                                                                                        Fie, fie upon her!
There's language in her eye, her cheek, her lip,
Nay, her foot speaks; her wanton spirits look out
At every joint and motive of her body.
O, these encounters, so glib of tongue,
That give a coasting welcome ere it comes,
And wide unclasp the tables of their thoughts
To every ticklish reader! set them down
For sluttish spoils of opportunity,
And daughters of the game.


Ulysses' ceremony has not silenced the language of Cressida's sexuality. But her initiation into concubinage continues, and she surrenders to Diomedes' sexual blackmail. As surrender becomes her last line of defense, the rest of her banter is realized: she will lie on her back to defend her belly. She will accept concubinage to avoid rape.

Yet concubinage is no defense against the symbolic violence of war. For the victims of power, resistance and collusion may often merge “in the very condition of their survival.”22 So, for Cressida, survival demands surrender, and surrender entails collusion. The terms of surrender are to internalize the patriarchal vision of female sexuality:

Troilus, farewell! one eye yet looks on thee,
But with my heart the other eye doth see.
Ah, poor our sex! this fault in us I find,
The error of our eyes directs our mind.
What error leads must err; O, then conclude,
Minds sway'd by eyes are full of turpitude.


Cressida's capitulation is one of the rare Shakespearean soliloquies for a female character. Her earlier speech, “Women are angels, wooing,” fulfills the conventional expectation that a soliloquy represents the character's own interpretation of events. But in this speech, the eye, tongue, and cheek that Ulysses found so “glib” seem silent. Cressida seems instead to speak “the language of the victim,” the language in which women join men in blaming women.23 The eavesdropper Thersites underscores her alienation, ending the scene with a contemptuous commentary: “A proof of strength she could not publish more / Unless she said, ‘My mind is now turn'd whore’” (5.2.113-14).

Yet even in speaking the language of submission, Cressida still articulates a subtext of defense.24 She still imitates Helen and tries to “show more craft than love.” When Cressida claims Diomedes, as Helen claimed Paris, for her own erotic choice, she is trying to disguise the stance of the victim in the posture of a whore. In this militarized world, where the oikos has become a besieged citadel and the polis an armed camp, where combat is eroticized and eros a struggle for dominance, Cressida pits the art of love against the chance of war. She does not, like Homer's Andromache, offer defensive military strategies nor, like Euripides' Cassandra, distinguish invasion from protection. But, like other Trojan women, Cressida wages a defensive guerre à outrance. From deracination and concubinage, she constructs a strategy for survival, negotiating her way between the patriarchal categories of victim and whore. Yet while the war continues, Cressida will not elude the militarization of her sexuality. It is time to declare a truce for the last Trojan woman.


  1. I single out these quotations from Kott (Shakespeare Our Contemporary, 77) and Yoder (“‘Sons and Daughters,’” 19), who explicitly identify their responses to Troilus and Cressida with their reactions to twentieth-century wars, but one can trace the rise of the play's critical fortunes in the history of twentieth-century warfare. Burns, “The Worst of Both Worlds,” and Dollimore, Radical Tragedy, could also be cited. Feminist critics, including Greene, “Shakespeare's Cressida”; Adelman, “This Is and Is Not Cressid”; and Okerlund, “In Defense of Cressida,” have contributed substantially to this reappraisal, though without treating the war theme in detail.

  2. Redfield, Nature and Culture, 119-27; Hartsock, Money, Sex, and Power, 186-90.

  3. Arthur, “The Divided World,” 20.

  4. Redfield, Nature and Culture, 123.

  5. Arthur, “The Divided World,” 32.

  6. Judith Stiehm notes that “Margaret Mead has said there is no society that places women in offensive warfare. She argues that women may be too vicious and too violent for combat because they have traditionally wielded weapons only in immediate defense of the home” (Bring Me Men and Women, 293). See also Huston, “The Matrix of War,” and, on Renaissance views of women and war, Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance.

  7. I am here and throughout this essay indebted to Joplin's analysis of violence in mythical and literary representations of the exchange of women in “The Voice of the Shuttle.”

  8. Stallybrass, “Patriarchal Territories,” 123-47.

  9. For important discussions of The Rape of Lucrece, see Kahn, “The Rape in Shakespeare's Lucrece,” and Vickers, “This Heraldry” and “‘The Blazon.’”

  10. Donaldson, “The Progress of a Heroine,” 10-11.

  11. While theatrical representation, unlike narrative, provides each character with an advocate, directors have, no less than literary scholars, imposed patriarchal evaluations of Cressida for which Shakespeare's text provides no warrant. For a comparison of Shakespeare's textual cues and twentieth-century directorial choices, see LaBranche, “The Theatrical Dimension.”

  12. Knight, The Wheel of Fire, 47; Roy, “War and Manliness,” 108-10.

  13. Foucault, Power/Knowledge, 90.

  14. Machiavelli, The Arte of Warre. I have modernized the spelling and punctuation of this 1560 translation by Peter Whitehorne.

  15. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture, 7-15.

  16. Elton, “Shakespeare's Ulysses,” 98-100; Dollimore, Radical Tragedy, 42-43.

  17. Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 51.

  18. Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 96-113.

  19. Pitkin, Fortune Is a Woman, 25; Elshtain, Public Man, Private Woman, 94.

  20. In “The Politics of Desire,” Girard suggests that Pandarus exploits Helen's “erotic prestige” to promote the affair between Troilus and a “bovaryesque” Cressida whom Pandarus manipulates into desiring what she believes Helen desires. In focusing on the “mimetic rivalry” of the male characters, Girard neglects the possibility I wish to bring out here: that Helen is Cressida's model for a role in which she would be less vulnerable to the inconsistency of male desire.

  21. Yoder, “‘Sons and Daughters,’” 20.

  22. Eagleton, The Rape of Clarissa, 82.

  23. Joplin, “The Voice of the Shuttle,” 40.

  24. The recovery of the subtext is problematic, and this speech has often been interpreted as capitulation tout court. Still, the speech is hardly comprehensible, much less performable, without uncovering some sort of subtext, the most plausible of which, I believe, denies the patriarchal text its traditional hegemony.

Works Cited

Adelman, Janet. “This Is and Is Not Cressid.” In The (M)other Tongue: Essays in Feminist Psychoanalytic Interpretation, edited by Shirley Nelson Garner, Claire Kahane, and Madelon Spregnether, 119-41. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Arthur, Marilyn B. “The Divided World of Iliad VI.” In Reflections of Women in Antiquity, edited by Helene P. Foley, 19-44. New York: Gordon & Breach, 1981.

Burns, M. M. “Troilus and Cressida: The Worst of Both Worlds.” Shakespeare Studies 13 (1980): 105-30.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Edited by F. N. Robinson. 2d ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957.

Dollimore, Jonathan. Radical Tragedy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Donaldson, E. Talbot. “Briseis, Briseida, Criseyde, Cresseid, Cressid: Progress of a Heroine.” In Chaucerian Problems and Perspectives, edited by Edward Vasta and Zacharias P. Thundy, 3-12. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979.

Eagleton, Terry. The Rape of Clarissa. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982.

Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Public Man, Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981.

Elton, W. R. “Shakespeare's Ulysses and the Problem of Value.” Shakespeare Studies 2 (1966): 95-111.

Euripides. The Trojan Women. Translated by Richmond Lattimore. New York: Random House, 1958. In Vol. 6 of The Complete Greek Tragedies, edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. 8 vols. 1956-58.

Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-77. Edited by Colin Gordon. New York: Pantheon, 1980.

Girard, René. “The Politics of Desire in Troilus and Cressida.” In Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, edited by Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, 188-209. New York: Methuen, 1985.

———. Violence and the Sacred. Translated by Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.

Greene, Gayle. “Shakespeare's Cressida: ‘A kind of self.’” In The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, edited by Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely, 133-49. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980.

Hartsock, Nancy C. Money, Sex, and Power: Toward a Feminist Historical Materialism. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1985.

Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.

Huston, Nancy. “The Matrix of War: Mothers and Heroes.” In The Female Body in Western Culture: Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Susan Rubin Suleiman, 120-36. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Joplin, Patricia Klindienst. “The Voice of the Shuttle Is Ours.” Stanford Literature Review 1 (1984): 25-53.

Kahn, Coppélia. “The Rape in Shakespeare's Lucrece.Shakespeare Studies 9 (1976): 45-72.

Knight, G. Wilson. The Wheel of Fire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930.

Kott, Jan. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Translated by Boleslaw Taborski. New York: Doubleday, 1966.

LaBranche, Linda Berning. “The Theatrical Dimension of Troilus and Cressida.” Ph.D. dissertation, Northwestern University, 1984.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Arte of Warre. Translated by Peter Whitehorne. 1560. Reprint. New York: Da Capo, 1969.

———. The Prince. Translated by Mark Musa. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1964.

Okerlund, Arlene N. “In Defense of Cressida: Character as Metaphor.” Women's Studies 7 (1980): 1-17.

Pitkin, Hannah. Fortune Is a Woman: Gender and Politics in the Thought of Niccolo Machiavelli. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Redfield, James. Nature and Culture in the Iliad: The Tragedy of Hector. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.

Roy, Emil. “War and Manliness in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida.Comparative Drama 7 (1973): 107-20.

Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

Stallybrass, Peter. “Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed.” In Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, edited by Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers, 123-42. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Stiehm, Judith Hicks. Bring Me Men and Women: Mandated Change at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

Stone, Lawrence. The Crisis of the Aristocracy: 1558-1660. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Tillyard, E. M. W. The Elizabethan World Picture. 1943. Reprint. New York: Random House, n.d.

Vickers, Nancy. “‘The Blazon of Sweet Beauty's Best’: Shakespeare's Lucrece.” In Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, edited by Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, 95-115. New York: Methuen, 1985.

———. “This Heraldry in Lucrece's Face.” In The Female Body in Western Culture, edited by Susan Rubin Suleiman, 209-22. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Virgil. The Aeneid. Translated by Allan Mandelbaum. New York: Bantam Books, 1971.

Woodbridge, Linda. Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.

Yoder, R. A. “‘Sons and Daughters of the Game’: An Essay on Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida.Shakespeare Survey 25 (1972): 11-25.

Jonas Barish (essay date 1991)

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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, to see if these tell us anything about how Shakespeare viewed war as a human activity.

I start with the observation that Shakespearean wars are often fought between people, or peoples, who may be said to be related to each other, members of the same family—brothers, or cousins, or groups of people sprung from the same stock or living in close proximity to each other—so that wars often seem to boil down to civil wars, as in Romeo and Juliet, ‘where civil blood makes civil hands unclean’, and, moreover, where the whole point about the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues, if it has a point, is that it has no point. Its origins, whatever they may once have been, go back to some unexplained offence which the participants seem to have forgotten, since they never allude to it, but take the state of chronic hostility in which they live as its own justification. The feud would seem to spring from some deep-seated perversity in human nature that defies rational accounting, an impulse presumably related to whatever produces such violations of kinship or community as the murder of one brother by another (Richard III and Hamlet), the usurpation of one brother's right by another (As You Like It and The Tempest) or that of one cousin by another (Richard II).

Unlike any of these last instances, however, which stem from the craving to seize power, the Veronese vendetta has no aim that can be defined or detected, no object other than its own perpetuation, except perhaps that of tapping a certain reservoir of aggression that clamours for outlet in a few unruly members of the community. Aside from Tybalt among the gentry and Sampson and Gregory among the servants, no one in Verona seems much interested in the feud, but these few provocateurs, like extremists everywhere, prove able to stir up plenty of trouble among otherwise peaceable people.

The York tetralogy of course addresses itself explicitly to civil war, and one of its most affecting moments occurs in the memorable scene in 3 Henry VI in which a son mourns over the body of the father he has killed, while opposite a father grieves over the body of the son he has killed. This provides a powerful image of the horror of intrafamilial violence, a testimony to anarchy mitigated only by the fact that the two similar events are proceeding more or less simultaneously on both sides of the stage, with the king looking pityingly on, so that the ritual symmetry of the action and the antiphonal character of the language might be felt to imply some ultimate order underlying the surface chaos.

A comparable moment might be that in King John in which the new bride, Blanche, laments her intolerable position, torn between loyalty to her uncle, John, and her bridegroom the Dauphin, about to fight each other and so turn her into a battleground. The hostilities between John and France already constitute an intrafamilial quarrel, since France is supporting the rival claim of John's nephew Arthur to the English throne. Familial nastiness spills over during the parley scene where the French and English confront each other, due to the shrill dispute between the Queen Mother Elinor, speaking for John, and her daughter-in-law Constance, speaking for John's older brother Geoffrey, her deceased husband and Arthur's father. The two women fill the air with recriminations; both are ready to impugn the honour of certain of their kin by maligning that of certain others. Elinor does not hesitate to brand Arthur, her grandson, a bastard, nor does Constance hesitate to return the insult by questioning the legitimacy of her own deceased husband in order to strike back at Elinor with her own weapons.

From these and comparable instances, we might conclude that far from such deep-seated malice being ‘unnatural’ among members of the same family, Shakespeare seems to regard it as the most natural, the most depressingly commonplace and least surprising thing in the world, especially among close kin. So much would no doubt only confirm the evidence that lies all about us in our own daily lives, in the newspapers, and in psychoanalytic theory: family closeness breeds intensities of feeling just as dangerously destructive as they can be heroically self-sacrificing, with the closest kinships often breeding the most murderous rivalries.

Shakespearean war sometimes serves as a kind of context within which the particular histories of the principals unfolds. Not infrequently wars are already under way when a play starts: in 1 Henry VI hostilities between the English and the French are a permanent fact of life from the beginning, with the French strenuously exploiting their geographical advantage so as to regain the territories lost to Henry V. The war that begins as an international conflict, however, is also cross-cut by two serious civil disturbances on the English side. One, the almost pathological hatred between York and Somerset, kinsmen themselves and cousins to the king, leads directly to the destruction of the hero patriot Talbot. The other, the more comprehensible but equally ugly feud between an uncle and nephew—between Humphrey Duke of Gloucester and the Cardinal of Winchester—leads in its turn, in 2 Henry VI, to the further fragmentation of the realm. Increasingly in 2 and 3 Henry VI, the opposing clans of York and Lancaster, linked by kinship through their common ancestry in Edward III, turn into warring tribes whose purpose is to dominate and humiliate if not exterminate each other.

We learn at the outset of Hamlet that the war between Denmark and Norway started a generation earlier, when the ‘emulous’ elder Fortinbras ‘dar'd’ the elder Hamlet to combat, and lost. The younger Fortinbras revives the challenge in less chivalric form, first seeking to recover what his father has sacrificed. His later invasion of Poland seems motivated chiefly by a thirst for honour, arousing reluctant admiration in Hamlet: ‘Rightly to be great / Is not to stir without great argument, / But greatly to find quarrel in a straw / When honour's at the stake’ (IV.iv.53-56)1—a suspiciously self-contradictory sentiment, in which the second half comes close to cancelling out the first (unless, with some commentators, we are willing to take ‘not to stir’ to mean the exact opposite of what it says: ‘not not to stir’). Accepting the plain prose sense as it is written out, however: if greatness consists in not stirring without great argument, then it can hardly consist also in finding quarrel in a straw, since a straw, by definition, cannot qualify as a ‘great argument’.

As in Hamlet, so more emphatically in Troilus and Cressida: the war that forms the background and context for the action has become a permanent feature of the landscape. The Greeks remind themselves in frustration that ‘after seven years’ siege yet Troy walls stand', but far from pausing in council to ponder the validity of their enterprise, they concern themselves only with how to prosecute it more effectively. Thanks to Hector, the Trojans probe the morality of their cause at least briefly, weighing the many thousand ‘tithes’ of Trojan souls already slain against the worthlessness of Helen herself, the straw over whom they are quarrelling. But Hector, like Hamlet, decides at last that honour's at the stake—‘For 'tis a cause that hath no mean dependance / Upon our joint and several dignities’—and is noisily seconded by Troilus: ‘She is a theme of honor and renown, / A spur to valiant and magnanimous deeds, / Whose present courage may beat down our foes, / And fame in time to come canonize us’ (II.ii.192-202).

Hector's rejoinder to Troilus, revalidating honour as a sufficient reason for imperilling yet more thousands, produces an announcement of the ‘roisting challenge’ he has sent the Greeks. The challenge itself leads to a most unusual instance of intrafamilial conflict. When his Greek opponent proves to be the blockish Ajax, Hector halts the fray after a few moments, because they are cousins:

The obligation of our blood forbids
A gory emulation 'twixt us twain.
Were thy commixtion Greek and Troyan so
That thou couldst say, ‘This hand is Grecian all,
And this is Troyan; the sinews of this leg
All Greek, and this all Troy; my mother's blood
Runs on the dexter cheek, and this sinister
Bounds in my father's’; by Jove multipotent,
Thou shouldst not bear from me a Greekish member
Wherein my sword had no impressure made
[Of our rank feud]; but the just gods gainsay
That any [drop] thou borrow'dst from thy mother,
My sacred aunt, should by my mortal sword
Be drained! Let me embrace thee, Ajax.


Ajax's blood, in short, interpenetrates so intimately with Hector's own that there is no distinguishing the hated enemy component in it from that of the valued blood relation. Even this war, then, which began with an act of vengeance on the part of the Trojans—or of aggression, depending on how one views it—bears the earmarks of civil war, a family squabble. One may suspect that had all the actors in all the wars in Shakespeare reacted as Hector does to the fact of blood kinship with their foes, far fewer Shakespearean wars would ever have been fought. In any case, Hector's moral delicacy, his piety toward family ties, which disallows the shedding of a cousin's blood, constitutes a rare exception to a widespread and injurious rule, whereas his last-minute reconversion to honour in the debate with his brothers, reconfirming his allegiance to a less humane code, leads only to his death and the ultimate destruction of Troy. The play ends, if it can be said to end at all, with nothing gained but the spilling of much blood, further bloodshed in prospect, and Troilus' hysterical defiance of the Greeks, the Greeks themselves remaining nearly as tediously far from their goal as they were when they complained at the outset of the interminable length of the siege. The Trojan war, thanks to Hector's capitulation to the bubble honour, will continue to take place.

In comedy things tend to work out less devastatingly. The two interconnected cases of Bruderkrieg in As You Like It—the persecution of Duke Senior by his brother Duke Frederick, the oppression by Oliver de Boys of his brother Orlando—come to a festive rather than a calamitous conclusion at least in part because neither of the injured brothers shows the slightest interest in retaliating against his oppressor. Duke Frederick's military campaign, certainly, undertaken to root out and destroy his brother's forces, is halted by the magic of the forest itself, in the person of ‘an old religious man’ who persuades him to renounce his enterprise and withdraw from the world, while Oliver, already himself a victim of Duke Frederick's tyranny by the time he reaches Arden, needs only the shock of his brother's magnanimous rescue to become completely repentant, and eager for the experience of love—with no thought of Celia's unacceptable family connections. But more essential than the forest's magic would seem to be the native disposition of the two mistreated brothers. Duke Senior, instead of dreaming on revenge, and mustering supporters for a march on the capital, lives quietly in the forest descanting on the pleasures of the natural life, while Orlando devotes his energies to the love game in which he has become engrossed. It is the refusal of them both to answer hate with hate, to plot counter-aggression, or bear a lasting grudge, that really defuses the hatred and makes possible the happy ending.

The same motif reappears thickly years later in The Tempest, only here the tension between brothers is not so satisfactorily resolved. Antonio has not only, many years before, wrested the dukedom from his brother Prospero, and cast him adrift in a rotten skiff, but also, in the dramatic present, incited his companion Sebastian to murder his brother, the King of Naples, and claim Naples for himself—a plot forestalled only by Ariel's supernatural intervention. But in this instance we end with a stand-off, Antonio not breathing a word to suggest regret, let alone repentance, for his crimes and plots, and Prospero's declared forgiveness sounding so harsh and threatening that it cannot be said to augur anything approaching a reconciliatory embrace.

Some of these antagonisms would seem to reflect the natural process of growth implied in the opening lines of The Winter's Tale, where we hear that the two kings Leontes and Polixenes were ‘train'd together in their childhoods’—that is, like brothers—so that ‘there rooted betwixt them then such an affection, which cannot choose but branch now’ (I.i.22-24). ‘Branch’ may of course mean simply ‘send out shoots, flourish’, as defined in Riverside, but might equally be glossed ‘to strike off into new paths’ (OED), to divide; and division, of course, is what erupts between these brothers in the very first scene of the play, not to be healed until the very end—from which we might infer that kinship in nurture poses as formidable a threat to peaceful coexistence as does kinship founded in nature.

In the comedies we by and large find war treated lightly, as an arena in which young men may demonstrate their manhood and prove their fitness to become leaders. In Much Ado about Nothing we begin at the conclusion of a war in which Claudio, along with Benedick and Don Pedro, has served with distinction, but we discover nothing about the war itself, about who was fighting whom, or what issues separated them. We do not even learn whether the three young nen themselves belonged by blood or ideological conviction or prior allegiance to one of the contending parties. Clearly they fought chiefly in order to acquire (or simply practise) their martial expertise.

This turns out to be the declared reason also for the entry of the French into the war between Siena and Florence in All's Well that Ends Well, in which the young French courtiers have otherwise no stake. As in Much Ado, we hear nothing about the causes of the dispute or the issues involved. We learn only that ‘The Florentines and Senoys are by th'ears’, that Florence is expected to request aid from France, but that the King of France, having received a plea from Austria not to lend such aid, is prepared to refuse it even before it is requested. Nevertheless, he encourages his young subjects to attach themselves to whichever side they favour, since he views the war as a potential ‘nursery to our gentry, who are sick / For breathing and exploit’ (I.ii.1, 16-17), and the young courtiers thereupon join up so as ‘Not to woo honor, but to wed it’, that ‘fame may cry [them] loud’ (II.i.15-17). Fame, a form of self-aggrandizement through self-advertisement, seems virtually always to be the spur.

The same motif recurs in the Duke of Florence's welcome to the French troops upon their arrival. We hear nothing further about the issues of the war, only that the Duke is disappointed that what he regards as the clear justice of his cause has not won more official support from France. Battle, in any case, becomes a venue for the acquisition of honour in which Bertram, notably, can begin to redeem the disgrace he has incurred through his behaviour at court, and in which, as part of his continuing education, he also learns the truth about his confidant, the braggart Parolles. And that seems to be its sole meaning here.

In Othello it is not altogether clear whether the Turkish advance upon Cyprus represents (as it seems) simply the latest move in a long-standing conflict or the opening gambit in a new one, but in either case it becomes the basis on which the rest of the play is built, the reason for Othello's transfer to Cyprus, with all that happens there to him and in him. For Othello, as distinct from the comic protagonists, war is his natural element, his beloved profession, and its characteristic noises—the shrill trump, the neighing steed, the drum, the cannon, and the ear-piercing fife—are literally music to his ears in a way that a wedding serenade on a bagpipe is not, for which (we are told) he ‘does not greatly care’ (III.i.16-17), even if the wedding in question happens to be his own. It is in war alone that Othello finds serenity of spirit. In the domestic sphere, tragically, he finds only suspicion, bitterness, and anguish.

Much the same would be true of Coriolanus, whose passionate addiction to combat, to bloody face-painting and scarred limbs, seems like a refuge from the more usual longing for a quiet life. As in Hamlet and Troilus, Coriolanus starts with Romans and Volscians living in a state of chronic antagonism which from time to time erupts in military action. The Romans however are also living a second war, a war within the gates, between plebeians and patricians. And Coriolanus proves as helpless to treat the plebeians other than as a loathed enemy as Othello is to demilitarize his own domestic existence.

In all these instances Shakespeare sets up a contrast, no less sharp for being largely implicit, between war and peace. In each case the young or (in Othello's case) middle-aged hero, who has served with success and brilliance in battle, proves inadequate to the more complex demands of peace. War has the advantage of mobilizing aggressions and providing an outlet for them, as well as supplying occasions for intelligence, resourcefulness, and planning. What it does not call into play are the subtler moral and intellectual discriminations required in peacetime. It exacts discipline, obedience to orders, and the courage to face enemies—all valued qualities—but unlike peace, and especially unlike the most prized activity of peace, love, it does not exact trust, the capacity to give one's self unreservedly to those by whom one is loved or whom one claims to love. Nor does it call on the warrior's ability to place himself imaginatively in his enemy's shoes, to understand the needs and feelings of the alien others who are aiming to kill him. Quite the reverse: any softening of the feelings, any upwelling of sympathy, any confession of vulnerability, is felt as a threat to the enterprise. War therefore tests its votaries in certain important ways, calls certain essential faculties into play, but can cripple others. It is Othello's tragedy that he cannot view his married life as other than a battlefield, Coriolanus's that he cannot see the unruly plebeians as other than an enemy army, which he openly longs to put to the sword, with the result that they become a far greater threat to him than the invading Volscians.

Macbeth, an exceptionally warlike play, begins and ends with a military engagement. It starts with the repulse of the invading Norwegians, where Macbeth's exploits are described in terms that suggest that he too depends on combat for his sense of his own reality. Since combat, however, consists largely of depriving others of their reality—that is surely one of its chief aims—the action continues with Macbeth's turning before our eyes, and despite his own despairing qualms, into a bloody tyrant. It ends with a war that is at one and the same time a war against invasion from beyond the borders and a civil war, the rebellion of Macbeth's own forces against him, and, metaphorically, as it is strongly implied, the revolt of whatever remains of substance and value in his own being against that part that he has systematically abused and poisoned. The constant in the picture is the one we have remarked in Othello and Coriolanus: Macbeth is incapable of living wholeheartedly at peace—in his own mind or in a peaceful world. It is as a warrior that we are asked to admire him at the outset—for his leadership and his valour—and it is as a warrior that he makes a partial recovery in our eyes at the end, when he puts on manly readiness, arms himself, and stands the push—sick at heart but defiant and unyielding—against his assailants.

Certain plays—Titus Andronicus, King John, Henry V, Hamlet Macbeth, Coriolanus—involve relatively ‘standard’ campaigns against invading neighbours: England and France, Norway and Denmark, Scotland and Norway, the Romans and the Goths, the Romans and the Volscians. But in such cases victory is nearly always perilous, and costs the victor dear. Titus carries back to Rome in triumph the Gothic fifth column that will destroy him and his family and devastate the city itself. King John defeats his foes in battle only to be himself defeated by his capture of Arthur and the resulting disaffection of his barons. Henry V's success at Agincourt, quite apart from the steady drumfire of suggestion pointing to the ugliness of war—the sleazy way the campaign is authorized, the frequent brutality of Henry's language, the insistent talk of cutting throats—leads only to his early death, the break-up of the holdings in France, and the Wars of the Roses. Caesar's victory over Pompey, which seals his rule over Rome, also brings on his assassination and provokes a fresh round of civil war wherein the lovers of liberty go under, having failed to find any weapon other than the sword with which to combat what they see as the dangerous enlargement of one man's power. Macbeth's stunning victories in the field seem only to presage his ferocious career as a tyrant; and Coriolanus's heroism at the gates of Corioles leads directly to events that culminate in his exile and finally in his death. To be sure, in each case circumstances other than the simple fact of war itself come into play to balk the reign of peace, but in each case also the euphoria of victory proves illusory, and the end that crowns all proves harsh and bitter, a momentary respite at best.

Rare indeed are the cases in which the fruits of war do not turn to ashes in the mouths of the victors: Richard III, no doubt, where Richmond's final defeat of the detested tyrant brings relief to his exhausted country; Timon of Athens, where Alcibiades besieges his native city for reasons we completely endorse and approve; and Cymbeline, where Posthumus seizes the accident of a conflict between Britain and its Roman colonizers to fight for Britain and so atone by his own death for the death-sentence he has cruelly passed against Imogen. The two young princes Arviragus and Guiderius, for their part, join the combat primarily to try their valour and learn for the first time what battle means. In this small band of conquerors we find only one professional soldier, Alcibiades, and he goes to war only after exhausting all possible avenues of petition and negotiation, winning, at length, simply by a show of strength and further negotiation. War does not, for him, seem to be the ‘royal occupation’ it is for Fortinbras, Othello, Macbeth, Antony, and Coriolanus.

Does this limited and hasty sketch enable us to infer any consistent attitude or attitudes on Shakespeare's part? I think so. If I have reported the matter correctly and fairly, it seems to tell us that Shakespeare, while by no means unmindful of the claims of honour won in battle, and indeed, in some ways highly sympathetic to them, nevertheless remains, by and large, irreducibly sceptical as to the effect of warfare and the preoccupation with warfare on the human spirit. Repeatedly we see it become an end in itself, stunting and deforming even the most heroic of souls, while at the same time turning cities and whole countries into spiritual if not literal wastelands.


  1. All citations from Shakespeare will be to The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston, 1974).

Jo Eldridge Carney (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5765

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 included in the recently published Oxford edition of Shakespeare's Complete Works.2 Most of Shakespeare's editors—from Heminges and Condell to their present-day counterparts—have chosen to omit this play from the canon; it is more frequently claimed as one of Fletcher's works.

Perhaps some of the reason for the play's neglect is the confusion engendered by the fact of this dual authorship: some readers categorically resist the idea of Shakespeare as collaborator; others are uncertain about the nature of the collaboration.3 I would suggest that a more important reason for neglect stems from the aura of ambivalence that underscores the play's major themes of love and war, an ambivalence that has given rise to a general sense of unease. E. Talbot Donaldson calls The Two Noble Kinsmen “that most distressing of plays” (50), while Paula Berggren explains that “the play upsets the pleasant fiction that the late romances represent Shakespeare's optimistic summing up” (3).

The Two Noble Kinsmen is concerned with the antithesis between love and war, a conflict that is particularly problematic, not merely because neither side wins, but because each concept itself is presented in such contradictory terms. Thus, while we have a play that is ostensibly a romance and is framed by royal weddings, we also have a play that focuses a good deal of attention on the destructiveness of love and marriage. Nor does war fare any better than love, for in a play in which the eponymous characters and the presiding figure, Theseus, are first and foremost noble warriors, there is also some extremely negative imagery representing the world of battle.

In focusing on the rivalry between love and war, The Two Noble Kinsmen fits into a thematic tradition in Renaissance drama: Sidney's Arcadia; Spenser's Faerie Queene; and Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, Antony and Cleopatra, and Troilus and Cressida are but a few of the works concerned with the conflict between the call of battle and public responsibility and the more private demands of romantic love. This rivalry is generally resolved in the comic and romantic genres by merging public responsibilities and private indulgences through the institution of marriage; in the case of Antony and Cleopatra, both romance and battle come under careful and critical scrutiny, but they are not, finally, diminished. The treatment of these themes in Troilus and Cressida, perhaps more than any other play, parallels that of The Two Noble Kinsmen; in each work the ideal vision of love and war is drastically undercut by the depiction of a harsher reality.4 The approach in Troilus and Cressida, however, is more unequivocal in its satire—by the end of the play, soldiers and lovers are, in Pandarus' words, “traitors and bawds”—whereas the ambiguities in The Two Noble Kinsmen remain largely unresolved.

The Two Noble Kinsmen, based on The Knight's Tale from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, was most likely first performed in 1613. It is the tale of the two noble kinsmen from Thebes, Palamon and Arcite—or Tweedledum and Tweedledee, as Kenneth Muir called them in lamenting their lack of distinguishing characteristics (127)—whose loyal friendship is challenged when they fall in love with the same woman, Emilia. They have been taken prisoner by Emilia's brother-in-law, Duke of Athens, who determines that the conflict will be resolved in a formal tournament: whichever of the two kinsmen wins the battle is to receive Emilia, the other is to be put to death. Arcite is the winner, but he is subsequently injured when he falls from his horse. So Palamon is rescued from the executioner's blade, and before Arcite dies, he gives his friend the grand prize, Emilia.

The story centers on a theme popular in Renaissance literature: the debilitating complacency and even immorality that could result within a society when the male characters abandon their public lives as comrades-in-arms, particularly if it is to indulge in love and sexual relationships. In the very first act of The Two Noble Kinsmen, Palamon complains to Arcite about their situation in Thebes, where the soldiers are not being kept happily employed: “… [I] wish great Juno would / Resume her ancient fit of jealousy / To get her soldier work …” (1.2.21-23). Palamon laments that peacetime has brought corruption and decay instead of prosperity. This idea that social stability depends upon the conscientious warrior is emphasized in the very beginning of the play, when Theseus must choose between the rival claims of love and war. In this powerful opening scene, Theseus' wedding to Hippolyta, the Amazon queen he conquered, is interrupted by three queens dressed in mourning. The widowed queens complain that the ruler of Thebes, “the cruel Creon,” has slain their husbands and is denying their corpses proper burial; they beg Theseus to “draw thy feared sword” to defend their lords' honor.

Theseus assures them that he will seek revenge, but his response is not satisfactory: they want him to abandon his marriage celebration and act immediately, reminding him that while he seeks the pleasures of the marriage bed, their husbands do not even have beds “fit for th' dead.” As the first queen explains, if Theseus becomes involved in his wedding night with Hippolyta, he will forget his martial duties:

                                                                                … what wilt thou think
Of rotten kings or blubbered queens, what care
For what thou feel'st not, what thou feel'st being able
To make Mars spurn his drum? O if thou couch
But one night with her, every hour in't will
Take hostage of thee for a hundred, and
Thou shalt remember nothing more than what
That banquet bids thee to.


The queen warns Theseus against a love feast in which, yielding entirely to erotic pleasures, he would lose his rational sense of time and purpose. Significantly, she refers to the lover as being taken “hostage”; in using a term that is seemingly more appropriate to the battlefield, the distinction between love and war is blurred. The other two queens make similar entreaties to Hippolyta and Emilia, who join the widows in appealing to Theseus. Although Theseus insists that his marriage is a “service” of significance “greater than any war” (1.1.171) it does not take much urging for him to change his mind about his priorities: he abruptly orders his friend, Pirithous, to take charge of the nuptials, while he rushes off to battle, explaining, “As we are men, / Thus we should do. Being sensually subdued, / We lose our human title” (1.1.230-232). In choosing the call to arms over the temptation of his wedding night, Theseus suggests that an indulgence in romantic love can be equated with both a loss of power—“being sensually subdued”—and with a loss of identity—“our human title”—and that a realization of that identity, for the male characters, is concomitant with their martial successes. It is clear that Theseus believes that his decision to fight Creon is necessary and noble; indeed, the other characters urge him to make that decision. Nonetheless, there is a disturbing element in the sudden zeal with which he prepares for battle and in his insistence upon leaving right in the middle of the wedding. He displays no qualms about abandoning Hippolyta at the altar; in fact, his haste suggests that he is not at all sorry to postpone the completion and consummation of his marriage. Throughout the play, he displays a similarly superficial commitment to romantic love and an undeniable preference for the battlefield.

In addition to focusing on the common theme of the rivalry between love and war, The Two Noble Kinsmen illustrates another prominent theme in Renaissance literature: the competing demands of love and friendship, particularly the threat that the love of women poses to the noble virtue of classical male friendship. Palamon and Arcite's dilemma follows in the tradition of such works as Lyly's Euphues and Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which demonstrate this conflict in its ultimate manifestation: the crisis that ensues when two friends, having sworn eternal loyalty and devotion to one another, fall in love—especially with the same woman. Thus, in this play, we see two popular literary motifs conjoin so that the antithesis between the ennobling demands of war and the debilitating effects of love is further intensified by associating the war experiences so intimately with male friendship.

After Palamon and Arcite are captured by Theseus in his battle against Creon, they sit in prison, consoling themselves with reminders of their friendship: “… and here being thus together, / We are an endless mine to one another; / We are one another's wife …” (2.1.137-139). Their rhapsodies on friendship echo the language of classical amity, though even the intimate tone of the standard friendship rhetoric usually does not include an allusion to the two friends being “one another's wife.” In this case, the reference suggests that the two friends could live quite happily without marriage; indeed, Arcite adds, “Were we at liberty, / A wife might part us lawfully” (2.1.147-148). He argues that given such temptations as the outside world presents, their imprisonment is a blessing.

What the two friends particularly regret is that their days as soldiers in tournaments and on the battlefield are over:

                                                                                                                        O never
Shall we two exercise, like twin gods of Honor,
Our arms again, and feel our fiery horses
Like proud seas under us! Our good swords now—
Better the red-eyed god of war ne'er wore!—
Ravished our sides, like age must run to rust
And deck the temples of those gods that hate us.
These hands shall never draw 'em out like lightening
To blast whole armies more.


They regret that in their imprisonment they cannot “blast whole armies” on the actual battlefield, but they also lament the more narcissistic pleasures of the knightly “games of honor” in the tiltyard; their reminiscences suggest elements of exhibitionism and sensuality in their soldierly activities. In their devotion to Mars, they seem less concerned with the causes of war than with its rituals and the private satisfactions it renders.

It is not only the youthful Palamon and Arcite who wax nostalgic about the beauties of battle, but Theseus and Pirithous, whose friendship parallels that of the two noble kinsmen, also glory in the martial exploits they have shared. Hippolyta, describing the nature of the men's friendship to Emilia, explains that they have

Fought out together where Death's elf was lodged,
Yet Fate hath brought them off. Their knot of love,
Tied, weaved, entangled, with so true, so long,
And with a finger of so deep a cunning,
May be outworn, never undone. I think
Theseus cannot be umpire to himself,
Cleaving his conscience into twain and doing
Each side like justice, which he loves best.


It is significant that the friendship of Theseus and Pirithous is also rooted in the world of battle, but more important is Hippolyta's suspicion that Theseus may in fact prefer his friendship with Pirithous over his love for her: as Carol Thomas Neely suggests in her study of the theme of broken nuptials in Shakespeare's plays, the male characters' resistance to marriage is frequently manifest in their inability to detach themselves from their male peers. Although Neely does not specifically discuss The Two Noble Kinsmen, the play serves as a fitting illustration of her remarks on the conflict between male bonding and nuptials: the major obstacles in the successful consummation of marriage for Theseus, as well as for the two noble kinsmen, are represented by the world of masculine friendship. At a later moment in the play, this question of priorities in relationships is echoed by Pirithous; when he begs Theseus not to condemn the two cousins to death, his address is revealing: “By all our friendship, sir, by all our dangers, / By all you love most—wars, and this sweet lady” (3.6.203-204). Theseus' love for Pirithous and the dangers of war are invoked first—Hippolyta seems to come almost as an afterthought.

This antithesis between the male world of camaraderie in battle and the female world of familial relationships and private domesticity is not unusual in Renaissance literature: what is unique about this particular play is that here the female characters do not necessarily oppose masculine loyalty to war; in some ways, they condone it. We have seen how the three widowed queens, in protecting their husbands' honor, urged Theseus to fight, and likewise how Hippolyta and Emilia supported those pleas. In the world of Shakespearean comedy, the heroines might have suggested an alternative solution, one that would satisfy both the queens' plight but still fulfill the wedding celebration. But in this case, Hippolyta's former experience as an Amazon and Emilia's own devotion to friendship render them atypically sympathetic about the male preoccupation with being together in battle. When Hippolyta urges Theseus off to battle in Thebes, she tells him to “hang / Your shield afore your heart” (1.1.195-196) and as Pirithous rushes off to join Theseus, she explains: “We have been soldiers, and we cannot weep / When our friends don their helms, or put to sea …” (1.3.18-19).

While Hippolyta focuses on Pirithous' longing to be part of the battle, Emilia understands that he also desires to be reunited with his friend, and in a speech that echoes Helena's in A Midsummer Night's Dream, she recalls her own commitment to friendship:

You talk of Pirithous' and Theseus' love.
Theirs has more ground, is more maturely seasoned …
                                                                                                              But I
And she I sigh and spoke of were things innocent
Loved for what we did …
                                                                                          … what she liked
Was then of me approved, what not condemned—
No more arraignment; the flow'r that I would pluck
And put between my breasts, she would long
Till she had such another, and commit it
To the like innocent cradle, where phoenix-like
They died in perfume. …

(1.3.55-56, 59-61, 64-71)

Emilia concludes her encomium to female friendship by insisting “That the true love 'tween maid and maid may be / More than in sex dividual” (1.3.81-82).

The attitudes of the female characters underscore the ambiguity surrounding the worlds of Mars and Venus, and the concomitant unease that we experience: unlike, for example, Beatrice and Hero in Much Ado About Nothing or Hotspur's wife in 1 Henry IV, the women here are not fulfilling their expected roles in encouraging men to forego the battle zone for the pleasures of female companionship and the joys of marriage. Emilia, who clearly prefers female friendship to heterosexual love, does not object to the world of male camaraderie in battle; she reiterates her antipathy toward marriage and her sorrow that the kinsmen's friendship has ended because of her. Hippolyta, whose conquest by Theseus has removed her from her own position of power, is forced to accept a secondary position in her husband's world.

In a play that is allegedly a romance, the concept of love does not emerge very positively; none of the characters experiences love at its ennobling best. We have seen that in the case of Theseus and Hippolyta, love is a matter of conquest and leads to broken nuptials. In the subplot's story of the jailer's daughter, her love of Palamon produces some extremely cynical statements about heterosexual relationships and eventually causes her madness. In the Palamon-Arcite-Emilia triangle, love is likewise a destructive force: it ruins the friendship of the men, and forces Emilia to participate in a marriage for which she has no inclination. Palamon's invocation to Venus before the contest against Arcite focuses on the coercive and terrifying powers the goddess of love possesses:

Hail sovereign queen of secrets, who hast power
To call the fiercest tyrant from his rage
And weep unto a girl; that hast the might
Even with an eye-glance to choke Mars' drum …
                                                                                                    I knew a man
Of eighty winters, this I told them, who
A lass of fourteen brided. 'Twas thy power
To put life into dust: the aged cramp
Had screwed his square foot round,
The gout had knit his fingers into knots,
Torturing convulsions from his globy eyes
Had almost drawn their spheres, that what was life
In him seemed torture.

(5.1.77-80, 107-115)

Imagery which again seems to be borrowed from the battlefield—“torturing convulsions”—creates a vision of love as contentious, corrupt, and unnatural; in light of such a grotesque description, it is no surprise that Emilia prays to the virgin goddess Diana, insisting, “I am bride-habited / But maiden-hearted” (5.1.150-151). Love, ultimately, does not fare very well in this play; that this is the case is obvious and has been discussed elsewhere. What is of significance here is not merely that love is a negative force, but that the preferred relationship is friendship, particularly male friendship.

It would nonetheless be misleading to view this play solely as a diatribe against Venus and a paean to Mars, for the god of war is finally presented no more optimistically than the goddess of love. This, I believe, is where much of the sense of unease surrounding this play derives—in the grand contest between love and war established here, neither side offers a choice. Just as we see the profane as well as the sacred elements of romantic love, so too we see war as much more than “the great corrector of enormous times,” as Arcite refers to it in his address to Mars.

As we have seen in the stories of both pairs of friends, Theseus and Pirithous and Palamon and Arcite, the men glory in their roles as warriors. They take great pleasure in recalling their actual experiences of war and in reenacting their martial roles in exercises of chivalry. It appears that when there are no real battles to be fought, the soldiers need to re-create them in their reminiscences and in the elaborate rituals of knighthood.

This obsession with all things martial is nowhere more evident than in the curious scene in which Palamon and Arcite decide to fight each other in order to determine who should win Emilia. Palamon, who has escaped from prison through the help of the jailer's daughter, has been hiding in the woods when he is discovered by Arcite. After nursing his friend back to health, Arcite arrives with the equipment necessary for battle. As the kinsmen prepare to fight, they are paradigms of knightly courtesy: when we recall that they are also sworn enemies preparing to kill each other, they almost become caricatures. When the kinsmen help one another don their armor, they examine the equipment lovingly, recalling the apparel they wore in previous battles. There follows a long scene in which the men seemingly forget their argument, so happy are they to sit together and dwell nostalgically on their martial triumphs. As they praise one another for their valor, it becomes clear that the young men, like Theseus, are happiest when they are recalling their lives as soldiers.

In addition to indulging themselves in remembering their previous exploits, the kinsmen take great pleasure in following the requirements of the chivalric code. Theseus is likewise wholly committed to the etiquette of knighthood: when he discovers Palamon and Arcite armed for battle, he berates them for “making battle, thus like knights appointed / Without my leave, and officers of arms” (3.6.136-137). What disturbs Theseus is not that they are fighting, but that by failing to obtain his permission and secure the necessary witnesses to their fight, they have not followed protocol. He at first condemns them to death, but then decides that the outcome of their argument will be resolved in a more formal challenge that he will devise. It is as though Theseus cannot deprive himself of the opportunity for a good battle.

Indeed, Theseus—whose enthusiasm for war and warriors has already been made abundantly clear—can hardly contain his excitement when the messenger arrives on the day appointed for the tournament. Theseus demands a full description of the knights who have accompanied Palamon and Arcite; the messenger replies that there have never been “six braver spirits”:

                                                                                                    He that stands
In the first place with Arcite, by his seeming
Should be a stout man, by his face a prince.
His very looks so say him …
His hair hangs long behind him, black and shining
Like ravens' wings; his shoulders broad and strong,
Armed long and round, and on his thigh a sword. …

(5.2.75-78, 83-85)

Pirithous and the messenger continue in a similar vein in praising the others knights: they so focus on the physical attractiveness of the young soldiers that their descriptions take on an element of eroticism. Theseus' enthusiastic response certainly contributes to this sense of homoerotic pleasure: “Now, as I have a soul, I long to see 'em! / … Come, I'll go visit 'em! I cannot stay, / Their fame has fired me so” (4.2.142, 152-153).

Throughout the play, male friendship and camaraderie in battle have been intimately associated; this scene carries that connection one step further in contributing an element of sensuality to this masculine world of valor and honor. Emilia's tribute to her childhood friend; Palamon and Arcite's reminiscences in prison; and Theseus' friendship with Pirithous all contain suggestions of latent sexuality, but where the male characters are concerned, the attraction of same-sex friendship is invariably connected to their admiration of each other as soldiers. The sexuality of male-female relationships is, as we have seen a force either destructive or grotesque, but the sexual undercurrents inherent in the same-sex friendships are never so maligned.

The masculine world of chivalric camaraderie completely overshadows the world of romantic heterosexual love in The Two Noble Kinsmen, leaving the female characters quite marginal; yet the play does not even resolve itself in this manner, with Mars emerging victorious, for the god of war also evokes some of the most horrific imagery in Renaissance drama.

In contrast to the beauty of the knights in shining armor, Hippolyta reminds us that at war, one sees “babes broached on the lance, or women / That have sod their infants in—and after eat them / The brine they weep at killing 'em” (1.3.20-22). Equally horrific is the queens' descriptions of their husbands' corpses rotting on the battlefield: “[they] endured / The beaks of ravens, talons of the kites, / And pecks of crows, in the foul fields of Thebes” (1.1.40-42). It is significant that the invectives against war come from the female characters; even though they have endorsed the world of battle, it is a world in which they are more the victims than the participants. As one queen laments, it is “we, whom flaming war doth scorch”: for the women, chivalric games do not compensate for the horrors of war.

Thus, the disturbing tensions in The Two Noble Kinsmen, emerge not only from the juxtaposition of love and war, but from the conflicts inherent within each of the concepts itself. Throughout the play, conventional attitudes and imagery concerning the two themes are frequently reversed: love is usually seen in terms of battle; it is not a joyous exchange between two willing partners, but an antagonistic force which conquers and subdues its victims. Though the play may purport to be a romance, friendship emerges as much more admirable than male-female relationships. War, on the other hand, often receives the devotion and idealization normally reserved for the subject of love, though the sordid realities of actual battle undermine its alleged nobility of purpose. This blurring of thematic boundaries upsets our expectations of The Two Noble Kinsmen as a romance, and calls into question the value of each concept, so that we are left with a disturbing sense of unresolved ambiguities—love is both destructive and irresistible, war is both annihilating and attractive. The result is not a play that succeeds in embracing multiple possibilities, but a play in which we are left with a sense of inevitable contradiction.

The plot exigencies and dual authorship perhaps both contribute to the ambiguous treatment of these themes, but it is also useful to consider what the work suggests about the social and political climate of Jacobean England when the play was written.

In Shakespeare and His Collaborators, Muriel Bradbrook suggests that The Two Noble Kinsmen is related to two specific historical events—the death of Henry, the heir to the throne, in November, 1612, and the wedding of his sister, the Princess Elizabeth, to the Elector Palatine of the Rhine in February, 1613 (28). Glynne Wickham subsequently expanded on this notion in arguing that Emilia “becomes the dramatic emblem for Princess Elizabeth; Palamon the emblem for her fiancé the Elector Palatine, and Arcite, the emblem for Henry.” He further argues, “… by the same token, Theseus and Hippolyta represent, in the world of this play, James I and Anne” (178).

Certainly the date of the play's first performance and the fact that the play ends with the funeral of a noble soldier followed almost immediately by a royal wedding invites comparison to current events. Nonetheless, there are many obvious flaws inherent in this type of strictly mimetic interpretation, problems which have been the subject of much critical debate.5 Let us just add that in this case, it would require a particular imaginative leap to see the war-mongering Theseus as representative of James I.

Rather than examining the characters of The Two Noble Kinsmen as thinly disguised equivalents of the royal family, it seems more useful to examine the play's thematic concerns in relation to the historical reality in a larger sense. Thus, the ambivalence about war in this play seems to reflect, at least in part, the dissatisfaction with peacetime policies that was prevalent during the middle years of James I's reign when this play was written. On the one hand, there was an acute awareness of the private and public costs exacted by war: on the other, there was a desire to see England display her power through the glories of military conquest. These conflicting attitudes are perhaps best exemplified in the persons of James I, whose devotion to pacifism is legendary, and his son and heir to the throne, Henry, whose commitment to arms is equally famous. While neither James nor Henry should be considered direct counterparts of any of the characters in The Two Noble Kinsmen, the contradictory policies of the Jacobean “hawks and doves” that they clearly represent are reflected in the conflicting attitudes towards war contained in Shakespeare and Fletcher's play.

The position of James I is appropriately symbolized in his motto, “Beati Pacifi.” Upon his accession to the throne in 1603, one of his first accomplishments was a peace treaty with Spain; another was progress towards the peaceful union of Scotland and England. Contemporary accounts of James, even when they acknowledge his other administrative weaknesses, invariably comment on his pacifism. As Anthony Weldon noted in The Court and Character of King James, “In a word, he was … such a King, I wish this Kingdom never have any worse, on this condition, nor any better; for he lived in peace, died in left all his Kingdoms in a peaceable condition” (16). The pacific stance of James' foreign policy was repeatedly emphasized in the royal image he promoted: in the pageantry that celebrated James' entry into London in 1604, Mars was presented as submitting to the power of Peace (Bergeron, English Civic Pageantry 1558-1642 85-86). Years later, James would similarly attempt to control the image his son Henry encouraged: on one occasion, James “vetoed young Henry's preference for a traditional martial fete in favor of a masque in which he was to be starred as Oberon, the fairy prince” (Orgel and Strong, Inigo Jones: The Theatre of the Stuart Court 210). In the vivid denunciations of battle in The Two Noble Kinsmen, it is difficult not to see James's own aversion to war.

On the other hand, the heir to the throne, Prince Henry, was every bit as militaristic as his father was peace-loving. Although Henry was praised for his enthusiastic interest in the arts, a characteristic that has been emphasized by his most recent biographer, Roy Strong, he is first and foremost presented as a warrior. In 1610, George Marcelline writes in The Triumph of King James, “This young Prince is a warrior alreadie, both in gesture and countenance, so that in looking on him, he seemeth unto us, that in him we do not yet see Ajax before Troy, crowding among the armed troops, calling unto them, that he may joyne body to body with Hector, who stands trembling with chill-cold feare” (50-51). Another description is even more specific in outlining Henry's obsession with the military: “… he did also practice tilting, Charging on Horseback with Pistols, after the Manner of the Wars with all other like Inventions. Now also delighting to confer, both with his own, and other strangers, the great Captains, of all Manner of Wars, Battle, Furniture, Arms by Sea and Land …” (Cornwallis 68). Henry's image as a warrior made him an obvious hero to the old Elizabethan war party who saw in the young heir an alternative to James. Although Henry was actually involved in planning specific military strategies, his involvement as a warrior was primarily restricted to preparations and chivalric exercises: as in The Two Noble Kinsmen, when there is no real battle to be fought, soldiers must reenact their own wars in the tiltyard. Henry is seen by many as the last representative of English chivalry—with his death in 1612, what was already becoming a lost tradition would gradually disappear. In The Two Noble Kinsmen, it seems that Shakespeare and Fletcher are representing the love of chivalry that Prince Henry and many of his countrymen promulgated, while at the same time acknowledging the aversion to war represented by King James.

Similarly, we can consider the relationship between the ambiguous treatment of love in The Two Noble Kinsmen and attitudes towards male-female relationships in the court of James I. According to Muriel Bradbrook, the play's formal, masque-like structure creates a certain distance from the individual characters, which “allows the topic of homosexuality to become pervasive without becoming acknowledged. The relation of the kinsmen to each other lies at the center of the action, and their theme reflects what everybody knew to be the habits of the monarch himself” (32). Bradbrook does not elaborate, but her suggestion that there is a connection between the monarch and the play's thematic concerns seems appropriate. Certainly Shakespeare approached the subject of intimate male friendship in some of his other plays as well as his sonnets, though there is a greater emphasis on the sexual component of friendship in The Two Noble Kinsmen than in most of his other works.

To what degree this theme mirrors the sexual preferences of James and the members of his court is obviously difficult to assess, but there are some parallels that should be drawn. James, like Theseus, seemed to be more personally committed to same-sex friendships than to heterosexual relationships, but still saw the social and political necessity of the institution of marriage. James' attitude towards his own marriage was that it was his duty to take a wife and beget issue for the stability of the kingdom; likewise he encouraged the marriage and procreation of his own children and favorites.

In The Two Noble Kinsmen, we see Theseus going through the motions of his own marriage, and persistently encouraging the reluctant Emilia to marry one of the kinsmen, but his real enthusiasm is reserved for the male characters. This disjunction between personal preference and public responsibility created certain tensions in the court of King James, and it results in similar ambiguities in The Two Noble Kinsmen. The play may leave us dissatisfied in its unsettling juxtaposition of noble chivalry and horrific war, and of male-female relationships and same-sex friendships, but it is significant that these very contradictions were notorious issues in the Jacobean period in which The Two Noble Kinsmen was written.


  1. The Two Noble Kinsmen was recently performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford; for a review of the performance, see Shakespeare Quarterly, 38. 1 (spring, 1987): 82-89. A programme / text was published in conjunction with this performance by Swan Theatre Plays (London: Methuen, 1986).

  2. William Shakespeare, William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. Gary Taylor and Stanley Wells (Oxford UP: 1986). All quotations from the play are from this edition.

  3. Clifford Leech addresses this issue in his introduction to the Signet edition of this play. Although the specific details of the collaboration have been the subject of much literary debate, the general consensus is, according to Leech, that Shakespeare wrote “the beginning and the ending and introduced all the major characters and strands of action,” while Fletcher wrote many of the middle scenes and was responsible for the subplot. Most critics concur with this analysis; I find no reason to disagree.

  4. See Howard C. Adams, “‘What Cressid Is,’” in this collection.

  5. For a helpful discussion of this type of topical criticism, in Renaissance literature, see the introduction to David Bergeron, Shakespeare's Romances and The Royal Family (UP of Kansas, 1985).

Works Cited

Adams, Howard C. “‘What Cressid Is’” in this collection.

Bergeron, David. English Civic Pageantry 1558-1642. Columbia, S. C., 1971, pp. 85-86.

———. Shakespeare's Romances and The Royal Family. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 1985.

Berggren, Paula. “‘For what we lack, / We laugh’: Incompletion and The Two Noble Kinsmen.Modern Language Studies 14 (1984): 3-17.

Bradbrook, Muriel. “Shakespeare and His Collaborators.” Proceedings of the World Shakespeare Congress. Vancouver, 1971. Ed. Clifford Leech and J. M. R. Margeson. Toronto: U of Toronto P: 28-32.

Cornwallis, Charles. A Discourse of the most illustrious prince, Henry, late Prince of Wales. Written Anno 1626, quoted in Strong, Roy. Henry, Prince of Wales. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1986.

Donaldson, E. Talbot. The Swan At The Well: Shakespeare Reading Chaucer. New Haven: Yale UP, 1985.

Marcelline, George. The Triumph of King James the First. London, 1610.

Muir, Kenneth. Shakespeare As Collaborator. London: Methuen, 1960.

Neely, Carol Thomas. Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays. New Haven: Yale UP, 1985.

Orgel, Stephen and Strong, Roy. Inigo Jones: The Theatre of the Stuart Court. 2 vols. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973.

Shakespeare, William. The Two Noble Kinsmen. Ed. Clifford Leech. Signet Classics. New York: New American Library, 1966.

Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works. Ed. Gary Taylor and Stanley Wells. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1986.

Weldon, Anthony. The Court and Character of King James. Quoted in James I By His Contemporaries. Ed. Robert Ashton. London: Hutchinson, 1969.

Theodor Meron (essay date 1993)

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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 English camp is palpable in the complaint attributed by Shakespeare to Warwick (in the Oxford edition by Wells and Taylor which I am using), or to Westmoreland (in other editions; Westmoreland was not on the Agincourt campaign at all), and in Henry's heroic reply:

                                                  O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work today.
                    What's he that wishes so?
My cousin Warwick? No, my fair cousin.
If we are marked to die, we are enough
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will, I pray thee wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It ernes me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God's peace, I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O do not wish one more.
Rather proclaim it presently through my host
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart.

(Henry V, IV. iii. 17-36)

Shakespeare drew heavily on Holinshed here (who attributed Warwick's statement to an unnamed ‘one of the host’). The exchange itself is also reported in other sources, including the Gesta.1

As the Battle of Agincourt wore on, the outnumbered English appeared to have the upper hand. The fear that another French charge was about to begin, the presence on the battlefield of a large number of French prisoners who, though disarmed, could have risen against their English captors, and a French attack on the English baggage train possibly involving loss of life among the attendants—all combined to trigger an unexpected order by the King. Shakespeare's Henry, hearing a sudden call to arms, cries out:

But hark, what new alarum is this same?
The French have reinforced their scattered men.
Then every soldier kill his prisoners.
Give the word through.

(IV. vi. 35-8)

The play reveals another reason for this order in the next scene:

Kill the poys and the luggage! 'Tis expressly against the law of arms. 'Tis as arrant a piece of knavery, mark you now, as can be offert. In your conscience now, is it not?
'Tis certain there's not a boy left alive. And the cowardly rascals that ran from the battle ha' done this slaughter. Besides, they have burned and carried away all that was in the King's tent; wherefore the King most worthily hath caused every soldier to cut his prisoner's throat. O 'tis a gallant king.

(IV. vii. 1-10)

After this disclosure, the King elaborates on his order regarding the prisoners:

                    I was not angry since I came to France
Until this instant. Take a trumpet, herald;
Ride thou unto the horsemen on yon hill.
If they will fight with us, bid them come down,
Or void the field: they do offend our sight.
If they'll do neither, we will come to them,
And make them skirr away as swift as stones
Enforcèd from the old Assyrian slings.
Besides, we'll cut the throats of those we have,
And not a man of them that we shall take
Shall taste our mercy. Go and tell them so.

(ibid., 53-63)

Shakespeare thus explains Henry's cruel order to kill the French prisoners on two grounds: necessity, as the French appeared to be regrouping to attack; and reprisal for the unlawful attack on the servants2 guarding the rear camp and for its plunder. In an effort to highlight Henry's humanity, Shakespeare focuses on the King's impetuous anger (‘I was not angry since I came to France until this instant’). Bullough agrees that Shakespeare emphasizes and even explains Henry's command as an act of ‘justifiable anger, needing no apology’, characteristic of his impetuosity; Bullough adds, however, that ‘Shakespeare's ambivalence is … suggested by Fluellen's disquisition.’3 Holinshed offers a different version of the facts:

[C]erteine Frenchmen on horssebacke … to the number of six hundred horssemen, which were the first that fled, hearing that the English tents and pavillions were a good waie distant from the armie, without anie sufficient gard to defend the same … entred upon the kings campe, and there spoiled the hails, robbed the tents, brake up chests, and carried awaie caskets, and slue such servants as they found to make anie resistance. …

But when the outcrie of the lackies and boies, which ran awaie for feare of the Frenchmen thus spoiling the campe, came to the kings eares, he doubting least his enimies should gather togither againe, and begin a new field; and mistrusting further that the prisoners would be an aid to his enimies … contrarie to his accustomed gentlenes, commanded by sound of trumpet, that everie man (upon paine of death) should incontinentlie slaie his prisoner.4

Thus the chronicler whom Shakespeare most closely followed recorded that the French killed only those servants who offered resistance.5 Holinshed's version of the story formed a part of the mythology of Agincourt by his time. Shakespeare modified the story, apparently to cast Henry's order in the best possible light.

Although Holinshed telescoped the attack on the luggage train with the King's fear that the French forces were regrouping,6 Shakespeare mentions the regrouping of the French troops together with the King's order to kill the prisoners. In the immediately following scene, the exchange between Fluellen and Gower rather sarcastically presents the killing of the ‘poys and luggage’ as triggering the King's retaliatory order.7 However, the eyewitness account of the author of the Gesta Henrici Quinti describes the attack on the English baggage as preceding the principal engagement and thus occurring before the English had taken many prisoners. As Henry was preparing for battle, he ordered the baggage brought to the rear of his forces, where it would not fall into the hands of the enemy as booty:

And at that time French pillagers were watching it [the baggage train] from almost every side, intending to make an attack upon it immediately they saw both armies engage; in fact, directly battle was joined they fell upon the tail end of it where, owing to the negligence of the royal servants, the king's own baggage was, seizing on royal treasure of great value.8

A large number of local peasants participated in this attack.9 The Gesta account made no mention of loss of life among the English guarding the baggage and did not link the attack on the baggage train with the killing of the prisoners, which took place near the end of the battle in these wholly unrelated circumstances:

But then, all at once, because of what wrathfulness on God's part no one knows, a shout went up that the enemy's mounted rearguard (in incomparable number and still fresh) were re-establishing their position and line of battle in order to launch an attack on us, few and weary as we were.10

The Gesta portrays the killing itself as wholly spontaneous, without the slightest mention of the King's orders: ‘[a]nd immediately … the prisoners … were killed by the swords either of their captors or of others following after, lest they should involve us in utter disaster in the fighting that would ensue.’11

In the circumstances described in the Gesta, there would, of course, be little cause for the historical Henry's anger, unless we assume that it was triggered by the losses of royal treasure. Prior to the deliberate killing of the prisoners, the battle was already cruel and bloody. The Gesta, a source generous to the English, speaks of the butchery of the French.12 It recalls that there was no time to take prisoners and ‘almost all … were, as soon as they were struck down, put to death without respite, either by those who had laid them low or by others following after.’13 This butchery, which continued until the English were sure of their victory, is vividly described by The First English Life of King Henry the Fifth:

no man approached the place of the battell, but either he must slay or else he was slayne … no man was taken prisoner, but an innumerable were slayne. … And when it came to the middle of the fielde, the Englishmen were more encouraged to slaye there enemies then tofore … there approached no man [of the French] to bataile, but only to death: of whom, after that an innumerable companie were slayne, and that the victorie surelie remayned to the Englishmen, they spared to slaye and tooke prisoners of the Frenchmen.14

Modern accounts by both Wylie15 and Winston Churchill16 speak of plunder but not killing. John Keegan refers to plunder by a body of armed peasants who were led by three mounted knights; they stole some objects and ‘inflicted some loss of life’.17 The anonymous early sixteenth-century biographer of Henry V explained that the King's order to kill the prisoners was triggered by his fear that he would have to fight them as well as the attacking French forces. This author did not even mention the assault on the baggage train.18

If Holinshed's version is correct, the French raid is unlikely to have violated any laws of war. The English rear camp constituted a lawful object of attack. In the absence of resistance, the immunity of persons serving the troops would have depended on whether they met the prevailing standards of innocence.19 Assuming that the pages were not entitled to the immunity of children20 and were to be treated as ‘youths’, their right to be spared would have turned on their surrender, either on ‘fair terms’ or unconditionally.21 At least some medieval jurists regarded non-combatant servants of an army as a legitimate military target, even when they were not involved in any defensive or other fighting, and even when they were not armed. Thus the authoritative Giovanni da Legnano writes: ‘Should those who attend in a war, but who cannot fight, enjoy the immunities [status] of combatants? Say that they should, provided that they are useful in counsel in other ways.’22

Perhaps Shakespeare himself was not quite persuaded that Fluellen's version of the law sufficiently justified the order to kill the prisoners. The sarcasm in Gower's response appears to be aimed both at the Welshman Fluellen and at the King. Indeed, the real Henry may later have been embarrassed by the order. In his eyewitness account of the Agincourt campaign, the anonymous English cleric attached to Henry's court clearly intended to justify Henry's foreign policy and to present him as a devout and humane Christian prince who was seeking peace with justice. Yet, in describing the killing of the prisoners (‘by the swords either of their captors or of others following after, lest they should involve us in utter disaster in the fighting that would ensue’), he never mentioned the provocation of the French attack on the luggage train or even the existence of Henry's command.23

Although some of the French participants in the attack were subsequently punished by France for committing ‘treason’ and leaving their camp for private plunder,24 those punitive measures were motivated not by the violation of the laws of war, but by the ‘causing [of] the rumour [of a French counter-attack] which led to the hideous massacre of the prisoners on the battlefield’.25 Under the circumstances, Fluellen's invocation of the law of arms may have reflected Shakespeare's desire to place the most favourable interpretation on the King's order. Legally, however, it was flawed.

Without a manifest breach of the law by the French, Henry could not claim the defence of reprisal, which was then generally permissible26 and, according to some views, was even allowed against innocent private persons.27 Indeed, it did not occur to Gentili, in his discussion of Agincourt (see below), that reprisals might be relevant. The usually humane Gentili, while pleading for compassion ‘towards those who really suffer [retaliation] for the faults of others’,28 none the less accepted the principle of collective responsibility as manifested by reprisals, as a matter of law:

[I]t avails not in this case to say that those who were punished were not the ones who acted cruelly, and that hence they ought not to have been treated cruelly; for the enemy make up one body, just as an army is a single body. … [T]he individuals are responsible, even if a fault was committed by all in common.29

Writing soon after Gentili, Grotius challenged the legality of reprisals against prisoners, except in those cases of individual responsibility for a previously committed crime that ‘a just judge would hold punishable by death’.30 Grotius argued that collective responsibility was a fiction and should not be invoked to justify reprisals against innocent persons: ‘nature does not sanction retaliation except against those who have done wrong. It is not sufficient that by a sort of fiction the enemy may be conceived as forming a single body.’31

If the massacre of the French prisoners, whose horror was vividly described by Holinshed,32 was not excusable as a reprisal, could it have been justified on grounds of necessity? Alluding to the necessities of war, the eminent medieval jurist Giovanni da Legnano recognized the captor's right to kill prisoners where there was ‘fear of a disturbance of the peace’.33 Holinshed's account suggests that the King's fear of an impending attack, in which the French prisoners would join, was real.34 The heavily outnumbered English would have had difficulty repelling another attack while guarding their numerous prisoners. In the same vein, Wylie, on the basis of the chroniclers, writes that the danger of a new assault triggered the King's order. But this explanation is undercut by the fact that the King made an exception for dukes, earls, and other high-placed leaders ‘as fell [insofar as ransom was concerned] to the king's own share’.35 Mindful of their expected ransoms, the captors were reluctant to carry out the order, ‘but the king threatened to hang any man that disobeyed and told off 200 of his ever-handy archers to begin the bloody work.’36

In other wars as well, orders to execute captives clashed with the desire of captors to obtain ransom. The war of Burgundy against Ghent (1451-3) was regarded as a war against rebels, and therefore as a guerre mortelle in which rules of chivalry were not applicable and quarter was not given. In that war, the Duke of Burgundy (Philip the Good) categorically ordered the execution of all prisoners. Malcolm Vale explained these ducal commands as ‘suggest[ing] an unwillingness among some nobles to be deprived of potentially valuable captives’.37

Although the rank and the wealth of those members of the highest French nobility who were spared by the real Henry may have influenced his decision to exclude them from the mass of the prisoners to be killed, his primary motivation was probably the desire to secure generous ransoms for himself, rather than to accord them the privilege of rank. That great wealth and therefore the concomitant ability to pay lavish ransoms served as the criterion for separating the few that were to live from the many that were to die is morally unacceptable. Already Gentili complained that instead of punishing leaders who led their people to an unjust war, in

modern warfare … it is the common soldiers who are slain. The leaders, the rich, are saved, that they may ransom themselves. O unjust form of waging war and cruel traffic! … But our worthy leaders consult for their own interests in this new fashion; for if they should come into the hands of the enemy, they would no longer have to fear for their own lives, now that the lavish shedding of the blood of the common soldiers has become customary.38

Ransoms were usually huge. Grose reported that:

The usual price demanded for the ransome of a prisoner of war was … one year's rent of his estate, one third of which was by the royal ordonances, the property of the chief captain under whom the captor served; out of which, one third of that third, equal to one ninth of the whole ransome, was to be paid by the captain to the king; stipendiary soldiers who had no estates, usually paid for their ransome one half of their year's pay.39

The collection of ransom was, therefore, of tremendous economic significance to the captor. Ransom and plunder were the medieval warrior's principal incentives for going to war. Ransom could also, and often did, bring economic ruin to the captive and his family.

Without the promise and the expectation of ransom, the rules of chivalry could not ensure the lives of prisoners. Francis Grose cynically observed that ‘[t]he hopes of ransom frequently acted in the place of humanity, avarice assuming the place of mercy.’40 He thus explained the great slaughter of the Scots at the battle of Musselborough (1548): ‘that their mean appearance gave little hopes [sic] of their ability to pay ransom’.41

Ransom could at least spare the lives of those able to pay it. Vale wrote that ‘the incentive for the common soldier to conceal booty and to kill (rather than take prisoners) grew as the prospect of lucrative plunder diminished.’42 Wars fought in the second part of the fifteenth century, when ransom ceased to be customarily granted, became even bloodier. The Swiss and German mercenaries did not take prisoners, because prisoners would make the search for booty more difficult. Moreover, in wars fought by larger groups kept apart by gunfire, the pursuit and the taking of prisoners became rare.43 Vale notes, for example, that a Swiss battle order of 18 March 1476 required that all Burgundians and their allies be killed, and that, accordingly, no prisoners were taken at the Battle of Morat.44 In the short term, at least, the decline of ransom resulted in more brutal wars.

Although ransom served as an incentive for sparing lives, it also had negative effects. It could trigger the taking as prisoners persons who would otherwise have been left in peace, and even of persons protected by the laws of war. For example, Henry's Ordinances of War prohibited the capture as prisoners of unarmed women and of unarmed men of the cloth, as well as of children under the age of 14, with the exception of the sons of lords or other persons of status. Captors of the sons of such wealthy persons were to deliver their prisoners to their superiors and eventually shared the ransom.

Chivalric rules were more protective of children. Invoking the principle of innocence, Christine de Pisan movingly though vainly argued against the taking as prisoners of little children, whether poor or rich:

I telle the certeynly that after right the litel child may nor ought not to be kept prysoner, for reason wil not accorde, that innocencye be a greued for it is veray trouthe that a childe in suche a cas is innocent & not coulpable of all werre in al manere of thingis, wherfore he ought not to bere the peyne of that wherof he is not in fawte nor of counseill nor of goodes he hathe nought holpen therto for he hathe as yet noon Ye maister, but supposed that the said child were ryche of hym self as of his fader & moders godes that be dede, mooste he paye, For it might be soo that his tutoures or they that haue the rule ouer his goodis shulde paye a subsydye of hys goodes to the kynge of Englande for to maynten his werre in Fraunce, Yet y telle the that nay, for what that his tutoures paied therof it were not of the childes wille whiche is not yet in age of discrecion, without faille maister thenne is not this daye this law wel kepte, thou saist to me trouthe fayre loue, nor yet be nomore kept nother the noble ryghtes of olde tyme that helde and truly dyde kepe the noble conquerours, Thus abusen with the right of armes they that now doo excersice them by the grete coueytyse that ouercometh them, soo ought to tourne them to a grete shame for to emprisone wymen or children & impotent & olde.45

Christine was following in the footsteps of Bouvet here, who had argued that children—being innocent of the war and unable to assist in its conduct—should not be made prisoners. He maintained that it was wrong to imprison old men who took no part in the war, as well as women and children ‘for the former lack strength, the others knowledge’.46 Emphasizing the obligations of chivalry, Bouvet insisted that ‘all gentlemen should keep them from harm, and all knights and men-at-arms are bound to do so, and whoever does the contrary deserves the name of pillager.’47

Churchill, defending Henry, claims that the King ordered the killing of the prisoners in the belief that he was being attacked from the rear; although ‘[t]he alarm in the rear was soon relieved,’ by then the massacre was almost over.48 Less categorically, Keegan writes that the order to kill the prisoners was prompted by either the attack on the rear camp or the continued menace of the French.49

However genuine the King's fear of an attack on his outnumbered troops may have been, the order to kill the French prisoners, already hors de combat, could hardly be justified on the ground that they might have joined the ranks of the attackers. The captured French were still encumbered by their heavy armour, as their basinets (helmets) alone had been removed.50 Dismounted, defenceless, and barely able to move, they were hardly a menace to the English troops. In the face of real necessity, a threat of execution would not have been required to enforce Henry's order. Burne argued, however, that because many prisoners had not yet been divested of their weapons, ‘if [the archers] let go of their captives and moved off to repel the impending attack their captives would have been free to pick up weapons that sprinkled the ground and attack them in the rear, possibly in conjunction with their comrades who were still running amok in the English camp.’51 This justification of the killings on grounds of necessity is unpersuasive.

Did the order violate the applicable laws of war? While maintaining that, ‘speaking absolutely, there is nothing to prevent the killing of those who have surrendered or been captured in a just war so long as abstract equity is observed,’52 Vitoria suggested that this harsh rule had been tempered by the law of nations and the customs of war; consequently, ‘after victory has been won … and all danger is over, [they] are not to be killed.’53 Because Henry believed that the victory had not been won and that the danger persisted, he would not have violated Vitoria's standards, and certainly not the earlier medieval norms described by Giovanni da Legnano. Even Crompton, Shakespeare's contemporary, and ‘an apprentice of the common law’, in a book published in the same year Shakespeare wrote his play, fully justified Henry's order to kill the prisoners:

the French as they are men of great courage and valour, so they assembled themselves againe in battell array, meaning to have giuen a new battell to king Henry, which king Henry perceiving, gave speciall commandment by proclamation, that every man should kill his prisoners: whereupon many were presently slaine, whereof the French king having intelligence, dispersed his army, and so departed: whereby you may see the miseries of warre, that though they [the prisoners] had yeelded and thought themselves sure of their lives, paying their ransome, according to the lawes of armes, yet uppon such necessary occasion, to kill them was a thing by all reason allowed, for otherwise the king having lost diverse valiant Captaines and souldiers in this battell, and being also but a small number in comparison of the French kings army, and in a strang countrey, where he could not supply his neede upon the sudden, it might have bene much daungerous to have againe joyned with the enemy, and kept his prisoners alive, as in our Chronicles largely appeareth.54

But such medieval writers as Bouvet and Christine de Pisan argued that the killing of prisoners should be prohibited, though with some exceptions.55 They advocated even more protective rules for prisoners subjected to inhumane treatment. A knight who escapes although he had given his word to remain in captivity offends God and man. This is

on the assumption, however, that his master does not use any extradordinary harshness towards him; for if he were kept in such close imprisonment that he was in danger of falling into languor, or mortal sickness, or any grievous ill of body, and for that reason took his opportunity to escape, he would commit no offence. … And if his master were so cruel as to be in the habit of killing or causing the death of his prisoners in his prisons, and if, on opportunity arising, he quitted such a host, I would blame him not at all.56

The right to escape in breach of a knight's promise applied not only in cases where the captor preferred to have his prisoners killed in prison, rather than to have them put to ransom, but also if the captor refused to accept a reasonable ransom and insisted on ‘ransom beyond [the prisoner's] condition’.57 Christine de Pisan argued that not only was the killing of prisoners prohibited, but there existed an obligation to accord them humane treatment. Although the law of arms proscribed the escape of a prisoner who gave his word to remain in captivity, that promise was contingent on his being humanely treated. It ceased to be binding if his treatment by his captors endangered his life or health:

That is to wyte that the sayde mayster doo not to hym noon other evyl nor hurt than to put hym in a couenable pryson, as ryght hath lymyted & wil,

But I accorde wyth the wel, yf he were kept soo straytly and soo euyll delt wyth all that hys lyff or helthe were putte in Jeopardye therby, and that Inhumayne or cruelle a thyng it were, I afferme unto the that yf he can fyn-de meanes for to escape awaye that a ryght grete wyt it were, nor for noo trespas it ought not to be taken.58

Rules such as those promoted by Bouvet and Christine de Pisan were in fact enforced by courts applying rules of chivalry. The case of an English knight, Simon Burley (see above Chapter 2), is illustrative.59 In a decision rendered in 1371, the Parlement de Paris decided that an escaped prisoner must return to the captor's custody, but only because his claim of ill-treatment had not been proven.60

I shall now return to the question of grant of quarter. Gentili's humane position on the duty to give quarter has already been discussed. Faithful to the chivalric code of conduct,61 Gentili suggested that an implied contract is formed between the captor and the captive, ‘a bargain with the enemy for his life’. The ‘rights of humanity and the laws of war … order the sparing of those who surrender.’62 Gentili did not agree that danger justified the killing of captives and he praised those who ‘did not slay their captives, no matter how great danger threatened them’.63 He had harsh words for Henry:

I cannot praise the English who, in that famous battle in which they overthrew the power of France, having taken more prisoners than the number of their victorious army and fearing danger from them by night, set aside those of high rank and slew the rest. ‘A hateful and inhuman deed,’ says the historian, ‘and the battle was not so bloody as the victory.’64

Perhaps Gentili's stricture on Henry's action, had it been known to Shakespeare, would explain the playwright's sensitivity and his desire to depart from Holinshed's account. But Shakespeare's apparently deliberate departure from Holinshed can plausibly be explained, without reference to Gentili, as an attempt to put Henry's order in the best possible light.

Notwithstanding Gentili's condemnation, it cannot be concluded that Henry clearly violated contemporary standards. Wylie reports that, even though the writers of the time regarded the massacre as an inhumane deed, his French critics refrained from blaming Henry because ‘in those days the French would have done the same themselves had they been in so perilous a case.’65 Killing prisoners in an emergency was not unprecedented66 and, while quarter was normally granted in Anglo-French wars, the virtual absence of ‘contemporary criticism’ of Henry's action67 suggests that, cruel though it was, his order did not violate the accepted norms of behaviour. It is difficult to characterize the order as an act of wanton brutality, given the importance of the expectations of ransom to the English soldiery as a whole.

It is, however, impossible to excuse the King's threat, made when his victory had already been assured, after the massacre of the French prisoners, not to give quarter and to kill the remaining prisoners, if the French continued to fight:

Take a trumpet, herald;
Ride thou unto the horsemen on yon hill.
If they will fight with us, bid them come down,
Or void the field: they do offend our sight.
If they'll do neither, we will come to them,
And make them skirr away as swift as stones
Enforcèd from the old Assyrian slings.
Besides, we'll cut the throats of those we have,
And not a man of them that we shall take
Shall taste our mercy. Go and tell them so.

(Henry V, IV. vii. 54-63)

Shakespeare appears to follow Holinshed:

the king perceiving his enimies in one part to assemble togither, as though they meant to give a new battell for preservation of the prisoners, sent to them an herald, commanding them either to depart out of his sight, or else to come forward at once, and give battell: promising herewith, that if they did offer to fight againe, not onelie those prisoners which this people alreadie had taken; but also so manie of them as in this new conflict, which they thus attempted should fall into his hands, should die the death without redemption.68

Holinshed based his account on Titus Livius, whose influence is also apparent in the account which appears in The First English Life of King Henry the Fifth by the anonymous author known as Translator of Livius: ‘if they come to battaile, both those of theires that then were prisoners, and also all they that should after be taken, without mercie or redemption shoulde be put to death.’69

Henry's threat to refuse quarter and to kill the prisoners still in his hands, should the French continue fighting, as they could lawfully do, was most likely in violation of the contemporary laws of war. It was, nevertheless, passed over in silence by most commentators, probably because the French took the threat seriously and further killing was avoided.

Agincourt was not the only setting, during the reign of Henry V, in which privileged categories of combatants were killed. In January 1420, for example, English forces slaughtered a large number of Armagnacs who were retreating under safe conduct.70 That same month, a Castilian fleet defeated an English naval force before La Rochelle, taking many prisoners, ‘some of whom were landed at the town and slaughtered by the Bastard of Alençon’.71 In these and other cases, the protective rules were clear, but the practice, sadly, was different.

In modern law the killing of prisoners of war constitutes, of course, a ‘grave breach’ of the third Geneva Convention,72 and the killing of civilians a grave breach of the fourth Geneva Convention.73 Such acts can no longer be excused by either reprisal or necessity, and were condemned as war crimes violating the Hague Regulations,74 the 1929 Geneva POW Convention75 and international customary law by the Nuernberg tribunals, which in many cases imposed capital punishment on the perpetrators. Sadly, even now the killing of protected persons is not exceptional.


  1. Holinshed thus describes the King's answer:

    ‘I would not wish a man more here than I have, we are indeed in comparison to the enimies but a few, but, if God of his clemencie doo favour us, and our just cause (as I trust he will) we shall speed well inough … And if so be that … wee shall be delivered into the hands of our enimies, the lesse number we be, the lesse damage shall the realme of England susteine.’ Holinshed, 35 (= R. Holinshed, Chronicles (1808), iii. 79-80.). Gesta, 79 attributes Warwick's comment to Sir Walter Hungerford.

  2. Lackeys, boys, pages, sutlers, waggoners, and servants of the camp. James Hamilton Wylie, The Reign of Henry the Fifth (1919), ii. 148 n. 6.

  3. Geoffrey Bullough (ed.), Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (1962), iv. 367.

  4. Holinshed, 38 (= R. Holinshed, Chronicles (1808), iii. 81).

  5. But E. Hall stated that the French killed the servants they could find. Hall, 69. Cf. Hague Convention (No. IV) Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, Art. 13, 18 Oct. 1907, 36 Stat. 2277, TS No. 539, 1 Bevans 631. [Geneva] Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, Art. 81, 27 July 1929, 47 Stat. 2021 (pt. 2) TS No. 846, 2 Bevans 932; [Geneva] Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War (Geneva Convention No. III), Art. 4 (A)(4), 12 Aug. 1949, 6 UST 3316, TIAS No. 3364, 75 UNTS 135. Under such provisions, service personnel accompanying the armed forces, without actually being members thereof, would be entitled to POW status but, as non-combatants, would not be a lawful object of attack unless they took a direct part in the hostilities. See also Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), Art. 51 (3), opened for signature 12 Dec. 1977, 1125 UNTS 3.

  6. Holinshed, 38 (= R. Holinshed, Chronicles (1808), iii. 81).

  7. Cf. Bullough, supra note 3, at 366-7.

  8. Gesta, 85.

  9. Gesta, 84 n. 1.

  10. Ibid. 91 (footnote omitted).

  11. Ibid. 92-3 (footnote omitted).

  12. Ibid. 91.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Charles Lethbridge Kingsford (ed.), The First English Life of King Henry the Fifth (1911), 59-60.

  15. Wylie, supra note 2, at ii. 171. In his discussion of the attack on the King's baggage, Hibbert does not mention any loss of life. Charles Hibbert, Agincourt (1964), 127.

  16. Winston S. Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (1956), i. 319. See also J. D. Griffith Davies, Henry V, (1935), 190.

  17. John Keegan, The Face of Battle (1978), 84.

  18. First English Life, supra note 14, at 60-1. Harris Nicolas, A History of the Battle of Agincourt (2nd edn. 1832), 124, writes that King Henry was advised that the French had attacked his rear and plundered his baggage, but he does not mention any loss of life among the baggage attendants. Many other historians also mention the attack on the baggage train, but not loss of life among the attendants. See E. F. Jacob, Henry V and the Invasion of France (1947), 105; George Makepeace Towle, The History of Henry the Fifth (1866), 340; Desmond Seward, Henry V (1988), 80; R. B. Mowat, Henry V (1920), 159. Allmand offers this rather lenient explanation for the King's order to kill the prisoners: it ‘was an attempt to frighten them into submission, and to cause them to allow themselves to be herded off the field by the archers … If many were killed in the process, this was no deliberate wholesale massacre. It was, moreover, a “massacre” which was brought to an end immediately it was recognized that the threat from the French men-at-arms was not going to materialize.’ Christopher Allmand, Henry V at 95 (1992).

  19. Vitoria, 180 (38)-(39).

  20. See Grotius, bk. III, ch. xi, pt. ix.

  21. See Grotius, bk. III, ch. xi, pts. xiii(2), xiv, xv; see also Gentili, ii. 216.

  22. Legnano, ch. 71, p. 274.

  23. Gesta, 93. See also Intro. by the Editors, ibid., pp. xviii, xxiii, xxviii.

  24. Holinshed, 38 (= R. Holinshed, Chronicles (1808), iii. 81).

  25. Wylie, supra note 2, at ii. 171 (footnotes omitted); see also Holinshed, 38 (= R. Holinshed, Chronicles (1808), iii. 81).

  26. See the discussion of the breadth of permissible reprisals by Giovanni da Legnano, chs. 124-65, pp. 308-30. Reprisals against prisoners of war are now outlawed. See e.g. Geneva Convention No. III, supra note 5, Art. 13.

  27. A rule protecting innocent private persons against reprisals was justified by Jacobus de Belvisio on the basis of the principle of individual responsibility: ‘a man ought not to be punished for another's offence.’ Cited by Giovanni da Legnano, ch. 143, p. 321, who disagrees.

  28. Gentili, ii. 232.

  29. Ibid. Cf. Genesis 18: 23-6:

    ‘And Abraham drew near, and said, Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? And the Lord said, If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.’

  30. Grotius, bk. III, ch. xi, pt. xvi(1).

  31. Ibid., pt. xvi (2). ‘[R]etaliation that is lawful … must be inflicted upon the very person who has done wrong’, ibid., ch. iv, pt. xiii (1).

  32. Holinshed, 38-9 (= R. Holinshed, Chronicles (1808), iii. 81-2).

  33. Legnano, ch. 69, p. 274. Many historians believe that necessity justified Henry's order to kill the prisoners. Thus, Harold F. Hutchison, King Henry V (1967), 124, observes that ‘[b]y medieval standards Henry was obeying his soldier creed—military necessity justified any butchery.’ See also Towle, supra note 18, at 339-40. Seward, supra note 18, at 81, strongly dissents: ‘In reality, by fifteenth-century standards, to massacre captive, unarmed noblemen who, according to the universally recognized international laws of chivalry, had every reason to expect to be ransomed if they surrendered formally, was a peculiarly nasty crime.’

  34. Supra text at note 4. Nicolas, supra note 18, at 124, believes that ‘[i]mperative necessity’ dictated the King's order.

  35. Wylie, supra note 2, at ii. 171. Hutchison, who supports the traditional justification of necessity, argues that the fact that Henry's own rich prisoners were exempted from being killed tallied with Henry's reputation for ‘shrewd common sense—he simply could not afford to miss the chance of spectacular ransoms.’ Hutchison, supra note 33, at 124.

  36. Wylie, supra note 2, at ii. 171-2. The archers, not being knights, may have had fewer scruples about killing members of the French nobility. Grose, i. 345, cynically observed that ‘[t]he hopes of ransom frequently acted in the place of humanity, avarice assuming the place of mercy.’ Could archers enforce agreements to pay ransom? Although under the law of chivalry, which applied only to a particular class of persons, peasants could not enforce such agreements (LW 19), this was not necessarily true of archers. Many persons who were not knights but thought they were or aspired to be ‘noble’ (in the French sense) invoked ‘knightly’ or ‘chivalrous honour’. In 15th-c. England swearing on ‘my honour as a gentleman’ (as opposed to knight) was beginning to come in. Esquires and gentlemen certainly promised on their honour to pay ransom, and took prisoners, and held them to ransom. In Henry V's time, even an archer might be a gentleman. Ransoms were certainly promised upon ‘honour’; and captors—not only knights—were expected to behave ‘honourably’ to their prisoners (and vice versa). I am grateful to Dr Keen for his suggestions on this point.

  37. Malcolm G. A. Vale, War and Chivalry (1981), 160.

  38. Gentili, ii. 325.

  39. Grose, i. 344.

  40. Grose, i. 345 and n. i.

  41. Ibid.

  42. Vale, supra note 37, at 156.

  43. Ibid.

  44. Ibid.

  45. Pisan, 232-3.

  46. Bouvet, 185.

  47. Ibid.

  48. Churchill, supra note 16, at i. 319-20.

  49. Keegan, supra note 17, at 84.

  50. Wylie, supra note 2, at ii. 171.

  51. Alfred H. Burne, The Agincourt War (1956), 86. The editors of Gesta agree with Burne: ‘The tendency among historians who have condemned Henry's slaughter of the prisoners … has been to forget that the English were not out of danger after their victory over the French vanguard; they must have been exhausted, and the captives in their ranks were very numerous. The arrival of enemy reinforcements was quite probable, as Anthony of Brabant's appearance had shown. Henry clearly thought that he must fight again … and had to make a quick decision to enable his men to face the danger with least disadvantage to themselves.’ Gesta, 92-3 n. 1.

  52. Vitoria, 183 (49).

  53. Ibid.

  54. Richard Crompton, The Mansion of Magnamitie (1599; unpaginated), ch. 6 in fine.

  55. Bouvet, 134 argued that ‘he who in battle has captured his enemy, especially if it be the duke or marshal of the battle … should have mercy on him, unless by his deliverance there is danger of having greater wars.’ Elsewhere, Bouvet explains that ‘to kill an enemy in battle is allowed by law and by the lord, but out of battle no man may kill another save in self-defence, except the lord, after trial.’ Ibid. 152. Pisan, 222, would prohibit the killing of prisoners even in battle: ‘Soo saye I to the well that it is ayenst all ryght and gentylnesse to slee hym that yeldeth hym.’ Arguing against ‘a thynge Inhumayne and to grete a cruelness’ and answering critics who invoked the ancient right of the captor to kill his prisoners, sell them, or otherwise dispose of them, she asserted that ‘amonge crysten folke where the lawe is altogyder grounded vpon myldefulnes and pyte [it] is not lycyte nor accordynge to vse of suche terannye whyche be acursed and reproued.’ Ibid. Nevertheless, after the battle, she would allow the prince to kill a prisoner who would be dangerous to the prince if allowed to go free. Ibid.

  56. Bouvet, 159.

  57. Bouvet, 159.

  58. Pisan, 237.

  59. Pierre-Clement Timbal, La Guerre de cent ans vue à travers les registres du Parlement (1337-1369) (1969), 328.

  60. Ibid. 329.

  61. See supra Ch. 6, text at notes 157, 144-6, 174-5.

  62. Gentili, ii. 216. Cf. Grotius, bk. III, ch. iv, pt. x (2) (‘So far as the law of nations is concerned, the right of killing such slaves, that is, captives taken in war, is not precluded at any time, although it is restricted, now more, now less, by the laws of states.’) Elsewhere, however, Grotius advocated sparing captives who have surrendered unconditionally. Ibid., ch. xi, pt. xv.

  63. Gentili, ii. 211-12.

  64. Ibid.

  65. Wylie, supra note 2, at ii. 175. Hibbert, supra note 15, at 129, observes: ‘Even the French chroniclers write of [Henry's] action as though it were dictated by painful necessity.’

  66. Maurice H. Keen, Chivalry (1984), 276 n. 7.

  67. Ibid. 221. Note the matter-of-fact, non-judgmental reference to the massacre by the French chronicler the Religieux de Saint-Denys: ‘Le roi d'Angleterre, croyant qu'ils [the French] voulaient revenir à la charge, ordonna qu'on tuât tous les prisonniers.’ Chronique du Religieux de Saint-Denys, trans. and ed. L. Bellaguet, Collection de documents inédits sur l'histoire de la France, ser. 1. (1844), v. 565.

  68. Holinshed, 39 (= R. Holinshed, Chronicles (1808), iii, 82).

  69. First English Life, supra note 14, at 61.

  70. James Hamilton Wylie and William Templeton Waugh, The Reign of Henry the Fifth (1929), iii. 196.

  71. Ibid. 197.

  72. Supra note 5, at Art. 130.

  73. Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (Geneva Convention No. IV), 12 Aug. 1949, 6 UST 3516, TIAS No. 3365, 75 UNTS 287 at Art. 147.

  74. Supra note 5, at Art.. 4

  75. (Geneva) Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, opened for signature 27 July 1929, 47 Stat. 2021, TS No. 846, at Art. 2.


Ayala: Balthazar Ayala, Three Books on the Law of War and on the Duties Connected with War and on Military Discipline, Carnegie edn., trans. John Pawley Bate (1582) (vol. ii) (1912).

Bouvet: Honoré Bonet [otherwise known as Bouvet], The Tree of Battles, ed. G. W. Coopland (1949). Coopland's edn. is a translation of the Ernest Nys edn. of 1883. See further Ch. 2 n. 5 and Ch. 5 n. 3.

CW: William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Compact edn., 1988). See further Ch. 1 n. 2.

Gentili: Alberico Gentili, De jure belli libri tres, Carnegie edn., trans. John C. Rolfe (1933). See further Ch. 2 n. 17 and Ch. 3 n. 80.

Gesta: Gesta Henrici Quinti, ed. Frank Taylor and John S. Roskell (1975).

Grose: Francis Grose, Military Antiquities (vol. i, 1786; vol. ii, 1788).

Grotius: Hugo Grotius, De jure belli ac pacis libri tres, Carnegie edn., trans. Francis Kelsey from 1646 edn. (1925). See further Ch. 2 n. 19.

Hall: Edward Hall, Hall's Chronicle: Containing the History of England, during the Reign of Henry the Fourth, and the Succeeding Monarchs, to the End of the Reign of Henry the Eighth (1809; repr. 1965). Original title (1548): The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre & Yorke. See further Ch. 1 n. 7.

Holinshed: Raphael Holinshed, Holinshed's Chronicles, ed. R. S. Wallace and Alma Hansen (1923; repr. 1978). See further Ch. 1 n. 6. Text of 2nd edn. (1587).

Legnano: Giovanni da Legnano [John of Legnano], Tractatus de bello, de represaliis et de duello, ed. Thomas Erskine Holland (1917). See further Ch. 3 n. 83.

LW: Maurice H. Keen, The Laws of War in the Late Middle Ages (1965).

Pisan: Christine de Pisan, The Book of Fayttes of Armes and of Chyvalrye, trans. William Caxton, 1489; ed. A. T. P. Byles (1932).

Suárez: Francisco Suárez, Selections from Three Works, Carnegie edn., trans. Gwladys L. Williams, Ammi Brown, and John Waldron (1944). See further Ch. 2 n. 18 and Ch. 3 n. 73.

Vitoria: Franciscus de Vitoria, De Indis et de iure belli relectiones, Carnegie edn., trans. John Pawley Bate, ed. Ernest Nys (1917). See further Ch. 3 n. 77.

Michèle Willems (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6114

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 virtues.]

In his famous speech on the seven ages of man, Jaques puts the soldier in the fourth age, after the infant, the schoolboy, and the lover:

                                                                                                    Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth.

(As You Like It 2.7.149-53)

The salient characteristics in this vignette are boldness and the pursuit of renown, but the actual soldiers found in Shakespeare's plays go to war reluctantly because they have no choice. For one valiant Feeble, who placidly declares that “No man's too / good to serve 's prince,”1 how many cowards, pillagers, and comic braggarts there are, how many poor wretches crushed in the toils of war! In fact, the characteristics highlighted by Jaques are more akin to those used by Shakespeare to depict his warrior figures, especially in the plays of his mature period. The warrior, who has often vowed to become a hero, sees war not only as an occupation, but as the medium of his self-fulfillment, the pathway to that supreme value, honor. Talbot, who conquers the Gillian territories in 1 Henry VI, is a typical hero of chivalry, characterized by his patriotism and his sense of honor, but he is a minor character who remains a mere outline because he is not seen from the inside or with critical distance. Henry V embodies the warrior as main character, but this epic play is more ambiguous than is often suggested, and the King is portrayed both as a soldier, aware that war is a necessary evil, and as a warrior enlisting his renown in the cause of his political reputation. Othello and Antony are other examples of characters professionally engaged in war; they combine martial virtues and love, displaying various forms of conflict between Mars and Venus. But above all it is in Coriolanus that the warrior spirit is used as the mainspring of the action, as the principle around which the main character is composed, or rather discomposed. As a warrior he has much in common with Hotspur, the opponent of King Henry IV and the rival of the future Henry V in the first part of Henry IV. It is not so much those affinities that I wish to examine here, as the way in which the worship of honor is used with a shifting emphasis to achieve different dramatic aims.

There are frequent allusions to Mars and to the legendary features of the god of war in both plays, whether to depict Henry Percy, who embodies the medieval idea of honor in 1 Henry IV, or Caius Martius, who exhibits all the characteristics of virtus as cultivated by the patricians of ancient Rome. The original name of Caius Martius, who is renamed Coriolanus only after his glorious single-handed assault of Corioli, already contains an allusion to the god he worships. Henry Percy is nick-named Hotspur because of his fine horsemanship. Elsewhere he is referred to as Harry, which is also the name of the unworthy Prince of Wales, who leads a life of debauchery at the tavern instead of showing his valor on the battlefield. The fact that Shakespeare intended to base his play upon the rivalry between the two characters is confirmed by the changes he made in Holinshed's chronology. The historical Henry Percy was sixteen years older than the prince and roughly the same age as the king. Shakespeare follows Samuel Daniel in making the two Harrys contemporaries.2 This increases the contrast between the leader of the rebellion, who is steeped in glory, and the heir apparent, who is steeped in shame, and it gives meaning and credibility to the king's desire to exchange his debauched son for the hero of the battle of Homeldon.

King Henry's admiration for Hotspur is unabated even when the latter heads a rebellion against him. During the central confrontation between father and son (3.2), the King constantly holds up as an example to the Prince the courage, heroism, and numerous victories of that “Mars in swathling clothes, / This infant warrior” (112-13), thus highlighting the splendor of Hotspur's achievements by constant references to his youth. Praise of the enemy and envy towards him are more than expressions of a father's disappointment. Shakespeare commonly couples dramatic antagonism; and thematic affinities to suggest closeness of values even in antagonists; in this case, one of the fundamental characteristics of heroism is shown to be that it is commended even in the enemy camp. The hero can recognize his equal even in his opponent on the battlefield. Hotspur is unstinting in his admiration of the Scottish Earl of Douglas, whom he defeated and captured at Homeldon, but who becomes his ally in the rebellion against King Henry. This fraternizing in heroism also occurs between Caius Martius and Aufidius, leader of the Volscians, the hereditary foes of Rome. Whereas in Plutarch's Life Aufidius only appears at the end and as the leader of the conspiracy against the hero, Shakespeare shows from the beginning the high esteem in which the two valiant adversaries hold each other. “He is a lion / That I am proud to hunt” (1.1.235-36) says Caius Martius of Aufidius after avowing: “I sin in envying his nobility” (line 30). Both Aufidius and Douglas are drawn as unsophisticated fanatics of war who flaunt their worship of Mars and exhibit the features of the warrior in crudely inflated form. Aufidius is a sort of magnified equivalent of Coriolanus, who considers him as his mirror-image, so much so that when he is banished from Rome, he seeks refuge with his enemy and brother. When the hero of Rome turns into a traitor to his country, he is expressing an extreme form of the sense of caste that links all these warlords together, to the detriment of national feeling and the emergency of democracy. Indeed, war appears as a game that is played according to ancestral rules respected by the aristocracy alone, allowing the participants to accumulate honor and scars while puffing up their pride and insolence. It is a game of encounters between peers, also used as a convenient means of wearing out the troublesome energy of the plebeian protesters. The difference between the warrior and the soldier, between heroic deeds performed for their own sake and fighting considered as a job deserving payment, emerges clearly in Coriolanus's scorn for taking spoils, which the common soldier considers as a proper return for taking risks.

There is a similar difference dividing the warriors and the politicians, allowing Shakespeare to widen the political scope of his plays and to induce a certain amount of sympathy for his warrior heroes. Coriolanus, like Hotspur, would be ready to “pluck bright honor from the pale-fac'd moon” (1 H IV 1.3.202) as a mere flourish, without expecting any recompense. It is mainly to please his mother and the other patricians that he barters for the consulship in exchange for the wounds he received in battle. And though Hotspur's purity may be diminished by his haggling over the division of the kingdom, his words have the ring of truth when he explains how angered he gets at Glendower's misrepresentation of truth. Like Coriolanus, Hotspur is just as incapable of pretense as of self-restraint. He does not merely give his opinion, he bellows it out, without listening to other views. His headstrong wilfulness is often likeable and sometimes comical, whereas Coriolanus's tendency to use invective instead of speech is used as one expression of his inability to communicate that finally isolates him from all his fellow-citizens. Nevertheless, both Hotspur and Coriolanus appear as the inevitable victims of political maneuvers that they fail to understand, just as they are unable to master the niceties of political discourse. Hotspur dies in combat because his uncle Worcester fails to deliver King Henry's overtures for peace; Coriolanus is easily manipulated by the tribunes, who know what strings to pull to make him lose all control. Even Aufidius knows he only needs to exploit Coriolanus's irascibility in order to justify the conspiracy against him.

In Coriolanus the tension between the warrior and the politician is used in a more complex way since it complicates the protagonist's relationship with his mother and the patricians from the moment he aims at the consulship, whereas in 1 Henry IV it is merely one aspect among others of the study of kingship.

Indeed, Hotspur is but one of the poles around which the play is organized, and his function cannot be fully understood unless we consider Falstaff as the opposite pole. To a modern spectator Falstaff is just as much a war-hater as a traditional coward. There is no such counterpointing technique in Coriolanus, where the critical attitude towards the systematic pursuit of heroism, although partly expressed by the plebeians, is mainly contained in the tragic disintegration of the protagonist. In the history play, the resources are used differently. A familiar way of interpreting the triangle formed by Hotspur, the Prince, and Falstaff is to compare the future Henry V to the hero of a Morality play torn between Virtue and Vice, or rather between Chivalrous Honor and Anarchy. This ignores the fact that Falstaff is also used as a parody of Hotspur, the very extremes of his behavior being placed in critical counterpoint to the extremes of the warrior. Falstaff's “catechism” (5.1.127-41), where he asks whether honor can “set to a leg” or an arm or “take away the grief of a wound,” is evidently the profession of faith of a coward, but it also appears as a justifiable plea for life as opposed to the frantic collecting of scars embarked upon by the warriors.

The opposition between hero and antihero is also expressed in an area that is not often examined and that concerns their relation to horses.3 The warrior's love for his steed is in sharp contrast with his coldness towards his wife. There is no outburst of emotion when Coriolanus comes home to Virgilia after his narrow escape from death at Corioli, but when he wagers his horse and loses it to Titus Lartius, he is so upset that he is ready to buy it back (1.4.1-7). Hotspur's attention wanders from “gentle Kate,” but the choice of the horse to be his throne fires him with enthusiasm (2.3.70); only once astride his roan is he willing to swear that he loves her infinitely. No such glorification of horses can be associated with Falstaff. Beyond the comedy generated by the repeated allusions to the horselessness of the fat knight, it is obvious that the mount he is constantly deprived of only concerns him as a means of transport. His parody of the valiant Douglas as “that sprightly Scot of Scots … that runs 'a-horseback up a hill perpendicular” (2.4.342-44) is a clear indication that he has no praise to lavish on feats of horsemanship. The warrior's worship of his prancing steed is thoroughly deflated by Falstaff's constantly thwarted attempts to find a means of transportation for his paunch. At Gad's Hill, Falstaff is forced to play the footpad because Poins and Hal have hidden his horse. Since the rebels are also preparing to make the king stand and deliver, their endeavor is thus subjected to further debunking. When Falstaff is sent off to war, he is given “a charge of foot,” to which he retorts with one of his smart puns: “I would it had been of horse” (3.3.186-87). As a knight demoted to the state of a foot soldier with a bottle of sack in place of a pistol and escorted by a pitiful troop of conscripts that look as if they had been “unloaded from the gibbets,” Falstaff presents not only a highly colorful picture of the wangling crowd, but also an effective counterpoint to the knightly heroism that causes Hotspur to seek extra glory in an unequal combat in which the soldiers' lives are forfeit from the start. Even if he takes outrageous advantage of the impressment system, it is Falstaff alone who reveals the seamy side of war, the other side of the medal that Hotspur covers with gilding that barely conceals its bloodbath reality. Similarly, when he points out cynically that his men will serve as “food for powder,” he is also expressing the point of view of the victims, of those who pay the price for the noble game of war.

It is important to note that the play ends with Falstaff's apparent victory over Hotspur. Claiming that he himself has slain the rebel leader, he exits like the Vice in the Moralities, bearing the dead hero on his back. Well and truly deprived of a horse to mount, the fat knight now plays the part of the mount himself, but in order to carry off the body of the warrior. The antihero is given the last word. This picture is doubly meaningful, for the spectator has just witnessed the single combat that brings the rivalry between the two Harrys to an albeit unhistorical close. The audience knows that Hotspur has been slain by the Prince of Wales. It may seem surprising that the Prince should yield up the honor of having killed the rebel leader to one who will claim not glory but reward for his supposed valor. I think this can be seen not only as a token of humility on the part of the future Henry V, but also as one of the many signs that he does not adhere to the values of chivalry even if he makes use of them.4 He is satisfied with having called his rival to account, as he vowed he would. Playing the warrior is of no interest to him, except for the result, and his victorious struggle against the rebels has enabled him to appear as the prodigal son and heir. The description given of him by Vernon for the rebels' benefit on the eve of the battle of Shrewsbury is a sign that the kingdom is thenceforth reassured about the heroism of its future king. The terms used already announce the myth that will grow up around him:

I saw young Harry with his beaver on,
His cushes on his thighs, gallantly arm'd,
Rise from the ground like feathered Mercury,
And vaulted with such ease into his seat
As if an angel dropp'd down from the clouds
To turn and wind a fiery Pegasus,
And witch the world with noble horsemanship.


The warrior prince is of course represented in equestrian pose. In response to Hotspur's jibes about his debauchery, Vernon depicts a mythical hero, adorned with the legendary attributes of the knight whose horsemanship is so remarkable that he seems to be astride Pegasus. The mythmaking is naturally linked to mythological allusions. But the allusion to Mercury seems to me to contain another layer of meaning. The panegyric, which is to be compared with the praise heaped upon Hotspur by the King in the preceding act, shows that it is the Prince who is seen henceforth as the warrior hero, but it also indicates that he is a hero of a different type. The comparison between “feathered Mercury” and the incongruous and unwittingly ironical description of Hotspur as “Mars in swathling clothes” is revealing. The Prince's victory over Hotspur is the victory of Mercury over Mars, of cunning and stratagem and even Machiavellianism over honor cultivated as an end in itself. In a system that demands a heroic image of its king, Hal cunningly composes for himself the image of the mythical warrior that is all the more remarkable since it is foiled by that of the riotous Prince. His own idea of honor, however, is not based on worship of Mars. In a speech full of enthusiastic flourishes that comes just after Vernon's description, Hotspur invites Mars to witness his single combat with the Prince:

The mailed Mars shall on his altar sit
Up to the ears in blood.


He naturally imagines that the encounter will take place on horseback: “Harry to Harry shall, hot horse to horse” (line 122).

However, the two heroes are on foot when the confrontation takes place, and the Prince undoes “the king of honor,” as Douglas calls him (4.1.10). This is one indication among others that the Prince could not care less about warrior myths. The main interest of 1 Henry IV lies in the reflection on the art of government and on the image of the statesman, and one of the principles governing this reflection is, I think, the opposition between Mars and Mercury.

It would be satisfying to discover a similar tension between Mars and Venus in Coriolanus. But in this play, where the loving wife, defined by the hero as “my gracious silence” (2.1.175), only pronounces about four hundred words, the silencing of Venus, or rather the deflection of the values she represents towards warrior virtues, may explain the imbalance that engenders the tragedy. Rome and its hero seem to me to be characterized by the precedence given to the warrior instinct thought to be noble and virile, to the detriment of the urge to love, considered as feminine, and therefore to be spurned and repressed.

The emphasis placed on virility can already be seen in Hotspur with concomitant woman-hating often expressed in a confusion between the feminine and the effeminate. Hotspur's treatment of his wife is an example of what we today would call machismo, which seems to be an expression of his profound immaturity. The protective superiority he shows towards Kate, who in his view does not deserve to share the secrets of a warrior (“constant you are / But yet a woman,” 2.3.108-9), his desire to hear her utter virile oaths (“Swear me, Kate, like a lady as thou art, / A good mouth-filling oath,” 3.1.253-54), go hand-in-hand with his adolescent feeling that he would demean himself were he to speak to her of love:

                                                                                Love! I love thee not,
I care not for thee, Kate. This is no world
To play with mammets and to tilt with lips.
We must have bloody noses, and crack'd crowns,
And pass them current too. God's me! My horse!


Hotspur is so keen to be perceived as a he-man that he cannot help posing as cock o'the walk.

These traits are emphasized and made more complex in the character of Coriolanus and the world he moves in. This is to be related to the increased importance given to the character of Volumnia, who only appears at the end of Plutarch's narration, when she intercedes to save Rome. The prominence given by the dramatist to the character of the martial mother is an early sign of the deviation of feminine values that characterizes the play. Shakespeare's last tragedy is often considered austere, which may be because there is so little feminine influence in it. It is true that Shakespeare introduces three female characters in his third scene: Volumnia, the mother; Virgilia, the silent wife, always on the point of leaving the room; and her friend Valeria, whom Coriolanus later compares to the chaste and icy Diana. Volumnia responds to Virgilia's stifled anxiety about the fate of her husband at war by declaring that if she had a dozen sons she would rather see eleven die nobly for their country than have one “voluptuously surfeit out of action” (1.3.24-25), while Valeria's main function seems to be to disparage Virgilia's domestic virtues. Her debunking of the myth of Penelope is particularly interesting in this respect: “they say, all the yarn she spun in Ulysses' absence did but fill Ithaca full of moths” (lines 83-84).

Thus the social harmony founded on the coexistence of Ulysses, the warrior, and Penelope, the guardian of the hearth, is destroyed at the outset. It is significant that it is also Valeria who recounts the story of the butterfly that the hero's son tears apart. The grandmother's approval of this “like-father like-son” display of anger is an indication of the values imbibed from childhood by the warrior, who later boasts that the widows and orphans of Corioli are of his making.

Standing opposite the Roman generals, brothers-in-arms in manly combat on the battlefield, opposite the relationship—often considered to be of a special kind—between the hero and the leader of the enemy army, opposite the scheming tribunes and the discontented citizens deciding who should become consul by counting the wounds received in battle, the three women fail to supply the warmth of love that should counterbalance the warlike deeds accomplished by the men. Coriolanus is a man's world in which both men and women (apart from Virgilia) clamor amid the clash of words and weapons, worshipping male virtues such as individual courage and virile heroism. Just as women are devalued, so is femininity depreciated. While heroism is masculine, cowardice is feminine. Caius Martius, leading forth his men to battle, shouts: “If you'll stand fast, we'll beat them to their wives” (1.4.41).

And this is how the courage of the hero's early youth is evoked in Cominius's panegyric of the conquerors of Corioli:

When he might act the woman in the scene,
He prov'd best man i' th' field …


Tears, even when shed by widows, are contemptible. Aufidius proffers the supreme insult when he accuses Coriolanus of having given up the conquest of Rome “for certain drops of salt” (5.6.92) and then calls him “thou boy of tears” (line 100). The only emotional and even lyrical speeches are pronounced when comrades-in-arms meet again or welcome each other in language normally used to describe the togetherness of men and women. The joy felt at meeting up with Cominius after the battle of Corioli is expressed through references to lovemaking (1.6.29-32) that reappear even more strikingly when Aufidius hails Coriolanus at his arrival in Antium:

                                                            Let me twine
Mine arms about that body
.....I lov'd the maid I married; never man
Sigh'd truer breath; but that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold. Why, thou Mars …


It emerges clearly here that love between man and wife has been transferred to love between warriors. In fact, war, like horses, is used as a substitute for love. Mars has absorbed Venus and this situation prevails in Antium as in Rome. Aufidius's followers, having noted that their general is treating Coriolanus as his mistress, clearly declare that war is superior to peace: “it exceeds peace as far as day does night” (4.5.221-22).

Societies that cultivate exclusively masculine values find it difficult to manage peace, as is shown by the internal quarreling that is tearing Rome apart before the war with the Volscians and that breaks out again as soon as Coriolanus's election to the consulship is made moot.

The opposition between virile warfare and effeminate peace is already present in Gloucester's first monologue in Richard III. As his physical deformity debars him from the pleasures of peace and love that occupy the rest of the court, he decides to assert himself in war. Coriolanus is not physically deformed. Nevertheless his emotional growth seems to have been stunted by an upbringing based exclusively on the worship of warrior virtues. That this is a perversion is suggested very early through Volumnia's peculiar combination of images:

                                                                                The breasts of Hecuba,
When she did suckle Hector, look'd not lovelier
Than Hector's forehead when it spit forth blood
At Grecian sword, contemning.


The reference to Hector as the archetypal warrior is significant, as is the equation between a mother's breast, a preeminently feminine image,5 and the glory of wounds. Volumnia later tells her son, “Thy valiantness was mine, thou suck'st it from me” (3.2.129).

Her words confirm that the nursing mother has been replaced by the martial mother, something of a contradiction in terms. The preference given to blood over milk or tears helps to explain the hero's behavior. The imbalance created between the exacerbation of warrior instincts—masculinity—and the stifling of natural love—femininity6—appears clearly as the result of a perverted upbringing that is highlighted both thematically and in the ironic treatment of Volumnia. (I refer to her motherly joy at the news that her son has been wounded and to the way she starts to tally his wounds with Menenius.) This imbalance is nourished by the pride that the protagonist derives from his collection of victories and by his aristocratic splendid isolation, but it is also made more complex by his dependence on his mother, which is paradoxical and intolerable in a hero who is so intent on asserting his virility. Although Coriolanus is a husband and a father, he is characteristically seen above all as Volumnia's son. The fact is that he has no identity apart from the warrior's role that his mother has conferred upon him, and he is quite incapable of performing any other. This emerges once he becomes candidate for the consulship to please his mother and proves unfit for civilian life, unable to communicate with his fellow citizens. This shortcoming is confirmed when Volumnia, Cominius, and Menenius plead with him to return to the Forum and canvass the people's votes with more humility. He gives in with the following words:

                                                                                          Well, I must do't,
Away, my disposition, and possess me
Some harlot's spirit! My throat of war be turn'd,
Which quier'd with my drum, into a pipe
Small as an eunuch, or the virgin voice
That babies lull asleep! The smiles of knaves
Tent in my cheeks, and schoolboys' tears take up
The glasses of my sight! A beggar's tongue
Make motion through my lips, and my arm'd knees,
Who bow'd but in my stirrup, bend like his
That hath receiv'd an alms!


Attempting to communicate with one's fellow-men means, in Coriolanus's idiom, sinking into contemptibly feminine behavior that he defines by allusions to the harlot, the eunuch, or the schoolboy's tears. Showing humility and using the language of give and take in the Forum is not only as demeaning as if the aristocracy had been reduced to beggary; it means giving up his virile pose for an effeminate role. The spectator, who has an overall vision, is well aware that even on the battlefield Coriolanus is also playing a role, that of the warrior, cast for him by his mother. It is significant that this is where he acquires a title, which is dearer to him than his own name. The terms used by Volumnia to encourage him to return to the Forum are also revealing:

To have my praise for this, perform a part
Thou hast not done before.


His role as a warrior is no more an identity than is his role in civilian life: he wants to be a virile hero, yet he has been suspected of homosexuality; he wants to be a superman, yet his subservience to his mother makes him like a child. The more he craves for self-sufficiency, the more dependent he appears.

This is particularly striking after he goes into exile. Once the hero of Rome has become the hero of Antium, the world that produced him no longer recognizes him as its own. He is now seen by his peers as a lethal instrument, a bloodthirsty animal. Menenius, who was presented as his second father, explains the failure of his peace mission by claiming that the man has turned into a dragon: “There is no more mercy in him than there is milk in a male tiger” (5.4.27-28).

He seems to have reached a belated awareness that nature can only function properly if the right balance is struck between its destructive function, embodied by the male, and its reproductive function, represented by the milk of the female, which here as elsewhere also connotes love and pity. Nevertheless, Menenius's view of things is limited insofar as he attributes Coriolanus's supposedly new cruelty to loss of love for his mother, whereas Shakespeare has constructed his story in such a way that Coriolanus has already yielded to his mother's pleading before Menenius offers Sicinius this explanation. The tiger could not long resist his mother's appeals. And yet he told Menenius, “Wife, mother, child I know not” (5.2.80).

Moreover, his reaction on first seeing the delegation of his womenfolk was a wish to break all family ties:

                                                                                                              I'll never
Be such a gosling to obey instinct, but stand
As if a man were author of himself,
And knew no other kin.


Coriolanus's craving for autonomy is such that he denies the fundamental role of women and wishes he had never been born of woman and had never had a mother. He has been led to the ultimate paradox of rejecting his overdependence by seeking an unnatural independence that does not hold out for long against the return of the mother:

                                                                                          Come, let us go.
This fellow had a Volscian to his mother;
His wife is in Corioles, and his child
Like him by chance.


It is this antiphrastic appeal to family feeling, combined with love of one's country, that convinces Coriolanus of the need to return to Rome's bosom. The passage where Volumnia accuses her son of “tearing his country's bowels out” and “treading on [his] mother's womb” (5.3.102-3, 123-24) creates the same effect. It is debatable whether Volumnia actually achieves a last-minute awareness of the necessary balance between war and love. It cannot pass unnoticed that the martial mother, relying on her son's dependence on her, sacrifices him not only to save Rome but to divest him of his image as a traitor to his country and reinstate him as a warrior-hero, even at the cost of his life. And although Coriolanus may appear to choose love through self-sacrifice, yet the way he dies proves that worship of Mars has kept its hold over him to the very end. When accused of being a traitor and reproached with giving in to the tears of his women folk, he invokes the god he has always worshipped: “Hear'st thou, Mars?” Aufidius denies him this right of appeal: “Name not the god, thou boy of tears!” (5.6.99-100). He is excluded from the cult of Mars and his virility is doubly questioned, triggering the last outburst of anger of the proud warrior and providing Aufidius with a pretext for killing him. The need for a union between the masculine and the feminine has soon been forgotten. Coriolanus's death is no different from his life. He is marked to the very end by his attachment to his warlike pseudo-identity, to his title and fame as a warrior.

It therefore seems possible to read Coriolanus as a tragedy based on a perversion of feminine values made subservient to warrior values. This treatment of the warring instinct is characteristic of Shakespeare's last tragedy, which explores the destructive effects of the cult of Mars. The cult of virility, which is one of the manifestations of this cult, is already present in Hotspur as part of the makeup of the warrior, which may have been the starting-point for later tragic developments. In Coriolanus the whole world of the play is affected from the start by the quest for virile heroism that conditions the hero and causes his downfall. In 1 Henry IV, on the contrary, Hotspur's machismo only concerns the speech and behavior of this one character, whose attachment to his horse and contempt for women are often treated comically. The spectator sometimes laughs with Hotspur,7 and more often at him, as when the Prince amuses his tavern companions by acting out a mock domestic interchange between Hotspur and Kate.8 Comic counterpointing and parody are among the devices used to debunk the warrior and expose the excesses of a conception of heroism that is presented throughout the play as outdated and politically dangerous.9

In Coriolanus the reflection on the political and social effects of the cult of Mars remains peripheral to the tragedy. Shakespeare uses the same elements as in 1 Henry IV, but the character of the warrior who is first treated as the antagonist in a political plot evolves into a protagonist in a tragedy of disintegration. In the later play the tensions are given an inner and more thematic focus. The craving for individual, virile heroism epitomizes both the character and his environment. Occasional contempt for women is replaced by a systematic perversion of values that runs through the themes and through the whole economy of the play. The character of the wife is reduced to a few lines, while the character of the martial mother is correspondingly enlarged. These are the means used to transform the warrior hero from an adolescent who cannot grow up, with his dreams of brawls and battle scars, to a son who cannot cut the cord, and whose immaturity is expressed by a frenzied quest, on battlefield after battlefield, for a selfhood and autonomy that are never attained. In Hotspur the cult of heroism is only one aspect of the portrait of the warrior, while in Coriolanus it becomes the mainspring of the action to which all the mechanisms of the play respond. The perverse effects of the cult of Mars are no longer pointed out through irony or parody but through the destructive destabilization that they induce in the individual. No alternative is now considered. Whereas in a history play the political reflection is organized around different poles, in a tragedy there is no choice, only an irreversible movement forward. I therefore suggest that 1 Henry IV dramatizes a confrontation between Mars and Mercury, while Coriolanus invites us to witness the ineluctable disintegration of Mars bereft of Venus.


  1. 2 Henry IV 3.2.236-37.

  2. See Samuel Daniel, The First Fowre Bookes of the Civile Wars …, book 3, st. 109; reprinted by Geoffrey Bullough (Narrative and Dramatic Source of Shakespeare [London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966], 4:214), who comments: “Daniel's Hotspur is young, like the Prince.”

  3. In an essay entitled “Falstaff Uncolted,” first published in Modern Language Notes 41 (May 1946) and reprinted in Shakespeare and the Revolution of the Times: Perspectives and Commentaries (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 121-30, Harry Levin analyzes the effects of the recurrent references to Falstaff's horselessness, but his emphasis is different from mine. In particular, he interprets this as a sign that the days of chivalry are over.

  4. For a more detailed analysis of the way the Prince constructs his political image, see my article “Misconstruction in 1 Henry IV,Cahiers Élisabéthains 37 (April 1990): 43-57.

  5. One inevitably thinks of Lady Macbeth's unnatural declarations when she is trying to convince her husband to kill Duncan:

                                                                          I have given suck, and know
    How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me;
    I would, while it was smiling in my face,
    Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,
    And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you
    Have done to this.


  6. Psychoanalytical criticism offers a somewhat different analysis of the perversion of femininity that is characteristic of the play. Thus Janet Adelman shows how the traditionally feminine images of food, harvesting, and love are turned to destructive purposes. She sees combat as a substitute for food and as an example of phallic aggression, which is an attempt to conceal the vulnerability and oral dependence of the individual. See “‘Anger's my meat’: Feeding, Dependency, and Aggression in Coriolanus,” ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppelia Kahn, Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 129-49.

  7. This is what happens when he describes the courtier who came on the battlefield to demand his prisoners (1.3.33, 69). This displaced civilian, perfumed and effeminate, is the ideal foil to the man of action.

  8. See 1 Henry IV 2.4.98-112.

  9. Shakespeare completes the distancing by making the Prince pronounce a funeral oration on the vanity of the quest for honor in the face of the inevitable end of Everyman. The theme is so hackneyed that it deprives the warrior's death of any emotional force.

The quotation in the title is from Kipling's Ballad of the King's Jester (1890). This essay was first published in Shakespeare et la guerre, ed. M. T. Jones-Davies, Actes du Congrès 1989 de la Société Frençaise Shakespeare (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1990), under the title “Le culte de Mars de 1 Henry IV à Coriolan.

Elizabeth Marsland (lecture date 1995)

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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 directors glossed over the negative attributes of Shakespeare's Henry.]

Shakespeare's Cronicle History of Henry the fift, a play written in 1599 about a battle fought in 1415, may seem an unlikely starting-point for a conference on the representation of modern war. But since part of my purpose is to call into question some of our widely-held tenets concerning the difference between modern and so-called ‘traditional’ warfare, as well as between more recent and older war literature, I believe that Agincourt is indeed an appropriate place to begin.

Possibly because recent wars have been so vividly portrayed to nonparticipants through visual and auditory media, it is easy to believe that the horror of war is a twentieth-century discovery. As war-literature critics we seem inclined to assume that, until industrialization drastically changed the nature of warfare in August 1914, battles had always been colourful and exciting affairs involving chivalric man-to-man combat, individual courage and prowess rather than superior weaponry, and relatively little destruction. Military history can offer many examples to challenge such a view, and not least amongst the bloody and terrible battles of the past was that at Agincourt in October 1415, when the English under Henry V, though greatly outnumbered, decimated the French army at relatively little cost to themselves. (Holinshed's Chronicle, Shakespeare's historical source, speaks of 10,000 French and a mere 29 English killed, which is rather hard to believe, but even the more realistic estimates of modern military historians suggest a disparity of 7000 French to 500 English.)1

This disproportionate outcome appears to have resulted from several factors. The long-bow archers who outnumbered men-at-arms by five to one in Henry's army were highly trained in the techniques of mass fire-power as well as individual skill, and the English king deployed them to maximum effect. He lured the French to attack at a point where the field was narrow, and ordered his archers to set pointed stakes in the ground to slow the momentum of the French cavalry advance. The attacking horsemen were thus trapped between a barricade of stakes and their own advancing infantry, with English archers firing on them from either side.2 The English took an unusually large number of prisoners, who normally would have expected to be ransomed. In this instance, however, the English king ordered all except the most valuable prisoners killed, a deed of questionable morality that was long associated with his name.3 The historical Battle of Agincourt, described by one modern military historian as “a story of slaughter-yard behaviour and of outright atrocity”, clearly bears little relation to our imagined ideal of heroic man-to-man combat (Keegan, p.79).

Our present concern, however, is not so much war per se as the representation of war on stage and screen. Yet here, too, Agincourt offers a salutary lesson. Since we take it for granted that industrialized war is essentially different in nature from traditional warfare, we tend to assume that modern warfare not only calls forth a different literary response in general (anti-war rather than pro-war) but also demands and inspires different modes of literary representation. (For lack of a more convenient term I am extending the meaning of ‘literary’ to encompass these two branches of the performing arts.) Yet the concerns that Shakespeare voices in King Henry V about the difficulty of staging Agincourt, and the solutions he offers, are very much those of a dramatist dealing with a modern battle. Meanwhile, the two most popular film adaptations of this play—those directed by Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh—serve convincingly to refute the assumption that the type of warfare determines how war is perceived and represented artistically, since they depict the same battle in strikingly different ways. What is more, although the films are dealing with a late-medieval conflict, each embodies a specific (and specifically) twentieth-century manner of imagining and representing war. Accordingly, a comparison of the Agincourt battle-scenes in the two movies, completed respectively in 1944 and 1989, not only demonstrates the characteristics of these two paradigms, but also serves to exemplify some of the techniques that determine whether a representation is likely to be regarded as “pro-war” or “anti-war”. Ultimately, however, it becomes clear that both directors find in war a value that is absent in Shakespeare's ambivalent play: the automatic equating of traditional war literature with a pro-war attitude and of modern representation with an anti-war attitude simply is not justified by the evidence.

Shakespeare's Henry V opens with the wish for a “Muse of fire” to bring down inspiration from “the brightest heaven of invention.” It is spoken by the Chorus, a narrator or commentator figure rare amongst Shakespeare's works, who addresses the audience at the beginning of each act, and whose function seems to be to set the scene, to bias our judgment about personalities and coming events, and above all to apologize for the medium. The Chorus regrets at some length that the theatre cannot “hold / The vasty fields of France” nor the Company offer “the very casques / That did affright the air at Agincourt.” The only solution, he suggests, lies in the imagination of the spectators: “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts”, he pleads; “Think when we talk of horses that you see them”; “Into a thousand parts divide one man” to imagine an army; and try to believe that “four or five most vile and ragged foils / Right ill disposed in brawl ridiculous” can actually represent, however inadequately, the famous battle. A cavalry attack is certainly no easier to stage than a modern artillery battle; and if dramatic representation of war is indeed more difficult for the twentieth century than for the seventeenth, as some critics have suggested, the reason more probably lies in changed theatrical conventions than in the type of warfare. Modern audiences, having been taught to expect realistic representation, are perhaps less content to “eke out” the performance through imagination than were the spectators whom the Chorus originally addressed.

Although in some respects the Chorus proves to be a less-than-reliable commentator, in the sense that the scenes which follow his various prologues are often at odds with what he has led us to expect, his speeches nevertheless play a significant part in the build-up of tension in anticipation of Agincourt, the climax of the play. In particular, his description of the rival encampments the night before the battle sets the scene for what threatens to be a massacre of the “poor condemned English”, who sit sadly and patiently by their campfires “like sacrifices” while the “confident and over-lusty French” long for the morning. At last the day of battle arrives. Henry delivers his rousing “St. Crispin's Day” address to his army (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”); he rejects a final invitation from the French to deliver himself up for ransom; and with a last formulaic prayer that God “dispose the day” as He may see fit, the King and his troops march away.

The battle that follows, however, must be the greatest anti-climax in all of English theatre. As Henry and his soldiers leave the stage they are replaced, to the accompaniment of battle noises offstage (an invaluable resource in war drama then as now), by the comic character Pistol, his companion “the Boy” and a terrified French soldier, the far from iron-like M. Le Fer, who readily surrenders and is taken prisoner. Immediately afterwards, to our surprise, we hear some French nobles discussing their “shame” at being overcome by the pitiful English army. Next, another offstage “Alarm” prompts Henry to order the killing of all French prisoners; and then we are given a very brief account of a French attack on the unarmed boys guarding the English camp. Enter Henry again, followed by the French herald, who confirms that the battle is over and the English have won. Admittedly the Chorus warned that the attempt to perform Agincourt on the stage would produce only a “brawl ridiculous”, but after all the build-up most spectators probably expect to see something more of the famous battle than the single comic encounter that is actually shown. The joke is definitely on us.

There is no doubt, however, that the playwright's decision not to try to reproduce Agincourt proves fortuitous for the two film directors, who both make good Shakespeare's omission with a series of scenes that present the battle at considerable length. In general, film technology must surely be just the kind of “invention” the Chorus wished for. If it cannot exactly offer “the very casques” from Agincourt, it can certainly supply convincing imitations, while “vasty fields” can be made to appear before the cinema audience almost as if in real life. Furthermore, because film so readily persuades us that what we see on the screen is part of a whole—and this, of course, is the secret of how we perceive reality, mentally supplying whatever is behind and beyond the visible façade—it can easily convince us that a few dozen soldiers with their “vile and ragged” swords are the front ranks of a whole regiment, not merely, as a small group on the stage would be, a representative sample. As we well know, film representation is no less governed by convention than live drama, but the conventions are in many respects less obtrusive, so the problem of generating “willing suspension of disbelief” is on the whole easier in film. But filming a Shakespearean play offers a different kind of challenge, since naturalistic representation does not accord well with Shakespeare's verse, a decidedly unnatural way of speaking; and although the cinema audience may be willing to accept verse dialogue after the first few minutes, such obviously theatrical devices as soliloquies and set speeches remain problematic. The King's Saint Crispin's Day address, for instance, produces an awkward moment in both these films, when Henry's conversational response to his “cousin Westmoreland” must suddenly become the opening of an oratorical speech to the troops, a change that requires the assembling of the men to form an audience. For the sequence of non-Shakespearean battle-scenes, however, there is no “unnatural” dialogue that must be incorporated into the naturalistic flow of events, so Olivier and Branagh are able to concentrate unimpeded on the action and visual details of their now “silent” movie, abandoning the pretense of drama in favour of straightforward narrative.4

Nor are there stage instructions to be followed, with the result that the two directors are free to present the combat in any way they choose. Both opt for something approaching historical accuracy in costume and weaponry, and both, perhaps not surprisingly, introduce two aspects of the battle that were historically very important, but which Shakespeare failed to mention: the presence of the archers and their use of stakes to entrap the enemy. Olivier begins his visual battle-narrative in the accepted manner of heroic epics, moving from one camp to the other to offer a picture of the preparations—and a study in contrasts that echoes the Chorus's descriptions. The rich, elaborate armour and brilliant coats of arms of the confident and relaxed French knights and the simple drab jerkins of the hardworking English archers are symbols not only of disproportionate wealth and social status, but also of the relative strength of the two armies. Although during the battle Henry and some of the English nobles appear in fine armour, and French foot-soldiers are shown in the distance, these potentially complicating factors, a threat to the absolute contrast, are omitted in the preparation phase. At the same time, a much more extensive focus on the French preparations than on the English augments the feeling that the latter are the underdogs and the victims of aggression. Furthermore, Olivier is clearly intent on making the French knights strange and unfamiliar, even at times laughable; and when eventually their faces are hidden behind their visors they become inhuman or monstrous. The line between ‘us’ and the enemy is thickly drawn, an attitude likely to appeal to Olivier's intended audience in 1944.

In filming the preparation for battle Branagh follows the path of his predecessor, but with slight though significant variations. Olivier shows a man delivering bundles of arrows to the archers; Branagh repeats the scene with the time-management efficiency of the post-industrial 1980s, making Olivier's men look like enthusiastic amateurs. But Branagh has a valid point: this battle was won (historically) by thorough training and disciplined co-operation as well as by innovative military technique, and the longbow archers who formed such a large part of Henry's army in 1415 were indeed a well-trained and efficient workforce. Like Olivier, Branagh moves from one camp to the other and back again, but the contrast between the rival encampments is by no means so strongly drawn as in the earlier film. Branagh's English men-at-arms are perhaps less grand than the French (who are themselves far less elaborately equipped than Olivier's), and the clothing of the English soldiers is definitely muddier and more worn-looking than that of their enemy, but neither side is privileged by the camera, as if Branagh were trying to balance Olivier's (and Shakespeare's) implication that the French were the aggressors and the English the defenders, rather than vice versa. Nor is there any hint that the French are to be seen as a subject of humour. Their armour appears useful rather than ostentatious or peculiar, and unlike their counterparts in Olivier's version they lower their visors only at the last possible moment, thereby remaining familiar and “human” as long as possible. Branagh has, in fact, humanized the French throughout the film; his French king, for instance, is not the incompetent senile of Olivier's version but a serious and concerned old man. Such sympathy with the enemy and minimizing of national difference is usually associated in modern war literature with an attitude of protest.

Visual effects such as costume and properties obviously have an important symbolic function in these films. Olivier's entire battle scene is one of splendid pageantry and attention to detail, but the source of this spectacle is not the Middle Ages so much as the nineteenth-century medievalist revival. The film as a whole, as John Collick suggests, is “a complex reassertion of the British spectacular tradition” of Shakespeare production5, a tradition that prevailed from the middle of the nineteenth century until about 1920. These productions, so named because spectacle took precedence over Shakespeare's dialogue, were lavish and pageant-like, with elaborate costumes and almost overwhelming visual detail, often including accurately-represented tableaux vivants based on famous paintings. Throughout Olivier's film many viewers will catch glimpses of familiar scenes from the field of art; near the end, for instance, we see a Breughel winter village brought to life. Although there is an often-repeated claim that the costumes in the film were inspired by the late-medieval Calendar of the Book of Hours of the Duc de Berri,6 Henry in armour bears considerable resemblance to several Pre-Raphaelite representations of Sir Galahad, especially a well-known painting by Edward Burne-Jones, while the lavish outfits of the knights and their horses are decidedly reminiscent of those designed for a “medieval” tournament held at Eglington Castle in Ayrshire in 1839. (Some costume illustrations, as well as several Sir Galahad paintings, are reproduced in Mark Girouard's The Return to Camelot.) Olivier's overall interpretation of Henry V is similarly in a Victorian and Edwardian tradition, in which the play was regarded as a celebration of English nationhood and national superiority, and Henry himself as “a model of knightly honour and kingly dignity”.7 (This quotation, appropriately, is from the 1905 introduction to a Macmillan Pocket Classics school edition, which also asserts that Henry V is “a wholesome, vigorous play, with a strong appeal to the manly instincts, and King Henry is a hero whom every rightly-constituted boy and girl can respect and admire.”) In keeping with his patriotic purpose, Olivier omits or plays down anything that might throw doubt on either the King or the English; the opening scene, for instance, which reveals that the instigation for Henry's French campaign was not a genuine ‘just cause’ but the greed and cunning of the English Church, and which hints at complicity on Henry's part, is made farcical in the film, while Henry's very nasty threats to the Governor of Harfleur—that his soldiers will commit rape and murder if the town does not surrender immediately—are omitted.

Olivier's production was a conscious contribution by one of Britain's leading actors to the Allied war effort in the Second World War, and in this respect it follows yet another practice from the early years of the century, the tendency to comment on modern war in knightly or chivalric terms. It would, of course, be a mistake to assume that a ‘chivalric’ attitude towards war had persisted from the Middle Ages, especially since it is questionable whether, even then, chivalry was a military concept. Rather, this romanticizing of war was a nineteenth-century development, owing much to the medievalist revival in the arts, and coinciding very conveniently with the perceived need for ever larger armies, and the associated concept of “total war”, that were by-products of the newly-evolved sense of nationhood in Europe. And Henry V, one of the two of Shakespeare's plays most widely taught in school in Edwardian England,8 was seen as the ideal vehicle for this merging of chivalric war and nationalistic patriotism. (Inconvenient elements in the play, such as the slaughter of the prisoners, the dubious reasons for going to war, and the divergence between the Chorus's enthusiastic comments and the less-than-heroic action that often follows, seem to have been either overlooked or dismissed as momentary carelessness on Shakespeare's part.)

The romanticizing of war as a knightly quest was not confined to England; other European countries produced variants in keeping with their own literary traditions, and it is a partial explanation at least for the enthusiasm with which war was welcomed in August 1914, and the readiness with which the continuing need for “the supreme sacrifice” was accepted for over four years, despite the enormous casualty lists. Although the Great War ultimately produced a sense of disillusionment, the chivalric ideal was by no means completely abandoned, and it retained considerable popular appeal throughout the Second World War and beyond (as, indeed, the popularity of Olivier's movie indicates).

An especially appealing aspect of the ‘knightly’ ideal of war is the sense of adventure and excitement. A well-known First World War poem, Julian Grenfell's “Into Battle”, begins,

The naked earth is warm with spring
And with green grass and bursting trees
Leans to the sun's gaze, glorying,
And quivers in the sunny breeze.
And life is colour and warmth and light
And a striving evermore for these;
And dead he is who will not fight,
And who dies fighting, has increase.

It is precisely such a sense of colour and life that Olivier captures in the second stage of his battle narrative, the French cavalry advance. Once again Olivier borrows from the heroic epic, and specifically the narrator's external and objective ‘eye’. Although one might have expected a commitment to the English point of view, the camera focuses almost exclusively on the French, with only brief glimpses of the English waiting calmly for the king's order. The scene is filmed from the middle distance, and the camera moves along on the level (a feat that required the construction of a temporary railway track at the estate near Dublin where the filming took place). With the Dauphin in full armour in the foreground, and the other French knights vying for position alongside and behind him, the camera keeps pace with the attackers until, giving an impression of increased momentum, they outpace it. The weather is beautiful, the grass green (Orson Welles observed acerbically that the battle seemed to have been fought on a golf course),9 there is a momentary pastoral glimpse of horses and riders reflected in clear water. Olivier fills the “silence” with exciting music, composed for the purpose by William Walton; and music, colour and movement all serve to produce a sequence that epitomizes the thrill and excitement that we associate, probably wrongly, with ‘traditional’ warfare.

Poems like Grenfell's “Into Battle”, thought to glorify war, were amongst the main targets of First World War protest poetry, where one often finds an explicit confrontation between the precepts of the patriotic-chivalric ideal and the reality of modern warfare. A similar approach, and perhaps a similar propagandist intention, is evident in Branagh's counterpart of Olivier's “cavalry advance” scene. Branagh could certainly have shown the start of the battle quite differently (historically, according to Keegan, an English arrow-strike preceded the French advance), so his decision to reproduce Olivier's charge from the opposite angle may be seen as a deliberate confrontation with his predecessor. An obvious reversal technique would have been to let the audience observe the horses and riders as if through the eyes of the English, but Branagh chooses instead to retain Olivier's external viewpoint. He allows us one glimpse of the French moving off, and then, instead of watching a thrilling and romantic cavalry attack, we observe its approach through the reactions of the men compelled to stand in its path. The camera offers close-ups of one familiar face after another amongst Henry's troops, and the noise we hear, as we share in their dread, is not exciting music but the threat of approaching hooves.

Once the two sides meet, the contrast in the use of narrative focus or point of view continues. Like Homer's in the Iliad, Olivier's epic eye is able to draw back and show a large section of the battlefield, or to move closer to view an individual struggle; but unlike Homer, Olivier never permits any sustained close-up, nor follows a struggle through to the inevitably bloody end. There is no counterpart, for instance, of “Nothing held but a piece of skin, from which the head was hanging down,” to quote from E.V. Rieu's Iliad translation.10 Olivier's camera records much of the battle from the middle distance looking down, with the result that the action is almost always framed by the green field, giving an impression of limitedness and control. He deals very perfunctorily with the collective skill of the English archers. The romantic image of war that he furthers demands a focus on man-to-man combat and individual prowess, and after little more than a single volley the archers abandon their formation (and then their bows) to join the fight. Not only does the battle range freely, but many of Olivier's details refer us to other films with enterprising, free-ranging heroes: English soldiers attack passing horsemen by jumping from trees like Robin Hood and his Merry Men; swordfights owe something to The Three Musketeers, some of the broad views allude to the American cavalry fighting the Indians on the Great Plains (while the villainous French riding through the English camp setting fires as they go by are decidedly reminiscent of Hollywood Indian attacks on wagon trains); and Henry in white armour riding off to confront the Dauphin in black in single combat to conclude the battle is, of course, in the tradition of the Western. Whatever military history may tell about the undoubted effectiveness of concerted action, Olivier makes it clear that the true Englishman is committed to individual initiative—a 1944 reply, perhaps, to the image of the suppression of individuality in Nazi Germany.

Branagh's response to Olivier takes up the arrow-strike motif with a vengeance, emphasizing the collective power of the archers and making the longbow into a terrifying modern weapon. Once the armies meet, the conflict is confused, incomprehensible. There is definitely no framing, no remote view. Far from belonging to an uninvolved, distanced bystander, the eye is that of someone in the midst of the action. The camera is often not even at eye-level so much as at ground level; we rarely see people whole, just a part of them, and the action fills the entire screen for most of the time. The battle, it seems, is everywhere and inescapable. Slow motion shots help emphasize the enormous physical effort of fighting, for Branagh's hand-to-hand combat is not an exciting contest but a fearful and deadly struggle. The grass turns almost immediately to mud, and the clear water has become pools of blood.

Branagh's First World War paradigm had been set up earlier in the film, with such details as a close-up of an old map showing familiar place-names like Dieppe and the Somme, a decidedly trench-like setting for the “four captains” scene at Harfleur, and a long segment featuring soldiers trudging through rain and mud. (The latter detail, incidentally, was historically appropriate, since Henry's French campaign was plagued by appallingly wet weather.) The narratives that helped establish our now standard view of the First World War (Remarque's Im Western nichts Neues and Graves' Goodbye to All That, for instance) are told, not with the distant observation of a general or historian or epic-writer, but from the point of view of an ordinary soldier, whose perspective is necessarily limited. And this, precisely, is Branagh's way of presenting the encounter at Agincourt. While the writers of these First World War narratives did not necessarily claim to be opposed to war, but wished rather to offer a true picture of the combatant experience as an antidote to the patriotic-chivalric ethic, their accounts have nevertheless tended to be read as statements of protest. Consequently, just as Olivier hoped to evoke patriotic commitment in his wartime audience by reminding them of the ancient but successful lineage of their own struggle, so Branagh seems to have expected to draw upon the anti-war connotations of his First World War imagery. His film responds to and undermines not only Olivier's representation, but also all romantic assumptions about war in the past: seen from the viewpoint of the man in the midst of the action, Branagh suggests, war always has been hell.

Yet, is Branagh's film ultimately anti-war? His representation seems realistic (especially in comparison with Olivier's), but would those terrifying arrows have discriminated between English and French soldiers in the crowd? And would the English king, glimpsed in action several times, really have fought without a helmet or some minimal head-protection? By abandoning realism for the popular appeal of a heroic fight, Branagh vindicates the warrior ethic in a way that Shakespeare's caricature of a battle, where the symbolic Frenchman simply surrenders and then is ordered killed, does not. Nor, one might add, does either Branagh or Olivier so much as mention the slaughter of the prisoners, though Shakespeare introduces the topic three times. Branagh's commitment to the heroic ethic, however, is revealed even more clearly in the scenes that follow the battle. The many gestures of compassion and affection amongst the English soldiers, as well as those between Henry and the French herald, underline the central importance of the “brothers in battle” motif in this film, and the effect is augmented by the elegiac “Non nobis” sequence. Here the English army slowly crosses the battlefield to the accompaniment of singing (“Non nobis domine”) in an effective and moving scene that is almost as long as the battle itself. Inspired by a mere two lines in the play, it takes up and extends a much briefer version in Olivier's film, and it can be viewed as a reversal of Olivier's French cavalry charge. Instead of the thrilling anticipation of battle we are shown its distressing aftermath, as the men trudge wearily along carrying the dead or helping the wounded. The ground is trampled and bloody, strewn with corpses, the music is solemn; and to the extent that its theme is mourning rather than a celebration of victory, the scene may be viewed as a protest against Olivier's idealization of war.

Yet at the same time it brings to fruition the director's own interpretation of the play, and in particular his representation of the character of Henry. The camera's persistent tracking of Henry's movements centres attention on the King, so that his personality becomes more important than the scenes of destruction in the background. When Henry picks up the corpse of the unnamed “Boy” to carry it from the battlefield, he symbolically takes upon himself the burden of all the deaths, a responsibility that he had earlier refused (and which in the play remains an unresolved issue). The last fault of Henry's character is thus removed, and we recognize that through his ordeal by war he has established his position both as wise and mature ruler and as a true and equal member of a “band of brothers”. The male bonding complete, the Henry who moves on to woo and win the French princess in Branagh's film is not one jot less heroic than Olivier's, and democratic and friendly to boot, almost American in comparison to Olivier's aloof and reserved Englishman with an impeccable public-school accent and a costume which, even after the battle, looks immaculate. And both film Henrys are considerably more admirable than Shakespeare's decidedly ambivalent monarch.

Olivier has updated Agincourt to match the image required by nationalistic heroism, and one looks in vain in the history of war-literature, and certainly not to Shakespeare's ambiguous play, for a romanticizing and glorification of war to equal this twentieth-century example. Branagh's updating, too, is in a pattern demanded by his age, for it seems that, however much we recognize and depict the awful reality, we find the entertainment value of war too great to abandon. The “ordeal by fire” model allows for the necessary compromise, since it can simultaneously condemn and validate war. In the end, it is Shakespeare's own version of Henry V—his far-from-ideal hero, his strong hints that the cause is not just, and the caricature battle which alone can account for the gruesome historical facts—that comes nearest to “the truth of war”. Has his Agincourt really benefitted from its updating?


  1. Christopher Rothero, The Armies at Agincourt, Osprey Men-at-Arms Series 113 (London: Osprey, 1981), p. 13.

  2. John Keegan reconstructs the battle in “Agincourt, October 25th, 1415”, Chapter 2 of The Face of Battle (London: Cape, 1976).

  3. See Andrew Gurr, Introduction to King Henry V, The New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 26, 28.

  4. Olivier's film begins and ends as a representation of the first performance of the play in 1599, so his shift from the artificiality of drama, deliberately exaggerated here, to the relative realism of cinematic narrative is particularly striking.

  5. John Collick, Shakespeare, Cinema and Society (Manchester University Press), 1989, p. 49.

  6. This claim seems to have originated in a suggestion by Roger Manvell in Shakespeare and the Film (New York: Praeger, 1971), p. 39, but later critics have simply reiterated Manvell's suggestion as fact.

  7. Olivier as director distances himself from this already rather old-fashioned reading by showing his Henry initially and finally as an actor in obvious make-up and costume.

  8. A. C. Sprague, cited by Gurr, p. 46.

  9. Cited by Collick, p. 50; no source given.

  10. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1957, p. 301.

Janet M. Spencer (essay date summer 1996)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10130

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 ambiguous presentation of the morality of Henry's actions.]

“The figure who exceeds the law as its master and the one who exceeds it as transgressor,” Christopher Pye explains of Henry V and the traitors Cambridge, Grey, and Scroop, “are indeed bound by an unspoken—perhaps unspeakable—knowledge about the origins of power.”1 In Shakespeare's Henry V, Henry takes great pains to conceal his capacity to exceed the law by seeking religious legitimation of, or by displacing moral responsibility for, decisions based ultimately on royal prerogative. And for a great number of producers, theatergoers, and literary critics he succeeds admirably.2 Nevertheless, his decisions to exercise royal power mark him as a figure of legal excess, an identity given specific significance by the “figures and comparisons” drawn between England's warrior-king and the celebrated conqueror whom Fluellen calls “Alexander the Pig.”3 The play provides numerous explicit allusions to Alexander the Great, supporting Fluellen's assertion that “there is figures in all things” (4.7.33). But the episode from Alexander's life that best voices the intuitive, unspoken knowledge about the origins of power, Alexander's encounter with the pirate Dionides, is partially suppressed by an ambiguous series of variations capable of unspeaking the dangerous knowledge it confesses. Even so, the anecdote hovers over the central acts of the play, trailing its associations with debates concerning the morality of wars of conquest and, more important, with what conquest's defiance of law reveals about the origins of power. The pirate anecdote was a commonplace used by Augustine, John of Salisbury, Chaucer, Gower, Lydgate, Boccaccio, Erasmus, and other Continental authors; Shakespeare's familiarity with it shapes the exchange between Enobarbas and Menas in Antony and Cleopatra.4 In the story Alexander's men seize a pirate who, when brought to Alexander for judgment, defends himself by equating the thefts of pirates with those of conquerors, “barring the fact,” as Erasmus tells the tale, “that [conquerors] have greater forces and a bigger fleet to harass a larger part of the world with their plunderings.”5 Though the story's moral varies from one version to another, all contain its two key elements: Dionides's comparison of conquerors to pirates and Alexander's pardon of that indictment. These elements encode the polar limits at which a sovereign could exercise the royal prerogative to transcend the law: war's deployment of force to exceed the law of nations and the pardon's restraint of force to override civil law's right to execute convicted felons. Although Shakespeare avoids replicating the pirate anecdote too closely, he frames the conquest of France with Henry's pardons of free speech—that of the unnamed soldier in Act 2 and that of Michael Williams in Act 4. And despite Falstaff's absence from the play, he maintains the presence of Henry's former compatriots in crime. In an important sense the structure of the anecdote clarifies the structure of the play and, more interestingly, allows the play to voice otherwise unspeakable knowledge about the origins of power.

Despite the European pursuit of territory throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the morality of conquest could not simply be assumed; the primary justification for war was, in fact, recovery of territory lost through conquest. Theodor Meron explains that most of the rules of jus gentium concerned warfare. These laws supplemented the laws of chivalry which regulated the individual conduct of Christian knights—not Christian nations—at war. Although, as Meron observes, both the Hundred Years' War and Shakespeare's theatrical accounts of it precede the emergence of modern international law, the requirements of a just war were carefully articulated in multiple sources and formed important criteria for determining cases involving ransom and booty in European courts of chivalry. “A just war,” Meron explains, “could legitimize criminal acts and create a legal title to goods whose taking in other circumstances would be considered robbery.”6 Although in courts of chivalry the claim to a just cause might legitimize criminal acts, in humanist discussions of war the association between criminal acts and war criminalizes the latter as often as it exonerates the former. Erasmus asks, “What is war, indeed, but murder shared by many, and brigandage, all the more immoral from being wider spread?”7

Oddly enough, however, the immorality of wars of conquest could, in fact, be asserted either to defend or to critique the status quo of monarchical power. Whether a conflict was ultimately designated a just war of recovery or an unjust act of expansionism boiled down to the issue of legitimate title to the territory in question, an issue decided in practice more often by the outcome of the conflict than by any other criteria. Of basing just cause on just claim, Erasmus reasons:

Someone may say, ‘Do you want princes not to assert their rights?’ I know it is not for such as myself to argue boldly about the affairs of princes, and even if it were safe to do so, it would take longer than we have time for here. I will only say this: if a claim to possession is to be reckoned sufficient reason for going to war, then in such a disturbed state of human affairs, so full of change, there is no one who does not possess such a claim. What people has not, at one time or another, been driven out of its lands or driven others out? … How often has there been a transfer of sovereignty, either by chance or by treaty?8

Applications of Dionides's bold comparison probed beyond the problem of king as conqueror to touch the idea of kingship itself. This related issue of just title—not to a particular territory but to the idea of monarchical rule itself—simmered beneath discussions of forms of government.9 Although the pirate anecdote usually supported egalitarian arguments, it appears as a defense of monarchy in Charles I's scaffold accusation that parliament was guilty of “a great robbery” in waging an unjust war of conquest against him:

Now, sirs, I must show you both how you are out of the way and [I] will put you in the way. First you are out of the way, for certainly all the way you ever have had yet—as I could find by anything—is in the way of conquest. Certainly this is an ill way. For conquest, sirs, in my opinion is never just, except there be good just cause, either for matter of wrong or just title. And then if you go beyond it, the first quarrel that you have to it, that makes it unjust at the end that was just at first. But if it be only matter of conquest, then it is a great robbery; as a pirate said to Alexander the Great that he was the great robber, he [the pirate] was but a petty robber. And so, sirs, I do think the way that you are in is much out of the way.10

In contrast, the anecdote's most influential use to critique monarchy occurs in Augustine's De Civitate Dei. Augustine positions the anecdote in a context that exposes the dangerous knowledge of the roots of power which Dionides and Alexander share. An English translation printed in 1610 reads:

Set iustice aside then, and what are kingdomes but faire theeuish purchases? because what (a) are theeues purchases but little kingdomes? for in thefts, the hands of the vnderlings are directed by the commander, the confederacie of them is sworne together, and the pillage is shared by the law amongst them. And if those ragga-muffins grow but vp to be able enough to keepe forts, build habitations, possesse cities, and conquer adioyning nations, then their gouernment is no more called theeuish, but graced with the eminent name of a kingdome, giuen and gotten, not because they haue left their practises, but because that now they may vse them with-out danger of lawe: for elegant and excellent was (b) that Pirates answer to the Great Macedonian Alexander, who had taken him: the king asking him how he durst molest the seas so, hee replyed with a free spirit, How darest thou molest the whole world? But because I doe it with a little ship onely, I am called a theefe: thou doing it with a great Nauie, art called an Emperour.11

Instead of having the pirate executed for his crimes and his effrontery, Alexander pardons him, offering him a command in his own navy—a move that rewards or, perhaps, appropriates the pirate's dangerous knowledge that his own daring use of force has much in common with power “graced” or legitimized by “the eminent name of a kingdome.” The crucial difference between the two is, as Augustine explains, that a sovereign may exercise his power “with-out danger of lawe.”

By Christopher Pye's—and Augustine's—logic, excesses of law, whether by prince or pirate, become explorations of the relationship between justice and power. The prince's two chief means of setting the law aside lie paradoxically in these polar opposites: the ability to unleash violence in the prosecution of war or to tame it by pardoning the justly condemned felon. Even these poles of royal prerogative should perhaps be perceived more as important symbols of royal ability to exceed the law than as real measures of absolutist power; the prerogatives to war or to pardon were rarely exercised by sovereign will in isolation from aristocratic consent. Pardons typically followed aristocratic suits for clemency, and, without a standing army, early modern monarchs intent on war were still dependent upon late medieval means of raising, equipping, and fielding their armies.

Moreover, between these acknowledged poles of excess lay a range of prerogatives that existed in uneasy tension with legal restraints on the crown. Early modern England was a constitutional monarchy, but the relationships between sovereign and subject, crown and law were defined by a sense of subjects' traditional rights and an accumulation of common-law precedents, not a written constitution. As such, the “constitutional” prerogatives and limitations on the sovereign were open to negotiation, coercion, and even litigation—contests that the crown could, in fact, lose. In short, monarchs' ability to exceed the law was circumscribed first by what they dared, second by what their eminence allowed them. The difference between piracy and monarchy, Dionides suggests, rests more with the latter than the former. Any single royal offense might have to be tolerated by subjects; a pattern of abuses would upset the delicate balance between crown and parliament. And dependence on parliament for funds—an appropriation legitimized by the process of consent, however much it sometimes resembled piracy—curbed a monarch's tendency to flout the law too blatantly or too often. Nevertheless, carefully displayed excess of law performed a crucial role in maintaining the fiction of a socially useful and politically necessary distinction between sovereign and subject which legitimized the very existence of monarchy itself.

The anecdote about Alexander and Dionides offers dangerous, unspeakable knowledge because it threatens to collapse the apparent opposition between force and mercy; it reveals power's capacity to exceed law and to arrogate a fictional difference between subject and sovereign in order to legitimate that excess. Of Henry V's determination to follow his father's advice “to busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels” (2 Henry IV, 4.5.213-14), Erasmus might well observe:

There are those who go to war for no other reason than because it is a way of confirming their tyranny over their own subjects. For in times of peace the authority of the council, the dignity of the magistrates, and the force of the laws stand in the way, to a certain extent, of the prince's doing just what he likes. But once war has been declared, then all the affairs of the State are at the mercy of the appetites of a few. Up go the ones who are in the prince's favour, down go the ones with whom he is angry. Any amount of money is exacted. Why say more? It is only then that they feel they are really kings.12

This account of a prince's willfulness realized in war may accord most with Richard II's expropriation of Gaunt's revenues, use of blank charters, and devotion to the “caterpillars” of the commonwealth; yet Henry's French campaign serves much the same function of affirming his power: “No king of England, if not king of France” (2.2.193).

By 1500 only wars levied by a prince, not by a feudal overlord, could be deemed legally just in suits argued before courts of chivalry, and English monarchs, like their French cousins, had acquired a monopoly to set the law aside by issuing a public pardon. Such displays of mercy, frequently contrasted with the use of force, were proclaimed as evidence of the prince's likeness to God. According to Portia, mercy

The throned monarch better than his crown.
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. …

(Merchant of Venice, 4.1.188-97)

As a display of the Christian virtue of mercy, the royal pardon was one of the prince's safest means of exercising—and hence reasserting—the prerogative to exceed the strict bounds of law; pardons asserted the power to abrogate the sentence of justice without the risk of registering a judgment on the justice of the sentence itself.13 Pardons simply “set iustice aside.”

Portia's speech contrasts the externalization of force with the hidden nature of mercy. Force is revealed in the external trappings of majesty, in the scepter and crown as “attribute[s] to awe and majesty”; mercy is driven “above this sceptred sway” and inward, “enthroned in the hearts of kings,” where it becomes an invisible, inscrutable “attribute to God himself.” From the secret recesses of the royal heart, mercy can be made manifest at will, allowing “earthly power” to “show likest God's.” But, like the attributes of sorrow in Hamlet (“actions that a man might play” [1.2.84]), the display of mercy bears no necessary correlation to “that within which passes show” (l. 85).14 The externalization of internal states must always be distrusted. Mercy may be the act that shows most like God, but its underlying motivation and the use to which it is put may be an exercise in pure Realpolitik. The two interpretations of the Dionides anecdote which developed during the Middle Ages base conflicting representations of Alexander's internal state on the same incident. The secular moral, seeking to maintain Alexander's status as a positive exemplum of the successful ruler who first rules himself, praises his clemency and self-control as demonstrated in his pardoning of slander. Augustine's interpretation, however, emphasizes the similarities the pirate perceives between himself and the great conqueror: both seize what they want, disregarding established codes of justice or ethical concern for others; only the grander scale of the conqueror's theft effaces and reinscribes the legal code. From Augustine's perspective, Alexander's pardon seems a triumphant reveling in the power of conquest; his Alexander gloats over the comparison between himself and the pirate, countenancing the critique of conquest's justness in order to exult in the impunity that the power of his army grants him. The secular moral extols Alexander's restraint of power—an internal self-control that legitimates his authority—while the Augustinian interpretation condemns his exultation in his power by equating it with theft.

Augustine's association of robber-kingdoms and “the authority of a prince” resists the legitimation of royal power associated with the secular interpretation and instead criminalizes kingdoms based on conquest. But is the Augustinian tradition at work in Henry V? If so, how does it operate and to what effect? The familiarity of Dionides's analogy between pirates and emperors may help to explain the play's repeated emphasis on the comic crew's thievery and prior association with the king; for those who recognize in Hal's repeated willingness to pardon slanderers a covert reference to the Alexander materials—a recognition authorized by Fluellen's assertion that “there's figures in all things”—the presence of Pistol, Nym, and Bardolph in France raises questions about the legitimacy of Henry's campaign and perhaps his reign: they conjure up earlier visions of Hal when he was but a madcap “petty thief.” But how extensive is the play's critique?

We may begin to answer this question by recalling that metaphor and simile often derive as much power from the differences they yoke as from the likenesses they assert; Shakespeare's text generates significant differences between Henry and Alexander. Judicious attention to this balance of likeness and difference seems to be the chief burden of Judith Mossman's recent article exploring the connection between Henry V and Plutarch's Alexander.15 Her argument cites parallels between the lives of these two figures and also between the purposes and methods of their chroniclers. Her theoretical observations, however, seem to allow for greater complexity of artistic treatment than her interpretation of Henry V ultimately demonstrates or even allows. Acknowledging that “Plutarch's character of Alexander … has been considered one of the biographer's most straightforwardly heroic portraits,” Mossman argues that “this, in fact, is an oversimplification. Plutarch certainly hymns Alexander's heroical, epical qualities, but he also takes the opportunity to portray the king's darker side.”16 Mossman notes that

Plutarch himself encourages us to compare his subjects with a wide variety of historical and mythological models, thereby giving himself scope to develop different aspects of the subject's character. The great advantage of such comparisons is their potential complexity. A comparison with Achilles, for example, can suggest heroic bravery, stubborn intransigence, tragic self-determination, even homoerotic attraction. A series of comparisons with Alexander has the potential for equal polyvalency.17

Though Mossman emphasizes a theoretical complexity, in practice she nevertheless finds it “hard to imagine an ironic reading of the play that would satisfactorily explain why Shakespeare would have wanted to subvert Henry” and wonders “what sort of play one is left with if one assumes that Henry V sets out to denigrate its central character.”18 Mossman's reading of the relationship between Shakespeare's play and Alexander's career cites many parallels that I acknowledge; however, her conclusion that these parallels inevitably work to demonstrate Henry's superiority to Alexander seems too willing an acceptance of the assessments of the Chorus, Fluellen, and Henry himself to the exclusion of other voices, disallowing Shakespeare the complexity she finds attractive in Plutarch. She accepts Henry's pronouncement at face value: “‘We are no tyrant, but a Christian king,’ Henry says (1.2.241), echoing the opinion of Erasmus and other writers that the Christian is almost inevitably superior even to the excellent and virtuous pagan.”19 Yet in Dulce bellum inexpertis Erasmus offers a scathing critique of war which actually inverts the expected relationship between Christian and pagan, exclaiming “All go to war, the decrepit, the priest, the monk, and we mix up Christ with a thing so diabolical! … For where is the kingdom of the devil if not in war? Why do we drag Christ into it, when he would be less out of place in a house of ill fame than in a war?”20 Of the comparison between Christian and pagan, Erasmus explicitly states:

If you compare Christian monarchs with pagan ones, how weak our cause seems to be! They had no ambition but glory. They took pleasure in increasing the prosperity of the provinces they had subdued in war; where people were barbarous, without letters or laws, living like wild animals, they taught them the arts of civilisation; they populated the uncultivated regions by building towns; they improved unsafe places by constructing bridges, quays, embankments, and by a thousand other amenities they made man's life easier, so that it became a fortunate thing to be conquered. … The things which are done in wars between Christians are too obscene and appalling to be mentioned here. The fact is that we only copy the worst of the ancient world—or rather we outdo it.21

Near the conclusion of his essay, Erasmus adds, “a Christian, if he were truly Christian, would take every means to avoid, avert and stave off a thing so hellish, so foreign to the life and teaching of Christ.”22 Anyone familiar with Erasmus's view of war must necessarily find Henry's claim to be “no tyrant, but a Christian king” ironic, or at least deeply and purposefully ambivalent. Given this alternative sixteenth-century view of war, that it “is sweet to those who have not tried it,”23 the audience may be invited to compare the Chorus's claim that Henry is the “mirror of all Christian kings” (2.Cho.6) against its subsequent command for attentive viewing: “Yet sit and see, / Minding true things by what their mock'ries be” (4.Cho.52-53).

The interpretive complexity and potential ambivalence the Chorus invokes is fully present in Fluellen's analogies. The Welshman did, after all, assert the ubiquity of “figures” immediately before alluding to Alexander's drunken murder of his friend Cleitus—only to have his turn to emphasize difference preempted by Gower's counterassertion that “Our King is not like him in that” (4.7.42). Like Alexander, displaying both control of the law and of the injured self, Henry is merciful to underlings who question his use of power, both the unnamed slanderer in Act 2 and Michael Williams in Act 4. And, as in the Dionides anecdote, the context of Henry's pardons underlines the more explicitly forceful dimension of mastery of the law—the successful conquest of foreign territory. Unlike Alexander, however, Henry repeatedly denies association with thieves and thievery. In doing so, Henry denies his dependence upon the raw power in which Alexander gloated, although he, too, derived his title from it. The differences become clear once the analogy touches Henry closely. When Fluellen informs the king about Bardolph, Henry denies any relationship, coldly condemning his former companion in crime to execution, confirming the sentence of law which only he has power to overturn: “We would have all such offenders so cut off” (3.6.107-8).24

Traditional readings interpret Henry's action as further evidence of his reformation. In Augustinian reading, however, Henry would not dare pardon Bardolph lest he risk acknowledging that the root of his own royal power is identical to the pirate's, that his French war is itself an affair of questionable legitimacy, designed to distract “giddy minds” from his own questionable legitimacy as king. After he has been confronted by the misgivings of Bates, Court, and Williams before the battle of Agincourt, Henry confesses his dangerous knowledge of his true source of power:

                                                                                Not to-day, O Lord,
O, not to-day, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!
I Richard's body have interred new,
And on it have bestowed more contrite tears,
Than from it issued forced drops of blood. …
                                                                                                              More will I do;
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after all,
Imploring pardon. …

(4.1.292-97, 302-5)

Just cause is predicated upon just title. Knowledge that his own source of power was derived from his father's willingness and ability to exceed the law haunts Henry throughout his career on stage. While Alexander fully embraces what he knows of the origins of power, the Lancastrian monarchs must pretend they do not know what they so clearly practice. To borrow Richard's wry concession to his cousin Bolingbroke, “they well deserve to have / That know the strong'st and surest way to get” (Richard II, 3.3.199-200).

Henry knows that the disrupted succession undermines theories of divine legitimation associated with the legal fiction of the king's two bodies, yet he cannot free himself from the need for such theological legitimation because it distinguishes between his own mode of exceeding the law and that of pirates, thieves, and usurpers.25 His first soliloquy in 1 Henry IV (1.2.195-217) reveals his strategy to restore legitimacy to the crown his father has usurped by staging his own transfiguration. Subsequently, this apparent reformation is recounted by Canterbury in language that initially implies belief in the medieval concept of the king's two bodies but then concedes the Reformation view that such “miracles are ceas'd; / And therefore we must needs admit the means / How things are perfected” (Henry V, 1.1.67-69). It is in this context of Canterbury's praise for Henry's reformed character that the play's earliest allusion to Alexander occurs. Shakespeare's development of the allusion sets a precedent for deliberately ambiguous uses of other Alexandrian anecdotes and allusions. As with Fluellen's comparison later in the play, the archbishop's intention is one of praise; but the existence of an alternative version of the anecdote creates a space for a less flattering interpretation. Canterbury, enumerating Henry's unanticipated range of accomplishments, says, “Turn him to any cause of policy, / The Gordian knot of it he will unloose, / Familiar as his garter” (1.1.45-47).

Plutarch records two versions of Alexander's encounter with the Gordian knot.26 In one, Alexander rises above the challenge through cunning by removing the shaft around which the knot is tied before tackling it; in the other, Alexander resorts to force, slicing through the intricacies of the knot with his sword. In Canterbury's handling of the legend, Alexander's violence is effaced. According to Plutarch, the Phrygians had elected the peasant Gordius as their king in response to an oracle that the first man to approach Jupiter's temple in a wagon could heal their misfortunes. The Gordian knot, which fastened the yoke to the shaft of the wagon, became the focal point of a new oracle which prophesied that whoever united it would rule over all of Asia. After Alexander either removed the shaft or cut through the knot, he then declared himself the fulfillment of the oracle. But in so doing, Alexander appropriated a popular local legend to legitimate the violence of conquest. Canterbury, preferring the innocent, domestic image of unloosening a garter, suppresses the guile of the one version and the violence of the other.27 While it is clear from the context that Canterbury privileges the version in which Alexander's superior intelligence enables him to overcome the knot's challenge, the policy associated with the king he praises is a form of violence, specifically that urged by his father: “Be it thy course to busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels.” Furthermore, Canterbury's praise of Henry is as tainted by self-interest in protecting Church revenue as Alexander's appropriation of the oracle, and both participate in attempts to lend religious legitimation to wars of conquest.

To display his royal clemency, the attribute whereby an “earthly power doth then shew likest God's,” Henry uses pardons along with other appeals to religious sentiments to legitimate both his execution of justice against his English subjects and his prosecution of war against the French. However, parallels between the structure of Shakespeare's play and the bifold nature of Alexander's encounter with Dionides undermine this project of religious legitimation. The anecdote yields options of viewing Alexander as either the gracious dispenser of mercy or the sinner chiefly in need of it. Previous uses of the anecdote enable Shakespeare to encode limits on Henry's ability to identify with one half of the power structure to the exclusion of the other. The anecdote appears in sources such as Tertullian's Apology, Augustine's De Civitate Dei, and John of Salisbury's Policraticus; Cicero, Tertullian, Augustine, and Erasmus use it to examine the justice of warfare and kingship. All these sources are relevant to the structure of Henry V. Cicero's editors place the anecdote in the context of the orator's discussion of justice, reconstructing the passage from Tertullian's citation of it:

For unless I am mistaken, every kingdom or empire is acquired by war and extended by victory, and furthermore, the chief element in war and victory is the capture and overthrow of cities. Such acts are impossible without doing injury to the gods, for the destruction of the city's walls is likewise the destruction of its temples; the murder of its citizens involves likewise the murder of its priests; and the plundering of secular wealth includes also the plunder of sacred treasures. Hence, the irreligious acts of the Roman people equal the number of its trophies; every triumph over a people is a triumph over its gods; the collections of booty equal in number the surviving images of captive gods.28

Tertullian's purpose here is to disprove “the claim of the Romans to signal piety, and the contention that their empire was extended through the favor of the gods.”29 Those sharing Shakespeare's “smalle latine” would likely have been familiar with Augustine and Erasmus, if not Cicero or Tertullian. Thus these comments on the essential impiety of conquest recast in heavy irony Henry's order to execute anyone guilty of plunder (3.6.107-13) and his command “be it death proclaimed through our host / To boast of this, or take that praise from God / Which is his only” (4.8.114-16).30 For Tertullian, Bardolph's theft, like the pirate's, would be a petty instance of impiety compared to Henry's conquest of France. The haunting applicability of Tertullian's critique of conquest increases the epic tone of the Chorus's presentation of Henry's humility and piety in refusing the outward trappings of a triumphal entry into London:

                                                                                … So let him land,
And solemnly see him set on to London.
So swift a pace hath thought that even now
You may imagine him upon Blackheath;
Where that his lords desire him to have borne
His bruised helmet and his bended sword
Before him through the city. He forbids it,
Being free from vainness and self-glorious pride;
Giving full trophy, signal, and ostent
Quite from himself to God.


The transfer of glory—and therefore responsibility—from the king to God is a legitimating sleight-of-hand that Cicero, Tertullian, Augustine, and Erasmus will not allow. The play's alternating scenes balance aristocracy and underworld, merciful pardon and violent greed, coveting honor and ascribing it to God. This structure reproduces the dialogical strategy of a philosophical tradition that questions imperialistic claims to piety by equating conquest with piracy.

Henry's attempts to use religion or to displace responsibility to justify his French campaign strain against scenes that, especially when set against the background of Alexander and the pirate, work to criminalize it. In his first appearance, the council scene in Act 1, Henry practices both strategies. He displaces authority for his decision to invade France onto the archbishop, whose self-interest in the affair has already been dramatized in the prior scene, charging him to “take heed how you impawn our person, … For we will hear, note, and believe in heart, / That what you speak is in your conscience wash'd / As pure as sin with baptism” (1.2.21, 30-32). The Salic law barring claims through the female line—the Gordian knot of Canterbury's speech—is both unraveled and violently bisected by the archbishop's exposition. In this monologue Canterbury initially disclaims the law's relevance to the French throne, but then he cites three French monarchs who supported their claims despite it—each a usurper grasping for any source of legitimacy (ll. 50-55, 64-65, 69, 77-78). Henry, perhaps discomfited by these precedents, repeats his charge, “May I with right and conscience make this claim?” and receives the blame-shifting clarity of response he requires, “The sin upon my head, dread sovereign!” (ll. 96-97). The interchange does not deny the association between conquest and sin; it merely asserts that it is pardonable and displaceable, enabling the archbishop to endorse the campaign, which both legitimates it and exonerates Henry from responsibility for the deaths it will cause.

The scene culminates with a second episode that couples the two strategies as Henry receives the French ambassador, who asks “leave / Freely to render” the Dauphin's message (ll. 237-38). Henry's response couples an assertion of his religious devotion with a veiled threat reminding the ambassador of his power: “We are no tyrant, but a Christian king, / Unto whose grace our passion is as subject / As is our wretches fett'red in our prisons” (ll. 241-43). This assertion of grace and self-control conflates the troublesome poles of power and mercy—the key attributes of legal excess (in the Dionides anecdote) and of divinity (in Portia's appeal). Henry uses the Dauphin's taunt as another opportunity to shift the burden of moral responsibility for this war away from himself, instructing the ambassador to “tell the pleasant prince this mock of his / Hath turn'd his balls to gun-stones, and his soul / Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance / That shall fly with them” (ll. 281-84). Despite Henry's attempts to displace responsibility for the French campaign, his taste for conquest rings throughout his final two speeches in this scene, rendering such conviction to his statement “we have now no thought in us but France” that his subsequent qualification, “Save those to God, that run before our business” (l. 303), seems something of an afterthought, if a strategic one.

The structure of the pirate anecdote underlies this scene, with its balanced attention to Henry's willingness to countenance the Dauphin's scornful message and his ultimate goal of attaining French territory; but the pirate anecdote becomes even more explicit in the pardon scenes of the play's middle acts. Henry's pardon of the unnamed soldier “That rail'd against our person” serves multiple functions in this scene. Shakespeare has transformed the structure of the Dionides anecdote by dividing the recreant into two characters, one to be pardoned and the other to be executed. In doing so, he moves the scene Henry has scripted much closer to the biblical parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:23-35). By maneuvering the traitors Cambridge, Grey, and Scroop into speaking against the mercy offered to a common “railer,” Henry entraps them into taking responsibility for their own executions: “The mercy that was quick in us but late, / By your own counsel is suppress'd and kill'd” (2.2.79-80). By distinguishing between treasonous speech and treasonous actions, he displays himself as merciful and magnanimous, not fearful but bold and trusting. By making the traitors responsible for their own condemnation, however, Henry manages to preempt the attention their betrayal could have drawn to his own questionable claim to France—and, for that matter, to England. He concludes the scene by turning the entire affair into another opportunity to proclaim religious legitimacy for his project of conquest: “We doubt not of a fair and lucky war, / Since God so graciously hath brought to light / This dangerous treason lurking in our way / To hinder our beginnings” (ll. 184-87). Like John of Salisbury, who attached a positive moral to the incident between Alexander and the pirate, Henry has structured this encounter with the traitors to privilege his mercy; Augustine's disparaging moral, adopted by Chaucer and Gower in the alternative tradition of interpretation, seems repressed along with the other “dangerous treason lurking” in Henry's “beginnings.”31 Henry would subsume such concerns under his providentialist rhetoric; the viewer familiar with his previous stage history or with the dual interpretations of Alexander's encounter with Dionides (especially in the context of Augustine's and Erasmus's views of wars of conquest) might draw other conclusions.

In Act 3 Henry has another opportunity to pardon. This time, however, the offense is not slanderous speech but theft. Shakespeare has again deftly separated the offenses conjoined in Alexander's pirate; he allots the intemperate speech to Williams in Act 4, thus enabling Henry to appear magnanimous in pardoning the one and justly rigorous—or hypocritical—in condemning the other. The only actual robbery reported and punished in Henry V is committed by one of the king's former companions; Pistol reports that Bardolph “hath stol'n a pax, and hanged must 'a be” (3.6.40). Pistol asks Fluellen to intercede for Bardolph's life, but Fluellen responds by saying “for if, look you, he were my brother, I would desire the Duke to use his good pleasure, and put him to execution; for discipline ought to be used” (ll. 54-56). Fluellen nonetheless reports Bardolph's danger to the king, who responds:

We would have all such offenders so cut off: and we give express charge that in our marches through the country there be nothing compell'd from the villages; nothing taken but paid for; none of the French upbraided or abus'd in disdainful language; for where [lenity] and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.

(ll. 107-13)

Henry, the “mirror of all Christian kings,” may conquer an entire kingdom, but he will tolerate no petty piracies.32

Historically, the object taken from the church was not a pax but a pyx; J. H. Walter explains the difference:

The pyx is the box in which the consecrated wafers are kept; the pax is a small metal plate with a crucifix impressed on it. In the celebration of mass in the early Christian Church a kiss of peace was given to the communicants by the priest. In the thirteenth century a metal plate or tablet was kissed by the priest instead and then passed to the congregation to kiss in turn. Shakespeare, who surely must have known the difference, may have substituted “pax” for some reason not now clear.33

Of course, a compositor setting the type may have made the substitution, not appreciating the difference. However, a soldier facing a battle against desperate numerical odds might be motivated to steal a pyx—especially one of “little price”—not by greed but by desire to prepare for the possibility of death in battle. Desecration of the sacrament or theft of the pyx was explicitly forbidden in Henry V's Ordinances of War (1419), a prohibition repeated in Henry VIII's Statutes and Ordinances for the Warre (1544).34 Viewing the play, members of the audience might well hear pyx, the item most associated with church pillage in wartime, regardless of what the actor said. Nevertheless, if only as a matter of personal artistic satisfaction, the alteration reflects the slippery view of kingship recorded in the plays of the second tetralogy. The pyx, designed to contain the Reserved Host, invokes the incarnational theology of transubstantiation; the substitution of the pax, an object designed to represent the historical event of the crucifixion of Christ rather than to contain his body, may register a demystification not only of the sacrament but also of the theological underpinnings of the doctrine of the king's two bodies. The pyx contained the mystery, the body of Christ; the pax merely represented it.

In the opening scene of Henry V, Canterbury tries to account for Henry's sudden transformation in terms associated with the mystery of the king's two bodies:

The breath no sooner left his father's body,
But that his wildness, mortified in him,
Seem'd to die too; yea, at that very moment,
Consideration like an angel came
And whipt th' offending Adam out of him.


By the scene's end, however, Canterbury finally accedes to Ely's more pragmatic explanation of Henry's transformation, an explanation attributing the change instead to Henry's ability to “obscure” his “contemplation / Under the veil of wildness” (ll. 63-64); Canterbury agrees, “It must be so; for miracles are ceas'd” (l. 67). Henry is indeed the mirror of all Christian kings: pure reflection, royal representation. The stolen pax, like the pirate's identification with Alexander the Great, reveals dangerous knowledge of the source of power.

The issues involved in the more complex encounter between Henry and Williams in Act 4 should also be framed by this debate concerning the nature of the prince, a debate that might itself be elucidated by reference to an episode in the Alexander materials. For the theologians and moralists, the most controversial aspect of Alexander's career related to his claims to divinity, but the Alexander materials also contain a significant number of disclaimers.35 According to some reports, Alexander (or, in others, his mother) claimed that he was descended from Jupiter; Plutarch deals lightly with the problem by quoting Alexander's mother, Olympias, as saying “will Alexander neuer leaue to make me suspected of Iuno?” Plutarch's explanation for the contradictions presents a picture of Alexander not as a megalomaniac but as a consummate politician:

To conclude, he shewed him selfe more arrogant vnto the barbarous people, and made as though he certainly beleued that he had bene begotten of some god: but vnto the Grecians he spake more modestly of diuine generation … we maie thinke that Alexander had no vaine nor presumptuous opinion of him selfe, to thinke that he was otherwise begotten of a god, but that he did it in policie to kepe other men vnder obedience, by the opinion conceiued of his godhead.36

Only in his account of the events following Alexander's murder of Cleitus does Plutarch become genuinely censorious of his subject's claims to divine origin. Even here, however, Plutarch partially displaces blame on an advisor's attempt to goad Alexander to overcome his guilt and grief over Cleitus's death. Plutarch reports that Anaxarchus, entering the room, cried out:

See, yonder is Alexander the great whom all the world lookes apon, and is affraid of. See where he lies, weeping like a slaue on the ground, that is affraid of the law, and of the reproche of men: as if he him selfe should not geue them law, and stablish the boundes of iustice or iniustice, sithence he hath ouercome to be Lord and master, and not to be subiect and slaue to a vaine opinion. Knowest thou not that the poets saie, that Iupiter hath Themis, to wit, right and iustice placed of either hand on him? what signifieth that, but all that the prince doth, is wholy right, and iust?37

Anaxarchus appeals to Alexander's identification with Jupiter in order to persuade him that the rights of conquest have placed him above censure, above law and justice.38 A conqueror, he exists to exceed the law.

The tension that develops from these diverse accounts of Alexander's claims to divinity is recapitulated in Tudor and Stuart discourses concerning the nature of the relationship between subjects and their sovereign and between the sovereign and the nation's laws. Are all the actions of the prince “lawful and just” by virtue of divine right, or is the prince's superiority primarily a ruse, a representation, designed “in policie to kepe other men vnder obedience, by the opinion conceiued of his godhead”? Using the doctrine of the king's two bodies was a means of subsuming the all-too-apparent reality of mere human mortality under the rhetoric of divine right. As the Reformation in England opted for the representational view of the sacraments, however, the mythic, incarnational features of the doctrine of the king's two bodies began losing much of their legitimating power before the divine-right-minded Stuarts came to power. Within the common-law tradition, divine legitimation was based on lineal descent and applied to issues of inheritance and succession; it did not license rule without law.

The legitimation of monarchy, especially once natural succession has been interrupted, requires a means of differentiating between subject and sovereign—and between pirates and princes. In Henry V the king conceals his sovereign identity under a subject's cloak, passing among his men unrecognized in order to justify the cause for which they are prepared to fight.39 Ironically, it is the king who, in this scene, is guilty of royal Arianism and would deny the difference between himself and his subjects, claiming, “though I speak it to you, I think the King is but a man, as I am … all his senses have but human conditions. His ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man” (4.1.101-5).40 This representational view of kingship is not accepted by Williams, who argues that the king's reckoning will be heavy if his cause is unjust and later provokes Henry again by insisting upon the difference between common foot soldiers and the king:

KING Henry
I myself heard the King say he would not be ransom'd.
Ay, he said so, to make us fight cheerfully; but when our throats are cut, he may be ransom'd, and we ne'er the wiser.
KING Henry
If I live to see it, I will never trust his word after.
You pay him then. That's a perilous shot out of an elder-gun, that a poor and a private displeasure can do against a monarch! You may as well go about to turn the sun to ice with fanning in his face with a peacock's feather. You'll never trust his word after! come, 'tis a foolish saying.
KING Henry
Your reproof is something too round, I should be angry with you, if the time were convenient.

(ll. 190-204)

Williams's image for the monarch recalls the image Henry himself used in warning to the French ambassador, saying “I will rise there with so full a glory / That I will dazzle all the eyes of France, / Yea, strike the Dolphin blind to look on us” (1.2.278-80). And yet Williams's insistence on the absolute gulf that exists between the “poor and private displeasure” of a subject and a monarch angers Henry, who makes it a quarrel of honor between them.

Having set Fluellen up to take his place in the promised fight with Williams, Henry forces Williams to mouth his own representational view of majesty in order to escape martial law for offering violence to the king:

KING Henry
How canst thou make me satisfaction?
All offenses, my lord, come from the heart. Never came any from mine that might offend your Majesty.
KING Henry
It was ourself thou didst abuse.
Your Majesty came not like yourself … witness the night, your garments, your lowliness; and what your Highness suffer'd under that shape, I beseech you take it for your own fault and not mine; for had you been as I took you for, I made no offense; therefore I beseech your Highness pardon me.


Williams ignores the facts that he has, at the least, offended the king's majesty verbally by doubting the justness of his cause and trustworthiness of his word (4.1.134, 199-201); Henry also ignores these facts, in keeping with his tolerance of slander. The wording of Williams's excuse allows Henry to save his majesty and merely wear it, too—the very thing (as Plutarch noted approvingly of Alexander) Henry is inclined to do in making much of his majesty before the class-obsessed French but pretending to belong to the “happy few, we band of brothers,” among his own men. But this anamorphic portrait of majesty privileges one of its versions; in order for Henry to affirm Williams's submission to his sovereignty, he must also accept the blame for Williams's offense: “what your Highness suffered under that shape, I beseech you take it for your own fault and not mine.” Henry may appear the victor, but the debate has returned to the issue of a prince's responsibility for his men's actions and, by extension, for his own.

The most important action Henry undertakes in this play is to wage a war of conquest against the French. He may seek religious legitimation for his actions, and he may seek to displace responsibility for them onto others; in the final analysis, however, “if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make” (ll. 134-35). In pursuing a foreign war, Henry exceeds the law by pressing his prerogative into issues of debatable moral legitimacy, issues that threaten to expose the origins of power. Knowledge of those origins can be dangerous for both pirates like Bardolph and playwrights like his creator; such danger necessitates artistic strategies of suppression, revision, division, but not wholesale evasion. The anticlimactic final act juxtaposes scenes featuring Pistol being beaten by Fluellen for having flouted Welsh customs and Henry flouting French customs while bartering his martial advantage for a marital one that will seal his claim to the French throne—under the very terms denied by Act 1's exposition of the Salic law. Henry's ceremonial entrance immediately follows the exit of Pistol, confessing this intention: “To England will I steal, and there I'll steal” (5.1.87)—a sequence that underscores the king's associations with thieves and cutpurses, the underworld that lives in excess of the law. Henry himself endorses this mode of being when he claims a kiss, contrary to custom, from Katherine: “Dear Kate, you and I cannot be confin'd within the weak list of a country's fashion. We are the makers of manners, Kate” (5.2.269-71). Both Henry and Pistol, like Alexander and Dionides, live in excess of the law; Henry, unlike Alexander, conceals that common bond, claiming to be the “maker,” not the breaker, of manners.

In the event, Henry's stolen kiss proves prophetic of another foreign king who would trace a title through a great-grandmother, another king whose son would lose what the father had won. Like Henry, James VI of Scotland did not believe a king could “be confin'd within the weak list of a country's fashion.” In his treatise The Trew Law of Free Monarchies, James traced civilization in Scotland to the arrival of King Fergus, who, “comming in among barbares, first established the estate and forme of gouernement, and thereafter made lawes by himselfe,” claiming, therefore, that in Scotland “kings were the authors and makers of the Lawes, and not the Lawes of the kings.” With an eye turned southward, he extends his claim that kings precede (and therefore exceed) law by telling a tale of conquest:

For when the Bastard of Normandie came into England, and made himselfe king, was it not by force, and with a mighty army? Where he gaue the Law, and tooke none, changed the Lawes, inuerted the order of gouernement, set downe the strangers his followers in many of the old possessours roomes, as at this day well appeareth a great part of the Gentlemen of England, beeing come of the Norman blood, and their old Lawes, which to this day they are ruled by, are written in his language, and not in theirs: And yet his successours haue with great happinesse enioyed the Crowne to this day; Whereof the like was also done by all them that conquested them before.41

James concludes that the king is the “ouer-Lord of the whole land: so is he Master ouer euery person that inhabiteth the same, hauing power ouer the life and death of euery one of them.” To James the origin of royal authority lies in force, be it the conqueror's mighty army or the king's “power ouer the life and death” of his subjects. In brief, James concludes that “the King is aboue the law.”42

Shortly before Elizabeth's death, Sir John Harington, the ailing queen's favored godson, sent a lantern to the Scottish king, cryptically inscribed “Remember me, lord, when thou comest into thy kingdom.” The crucifixion allusion legitimates the king's yet unacknowledged authority by identifying him with Christ but, simultaneously, reinscribes the association between the king and thieves. Years later on the scaffold, in attempting to turn the pirate anecdote against a conquering parliament, the best Charles I could manage was a construction that diminished his own role to that of the lesser thief. The association of pirates and conquerors, thieves and kings, served this age sometimes as a means of questioning the morality of warfare, sometimes as a way of considering the legitimacy of royal titles. At rare moments it served to speak a dangerous knowledge about the origins of power.


  1. Christopher Pye, The Regal Phantasm: Shakespeare and the Politics of Spectacle (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), 133.

  2. It seems especially difficult to stage a production critical of Henry, but see Chris Fitter, “A Tale of Two Branaghs: Henry V, Ideology, and the Mekong Agincourt” in Shakespeare Left and Right (Ivo Kamps, ed. [New York: Routledge, 1991], 259-76), for an assessment of Kenneth Branagh's two interpretations of Henry, first in Adrian Noble's sober examination of war in his 1984 RSC production and later in Branagh's 1989 film. Fitter likens Branagh the director to a “literary Oliver North,” who “has deliberately shredded vital documentation, provided by the text and the RSC production, and his Henry therefore emerges as a familiar figure: the handsome military hero and godly patriot at the heart of an establishment coverup” (260).

    Richard Dutton surveys critical responses to Henry V, most of which manage to redeem Hal on some level even if they acknowledge his flaws or soften harsher judgments by positing an inherent ambivalence in the play's structure; see “The Second Tetralogy” in Shakespeare: A Bibliographical Guide, Stanley Wells, ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 337-80.

  3. Quotations in this essay of Henry V and all other Shakespeare plays follow The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

    Philip Edwards's Threshold of a Nation: A study in English and Irish drama (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979) also deals with the play's relation to contemporary issues of conquest and imperialism.

  4. Antony and Cleopatra, 2.6.86-96. I am indebted to an anonymous referee for both the reminder of the relevance of this passage to my argument and for subsequent references to the adages of Erasmus. I am also heavily indebted to George Cary's discussion of medieval interpretations of Alexander the Great in The Medieval Alexander (Cambridge: University Press, 1956). Cary details a series of contradictory morals drawn during the medieval period from the life of Alexander the Great, noting in general a trend toward positive interpretations (except in Germany) as secular moralists established independence from theologians.

  5. Erasmus, The ‘Adages’ of Erasmus: A Study with Translations, trans. Margaret Mann Phillips (Cambridge: University Press, 1964), 240.

    The anecdote has been traced back to Cicero's De republica; it appears in a unique but severely damaged manuscript copy of that work held by the Vatican Library. Editors have partially reconstructed the passage through analyses of citations to it in the work of later authors.

  6. Theodor Meron, Henry's Wars and Shakespeare's Laws: Perspectives on the Law of War in the Later Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 41. For a balance of pacifist and realist arguments about the ethics of war, see J. R. Hale, Renaissance War Studies (London: Hambledon Press, 1983); Hale, War and Society in Renaissance Europe, 1450-1620 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985); and Philip C. Dust, Three Renaissance Pacifists: Essays in the Theories of Erasmus, More, and Vives (New York: Peter Lang, 1987). Consult Meron for a more precise treatment of the relationships between Henry V, the historical events, and contemporary legal interpretations of war ethics. Meron concludes that “Shakespeare's attention to historical detail and rules of law in international relations and diplomacy is truly impressive” (214).

  7. Erasmus, 320. According to R. J. Schoeck, this adage first appeared in the 1515 edition of the Adagiorum Chiliades, was printed separately over a dozen times during the sixteenth century, and was translated into English in 1533; see Erasmus of Europe: The Making of a Humanist 1467-1500 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1990), 238.

  8. Erasmus, 340-41.

  9. Shortly following the passage quoted above, Erasmus, despite his disclaimer that “it is not for such as myself to argue boldly about the affairs of princes,” qualifies the notion of sovereignty by insisting that “we call rule what is really administration. No one can have the same rights over men, free by nature, as over herds of cattle. This very right which you hold, was given you by popular consent. Unless I am mistaken, the hand which gave can take it away” (341). The view of sovereignty here is clearly a contractual/consensual one, not one based on divine or natural right.

  10. King Charls his Tryal at the High Court of Justice, 2d ed. (London, 1650), quoted here from The Trial of Charles I: A Documentary History, David Lagomarsino and Charles T. Wood, eds. (Hanover, NH, and London: UP of New England, 1989), 141-42. How much the anticonquest sentiments in Charles I's speech and in the 1610 reprinting of Augustine (cited below) may owe to the pacifist nature of Stuart rule is at present a matter of conjecture.

  11. St. Avgvstine, of the Citie of God (London, 1610), 159. At least fifteen Latin editions of De Civitate Dei were published between 1468 and 1580, some including commentary. This number does not include translations or collections in which De Civitate does not appear in the title.

  12. Erasmus, 349.

  13. For historical background on the use of pardon to assert prerogative power, see Natalie Zemon Davis, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1987). I have explored her argument in relation to the comic framing of royal pardons in Richard II and Measure for Measure in “Staging Pardon Scenes: Variations of Tragicomedy,” Renaissance Drama n.s. 21 (1990): 55-89.

  14. Jonathan Goldberg's study of the strategies of discourse shared by monarchs and authors repeatedly makes the point that such representations always lie at one remove, are always coincidences that do not quite coincide yet occupy “the heart of the relationship of literature to royal power” (James I and the Politics of Literature: Jonson, Shakespeare, Donne, and Their Contemporaries [Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1983], 39).

  15. Judith Mossman, “Henry V and Plutarch's Alexander,Shakespeare Quarterly 45 (1994): 57-73.

  16. Mossman, 58.

  17. Mossman, 63.

  18. Mossman, 58.

  19. Mossman, 61.

  20. Erasmus, 321-22.

  21. Erasmus, 335.

  22. Erasmus, 351.

  23. Erasmus, 308.

  24. Hal's betrayal of Bardolph may seem callous, but it also holds implications for a prince's responsibilities for the actions of his subjects, and so should be examined in conjunction with Hal's later scenes with Williams. See Meron's chapter “Responsibility of Princes” (64-74) and his assessment of Bardolph's sentence (114-15 and 122).

  25. On the king's two bodies, see Marie Axton, The Queen's Two Bodies: Drama and the Elizabethan Succession (London: Royal Historical Society, 1977); and Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1957).

  26. Ambivalent cultural materials such as this, readily available to audiences, were subject to conflicting interpretations regardless of an author's intention. While David Quint argues that Curtius was the more popular source for Alexander's life during the Renaissance, Curtius records only the use of the sword, not the alternative version the archbishop refers to in this scene (“‘Alexander the Pig’: Shakespeare on History and Poetry,” Boundary 2 10 [1982]: 49-68).

  27. Canterbury does not specify the garter to be the ceremonial symbol of the Order of the Garter, worn below the left knee; however, given that the Order's founder, Edward III, is both Henry's great-grandfather and the source, through both conquest and maternal descent, of his claim to France, Canterbury may be attempting to associate policy and honor. Rather than resolving the ambiguity of the allusion to Alexander's career, the recognition of this possible association may heighten it by raising questions central both to this particular play and to the tetralogy, questions involving the legitimacy of the Salic law, on the one hand, and, on the other, the nature of honor and the legitimacy of Lancastrian claims to Edward III's throne.

  28. Marcus Tullius Cicero, On the Commonwealth, ed. George Holland Sabine and Stanley Barney Smith (Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1929), 207-8.

  29. Quoted in Cicero, 208, n. 47.

  30. Of this command, Phyllis Rackin comments that “the stridency of the threat exposes the anxiety that produced it, the keen sense of the absence of divine right that Henry attempts to fill by the exercise and mystification of earthly power” (Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles [Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1990], 79-80).

  31. On Chaucer's and Gower's interpretations of the Dionides encounter, see Cary, 95-98.

  32. Meron assigns the severity of the thief's punishment to “the specially sacrilegious nature of the offence—laying hands on the box where the Holy Sacrament was kept,” noting that it was “no less holy by one whit if it [were] consecrated by a French priest” (122).

  33. Henry V, ed. J. H. Walter (London: Methuen, 1954), 3.6.41n.

  34. See Meron, 144 and 150.

  35. In general the theologians emphasized Alexander's blasphemous pride in assuming titles suggesting divinity, but the moralists discredited or de-emphasized the accounts; see Cary, 110-16, 125-35, 152-54, and 181-89.

  36. Plutarch, The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes, trans. Thomas North (London, 1579), 723 and 737-38.

  37. Plutarch, 751.

  38. Anaxarchus's evil advice to Alexander forms a sober reprise of the Dionides moral concerning the criminal's and the monarch's ability to exceed the law.

  39. On the disguised-king motif, see Anne Barton, “The King Disguised: Shakespeare's Henry V and the Comical History” in The Triple Bond: Plays, Mainly Shakespearean, in Performance, Joseph G. Price, ed. (University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1975), 92-117; and Annabel Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 89-92.

  40. Henry's royal sleight-of-hand is apparent in stage productions. The cloak conceals his true identity only from the soldiers onstage; the audience is free to note the difference between a disguised king claiming “the King is but a man, as I am” and a disclosed prince confessing “I am but a man, as you are.”

  41. James I, The Political Works of James I, ed. Charles H. McIlwain (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1918), 62-63.

  42. James I, 63.

Susan Snyder (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5462

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 characteristic Shakespearean strategy, I want to consider two battles that don't happen: the Turkish attack against Cyprus in Othello and the invasion of Danish lands by Fortinbras and his Norwegian force in Hamlet. Both of these loom large in the early action of their respective plays. The upcoming wars are the focus for agitated discussion, diplomatic maneuver, and (especially) martial preparation. For a few scenes at least, we have every reason to believe that the Turks/Norwegians will attack and that the ensuing wars will be the main substance of the dramas we are watching. Yet early in act 2 of Hamlet, the ambassadors Voltemand and Cornelius report back to Claudius that Fortinbras has been diverted to Poland. By this time, in any case, we have heard the Ghost's tale of fratricide and know that Denmark's malaise has nothing to do with Norwegians. At a similar point in Othello, the Turkish peril and the expectations it arouses are even more cleanly cut off when a storm demolishes the enemy's fleet. Speculation, anxiety, and mobilization end abruptly with “News, lads! Our wars are done.”1 Why so much ado about these wars if they are to be “done” so quickly, in fact never to happen at all?

Of course these lines of action, even unfulfilled, have some secondary functions in their respective dramatic designs. Fortinbras's mission to recover the lands Old Hamlet took from his father introduces the repeated motif of the revenger-son in Hamlet. And the shrewd move by which Claudius forestalls this danger begins the buildup of the King into a suitably mighty opposite for the hero-prince. In a similar way, the formidable threat posed by the Turks affirms Othello's stature by showing how much the state depends on his generalship. It also occasions a significant move of the action from civilized Venice to the demonic green world of Cyprus. Even so, what is the structural point of these abortive wars? What does Shakespeare accomplish by raising expectations he is not going to fulfill?

Something is already deeply wrong in Denmark when Hamlet opens. We are immediately introduced to a jumpy, apprehensive watch and fragmentary reports of a supernatural presence. “This thing,” “this dreaded sight,” “this apparition,” as the watchers call it, is perhaps only “fantasy,”2 but in any case it is not yet described or named. Then the Ghost appears—fully armed and holding the truncheon that marks the military commander (1.2.200-204). The audience has not been prepared for anything beyond the fact of the Ghost: when it appears, its martial accoutrements thus have greater impact for being unexpected. Now “this thing” is identified with the dead King Hamlet, and specifically the King as leader in battle. This is what Horatio registers in saluting “that fair and warlike form / In which the majesty of buried Denmark / Did sometimes march” (1.1.45-47, emphasis added). Later remarks add to the military emphasis. Old Hamlet's Ghost moves with “martial stalk” (1.1.65), he frowns (1.1.61, 1.2.229-30).3 A generally bad omen, the King who walks abroad after death instead of lying in suitable repose, is thus apparently specified in its import, directing the mind to his role as defender of Denmark against foreign adversaries. Specificity pinpoints the adversary, too: the Ghost appears in the same armor he wore long ago in combat with “th'ambitious Norway.”

It is natural that the frightened onlookers should look immediately to Norway as the source of the current trouble. When the Ghost disappears, Horatio predicts from it “some strange eruption to our state,” and at once the talk turns to the warlike vigilance and preparation that are already present as signs of trouble, in addition to the armed specter. The strange eruption on the horizon is young Fortinbras's mission of revenge against Denmark, occasioned by that long-ago fight between Old Hamlet and “ambitious Norway,” Fortinbras's father. The elder Fortinbras was defeated and killed, and now his son wants to refight the battle. It all fits: the strict watch, the munitions-makers and shipwrights working overtime, and now this ghost in the likeness of the original combatant. Barnardo adds it up:

Well may it sort that this portentous figure
Comes armed through our watch so like the king
That was and is the question of these wars.(4)

Horatio the scholar seeks parallels in history, especially the unnatural events before Julius Caesar's fall. Viewers who were familiar with Roman history, perhaps through Shakespeare's own recent dramatization in Julius Caesar, might be subconsciously troubled by the parallel—it was, after all, his closest friends who destroyed Caesar, not a foreign force5—but the main emphasis is consistent, as Horatio points to similar, more recent harbingers of disaster in Denmark's own past. Frank Kermode observes, “So far as plot goes, this might be the opening scene of a play about a Caesar-like Hamlet now dead but still posthumously interested in empire.”6

In the next scene we leave the midnight watch on the battlements for a formal court gathering, but the signs seem to go on pointing the same way. The threat of Fortinbras and his lawless resolutes is the first business of the new king. Only after taking steps against that threat does Claudius turn to other concerns, the petitions of Laertes and Hamlet to leave the court and especially the embarrassment of Hamlet's prolonged grief. Claudius with characteristic wiliness speculates on what has prompted the belligerent boldness of young Fortinbras: perhaps contempt for the new king himself as not the equal of his mighty brother, or perhaps conjecture that a state in transition between rulers will be “disjoint and out of frame” (1.2.20). Since we suspect that both these propositions are true, however Claudius tries to dismiss them, the false signal continues, reinforced: beware the Norwegians, ready on the horizon to take advantage of internal disruptions in Denmark.

Claudius counters Hamlet's grief with platitudes, and, having given Laertes leave to travel to Paris, refuses his nephew-son's request to go back to Wittenberg. I have observed elsewhere that this play is full of young men coming and going on foreign expeditions. Only Hamlet is, until late in act 4, confined to his Danish “prison,”7 thus enacting physically the claustrophobic quality of the play's central action. When the false lead of the Norwegian invasion fizzles out after attracting such attention in the opening scenes, this claustrophobic inwardness is reinforced. The threat is not the visible foreign one but a hidden one at home, not even a serpent slithering from somewhere else into the secluded royal retreat. The enemy is not outside at all, but inside the kingdom, inside the family—“The serpent that did sting thy father's life / Now wears his crown” (1.5.39-40). And perhaps inside Hamlet's own self as well.

The Turks in Othello are similarly clear as outside enemies. Their intentions and strategies may occasionally be in doubt, but their status as alien adversaries is not. To understand their role, I would like to examine a general perspective on war and peace that colors several of Shakespeare's plays. Though he is no particular friend to bloodshed, at times he presents war as having certain advantages over peace. It offers clearcut action, more or less publicly sanctioned, against known enemies: something straightforward—that is, as opposed to the temptations, complications, and evasions characteristic of society's peace-time practices. In All's Well That Ends Well Bertram gladly goes off to war in Italy to escape from married life with Helen, a situation in which personal dislike strains against obligation to his patron the King. By comparison, doing battle in a foreign land looks easy and desirable. “Wars is no strife / To the dark house and the detested wife.” The dying Henry IV recommends to his son and successor a campaign abroad as a way out of intrigue and dissension at home. The “giddy minds” Henry fears have in the past turned all too readily against himself and each other, and “daily grew to quarrel and to bloodshed, / Wounding supposed peace.” In counseling Hal to occupy those unstable minds in foreign quarrels, Henry makes a different but relevant distinction: not war as opposed to peace, but overt war against a sharply defined Other as an alternative to the tragic muddles of internecine struggle. Henry's strategy is successful. Henry V shows us the new king leading an army away from England against an outside enemy—if not the absolute Other his father had dreamed of fighting, the Muslim infidel, still the notably foreign French, who go far beyond the variant versions of English that divide Henry's Irish, Scots, and Welsh contingents to speak another language entirely. (Or rather, they necessarily speak the same tongue as the English most of the time so that London audiences can understand them, but even apart from Princess Catherine's language lesson Shakespeare colors the defending army's discourse with enough incidental French to keep their differentness constantly before us.) And the “English,” after the treason of Cambridge, Scrope, and Grey is disposed of, are indeed more or less united against this obvious foe, their internal differences submerged in the common cause, in the manner of those heterogeneous U.S. bomber crews in World War II films.8

Several plays present war as a kind of prologue to the main action. Much Ado About Nothing opens just after a war has ended. Don Pedro and his officers are unsuspicious, ready to relax and play. During the war, Don John's hostility was clear when he “stood out” against his brother.9 Now, the defeated John dissembles malice under apparent accord—and becomes twice as dangerous in the intricate pastimes of peace: dances with masked partners, the merry wars of courtship. Destructive forces are present still, but concealed: in the bastard brother, and even in the unthinking assumptions of Pedro himself and his callow protégé Claudio. The troubles of Titus Andronicus also begin after open battle has ended. Titus goes by the rules. The principle of primogeniture rather than personal merit dictates his choice for emperor, the requirements of ritual lead him to sacrifice Tamora's son and thus set her against him, and an oversimple idea of honor bids him kill his own son. The straightforward, rigid code that served Titus well enough in the field fails miserably in the tangle of passion and ambition that he encounters at home. What Aufidius criticizes in Coriolanus marks Titus's limitations as well: “Not to be other than one thing, not moving / From th' casque to th' cushion, but commanding peace / Even with the same austerity and garb / As he controlled the war” (Coriolanus 4.7.42-45). Coriolanus himself can conquer a whole city singlehanded, but he finds civil life as unnegotiable a maze as Titus finds personal relationships. The corresponding prologue-battle in Macbeth is over almost before we hear of it. Seventy-five lines into the play, the bleeding captain and Ross have given their report and Duncan is rejoicing in total victory. Even before Macbeth makes his first entrance, their glowing accounts call attention to his sphere of achievement—and then cut it off. Macbeth is a highly effective warrior, but there are no more wars in prospect. Though he is not as unused to civil life as Coriolanus is, the shift to peace opens him to more complex imperatives of self-fulfillment, as it brings to Coriolanus a different, more perplexing duty. It is women who promote these new roles, Volumnia the mother and Lady Macbeth the wife, domestic counselors with their own devious agendas who replace the male companions of the straightforward combat. Different from each other as these plays are—the comedy, the early and late Roman plays, the tragedy—they all use the war-prologue to make us conscious of the transition from the loud clash of armies to more oblique and subtle encounters.

So does Othello, another play about a professional soldier. From this perspective the jubilant cheer that greets the perdition of the Turkish fleet, “Our wars are done,” is as ominous for the hero's future as any of Iago's sneers. The play has begun with concerns of peacetime like intrigues for professional advancement, courtship, and marriage. In the second scene, however, the war threat breaks into these preoccupations with disruptive force. The danger is at first unnamed, as in Hamlet: Cassio and the officers arrive with breathless tidings of “something from Cyprus,” “a business of some heat” in which the Duke has urgent need of his general. “The galleys / Have sent a dozen sequent messengers / This very night at one another's heels.” Othello is “hotly called for,” must come “haste-post-haste” (1.2.37-44). Great national events are clearly in the making. As the summons to the Venetian council interrupts Othello's conversation with Iago about his recent marriage, the dynamic of action suggests that the public emergency will displace this private matter. In the council scene that follows, there are almost fifty lines of agitated speculation about the numbers and intentions of the enemy, now identified as the Turks, punctuated by two more of those sequent messengers arriving with fresh news. Only after all this does Brabantio enter to plead his personal grievance against the Moor for marrying his daughter. But Brabantio's cause makes little headway amid pressing affairs of state. After hearing the defenses of Othello and Desdemona, the Duke turns quickly back to his overriding concern and orders the Moor at once to Cyprus.

Not only does the imperative of war seem to put parentheses around Othello's new marital relationship—he himself exits telling his bride, “We must obey the time” (1.3.300)—but even his long lyrical account of their courtship has served to remind us that Othello's proper scene is war. We have already learned that from the age of seven his home has been the tented field, his experience all “feats of broil and battle” (1.3.83-87). This is what Othello knows. There is a sense in which, when the Turkish fleet is suddenly blown to destruction early in act 2, Othello's occupation is already gone, even before Iago poisons his mind against Desdemona. The end of hostilities is the signal for revelry; and, as in Much Ado, revelry is a good cover for the insidious attack. The Otherness to be feared now shifts from the defeated Turks to the concealed enemy, Iago, who wears his honesty like a mask and is all the more dangerous for being the trusted battle-companion as well as the domestic counselor who acts, ostensibly, out of love.

(To Cassio) Good lieutenant, I think you think I love you. … I protest, in the sincerity of love and honest kindness.
(To Othello) My lord, you know I love you
.....I humbly do beseech you of your pardon
For too much loving you.(10)

The Turks were a convenient manifestation of the Other in Shakespeare's time. They were foreign. They zealously followed and promulgated an alien, inimical religion. Powerful in battle, they were a real and continuing threat at the gates of southern and eastern Europe. “Not-us” in race, nation, and religion, Turks were also traditionally imaged as the epitome of rampant, unchecked sexuality. Edgar as Poor Tom, claiming that he “in women out-paramoured the Turk” (Lear 3.4.85-86), invokes that stereotype, which perhaps was based on Europeans' knowledge that Muslim men were allowed four wives as well as additional concubines.11 When the Other in Othello is relocated to the familar and close-at-hand, it is Iago who manifests the Turk's malevolence and formidable power, and his foreignness as well: though Venetian and nominally Christian, Iago is alien to all human community. The dialogue slyly links him with the missing Turk. Challenged in banter with Desdemona for a wholesale slander of wives that anticipates the later, greater deception, he protests, “Nay, it is true, or else I am a Turk.” It is not true. Later when Othello surveys the drunken brawl that has interrupted his wedding night and caused Cassio's disgrace, he asks, “Are we turned Turks, and to ourselves do that / Which heaven hath forbid the Ottomites?”12 The answer, at least for Iago as sole architect of the recent disaster, is yes.

Iago is somewhat like Don John of Much Ado in his urge to sabotage whatever is attractive and admirable and in his closeness to the people he means to harm. If not trusted as much as Iago, John at any rate attracts no suspicion from Claudio, or even the brother he has betrayed once already, Don Pedro. Indeed, these two siblings are close in another sense, both meddlers in the affairs of others who back off from real human engagement. Pedro has more surface charm, but the bastard brother at his elbow reminds us that his drive to control has its dark underside.13 There is a shadow side to Othello as well, which Iago makes manifest. He could not have succeeded without the Moor's self-doubts, his sexual and social insecurities, and his defensive pride, all of which Iago helps bring into full articulation in order to play on them.

In the same shake of the kaleidoscope pattern brought about by the disappearance of the external enemy, the Turk's raging sexuality finds a new but different home: not in actuality with Iago and Othello but in fantasy, projected by Othello onto Desdemona. Such imaginations of female desire as out of control and insatiable are as old as stories of Eve, part of the more general male impulse to construct the woman as feared Other. Othello discovers the “curse of marriage” almost by reflex: “That we can call these delicate creatures ours / But not their appetites!” (3.3.272-74). Only after Desdemona is dead does he finally recognize the enemy in himself. In timing his own death blow to coincide with that earlier stroke in his story, by which he punished the Turk who did harm to Venice and its native citizen, Othello identifies with that “malignant” felon—malignant gathering in not only “rebellious,” but “contagious,” like a disease, poisonous.14

In both Hamlet and Othello, the relocation of the Other is a destabilizing shift from out there to right here: in someone or something close at hand, in one's own being. My uncle (O my prophetic soul!), my brother, my self. Inevitably this brings with it a displacement like that in Much Ado and Titus, from the prospect of marching out against a declared foe, with the battle lines clearly drawn, to the confusions inherent in the concealed enmity of one's own kind. This distinction comes through well in the second scene of Macbeth, where the enemies detailed in the complicated battle report are of both kinds. On the one hand are the foreigners, the Norwegians (again!)15 who come on like obvious adversaries, defiantly showing their banners (Macbeth 1.2.49). To these we might add the Hebridean soldiers whose label of “kerns and galloglasses” links them with the alien Irish.16 These, the official Other, present a hard fight but no particular confusion or ambiguity. But there are inside enemies too, the rebels Macdonwald and Cawdor. In these cases of Scot against Scot, as reported by the Captain and Ross, ambiguities abound. When the Captain describes Macbeth's confrontation with Macdonwald, the signifying pronouns “he” and “his” slide about so loosely as to leave us unsure for a moment just who was killing whom when Macbeth

Carved out his passage till he faced the slave,
Which ne'er shook hands nor bade farewell to him
Till he unseamed him from the nave to th' chops,
And fixed his head upon our battlements.


If it is hard at this point to sort out Macbeth grammatically from the enemy Macdonwald, the later account of Macbeth's fight with the traitorous Thane of Cawdor seems designed to muddle rebel and loyalist even more thoroughly: “Bellona's bridegroom … Confronted him with self-comparisons, / Point against point, rebellious arm 'gainst arm” (34-36). The Scots Macdonwald and Cawdor bring with them the tensions and confusions of the Other as “we,” beginning the more radical relocation in this play that will find in the hero himself the King's worst enemy and his own.

How does this redirection of our expectations work on us? If the road we thought we were traveling turns out to be a dead end, if the signs keep saying “this way … this way” only to pull us up short with “no, this way,” the result should be that we are now paying closer attention to the new road on which we find ourselves. What are its landmarks and what do they mean? How will this new journey both substitute for the aborted one and differ from it? Since the first frustration of expectation has shaken our passive, easy acquiescence in the playwright's guidance, we should become more alert, more actively focused on the new, subtler markers of our progress. Or, to change the metaphor, think of a sleight-of-hand artist, who keeps us focused on one hand while performing his magic with the other: when we see the result, we concentrate with special force on the hand newly identified as powerful. This spotlighting of the real tragic arena, by presenting an alternative and then leaving it in darkness, need be no less effective for operating below the level of consciousness.

I have used “should be” rather than “is” about this effect because I am trying to recover at least theoretically an experience that was far more available to Shakespeare's original audiences than to most of us. Playgoers at productions of Hamlet nowadays usually know that the Norwegians are not the real menace: they studied the play in high school, they saw the Olivier film or the Mel Gibson one, or they just absorbed the outlines of the dramatic action through cultural osmosis. Test this on your students. Even if they have never read the play, they probably know the Ghost's mission is not to alert the Danes to danger from Norway but to lay a burden of revenge on his son. Since the plots of Shakespeare's great tragedies are the common currency of our English-speaking culture, lay audiences as well as professional Shakespeareans experience the plays in ways that might have surprised Shakespeare. They have no hope that King Lear or Romeo and Juliet will end happily, they are confident that the Ghost of Old Hamlet is telling the truth about his murder and Claudius's guilt—and they are probably not taken in by the Norwegian decoy. The same osmosis deprives Othello of its novelty too. Even if the plot is somewhat less familiar than that of Hamlet, people know enough about what is coming to focus on Iago as the important destructive force rather than on the Turks.

But the Globe audiences had no such certainties. Unfamiliar with the stories of Othello and Hamlet, they could be made to watch the wrong hand first, to follow the ignis fatuus, and then in reassessment to be jolted into superawareness. In several of his sonnets, where Shakespeare uses a similar strategy to develop lyric material that is less familiar in our culture than the major plays, the experience is still available to modern readers. In Sonnet 129, for example, “Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame,” the whole body of the poem is given over to sexual nausea. The couplet starts out still on this tack, summarizing “all this,” but then turns aside with “yet” to find a radically new direction.

All this the world well knows, yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

The climactic point is not disgust but ecstasy, a “heaven” of pleasure so intense that it can effortlessly sweep away the weight of denunciation of the first twelve lines. The “in spite of” or “nevertheless” structure intensifies the affirmation. “Nevertheless” also drives home with extra force the point of Sonnet 130, “My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun.” One quatrain after another presents a clear-eyed, judicious view of the mistress as an ordinary woman, nothing special, not living up to the extravagant analogies of the sonnet convention. Again the couplet changes direction, continuing the satiric gaze at traditional love poetry with its shopworn conceits (“false compare”), but now celebrating the mistress as very special indeed. She is not only as “rare” as other sonnet heroines, but by implication even rarer than these, in that she has not been degraded by impossible analogies.

The three-quatrains-and-a-couplet format lends itself to this kind of italicizing reversal in the last two lines. Sonnet 66, however, “Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,” keeps its reversal for the very last line. The first thirteen lines enact deep disgust with a society that disdains virtue and skill while exalting worldly power and gaudy show. The basic structural unit here is not the quatrain but the single line, one following another in parallel grammatical form to create the cumulative effect of one injustice after another:

And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded honour shamefully misplaced,
And maiden honour rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,
And strength by limping sway disabled,
And art made tongue-tied by authority …

(lines 4-9)

The catalogue of wrongs ends with a climactic summing-up and conclusion in line 13: “Tired with all these, from these I would be gone.” Only the final line enters a telling reservation, turns the “would” from the simple wish we heard first to a conditional: “Save that to die I leave my love alone.” “My love” gains extraordinary power through placement. Just the simple two-word allusion counters the whole negative accumulation of abuses and affronts, and in effect cancels them—if not as realities, at least as grounds for despair.

World-weariness is the keynote of Sonnet 30 as well, “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought.” Since the poem is about griefs remembered and reexperienced, there is seemingly no end to its sorrow. Repetition and alliteration enact endless recapitulation: “old woes new wail … grieve at grievances foregone … woe to woe tell o'er … fore-bemoaned moan.” How can a poem so bound up with recurrence ever end? But the couplet breaks the circle, leads us quickly out of the maze. A simple appeal to the beloved friend allows poem and speaker to find their place of rest, appropriately, on the word “end”:

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored, and sorrows end.

Sonnet 84, part of the “Rival Poet” group, is especially unpredictable. The body of the sonnet offers apparently straightforward praise of the friend, who is so excellent that those who write of him need only copy what is there. Rhetorical embellishment is unnecessary, even detrimental (“making worse what nature made so clear”). But then without warning the couplet turns on the friend himself, accusing him of being “too fond on praise”: perhaps “too indiscriminate in commending tributes” to himself, but chiefly “too greedy for compliments of any kind.” Because of this “curse,” the friend encourages embellishment whether it is needed or not, and thus cheapens praises of himself.17 The battle lines between ally and enemy have apparently been clearly drawn in Sonnet 84. On the one hand are the bad poets with their too-elaborate meretricious praises, and on the other are the poet-speaker and his exemplary young friend. The couplet, however, transfers those meretricious impulses to the friend himself. As in Hamlet and Othello, the enemy is no longer out there but right inside the circle of intimacy. As an italicizing relocation of the Other, this sonnet returns us from this excursus to our main concern.

Though the changes of direction in the plays are less patterned than those appropriate to the highly formalized sonnet, they are just as deliberate. In fact, the plays themselves call attention to the strategy they employ. They make it a matter for comment and show us characters who make use of it for their own ends. In Othello, it is the Turks themselves who borrow Shakespeare's device of the false direction. First they seem to be making for Cyprus (1.3.8), but then according to a new message they are heading for Rhodes (14). The self-reflexive dimension is accentuated when Shakespeare has a Venetian senator analyze the Rhodes maneuver as sleight-of-hand: “'tis a pageant / To keep us in false gaze” (19-20). Iago, of course, takes over the trickery of the false gaze along with other aspects of the Turkish Other. In Hamlet, the hero has his own devious strategies to approach Claudius on the bias, but the one who articulates the basic theory of false leading to underline the truth is—perhaps unexpectedly—not Hamlet but Polonius. His elaborate instructions to Reynaldo on how to check up on Laertes' behavior in Paris (2.1) are themselves a kind of dramatic false lead, since we never see their result. More important, Polonius assumes that the true report he wants on his son cannot be got at by any direct question but must be evoked at one remove, by hypothesis and conjecture. True, Reynaldo is to focus on his real topic, Laertes, and not start by asking about some other young man. Still, he is ordered to be consciously deceptive in order to jolt the people he questions into a truth they would otherwise not have given up so readily.

                                                                                                                        See you now,
Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth;
And thus do we of wisdom and of reach
With windlasses and with assays of bias
By indirections find directions out.

Polonius's summary suggests his own skill in plotting, and in a different register Shakespeare's as well. Norwegians and Turks are bait; by such pageants that detain us in false gaze he refocuses that gaze with special intensity.


  1. Othello 2.1.20. Here and elsewhere in this essay the plays and poems are cited from William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

  2. 1.1.19, 23, 26, 21.

  3. Old Hamlet's frown is linked to a specific occasion, of an “angry parley,” but Harold Jenkins notes that the frown is generally appropriate for the warrior, citing Merchant 3.2.85 and Cymbeline 2.4.23: Hamlet, Arden ed. (London: Methuen, 1982), 169, 195.

  4. Additional Passages, A. 2-4. These lines, like the discussion of Julius Caesar immediately following, are in Q2 but not in F.

  5. Similarly, eruption, “violent outbreak,” suggests trouble within rather than without.

  6. Introduction to Hamlet, Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), 1138.

  7. 2.2.241-48; see Snyder, The Comic Matrix of Shakespeare's Tragedies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 115.

  8. All's Well 2.3.288-89; 2 Henry IV 4.3.323-24. Michael Neill considers the varieties of English in Henry V as on a continuum with the more foreign French, all ultimately playing out linguistically England's forcible colonization: “Broken English and Broken Irish: Nation, Language, and the Optic of Power in Shakespeare's Histories,” Shakespeare Quarterly 45 (1994): 18-22.

  9. Much Ado 1.3.20. Stood out means “mounted a rebellion,” but the phrase also functions in its modern sense of “was conspicuous.”

  10. 2.3.304, 320; 3.3.121, 216-17.

  11. Bernard Lewis, Islam and the West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 82-83.

  12. 2.1.117; 2.3.163-64.

  13. Jean E. Howard, in an excellent essay, shows how both brothers use “theatrical deceptions” that call on cultural stereotypes to manipulate others: “Renaissance Antitheatricality and the Politics of Gender and Rank in Much Ado About Nothing,” in Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, ed. Jean E. Howard and Marion O'Connor (New York and London: Methuen, 1987), 172-83. While her sociological argument emphasizes the contest between Don Pedro and Don John for control of an aristocratic male prerogative, the two brothers in their close parallelism can also be seen as different angles on a single problematic activity, two versions of the same thing.

  14. OED, s.v., “malignant,” a.1, 2, and 3.

  15. The Viking marauders of medieval history and legend are a far cry from the cheerful ski fans of the 1994 Winter Olympics, let alone the repressed good citizens chronicled by Garrison Keillor. In any case, Holinshed's account of the incursion used by Shakespeare in Macbeth assigns it to the Danes.

  16. Kenneth Muir, ed., Arden Macbeth (London: Methuen, 1953), note to 1.2.13.

  17. In certain sonnets reversals like these feel strained and unconvincing, as the speaker tries to accommodate the inequalities of devotion, his own great dependency and the friend's waywardness and shallowness. In Sonnet 34, for instance, “Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day,” the couplet cannot entirely blot out the effect of the preceding three quatrains of anguished question and reproach. The young man's “tears of pearl,” which are set up to “ransom all ill deeds,” seem merely decorative against the earlier blunt pain of “Though thou repent, yet have I still the loss.”

Theodor Meron (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13668

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 Shakespeare's plays, especially the Histories but also his classical and mythological plays. War provided Shakespeare with a dramatic vehicle through which his characters could highlight and praise such concepts as honour, courage and patriotism. In addition, it was the ideal setting for an articulation of ethical and humanitarian attitudes towards war. Shakespeare's treatment of war cannot be understood without taking into account both the perspective on war provided by the literature of chivalry and the immediate historical context of the period when he was writing, some two centuries after Agincourt.

As Maurice Keen has demonstrated, there was a strong pacifist tradition in the early Christian church. However, the Christian doctrine of just war, espoused as early as the fourth century by Saint Augustine (354-430), eroded this anti-war bent by emphasizing the corrective virtues of just war, punishment of sin and restoration of justice and peace.1 Thus, balanced against the pacifist tradition were a restrictive interpretation of pacifist verses in the New Testament and the Old Testament's image of a God of hosts, ordering war against the enemies of his people.2 The need to resist pagan enemies in northern and eastern Europe, as well as Muslims in southern Italy and Spain and elsewhere along the Mediterranean, supported the Church's militancy, along with, eventually, the desire to mobilize Christian warriors for crusades to liberate the holy places in Palestine.

Just war as a fight for justice and the re-establishment of peace and serenity (tranquillitas ordinis), as a campaign to avenge wrongs and to recover goods wrongly captured, and as a struggle for the defence of country and religion gained the Church's support.3 As a result, from its early condemnation of killing in war, the Church moved to promise remission of penance to Christian crusaders. Secular knighthood thus became a Christian vocation.4 Shakespeare's Henry IV articulates this image of the knight as a soldier of Christ:

KING Henry:
As far as to the sepulchre of Christ—
Whose soldier now, under whose blessèd cross
We are impressèd and engaged to fight—


To chase these pagans in those holy fields
Over whose acres walked those blessèd feet
Which fourteen hundred years ago were nailed,
For our advantage, on the bitter cross.

(1 Henry IV, I.i.21, 24-27)

By discouraging wars between Christians, albeit meekly, the Church and chivalry promoted the ideal of a united Christendom fighting non-Christians. Thus, Shakespeare's Salisbury, lamenting the belligerency between England and France, wishes the war would be carried

                              unto a pagan shore,
Where these two Christian armies might combine
The blood of malice in a vein of league,
And not to spend it so unneighbourly.

(King John, V.ii.36-39)

The Church then introduced the regulation of war through measures such as the Peace and Truce of God, which listed the categories of persons protected from acts of war. Independently from the Church, secular chivalry also developed rules for regulating the practice of war and establishing parameters for permissible acts.5 In this way, the secular code of chivalry thus supplemented canonistic doctine by providing for the protection of broader categories of persons and the granting of mercy and quarter to the vanquished on the battlefield. These developments qualified the Church's toleration of war by introducing the notion that the justness of a war depended not only on the existence of a just cause, but also on the conduct of the war as evidence of conscience and motivation. Thus, carnage, pillage, excessive cruelty and rape would disprove a party's claims of just war; practices including mercy, quarter and pious conduct towards the dead and wounded would strengthen such claims.6

War was an endemic condition in the Middle Ages, wreaking havoc on the common people, particularly the peasants, who were the victims of ravaging mercenaries, free companies, robbers and even some knights for whom, notwithstanding the rules of chivalry, plunder of the countryside was a way of life. In an era of great economic poverty and hardship, participation in war offered serious material incentives. Adventurers and mercenaries fought for profit from pillage and ransom.

For the warring class, the knights, war was both noble and ennobling, despite its hardships and horrors. The support of the Church, the promise of salvation for knightly deeds in defence of the Church, the soothing doctrine of chivalry with its emphasis on the idea of service to the community and the duty to defend the weak and to right any wrongs combined with the quest for recognition, fame and honour to produce a society that both promoted war and depended on its continuation for its economic well-being and social status. Maurice Keen speaks of the social mystique attaching to arms, the ceremonial knightings before battles, the ennoblement of common men who demonstrated particular courage, and the attraction of “the tinsel glint of chivalry.”7 For those who aspired to enhance their social status through elevation to knighthood, fighting wars provided the primary vehicle for the achievement of their goal.

Profit was also a motive for knights and nobility to go to war. Princes had the additional lure of the prospects of recovering lost territories, acquiring additional ones, satisfying just claims and gaining glory. No less, resort to foreign wars frequently served to divert attention from internal troubles.

This glamorization of war, this glorification of knightly virtue, impressive feats of arms and honour found ample expression in poetry and literature. Jean de Bueil's biographical novel, Le Jouvencel (ca. 1465), rhapsodizes the comradeship, courage and honour of war:

It is a joyous thing, is war. … You love your comrade so in war. When you see that your quarrel is just and your blood is fighting well, tears come to your eyes. A great sweet feeling of loyalty and of pity fills your heart on seeing your friend so valiantly exposing his body to execute and accomplish the command of our creator. And then you prepare to go and die or live with him, and for love not to abandon him. And out of that, there arises such a delectation, that he who has not tasted it is not fit to say what a delight it is.8

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that medieval authors of manuals of chivalry, and such chroniclers of chivalry as the French Jean Froissart, writing for the chivalric class, articulated and rationalized a rather permissive doctrine regulating recourse to war. In many respects, they were apologists for war, masking or minimizing war's horrors, brutality, bloodiness, greed and economic motivations, the quest for lands and titles, and the hypocrisy behind the perceived glamour of chivalric sword. Justifying war served the interests of the knightly class and the nobility for whom war was both a way of life and the raison d'être, an opportunity to gain glory on the battlefield and to acquire wealth through pillage and ransom.

A primary example of this approach to war is Giovanni da Legnano's famous treatise written in the second part of the fourteenth century, Tractatus de bello, de represaliis et de duello.9 Relying heavily on the Old Testament and Saint Augustine, Giovanni da Legnano argued that wars came from divine law, with “positive allowance” from God.10 According to Giovanni, since the “end of war … is the peace and tranquillity of the world [, war] proceeded originally and positively from God.”11 This reasoning therefore justified both a declaration of lawful war and the war itself because they would lead to such peace and tranquillity. In addition, the authority to punish evil persons stemmed from God, and lawful war sought to punish evil and rebellious persons and to bring the vanquished to piety and justice. In this way, God not only permitted, but actually ordered Joshua to fight his enemies. Implicit in this premise is that the sinners, whom the war is designed to punish, will be vanquished. For Giovanni, these norms justifying and allowing war belonged not only to divine law, but also to natural law, civil law and canon law. Finally, the regulatory power of the law of nations also provided a source for such principles.12 The just war doctrine allowed the extension of the knight's sword-arm of justice to relationship between peoples.13

In his authoritative treatise The Tree of Battles (ca. 1387), Honoré Bouvet wrote that a prince not only had a right to resort to war to defend subjects from pillage and murder, but a duty as well.14 He regarded war as “not an evil thing, but [as] good and virtuous,” because it sought to “set wrong right.”15 The aim of war was thus to “to wrest peace, tranquility and reasonableness, from him who refuses to acknowledge his wrongdoing.”16 Like Giovanni, Bouvet argued that war derived from divine law and from God because, as in the case of the biblical Joshua, God not only permitted war, but “ordained it.”17 It was also authorized by the law of nations, including canon law and civil law. Shakespeare's King John thus claims to be “God's wrathful agent” (King John, II. i. 87) in his war with France.

However, Bouvet could not remain entirely oblivious to concerns about the innocent victims of war. He maintained, nevertheless, that the evil things that happen in war are caused not by war, but by abuse, as in the case of a soldier raping a woman or setting fire to a church: “if in war many evil things are done, they never come from the nature of war, but from false usage.”18 The unstated premise was thus that such abuses were, in principle, avoidable.

Admitting that the innocent suffer with the guilty, Honoré Bouvet claimed that war should therefore be compared to a medicine that, while curing the disease, has some adverse effects as well. A gardener who pulls weeds inevitably plucks some good plants as well; for the fault of one man, many can be destroyed in war.

In her treatise The Book of Fayttes of Armes and of Chyvalrye (ca. 1408-09), Christine de Pisan followed suit: “As touchyng the harmes & euyllis that ben doon aboue the right & droyt of warre … that cometh nothyng of the right of warre but by euylnes of the peple …”19 Thus, as Maurice Keen suggests, any “incidental … miscarriages of justice could be written off against the ultimate achievement of the divine purpose”20 of war.

These chivalric authors resonate with Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), who, citing Saint Augustine, regards just war as a means of meting out deserved punishment, making amends, restoring what has been seized unjustly, and achieving peace. Admitting that those who resort to arms sinfully are not necessarily defeated, Aquinas falls back on the promise of damnation: “[T]hey will always ‘die by the sword’ since they will be punished eternally for their sinful use of it.”21

The Archbishop of York, a leader of the rebellion in 2 Henry IV, voices the chivalric theme that war serves as a medicine or blood-letting, a corrective designed to cure a disease, that is, to establish a true peace:

                                        [W]e are all diseased,
And with our surfeiting and wanton hours
Have brought ourselves into a burning fever,
And we must bleed for it.
.....I take not on me here as a physician,
Nor do I as an enemy to peace
Troop in the throngs of military men;
But rather show a while like fearful war
To diet rank minds, sick of happiness,
And purge th' obstructions which begin to stop
Our very veins of life.

(2 Henry IV, IV.i.54-66)

The Archbishop's aim is

Not to break peace, or any branch of it,
But to establish here a peace indeed,
Concurring both in name and quality.

(2 Henry IV, IV.i.85-87)

The passage shows Shakespeare's familiarity with concepts of chivalry, even though York is using one of them to justify an act of rebellion, which in itself runs against chivalry.

But although Shakespeare's York (2 Henry VI) articulates the war-as-medicine idea, a few years later, in Henry V, Shakespeare parts company from the chivalric writers, and aligns himself with the pacifist scepticism about war and its motivations articulated by the humanistic tradition of Desiderius Erasmus (ca. 1466-1536) and Thomas More (1477-1535). Erasmus argued that leaders should consider the costs of a war in advance. Full accounting would show that everyone suffers ruin, physical wretchedness and abuse, the choice between cruel slaughter and being slaughtered, and that war consists of manslaughter and robbery. Humanist social criticism emphasized that offensive war was almost always unjust and that war between Christians was inherently unjust. It urged resort to alternatives to war, including exhaustion of other means and arbitration.22

In Henry V, the loss of innocent lives in war is not incidental; rather, it is inherent in the nature of war that it is bloody and evil. Moreover, this inevitability of the shedding of innocent blood is unrelated to the justness of war, but follows from the reality of war, whether it is just or unjust. Henry V's admonition to Canterbury to give him fair and objective advice regarding the justness of his war against France and, especially, whether the Salic law disqualifying women and the female line from succession to the Crown of France bars his claim, is a useful example:

For God doth know how many now in health
Shall drop their blood in approbation
.....For never two such kingdoms did contend
Without much fall of blood, whose guiltless drops
Are every one a woe, a sore complaint
'Gainst him whose wrongs gives edge unto the swords
That makes such waste in brief mortality.

(Henry V, I.ii.18-28) (emphasis added)

Viewed from another perspective, Henry is using the Archbishop to absolve himself from the bloodshed he knows will occur in the war he fully intends to wage, while the Archbishop is using Henry to forestall measures against the church. Motivations for and justifications of war are made even more suspect in Troilus and Cressida, where war is not a corrective to the ills of peace, but is simply a disease, an instrument of senseless, purposeless butchery, and where the justness of the war is directly challenged.

Henry VI, understood that even in a rebellion, when the king's cause is presumptively just, war must result in casualties and cause the innocent to suffer. Consequently, to avoid the loss of innocent lives, he opts for negotiations with the rebel Jack Cade:

I'll send some holy bishop to entreat,
For God forbid so many simple souls
Should perish by the sword. And I myself,
Rather than bloody war shall cut them short,
Will parley with Jack Cade their general.

(2 Henry VI, IV.iv.8-12)

If Shakespeare's characters articulate a message which is essentially anti-war, this can best be understood in the context of the post-chivalric Elizabethan era. Shakespeare was fully aware of the decline of chivalry in his lifetime. If references to war in the canon as an institution are frequently negative, if allusions to the normative and positive values of chivalry, such as the duty to give quarter, mercy, honour and humane treatment of prisoners and women, are so idealized, perhaps Shakespeare wanted to discourage war that, without the veneer of chivalric rules, appeared to be entirely barbaric. I shall return to Shakespeare's pacifism in the conclusions of this chapter.

Even with such rules, however, loss of life and tremendous suffering are inherent in war. Shakespeare's characters challenge war through a combination of legal and literary means. His protagonists insist on the exhaustion of diplomatic and peaceful remedies. In emphasizing this requirement, Shakespeare's Henry V follows the chroniclers and thus reflects an actual medieval practice. Shakespeare's characters articulate the requirement of a just cause for war and show the self-serving, hypocritical and opportunistic arguments that often drive “just war” justifications. They deride the claim that war is necessary for the sake of honour or to save face. They bring into relief the unmitigated horrors of war. Finally, they demonstrate the inescapable futility of war.


The just cause requirement first obligated a prince to ascertain honestly whether his cause was just. The absence of a just cause should ab initio end any thoughts of recourse to war. However, the determination whether a cause was just or not was complex, so that a prince would have great difficulty assessing the legal aspects of, for example, a complicated dynastic dispute. Obviously, princes were not thoroughly schooled in the law of nations and needed expert advice. Franciscus de Vitoria wrote that since “a king is not by himself capable of examining … the causes of a war,” he might make a mistake that would bring “ruin to multitudes.”23 The prince therefore had a duty to consult “the good and wise and those who speak with freedom and without anger or bitterness or greed” about the justice and causes of the war.24

Shakespeare's Henry V pays due heed to this principle, deferring to the moral, religious and even legal and historical authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the senior English ecclesiastic, for assurance that the English cause is just. At the same time, Shakespeare—following Holinshed—actually presents the Archbishop's arguments as self-serving, cynical and opportunistic.

When in 1369 Charles V of France reopened hostilities against Edward III of England, he did so only after consultations with French and foreign experts on canon and civil laws confirmed the justness of his cause.25 Furthermore, medieval princes understood the importance of convincing public opinion of the legitimacy of their wars. “[C]onstant attention was paid, if not to the ideology, then at least to the phraseology of justum bellum.26 Therefore, Henry V not only consulted legal and spiritual advisors, but devoted considerable attention to preparing and disseminating legal briefs for his war against Charles VI.27

Medieval and Renaissance writers on chivalry and the law of nations emphasized the importance of obtaining independent and objective advice on the justness of war. Christine de Pisan urged that such advisers should be unbiased and impartial28 and Vitoria stressed the advisers' duty to tell the prince honestly whether his cause was just.29 However, whether it was realistic to expect counselors to give the all-powerful leader advice that would displease him was another question entirely. In his Utopia, More discussed the dilemma of the humanist who is solicited by his prince to become a court adviser. He is tempted to enter the prince's service, explaining his action by a higher duty to the common cause. But More's imaginary Raphael Hythlodaeus voices utter pessimism concerning the prospect that a court expert will be able to maintain his independence. Interested in status and promotion, an adviser is bound to tell the ruler what he wants to hear. Tampering with the truth is the reality of service to the prince.30

Shakespeare addresses this issue primarily in the context of the role and the responsibility of courtiers, offering little to reassure his audience.31 Most medieval courtiers were wary of offending or embarrassing the king, who, anointed by God, must not be contradicted or challenged. However, Shakespeare's York pleads with Richard II not to confiscate Hereford's rights, which would not only violate the law on which the legitimacy of Richard's title depends, but would also bring untold dangers to Richard:

Take Hereford's rights away, and take from Time
His charters and his customary rights:
Let not tomorrow then ensue today;
Be not thyself, for how art thou a king
But by fair sequence and succession?
Now afore God—God forbid I say true!—
If you do wrongfully seize Hereford's rights,
Call in the letters patents that he hath
By his attorneys general to sue
His livery, and deny his offered homage,
You pluck a thousand dangers on your head. …

(Richard II, II.i.196-206)

This unsolicited advice proves useless as Richard brazenly states his disregard:

Think what you will, we seize into our hands
His plate, his goods, his money, and his lands.

(Richard II, II.i.210-11)

Similarly, when the Bishop of Carlisle warns the future Henry IV against usurpation, predicting that tumultous wars will result from the terrible wrong, indeed treason, of subjects judging King Richard II, especially in absentia (Richard II, IV.i.105-40), he is arrested for his efforts on charges of capital treason (Richard II, IV.i.141-42). In another example, Buckingham's vaccilation about assisting Richard III in the murder of the two princes, the sons of Edward IV, causes Richard III to lose confidence in him and threaten his life (Richard III, IV.ii). Still another king, Henry VIII, rebukes his council for taking an independent position against Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury (Henry VIII, V.ii). Finally, in King John, Hubert does not even try to dissuade King John from his criminal designs against Arthur. John later blames Hubert, hypocritically, for neglecting the courtier's duty to give honest advice and being guided solely by his desire to please his king (King John, IV.ii.204-70).

The message that emerges from each of these episodes is one that certainly would not encourage a royal adviser to counsel his prince against starting a war he is already inclined to fight. Nonetheless, the medieval system of government recognized the need for both internal and external procedures before the leader could resort to war. Christine de Pisan wrote that a prince could only take up arms if he had consulted with “Parliament,” as anglicized in William Caxton's translation, and obtained its consent.32 As early as the fourteenth century, the principle of prior consultation with the lords and the commons about a war was recognized in England and steadily expanded thereafter.33

Two episodes in Shakespeare directly address this issue of internal consultations about the justification for recourse to or continuation of war. The first episode, the exchange between Henry V and the Archbishop of Canterbury, focuses on ensuring recourse to a just war. Aware of the inevitable loss of blood in a major war, Henry demands an honest opinion from his adviser (Henry V, I.ii.9-20). Canterbury's response is categorical, stating that Henry's cause is unquestionably just (Henry V, I.ii.33-95). Not satisifed, Henry insists, asking, “May I with right and conscience make this claim?” and Canterbury gives the most solemn guarantee an ecclesiastic can give, invoking “the sin upon my head” (Henry V, I.ii.96-97). Canterbury concludes by alluding to the symbols of war, “blood and sword and fire” (Henry V, I.ii.131), that will serve to win Henry's right. Henry also consults with and receives enthusiastic support for the war from secular lords, such as Exeter and Westmorland, the latter referring also to the element of power—“[Y]our grace has cause; and means and might”(Henry V, I.ii.125). Compare York's arguments in 2 Henry IV, I.iii.1.

The debate is over, the procedures have been scrupulously followed with perfect results, and Henry V is satisfied. But does Shakespeare satisfy his audience fully? We already know that Henry IV's lesson to his son was “to busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels, that action hence borne out / May waste the memory of the former days,” (2 Henry IV, IV.iii.342-44), that is, so that the father's usurpation of Richard II's Crown would be forgotten. In contrast to Paul Jorgensen, I believe that this statement was intended to stigmatize the king's motivation.34 Furthermore, if this invocation of realpolitik were not enough to cast doubt on the proceedings, Shakespeare clearly taints Canterbury's advice with an allusion to his ulterior motives, which he cynically reveals to the Bishop of Ely. The Archbishop recognizes that the Church's financial support for the war, combined with the persuasive articulation of a just cause for the war, could save the Church from being deprived of a substantial part of its possessions (Henry V, I. i. 70-73, 76-90).

In a way, both Canterbury and Henry use each other. Canterbury offers financial incentives and somewhat strained legal interpretations for a war Henry actually seeks—in order to fight a bill that would strip the church from a considerable portion of its temporal possessions. Henry uses the Archbishop to absolve himself of responsibility for the bloodshed he knows will occur. The fact that both Canterbury and Henry have their own agendas introduces a certain doubt in the procedures designed to validate recourse to war. Perhaps these texts indicate that legal authority for recourse to war was politically necessary, though ethically it was less important in the politics of war.

The second episode, from Troilus and Cressida, concerns discussions in the Trojan council after the Achaian peace proposal premised on the return of Helen and waiver of war reparations. Hector supports the proposal and takes an anti-war stand, perhaps encouraged by King Priam's apparent hesitations. Shakespeare here offers a remarkable discussion of the requirement that the war have a just cause. Hector, a Trojan, asserts that the Trojans are fighting an unjust war, insisting that Helen “is not worth what she doth cost the holding” (Troilus and Cressida, II.ii.50-51) and that she does not belong to the Trojans (Troilus and Cressida, II.ii.21). Therefore, the moral laws of nature and of nations require that Helen be returned (Troilus and Cressida, II.ii.172-87). No one challenges Hector's view that the war is not just. Nonetheless, other considerations trump, and despite strong reservations, Hector responds to his comrades' appeals to honour and solidarity and joins the advocates of war.

In each of these two episodes, Shakespeare demonstrates the vulnerability of the normative principle of just war. He first sets out the principle, even offering justifications for adherence to the rule. However, he then describes the subordination of the norm to more practical, but less moral, concerns, ultimately producing recourse to war without a clearly and honestly articulated just cause.


In Shakespeare, as in the legal doctrine of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, even the existence of a just cause would not warrant recourse to war unless peaceful remedies were exhausted through negotiations, defiances and ultimatums. In the Middle Ages, the requirement that a war be publicly declared was commonly met by issuing letters of defiance, which served much the same function as declarations of war, although different in form.35 Pisan warned against resort to war before a prince had offered his adversary a chance to remedy the wrongs which he allegedly committed.36 Francisco Suárez argued that in order to wage a legitimate war, one had to be incapable of remedying the wrong suffered in any other way; since killing was morally wrong, the king must truly have no choice.37 It is thus essential not only that the cause be just and sufficient, but that the grave injustice could not be otherwise resolved.38 Exhaustion of peaceful remedies was therefore both a moral-religious imperative and a legal requirement. In addition, it served important public relations and propaganda considerations.

In the Renaissance period, the law of nations required that an ultimatum be issued and war declared. Ideally, the claim should be stated, its basis in the law of nations or the law of nature invoked, and the consequences of non-compliance—recourse to war—articulated. When Shakespeare's King John rejects King Philip's claims on behalf of Arthur, the French Ambassador Châtillon warns that this refusal will trigger a “fierce and bloody war, / To enforce these rights so forcibly withheld” (King John, I.i.17-18). Upon John's acceptance of the French challenge, “[H]ere have we war for war, and blood for blood, / Controlment for controlment: so answer France,” the Ambassador issues a formal defiance (a declaration of war with its statement of claim and ultimatum): “Then take my king's defiance from my mouth” (King John, I.i.19-21).39

Although King Philip and his ally, the Duke of Austria, are anxious to start hostilities to enforce Arthur's rights over Angers, failure to await Châtillon's return would violate the principle of exhaustion of peaceful remedies and incur heavy spiritual responsibility. Despite her role as the driving force for war, Arthur's mother, Constance, therefore insists on the cardinal importance of exhaustion of remedies:

Stay for an answer to your embassy,
Lest unadvised you stain your swords with blood.
My lord Châtillon may from England bring
That right in peace which here we urge in war,
And then we shall repent each drop of blood
That hot rash haste so indirectly shed.

(King John, II.i.44-49)

The historical Henry V claimed to hold France in full sovereignty through inheritance. He engaged in long and substantive negotiations with France to this end, but it is difficult to believe that he did so in good faith. These negotiations were both preceded and accompanied by legal propaganda, designed to demonstrate both the French wrongs and Henry's reasons for raising his standards. In Shakespeare, Henry V's declaration of war, delivered at the court of Charles VI through Exeter's embassy, follows both Hall's chronicle40 and the classical requirements of the law of nations. It also includes an ultimatum, threat of “Bloody Constraint” (Henry V, II.iv.97) and a catalogue of some of the horrors of war the French will encounter if they resist (Henry V, II.iv.76-110).

Going beyond the legal doctrine of his time, Shakespeare suggests that resort to a peaceful settlement of disputes is appropriate even in civil wars. Bolingbroke (through Northumberland) thus offers Richard II an honourable peaceful resolution:

Upon his knees doth kiss King Richard's hand,
And sends allegiance and true faith of heart
To his most royal person, hither come
Even at his feet to lay my arms and power,
Provided that my banishment repealed
And lands restored again be freely granted.
If not, I'll use the advantage of my power,
And lay the summer's dust with showers of blood
Rained from the wounds of slaughtered Englishmen[.]

(Richard II, III.iii.34-43)


The theme of just war dominates the literature of chivalry and the law of nations of both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. This literature identifies causes justifying resort to war, such as remedying a grave offence or recapturing lands wrongfully deprived. A just cause for resorting to war was essential for both secular-legal and spiritual-moral reasons. Secular considerations included the validity of the title that a prince and his troops would acquire over the spoils of war, their enjoyment of combatant privileges, their protection by the laws of war and their entitlement to war reparations. In a just war, the unjust belligerent had the duty “not only to make restitution [of whatever it seized], but also to make good the expenses of the war to the other side, and also all damages.”41 In Chapter 4, I will discuss Shakespeare's references to war damages.

Establishing the validity of his claim was therefore vital to a prince's ability to raise troops and sustain their morale. Vitoria wrote that “[i]f a subject is convinced of the injustice of a war, he ought not to serve in it, even on the command of his prince.”42 Although a victorious prince faced few difficulties in maintaining that his war was just as a matter of realpolitik, this requirement could have presented a real difficulty for a knight whose right to ransom or to the spoils of war was contested before a court of chivalry, which would apply the international jus armorum. In the case of an unjust war, the other side could demand reparations. It was therefore important to have not only a just cause, but one that was seen to be just, and one that the knights needed to fight the war would accept as just. Following the appropriate protocol for trying to avoid war was also vital to the claim of a just war. Thus, although Exeter's embassy to Charles VI (Henry V, II.iv) and Châtillon's embassy to King John (King John, I.i) proved useless, the requirement of the exhaustion of local remedies was part of the just war doctrine and could, where successful, have some war-reducing effects. If in fact recruiting for an unjust war was more difficult, the perception that a cause was unjust might have had a deterrent effect on the prospective aggressor.

In Henry V, Shakespeare's most patriotic and nationalistic play, the justness of the English cause is presented as accepted wisdom, a seemingly simplistic, almost unquestioning orthodoxy. Katharine Eisaman Maus emphasized that Shakespeare's patriotic play served the cause of Essex's mobilization for the campaign against Ireland. But even in this play, the war excitement is balanced by the Chorus's allusion to the loss of France during the infancy of Henry VI, and thus to the ultimate futility of this bloody war (Henry V, Epilogue 10),43 and by the opportunistic character of the Archbishop's advice. In other plays, and even in Henry V, Shakespeare points to a number of difficulties and doubts, ultimately leaving the reader unlikely to accept war as a desirable or even acceptable solution. With the exception of the right to war reparations, where he overlaps legal commentators, Shakespeare often emphasizes spiritual accountability rather than secular considerations.

Two plays in particular, Henry V and Troilus and Cressida, bring the right to reparations into relief. With considerable sophistication, despite its patriotic one-sidedness, Henry V depicts a demand for war reparations by the party that is not supposed to have a just cause but expects to win nonetheless.

Bid him therefore consider of his ransom, which must proportion the losses we have borne, the subjects we have lost, the disgrace we have digested—which in weight to re-answer, his pettiness would bow under. For our losses, his exchequer is too poor; for th' effusion of our blood, the muster of his kingdom too faint a number; and for our disgrace, his own person kneeling at our feet but a weak and worthless satisfaction.

(Henry V,

Shakespeare seems to suggest, at the very least, that France may also have had a just cause. However, he shows that the party that appears to be stronger will thus present more far-reaching claims. In Troilus and Cressida, the Greeks, as the aggrieved party, would be willing to waive their legitimate right to war reparations if the Trojans would return Helen (Troilus and Cressida, II.ii.1-7).

Shakespeare's work suggests that compliance with the just war requirement involves important incentives. On the religious and spiritual plane, it protects the king from sin and damnation for recourse to an unjust war that causes the loss of innocent lives (Henry V, IV.iii). Shakespeare's plays contain many references to this essentially religious concept. Moreover, there are positive incentives, such as enhancing the prospect of victory in war, that supplement the promised immunity from eternal damnation. Shakespeare's heroes invoke this concept because they believe in the justness of their cause, and it soon becomes every leader's self-serving, pro se argument.

Shakespeare's Henry IV proclaims, in dispatching his officers to take command of the troops, “God befriend us as our cause is just” (1 Henry IV, V.i.120). After eliminating the Southampton conspiracy, Henry V encourages his lords:

“Now lords for France, the enterprise whereof
Shall be to you, as us, like glorious.
We doubt not of a fair and lucky war.”

(Henry V, II.ii.179-81)

Being just (“fair”), Henry's war must necessarily be victorious (“lucky”). In a similar vein, the Duke of Austria expresses confidence in the outcome of the war in King John: “The peace of heaven is theirs that lift their swords / In such a just and charitable war” (King John, II.i.35-36). Invoking the divine support for his cause, Richard II assumes that heaven supports the lawful king:

“God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel. Then if angels fight,
Weak men must fall; for heaven still guards the right.”

(Richard II, III.ii.56-58)

Finally, Henry of Richmond's oration to his troops before the decisive battle against Richard III is explicit about the link between a just cause and support from God:

                                        Yet remember this:
God and our good cause fight upon our side.
The prayers of holy saints and wrongèd souls,
Like high-reared bulwarks, stand before our forces.
Richard except, those whom we fight against
Had rather have us win than him they follow.
For what is he they follow? Truly, friends,
A bloody tyrant and a homicide;
.....One that hath ever been God's enemy.
Then if you fight against God's enemy,
God will, in justice, ward you as his soldiers.

(Richard III, V.v.193-200, 206-08)44

Richard III's “might is right” oration to his troops before the same battle provides an interesting contrast.

Go, gentlemen, each man unto his charge.
Let not our babbling dreams affright our souls.
Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devised at first to keep the strong in awe.
Our strong arms be our conscience; swords, our law.
March on, join bravely! Let us to 't, pell mell—
If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell.

(Richard III,

Whether Shakespeare actually believed that fighting a just war increased the probability of victory is unclear. He did know that each party would claim to have God and justice on its side and that some of those who invoke God and justice would lose, like Richard II.

This idea “that justice was infallibly on the side of the victor,”45 that the just will triumph, was part of the myth of chivalry on which Shakespeare probably drew. Bouvet, for example, wrote that because just war was designed to purge the earth from sin and sinners, those who die fighting in such a war “will be saved in Paradise.”46 Notwithstanding this myth, invoking the increased prospect of victory for the just also served the moral purpose of discouraging unjust or aggressive wars.

However, although just war doctrine had an important proscriptive function, so that a war could not, or at least should not, have been resorted to without at least a colourable claim of justness, it proved largely useless as an effective vehicle for the discouragement of wars. A victorious prince faced few difficulties in maintaining that his cause was just, regardless of how hypocritical and self-serving the claim. In the absence of any system of independent arbitration or fact-finding, and because many causes justified resort to war in medieval and Renaissance legal doctrines with no clearly established hierarchy among them, the requirement of a just cause did not constitute a significant restraint on waging war. As a result, the distinction between just and unjust wars was often merely sophistry.

Under medieval legal theory, which was fairly uniform until the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, only one party could have a just cause, as Balthazar Ayala, a contemporary of Shakespeare, maintained. Since the Romans would never begin a war except with just cause, he argued, their enemies could not have a just cause, because “the same cause of war cannot be just both for this side and that.”47 Although in theory, the justness of war depended on both a just cause and a declaration of war by a sovereign authority, in practice just war and public war—one declared by the sovereign authority—began to mean the same thing.48 Since both belligerents could claim, as they usually did, that their war was just, bellum nostrum justum, the whole moral foundation of the just war doctrine lost its credibility, as reflected in Abraham Lincoln's statement: “[I]n great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong.49 Lincoln, however, does not quite capture the Renaissance legal perception that in practice a war could be just for both sides.

Unlike Lincoln, Alberico Gentili, a contemporary of Shakespeare, could conceive of just cause on both sides. He starts from Saint Augustine's proposition that an adversary's injustice makes a war just, and, therefore, the injustice of one party furnishes the other party with a just cause, according to which it could wage just wars.50 However, he promptly dissents, stating, “[B]ut if it is doubtful on which side justice is, and if each side aims at justice, neither can be called unjust.”51 Gentili demonstrated the complexity of just war claims, which, in practice, were not reducible to the assertion that one side must be in the wrong. He envisaged situations in which both sides might properly resort to war, and the war might, in effect, be treated as just on both sides. Since the whole structure of the medieval doctrine allowing war rested on the artificial claim that only one party could be just, questioning that premise by suggesting that the other party could also be just, could, but probably did not, serve to discourage war. Gentili notes that those who have a better cause are, in fact, frequently defeated.52

Shakespeare was probably not aware of these legal niceties, since there is no evidence that he knew the works of various contemporary writers on the law of nations. He was quite familiar, nonetheless, with Hall and Holinshed, whose chronicles often reflected legal discussion and analysis. As a result, he well understood the cynical and self-serving invocation of the just war excuse for the recourse to war. Implying that he doubted the value and vitality of just war doctrine, his plays reveal the emptiness of these invocations, point to the possibility that both parties may have “just war” pretensions, and suggest that wars were launched for less than acceptable reasons. By emphasizing these self-serving invocations of just cause and suggesting that both parties could be just or both unjust, Shakespeare's plays discredit the theories justifying recourse to war.

Troilus frames the issue perfectly, albeit in a different context: “O virtuous fight, / When right with right wars who shall be most right” (Troilus and Cressida, III.ii. 167-68). As another example of conflicting claims of just cause in a civil war, Warwick's exchange with Prince Edward is notable. The former, a supporter of York, claims that “York in justice puts his armour on,” causing the latter, the future King Edward, to retort, sarcastically, “If that be right which Warwick says is right, / There is no wrong, but everything is right” (3 Henry VI, II.ii.130-32).

Shakespeare is also aware of the distinction between international and national wars, exemplified when Richard III says, “March on, march on, since we are up in arms, / If not to fight with foreign enemies, / Yet to beat down these rebels here at home.” (Richard III, IV.iv.459-61).53 He usually confines the term “enemy” to external enemies, and the term “rebels” or “traitors” to English subjects. Since treason could only be committed by a person owing allegiance to the sovereign, traitors were thus persons who breached their oath. Shakespeare's Lady Macduff defines a traitor with admirable succinctness as “one that swears and lies” and who, therefore, “must be hanged” (Macbeth, IV.ii.48-51). Knowingly or not, Shakespeare's distinction between foreign enemies and domestic rebels or traitors corresponded to that already made in the common law. He thus moved towards modern humanitarian law, with its distinction between international and internal wars and requirements of more humane treatment for those involved in the former.

Shakespeare knows that rebels are treated as traitors and therefore do not benefit from the protection of chivalric principles. Nevertheless, he introduces at least some elements of the just war doctrine into civil wars and shows that in such wars, as in international wars, the two parties may have competing claims of justice. For example, in offering terms to the rebel party on behalf of Henry IV, Westmoreland apparently finds it useful to invoke the just cause of the royal party, emphasizing the nobility's support of that cause:

Our battle is more full of names than yours,
Our men more perfect in the use of arms,
Our armour all as strong, our cause the best.

(2 Henry IV, IV.i.152-54)

The Archbishop of York, representing the rebel party, also claims to fight in support of a just cause:

Then take, my lord of Westmoreland, this schedule
For this contains our general grievances.
Each several article herein redressed,
All members of our cause, both here and hence,
That are ensinewed to this action
Acquitted by a true substantial form. …

(2 Henry IV, IV.i.166-71)

In response, Prince John promises to redress the rebels' grievances and so requests that they discharge their armies. Once the rebel army disperses, its leaders are arrested for treason, perhaps reflecting the fact that promises made to rebels do not equal those made to enemies in international wars, and that the discussion of just cause in internal wars is only a matter of form. York's protestation that the arrests were in breach of good faith meets with the legalistic but not unreasonable response that the rebels also acted illegally.

When King John rejects Philip of France's ultimatum to cede his possessions and titles to Arthur, the son of Geoffrey, who, as the older brother of John, had what appeared to be a better title to succeed their brother, Richard the Lion-Hearted, he unhesitatingly invokes his “strong possession and … right for us” (King John, I.i.39). However, his own mother, Queen Eleanor, sarcastically voices her doubts about John's entitlement, even though she is a militant supporter of his war:

Your strong possession much more than your right,
Or else it must go wrong with you and me:
So much my conscience whispers in your ear,
Which none but heaven and you and I shall hear.

(King John, I.i.40-43)

The anti-war message, emphasized in sarcasm and ridicule against both parties to the conflict, is at its strongest at the walls of Angers, a city owing and recognizing allegiance to the King of England. John and Philip and their troops confront each other at Angers. The ritual of claims alleging the justness of the war is followed, with both parties even using some of the same language.

KING John:
Peace be to France, if France in peace permit
Our just and lineal entrance to our own.
If not, bleed France, and peace ascend to heaven,
Whiles we, God's wrathful agent, do correct
Their proud contempt that beats his peace to heaven.
KING Philip:
Peace be to England, if that war return
From France to England, there to live in peace.
England we love, and for that England's sake
With burden of our armour here we sweat.
This toil of ours should be a work of thine;
But thou from loving England art so far
That thou hast underwrought his lawful king,
Cut off the sequence of posterity,
Outfacèd infant state, and done a rape
Upon the maiden virtue of the crown.

(King John, II.i.84-98)

John then contests Philip's standing to challenge his rights:

KING John:
From whom hast thou this great commission, France,
To draw my answer from thy articles?
KING Philip:
From that supernal judge that stirs good thoughts
In any breast of strong authority
To look into the blots and stains of right.
That judge hath made me guardian to this boy,
Under whose warrant I impeach thy wrong,
And by whose help I mean to chastise it.
KING John:
Alack, thou dost usurp authority.

(King John, II.i.110-18)

The Anglo-French negotiations having thus reached a deadlock, John and Philip, and then their heralds, try to persuade Angers to surrender, each party threatening destruction if the city refuses.

(Trumpet sounds. Enter a Citizen upon the walls)
Who is it that hath warned us to the walls?
KING Philip:
'Tis France for England.
KING John:
England for itself.
          You men of Angers and my loving subjects—
KING Philip:
You loving men of Angers, Arthur's subjects,
          Our trumpet called you to this gentle parle—
KING John:
For our advantage; therefore hear us first.

(King John, II.i.201-06)

Angers only wants to be left in peace; it admits its allegiance to the King of England and is quite willing to open the city's gates to him. First, however, it seeks assurance regarding who has the right to be considered the King of England.

In brief, we are the King of England's subjects.
For him and in his right we hold this town.
KING John:
Acknowledge then the King, and let me in.
That can we not; but he that proves the king,
To him will we prove loyal; till that time
Have we rammed up our gates against the world.
KING John:
Doth not the crown of England prove the king?
And if not that, I bring you witnesses:
Twice fifteen thousand hearts of England's breed—


To verify our title with their lives.

(King John, II.i.267-77)

John's cynical acknowledgement that his title will be proved through physical force belies his prior arguments about just cause. On the other hand, the fact that thirty thousand soldiers loyal to England take part in John's campaign may serve as an argument for some populist legitimacy.

After the heralds present the ultimatums, Angers proposes that the besiegers first fight it out with each other, and then it will cede to the stronger. Until then, the city leaders simply explain that they will accept “the King of England, when we know the King” (King John, II.i.363). The sarcastic Philip the Bastard, Lady Falconbridge's illegitimate son by King Richard I, who is subsequently knighted as Sir Richard Plantagenet, proposes that France and England first join forces to destroy the impudent Angers, and then, after its destruction, defy each other and determine through war who shall be the king of Angers.

Both Kings accept this farcical proposal, and they arrange that John's artillery will attack from the west, the Duke of Austria's from the north, and Philip's from the south. Only the Bastard realizes that “From north to south / Austria and France [will] shoot in each other's mouth” (King John, II.i.414-15). At the last moment, the leaders of Angers cleverly propose that John's niece, Blanche, marry the Dauphin. France and England will be in peace and Angers will open its gates to England. Eleanor elucidates the advantages of this union to her son King John:

“For, by this knot, thou shalt so surely tie
Thy now unsured assurance to the crown
That yon green boy shall have no sun to ripe
The bloom that promiseth a mighty fruit.”

(King John, II.i.471-74)

Blanche meekly complies. This pact thus means the abandonment of Arthur, for whose sake the war started in the first place. Only Constance, Arthur's mother, laments the new pact and complains of Philip's breach of oath to support Arthur's claim. The Bastard then makes his famous soliloquy on the opportunism (“commodity”) that rules the world:

Mad world, mad kings, mad composition!
John, to stop Arthur's title in the whole,
Hath willingly departed with a part;
And France, whose armour conscience buckled on,
Whom zeal and charity brought to the field
As God's own soldier, rounded in the ear
With that same purpose-changer, that sly devil,
That broker that still breaks the pate of faith,
That daily break-vow, he that wins of all,
Of kings, of beggars, old men, young men, maids,—
.....Commodity, the bias of the world,
The world who of itself is peisèd well,
Made to run even upon even ground,
Till this advantage, this vile-drawing bias,
This sway of motion, this commodity,
Makes it take head from all indifferency,
From all direction, purpose, course, intent;
And this same bias, this commodity,
This bawd, this broker, this all-changing word,
Clapped on the outward eye of fickle France,
Hath drawn him from his own determined aid,
From a resolved and honourable war,
To a most base and vile-concluded peace.
And why rail I on this commodity?
But for because he hath not wooed me yet—
Not that I have the power to clutch my hand
When his fair angels would salute my palm,
.....Since kings break faith upon commodity,
Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee.

(King John, II.i.562-71, 580-91, 598-99)

However, the criticism of war does not end here. Because of the Church's dispute with John, Pandolph, the Pope's envoy, threatens King Philip with excommunication unless he agrees to break the solemn pact he just concluded. After some hesitation, Philip yields and the war with England resumes. The result is that poor Blanche is now married to the enemy of her people, Arthur is captured by England and will soon die, and John is finally reconciled with Rome. Pandolph then persuades the Dauphin to end the war between the two now obedient subjects of Rome, and John dies, poisoned by a monk.

Having started with grandiose claims of dynasty and just cause, the reader is left with only the stupidity and the futility of war, along with an awareness of the hypocrisy and meaninglessness of claims of just war. The play's sarcastic anti-war statement could not have been more effective.


Renaissance literature on the law of nations taught that war may not be resorted to for a just but minor cause. Alberico Gentili wrote that a just cause should never be “trivial,” except that in a war of defence “the distinctions of doubtful, trivial, and obsolete”54 do not apply. Hugo Grotius similarly insisted on a “most weighty cause”55 and Suárez and Vitoria agreed. Suárez argued that “it would be contrary to reason to inflict very grave harm because of a slight injustice.”56 Vitoria reached the same conclusion that not every wrong justifies recourse to war; since “the degree of the punishment ought to correspond to the measure of the offence,” slight wrongs cannot constitute just causes of war.57 These writers focused, however, on the causes of war, and did not anticipate the principle of modern international law requiring that a response, especially an armed response to a wrong, must not go beyond a certain reasonable proportionality.58

Shakespeare demonstrates that in fact wars are often fought for trivial reasons, for exaggerated notions of honour or to save face. As Charles Wood wrote, honour was all, and even petty or imagined slights led to endless private wars in which the real losers were the peasants, abused by warriors whose code of honour was devoid of concern for the less fortunate.59 Pursuit of honour was central to the theory and practice of chivalry, and Shakespeare himself is supportive of honour, even when it involves the need to die for a worthy cause. Nonetheless, he is equally aware of the pernicious potential of exaggerated or vain honour, even outside the framework of war, for example, in challenges to a single combat for entirely trivial insults. When Vernon and Basset ask Henry VI to “grant [them] combat” to resolve a completely insignificant quarrel, Shakespeare's King angrily responds:

Good Lord, what madness rules in brainsick men
When for so slight and frivolous a cause
Such factious emulations shall arise?
.....And you, my lords, remember where we are—
In France, amongst a fickle wavering nation.
If they perceive dissension in our looks,
And that within ourselves we disagree,
How will their grudging stomachs be provoked
To wilful disobedience, and rebel!
Beside, what infamy will there arise
When foreign princes shall be certified
That for a toy, a thing of no regard,
King Henry's peers and chief nobility
Destroyed themselves and lost the realm of France!

(1 Henry VI, IV.i.111-13, 137-47)

Even more than the trivial, the canon censures the invocation of face saving and excessive honour as a justification for war or combat. In Troilus and Cressida, for example, Troilus, who later joins the war party, admits to Pandarus that Helen is not worth fighting for, declaring that her beauty is “is too starved a subject for my sword” (Troilus and Cressida, I.i.93). In the Trojan council, Hector similarly and persuasively argues not only that fighting for Helen does not constitute a just cause of war, but also that she is not worth so many Trojan lives: “If we have lost so many tenths of ours / To guard a thing not ours—nor worth to us” (Troilus and Cressida, II.ii.50-51, 20-21). However, the view that the enemy is dangerous, that being amenable to settlement may send a message of weakness that the enemy will exploit, that Trojan honour is engaged in holding Helen, and that letting her go because of “base compulsion” (Troilus and Cressida, II.ii.152) would disgrace Troy ultimately prevails. In this way, face saving leads to the destruction of Troy. But face saving is not the only consideration. Rather, a realist argument powerfully buttresses the face-saving argument, positing that showing weakness and endeavouring to appease the other belligerent may also lead to disaster (Troilus and Cressida, II.ii.38-40).

Shakespeare's protagonists attack the futility of war elsewhere in the canon as well. Although the conclusion of the Treaty of Troyes appears to hold the promise of lasting peace and fraternal union between England and France, Shakespeare hastens to disillusion us. Henry V ends with the Chorus's admission that the war—even this heroic, patriotic and just war that Shakespeare supported—will prove both bloody and useless because the protector of the infant Henry VI “lost France and made his England bleed” (Henry V, Epilogue 12). The ensuing marriage arranged for Henry's son, Henry VI, “as the only means / To stop effusion of our Christian blood,” and to stop “immanity and bloody strife / … among professors of one faith” (1 Henry VI, V.i.8-14), appears as nothing more than a ratification of the loss of France. Shakespeare's Richard Duke of York thus complains of the proposed treaty between Charles VII and Henry VI which would establish against England's interests an “effeminate peace”:

Is all our travail turned to this effect?
After the slaughter of so many peers,
So many captains, gentlemen, and soldiers
That in this quarrel have been overthrown
And sold their bodies for their country's benefit,
Shall we at last conclude effeminate peace?
Have we not lost most part of all the towns
By treason, falsehood, and by treachery,
Our great progenitors had conquerèd?
O Warwick, Warwick, I foresee with grief
The utter loss of all the realm of France!

(1 Henry VI,

But of all the plays, Hamlet unquestionably offers the most powerful statement of the futility of war, against sacrificing thousands of lives for trivial causes, for “a fantasy and trick of fame” (Hamlet, Add. Pass. J.52) and for honour. A captain explains to Hamlet the purpose of Fortinbras' military expedition against Poland in this way:

Truly to speak, and with no addition,
We go to gain a little patch of ground
That hath in it no profit but the name.
To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it,
Nor will it yield to Norway or the Pole
A ranker rate, should it be sold in fee.

(Hamlet, Add. Pass. J.8-13)

Hamlet captures the futility of this war in a few words, realizing that thousands of men will lose their lives for no purpose at all:

Two thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats
Will now debate the question of this straw.
This is th' imposthume of much wealth and peace,
That inward breaks and shows no cause without
Why the man dies.

(Hamlet, Add. Pass. J.16-20)

Hamlet is then left alone to his moving soliloquy on war:

Witness this army of such mass and charge,
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puffed
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,
Even for an eggshell. Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour's at the stake. How stand I, then,
That have a father killed, a mother stained,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep while, to my shame, I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men
That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain.

(Hamlet, Add. Pass. J.38-56)

Of course, Hamlet here expresses his recognition of the unfavourable reflection of the soldiers' bravery on his own hesitation to avenge his father's murder. He agonizes over his failure to vindicate honour by killing Claudius. Although this, and not the futility of war, is Hamlet's particular concern, he nonetheless fully recognizes the absurdity of the death of twenty thousand men to gain a little patch of land, and therefore simply for honour's sake.

Hamlet's soliloquy can be read on two levels. The first is the recognition of the futility of war driven by honour and fought for a useless piece of land. The second and more equivocal level—which concerns Hamlet's personal dilemma—is about killing for honour's sake. While Hamlet certainly reflects on the absurdity of the death of “twenty thousand men” for nothing more than “to gain a little patch of ground,” he remains conscious of how their decisiveness and bravery in such a minor cause reflects poorly on his own hesitation to avenge his father's murder. Hamlet's shame lies in failing to kill Claudius for honour's sake, not in being a part of a world that kills for honour alone. For Shakespeare, it is not clear that Hamlet is wrong about his duty.

Shakespeare does not offer much comfort here. His message is not that peace treaties concluding wars will bring about a lasting serenity, but rather that fighting wars simply in the hope that they will make the world, and us, better off is a worthless pursuit.


In advocating the speedy conclusion of the peace negotiations between Henry V and Charles VI, the Duke of Burgundy chillingly demonstrates the devastating effect the war has had on art, agriculture and the education of children, who grow to be savages in wartime:

What rub or what impediment there is
Why that the naked, poor, and mangled peace,
Dear nurse of arts, plenties, and joyful births,
Should not in this best garden of the world,
Our fertile France, put up her lovely visage?
Alas, she hath from France too long been chased,
And all her husbandry doth lie on heaps,
Corrupting in it own fertility.
Her vine, the merry cheerer of the heart,
Unprunèd dies; her hedges even-plashed
Like prisoners wildly overgrown with hair
Put forth disordered twigs;
.....An 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, diffused attire,
And everything that seems unnatural.
Which to reduce into our former favour
You are assembled, and my speech entreats
That I may know the let why gentle peace
Should not expel these inconveniences
And bless us with her former qualities.

(Henry V, V.ii.33-44, 54-67)

Shakespeare's plays are replete with references to war, mostly allusions to the negative aspects of war. Thus, the symbols of war for Shakespeare are “famine, sword, and fire” (Henry V, Prologue 7), or “blood and sword and fire” (Henry V, I.ii.131). War is the “son of hell” (2 Henry VI, V.iii.33); it is “fierce and bloody” (King John, I.i.17) and “cruel” (Timon of Athens, IV.iii.60).

If speaking of the horrors of war discourages war, then Shakespeare does so most effectively, filling his text with moving references to the brutality and bloodiness of war. This remains true even in a just and patriotic war, like that of Henry V against Charles VI, as shown in the ultimatum Exeter delivers to the French King's court:

Deliver up the crown, and to take mercy
On the poor souls for whom this hungry war
Opens his vasty jaws; and on your head
Turns he the widows' tears, the orphans' cries,
The dead men's blood, the pining maidens' groans,
For husbands, fathers, and betrothèd lovers
That shall be swallowed in this controversy.

(Henry V, II. iv. 103-109)

Still worse, Henry V offers a disturbing catalogue of horrors in his speech before the walls of Harfleur, threatening retribution if Harfleur refuses to surrender, by denying quarter, resorting to mass slaughter of both civilians and combatants, including women, infants and the aged, and engaging in pillage and rape (Henry V, III.iii.84-126). In this episode, Shakespeare's Henry shows little hesitation to shed blood, which appeared to worry him greatly in his legal discussion with the Archbishop. But by now, not only has he obtained the Archbishop's imprimatur; he could also argue that an acceptance of his ultimatum would in fact save lives.

The argument against war is even more effective when it turns from general scenes describing the multitude of victims to individuals and their own special tragedies of war, such as Cassandra prophesying Hector's death:

                                                                      O farewell, dear Hector.
Look how thou diest; look how thy eye turns pale;
Look how thy wounds do bleed at many vents.
Hark how Troy roars, how Hecuba cries out,
How poor Andromache shrills her dolours forth.
Behold: distraction, frenzy, and amazement
Like witless antics one another meet,
And all cry “Hector, Hector's dead, O Hector!”

(Troilus and Cressida, V.iii.83-90)

Perhaps the most moving passages are those describing a civil, fratricidal war in which members of the same family fight on different sides of the conflict. Shakespeare tells of a soldier who, while searching a corpse for gold coins discovers that he has unknowingly killed his father, and of a father who finds that he has unwittingly killed his only son:

(He removes the dead man's helmet)
Who's this? O God! It is my father's face
Whom in this conflict I, unwares, have killed.
O, heavy times, begetting such events!
From London by the King was I pressed forth;
My father, being the Earl of Warwick's man,
Came on the part of York, pressed by his master;
And I, who at his hands received my life,
Have by my hands of life bereavèd him.
Pardon me, God, I knew not what I did;
And pardon, father, for I knew not thee.
My tears shall wipe away these bloody marks,
And no more words till they have flowed their fill.
(He weeps)


(Enter at another door another Soldier with a dead man in his arms
SECOND Soldier
(He removes the dead man's helmet)
          But let me see: is this our foeman's face?
          Ah, no, no, no—it is mine only son!
          Ah, boy, if any life be left in thee,
          Throw up thine eye!
          (Weeping)                                        See, see, what showers arise,
          Blown with the windy tempest of my heart,
          Upon thy wounds, that kills mine eye and heart!
          O, pity, God, this miserable age!
          What stratagems, how fell, how butcherly,
          Erroneous, mutinous, and unnatural,
          This deadly quarrel daily doth beget!
          O boy, thy father gave thee life too soon,
          And hath bereft thee of thy life too late!


FIRST Soldier:
How will my mother for a father's death
          Take on with me, and ne'er be satisfied!
SECOND Soldier:
How will my wife for slaughter of my son
          Shed seas of tears, and ne'er be satisfied!


FIRST Soldier:
Was ever son so rued a father's death?
SECOND Soldier:
Was ever father so bemoaned his son?
FIRST Soldier:
(to his father's body)
          I'll bear thee hence where I may weep my fill.
          (Exit at one door with the body of his father)
SECOND Soldier:
(to his son's body)
          These arms of mine shall be thy winding sheet;
          My heart, sweet boy, shall be thy sepulchre,
          For from my heart thine image ne'er shall go.
          My sighing breast shall be thy funeral bell,
          And so obsequious will thy father be,
          E'en for the loss of thee, having no more,
          As Priam was for all his valiant sons.
          I'll bear thee hence, and let them fight that will—
          For I have murdered where I should not kill.
          (Exit at another door with the body of his son)

(3 Henry VI, II.v.61-72, 82-93, 103-06, 109-22)


Medieval and Renaissance writers on the law of nations recognized the validity of treaties of peace imposed by the victor on the loser.60 Indeed, such treaties were binding in international law until the twentieth century, when, under the aegis of the League of Nations and the United Nations, international law established important qualifications to the previously almost unlimited power of victors. Shakespeare's plays reflect such authority to dictate the terms. Alberico Gentili points out that, in reality, the victor decides which cause is just, that is, that his cause is just,61 in order to impose war expenses on the loser.62 Indeed, “it is the will of the victor which settles everything … [and] it is the part of him who grants peace, not of him who sues for it, to lay down the conditions.”63

Shakespeare recognizes that when it comes to peace making, might is right. When the French implore the English for a general peace in 1 Henry VI, Richard of York warns that after all the losses England has suffered, peace may lead to the loss of France (1 Henry VI, V. vi. 94-112). Warwick assures Richard that

                                        [i]f we conclude a peace
It shall be with such strict and severe covenants
As little shall the Frenchmen gain thereby.

(1 Henry VI,

Charles, the Dauphin, hardly claims to be negotiating as an equal. He comes “to be informèd by yourselves / What the conditions of that league must be” (1 Henry VI,

Winchester lays down harsh conditions that are not regarded as negotiable, clearly voicing the threat, “[o]r we will plague thee with incessant wars” (1 Henry VI, René and Alençon urge Charles to accept so as to save his subjects from a massacre. But the very harshness of the conditions imposed contains the seeds of the agreement's collapse. Shakespeare's Alençon does not leave much to the imagination:

And therefore take this compact of a truce,
Although you break it when your pleasure serves.

(1 Henry VI,

This passage reflects, as Paul Jorgensen observed, a distinctly pessimistic picture of truces. For his dramatic purposes, Shakespeare assumes the superior situation of the English and their power to impose non-negotiable conditions; he thus departs from Holinshed, his source, who reports that the French, apparently not accepting that their condition was so inferior, did present counter-proposals.64

In King John, the Bastard urges France and England to continue fighting until the outcome “confirm[s] the other's peace” and the possession of Angers.

Cry havoc, Kings! Back to the stainèd field,
You equal potents, fiery-kindled spirits!
Then let confusion of one part confirm
The other's peace; till then, blows, blood, and death!

(King John, II.i.357-60)

Peace negotiations are particularly detailed in Henry V. Responding to Burgundy's description of the war's ravages, Henry's courteous language does not mitigate the nature of his conditions as a brutal ultimatum:

          If, Duke of Burgundy, you would the peace
Whose want gives growth to th' imperfections
Which you have cited, you must buy that peace
With full accord to all our just demands. …

(Henry V, V.ii.68-71)

Despite the self-serving description in Shakespeare as “just,” Henry's demands went quite far. His source, Holinshed, is even more explicit, citing Henry V telling Burgundy, during the negotiations at Meulan, that “we will have your kings daughter, and all things that we demand with hir, or will drive your king and you out of his realme.”65 The Treaty of Troyes (1420) would describe Henry as Charles's son and the heir of France, thus changing the order of succession; he would marry Catherine, the Valois princess, and secure the inheritance to a Plantagenet-Valois line. The treaty would designate Henry as the regent of France, so as to govern France as of the date of the treaty, but he would refrain from using the title of the King of France until Charles's death.66 To deter violations, the French lords, communities and subjects were to take an oath to observe the treaty and its provisions for the governance of France. Breaches would be regarded as the supreme crime of lèse-majesté. The play describes the situation faithfully:

KING Harry:
Prepare we for our marriage. On which day,
My lord of Burgundy, we'll take your oath,
And all the peers', for surety of our leagues.
Then shall I swear to Kate, and you to me,
And may our oaths well kept and prosp'rous be.

(Henry V, V.ii.365-69)

Of course, the fragility of such oaths is obvious. An excessive and harsh treaty could not survive the pressures of French nationalist sentiments, the rise of Charles VII and Joan of Arc's rallying of the French in 1429.

Gentili wisely alludes to the limitations of oaths and agreements, anticipating the fate of, for example, the Treaty of Versailles:

The worst of all sureties is an oath. Hence it is that Augustus says: ‘Things which are done spontaneously are observed without the obligation of an oath; but those which are done unwillingly are not observed though pledged by a thousand oaths.’67

A peace treaty that treats both parties honourably has the best prospects of survival. The ill-fated Archbishop of York eloquently states:

A peace is of the nature of a conquest,
For then both parties nobly are subdued,
And neither party loser.

(2 Henry IV, IV.i.315-17)


The view that Shakespeare was, or became a pacifist, is contested by some critics, Paul Jorgensen, for example.68 Although Shakespeare's characters express a wide range of views, in my opinion, the evidence largely supports a pacifist preference. I find persuasive Steven Marx's argument showing an important evolution in Shakespeare's attitude to war and peace from, essentially, the first tetralogy where the heroic depiction of war in the Henry VI plays (consider the Talbots, for example) combined with Francophobia to serve the patriotic cause of Tudor (Elizabeth's) wars, to pacifist scepticism of the second tetralogy.69 Of course, even in the first tetralogy, critical treatments of war can be found. In the second tetralogy, however, they are far more prominent. The Henry IV plays (1598-1600), focused on internal wars, present Falstaff's mockery of martial honour, Hotspur's exaggerated sense of it,70 and highlight the horrors of a fratricidal war which appeared already in Henry VI plays (1592-95). Consider also the debunking of the war's justification in Henry V (1599), that play's demonstration of the war's cruelty and bloodshed, the sarcastic greed-based description of the quarter for ransom transaction (Pistol), and the showing of the war's eventual futility. Troilus and Cressida (1602-1603), a decidedly anti-war play, coincided with the accession to the throne of the pacifist James Stuart.71 Undoubtedly, the humanist pacifism of Erasmus and More must also have played a role.72 In Troilus, war was reduced from the epic to the satiric, and from chivalric to the simply bloody and chaotic.73 In Troilus, war was no longer a corrective for an imperfect peace. It was a senseless slaughter destined for an annihilation of Troy.


  1. Saint Augustine, City of God XXXX(7), XIX(12) (first published 1467, Henry Bettenson trans., 1972).

  2. Philippe Contamine, War in the Midde Ages 263 (1984).

  3. Id. at 264-65.

  4. Maurice Keen, Chivalry 44-50 (1984).

  5. Malcolm Vale, War and Chivalry 8-9 (1981), citing Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens.

  6. Contamine, supra note 2, at 265-66.

  7. M. H. Keen, “Chivalry, Nobility and the Man-at-Arms,” in War, Literature and Politics in the Late Middle Ages 40-44 (C. T. Allmand ed., 1976).

  8. Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages 81 (Rodney J. Payton & Ulrich Mammitzsch trans., 1996) (emphasis added).

  9. Giovanni da Legnano, Tractatus de bello, de represaliis et de duello (James Brierly trans., Thomas Erskine Holland ed., 1917). Giovanni da Legnano completed his work in 1360, but it was published in 1477 and in the better-known editions of 1487 and 1584.

  10. Id. at 224.

  11. Id.

  12. Id. at 224-31.

  13. Arthur B. Ferguson, The Indian Summer of English Chivalry 175 (1960).

  14. Honoré Bouvet (Bonet), The Tree of Battles 192 (G. W. Coopland ed., 1949). This is a translation of the Ernest Nys edition of 1883.

  15. Id. at 125.

  16. Id.

  17. Id.

  18. Id.

  19. Christine de Pisan, The Book of Fayttes of Armes and of Chyvalrye 10 (William Caxton trans., 1489, A. T. P. Byles ed., 1932).

  20. Maurice H. Keen, The Laws of War in the Late Middle Ages 9 (1965).

  21. Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Question 40 on War 83 (Blackfriars ed. 1972).

  22. Robert P. Adams, The Better Part of Valor: More, Erasmus, Colet, and Vives, on Humanism, War, and Peace 1496-1535, at 100-17 (1962).

  23. Franciscus de Vitoria, De Indis et de iure belli relectiones 174 (John Pawley Bate trans., Ernest Nys ed., 1917). These lectures were first published posthumously in 1557.

  24. Id. at 173.

  25. Contamine, supra note 2, at 285. Regarding Charles V's consultations with the estates and jurists to ensure that he had just cause to resume the war, see Christine de Pisan, supra note 19, at 17.

  26. Contamine, supra note 2, at 284.

  27. Theodor Meron, Henry's Wars and Shakespeare's Laws 21 (1993).

  28. Christine de Pisan, supra note 19, at 13.

  29. Vitoria, supra note 23, at 173-74.

  30. J. H. Hexter, The Vision of Politics on the Eve of the Reformation 82-93 (1973)

  31. For a further discussion of the role of courtiers in Shakespeare, see Chapter 9.

  32. Christine de Pisan, supra note 19, at 13.

  33. Michael Powicke, Military Obligation in Medieval England 232, 242-43, 250 (1962).

  34. Paul C. Jorgensen, Shakespeare's Military World 180 (1956).

  35. On the medieval requirement of declaring war, see Keen, supra note 20, at 70, 72; Bouvet, supra note 14, at 128-29; Christine de Pisan, supra note 19, at 13, Giovanni da Legnano, supra note 9, at 232-34, chs. 13-16. See also George Keeton, Shakespeare's Legal and Political Background 89 (1967); George Keeton, Shakespeare and His Legal Problems 72-73 (1930).

  36. Christine de Pisan, supra note 19, at 13.

  37. Francisco Suárez, Selections from Three Works 816 (Gwladys L. Williams, Ammi Brown & John Waldron eds. & trans., Carnegie ed. 1944). De legibus, ac deo legislatore, a treatise on Law and God the Legislator, was published in 1612; Defensio Fidei Catholicae ed Apostolicae Adversus Anglicanai Sectae Errores was published in 1613; and De Triplici virtute theologica, fide, spe, et charitate, The Three Theological Virtues, Faith, Hope, and Charity, which focused on the law of war, was published posthumously in 1621.

  38. Id.

  39. In Henry V, the French herald Montjoy defies Henry on behalf of Charles VI: “To this add defiance, and tell him for conclusion he hath betrayed his followers, whose condemnation is pronounced” (Henry V,

  40. Edward Hall, Hall's Chronicle: Containing the History of England, during the Reign of Henry the Fourth, and the Succeeding Monarchs, to the End of the Reign of Henry the Eighth 57 (1809, repr. 1965.) This edition collates the editions of 1548 and 1550. Original title: The Union of Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke (1548).

  41. Vitoria, supra note 23, at 171.

  42. Id. at 173.

  43. Katharine Eisaman Maus, Henry V, in the Norton Shakespeare 1445 (Stephen Greenblatt gen. ed., Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard & Katharine Eisaman Maus eds., 1997).

  44. Other examples include the following: in 1 Henry IV, Hotspur both assures his followers and reassures himself, saying, “Now for our consciences: the arms are fair / when the intent of bearing them is just” (1 Henry IV, V.ii.87-88). Henry VI declares:

    What stronger breastplate than a heart untainted?
    Thrice is he armed that hath his quarrel just;
    And he but naked, though locked up in steel,
    Whose conscience with injustice is corrupted.

    (2 Henry VI, III.ii.232-35).

    Similarly, Queen Margaret urges her troops on against Edward's army, saying, “you fight in justice; then in God's name, lords, be valiant, and give signal to the fight” (3 Henry VI, V.iv.81-82). Pompey also relies on divine assistance, remarking that “if the great gods be just, they shall assist the deeds of justest men” (Antony and Cleopatra, II.i.1-2).

  45. Contamine, supra note 2, at 266.

  46. Bouvet, supra note 14, at 156-57. See also Saint Augustine, supra note 1, at V(21)-(22).

  47. Balthazar Ayala, De jure et officiis bellicis et disciplina militari libri III 23 (John Pawley Bate trans., John Westlake ed., 1912).

  48. Keen, supra note 20, at 71.

  49. Meron, supra note 27, at 39, n.88, citing William Safire, Freedom 787 (1987) (emphasis in the original).

  50. Alberico Gentili, De iure belli libri tres 32 (John C. Rolfe ed. and trans., 1933).

  51. Id.

  52. Id., at 485. These developments, while tending towards a broader legalization of the recourse to war, jus ad bellum, also had the positive effect of enlarging the list of those entitled to combatants' privileges under the law of nations, thus paving the way for modern humanitarian law's important principle of extending its protective umbrella to all those involved in war, jus in bello, regardless of its justness. See also Meron, supra note 27, at 10.

  53. Id. at 192-93.

  54. Gentili, supra note 50. Note, however, that Alberico Gentili advocates a broader concept of self-defence, not limited by necessity or proportionality. Id. at 58-59.

  55. Hugo Grotius, De jure belli ac pacis libri tres 575-76 (Francis Kelsey trans., Carnegie ed. 1925). This edition is a translation of the 1646 edition rather than the first edition of 1625.

  56. Suárez, supra note 37, at 816.

  57. Vitoria, supra note 23, at 171.

  58. Oscar Schachter, United Nations Law in the Gulf Conflict, 85 Am. J. Int'l L. 452, 460 (1991).

  59. Charles T. Wood, The Age of Chivalry 55 (1970).

  60. Theodor Meron, The Authority to Make Treaties in the Late Middle Ages, 89 Am. J. Int'l L. 1, 17 (1995).

  61. Gentili, supra note 50, at 299.

  62. Id. at 298-302.

  63. Id. at 353.

  64. W.G. Boswell-Stone, Shakespeare's Holinshed: The Chronicle and the Plays Compared 240 (1968).

  65. Id. at 200-201.

  66. Meron, supra note 27, at 182-84.

  67. Gentili, supra note 50, at 356.

  68. Supra note 34 at 197.

  69. Steven Marx, Shakespeare's Pacifism, 65 Renaissance Quarterly 49 (No. 1, Spring 1992).

  70. Id. at 65.

  71. Id. at 59, 61

  72. See generally, Dominic Baker-Smith, Moore's Utopia 59, 106 (1991).

  73. Marx, supra note 69, at 70-71.

John Mark Mattox (essay date spring-summer 2000)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10034

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 play is riddled with complexities as large as its popularity. On the one hand, Shakespeare presents Henry V as involved in a war that, in terms of both its declaration and its prosecution, clearly invites a moral-philosophical critique. On the other hand, he represents Henry as “an ideal king”2 who is altogether “politically, morally, and humanly aware.”3 As a result, “the warlike Harry” (Prologue, 5) is also the “mirror of all Christian kings” (2.chorus.6). These two designations seem, on the surface at least, to be terribly incongruent. Although it may be said that “the play's aim is to celebrate heroic actions under a heroic king,”4 it is likewise clear that Shakespeare does not intend to portray his hero merely as a great conqueror of the Alexandrian variety.5 Rather, he seeks to portray him as a hero who pursues noble aims in a way that does not offend Christian moral sensibilities. The surest way to walk this tightrope, and indeed the method that I propose that Shakespeare employs, is to demonstrate Henry V to be a monarch who conducts his warfare in accordance with the demands of the Western just war tradition. It is this aspect of Shakespeare's portrayal of Henry V that transforms and elevates him from the status of being merely England's greatest warrior to the status of England's consummate just warrior.


The theory of just war, as it has emerged over the past 2500 years of Western history, typically is presented under two major headings: jus ad bellum and jus in bello. Jus ad bellum, or “the justice of war,” specifies those criteria that define the right of one nation or sovereign power to engage in violent action against another. In the context of this time-honored tradition, a nation is justified in entering a war if, and only if, it (1) has a just cause, (2) the justice of which is of such magnitude that it outweighs the justice of its opponent's cause, (3) enters the conflict with honorable intentions, (4) has authority to fight by reason of its possessing recognized war-making powers, (5) pursues war only as a last resort, (6) publicly declares its intent to fight, (7) has reason to believe that the resort to war will produce a resolution of the conflict in terms favorable to the nation entering the war, (8) the prosecution of which will result in the realization of greater moral good than would result if the war were not fought, and (9) approaches the war with the ultimate objective of attaining peace for all involved. In contrast, jus in bello, or “justice in war,” specifies the limits of moral conduct in the actual prosecution of a war. That is, the jus in bello component of the just war tradition stands as witness to the claim that “it is not permitted to employ unjust means in order to win even a just war.”6Jus in bello is generally characterized in terms of two tenets: (1) that the state should apply the minimum force necessary in order to accomplish its just aims and (2) that the state should consider those persons duly recognized as combatants to be the sole objects of its violent action.7

I do not propose that Shakespeare consciously incorporates these criteria into his portrayal of Henry in an overt effort to show that Henry's actions as king and as a military leader correspond point by point with the demands of the just war tradition—a tradition well established by Shakespeare's time. Nevertheless, one familiar with the tradition cannot but be astounded at the striking correspondences that do in fact exist between the two. While one need not claim for Shakespeare the title of international jurist or military moral philosopher, one can still be impressed by the keen awareness that he appears to possess concerning the theory of just war as it developed from ancient times and as it was observed in both Henry's and Shakespeare's day. In what follows, I propose to examine Shakespeare's portrayal of Henry V in light of the just war tradition. In the process, I shall attempt to demonstrate two claims: first, that in the case of those tenets for which Henry's war making can be shown to accord with the just war tradition, Shakespeare forthrightly establishes Henry's compliance; second, that in the case of those tenets that pose obstacles to establishing Henry's status as a just warrior, Shakespeare takes deliberate pains to minimize the effects of any ill reflection upon Henry.



This is indisputably the premier tenet of all jus ad bellum thought. It is that the reason for resorting to war in search of a resolution of an international dispute must itself be a just reason. Traditionally, just causes have included the defense of the innocent against armed attack, the recovery of persons or property wrongly taken, or the punishment of evil. Not only does the idea that a just war must be founded on a just cause permeate the whole of the just war tradition, but it also extends throughout the length and breadth of Shakespeare's treatment of Henry's war-faring enterprise. Particularly, Shakespeare capitalizes on the notion that the throne of France has been wrongly withheld from Henry and that this fact constitutes itself an evil worthy of punishment.

As soon as Henry appears (act 1 scene 2), his first act is to implore the Bishop of Canterbury to “justly and religiously unfold / Why the law Salic that they have in France / Or should or should not bar us in our claim” (1.2.12-14). By his thus imploring the bishop, one might well conclude that Henry is not actually looking for advice, “but for a public statement of the justice of his cause.”8 However, even if Henry has, for all practical purposes, already determined to go to war, Shakespeare clearly suggests that Henry will not proceed with his practical aims without first ensuring that his decision is justified in principle. In a clear indication that Henry seeks to hear not merely what he wants to hear, but rather a true and just rendition of the English claim, Henry solemnly urges Canterbury, “God forbid, my dear and faithful lord, / That you should fashion, wrest, or bow your reading, / Or nicely change your understanding soul / With opening titles miscreate, whose right / Suits not in native colors with the truth” (1.2.15-20).

One might be inclined to argue that Henry's apparent concern with the justice of the cause is nothing more than a facade—part of a deliberately crafted attempt to put a righteous, if not happy, “spin” upon a morally questionable undertaking. After all, Shakespeare does present Henry as a surprisingly skillful rhetorician throughout the entire play. As the Bishop of Canterbury observes in his private conversation with the Bishop of Ely, “List his discourse of war, and you shall hear / A fearful battle rendered you in music” (1.1.46, 47). Nevertheless, the fact remains that Henry raises the concern over the justice of his cause not in a public forum, but in the secrecy of his privy council. If his interrogation of Canterbury in that setting were something engineered for the purpose of persuading his closest advisors, Shakespeare certainly provides us with no textual warrant for such an interpretation. From all appearances, the members of his court require no persuasion, as evidenced by the fact that they raise no moral objection whatsoever to war with France. Indeed, the only concern that the court voices pertains to the Scottish threat; and, as we shall see, this concern has nothing at all to do with the question of whether Henry's cause is just. Moreover, the offer by the church, in the persons of Canterbury and Ely, to finance the war effort certainly constitutes more than a merely tacit endorsement of the justice of the cause. The more plausible reading requires one to assume that Shakespeare's Henry sincerely desires a true appraisal on the matter, regardless of what public face he might later give to it. Indeed, the audience given to Canterbury in the privy council seems to constitute a detailed revisiting of the matter of just cause stemming from an earlier conversation when, as Canterbury relates to Ely, “there was not enough time to hear, / as I perceived his Grace would fain have done, / The severals and unhidden passages / Of his true titles to some certain dukedoms, / And generally to the crown and seat of France, / Derived from Edward, his great-grandfather” (1.1.89-94)9. Indeed, Henry “does not charge recklessly into war but makes sure that his campaign is justified according to every standard.”10 If anything, Shakespeare would have us understand that “the guilt of bloodshed lies on the French for resisting his claim and not on him for prosecuting it.”11

Moreover, Westmoreland urges Henry that his “brother kings and monarchs of the earth” (1.2.127)12 of unspecified identity “know that your Grace hath cause” (1.2.130)—meaning, of course, a just cause—to pursue the battle. Shakespeare is silent on the matter of how or why they should know this, possibly suggesting thereby that the claim is self-evidently true. Whether or not the facts justify these royal bystanders in assuming such a position is by no means clear. However, Shakespeare appears to regard this epistemological issue as one altogether separate from the evidently settled issue of the justice of Henry's war-faring cause.


This tenet is closely related to that of just cause. The theory of just war rests on the philosophical assumption that, although war exists as an ethical possibility, there also exists a strong presumption against the resort to war as a means to be used by sovereign states in resolving their international difficulties. “Comparative justice” requires, in addition to a state's having a just cause for the prosecution of war—a position that, for good or ill, both parties in a dispute are likely to claim—that the claims of an aggrieved party also must be of such magnitude that the presumption against war is overridden.

Henry clearly manifests an appreciation for the philosophical necessity to override this presumption—if he is to claim to be a just warrior at all—when he says to Canterbury, “For God doth know how many now in health / Shall drop their blood in approbation / Of what your reverence shall incite us to” (1.2.20-23). Hence, he strictly charges the Bishop, “Therefore take heed how you impawn our person, / How you awake our sleeping sword of war. / We charge you in the name of God, take heed, / For never two such kingdoms did contend / Without much fall of blood, whose guiltless drops / Are every one a woe, a core complaint / 'Gainst him whose wrongs gives edge unto the / swords” (1.2.20-31). Given this acknowledgement of the horrors of war, one certainly can conclude that, even if Henry cared nothing at all about the justice of his cause, he is by no means oblivious to the moral implications of his contemplated venture.

Whether the present war objectively qualifies as a just war or not is rather a secondary concern as pertaining to a reasoned evaluation of the war's relative justice. Of significant theoretical consequence, however, is the fact that Shakespeare takes pains to portray Henry, first, as “a man who fights only for legitimate causes”13 and second, as one who recognizes that whatever justification he gives for going to war must override the presumption against war. One of the important ways in which Shakespeare seeks to accomplish this task is by confronting Henry with circumstances that one could readily conceive as sufficient to provoke to war a ruler with less moral fiber but that are insufficient to provoke Henry. For example, when Montjoy delivers the Dauphin's “gift” of tennis balls along with the stinging invective clearly designed to incite Henry, “he reveals remarkable self-restraint.”14 He does not kill the messenger, nor does he base his decision to go to war on the fact that he has received a personal insult. Rather, he demonstrates the truth of his earlier claim that “We are no tyrant, but a Christian king, / Unto whose grace our passion is as subject / As are our wretches tettered in our prisons” (1.2.249-251). By the same token, he manifests by his discourse that just as he is willing to cast into prison those wretches deserving of his discipline, he is also willing to acknowledge that there does indeed exist a point beyond which he need no longer turn the other cheek to sovereignties persisting in the offense of justice—namely, that threshold at which the presumption against war is overridden.

One might be tempted to conclude that Henry's response to Montjoy indicates the Dauphin's insult to be, if not the actual cause of the war, then at least the “straw that broke the camel's back.” However, it should be noted that Henry is “well prepared” (1.2.242) to hear and to respond to the message from France even before Montjoy enters the scene. Hence, rather than fighting over an insult per se, Henry merely takes the occasion of the Dauphin's insult to deliver the news that England will assert her royal claim on the battlefield. Fighting for an insult is not a sufficient cause, but if in the process of fighting for a just cause he has occasion to answer an insult, there seems to be no philosophical reason why he should not.


Although, as a practical matter, the claims of just cause and of comparative justice in favor of the aggrieved party presuppose the ability of the aggrieved party to produce tangible evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the opposing party, which wrongdoing could be justifiably righted or compensated for by engaging in war, just war theory traditionally has claimed that the outward disposition of the party contemplating the resort to war is not a sufficient guide as to whether the resort to war is actually justified. At least as early as St. Augustine, the just war tradition has held that the inward disposition of the aggrieved party's members is as important as—if not more important than—any visible evidence of intention. As Shakespeare acknowledges by the mouth of Williams, “All offenses … come from the heart” (4.8.48). The intent of the party contemplating resort to war must be in accord with the just cause and must not involve the mere desire for territorial expansion, intimidation, or coercion. It should be devoid of hatred for the enemy, implacable animosity, or a desire for vengeance or domination. Hence, overt indications of right intention would include, among other things, the pursuit of peace negotiations in an effort to terminate the conflict as quickly as possible, the avoidance of potentially unreasonable demands, as might be the case with a requirement for unconditional surrender, etc.

Because the disposition of the heart is itself something never available to direct, empirical inspection, Shakespeare takes pains to ensure that Henry's discourse provides verbal evidence of the righteousness of his inward dispositions. When Henry asks Canterbury, “May I with right and conscience make this claim?”(1.2.101), his concern seems to be one that transcends the question of justice in the merely technical, legal sense. What Henry really seeks, in the intensely intimate setting of the privy council where he is joined by them “of the spirituality” (1.2.138), is to elevate the debate above the level of minute legal technicalities—that if strained at, might be found to justify war with France—to the loftier level of moral discourse.

Having settled on the decision to invade France, Henry pauses, in an apparent attempt clearly to establish the rectitude of his intentions by demonstrating that his royal priorities are properly ordered, to announce to his court that “we have now no thought in us but France, / Save those to God, that run before our business”(1.2.315, 316). Shakespeare gives us no reason to suppose that Henry considers that the two concerns will find themselves at odds. If there be any question about duplicity on Henry's part as to whether his true interior goodness and his outward appearances contradict each other, Shakespeare has Canterbury lay that matter to rest with the assertion that a remarkable bestowal of divine grace has “whipped th' offending Adam out of him” (1.1.28-30) so that any possibility of enmity between Henry and God is out of the question.


The decision to go to war can be made only by one who, by virtue of his or her position in the social framework, is generally recognized as possessing authority to make such a declaration. Traditionally, this is a person or body with no political (i.e., earthly) superior, which person or body acts as the duly authorized representative of a state—in short, God's lieutenant on earth. This, of course, is a perfect description of a mediaeval European monarch like Henry.

Shakespeare's labored presentation, from the mouth of Canterbury, as to why the Salic Law15 poses “no bar” (1.2.39) to Henry's claim is important for two reasons. The first and most obvious reason is that he needs a legal basis upon which to assert his claim of heirship to the disputed territories in France. The second reason, while less obvious, is probably even more important: to assert his status as one who legitimately occupies the position of one with no earthly superior—the only kind of person who justly can declare war. If he does not legitimately occupy his own throne, then—far from being one empowered to declare war—he can claim to be nothing more than a renegade leader bent on wreaking havoc among the community of civilized nations.

In his first response to the King of France, Henry, holding to the belief that the successes he seeks ultimately are dependent upon the will of God, directly appeals to God to underwrite his decision to go to war, and invokes the name of Deity16 in an oath that he swears to the Dauphin that he will avenge himself and establish most unambiguously his “rightful hand in a well-hallowed cause” (1.2.306). To have a just cause is one thing; but to possess divine authorization to go to war, as Henry appears to claim, is to put to rest all questions of whether to prosecute the war. Moreover, the claim ultimately has the philosophical effect of making moot all other points concerning the justice of the cause. Why, after all, fret over legal technicalities and fine-grained interpretations when God has sanctioned the cause? Is not Henry a man without earthly superior, hence one of God's appointed lieutenants on earth? Ironically, perhaps, the question brings us philosophically full circle: Henry is a man without earthly superior and hence one of God's lieutenants if, and only if, his claim to the throne of England is itself legitimate. If, on the one hand, Henry legitimately occupies the English throne, the fact that his royal claim descends through the maternal line notwithstanding, then it would seem that his claim should be likewise sufficient to establish his claim to the French territories he seeks. On the other hand, if Henry's claim to the English throne is illegitimate, then he is not a man without an earthly superior, not one who justly can be called one of God's lieutenants on earth, and not one who possesses the authority necessary to wage war. The French never, by Shakespeare's account, question Henry's right to wage war; Shakespeare merely has them challenge Henry's claim to ancestral territories in France. By so doing, in a subtle but crucial move, Shakespeare forces the French into a position in which they cling hopelessly to a logical contradiction: they cannot acknowledge Henry's right to the throne and thus his right to wage war—rights that they never appear to question—without acknowledging the veracity of Henry's territorial claim. All that appears to be left for the French, then, is the woefully un-philosophical position that Henry cannot have his lands in France without a fight; and that is precisely the position that Shakespeare has the French occupy.

In response to Henry's query concerning both the justice and the righteousness of the cause, Canterbury seeks to allay all fears by providing the king the ultimate, fail-safe justification for action: the pronouncement of holy writ. On the authority of a passage from the Book of Numbers,17 the Bishop places, as it were, a divine seal of approval on Henry's search for authorization to go to war: “When the man dies, let the inheritance / Descend unto the daughter” (1.2.104, 105). This passage, of course, is not a direct justification for war at all. It merely authorizes Henry to assert—on grounds that, because scriptural, ought to appeal both to English and to French reason—his title to any rights of inheritance that could be shown to devolve upon him through the female line—Salic law or no Salic law. By appealing to scripture, Shakespeare can afford to sidestep many of the strictly rational concerns over the question of Henry's authority to prosecute the war. However, it is far from clear that this particular passage of scripture is sufficient to provide Henry with the divine authorization that Shakespeare seems to claim for him. In order to find in this passage the needed justification for war, one would have to argue successfully that the breaches of this point of law were so grievous as to provide not only a just cause for war, with all its attendant miseries, but also a justification to override the presumption against war. Nevertheless, the Bishop spares the King the necessity of establishing these points by making for him the logical leap from rights of inheritance, past authorization for war, and directly on to the not-so-philosophical rhetoric of conquest: “Stand for your own,” says the Bishop, “unwind your bloody flag, / Look back into your mighty ancestors. / Go, my dread lord, to your great-grandsire's tomb, / From whom you claim; invoke his warlike spirit / And your great-uncle's, Edward the Black Prince, / Who on the French ground played a tragedy, / Making defeat on the full power of France” (1.2.106-112). To this, Ely contributes nothing in the way of argumentation, but much by way of exhortation, when he evokes additional images of “these valiant dead” (1.2.120) whose heir, if not descendant, King Henry is. In the final analysis, while Shakespeare clearly recognizes the philosophical necessity of establishing Henry's authority to declare war, he is, on this point, long on rhetoric but short on substantive argumentation.


While it is true that war is traditionally regarded as the ultima ratio regum,18 neither king nor any other sovereign authority is justified in engaging in war if there be any other means of avoiding it. That is, the prevailing circumstances must clearly indicate that no means short of war would be sufficient to obtain satisfaction for just grievances or wrongs against the state.

Shakespeare represents the French as making a token effort to appease Henry in an effort to avoid war. As the town of Harfleur is besieged, “th' Ambassador from the French [by which we are to understand an ambassador from the king, and not merely an emissary from Harfleur] comes back. / Tells Harry that the King doth offer him / Katherine his daughter and with her, to dowry, / Some petty and unprofitable dukedoms [evidently, dukedoms other than those at issue in Henry's claim]. / The offer likes not”(3.chorus.29-34). In terms of just war theory, one can understand Henry as not liking the offer because (1) it does not provide adequate compensation for the loss of the full rights of inheritance which he claims and hence (2) does not afford a satisfactory resolution of the issue that resides at the core of the conflict. Shakespeare thus gives his audience every reason to believe that, in the absence of a satisfactory offer, Henry's grievance—already established as just—cannot be resolved by any measure short of war.


In order for a war truly to be the last means available for the resolution of international difficulties, it must be one that the sovereign authority is willing publicly to declare. At least two compelling reasons exist for this requirement. First, a public declaration gives occasion for the aggrieved nation to state the reasons that impel it to war as a demonstration that all other means short of war for peaceful resolution of the conflict have been utterly exhausted. Second, the preparation of a public declaration serves as an occasion for national reflection concerning whether all means short of warfare truly have been exhausted prior to the commitment of the nation's resolve, its energies, and its resources to the war-making enterprise. The public declaration can also come in the form of an ultimatum that sets forth those remedies short of war that are still available, with the requirement that the offending party avail itself of a resolution of the conflict via those remedies prior to a specified time.

It is this latter form of declaration—recognized in the traditional international observances of Europe since before the days of Cicero,19 and prior to that in the revealed directives for the conduct of war enshrined in the Mosaic Law,20 as an adequate answer to the demands of this just war requirement—that Henry employs in his contest with France. Standing before the French throne, Exeter, acting as Henry's emissary and invoking a clear claim to divine authorization for Henry's actions (2.4.84), bids the King of France, “resign / Your crown and kingdom, indirectly held / From him, the native and true challenger” (2.4.100-102). When questioned by the King concerning the consequences of noncompliance, Exeter issues the ultimatum: what will unavoidably follow is “Bloody constraint, for if you hide the crown / Even in your hearts, there will he rake for it” (2.4.104, 105).


According to the just war tradition, wars that present little or no hope of serving as vehicles for obtaining satisfaction for just grievances are not morally justifiable. This tenet is particularly interesting in the light of the apparently overwhelming odds that Henry is likely to face in France—not to mention the concerns that weigh upon him relative to an opportunistic Scottish invasion of England during his absence. In the face of concerns like these, Ely provides Henry with two justifications for taking on the French in spite of the odds: (1) “The blood and courage that renowned them [i.e., Henry's notable ancestors and kinsmen who had stood victorious against the French] / Runs in your veins;” and (2) “my thrice-puissant liege / Is in the very May-morn of his youth, / Ripe for exploits and mighty enterprises”(1.2.123-126). While these reasons contribute nothing (or perhaps even less) to the aim of establishing the justice of Henry's cause, they do go a long way toward establishing the positive likelihood of Henry's success. Others are willing to forge a stronger link between the notions of just cause and reasonable chance for success than is evident in Ely's words. For example, in addition to noting that Henry's brother kings and monarchs recognize the justice of his cause, Westmoreland also points out that they recognize that Henry possesses both “means and might”(1.2.130, 131) for prosecuting the war. This is so because, by Westmoreland's account, “Never king of England / Had nobles richer [hence the means], and more loyal subjects [hence the might]” (1.2.132, 133).

Notwithstanding the assurances of reasonable probability of success by both the clergy and by the nobility, Henry, alive to the ever-present Scottish threat that has asserted itself at opportune times in the past, a threat that Henry feels he has every reason to believe will reassert itself by filling the power vacuum left in England by the deployment of Henry and his army to France, requires additional assurances: “For you shall read that my great-grandfather / Never went with his forces into France / But that the Scot on his unfurnished kingdom / Came pouring like the tide into a breach / With ample and brim fullness with his force, / Galling the gleaned land with hot assays, / Girding with grievous siege castles and towns, / That England, being empty of defense, / Hath shook and trembled at th'ill neighborhood” (1.2.152-160).

Although Canterbury, apparently anxious to see the war proceed,21 downplays the significance of the concern over Scottish adventurism, both Ely and Exeter concede that the matter is not a trifling one. “[T]he weasel Scot,” says Ely, will surely come “Playing the mouse in the absence of the cat” (1.2.177, 179). “It follows, then,” reasons Exeter, “the cat must stay at home” (1.2.181). However, that need not mean that Henry cannot deploy his army to France. It simply means that, in order to ensure that the Scots cannot render uncertain Henry's otherwise reasonable possibility of success in France, the home guard will have to be organized and prepared to meet the likely threat. To this, Canterbury, ever ready to advance the war with France, urges the king, “Divide your happy England into four, / Whereof take you one quarter into France” (1.2.222, 223). This proportion of Henry's forces will be sufficient to “make all Gallia shake” (1.2.224), and it will leave three quarters of Henry's forces to defend the home front against the Scots. “If we, with thrice such powers left at home, / Cannot defend our own doors from the dog, / Let us [then] be worried” (1.2.225-227)—but not about France. Even in the light of the Scottish threat, there is no point, Canterbury implies, on which Henry should fear that he lacks reason to assume that his offensive actions in France will be anything other than a resounding success.

Henry repeatedly expresses feelings of great optimism about the likelihood of an English victory over the French. This is particularly striking in light of the unfavorable numerical odds with which he is confronted. The justification for his optimism is essentially an Augustinian one: the battle is in the hand of God, such that the ratio of enemy to friendly troops is of no particular consequence. Henry's task, then, is to do all in his power to ensure that God is on his side. He enumerates his acts of devotion in fervent, private prayer on the eve of Agincourt: among other things, he repeatedly has sought divine pardon for his father's usurpation of Richard II; he has provided charitable relief to five hundred of England's poor; and he has endowed two “chantries” for England's priests. To this he adds that he will do yet more to prove his devotion as he seeks for a manifestation of divine favor in the form of victory on the battlefield (4.1.300-316).

As a practical matter, if there were any residual questions concerning means, Canterbury speaks in no uncertain terms to dispel all doubt: “we of the spirituality / Will raise your Highness such a mighty sum / As never did the clergy at one time / Bring in to any of your ancestors” (1.2.138-141). The likelihood of Henry's success is thus further assured by the financial backing of the visible church. With this guarantee, Henry will not have to engage in a fight with Parliament for money at the same time that he is engaged in his fight with France.


The application of this tenet involves what is essentially a moral calculation of expected outcomes. The threshold requirement is that the moral good expected to result from the prosecution of the war must exceed the amount of evil that naturally and unavoidably follows from the prosecution of war. As with many moral calculations, although the results may be neither known nor knowable in advance, anything less than a sincere effort to gauge the relative weight of good and bad outcomes that the war is likely to produce would not meet the demands of this tenet.

This tenet presents Henry (and Shakespeare) with two formidable problems. First, it is not clear that Henry's cause is such as to be proportional; Shakespeare gives us no reason to believe that the dukedoms at issue are crying out for deliverance from the French by the English. For example, certainly the town of Harfleur does not hail the arrival of the English as the arrival of an army of liberation. Second, Henry changes his stated objective for going to war. In act one, he merely seeks lordship over his inherited dukedoms in France (1.2.255, 256). In act two, however, he demands the crown of France (2.4.110-102). If, on the one hand, Henry has simply changed his objective, there seems to be no particular motivation for it in the name of just cause. If, on the other hand, he hereby takes the position that he is willing to subdue the entire French kingdom if that is what is necessary to secure the dukedoms at issue, then he seems to have overstepped proportionality.

These problems might on the surface lend themselves to the interpretation that Shakespeare's true agenda includes exposing Henry as a woefully unjust warrior. However, if this interpretation be correct, Shakespeare certainly does not exploit the opportunity to make anything of this violation of proportionality. He merely presents Henry's statements in quite a matter-of-fact fashion and sidesteps the issue of proportionality altogether. If anything, the fact that he offers no argument in the play in behalf of proportionality suggests that he recognizes the problem, recognizes that a plausible defense of Henry on this matter would be difficult to come by, and—consequently and in keeping with his aim of presenting Henry as a just warrior—elects to sidestep the issue altogether.22


The restoration of happiness and the avoidance of future violence—in short, peace—must be the end for which the war is fought. Henry's compliance with the requirements of this tenet is rather straightforwardly established by virtue of the fact that his objective is a limited one; at no time does he provide the least indication that he intends to embark upon a war of unlimited conquest (after the manner of, for example, Alexander the Great or Ghengis Khan). Henry seems resolutely willing to commit such violence as is necessary to achieve his objective. Indeed, “when the blast of war blows,” (3.1.6) he is willing to “imitate the action of the tiger”(3.1.7) and expects his men to do the same. Nevertheless, this same Henry acknowledges with equal ease that “In peace there's nothing so becomes a man / As modest stillness and humility” (3.1.4, 5); and as soon as he accomplishes his objectives, this is precisely the kind of man he expects to become.


The nine tenets of jus ad bellum, or similar expressions of them in different combinations, traditionally are taken to specify the individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for engaging in a just war. Furthermore, they jointly form the permissibility criteria for a just war. That is, given that the conditions specified by the nine criteria are met, a state is thereby considered to have acquired moral license to engage in war, although not necessarily the moral obligation to do so. Nevertheless, one is tempted to see in Henry a man whose rhetoric suggests that failure to avenge himself of French wrongs would be tantamount to moral deficiency—if not moral failure—on his part as a monarch.

Although these jus ad bellum criteria seek to establish the moral grounds for initiating a war, the just war tradition requires that these criteria continue to hold throughout the duration of the war, or else the war will cease to be just. Shakespeare evinces thoughtful recognition of this point through his ongoing attempts to remind his audience that Henry's war is just. For example, throughout the play, Shakespeare provides Henry with opportunities to demonstrate the rectitude of his intentions. One prominent case in point arises when Henry uncovers the conspiracy of Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey. As Henry pronounces the sentence of death upon the three conspirators, who, given the opportunity would have taken Henry's life in exchange for French gold, Henry sheds light on his inward disposition with these telling words which indicate his resolve to place the affairs of state before his personal welfare: “Touching our person, seek we no revenge, / But we our kingdom's safety must so tender, / Whose ruin you have sought, that to her laws / We do deliver you” (2.2.183).

Although it may appear to constitute nothing more than a piece of typical war rhetoric, Henry's exhortation to his men at the siege of Harfleur to “Follow your spirit, and upon this charge / Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’” (3.1.36,37) is also interpretable as a subtle reminder to his men that—as he has maintained throughout—this painful conflict is one which fulfills the jus ad bellum requirements of just war. The point is three-fold: (1) that a soldier fighting for God can only be fighting for a just cause; (2) that God endorses Henry's cause; and, therefore, (3) that a soldier fighting for Henry, England, and Saint George is in fact fighting for God. Indeed, throughout the war effort, Henry acknowledges various tokens of divine favor that suggest the continuance of the divine authorization of Henry's enterprise: “We doubt not of a fair and lucky war, / Since God so graciously hath brought to light / This dangerous treason lurking in our way / To hinder our beginnings. We doubt not now / But every rub is smoothed on our way, / Then forth, dear countrymen. Let us deliver / Our puissance into the hand of God, / Putting it straight in expedition. / Cheerly to sea. The signs of war advance. / No king of England if not king of France” (2.2.193-203).

Shakespeare's apparent sensitivity to this point again becomes evident when, immediately upon learning that he is victorious at Agincourt, Henry exclaims, “Praised be God, and not our strength, for it!” (4.7.92). What Shakespeare accomplishes here is, among other things, to reaffirm the divine (and therefore indisputably competent) authority under whose banner Henry claims to have entered into the war. If God indeed has underwritten Henry throughout the war, then it cannot be but that the war has been just throughout. However, Shakespeare reminds his audience that not only the visible war has been just throughout, but that the invisible intentions within Henry's heart have been similarly just. Fluellen says, “I need not to be ashamed of your Majesty, / praised be God, so long as your Majesty is an / honest man”(4.7.119-121). If there remains any doubt as to whether Shakespeare intends us to understand that Fluellen's assessment of Henry's inward disposition is an accurate one, Henry himself dispels that doubt with the reply, “God keep me so” (4.7.122).

Finally, Henry brings the jus ad bellum discussion full circle when, at the peace negotiations with the French court, he informs the Duke of Burgundy that “If … you would the peace, / … you must buy that peace / With full accord to all our just demands”(5.2.69-72). By the same token, Shakespeare offers as evidence of Henry's true desire for peace the fact that he does not insist on an unconditional surrender—one that utterly disregards the interests of the French. Henry does not seek the annihilation of the French, their enslavement, or anything of the sort. Indeed, he appears willing to accommodate any and all French interests that do not detract from his own. Hence, he says to his negotiating team, Exeter, Clarence, Gloucester, Warwick, and Huntington, “take with you free power to ratify, / Augment, or alter, as your wisdoms best / Shall see advantageable for our dignity, / Anything in or out of our demands, / And we'll consign thereto” (5.2.88-92). Because of Henry's magnanimous attitude after the cessation of hostilities occasioned by a resounding English victory, one can only assume that, consistent with the requirements of the just war tradition, Henry's ultimate objective is the restoration of peace—a peace agreeable to English demands, but a peace nonetheless.


At no point in the play does anyone—even the French—ever question the justice of the war or of Henry's right to wage it. Moreover, if anyone does harbor unvoiced concerns over the justice of the cause, no one ever questions Henry's right to raise an army or to command the obedience of his troops. “Even in his decisive debate with Williams and Bates on the morning of Agincourt (4.1), where the implications of his power are most searchingly discussed, the king's right to command obedience is never in question. … Henry's soldiers, in spite of their pessimistic views of the military situation, accept them without reserve.”23 In response to the disguised Henry's assertion that the King's cause is “just and his quarrel honorable,” (4.1.132), Williams' unequivocal reply, “That's more than we know” (4.1.133), is amplified by Bates' rejoinder that such a knowledge is also more than the common soldier should seek to obtain. “[W]e / know enough,” says Williams, “if we know we are the King's sub- / jects. If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the King / wipes the crime of it out of us” (4.1. 134-137). The philosophical basis for Williams' claim is in concert with the traditional just war notion that “soldiers are always presumed to be shrouded in invincible ignorance as far as jus ad bellum is concerned.”24 This idea of invincible ignorance dates back at least as far as the writings of Francisco de Victoria,25 who died eighteen years before Shakespeare's birth.26

However, as Henry points out in the course of his discussion with Williams and Bates, the fact that a soldier bears no moral responsibility for the justice or injustice of the war itself does not shield individual soldiers from the burden of moral responsibility as pertaining to their personal conduct in the war. Indeed, “Every subject's duty is / the King's, but every subject's soul is his own” (4.1. 182, 183). Thus, Shakespeare carefully acknowledges the jus ad bellum / jus in bello distinction, a distinction central to the whole of just war theory.

The fundamental assumption of jus in bello is that a war which is initiated on just grounds can cease to be a just war if it is not fought in a just manner. Traditionally, two tenets specify the criteria for jus in bello. These tenets define the just application of force within the context of an existing conflict.


The jus in bello tenet of “proportionality” differs from the jus ad bellum tenet by the same name in that the former pertains to actions taken once a war has begun whereas the latter pertains to considerations expected to be entertained by a state before that state determines to engage in war. In the present context, “proportionality” refers to the requirement to apply the minimum force necessary, consistent with “military necessity,” for bringing the conflict to a justly peaceful resolution as quickly as possible. Means that cause gratuitous suffering or otherwise cause unnecessary harm fall outside the scope of that which is considered to be a “proportional” application of force. This tenet includes the prohibition against torture and traditionally has served to facilitate the placing of limitations on such things as, for example, the kinds of weapons that can be used.


This tenet enjoins belligerent parties in armed international conflict to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants, with the former normally constituting the only acceptable objects of violent action. Discrimination includes the establishment of a definition of noncombatancy and the avoidance of direct, intentional harm to noncombatants. It also presumes that appropriate efforts will be made by all parties involved in the conflict to protect noncombatants from harm. Traditionally, noncombatants have included wounded soldiers, prisoners of war, clergymen, women, children, the aged, and the infirm, all of whom were presumed not to be engaged in the war effort.27

In Henry V, as in war in general, jus in bello problems with proportionality and discrimination tend to run hand-in-hand, because jus in bello choices often involve a concurrent disregard for proportionality and for the distinction between combatants and noncombatants. One classic example of this is Henry's speech to the men of Harfleur. Henry begins, “This is the latest parle we will admit. / Therefore to our best mercy give yourselves” (3.3.2, 3). So far, this has all the appearances of an ultimatum that observes the bounds of proportionality. However, when Henry states the alternative to willing compliance by the men of Harfleur, the ultimatum takes a turn that to modern ears sounds frightfully disproportionate: “If I begin the batt'ry once again, / I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur / Till in her ashes she lie buried” (3.3.7-10). As shocking as this might seem to the modern auditor, it would not have been so to the auditor of Shakespeare's day. As Rauchut astutely observes concerning the traditional war-faring practices of the Middle Ages, “a town guilty of obstinate defense was customarily denounced by the besieger and either destroyed or dealt severe retaliation.”28

Of particular significance for Henry, who at every turn claims divine warrant for his warfaring, is the fact that this practice is treated specifically in Deuteronomy Chapter 20, which provides divinely issued instructions for the siege of cities that do not surrender willingly.29 Implicitly, then, Henry can hardly be held accountable for what otherwise might seem like wartime atrocities when God Himself has authorized them. Henry then takes explicit measures to distance himself from any charge of disproportional or indiscriminate conduct at Harfleur. He does this by acknowledging that if he gives his soldiers leave to level the city, he might actually find himself powerless to restrain their conduct so as to be within the bounds of proportionality. However, since he likely will be unable to stop it, he “solves” the problem by absolving himself of responsibility for it. To the men of Harfleur he says, “What is ‘t to me, when you yourselves are cause, / If your pure maidens fall into the hand / Of hot and forcing violation?” (3.3.19-21, italics added). As Traversi observes, “The process of evil, once unleashed, follows courses fatally determined; but Henry, as usual, having described them in words which lay every emphasis on their horror, disclaims all responsibility for them, just as he had once disclaimed all responsibility for the outbreak of war. The whole matter, thus taken out of his hands, becomes indifferent to him.”30

Conversely, Shakespeare takes full advantage of those opportunities that allow him to present Henry as a man who acts with regard to the demands of jus in bello. For example, when Bardolph commits the “war crime” of stealing a pax from a church—an unauthorized act of plunder—Henry makes no effort to stay his old friend's execution. Rather, he announces that “We would have all such offenders so cut / off; and we give express charge that in our marches / through the country there be nothing compelled / from the villages, nothing taken but paid for, / none of the French upbraided or abused in dis- / dainful language” (3.6.109-114). He even provides a justification that is at once pragmatic and philosophical in its import: “for when lenity and cruelty play / for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest / winner” (3.6.114-116).

Shakespeare again downplays the moral issues surrounding Henry's order to kill the French prisoners. While one might infer that Henry kills the prisoners in reprisal for the French slaughter of the boys left to attend the English supply trains, the text may not actually justify the inference. According to the text, Henry gives the order to kill the prisoners not in response to word of the death of those in the supply trains, but in response to the sounding of an alarm that he understands to indicate that “The French have reinforced their scattered men” (i.e., that they have re-formed from an earlier assault and are preparing to assault again, 4.6.37). It is not until the opening lines of scene seven that we learn that the French have killed the boys, and it is not until the end of scene seven that we find Henry expressing his outrage over the killings with the announcement of his intention to “cut the throats of those [French prisoners] we have” (4.7.64), to which he adds with great vehemence that “not a man of them that we shall take / Shall taste our mercy” (4.7.65, 66). Whether Henry actually knows that this has happened or whether Fluellen merely infers that the reason for the king's order to slay the prisoners is as a reprisal for the killing is not clear.31 The best case that could be made on moral grounds on behalf of the King is that he acted in reprisal, and this is the case that Shakespeare makes via Fluellen's remarks: “Kill the poys and th luggage! 'Tis expressly / against the law of arms. 'Tis an arrant piece of / knavery, mark you now, as can be offert, in your / conscience now, is it not?” (4.7.1-4). Note that here Shakespeare specifically points to the French breach of the traditional law of land warfare—the sine qua non for any claim that seeks to justify a reprisal. The justification continues with Gower: “'Tis certain there's not a boy left alive, and / the cowardly rascals that ran from the battle ha’ / done this slaughter. Besides, they have burned / and carried away all that was in the King's tent, / wherefore the King, most worthily, hath caused / every soldier to cut his prisoner's throat. O, 'tis a / gallant king!” (4.7.5-11).

How does Henry justify a reprisal? He does it with the absolution that comes from divine sanction combined with French injustice; since God sanctioned Henry's war—and has prospered him every step of the way—and the French caused the war through their unjust withholding from Henry of that which was rightfully his, they can only expect that their breaches of the principles of jus in bello will be answered in the sternest possible terms.

Although proportionality and discrimination generally are the only two jus in bello criteria specified in traditional just war discourse, there are, from time to time, other jus in bello issues that receive attention. One of these has to do with the matter of keeping good faith with the enemy. From early antiquity, just war thinkers have raised questions concerning whether, and if so in what way, it is permissible to deceive an enemy in the course of prosecuting combat. While some deceptions, ruses, and stratagems of various kinds generally have been acknowledged as appropriate for use in warfare, Shakespeare would have us know that Henry altogether avoids the sometimes muddy waters associated with which deceptions are permissible and which are not. Speaking of his divinely appointed victory, Henry states, “When, without stratagem, / But in plain shock and even play of battle, / Was ever known so great and little loss / On one part and on th' other? Take it, God, / For it is none but thine” (4.8.112-116). Here again, Shakespeare takes occasion to place a divine stamp of approval upon all that has transpired, perhaps even a stamp that might serve to set aside the contentious issues surrounding Henry's killing of French prisoners.

It is, of course, not at all clear that the historical Henry was by any means a just warrior. Many reasons exist for questioning the moral rectitude both of his motives and of his conduct with respect to the demands of the just war tradition. On the other hand, we have, as I have attempted to show, substantial reason to suppose that Shakespeare's Henry V is a king whom the playwright would have us adjudge as a just warrior. In reaching this conclusion, one need not suppose that Shakespeare methodically studied the just war tradition in an effort to identify its various tenets for application to Henry—and this in spite of the fact that, as we have seen, there exists a remarkable correlation between the traditionally accepted tenets of just war and those aspects of Henry's wartime practice that Shakespeare chooses to highlight. We merely need to accept the premise that one who desired to portray a head of state as a just warrior would be led, by the imposition of reason, to demonstrate just warfaring in the way Shakespeare's Henry demonstrates it.


  1. Quotations of Henry V follow The New Folger Library Shakespeare Henry V, ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine (New York: Washington Square Press, 1995).

  2. Victor L. Cahn, Shakespeare the Playwright: A Companion to the Complete Tragedies, Histories, Comedies, and Romances (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991), 489.

  3. Ibid.

  4. A. R. Humphreys, ed., Henry V in William Shakespeare, Four Histories (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), 681.

  5. See, for example, the intriguing conversation between Fluellen and Gower at 4.7.

  6. Richard Shelley Hartigan, “Noncombatant Immunity: Reflections on its Origins and Present Status,” The Review of Politics 29, No. 2 (April, 1967): 204.

  7. The traditional list of jus ad bellum and jus in bello criteria typically varies in minor degree from author to author. The reason for this is not so much a basic disagreement as to what, in the case of jus ad bellum, constitutes a just war or what, in the case of jus in bello, counts as the minimally acceptable standards of conduct for those engaged in wartime hostilities as it is presentation. Some authors are wont to combine two or more traditionally accepted just war notions under a rather more general heading, while others opt for a greater range of distinctions. For examples of some representative lists of jus ad bellum criteria, see the May 3, 1983, Pastoral Letter on War and Peace issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Catholics and Nuclear War, ed. Philip J. Murnion (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1983), 277-280. See also James Turner Johnson, “The Just War Idea and the Ethics of Intervention,” address delivered at the United States Air Force Academy on November 17, 1993, The Joseph A. Reich, Sr., Distinguished Lecture on War, Morality, and the Military Profession, number six (Colorado Springs: United States Air Force Academy, 1993), 22-25. By way of comparison, Hartigan summarizes the jus ad bellum criteria thus: 1) the war must be declared by the legitimate public authority; 2) a real injury must have been suffered; 3) the damage likely to be incurred by the war may not be disproportionate to the injury suffered; 4) there must be reasonable hope of success; 5) all possible means of peaceful settlement must have failed; 6) those prosecuting the war must have the right intention; and 7) only legitimate and moral means may be employed in prosecuting the war. (Note that this latter tenet is, properly speaking, a jus in bello tenet.)

  8. Derek Traversi, Shakespeare from Richard II to Henry V (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957), 169.

  9. Note also Exeter's assertion (2.4.87) that Henry's claim from Edward III is justified by both the law of nations (such that he is justified in seeking it by force of arms) and of nature (i.e., by lineal descent).

  10. Cahn 1991, 491.

  11. Humphreys 1994, 676.

  12. The words quoted here are actually the words of Exeter, but they constitute the antecedent to the pronoun “They” used by Westmoreland, who is the next speaker.

  13. Cahn 1991, 489.

  14. Eugene M. Waith, Shakespeare: The Histories, A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1965), 162.

  15. “The code of laws known as the salic law is a collection of the popular laws of the Salic or Salian Franks, committed to writing in barbarous Latin, in the 5' [sic] century. … It was by a very doubtful construction that the salic law in the 14' [sic] century was held to exclude the succession of females to the throne of France, but on the accession of Phillip the Long, it was given this interpretation, and the fact that Edward III rested his claim to the throne on female succession no doubt led the French to place this meaning on the law and to adhere to it for all future time” (Edward Joseph White, Commentaries on the Law in Shakespeare [St. Louis: The F. H. Thomas Law Book Co., 1913], 283, 284).

  16. The extent to which Henry and the English characters in the play make such invocations—especially when the number is compared to similar invocations by the French—is significant. “The language of religion is almost all England's and Henry's. Of the fifty-nine uses of ‘God’ in the play, only three are by Frenchmen. Of the seven uses of ‘Christ’, ‘Christian’, and ‘Christian-like’, none are by Frenchmen. God is made to seem, by virtue of this monopolised reiteration, to belong to the English; the responsibility for the violence and aggression of the war is displaced onto the implicitly Godless French subjects of attack. He sanctions violence through his agencies of authority on earth.” (Derek Cohen, Shakespeare's Culture of Violence [New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993], 77).

  17. Numbers 27:8 (King James Version). The entire verse reads thus: “And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a man die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter.” In this Chapter, Moses sets forth the divinely appointed laws of inheritance of which this is one.

  18. i.e., the ultimate argument of kings.

  19. See Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Officiis, trans. Clinton Walker Keys (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), I.xi, p. 39.

  20. See Deuteronomy 20:10-14.

  21. This claim, of course, raises with full justification the question of Canterbury's true motivation for wanting the war to proceed. Interesting though that question may be, it is not one that need detain us in a consideration of the theory of just war as pertaining to Henry V. The Bishop has no war-making authority. Hence, even if his motivation be not only morally deficient, but altogether evil, the moral status of his motivation has no bearing, in and of itself, on the justice of the contemplated war.

  22. I am indebted to my colleague, Professor Sandra Visser, for her views on this issue.

  23. Traversi 1957, 187.

  24. Paul Christopher, The Ethics of War and Peace (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1994) 169, italics added.

  25. This phrase appears (albeit in a slightly different context) in Franciscus de Victoria, De Indis [On the Indians], trans. John Pawley Bate in The Classics of International Law (Washington: Carnegie Institute, 1917).

  26. My claim is not that Shakespeare necessarily had any personal acquaintance with the writings of de Victoria, but merely that the notion that soldiers are absolved of moral responsibility for acts committed in war at the behest of the sovereign was current in Shakespeare's day.

  27. Murnion 1983, 280; Johnson 1993, 23.

  28. E. A Rauchut, Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991): 55.

  29. See Deuteronomy 20:10-14 (King James Version): “When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it. And it shall be, if it make the answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee. And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it: And when the LORD thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword: But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the LORD thy God hath given thee.”

  30. Traversi 1957, 183.

  31. The epistemological problem created by the fact that the King gives the order prior to the point at which the audience is fully apprised of the King's awareness that the French have killed English noncombatants has not escaped critical notice: “The slaughter of the French prisoners, which aroused some conflicting sentiments in Holinshed's narrative, is presented in Henry V with all the ambivalence of theatrical and historical contradiction. Gower and Fluellen (iv.vii) assume that the massacre is a reprisal for the killing of the boys guarding the English luggage train. In fact, we know from the previous scene, Henry knew nothing of this when he gave the order: a command which seems rather to arise out of Exeter's romantic and sentimental account of the deaths of York and Suffolk” (John Turner in Graham Holderness, Nick Potter, and John Turner, Shakespeare: The Play of History [Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1988], 80, 81). This problem is exacerbated by the fact that, according to Cahn, the historical Henry “ordered prisoners and noncombatants killed before the French reorganized” (Cahn 1991, 503).

Ellen C. Caldwell (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12250

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 differences depend largely on the historian's nationality or national alliance, beliefs about the legitimacy or necessity of that war or of war in general, and historical circumstances. Popular representations of that war in art and literature are no less divergent, and at this remove from the events, it is clear that the popular and professional representations have become dependent on one another in complex ways. Further, whether their provenance is from the historical or popular arena, representations of the Hundred Years' War have become intertwined with constructions of nationalism both by the English and the French. To underline the extent of nationalistic influence on those representations and the commentaries they prompt, I should like first to consider some refigurations of that war across the centuries. Each is based on a textual account or inscribes the Hundred Years' War in accordance with written tradition. I shall then turn to the literary inscriptions of the Hundred Years' War in Henry VI, Part 2, at the moment of emergent English nationalism. Since that time, the temptation has persisted to use this war to write “analogue history” of one's own time. Once some of the nationalistic trappings of these representations have been discussed, it may be possible to acknowledge some of the broader social costs such foreign wars exacted. Focusing first on some French versions may move us away from the language of the invaders; focusing on Shakespeare's early plays may help us see the English view from below.


Around 1373, Louis I, duc d'Anjou, commissioned a series of tapestries depicting the vision of John as described in the book of Revelation. Completed in about seven years, these immense Apocalypse tapestries are exhibited today in a modern gallery designed for their display in the château fortified by St. Louis at Angers. They comprise one among several tapisseries historiées [narrative tapestries] on different subjects, commissioned first by the young duc d'Anjou and then by his brother, Philippe le Hardi, duc de Bourgogne.1 The designs for these tapestries were created by Charles V's painter, Hennequin de Bruges, who used as his inspiration thirteenth-century illuminated manuscripts of the Apocalypse; according to a note appended to the inventory of his library, Charles V “a baillée a mons. D'Anjou pour faire son beau tapis” [gave to Monsieur D'Anjou, for the making of his fine tapestry] a manuscript of the “Apocalipse en françois toute figurée et ystoriée” [Apocalypse in French, fully embellished and illuminated].2 Two panels clearly reminiscent of those illuminations are of interest here. Panel 24 (21), that of the sauterelles [locusts], represents the fifth blast of the trumpet, or the appearance of fantastic grasshoppers that arise from the abyss to torment men for their sins. The passage from Revelation compares the sauterelles to horses ready for combat, and the designer of the tapestry has drawn them as such: they have the faces of men, heads crowned; the hair of women; cuirasses of iron; bodies of horses; tails like scorpions. Their king, the Angel of the Abyss, in Hebrew Abaddon, in Greek Apollyon, the Exterminator, is mounted on one of them. Behind him, emerging from the earth, are five more of the composite animals. Their crowned human heads and upper equine bodies alone are visible. In the tapestry the bearded Abaddon has the wings of a bat, as in the miniature tradition, and is therefore, in the iconography of the Middle Ages, satanic. Panel 26 (23) represents the sixth blast of the trumpet, in which the thousands of horsemen unleashed from hell punish a third of humanity for its sins and its idolatry. On the tapestry the horsemen appear as six armed soldiers riding horses equipped with the tails of serpents and the heads of leopards that issue smoke and sulfur from their mouths. With their lances these soldiers do violence to unarmed men.3 There is a tradition, currently relayed to those visiting the tapestries at Angers, that in panel 24, the figure of the demonic Exterminator is intended to represent Edward III, followed by his five sons. In panel 26, the primary horseman is meant to represent the Black Prince in battle. I would further add that on other panels of the tapestry, the seven-headed beast is represented much as a seven-headed lion rampant, the heraldic symbol under which, quartered with the fleur de lys, Edward III claimed France.4

Why the young Valois prince would have commissioned an enormous series of tapestries of the Apocalypse remains unclear. From the insertion of his arms and secret symbols, however, one can assume he was in general responsible for the subject. What is often vaguely noted is Louis d'Anjou's acknowledgment of the catastrophic experiences of the French during the fourteenth century, including the war with the English and the visitations of the black plague.5 Is it possible to be more specific? Louis I, duc d'Anjou (born July 23, 1339), second son of Jean II (called le Bon), was present at the battle of Poitiers, but was sent from the field or, as some chroniclers believe, fled before his father and his younger brother Philippe were captured by the soldiers of the Black Prince. The consequences of this defeat for the French must have seemed apocalyptic; it was followed by a popular uprising, as well as direct threats to the dauphin Charles by a Parisian mob. One of the conditions of King Jean's 1361 release from captivity in London was his replacement by royal hostages; Louis d'Anjou was foremost among them. In 1362 these hostages were removed to Calais after they concluded a second treaty with Edward III. In 1363, at a shaky moment in the negotiations, when the dauphin and the Estates refused to ratify this second treaty, the hostages were detained. Louis had had enough. He escaped from captivity to join his wife, Marie de Blois (daughter of the duc de Bretagne), whom he had not seen in thirty months. Although his elder brother Charles, the dauphin, tried to convince him to return as a hostage, Louis refused. Edward III wrote castigating him with these words: “vous avez moult blémi l'honneur de votre lignage” [you have gravely offended the honor of your ancestors].6 Jean le Bon, mortified by his son's lapse of chivalry, and perhaps also not too unhappy to revisit his cousin Edward III, returned to London to stand hostage for Louis. Jean le Bon died there in captivity in 1364, a disastrous turn of events, for the ransom still had to be paid.7

In 1373, when Louis d'Anjou commissioned these tapestries, he was thirty-five years old, powerful and ambitious. By the time they were completed, he and his brothers had effected the reconquest of most of the disputed territories and had outlived both Edward III and his deadly son the Black Prince. Of all the sons of Jean le Bon, Louis d'Anjou was most instrumental in the French recovery of strongholds held by the English, especially in the south of France, where he was lieutenant and governor of Languedoc, but also in Normandy and Bretagne. While Charles V reformed currency, the army, his internal administration, and dictated policy and strategy, his brothers Louis, Jean, and Philippe, most ably assisted by the constable Bertrand du Guesclin, methodically recaptured citadel after citadel. Thus, when Louis d'Anjou came to commission these tapestries, he had experienced firsthand and to his great personal distress the turbulence and military humiliation of the Hundred Years' War, captivity in enemy territory, and eventually victory. Would Louis d'Anjou have so honored, commemorated, or condemned the English king and his sons by having them woven into his costly tapestry? Later his brother Philippe would commission an Apocalypse tapestry as well as one on the Battle of Roosebeke (which took place November 27, 1382, and at which he defeated the bourgeois rebels of Ghent).8

Historical subjects and the exploits of the commissioners were not unknown in the representations on these tapestries. If the horsemen do represent Edward III and his sons, then those men Jean le Bon considered his princely cousins are here revealed as figures made bestial by their dynastic symbology of the lion or leopard, and their war is rendered monstrous, a virulent plague sent by the heavens to punish mankind. These assumptions are consistent with those of many contemporary writers, who viewed the war with England, particularly the captivity of Jean le Bon, as the scourge of God, punishment for the sins of the French people. In particular, Françoise Autrand notes the Benedictine monk François de Montebelluna, who claimed the captivity was divine punishment and who compared Edward III to “le prince des sauterelles paré de fleurs étrangères” [the prince of locusts adorned with foreign flowers].9 This exegetical tradition seems the most likely origin for any legends about Edward III and his sons as blasts of the trumpet. The biblical authority implied in the awe, the impending doom, and the occultic sentence of Revelation may thus be the final word on what this war meant for the French, and no amount of admiration for the prowess of a feudal enemy could efface the indictment of the tapestries: the war was demonic punishment delivered by the English in their many invasions and pillagings of France in the fourteenth century. And this was before the more sustained encroachments of the fifteenth century had been conceived. Further, the tapestries suggest that despite their extrahuman powers, the forces of the English, like those of Abaddon and his crew, will eventually be defeated.

The second phase of the war ended in 1453; by the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, chroniclers building on the earlier coverage of Froissart and the monastic compilations had transformed these accounts through their own views of the war's aftermath. By the 1590s, during Elizabethan investment in an emergent nationalism, Shakespeare would turn their narratives into his own elaborately staged versions of this second phase: the invasion by Henry V, the extermination of Joan la Pucelle, and the “loss” of Normandy, as I shall discuss below.

It is not until the nineteenth-century crystallization of French and English national identities that the revival of medievalism and “historical realism” sparked further memorable representations of the events of the war. During 1829-1830, before his Moroccan journey and in the months preceding his La Liberté guidante le peuple, Delacroix completed a commission from the duchesse de Berry to paint La Bataille de Poitiers, a work she neglected to accept.10 The English remember the battle as that in which the Black Prince captured Jean le Bon and his fourteen-year-old son Philippe on September 19, 1356.11 In Delacroix's painting, the son shields his father, whose horse has fallen, as fighting men surround them; red pennons, presumably those of the English army, fly above the central figures as soldiers in variously emblazoned arms engage in combat in the foreground. Although it is perhaps possible that the event chosen for the canvas is intentionally ironic—the foolhardy king exposes his person in battle—the primary reminder seems to be that the French were steadfast, not that the English pummeled the French army, with lingering consequences for the populace. Michel Mollat du Jourdin notes that the defense of Jean and Philippe, based on the accounts of those who saw it, became legendary: “Nous devons au Florentin Matteo Villani [d. 1363] le récit du difficile combat soutenu dans un pays coupé de haies contre un ennemi embusqué dans les chemins creux, et celui, devenu légendaire, de la défense personnelle de Jean le bon, assisté de son fils Philippe, le future duc de Bourgogne: ‘Père. Gardez-vous à droite … à gauche’.”12 [We owe to the Florentine Matteo Villani (d. 1363) the story of the difficult battle, fought in a countryside riddled with hedges, against an enemy hiding in ditches. We owe to him as well the story, now legendary, of the personal defense of Jean le Bon, assisted by his son Philippe, the future duke of Burgundy, “Father—look to your right … to your left.”] Delacroix's painting clearly recalls Villani's account or a later elaboration of it, with emphasis on bravery in the face of terrible odds, the pathos of the defense, and filial piety. This painting does not figure large in Delacroix's reputation, but along with his more celebrated Bataille de Nancy, it follows the tradition of battle painting revived by Napoleon. Although Delacroix's revolutionary impulses might seem at odds with the subject of royal bravery, the painting is in keeping with the militarism of the early nineteenth century, and its prominence in the Louvre assures its continued place in an expression of French nationalism rendered thus: soldiers should sacrifice themselves in the defense of the fatherland, even in the face of certain defeat.

There is a similar response to this first phase of the war in Rodin's extraordinary statuary group, Les Bourgeois de Calais. In 1884 the city of Calais decided to honor its medieval hero Eustache de Saint-Pierre, and when in 1885 Rodin received the commission to construct the monument, he chose to represent all six burghers of Calais as they prepare to surrender the keys of the city to Edward III. After a devastating eleven-month siege ending in 1347, Edward was convinced by Walter Manny to spare the lives of the citizens, whom he then expelled, repeopling Calais with English colonists.13 In return for such clemency, Edward ordered Manny to bring before him the six richest burghers of Calais: “alez vous en arriere et leur dittes que pour l'amour de vous tous je les recheveray voulentiers tous comme prisonniers, sauf que j'en vueil avoir VI des plus gros de la ville, lesquelx venront par devant moy en pures et simples chemises, la hart au col, et m'aporteront les clefs de la ville, et feray d'eulx ma pure volenté”14 [go back and tell them that for love of all of you I will willingly release them to you as prisoners; but I want six of them, the most important in the city, to come before me, dressed only in shirts, their necks in halters, and to bring me the keys of the city, and I shall do with them exactly as I please]. Led by Eustache de Saint-Pierre, the burghers surrendered. The description by the chronicler Jean le Bel seems indeed the moment Rodin represents, and it is known that he followed Froissart's more literary elaboration of the event from the earlier chronicler. When the Calaisiens viewed Rodin's maquette, they objected, claiming the sculptor had chosen the moment of the burghers' most desperate and degrading submission. Rodin defended his vision by saying that “Far from humbling himself before the king of England, the burgher was ‘leaving the city to descend toward the camp. It is this that gives the group the feeling of march, of movement’.”15 By rendering intense suffering in the immense hands, bodies, and faces of the burghers, old or grown old from their trial, Rodin does convey that the effects of the siege were brutal and inhumane. Like Delacroix's painting, Rodin's correspondence indicates that he was “eager to declare a personal vision of French history, of patriotism and sacrifice.”16

At the beginning of World War I, this vision was carried across the Channel and made fully, if ironically, analogical. The National Art Collections Fund acquired a casting of Les Bourgeois to be implanted in the gardens of London's Parliament in honor of Edward's queen, Philippa of Hainault. According to Jean le Bel, the reasoning, tears, and pleas of his commanders had failed to move the hard-hearted king to pity the burghers; Edward commanded that they be decapitated immediately. Then Philippa, who was heavily pregnant, fell to her knees and begged him to spare the burghers:

“Ha! Gentil sire, depuis que j'ay passé la mer en grand peril ainsy que vous sçavez, je ne vous ay riens demandé, si vous prye et requier a jointes mains, que pour l'amour du filz de Nostre Dame, vous vueilliez avoir mercy d'eulx.” Le gentil roy arresta un poy de parler et regarda la royne devant luy, à genoulx, amerement plourant; si luy commença ung petit le cueur à amollier, et luy dist: “Dame, j'amasse mielx que vous fussez aultre part, vous me priez si tendrement que je ne le vous ose escondire; et combien que je le face envis, neantmains prenez les, je les vous donne.” Si prist les VI bourgoys par les chevestres et les livra à la royne, et quitta de mort tous ceulx de Calais pour l'amour d'elle, et la bonne dame fist revestir et aisier lesdis VI bourgoys.17

[“Ah! Noble lord, from the moment I crossed the sea in great peril, as you know, I have asked you for nothing. So I beg and beseech you with clasped hands, for the love of the Son of Our Lady, to have mercy on them.” The noble king ceased speaking an instant and looked at the queen before him, on her knees, weeping bitterly. His heart began to soften somewhat and he said to her: “Lady, I would prefer that you were somewhere else; however, you ask me so passionately that I dare not refuse you. And as much as I regret it, nevertheless, take them, I give them to you.” Thus he took the six burghers by the halters and delivered them to the queen, saving all the citizens of Calais from death, for love of her. And the good Lady had the six burghers reclothed and did them ease.]

Duplicating the statuary group in London borders on the ironic; the moment of representation is that in which the burghers surrender to Edward III rather than the reprieve granted at Philippa's request, which in any event did not prevent the Calaisiens from being driven from their city. In October of 1914, Rodin gave a large number of sculptures to England “as a gift honoring the unified effort of England and France to stop the German menace.” Les Bourgeois would also have been unveiled at this time, but the secretary of the fund postponed it for fear the reference to Calais's submission some five hundred years earlier would be untimely at the moment when “the German armies are making desperate attempts to reach Calais and again compel its surrender!”18 Even during this era, the events of the Hundred Years' War were intentionally made the point of reference for patriotic self-sacrifice and were perceived as such by contemporaries.

The similarity between these two nineteenth-century popular, supremely nationalistic representations, Delacroix's La Bataille de Poitiers and Rodin's Les Bourgeois de Calais, lies in their concentration on the victims of the war. Doomed defense or complete self-sacrifice for what will be a losing proposition, perhaps with the hope of eventual deliverance, are the nineteenth-century visions of France deriving from the Hundred Years' War.19 Differences between the painting and monument lie first in the choice of subject: the capture and imprisonment of the king must have been humiliating, but unlike the loss of Calais, it did not last two hundred years and did not represent so viscerally as the expulsion from Calais the suffering inflicted on noncombatants. Each work follows the written tradition to represent effectively moments particularly unhappy for the French during the Hundred Years' War. Neither, unlike most revisions created by the English, is designed to show those events from the point of view of the victor, either the Black Prince or Edward III.

But they are strangely in keeping with themes treated in the response of the written tradition of the fourteenth century recorded in the Apocalypse tapestries: the endurance and eventual defeat of the demonic invaders. If one can tentatively consider the Apocalypse tapestries as very early artistic and popular or even official representations of the war, then perhaps one should keep in mind what they mean for all representations of this war, contemporary and later. From the illuminated manuscripts of Froissart (himself sponsored by Philippa of Hainault, queen of Edward III) and other chroniclers; to propagandistic images produced during the fifteenth century, such as the Jesse trees of Henry VI in various manuscripts now in the British library, including one in which St. Louis presents Henry VI to the Virgin and Child;20 to the window sponsored by “Foulques eyto[n]” in the church at Caudebec; to Shakespeare's Henry VI, Henry V, and perhaps Edward III;21 to Nicolas-Guy Brenet's La Mort de du Guesclin (1777) and J. E. Lenepveu's painting of Jeanne d'Arc, now in the Panthéon; to Rossellini's Jeanne d'Arc;22 despite the English invaders' efforts to contain resistance, they were very early on despised by those whom they invaded, even if at that moment one can speak only conditionally of a unified “France.”23

Between England and France, and within both England and France, competing versions of the war continue to be constructed. Between the two nations, France presents victimization, self-sacrifice, and endurance against England's tale of glory in conquest. As late as 1989 Kenneth Branagh's film version of Shakespeare's Henry V managed to exalt the English monarch's invasion of France, while there is yet another film version of the war, this one in two parts, Jeanne la Pucelle: Les Batailles and Les Prisons, starring Sandrine Bonnaire and directed by Jacques Rivette.24 By the starkness of their imagery and the absence of glorified battle scenes, these two films, unlike Branagh's Henry V, convey a sense of the tragedy of the war. Within England itself, differing versions of this war have long existed, but because of later nationalistic agendas, they are more difficult to delineate. I shall present first what one would normally expect to see here, Shakespeare's Henry V and its continued role in English nationalism, and then his much earlier and less well-known staging of the contraction from the Hundred Years' War in 1450-1453, Henry VI, Part 2.


It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the Hundred Years' War in England's conception of itself as a nation. Edward III and his son the Black Prince are remembered as warrior king and prince. The colonization of Calais by Edward III is considered one of the most important military achievements of his reign. Similarly, the battles of Poitiers and Agincourt and Henry V's siege of Rouen are spoken of in terms of their superior English military strategy. With the subtitle of his book on the Hundred Years' War, The English in France, 1337-1453, at least one popular historian, Desmond Seward, acknowledges that the war was an invasion and describes the horrors of the English chevauchées. Although sympathetic to the French, even he cannot resist saying: “It is arguable that the Hundred Years' War was medieval England's greatest achievement.”25

Repeatedly the life of Henry V, his invasion, and the battle of Agincourt are represented on the stage and screen, often from some version of Shakespeare's Henry V, written most likely in 1599 and entered in the Stationers' Register in 1600. Andrew Gurr's stage history in his recent Cambridge edition of the play notes the correlation between revivals of the play and national crises: it was restaged during the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars, the Boer War, World War I, the Battle of Britain, and D-Day.26 Quite beyond what the king may have meant to Shakespeare in the very last years of Elizabeth's reign, he has continued to inspire analogue history; what that has meant to the English in the wars of this century is difficult to untangle. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield describe Shakespeare's disruptions to an ideology of national identity in Henry V; like Spenser's A View of the Present State of Ireland, it reveals too much “the human cost.”27 Chris Fitter, in a critique of Branagh's film version of Henry V, claims, “Shakespeare's play, however, satiric, ambiguating and interrogative, is clearly an exposé of imperialist rhetoric and a critique of the institution of monarchy. … Monarchical interests, Shakespeare repeatedly shows, are inimical to those of the common people, whose support must thus be ideologically reinforced through oratorical inductions of false consciousness.”28

The most important production of Henry V during World War II is Laurence Olivier's film version (released November 22, 1944), which opens with the dedication “to the Commandos and Airborne Troops of Great Britain—‘the spirits of whose ancestors it has humbly attempted to recapture.’”29 Olivier and those who supported him all appear to have recognized the nationalistic propaganda value of a film version of Henry V and to have received encouragement and support from the British government, particularly the Ministry of Information.30 It is not possible to divorce Olivier's film production of Henry V from British war efforts or to ignore the propaganda at work on several levels in the film, from decisions about cuts in the text to decisions about particular shots or techniques.

Olivier excises from the play lines and scenes that render Henry V less than heroic; thus, there is no Cambridge conspiracy; no threatening of virgins, infants, and old people before the walls of Harfleur; no talk of putting to death the French soldiers captured at Agincourt.31 According to Harry M. Geduld, “Henry's scene with the conspirators was probably eliminated not only because, as James Phillips maintains, ‘it developed Elizabethan political ideas that are unfamiliar and even objectionable to modern audiences,’ but also because, in 1944, it would have been interpreted as an allusion to the existence of a well-organized fifth column.”32 Those “unfamiliar” and “objectionable” ideas include, on the one hand, the historical tradition of the nobility's open and secret liaisons with the French and, on the other, Henry's deceitfulness in exposing the conspiracy and his ruthlessness in executing his cousins.

Further cuts were made to accommodate the time Olivier chose to spend re-enacting the battle of Agincourt. Although Graham Holderness claims that inordinate attention has been paid to Olivier's Agincourt scene, it in fact merits even further analysis.33 A significant piece of footage, the first to be shot, it is the most informative segment of the film.34 As Olivier himself admitted and as many critics have noted since, this Agincourt imitates the celebrated “Battle on the Ice” in Eisenstein's Alexandr Nevskii (released November 23, 1938), a comparison worth pursuing.35 The visual and emotional power of Olivier's Agincourt is attributable to the compositional intricacies of its model. In Eisenstein's film, the legendary Alexander Nevsky and his soldiers fight Teutonic Knights, armored as metallic automatons, for a clearly nationalistic cause: to defend the motherland from its invaders.36 In his essay “My Subject is Patriotism,” Eisenstein explains that through this thirteenth-century subject the film was made to address the barbarism of contemporary German fascists, both in their treatment of the Jews and as they attacked the sanctity and integrity of Soviet nationalism.

This is the subject of our film. We have taken a historic episode from the thirteenth century, when the Teutonic and Livonian knights, the ancestors of the contemporary fascists, undertook a systematic advance eastward in order to subjugate the Slavonic and other peoples, in precisely the same spirit as contemporary fascist Germany is trying to do, with the same frenzied slogans and the same fanaticism. … This is why the picture, though it deals with a specific historic epoch, with specific historic events, seems like a modern picture, according to the testimony of those who have seen it. The feelings which inflamed the Russian people in the thirteenth century when they repelled the foe are quite close to those which the Soviet peoples feel at the present time. Undoubtedly the same feelings fire those upon whom the predatory paws of Hitlerite aggression have already been laid.37

It is always possible that Eisenstein writes here as prompted; other Soviet films from 1938 and 1939 are even more explicitly anti-Nazi. By the middle of 1939, the Nazi-Soviet pact sent all these films, Nevskii included, into recall.38

Eisenstein considered the Battle on the Ice one of his three most successful sequences (with the “Odessa steps” and the “meeting the squadron” in Potemkin), and speaks of it frequently in other essays, especially in reference to the compositional methods by which he attempted to achieve emotional effect. He claims that all elements of the sequence were structured to parallel the beating of a terrified heart.39 He credits D. W. Griffith, whom he met, as the progenitor of such scenes as his own in the development of Soviet montage. The charge of the knights thus must owe something in its conception to the charge of the Klansmen in Birth of a Nation; however, while admiring his technique, Eisenstein found Griffith's politics “repellent.”40

In creating his 1944 Henry V, Olivier is clearly influenced by the montage and tracking shots of the attack by the “German wedge” and the subsequent battle on Lake Chedskoe. Aware of the emotional power attainable through the imitation of Eisenstein's techniques, Olivier transfers the charge of the knights, the precarious condition of the ice, Alexander's tactical brilliance and his rousing speeches about fighting for one's land to the charge of the French, the unforeseen natural phenomenon of the fields near Agincourt, Henry's speeches, and the defensive position assumed by the English. He further combines from Eisenstein an overstated nationalism with the notion that those who trust to their war machine instead of the heroic spirits of their soldiers become vulnerable in battle. Rather, those who face terrible odds will, by relying on their personal sacrifice, skills, stoutheartedness, spirit of brotherhood, and inspired leadership, outface their better-equipped enemies. Olivier easily appropriates Eisenstein's montage and the building to a pitch of emotion through the horses' hooves; the anxiety of the soldiers as they face the oncoming army and the flight of arrows from the German crossbowmen inspired specific shots in the Agincourt scene. Olivier makes much of the English bowmen who slaughter French soldiers as they become mired in the recently ploughed and muddy fields near Agincourt. Riding a white horse, his Henry V, like Nevsky, never flags before the effete, completely superficial, grandiosely armored and thus overconfident French commanders and soldiers.

The ways in which Henry V became a tempting vehicle for British propaganda as the D-Day landings grew imminent are easy to list and have been thoroughly discussed by Holderness. However, it has not been made clear how the play, matched against Alexandr Nevskii, provides a particularly aggressive and complicated vision of nationalism. As Gurr notes, there is no battle scene in the play besides the encounter between Pistol and Le Fer.41 Olivier detaches a moment of defensive posturing from a campaign which is otherwise construable only as an invasion, and therefore presents the soldiers as prepared to be sacrificial, much like those of Jean le Bon, or even like the burghers of Calais. To focus on the Battle of Agincourt is to forget that Henry V and his men resemble not the allies, but the German aggressors. However, Olivier was able to turn an arrogant assumption about ownership—Henry's tenacious hold on a fragile dynastic claim of France—into a vehicle for nationalistic propaganda to serve the interests, as he himself notes, of the descendants of the original aggressors.

Olivier's film accomplished several things at once. First and most important, it portrayed the English as heroic and superior soldiers in the most adverse conditions against their traditional enemies. Long after Normandy had been lost to the French in 1450, England once again invades victoriously in this re-representation of the Hundred Years' War. Through careful staging and redirecting of Shakespeare's play, the film, like Eisenstein's Nevskii, does create “analogue history.” Further, it serves to comment on the role of the English and French in World War II. In this film the French lack leadership; disorganized and factious, they sit playing mindless children's games; weak and effeminate, they present a surface culture with little depth, a clever indictment of the Vichy government. Second, it is designed to present the allies, led by the British in their version of nationalism, as victorious over the fascist Germans. Working through the Russian nationalism against the Germans in Alexandr Nevskii, Olivier's Henry V also strikes at the Germans' position in Normandy and their reliance on advanced weaponry and steel-reinforced concrete garrisons. The film suggests that an English invasion will be successful, despite the seemingly superior defenses of the Germans. Olivier's Henry V may be seen as attacking at once both the French and the Germans: the weakness of the French in succumbing to the occupying army, and the weakness of the occupying army despite its much vaunted military superiority. Olivier's film captures nationalistic feeling by staging a counter-invasion, not against the Germans, but against the French as they have been Germanized, or as they have been reduced by the Germans, or perhaps merely allowed themselves to be reduced, as “we” always suspected they might.

Raymond Durgant accepts the film's “rousing jingoism” but finds the topical references confusing. He remarks that in the wooing scene, “whether France here = France our ally, to whom Churchill had in 1940 impulsively proposed ‘marriage,’ or Germany our enemy whom we mustn't hate forever, is quite ambiguous.”42 The references are layered rather than ambiguous. The French are the French of the playworld, England's traditional enemy and Other. The French are further, via the representation of their effeminacy, also traditional, the French in submission to the Germans, that is, the Vichy government. The French are also the Germans outright, via the stated intentions of the filmmakers and backers, and implicitly, via unmistakable allusions to Alexandr Nevskii. The set speeches, “Once more unto the breach” and “We happy few,” are those both of an invader and a defender. Harfleur is successfully besieged while Henry's position at Agincourt is defensive, yet both are played to comment on the war with Germany.

Following the lead of Olivier's filming of Henry V, critical assertions about Shakespeare's history plays have been consciously and unconsciously shaped to a large degree by the events of World War II and the reactions and attitudes of scholars who lived through or fought in that war. It would seem that as the West has grown aware of the origins and dangers of nationalism through that war itself, the analogical reconstructions in those plays would become transparent. The pull of the “national hero,” however, is still quite strong, as the confused agenda of Branagh's Henry V reveals.43

Like their earlier counterparts, many contemporary critics read Henry V through their own experience of war; for a younger generation of American critics in the late twentieth century, this is the Vietnam war, which, beyond addressing the question of war itself also interrogated the authority of political and military leaders, the value of nationalism, and the necessity of playing world police. Despite this new antiwar interpretation, many English and American representations of the Hundred Years' War, especially those deriving from Shakespeare's English histories, are nonetheless still markedly influenced by historical narratives of England's heroism, deriving at least from the nineteenth-century response to the Napoleonic wars and further hardened by attitudes toward the French and Germans in World War II. Reading Shakespeare against the grain of uncritical nationalism thus continues to be controversial. Since the recent fiftieth anniversary of the allied invasion of Normandy, that reading is very delicate and to some even blasphemous to maintain.


Historians who in some way treat the Hundred Years' War do not look with the same intensity at all of its long series of events. If Henry's invasion of Normandy and his claiming of it for his son are difficult to discuss outside nationalistic attitudes, it is far more difficult to address the end of the Hundred Years' War without becoming immured in chauvinistic rhetoric. What French historians call the “recovery of Normandy” is to the English the “loss of France,” a phrase which appears to capture genuine contemporary responses to the events, but which may also treat them with all the feeling of a much later era of nationalism built against the French. Of the full-scale English histories or more detailed articles on various segments of the Hundred Years' War, I have read few which do not to some degree regret, for complex reasons, that the English “lost” Normandy. The Hundred Years' War does seem to be on the consciences of some historians, such as Griffiths and Postan. But others, particularly McFarlane and his followers, assert that the war was morally justifiable and on the whole beneficial to the populace of England.44 Most English historians, whatever they may think of the series of events during the English occupation, are of one mind about the end of the war: it was a mistake that could have been prevented.

By contrast, earlier and modern French historians, as do French writers and artists of various types and from various periods, as I have suggested above, inscribe the war in narratives differing greatly from those produced by the English. French historians emphasize the social and economic effects of invasion and of warfare. For the most part they consider the English attempt to bastardize the dauphin and the reversion of the French succession to Henry V as humiliations, viewing the latter's exploits in terms of the damage they inflicted on soldiers and civilians, and stressing his cruelty and ruthlessness. In historical surveys, the Hundred Years' War does not always claim the large place it does in English histories. Agincourt often receives only a brief account, and sometimes French histories do not separate the events from 1415 to 1453, seeing the first date as the beginning of the end of the Hundred Years' War.45 One history which treats the entire period at length considers it “une occupation.”46 The experience of World War II exerts great pressure on these historians as well, as they readily admit.

Competing narratives of the war and its effects were also accessible within late Elizabethan England; they, too, are narratives of resistance. The events portrayed in Shakespeare's Henry V can be played in opposing ways; the drama has the potential for military heroics and chauvinistic razzing of a traditional enemy, as well as for a dark and skeptical, even cynical reading of those very attitudes. It includes the visions of people from various orders of society. And it ends with a stark reminder that although this play is about the exploits of the warrior king everyone loves to admire, the playwright knows quite well what followed those military conquests: lingering foreign war and military defeat leading to internal strife and civil war. In a backward glance to the beginnings of his own career in the theater, Shakespeare ends Henry V with this sonnet epilogue:

Thus far, with rough and all-unable pen
Our bending author hath pursu'd the story,
In little room confining mighty men,
Mangling by starts the full course of their glory.
Small time, but in that small, most greatly lived
This star of England. Fortune made his sword
By which the world's best garden he achieved,
And of it left his son imperial lord.
Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crowned king
Of France and England, did this king succeed,
Whose state so many had the managing
That they lost France and made his England bleed,
Which oft our stage hath shown—and for their sake,
In your fair minds let this acceptance take

(V.iii.1-14; emphasis added).

If this end of the war were so shameful as historians suggest, one wonders why Shakespeare began his career with a trio of plays about the king who “lost” the Hundred Years' War, and this closely following 1588, when the English more or less “defeated” the Armada.

At a moment when feeling over home territory and anxiety over the threat of invasion were running high and before he chose to represent Henry V or the landing at Harfleur, Shakespeare staged the death of heroism, the reputedly ignominious loss of Normandy, the popular rebellion of Jack Cade, and the Yorkist uprising known as the War of the Roses. Few critics have managed, to any remarkable degree, to establish why.47 The answer may lie in part in the convergence of the influence of the chronicle sources with the necessity for England's state of wartime readiness in the late 1580s and early 1590s. Elizabeth and her subjects seemed propelled into war, after years of “relative” peace, by the Queen of Scots, by Philip II, by Liguers, by the Low Countries, and by her militant Protestants. Although critics often cite the aging queen's succession crisis as giving rise to domestic anxieties at the same moment as the war, the gravest succession question between 1589 and 1593 was not who would succeed the Virgin Queen or even who would sit in the Privy Council, but who would sit on the throne of France. The consequences of that decision were fearfully projected to the English. I posit here that the “matter of France,” the uncertainty of the French succession, and the complex of attitudes it fostered about war with England's traditional enemy, are the salient influences on Shakespeare's early plays.

In Act IV of Henry VI, Part 2, the rebel captain, Jack Cade, accuses the Lord Treasurer of a number of crimes and pronounces decisive judgment upon him: “[he] can speak French; and therefore he is a traitor” (IV.ii.155-60). This line, spoken by a character from the lower orders of society, is usually read as comic, if not ludicrous, and to some, as a measure of Shakespeare's antipopulism. Cade's anti-French attitude, in a playworld rent by factious leaders and terrorized by his popular uprising, might be read not so much as Shakespeare's demonizing of the lower classes as a negotiated representation of la guerre de Cent ans on the English home front. In some current historical reconstructions of the war's end, English military aggression in France is thought to have been internalized; I would add that then as later, France-bashing or the desire to conquer France and anxieties about losing it helped disguise domestic economic depression and anxieties about the succession questions both at home and in France. Through the chronicle sources of Hall, Holinshed, Stow, Grafton, and others, dramatists of the 1590s could read of an earlier period of external military failure and internal domestic distress punctuated by anti-Gallic sentiment. It played well. It was not, however, a matter of simple xenophobia or deflection to a scapegoat of frustrations about losing foreign wars.

In recent years, Leah Marcus, Phyllis Rackin, and Richard Helgerson have attempted to describe the complicity of Elizabethan drama in the development of English nationalism. To extend that effort, I should like to offer two premises, concluded in part from Charles Tilly's theoretical explanation of the role of war in the making of the state:48 (1) Foreign war promotes nationalism in the form of chauvinism and of state centralization. (2) Internal responses to the economic pressures of war affect the ways in which nationalism proceeds; if the wars are lingering or unsuccessful, the pressures become acute and violence can turn inward. Those internal responses and effects are dispersed throughout the populace to surface in its writings, including the chronicle plays of the 1590s. In Henry VI, Part 2, which recounts the English response to the French recovery of Normandy, the venom, hurled not so much against France as on the Francophile activities of those who lost it, draws on accounts of the earlier period of popular anti-Gallic sentiment, the middle of the 1400s, to mediate a crisis in late Elizabethan England; the tension between national and dynastic identity filtered through continued warfare, particularly with Liguers-controlled France.

Even as Elizabeth's courtiers pursued a militant protestancy abroad, their wars in France, the costs of which cut deeply across the populace, were largely unfocused and unsuccessful.49 The attitude toward France represented in Henry VI, Part 2, especially through the popular uprising led by Jack Cade, is as much a complex register of popular feeling about that war as it is of early modern nationalism: waging war and creating the state are inseparable, both historically and on the stage. Further, the complication of Elizabeth's tentative backing of Henri de Navarre invites us to explore the contradiction between traditional France-bashing and the undeniable admiration the English felt for Navarre as he battled his way to his throne. As Dickens and Bell have demonstrated, from 1589 the number of newsletters pouring into England on the wars of Henri de Navarre kept the reading public aware of his progress as he struggled to gain Paris. Those published only in France are copious, but many were translated and the number of those extant indicates the extent of their popularity.50 English hostility toward Liguers and their activities from 1588 to 1594 is complicated by English admiration for Henri IV, who appeared as a heroic Protestant prince who might or might not succeed in gaining the throne he claimed by Salic law, as opposed to the candidate “Charles X,” or those put forward by Philip II, including the Infanta. This complexity informs Shakespeare's presentation of the French. The chronicle accounts of losing France in the 1440s and 1450s may have read to Shakespeare and other Elizabethans as a curiously familiar tale of the high price an ambivalent public pays for nationalistic or political war efforts sponsored by dynastic claimants. In the earlier period, while the public expressed a desire to retain the “French patrimony,” they balked at its cost in lives and other resources. In the latter period, while the public responded positively to the idea of supporting Henri IV and of defining itself against Catholic Liguers, it reacted negatively to the internal pressures created by the tremendous if inadequate costs of that war, which first legitimated taxation, and, although it was lingering and indeterminate, continued to demand taxation. These costs are both named and disguised by anti-Gallic sentiment and anger over the “loss of France.”

Leah Marcus has examined Henry VI, Part 1 and its collapsing of Joan la Pucelle, the French woman warrior who consorts with demons, into Elizabeth and her lack of decisiveness in Protestant efforts abroad. “Want of men and money” led to frustration with the war effort: “When English audiences watched 1 Henry VI, what they saw was a bustling, bloody palimpsest of past and present militarism.”51 While Marcus focuses on the relationship between war and its effects at home as it is manifested in Part 1's implied criticism of Elizabeth for disgracing England by withholding funds adequate to win the war, I would like to emphasize that Part 2 considers the effects of that even inadequate resource extraction from those who cannot bear the costs and the resulting internal violence—hardships that are difficult to analyze because of the concurrence of dynastic and incipient nationalistic agendas. According to Charles Tilly, who describes state making as “organized crime,” the criticism often acts as a screen; it is in the interests of the crown and its agents to be able to “protect” their subject populations, and lingering or unsuccessful wars allude to the possibility that they cannot uphold their obligations of protection, and cannot therefore justify resource extraction.52 Moreover, it is difficult to compute the costs to those people in various lower orders of society, although their contributions to the war efforts in both periods are substantial.53 Complaints about the various hardships caused by the war are imbedded in many forms of chauvinism, both historically and in these plays.

In the Henry VI trilogy, things fall apart: the loss of France is followed by rebellion and confusion, the loss of a strong moral center, and finally, civil war, all woven into the long and tortured reign of Henry VI. That reign spanned nearly forty years, carving, from Henry's majority, the middle out of the fifteenth century. Between 1445 and 1455 occurred several of the more important events of that reign: Henry's marriage to Margaret of Anjou; the development of Henry's court faction and within it, the rise to power and the murder of the Duke of Suffolk; the contraction from Normandy; the Cade rebellion; the contraction from Gascony and the end of the Hundred Years' War; the Yorkist rebellion and the first battle of Saint Albans between the Yorkists and Lancastrians. The liminal site between those two traumatic events—the Hundred Years' War and the War of the Roses—is characterized by instability, and the transition between them is effected by widespread rebellion, particularly Cade's rebellion of 1450. Two developments have an impact on the events of 1450: Henry's personal rule and the military contraction from France, both of them underscored by economic deterioration. The rise of Henry's faction after his majority resulted in a household affinity extending from court to county, which alienated the traditional aristocracy and the small-holders of the southern and eastern counties through the perversion of justice and corruption of offices.

In the popular and chroniclers' imaginations, however, “the loss of Normandy” began in 1445, with the marriage of Henry VI to Margaret of Anjou (great granddaughter of that Louis I who commissioned the tapestries at Angers), and popular anti-Gallic sentiment is reflected in chronicle statements about her:

This mariage semed to many, bothe infortunate, and vnprofitable to the realme of England, and that for many causes. First the kyng with her had not one peny, and for the fetchyng of her, the Marques of Suffolke, demaunded a whole fiftene, in open parliament: also for her mariage, the Duchie of Aniow, the citee of Mauns, and the whole cou[n]tie of Mayne, were deliuered and released to Kyng Reyner her father, whiche countreis were the very stayes, and backestandes to the Duchy of Normandy. Furthermore for this mariage, the Erle of Arminacke, toke suche great displeasure, that he became vtter enemy to the realme of Englande and was the chief cause, that the Englishmen, wer expulsed out of the whole duchie of Aquitayne, and lost bothe the countreis of Gascoyn and Gyen. But moste of all it should seme, that God with this matrimony was not content. For after this spousage the kynges frendes fell from hym, bothe in Englande and in Fraunce, the Lordes of his realme, fell in diuision emongest themselfes, the commons rebelled against their souereigne Lorde, and naturall Prince, feldes wer foughten, many thousandes slain, and finally, the kyng deposed, and his sonne slain, and this Quene sent home again, with as-muche misery and sorowe, as she was receiued with pompe and triumphe, such is worldly vnstablenes, and so wauerying is false flattering fortune.54

Not only is Margaret of Anjou blamed for the loss of Normandy, she also lost Aquitaine and, with this explusion of the English from France, she is responsible for the War of the Roses. The French queen caused these wars.

Drawing from several such chronicle sources, Henry VI, Part 2 dramatizes the third phase of Lancastrian France, 1444-1453. It opens with the arrival in England of the French princess and the cession of Maine and Anjou to her father. The war party, headed by Gloucester, registers shock at the yielding of “the keys of Normandy” (I.i.113), and blames Suffolk, leading the peace party, for that loss.55

What! did my brother Henry spend his youth,
His valour, coin, and people, in the wars?
Did he so often lodge in open field,
In winter's cold, and summer's parching heat,
To conquer France, his true inheritance?


Invoking the name of the conqueror is of no avail; Henry VI does not resemble his warrior father, and the incredible costs—the expense of aristocratic blood, subject blood, and physical resources—will have been for naught. Yet the words could apply to an Henri IV still in the process of gaining his throne, which may account for the Cardinal's curious response: “For France, 'tis ours; and we will keep it still” (I.i.105).

Although each character speaks of it in terms of his own physical expenditure in getting and keeping France, York explores the value of France as equivalent to one's landed title. His first reactions parallel Gloucester's, but then become far more personal and physically acute:

Methinks the realms of England, France, and Ireland
Bear that proportion to my flesh and blood
As did the fatal brand Althaea burnt
Unto the prince's heart of Calydon.
Anjou and Maine both given unto the French!
Cold news for me, for I had hope of France,
Even as I have of fertile England's soil.


Again, these lines suggests the human costs of such a patrimony. By I.iii, the court, to remove Gloucester from power, will accuse him of various crimes, including gouging the public and losing French territory. In Act III, news will arrive that all France is lost, as York, though in conspiracy, formally charges that Gloucester “took bribes of France” and “stay'd the soldiers' pay” (III.i.104-5). Two-hundred lines later in the scene, York accuses Somerset, who returns the volley, of losing France. And as soon as it is lost, Gloucester is removed as well, followed soon by the Cardinal. Thus all factions tying the court to Henry V and his conquest are removed and the forces of internal chaos are unleashed.

After Gloucester's death, however, the Duke of Suffolk and Margaret, as in many contemporary Yorkist-biased chronicles and witnesses, bear most of the responsibility for the loss of Normandy. Early in Act IV, a pirate tribunal charges that Suffolk “sold” Anjou and Maine to France (IV.i.85); that is, he has, like Elizabeth, alienated crown lands and brought home disabled soldiers. The accusation is telling:

By devilish policy art thou grown great,
And, like ambitious Sylla, overgorg'd
With gobbets of thy mother's bleeding heart.
By thee Anjou and Maine were sold to France,
The false revolting Normans thorough thee
Disdain to call us lord, and Picardy
Hath slain their governors, surpris'd our forts,
And sent the ragged soldiers wounded home.


Suffolk is demonized for his cannabalizing pro-French activities, as crucial a part of the literary representation of la guerre de Cent ans as external demonizing is of the construction of English nationalism. His activities abroad reveal that the state can no longer justify its extraction of resources for the “ragged soldiers,” who have been sent home unattended and unprepared, historically, for what little awaited them when they arrived. The analogue of Normandy 1450/1590 must have seemed almost as strong as that of Normandy in 1415/1944.

Aside from the costs of the unsuccessful wars inflicted and endured by the aristocracy, those costs suffered by the underclasses are far more acute. After Suffolk's execution in scene IV.i, the remainder of the act is devoted to Cade's rebellion, which further develops the complicity of state-making and war through anger over the loss of France; the transition from foreign war to civil war is effected by that uprising. Significantly, Cade's concerns are with both arenas. Against Lord Say (whose head the butcher will have for “selling the dukedom of Maine” [IV.ii.153-54]), Cade alleges the castration of the body politic; that loss is clearly France, paid for physically by the populace. Later, during the mock tribunal, Cade charges that Lord Say is he “which sold the towns in France” (IV.vii.18); the formal accusation uses Francophobic language: “What canst thou answer to my Majesty for giving up of Normandy unto Mounsieur Basimecu, the Dauphin of France?” (IV.vii.25). Cade also orders the execution of (Sheriff) William Crowmer (Say's son-in-law), and then has their two heads paraded on poles, to kiss at every corner and then to part “lest they consult about the giving up of some more towns in France” (IV.vii.126-27). These actions, almost straight from the chronicle sources, visually reinforce Cade's complaint of the loss of France and the human costs of these unsuccessful foreign wars.

Those responsible for the aftermath of the war, socially mobile members of the king's faction, are conveniently executed outside the king's tribunal. Yet, the concessions to the subject population do not end here; in the ensuing years the king's concessions will include, eventually, his own title. The struggle among various sectors of the population will also continue; Cade's rebels must be accused of using illegitimate forms of violence and must, in turn, be executed by the king's faction, that the select portion of the subject population may be protected from them. Apart from anger over the loss of France, Shakespeare's Cade's most insistent grievance is economic hardship, and his “program” includes radical reforms for access to property and power, the lowering of prices, with something like a subsistence economy assured for all. Thus between the two complaints, Cade glances at the economic effects of protracted and unsuccessful war; Shakespeare writes his own analogue history, applying the internal effects of the end of the French war to the effects of war in France in the early 1590s.56

In its representation of Cade's rebellion, the play manages to expose those who bore responsibility for the extraordinary costs of waging a losing war on the territory of an historical rival: the agents of the state. In representing the end of the Hundred Years' War as turning in on England, the play allows Cade, an artisan suborned by the Duke of York, brutally to punish those whose most notorious crime is having “lost France” and extorted funds from the populace to exacerbate economic conditions. After the nobler characters accuse each other, Cade steps in to accuse his superiors as a class, using their own rhetoric. The common soldier has not lost the war. Cade's intended social reform glances at the institutions and agents of the “state,” and in his judgment on the war having ended with the “loss of France,” Cade reveals the economic costs of Elizabethan “war making and state making.”57 He also embodies the costs in human life by initiating the first battles on the stage. In this excessively violent play, strewn with bodies and heads, the only battles occur at home, with Cade's uprising followed by York's. At the end of the play, Old Clifford dies fighting for Henry not against the French, but against York. Clifford's last words comment about the honor that is to be assessed through one's final actions, but the sentiment extends to the end of the French war and their lingering effects; he dies speaking axiomatic French: “la fin couronne les oeuvres.”

French and English narratives of the events of the Hundred Years' War, as the Apocalypse tapestries suggest, have always been in conflict. Further, the narratives produced on either side of the Channel have had conflicting claims within their own cultures. Examining these representations of the Hundred Years' War may lead us to a greater understanding of the varied constructions of nationalism: they justify the sacrifice of subjects, resources, and victims through selective memories and rhetoric. Now, perhaps, it is easier than during World War II, when dangers were severe and during which the rhetoric of “allied” nationalism seemed a mere statement of truth, to see the nature of these constructions as they have been made the vehicles for upholding the sanctity of the nation and those who proclaim themselves its authorities.58 By contrast, earlier narratives, particularly Shakespeare's history plays, with their concerns about the increasingly negative effects of war on the invaders' home front made manifest through anti-Gallic sentiment, reveal his criticism of the role of continual warfare in the making of what was increasingly called the “state.”59 In twentieth-century assessments and revisions of those plays, the focus has been on Henry V and its potential as the very stay and prop of nationalism, or its continued use by the British government to justify sacrifices and resources from the public.60 It is thus perhaps in some measure corrective to remember that Shakespeare's first vision of the Hundred Years' War is far more cynical. Henry VI, Part 2 questions the practice of using foreign war to promote the interests of the state: the war's end exposed its costs and its futility.


  1. The tapestries are divided into six sections (each more than 23 meters by 5 meters) of fourteen panels each. Details about the tapestries may be found in several sources; see La tenture de l'Apocalypse d'Angers (Nantes: l'Inventaire Général des Monuments et des Richesses Artistiques en Région des Pays de la Loire, 1993), especially 11-13, 35, 43, 84.

  2. This frequently cited statement appears, for example, in Fabienne Joubert, “L'Apocalypse d'Angers et les débuts de la tapisserie historiée,” Bulletin Monumental 139 (1981): 125. This Apocalypse manuscript is MS. Fr. 403 in the Bibliothèque nationale. A comparison of the tapestry with various manuscripts reveals the extent of this iconographical tradition. See René Planchenault, L'Apocalypse d'Angers (Paris: Caisse Nationale des Monuments Historiques et des Sites, 1966), 26-27. A striking comparison may be made with the photographs of leaves from the Burckhardt-Wildt album (York, c. 1270-1280), in Catalogue of Single Leaves and Miniatures from Western Illuminated Manuscripts (London: Sotheby's, 1983), 34-121.

  3. Francis Muel, “Notices,” in La tenture, 116, 149.

  4. There is always the possibility that such interpretations are offered solely for the benefit of English tourists, just as those of Jeanne d'Arc are tendered at various monuments in Rouen.

  5. Francis Salet, “Prologue,” in La tenture, 11.

  6. For these and other details of Louis's captivity, see Edouard Perroy, La Guerre de Cent ans (Paris: Gallimard, 1943), 117; and Jean Favier, La Guerre de Cent ans (Paris: Fayard, 1980), 285.

  7. In fact, the history of the tapestries and of the payment of ransom is interwoven; in 1363, taxes were owed on certain tapestries that Louis d'Anjou had bought, taxes destined for the payment of the ransom; see Joubert, “L'Apocalypse d'Angers,” 138, n. 6.

  8. Perroy, La Guerre de Cent ans, 160.

  9. Françoise Autrand, “La déconfiture. La Bataille de Poitiers (1356) à travers quelques textes français des XIVe et XVe siècles,” in Guerre et société en France, en Angleterre et en Bourgogne XIVe-XVe siècles, ed. Philippe Contamine, Charles Giry-Deloison, and Maurice Keen (Lille: Université de Charles de Gaulle, 1991), 93-121.

  10. See Frank Anderson Trapp, The Attainment of Delacroix (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1971), 179; and René Huyghe, Delacroix (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1963), 191.

  11. Although it is unclear exactly who erected the monument or authored the panneaux at the site of the battle, that account may to some degree be considered France's official though abridged version of what transpired.

  12. Michel Mollat du Jourdin, La guerre de Cent ans vue par ceux qui l'ont vécue (1975; reprint. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1992), 35, citing Matteo Villani, Istorie Fiorentine (republished Florence, 1823), chapter 18.

  13. Thomas D. Hardy, Syllabus (in English) of the Documents … in the Collection Known as ‘Rymer's Foedera’ (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1869-1885), 1:357: “12 Aug. 1347. Proclamation to be made throughout England that houses will be assigned to English persons willing to reside at Calais. Reading. R. iii. p.i.130. O.v.575. H.iii.p.i.16.”

  14. Jean le Bel, Chronique, ed. Jules Viard and Eugène Déprez (Paris: Librairie Renouard, 1904-1905), 1:162-63.

  15. Ruth Butler, Rodin: The Shape of Genius (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 204.

  16. Butler, Rodin, 211.

  17. Jean le Bel, Chronique, 1:166-67. Although Froissart's elaboration on the burghers and their fate has become famous, he in fact took it from this passage in Jean le Bel. This scene also appears in Shakespeare's Edward III, only recently included in the canon primarily because of Eric Sams's argument in Shakespeare's Edward III: An Early Play Restored to the Canon (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996). In the play there is no indication that Edward intends to depopulate the city after he releases the burghers.

  18. Butler, Rodin, 496.

  19. Representations of Jeanne d'Arc are also, of course, in this vein.

  20. The famous genealogical tree is in BM Royal 15, E. vi, fol. 3; the Jesse tree is in BM Add. MS 42, 131, fol. 73; and the depiction of St. Louis and Henry VI is in BM MS Cotton Dom. A. xii, fol. 50. For discussions, see J. W. McKenna, “Henry VI of England and the Dual Monarchy: Aspects of Royal Political Propaganda, 1422-1432,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 23 (1965): 145-62; P. S. Lewis, “War Propaganda and Historiography in Fifteenth-Century France and England,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th series, 15 (1965): 1-21; J. H. Rowe, “King Henry VI's Claim to France in Picture and Poem,” The Library, 4th series, 13 (June 1932): 77-88.

  21. Shakespeare's hand in Edward III has long been suspected, but since the play has only recently been added to the canon, I defer discussion of it to another time.

  22. Between 1898 and 1970, at least nineteen films were produced on the heroine. Directors include Pathé, Cecil B. De Mille, Roberto Rossellini, Otto Preminger, Victor Fleming; actresses include Ingrid Bergman, Jean Seberg, and Sandrine Bonnaire (Musée Jeanne d'Arc, Rouen). In 1999 two films on Joan of Arc premiered: one was produced for CBS and aired in the United States in May 1999; the second, “The Messenger,” was directed by Luc Besson.

  23. For this debate, which still rages, see the chapter entitled “De la modernité de la guerre de Cent ans: conflit féodal, dynastique ou national?” in Philippe Contamine, De Jeanne d'Arc aux guerres d'Italie: Figures, images et problèmes du XVe siècle (Orléans: Paradigme, 1994), 13-37.

  24. There is simply no room to discuss here representations of Jeanne d'Arc. It must be acknowledged, however, that since the nineteenth century she has become the figure of French nationalism. To what presumably national crisis this version of her life responds is the subject of another inquiry.

  25. Desmond Seward, The Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337-1453 (New York: Athenaeum, 1978), 17.

  26. Andrew Gurr, ed., King Henry V, by William Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 43-52.

  27. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, “History and Ideology: The Instance of Henry V,” in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (London and New York: Methuen, 1985), 206-27; here, 226.

  28. Chris Fitter, “A Tale of Two Branaghs: Henry V, Ideology, and the Mekong Agincourt,” in Shakespeare Left and Right, ed. Ivo Kamps (New York and London: Routledge, 1991), 259-75; here, 274.

  29. Gurr, King Henry V, 52. For the date, see DeWitt Bodeen, “Henry V,” in The International Directory of Films and Filmmakers, ed. Christopher Lyon (New York: Putnam, 1985), 195.

  30. Harry M. Geduld, Filmguide to Henry V (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973), 13-17. Supporters included Dallas Bower, “a sound engineer turned filmmaker,” who conceived the idea of the film, had earlier written a script for Henry V, and worked with Olivier at the BBC during the war; and Del Giudice, who helped back the film financially.

  31. Bodeen, “Henry V,” 196, remarks that “Olivier, preparing his own screenplay from the Shakespearean text, cut the play nearly a quarter so that he could give ample time to the staging of the Battle of Agincourt.”

  32. Geduld, Filmguide, 52.

  33. Graham Holderness, Shakespeare Recycled: The Making of Historical Drama (New York: Harverster Wheatsheaf, 1992), 178-227, esp. 190.

  34. Geduld, Filmguide, 19.

  35. Laurence Olivier, Confessions of an Actor (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982), 162. He recalls that while working on Richard III in 1954, he was unhappy with the battle scene: “Somehow, after Henry V, I couldn't find another battle in me and even that one, which did seem to come off, was littered with petty larcenies from our Master of All, Eisenstein.”

  36. Geoff Andrew, The Film Handbook (Essex: Longman Group, 1989), 95, calls the film “[a]n historical epic serving as an allegory of Nazi aggression and Soviet heroism.”

  37. Sergei Eisenstein, “My Subject is Patriotism,” International Literature 2 (1939): 91-94, especially 92.

  38. Arthur Knight, The Liveliest Art (New York: MacMillan, 1957), 218.

  39. Sergei Eisenstein, “The Structure of Film” [1939], in Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, ed. and trans. Jay Leyda (1949; reprint. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), 152-53.

  40. He cites Griffith's failure to perceive social injustice and castigates him as “an open apologist for racism, erecting a celluloid monument to the Ku Klux Klan, and joining their attack on Negroes in The Birth of a Nation,” in “Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today,” Film Form, 234.

  41. Gurr, King Henry V, 52: “The central section of the film, the realistically portrayed battle, almost completely abandons speech (the whole script at 1,500 lines is not much above half the full text) for visual effects. Since there is no battle scene in the play itself apart from Pistol and Le Fer, that was an inevitable adjustment. It is all Hollywood, with a great charge of French horsemen taken from Griffiths [sic], an Eisenstein-like flight of arrows through the sky, and English soldiers dropping from branches to pull the French knights from their horses as in Errol Flynn's Robin Hood films.” All other critics, including Olivier himself, cite Eisenstein directly as the source for the horsemen, which seems very likely, given the nature of film distribution.

  42. Raymond Durgnat, A Mirror for England, 109, cited in Geduld, Filmguide, 68-69.

  43. Holderness, Shakespeare Recycled, is the best discussion on the film, but see also Kenneth Branagh himself, Beginning (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1989).

  44. Ralph Griffiths, The Reign of King Henry VI: The Exercise of Royal Authority, 1422-1461 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981); C. T. Allmand, “The War and the Non-combatant,” in The Hundred Years War, ed. Kenneth Fowler (London: Macmillan, 1971), 163-83; M. M. Postan, “Some Social Consequences of the Hundred Years' War,” Economic History Review 12 (1942): 1-12. Opposed to these is the majority view of K. B. McFarlane, “War, the Economy and Social Change: England and the Hundred Years War,” Past and Present 22 (1962): 3-15.

  45. See, for instance, Guy Bois, The Crisis of Feudalism: Economy and Society in Eastern Normandy c. 1300-1550 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984); Alain Demurger, Temps de crises, temps d'espoirs: XIVe-XVesiècle (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1990); Michel Mollat du Jourdin, La guerre de Cent ans; Philippe Contamine, La Guerre de Cent ans, 6e ed (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1992).

  46. Emmanuel Bourassin, La France anglais 1415-1453: Chronique d'une occupation (Paris: Librarie Jules Tallandier, 1981).

  47. For example, here is the analysis of Peter Womack in “Imagining Communities: Theatres and the English Nation in the Sixteenth Century,” in Culture and History 1350-1600: Essays on English Communities, Identities and Writing, ed. David Aers (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992), 126: “The answer is that so long as the dynastic legitimation of the monarch and the nobility is more or less working, the stage does not afford any space for anyone else. The community of the nation is not needed, so to speak, and so there is no call to imagine it. It is only when that hierarchical order fails that the undifferentiated totality of the realm appears, as that which is harmed by its failure. The theatre's obsession with the contentions of noble houses is not a reflection of contemporary political reality: Elizabeth by the 1590s seems not to have been particularly threatened either by lawless magnates or by rival claimants to her throne. Rather, the enactment of such conflicts operates like a ritual, in which the degradation of the institutional forms of the realm generates a manifestation of the comitatus, the prior, underlying body to which all—characters and spectators—can feel they belong” (emphasis in original).

  48. Charles Tilly, “Western State-Making and Theories of Political Transformation,” in The Formation of National States in Western Europe, ed. Charles Tilly (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), 630.

  49. Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London: New Left Books, 1974), 130, claims that “The lack of any positive continental strategy inevitably resulted in the wasteful and pointless diversions of the last decade of the century.”

  50. See A. G. Dickens, “The Elizabethans and St. Bartholomew,” in The Massacre of St. Bartholomew: Reappraisals and Documents, ed. Alfred Soman (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1974), 52-70; and David Bell, “Unmasking a King: The Political Uses of Popular Literature Under the French Catholic League, 1588-89,” Sixteenth Century Journal 20 (1989): 371-86.

  51. Leah Marcus, Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and Its Discontents (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 52, 70, 76-80.

  52. Charles Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” in Bringing the State Back In, ed. Peter B. Evans, Dietrich Rueschmeyer, and Theda Skocpol (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 169-91.

  53. Several historians have computed the cost in large terms: John Guy, Tudor England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 343-47, 384-90; R. B. Wernham, After the Armada: Elizabethan England and the Struggle for Western Europe, 1588-1595 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 564-67; Wallace T. MacCaffrey, Elizabeth I: War and Politics 1588-1603 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 45-69.

  54. Edward Hall, “The troubleous season of Kyng Henry the Sixt,” in The Vnion of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke, ([London: Richard Grafton,] 1548), chapter 46. Most of the material is from Robert Fabyan, The New Chronicles of England and France [1516], ed. Henry Ellis (London: C. and J. Rivington et al., 1811).

  55. Fabyan, New Chronicles, 617-18, who first mentions that Anjou and Maine “are called the keyes of Normandy.”

  56. For a discussion of the debates on the economic conditions, see Ellen C. Caldwell, “Jack Cade and Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 2,Studies in Philology 92 (1995): 18-79.

  57. This paper thus both appeals to and questions the theory of hegemonic containment as it has been applied to Cade. See Stephen Greenblatt's reading in “Murdering Peasants: Status, Genre, and the Representation of Rebellion,” Representations 1 (1983): 1-29; Phyllis Rackin's refinement of this reading in Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990), 207-22; Richard Wilson, “‘A mingled yarn’: Shakespeare and the Cloth Workers,” Literature and History 12 (1986): 164-80; Brents Stirling, “Shakespeare's Mob Scenes: A Reinterpretation,” Huntington Library Quarterly 3 (1945): 213-40. Against these readings see Annabel Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), passim; Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Political Drama: The History Plays and the Roman Plays (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), 17, 18, 20; and Michael Hattaway, “Rebellion, Class Consciousness, and Shakespeare's 2 Henry VI,” Cahiers élisabéthains 33 (1988): 15.

  58. See the discussion on such demands for sacrifice in Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991), 187-206.

  59. MacCaffrey, Elizabeth I, 23.

  60. Holderness, Shakespeare Recycled, 191-210.

Laurence Lerner (essay date 2001)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6181

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 1968,1 is described as a Bearbeitung (reworking or adaptation): it departs considerably from Shakespeare's original, inventing and modernizing freely, and sometimes inserting material from The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England.2

Dürrenmatt's version is certainly more cynical (or at least more openly cynical) than Shakespeare's. There is, for instance, the arrival of the Archduke of Austria as ally to the French at the beginning of Act 2. Since he was responsible for the death of Richard Coeur de Lion, he might not seem an appropriate person to help restore the English crown to Richard's nephew Arthur: in Shakespeare we are told, by the French king, that he is doing this to make amends (no doubt this is the official version); in Dürrenmatt the French king remarks:

                                                                                          Österreichs Zug
Hierher ist nur ein Vorwand, unser Land
Zu plündern.

(Austria's campaign is just a pretext to plunder our country.)

A more complex example is the bargain that ends the battle, by which France abandons Arthur's claim to the English throne in return for receiving the English possessions in France. In Shakespeare, the governor of Angiers proposes that further fighting be avoided by means of a match between Blanche of Spain, John's niece, and the Dauphin, which is accepted once John has offered ‘Anjou and fair Touraine, Maine, Poitiers, / And all that we upon this side the sea … / Find liable to our crown and dignity.’ (2.1.488-91) In Dürrenmatt the kings strike this bargain themselves, with no mention of the marriage, before the battle begins:

KöNIG Johann
Wenn in Angers das bürgerliche Pack
Zum König mich erwählt, gibst du dann nach?
KöNIG Philipp
Ich gebe nach. Und wenn es Arthur wählt?
KöNIG Johann
Ich gebe ihm Touraine und Anjou dir.
KöNIG Philipp
Nicht viel.
KöNIG Johann
Mein Heer ist stärker …
KöNIG Philipp
If the crowd of citizens in Angers choose me as king, will you give in?
I'll give in. And if they choose Arthur?
I'll give him Touraine, and you Anjou.
That's not much.
My army's stronger …

The Austrian archduke, overhearing this, decides to sabotage it (‘This stinks of rotten peace, I'd better act’) by launching an attack on the rear of the English army, whereupon Philip indicates with a shrug that the bargain is off:

                                                                                                              Es tut
Mir Leid, Johann, doch gib es zu: Es wäre
Ein Wahnsinn, meinen Vorteil nicht zu nutzen
I'm sorry, John; but you must admit
It would be madness not to use this advantage.

Even more nakedly cynical is the fate of Angiers. In Shakespeare, the governor's proposal is made in self-defence, even desperation. After the drawn battle between the two armies, the Bastard suggests to the two kings that they join forces to destroy ‘this peevish town’, then resume their contest, and it is in response to this that Hubert, the governor, proposes his diplomatic solution—which succeeds. In Dürrenmatt the diplomatic solution also succeeds (i.e. the battle is not then resumed) but the kings then decide, out of annoyance, to destroy the town after all (‘Doch weil ihr keine der Parteien wähltet / Und weder warm noch kalt war, laue Hunde, / Seid jetzt bestraft’: All the same, because you wouldn't take sides, and were neither hot nor cold, you lukewarm dogs, you'll now be punished). The town is attacked, and the cathedral destroyed.

The other principle discernible in Dürrenmatt's changes is pacifist: the question of war v. peace is made, over and over, the centre of attention. Cynicism, pacifism: the two cannot always be distinguished.

Wars are arranged by kings but fought by ordinary people: this is perhaps the first and most striking point that will occur to the modern reader of Renaissance plays with their heroic value-schemes. In The Humorous Lieutenant of Beaumont and Fletcher, for example, the kings whom Demetrius has defeated in battle refuse to give up their ‘cities, forts and frontier countries’, protesting indignantly that they would then be ‘Traitors to those that feed us’. Demetrius is so impressed by their spirit that he tells them they can keep the lands; whereupon they in turn, not to be outdone in generosity, declare ‘You shall have all our countries—All, by heaven sir!’—an offer which Demetrius naturally refuses.3 Completely absent from this generosity contest is any awareness that these ‘countries’ have inhabitants, to whom it might matter who they are ruled by, or whether their land becomes a battlefield: the ‘cities, forts and countries’ have become tokens for royal gestures, nothing more.

The obvious antidote to this concern with heroic gesture is to bring the ordinary people into the play, as Shakespeare most famously and successfully does in Henry V; but Dürrenmatt refuses this easy method, explaining (in a note) that this is a play dealing with the murderers, not the victims. Instead, he uses a brilliant device which in the theatre is very powerful: the royal families greet one another effusively, and sit down to dinner together with a good deal of bonhomie, while soldiers drag corpses away in the background. During the battle they wear plastic aprons, which they later remove when covered with blood. When Shakespeare's kings discuss the battle it is an argument about who's winning—

          England, thou hast not saved one drop of blood
In this hot trial more than we of France;
Rather, lost more


—whereas Dürrenmatt's are as proud of their armies' performance as a football manager of his players' skill:

Gib's königlicher Bruder, zu: Der Angriff
Des rechten Flügels unsrer Reiterei
In deine linke Flanke, das war Klasse.

Come on royal brother, admit it: that attack by the right wing of our cavalry on your left flank, that was real class!

When the two kings argue about Arthur's claim to the throne, and then move to settling it by battle, the Troublesome Reign had John say: ‘What wants, my sword shall more at large set down.’ My sword: the convenient fiction that the kings themselves do the fighting is vividly undermined by Dürrenmatt's device.

This representation of war as a game for the kings is further underlined when John breaks the ‘rules’ and threatens Philip personally: Philip is shocked.

Du bist beleidigt? Nimmst persönlich,
Was unumgänglich durch die Politik?
Das kann nicht Ernst sein, mein lieber Freund.

You're offended? Such things are unavoidable in politics, and you take them personally? You can't be serious, old man.

The kings' detachment is, however, not altogether successful, since Chatillon, the Herald, later comes in hobbling on a crutch, and reveals that none of the French royal family has escaped unscathed (though Philip's injury was only indirectly the result of the war: he fell off his horse). Most interesting of all is Chatillon's reproach to King John that he didn't handle the negotiations very well: he could easily have avoided the battle by appearing to give in to the cardinal's demands (in Dürrenmatt, the cardinal Pandulph intervenes before, not after the battle):

Als Diplomat habt ihr nicht sehr vernünftig
Gehandelt. Ich bin offen, Sir, verzeiht.
Der Krieg war leicht vermeidbar. Was
Der Kardinal von Euch verlangte, nun,
Ein Kloster weniger geplündert, sei's
Zum Scheine nur, die Antwort bloss ein wenig
Konzilianter, und zufrieden wäre
Der Kardinal nach Rom zurückgereist.

You didn't handle the diplomacy very well. Excuse my frankness, sir. It would have been easy to avoid this war. What the Cardinal demanded—well, plundering one cloister less (or pretending to)—a slightly more conciliatory answer—and the Cardinal's on his way back to Rome, quite satisfied.

The interminable negotiations for peace in Northern Ireland have kept stumbling over the question of decommissioning: will the IRA give up their weapons? If Chatillon could be brought into that situation, one can imagine him pointing out to the IRA negotiators that a gun or two handed over, a slightly more conciliatory answer, and Senator Mitchell is on his way back to America, quite satisfied. The parallel is tempting—not least because it shows once again how close to each other pacificism and cynicism can come in politics.4

Dürrenmatt inserts into his version constant small reminders of the difference between war and peace. His citizens of Angiers are much more explicit than Shakespeare's governor in declaring

Wir lieben Frieden, weil wir Frieden brauchen
Zu unserer Geschäften

We're for peace, since we need peace for our business affairs

No doubt that too could be seen as cynical; but there is also the blunt riposte which Konstanze receives when urging Philip not to agree to the bargain: ‘Du, Vampir, willst nur Blut!’ Shakespeare's Constance is excessively rhetorical, building her concern (and later her grief) for Arthur into mountainous structures of paraded emotion, and is rebuked precisely for her rhetoric: ‘You are as fond of grief as of your child’ (3.4.92-3)—to which she (inevitably) delivers an extended reply—‘Grief fills the room up of my absent child’—that can be regarded as a confirmation of the accusation. Since Dürrenmatt's dry modernism removes a good deal of the concern with rhetoric, judgement on his Konstanze is passed not in terms of how she speaks but in terms of what she is proposing.

The character whom Dürrenmatt most strikingly changes is Blanche, King John's niece, the subject (the victim?) of the diplomatic marriage that is intended to end the fighting. In his notes, Dürrenmatt informs us, without further explanation, that it became clear, in the course of the rehearsals, that she needed to be changed. Instead of the ‘touchingly naive creature’ depicted by Shakespeare, he makes her into a self-aware, rich millionaire heiress (‘zu einer selbst-bewussten reichen Millionenerbin’). Taking a detail from the Troublesome Reign he introduces a possible match between Blanche and the Bastard, which is now abandoned. In the Troublesome Reign it was an opportunity for the Bastard to acquire wealth and land, in Dürrenmatt it is a love affair, and Blanche objects to the arranged match with the Dauphin on the grounds that she is not a piece of goods to be traded, to which the Bastard replies in what is perhaps the most interesting speech in the play, informing her that though they spent hot nights together and he loves her ‘von ganzem Herzen / Wie Redensart’ (with all my heart—as one says), her body was not made for enjoyment but as a bargaining counter which she now needs to take into bed with Louis, ‘diesem fetten Gockel’ (this fat slob, this old goat). Even this violently cynical moment has its pacifist touches, since he explains that the purpose of the disgusting bargain would be to bring peace, and the result of her refusal would be the spilling of a sea of blood from thousands of poor devils. (‘Wenn nicht, vergiesst Ihr Meere roten Bluts / Von vielen Tausend armen Teufeln’.) When therefore Angiers has been destroyed and the war is about to be resumed, she is given perhaps the most violently bitter speech in the play, pointing out that she has been sacrificed for nothing, and when lying like a whore in the Dauphin's bed she'll think of the Bastard as the biggest fool there is (‘Im verhurten Bett des Dauphin denk ich Euer / als aller Narren allergrösster’).

How relevant to our understanding of Shakespeare's play is this brilliant, controversial modern adaptation? The question it opens, and to which it provides such an illuminating answer, can be stated as: How will a pacifist read King John? No doubt the question itself needs defending: to some it will seem not only an improper question, but the very model of an improper question. It will seem to treat a work of literature not as something from which we can learn, but as an examination candidate who has to conform to our expectations. And if the literary work is four hundred years old, this would be to assume that its concerns are the same as our concerns: to assume the unchanging human nature, the timeless values, that our new historicists have tirelessly denounced as (this has become one of the newer terms of reproach) humanist.

The terminology of E. D. Hirsch's Validity in Interpretation will be useful here. Hirsch distinguishes between meaning, attained by means of understanding, the criterion for which is authorial intention (and of course historical knowledge on our part), and significance, attained by judgement, which relates the author's verbal meaning to ourselves, to history, even to the author himself and his other works.5 A historical reading of a literary text, attempting to attribute to it the meaning which the author intended and contemporary readers understood, guarding against the temptation to assume that our concerns today were its concerns then, would clearly be an example of what Hirsch called understanding, the attempt to find the meaning. The historical critic will then go on to assert that if we find the concerns, or the values, of an earlier work to be different from ours, we must then read it ‘as Elizabethans’, granting it a willing suspension of disagreement. Since few people, other than scholars (and not all of them), are prepared to suspend disagreement, this will mean that there is almost always an alternative way to read, not historical but immediate, or committed.

Hirsch's distinction is a valid and even necessary one, but it should not blind us to the fact that the process of responding to literature involves a constant traffic between understanding and judgement—a fact which Hirsch does not deny, his aim being to draw a theoretical distinction. Only the most austere Dryasdust will be able to devote himself exclusively to the establishing of meaning without allowing any concern with significance to cross his mind. This will be particularly difficult in the case of a work like King John, not only because it deals with issues that can hardly fail to be of concern to the modern reader, but also because it is a play: that is, a theatrical event.

We need to remind ourselves of the situation in a theatre today. The ideological gap between modern audience and Renaissance text is, as I have already remarked, immense. It is not only impossible to recreate the situation of the 1590s: it is arguable that the more conscientiously a production strives for authenticity (apron stage, no scenery, Renaissance acting style, even sixteenth-century pronunciation) the more aware the audience will become of the gap. If therefore there are elements in the production which draw attention to this gap (such as the plastic aprons) they are, arguably, simply methods of making explicit what is already and inevitably there. The usual rule of thumb in the English theatre today for stating what should and should not be modernized is that you must not monkey with the text: even outrageous production effects are allowable but the words must be Shakespeare's. That rule is of course not available to a German production. When the play is performed in translation, the question of how far the production should be modernized has already been anticipated by the question how far the language should be modernized.

When Shakespeare's John, in the opening scene, asks the French herald what will happen if he refuses King Philip's demands, he receives this reply:

The proud control of fierce and bloody war,
To enforce these rights so forcibly withheld.


In Dürrenmatt this becomes a single word, ‘Krieg’. This is almost like an announcement, at the very beginning of the play, that war is also being declared on rhetoric. The reduced language is ready to receive reductive accounts of political motives. This is to make articulate an awareness that political language is the better for shedding its rhetorical dress, and this is an awareness the audience have brought into the theatre with them.

Just as they have brought with them an awareness that the difference between war and peace is important; and it is this awareness which enables me to describe the value of König Johann as a guide to our reading of King John. If in experiencing King John we are aware both of our own values and of historical understanding, then the experience will involve constant shifts and tensions between the two, and Dürrenmatt's version offers us a series of goads that remind us of our values. By calling these values ‘pacifist’, and using the shorthand term ‘pacifist reading’ I do not of course mean to claim that all modern readers are pacifists, but to call attention to the crucial point about political conflict, that it presents us with two sides, each claiming to be in the right, and each trying to defeat the other. A conventional representation of this invites us to decide which side we support; in contrast, what I have called a pacifist reading directs our attention to how the dispute is to be settled. Settling it by war could cause more suffering than the victory of either side. The crucial moments in such a reading, then, will not be the moments of choice between the two sides (should John or Arthur sit on the English throne?) but the moments of choice between ways of settling the matter (war or diplomacy, war or compromise).6

There are two episodes in King John which present us with this choice: the encounter of the two kings outside the gates of Angiers in Act 2, and the French invasion of England in Act 5. Act 2 brings the contrast between war and diplomacy in front of us. Angiers (technically an English town) is invested by both the French and the English armies, each of which demands entrance; Hubert the governor tells them to sort out who is really king of England, and then he will open the gates. They fight, the result is indecisive, and the Bastard suggests that they join forces to destroy ‘this contemptuous city’, and then resume their fight against each other. They agree, and prepare to attack the town; whereupon Hubert proposes a way to ‘win this city without stroke or sound’ by means of a compromise: if Blanche, King John's niece, marries the Dauphin, the war can end. John agrees, and offers all the English possessions in France as dowry. This means he is giving up part to retain the whole: his title to England itself will now be recognized. The agreement is presented as consequent on the marriage, and there is some public insistence that Lewis the Dauphin and Blanche need to declare ‘I love’, but the fiction is transparent: asked if he can love Blanche, Lewis replies, ‘Nay, ask me how I can refrain from love.’ It is very tempting for the actor to deliver this with a smile, since it can so obviously mean ‘Because I'm being ordered to’. Blanche too disposes of any possibility of taking ‘love’ seriously, declaring ‘My uncle's will in this respect is mine.’ It is a purely political marriage.

Constance, of course, objects, regarding the agreement as a betrayal:

                              You are forsworn, forsworn!
You came in arms to spill mine enemies' blood,
But now in arms you strengthen it with yours.


This is a most convenient pun: the contrast between arms as weapons and arms as what one embraces with contains the issue that has lain under the surface of the whole encounter: that the open conflict between France and England, which culminated in a stage battle and has remained undecided, can be replaced by a different kind of conflict, the argument about means: should it be settled by fighting, or patched up by diplomacy? The more carefully we look at the scene, the more prominently this second conflict appears. Austria announced near the beginning:

The peace of heaven is theirs that lift their swords
In such a just and charitable war.


Religious language here is not applied to earthly situations by analogy: the love of God is not a way of bringing us to love one another, the peace of Heaven is not a path to peace. This sums up what has been said in the first twenty-five lines: Austria's intervention in the war is presented as an act of love towards Arthur, on whose cheek he lays ‘this zealous kiss’, but the vocabulary of love is used to justify fighting. The idea that religious vocabulary can contradict ordinary usage is of course familiar in Christianity, the religion of paradox. The purpose of such paradox is to shock us out of the familiar onto a higher plane of thinking—from the values of this world to the contrasting values of the kingdom of God; but every shock is not necessarily an elevation, and we see here that religious language can be seen as duplicity: ‘peace’ does not really mean peace.

There is a parallel between this linguistic trickery and the crucial evasiveness of Hubert's response to the demands of the two kings. Both France and England demand entrance to Angiers as a matter of right, since Angiers belongs to the English king: it's just a matter of deciding who, as a matter of right, is the English king. ‘He that proves the king, To him will we prove loyal’, declares Hubert, delicately playing on two meanings of ‘prove’: he that advances evidence to show his right, or he that turns out to be king. A moment later he declares

Till you compound whose right is worthiest,
We for the worthiest, hold the right from both.


‘Compound’ here means ‘come to an agreement about’ (OED 6 or 7 if transitive, 10 or 11 if ‘whose right is worthiest’ is used adverbially). Hubert says nothing about how the proving or compounding will be done: that is left to the kings, just as the application of ‘Heaven's peace’ to earthly situations is left to God—or His interpreters! Is Hubert being evasive? Does he not know perfectly well how the matter will be settled? When the battle takes place and is indecisive, Hubert's language is franker:

Blood hath bought blood, and blows have answered blows,
Strength matched with strength and power confronted power.
Both are alike, and both alike we like.
One must prove greatest. While they weigh so even,
We hold our town for neither, yet for both.


Both the vocabulary of Hubert and that of the kings hover on the edge of an open admission: that might is right, and the language of justice is only a rhetoric that conceals. Such would be the cynical reading; but we are faced with the realization that the cynical and religious interpretation can be equated. Either ‘Cut the cackle and admit that it's just a matter of who is stronger’, or ‘Cut the tortuous evasions of human lawyers and leave the decision to God.’ Two contrasting ways of saying the same thing. There is a parallel to this in the opening of Macbeth. The question of legitimacy is important in Macbeth, as it is in all Shakespeare's political plays: Duncan's murder is ‘deep damnation’ because he is the rightful king, Macbeth's claim to the throne is illegitimate, he is a usurper. Yet the first act of the play makes it clear that Duncan has only retained his throne because Macbeth and Banquo fought better than the Norwegian invaders. Is this a reminder that might is right and illegitimacy only a rationalization, or that God ensures, as in trial by combat, that the right side wins? Trial by combat can always be presented in religious terms.

To raise such questions is precisely the function of a political play; in this scene the Bastard's intervention offers an answer. He proposes that the two kings should join forces to destroy the town and then resume their battle. This is a response to Hubert's prevarication in general, and to his invoking of Divine Justice in particular, since he has just declared ‘A greater power than we denies all this.’ The suggestion that God approves of his refusal to take sides appears to be the last straw for the Bastard:

By heaven, these scroyles of Angers flout you, Kings,
And stand securely on their battlements
As in a theatre, whence they gape and point
At your industrious scenes and acts of death …


Including the theatre audience in his contempt might set up an ironic cheer—true, we spectators are enjoying the battle scenes in safety, but that, after all, is our function, whereas Hubert could decide to join in: ergo, he's as bad as us. And now the Bastard is offering us more scenes and acts of death (the vocabulary rubs home the point) to gloat over.

One thing is certain about the Bastard's suggestion: that there is nothing religious about it. Perhaps it could be made in religious terms—we must never underestimate the possible ingenuity of the casuist; but it is quite clear that it isn't.

I'd play incessantly upon these jades,
Even till unfencèd desolation
Leave them as naked as the vulgar air.


An if thou hast the mettle of a king,
Being wronged as we are by this peevish town,
Turn thou the mouth of thy artillery,
As we will ours, against these saucy walls.


‘Saucy’, ‘peevish’, ‘contemptuous’: there is no suggestion that Angiers is defying Heaven, only that they're defying us. ‘Playing incessantly’ presents the attack as offering the pleasures of destruction, not the moral satisfaction of acting as God's instrument.

The Bastard has traditionally been regarded as the most sympathetic figure in the play,7 and since he delivers the choric commentary that ends this long scene, there is clearly some kind of special relationship between him and the audience. But this may also suggest a gap between audience and dramatist: the dramatist is showing them—or some of them, the more jingoistic and more bloodthirsty part—the real nature of their enjoyment. An audience is no more uniform than a play, and one function of the Bastard may well be to excite cheers from some spectators, and invite others to reflect on what is going on. The famous concluding soliloquy, about ‘commodity’ (which could be glossed as ‘self-interest’) observes that France has been drawn

From a resolved an honourable war,
To a most base and vile-concluded peace.


Since he immediately goes on to ask ‘Why rail I on this commodity?’ and answers ‘But for because he hath not wooed me yet’, we can interpret ‘honourable war’ as meaning a war that gives me chance to shine, and ‘base and vile-concluded peace’ as meaning one that takes it away from me.

Act 2, Scene 1 is explicitly about war, and also the scene in which it takes place; in the following scene (3.1) peace and war are explicitly opposed. Hubert's suggestion has prevailed, Lewis has married Blanche, and ‘John, to stop Arthur's title in the whole, / Hath willingly departed with a part.’ (2.1.563-4) What undoes the treaty is the arrival of Cardinal Pandulph, that wily and evasive rhetorician. Pandulph's demand for the reinstatement of Stephen Langton as Archbishop has nothing to do with the question of succession, and can be seen as quite irrelevant to the concerns of the play: it no doubt provided an opportunity for the audience to hiss at this example of Papal interference, and to cheer when John denounces Popish practices (‘By the merit of vile gold … Purchase corrupted pardon’) as a form of commodity. Whether they went on cheering when the French king joined in the denunciation of Pandulph is not easy to decide.

That would, in Hirsch's terms, be a question about meaning only, perhaps merely about partial meaning; when, shortly afterwards, the scene reverts to the question of peace and war, it is very difficult, if we get interested in the argument, to exclude significance. The war party now consists of Constance, Pandulph and the Dauphin (plus, of course, the Bastard), and the very fact that they all want war for different reasons necessarily focuses our attention on the question of war itself. And the peace party? Well, of course, there isn't one. The only person who speaks unequivocally for peace as desirable in itself is Arthur, who in Act 2 says:

                                                                                Good my mother, peace.
I would that I were laid low in my grave.
I am not worth this coil that's made for me.


No one takes any notice of him. The two who speak against war in Act 3, Blanche and King Philip, do not do so out of principled objection. Blanche is distressed that her wedding feast should be ‘kept with slaughtered men’, and that her husband should war against her uncle; Philip now finds slaughter distressing for much the same reason, and feels no inconsistency between his ordinary kingly belligerence in Act 2 and his politic change of position now. There is no one like Burgundy, who in the last act of Henry V delivers his wonderful speech on the horrors of war as such (and of course even on this the cynical remark is possible that this is the way one speaks once the war is over).

But the fact that there is no principled pacifist in this scene should neither surprise nor worry us. We cannot expect such principles to be formulated in the thirteenth century, and perhaps not in the sixteenth either; what we can expect—and do find—is the experience of the horror of war causing a reaction in those who suffer from it, a turning towards a position that has not yet been formulated as a principle. That is, after all, the way literature reaches towards the future.

‘Peace’ and ‘war’ are not only underlying ideas in the play, they are also active as words; and to look at how the words behave is always illuminating when considering how the ideas operate.

The grappling vigour and rough frown of war
Is cold in amity and painted peace.


Why does Constance describe peace as ‘painted’? Paint presumably refers here to makeup, and peace is regarded as deceptive, a painted face being a sign of hypocrisy. But what is the difference between real peace and hypocritical peace? To accuse apparent peace of not being genuine is one of the commonest strategies of the bellicose idealist: if true peace means peace in which all conflicts have been resolved and there is no longer any possibility of war, then true peace is not possible in human society: a war party can always denounce peace as ‘painted’. Just as it can always declare its belligerent strategy through the syntax of ‘peace if’: Philip's speech in 2.1.235 is the best example of this, telling Hubert that he will ‘leave your children, wives and you in peace’ if they yield to his demands, and followed inevitably by the balancing syntax ‘but if …’

Austria attempts to interrupt Constance in Act 3 with ‘Lady Constance, peace!’; she replies: ‘War! War! No peace! Peace is to me a war.’ (3.1.39-40) When Austria said ‘peace’ he meant, of course, ‘silence’, as in ‘hold your peace’, and Constance's word-play can be seen as rebounding back on her, as evidence of her bad faith: the case for war is made by a disputant who will not ‘hold her peace’ and will not let others speak.

And finally, Act 5, which is almost universally regarded as clumsy: either a botched rewriting of the Troublesome Reign or a sign that Shakespeare had lost interest by this stage. This common judgement may well be correct, but it is of course not always easy to distinguish clumsiness from a deliberate undermining of conventional expectation. John's poisoning by wicked monks, so prominent in the Troublesome Reign, is played down in Shakespeare's version in order to concentrate on the invasion of England by the Dauphin, who seems at first set for an easy victory: the islanders are shouting ‘Vive le roi’, he has ‘the best cards for the game’, and there seems to be little resistance. Here is another opportunity to address the question of war v. peace, but it is not taken—or not explicitly taken. Pandulph's exhortation to ‘tame the savage spirit of wild war’ (5.2.74) is never elaborated into anything like Burgundy's vision of peace and its blessings—and Pandulph is by now thoroughly tainted by his duplicity (we see the great advantage of introducing a wholly new character as the peacemaker in Henry V). Once again, the treatment of the word ‘peace’ is revealing. It is used five times in 5.2, and only once (line 76) in its primary sense, as the opposite to war. The other uses are John ‘making his peace with Rome’ (line 92 twice, and line 96), where it means ‘recognizing Rome's authority’, and line 159, where it means ‘silence’. No attention is paid to the word because no attention is paid to the concept.

In contrast to this, the Bastard's military zeal is very prominent. He uses the very rhythms and thoughts of Henry V's more famous defiance:

Be stirring as the time, be fire with fire;
Threaten the threat'ner, and outface the brow
Of bragging horror.


Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath, and bend up every spirit
To his full height.

(Henry V 3.1.15-17)

Similarly, in the following scene, the Bastard's flyting expresses a lengthy contempt for ‘This apish and unmannerly approach, / This harnessed masque and unadvisèd revel’ (5.2.131-2) before working up to the threat of ‘warlike John’ (since John is dying of poison, he is only ‘warlike’ in the Bastard's vocabulary: but vocabulary is itself a weapon.

The rhetoric of Act 5 makes it clear that war has all the best tunes, just as the Bastard (as everyone seems to agree) got the cheers of the groundlings—perhaps of everyone. This would be decisive as a reading of the last act, if it were not for Shakespeare's talent in leaving us with an aftertaste. The Bastard's famous concluding speech (‘Naught shall make us rue / If England to itself do rest but true’) certainly leaves him as the patriotic hero. This conclusion is not as bellicose as some of his earlier speeches, since it puts the case for security through strength, a position he had already adumbrated in 5.1.73-6:

                                                                                Let us, my liege, to arms!
Perchance the Cardinal cannot make your peace,
Or, if he do, let it at least be said
They saw we had a purpose of defence

—and reasserted in 5.7.87-8, when he remarks that the Dauphin is more likely to sue for peace

                                                                                          when he sees
Ourselves well-sinewed to our own defence.

And how is peace finally achieved? Not, certainly, through a principled rejection of war; but not through defiance either. The war simply fizzles out; there is no decisive battle, no concluding treaty. Count Melun is slain, the English traitors revert (presumably with their soldiers) to John again, and Lewis' reinforcements ‘are cast away and sunk on Goodwin sands’. (5.5.13) It is all very cursory, as if we are being shown that Nature does not go in for high-flown climaxes and splendid victories. This may mean that Shakespeare botched the ending of an indecisive play; it may also mean that he ended it with great subtlety.


  1. Friedrich Dürrenmatt, König Johann (nach Shakespeare) (Zürich, 1968).

  2. The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England was published in 1591. The controversy about its relation to Shakespeare's play will probably never be settled: the majority view is that it preceded King John, and was, along with Holinshed, his main source; a minority view claims that it is a corrupted text of Shakespeare's play. Settling this question is, fortunately, not relevant to the argument of this essay.

  3. Beaumont and Fletcher, The Humorous Lieutenant, Act 3, Scene 7 in The Dramatic Works in the Beaumont and Fletcher Canon, ed. by F. Bowers, vol. 5 (Cambridge, 1982), pp. 363-4.

  4. It is of course common to see King John as cynical (e.g. M. M. Reese, The Cease of Majesty, p. 280: ‘the most cynical and disillusioned among the histories’); the point that the present essay seeks to add is the close link between cynicism and pacifism.

  5. E. D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation (Yale, 1967), especially pp. 61-7, 139-63.

  6. I have developed this position further in ‘Peace Studies: A Proposal’, New Literary History, 26, no. 3 (1995), 641-65.

  7. Ornstein (A Kingdom for a Stage p. 95) even speaks of his ‘fundamental innocence’—a view that can only be reconciled with the present essay if we use the wordplay of Maria (‘He hath all the good gifts of nature’—‘He hath indeed almost natural’) and say he is almost an innocent.

Gregory M. Colón Semenza (essay date winter 2001)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8898

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, in 1 Henry VI, a Messenger of the Countess of Auvergne requests that Talbot visit his lady's castle, Burgundy derisively remarks:

I see our wars
Will turn unto a peaceful comic sport,
When ladies crave to be encountered with.


Burgundy's scoff seizes upon one contemporary signification of sport as amorous dalliance,2 and suggests how Talbot's warlike heroism might be compromised or even undermined by his encounter with a woman. The adjective “peaceful comic” indicates a sort of sport that actually differs from war, as though the two phenomena are otherwise linked by some inextricable bond. Burgundy's warning that war will become indistinguishable from sport—through a process of emasculation—is merely the most explicit statement of a general concern that runs throughout the entire trilogy.

In early modern England it was assumed that sport would turn, or be turned, into war. In fact, the state's primary justification for declaring any sports to be “lawful,” even in the face of hostile opposition from conservative polemicists and religious zealots, was based upon the ancient argument that sports provided men with the physical training and conditioning necessary to their successful military engagement with foreign enemies. In Henry VI not only are war and sport collapsed, but their normal relation is reversed: war is constantly in danger of turning into sport.

In the famous Miracle of St. Albans scene in 2 Henry VI, for instance, the King and his counselors have just returned from the field where they have been hawking. The King admires Gloucester's hawk, which has captured its prey despite the high wind, and he compares its fearless magnificence to the spirit of man: “To see how God in all his creatures works! / Yea, man and bird are fain of climbing high” (2.1.7-8). Suffolk and Beauford respond by using the King's simple metaphor to indict what they perceive to be Gloucester's limitless ambition:

                    No marvel, and it like your Majesty,
My Lord Protector's hawks do tow'r so well;
They know their master loves to be aloft,
And bears his thoughts above his falcon's pitch.
                              My lord, 'tis but a base ignoble mind
That mounts no higher than a bird can soar.
                              I thought as much, he would be above the clouds.


The ensuing verbal battle between Gloucester and Beauford, which includes their mutual promise to settle the issue through one-on-one combat, takes place under the guise of “sports talk.” When Henry finally senses and questions the actual meaning of their exchange, Gloucester denies that anything is wrong: “Talking of hawking; nothing else, my lord” (49).

In a sense, the suggestion that two of the most powerful men in the realm really were discussing hawking, and nothing else, would have been as troubling to Elizabethans as the actual feud between Gloucester and Beauford itself. For decades, English writers had warned gentlemen about the dangers of excessive recreation and exercise. In sixteenth-century treatises on sport, the warnings became something of a literary convention. Most authors had recommended hawking with some reservation. Unlike hunting, the sport with which hawking is most often associated, hawking's military function is not immediately apparent. Sir Thomas Elyot approved of the pastime as a “right delectable solace,” while admitting that “thereof cometh nat so moche utilitie, (concerning exercise), as there dothe of huntinge” (1:199-200). Likewise, some time later, James I explains to his son in Basilikon Doron: “As for hawking I condemn it not but I must praise it more sparingly; because it neither resembleth the warres so neere as hunting doth in making a man hardy, and skilfully ridden in all groundes” (122) The general ambivalence of contemporaries toward hawking seemed to depend upon how the sport was being used—properly or improperly.

A sport's propriety was usually determined by the degree to which it prepared men for warfare, though maintenance of health was sometimes considered as well. Because the military function of hawking was less than clear, however, contemporaries often characterized the sport as useless, idle, or superfluous. In the anonymous Institution of a Gentleman, for instance, the author recommends honest pastimes, for they bring “muche proffyt bothe to the healthe of man and recreacion of hys wytte,” but warns against excess in the “gentlemanly” sports, which include hawking:

I take occasion to speake of hawking and huntyng, pastymes used (yea rather abused) of Gentlemen, whych pastimes in their right kinds are good & allowable, yet by superfluous use and overmuch hauntyng of them, they be rather chaunged into faults & transgressions, then honest exercises ordeyned for man's recreacion.

(sig. b3)

The author proceeds to explain that unlike field sports—wrestling, running, leaping—which prepare men for war, excessive hawking “is cause of neglectyng the thyngs … [to which] al gentlemen are instituted,” and he specifically includes war within these neglected gentlemanly affairs:

That is to saye, a measure ought to be kept in pastyme. Which worde measure bryngeth in good occasion to speake here of hawkinge and huntynge, for in these dayes manye Gentlemen wil do almoste nothinge els. … This is the cause why there bee founde so many raw Soldyers when tyme of warres requyreth their helpe.

In the St. Albans passage, the conflation of hawking and political conflict—the general inability of the King, and perhaps the reader, to distinguish between them—serves to indict the irresponsibility of the ruling nobility. On the one hand, the time spent hawking is time spent away from serious matters of state. While the nobles pursue their sport, the much lamented, lost French territories remain lost, and a number of insurrectionary plots threaten to destroy the kingdom. Shakespeare's very placement of the leisurely aristocratic activity in the opening of the second act—immediately after the Duchess' ambiguous oracles suggest the potential, impending deposition of the King—strikes the reader as oddly out of place. Yet the scene illustrates quite vividly, on a microcosmic level, why Henry is unable to maintain political stability: hawking is cause of neglecting the things whereunto the monarch is instituted.

On the other hand, the sport is not merely presented as a frivolous pastime, for Gloucester and Beauford actually are engaged in serious political conflict. Yet the conflict is represented through the terminology of sport. In this case, the collapse of discursive difference renders the conflict a type of sport: it calls attention to the fact that we are witnessing not a disagreement over political difference per se but, rather, a sort of competition between two men. Regardless of Shakespeare's own political agenda in writing his English history plays—and critical opinion is famously divided over this issue3—the agendas of the characters within the plays are motivated only rarely by any explicit adherence to, advocacy of, or protest against specific political policies or principles. Personal ambition replaces such principles and becomes the chief signifier of the historical shift from an idealistic political system based on the chivalric code to a more cynical one governed by the demands of realpolitik. The St. Albans passage demonstrates not only the centrality of personal ambition as the source of eventual military conflict in 2 Henry VI, but also the usefulness (and complexity) of sport as a metaphor for the contestatory struggles that result from such ambition. Furthermore, the relative uselessness of hawking in the lives of the English statesmen indicates the equal uselessness and even dangerousness of personal ambition to the stability of the state.

Shakespeare's attention in the trilogy to the degeneration of chivalry into realpolitik—apparent in the shift of focus from the Anglo-French wars in 1 Henry VI to the petty civil squabbles of the subsequent plays—should be examined within the context of contemporary anxieties about war having become less noble and, to a certain degree, less justifiable. The St. Albans passage demonstrates not only Shakespeare's conflation of war and sport as a sign of this degeneration, but his complete reversal of their normal relation as traditionally figured by humanists, military scientists, and statesmen, among others. Examination of the contemporary evidence suggests that this relation was itself undergoing important alterations throughout the sixteenth century.

Sport often had been linked with war in classical theory, and the parallels between the two phenomena were reaffirmed and elaborated by early modern educators and military scientists. The tendency to view certain sports as microcosms of military conflict doubtless has much to do with the violent aspect of sport. Considering the probable origins of athletics, Donald G. Kyle highlights man's violent impulses as the lowest common denominator between sport and war: “Seeking the original stimulus for athletics … [m]ilitary considerations may be relevant since many early sports appear related to primitive warfare. One can appreciate the cathartic effect of athletics in providing an outlet for hostility other than war and death” (10). Norbert Elias goes further to suggest that the cathartic function of sport is essential to the maintenance of any civilized society:

For example, belligerence and aggression find socially permitted expression in sporting contests. And they are expressed especially in “spectating” (e.g., at boxing matches), in the imaginary identification with a small number of combatants to whom moderate and precisely regulated scope is granted for the release of such affects. … [T]his … is a particularly characteristic feature of civilized society.


Emeric Crucé seems intuitively to have recognized this point; when, in 1623, he proposed that a European peacekeeping court be established in Venice, he specifically recommended that sport and hunting be used to satisfy men's thirst for violence.4

Such arguments—that sport could serve as an alternative to war—were extremely rare. More often, sport was advocated and justified because of its preparatory military function. Like battle, success in sports demanded courage, toughness, and activity-specific skills like those of the archer. Though Plato first advocated a systematic “physical training that [was] simple and flexible, especially in its training for war” (108), it was Aristotle who influentially stressed the courage that physical training could instill in youth when balanced by a proper focus on the exercises of the mind. Courage is said to result from what is noble, and what is truly noble must originate in the mind. In Book VIII of Politics, the author warns that without a noble education, men trained merely in athletics will become violent and beast-like, but not courageous: “For among the barbarians and among animals courage is found associated, not with the greatest ferocity, but with a gentle and lion-like temper. … And parents who devote their children to gymnastics while they neglect their necessary education, in reality make them mechanics” (Aristotle, 198-99). Athleticism unfiltered by education results in a violent, warlike disposition.

Such a disposition could be useful, of course, within certain contexts. Early modern educational theorists and military scientists stressed the benefits of athletic training for would-be warriors. In the Governour, Elyot prefaces his recommendation of individual sports by remarking,

I wyll nowe only speake of those exercises, apt to the furniture of a gentilmannes personage, adapting his body to hardnesse, strength, and agilitie, and to helpe therwith hym selfe in perile, whiche may happen in warres or other necessitie.


He praises wrestling, “in case that a capitayne shall be constrayned to cope with his adversary hande to hande, hauyng his weapon broken or loste” (173). Running is useful in overtaking or escaping one's enemy, riding in presenting a majestic and dreadful image to the enemy, and even swimming is said to be an “excellent commoditie,”

Sens no kyng … may assure hym selfe from the necessities which fortune sowethe amonge men that be mortall. And sens on the helth and saulfe garde of a noble capitayne … nothing shulde be kepte from his knowledge, wherby his persone may be in every jeoperdie preserved.


In support, he cites the military exploits and swimming skills of Alexander, Caesar, and Sertorius.

Lawrence Humphrey, author of The Nobles (1563), declares to be lawful only those ancient sports—casting the dart, running, wrestling, etc.—which are “stouter and manlier,” and have in them “somewhat stately and warlike” (sigs. B4 r-v). In this case, the very fact that such sports can be turned into war renders them tolerable. Activities such as dancing, dice, and chess, on the other hand, are often pursued merely for “filthye gayne.” In The Scholemaster (1570), Roger Ascham is more specific: “[A]ll pastimes generally, which be joyned with labor, used in open place, and on the day light, conteining either some fitte exercise for warre, or some pleasant pastime for peace, be not onelie cumlie and decent, but also verie necessarie, for a Courtlie Gentleman to use” (1904; 217).

As usual, though, it is Richard Mulcaster who, among the Castiglione-inspired educational theorists, most systematically outlines sport's martial function:

For the use of warre, and defence, it is more then evident, that exercise beares the bell: Can one have a bodie to abide cold, not to melte with heat, not to starve for hunger, not to dye for thirst, not to shrinke at any hardnesse, almost beyond nature, and above common reache, if he never have it trained? Will nimblenesse of limmes awaie with all labour, surpasse all difficulties, of never so divers, and dangerous groundes, pursue enemies to vanquish, reskue freinds to save, retire from danger without harme … ?


Mulcaster goes beyond making a simple comparison between vigorous sports and the vigorous nature of war: he focuses on the ability of exercise to prepare men for the physiological strains of military hardship. He recovers the argument, systematized by Galen and passed on though Mercurialis, that three things come from the use of exercise: “hardness of the organs from mutual attrition, increase of the intrinsic warmth, and accelerated movement of respiration” (Galen, 54). By hardening the organs, one gains both “insensitivity and strength for function.” By increasing intrinsic warmth, one can shape a body that abides cold, and by improving respiration, one can surpass all difficulties through nimbleness of limbs.

By the time Mulcaster wrote Positions (first ed. 1581), a small section offering a tempered advocacy of sport—especially its martial function—was a predictable component of the English educational treatise. He may have been the last of the great Renaissance educators to deal so extensively with the benefits of sport, the last to be seriously invested in the enterprise. The convention continued well into the next century but with less originality and, as we will see in a moment, less to back it up. Both James Cleland's The Institution of a Young Noble Man (1607) and Henry Peacham's Compleat Gentleman (1634) advocated sport for military purposes. In Of Education (1644), Milton recommended as “equally good for peace and war” the arts of weaponry and cavalry, and exercises like wrestling (234).

Early modern military scientists were no less enthusiastic about the significance of sport for the training up of soldiers. Writers like Barnabe Rich, who argued that only those men showing quickness, nimbleness, and readiness should be soldiers, based their programs on Vegetius' Epitome (c. 383-450) and Machiavelli's Art of War (1521).5 In both works, the authors recommend idealistic military training programs but only for young men who show strength and athletic prowess. It is Vegetius who influences Rich's argument: “jumping and running should be attempted before the body stiffens with age. For it is speed which, with training, makes a brave warrior” (5). Vegetius actually details the proper physique for a potential soldier: “So let the adolescent who is to be selected for martial activity have alert eyes, straight neck, broad chest, muscular shoulders, strong arms, long fingers, let him be small in the stomach, slender in the buttocks, and have calves and feet that are not swollen by surplus fat but firm with hard muscle” (6). He goes on to praise running, leaping, and swimming in particular. Only a true sportsman may be turned into a true soldier.

Machiavelli, like Vegetius before him, stressed the difference between enlisting a true athlete and an idle sportsman. Though one's occupation might help to signify his potential military prowess, appearances are deceiving. Moral uprightness matters:

Some authors who have written about this subject will not take fowlers, fishermen, cooks, bawdyhouse keepers, or any other sort of people who make an occupation of pleasure or sport; they prefer plowmen, smiths, farriers, carpenters, butchers, hunters, and such occupations. For my own part, I should not so much consider the nature of their profession as the moral virtue of the men.

(Machiavelli, 33)

Nonetheless, Machiavelli stresses that once the men are chosen, they must be trained in “running, wrestling, leaping,” etc. (59). The Elizabethan military scientists also upheld moral virtue as paramount in determining the ideal soldier, and they differentiated between useful and dangerous sports to be used in his training. Rich describes men who are utterly incapable of becoming good soldiers as those who spend all of their time dicing, drinking, and swearing. He is particularly critical of the nobility which, he says, has begun to neglect its military responsibilities and has become a slave to pleasure and idleness: “And generally it is seene, where pleasure is preferred so excessively, and the people followe it so inordinately, that they lye and wallowe in it so carelessly, they commonlie end with it most miserably” (Rich, sig. F3). The sanctity of war and the stability of the state are threatened by the tempting pleasures of unlawful recreations.

Up until about the time that Barnabe Rich wrote Allarme to England (1578), sport had usually been figured as conducive to war. The educational humanist writers influenced by Baldassarre Castiglione and the Italian school of Vittorino da Feltre relied on classical examples of sport's usefulness and stressed the numerous ways that athletic skills could be employed in battle. Military scientists influenced by Vegetius and Machiavelli, and indirectly by Frontinus, argued that athletes, among all men, could be most easily transformed into soldiers. By the second half of the sixteenth century, however, writers and polemicists became more ambivalent about the traditional progression from sport to war. The new skepticism had much to do with the new challenges to sport by godly preachers and, perhaps, as much to do with the increasingly widespread tendency to scrutinize war itself—its horrific nature and effects on society. As Rich's critique of the nobility suggests, there is an emerging sense that sport has become an end in itself and that the military has been seriously weakened as a result.

Contemporary records indicate that the greatest blow to the military was dealt by the failure of the secular cult of the gentleman to serve as an adequate substitute for chivalrous knighthood: “By the early sixteenth century the practice whereby aristocratic youths were packed off to a noble household to learn the crafts of combat while serving as page-servants was dwindling. Fewer nobles maintained both a scholarly and arms-and-athletics tutor to prepare their sons for war.”6 Though Sir Philip Sidney could sing of the glory of martial athleticism—“In martial sports I had my cunning tried, / And yet to break more staves did me address, / While, with the people's shouts, I must confess, / Youth, luck and praise even filled my veins with pride” (53: 1-4)—evidence shows that most English gentlemen were less enthusiastic about military glory. While it would be shortsighted to blame waning enthusiasm on the development of guns alone, the unchivalric new weapons served as a useful scapegoat for explaining the mounting aristocratic aversion to war. J. R. Hale attributes this aversion to a number of other factors:

Death in wars and the succession of minors; the shrinkage of land-based fortunes as the real value of money declined; the gaining of titles by men without a militant heredity; the virtual absence—given the smallness of permanent military establishments and the way they were run—of a military career structure that could allow an aristocrat to be “in the army” while still agreeably responding to changes in the peacetime manners of his class: all played some part in the process of civilianization.

(1985, 96-97)

Nonetheless—and perhaps because gentlemanly complaints about the lack of a military career structure would have sounded jejune—the most cited reason for the abandonment of the battlefield by aristocrats was the decline of chivalry, and this decline was directly linked to the development of guns. Shakespeare notes the effects of guns on the aristocracy in 1 Henry IV when Hotspur ridicules one “popingay's” remark that, “but for these vile guns / He would himself have been a soldier” (1.3.63-64).

The increasing prominence of gunpowder in the early modern period, and the subsequent tactical transition from cavalry to infantry, seriously altered traditional methods of warfare. As John Hale remarks, “New weapons involved fresh tactics, and here too there was much discussion: of the changing roles of horse and foot, and how best to combine shock and missile troops” (1962, 21). Such tactical matters the ancients never had to contemplate, and the old manuals were silent on issues of modern artillery. Usually Elizabethan military writers insisted on close adherence to the ancient principles of warfare, allowing only slight modifications to account for the new weaponry. Paul Ive's translation in 1589 of Fourquevaux's Instructions for the Warres conveys the seriousness of such modifications: “[A]lthough I follow the ancient manner in most things, … it is without rejecting our own fashions in any thing that I think them to be surer than theirs” (Fourquevaux, sigs. b1 r-v.). As Henry J. Webb remarks, the Elizabethan military scientists “fervently believed that to be indoctrinated by the classical principles of war was to be moulded in the form of a perfect soldier” (16). Somewhat ironically, then, the rise of a neo-classical military science in England was contemporaneous with the development of the modern weapons. Military writers like Barnabe Rich, Thomas Digges, and Thomas Styward revived the ancient science in reaction to the threat posed by gunpowder to the stability of that science.

One effect of the new developments was that sport and war became more easily separable phenomena. The problem with guns was that they required no athleticism: no strength, no speed, and no endurance. J. R. Hale notes that “Guns, because of the force of their bullets owed nothing to the muscle power that tensed a bow-stave or wound the string of a crossbow into its notch” (1985, 95.) In fact, guns were often described as unnatural or even Satanic because they required so little human physical interaction.7

The development of artillery greatly reduced the amount of hand-to-hand combat that had been typical in early modern warfare prior to the sixteenth century. For this reason, training in sports such as wrestling became less necessary and, therefore, less acceptable for nobles. Wrestling, as one of the oldest sports, had been advocated for its usefulness in war from the very earliest times, through the medieval period, and in the early modern period by men like Elyot, Ascham, and Mulcaster. By 1622, however, Henry Peacham could condemn wrestling with a few strokes of his pen, wiping away an entire literary history of praise for the sport:

For throwing and wrestling, I hold them exercises not so well beseeming nobility, but rather soldiers in a camp or a prince's guard.


The description of wrestling as an improper sport for nobles, but as suitable for mere soldiers, demonstrates the degree to which the nobility had abandoned war.

The gradual transition from cavalry to infantry—facilitated by the growing importance of artillery—also threatened to undermine the military benefits of riding, the great aristocratic sport. Although “Cavalry had been the core of all medieval armies,” Webb explains, “sometime in the fifteenth century the English army ceased to employ it to any great extent.”8 New tactics are cited as the cause of this decline. As in the case of wrestling, once riding's military function is undermined, the sport wanes as an aristocratic pastime. And, as in the case of archery, once the sport begins to wane, numerous tracts are written to revive it. Works like Federico Grisone's Art of Riding (1560) only signal the crisis through which the art is going. Again it is Peacham who announces the sport's relative extinction: “at this day, it is only the exercise of the Italian nobility, … and great pity that it is no more practiced among our English gentry.”9 He also attributes the death of the joust to the irrelevance of the lance in contemporary warfare.

The sport dealt the biggest blow by gunpowder was archery, of course. Described by Ascham in Toxophilus as having always had “the cheife stroke in warre,” archery is routinely advocated for its military benefits (19042, 55).10 The controversy surrounding the sport in the sixteenth century had to do with archery's reputation as the most thoroughly English sport. Ascham attributes all great military triumphs to shooting, remarking that “The feare onely of Englysh Archers hathe done more wonderfull thinges than ever I redde in anye historye greke or latin” (54). Archery was already dying by 1545, the year Ascham published his famous work. Written about five years after the issuance of a monarchical statute promoting archery and banning bowling, which had become more popular,11Toxophilus is patriotic propaganda designed to revive the waning military sport. Despite numerous defenses of archery written well into the seventeenth century, Webb tells us that “after 1588 bows were generally replaced by firearms” (85).

Wrestling, riding, and archery were not, of course, the only sports affected by the rise of firearms, but the rapid demise of such thoroughly established sports demonstrates the degree to which perceptions of war and sport, and especially their previously inextricable relation, were altered by the new technology. Sports that had been deemed lawful and advocated for centuries could no longer be justified for the old reasons. Arguments stressing the importance of turning them into useful military tools were no longer persuasive. In addition, men accurately understood that the hardening of the body through athletic training could do very little to stop a bullet from inflicting a fatal wound. In numerous ways, sport was becoming less necessary.

Partly because sport was now detached from its major utilitarian function, sixteenth-century writers and polemicists increasingly represented it as superfluous, idle, and licentious. Old distinctions between useful and lawful sports like wrestling and hunting and idle, profitless sports like dicing and bowls broke down by the turn of the century. Godly writers like Philip Stubbes could interweave descriptions and condemnations of various athletic exercises including football, tennis, hunting, and May games, among non-athletic activities such as stage plays and interludes, church ales, wakes, baitings, and readings of wicked books. Stubbes is merely the most famous representative of a powerful movement that strove to render all sports unlawful. As a result of this movement, athleticism was systematically stripped of its hitherto positive associations and reduced to violence, disorder, and sinfulness.

At the same time, contemporary warfare—no longer reliant on the physical or athletic prowess of its participants—was frequently represented as an effeminate, cowardly, or at best unheroic enterprise. The gentleman became less and less likely to pursue a military career as war became—or was, at least, represented as having become—less heroic: “The growing anonymity of the individual warrior, the indiscriminate death dealt by shot and ball; these factors, it was claimed, had ruined war as a finishing school for the knightly character” (1962, 23). Not only did gunpowder eliminate opportunities for the demonstration of physical prowess, but it also eliminated the significance of social or class difference between soldiers. When the Boy of the Master Gunner of Orleance shoots and kills Salisbury with a musket in 1 Henry VI, Shakespeare highlights the ironic fact that Salisbury's “sword did ne'er leave striking in the field” (1.4.81). In a moment, gunpowder erases whatever value chivalric warfare once held. But it also erases the theoretically advantageous position that the noble Salisbury once held over the common Boy. Ariosto's apostrophe to gunpowder in Orlando Furioso best describes the sense of loss felt by contemporaries:

Through thee is martial glory lost, through thee
The trade of arms become a worthless art:
And at such ebb are worth and chivalry
That the base often plays the better part.

(Canto 11, stanza 25)

Gunpowder is a great equalizer of men.

The gradual decline of chivalry, the erasure of social difference in battle, and the undermining of traditional military tactics all enhanced the contemporary sense that war was becoming increasingly unpredictable and even chaotic. As Paul A. Jorgensen argues, early modern “[w]ar was one of the most precariously ordered and civilized of human enterprises; far more seriously than peace-inspired institutions like civil government and marriage, it threatened to revert to chaos” (35). Links between war and unruliness extended far beyond the battlefield, however, and into the civilian realm of early modern life. During wartime, armies could be as terrible to their own citizens as to their enemies in the field. In ways, the soldier's life away from the battlefield was akin to a permanent holiday festival, or to Carnival—that temporary state of misrule Mikhail Bakhtin describes as a “suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions” (10). J. R. Hale suggests that, for many men, this suspension was the only truly appealing aspect of the military life in early modern Europe:

For those uneasy amidst the constraints of civilian life, an army provided, however shoddily, a Land of Cockayne. And even though it was as heartless in throwing out as it had been in wooing while enticing in, for some of its glamour remained [sic]. So the military vagrants padded on from tavern to tavern, brawl to brawl, in danger of arrest but at least still on holiday from the routine of families, porters' baskets, mattocks, and ploughs.

(1985, 89)

Sport was still very much a part of war and military life. But the relationship between war and sport had changed as the cultural cachet of both had declined.

Shakespeare uses the term “sport,” or one of its variants, several hundred times in his career. He uses the term to signify everything from diversion (Venus' “A summer's day will seem an hour but short, / Being wasted in such time-beguiling sport” [24]) to amorous dallying (Iago's “she is sport for Jove” [1.3.17]) to outdoor games like the hawking episode in 2 Henry VI. Occasionally sport, in the sense of an athletic contest, figures prominently in the plays (the wrestling match in As You Like It), but more often as part of a passing jest (e.g. Kent's insult of Oswald in King Lear—“you base football player” [1.4.86]). “Sport” is often used to signify war or battle itself—for instance, when Hotspur in 1 Henry IV shouts “O, let the hours be short, / Till fields, and blows, and groans applaud our sport” (1.3.301-2). On the surface, those lines recall the proverbial phrase “Sport of Kings,” which applied historically to war making. Interestingly, the phrase acquired new meaning in the early modern period when it began to describe the athletic practices of hunting and horseracing.12

Sport, in the athletic sense, is as central to the meaning of Henry VI as any of Shakespeare's other plays. Burgundy's fear, in 1 Henry VI, that war will turn into sport is gradually realized over the course of the three plays. As in the case of the Miracle of St. Albans scene, the collapse of war and sport works to indict the competitiveness of the ruling nobility—its lapse into selfish personal rivalries and conflicts. Not only does this collapse reflect contemporary concerns about the gentlemanly neglect of war and politics for frivolous pastimes, but it also highlights contestatory ambition as the major cause of both war and political conflict in Henry VI. It is startling to discover how little of the action in the trilogy is prompted by actual political disagreement. Whereas H. M. Richmond includes Henry VI among a group of plays that “deliberately engage in a substantial and steadily evolving study of man as a political animal” (ix), many critics have highlighted how seldom characters in the trilogy are identified with particular political positions or policies. David Riggs, for instance, has discussed the replacement of political honor and policy with a “ruthless logic of outrage and revenge” (91). This is not to deny that certain characters are representative of political ideals—Gloucester as champion of the commonwealth, for example—but rather to suggest that such ideals are rarely the cause of conflict in the plays. One may consider the garden scene in 1 Henry VI as emblematic of this point. When Vernon plucks a white rose in the name of the “truth and plainness of the case” (2.4.46), Somerset mocks the seeming arbitrariness of his decision:

Prick not your finger as you pluck it off,
Lest, bleeding, you do paint the white rose red,
And fall on my side so against your will.


Alexander Leggatt describes the accidental quality of choosing sides in the garden scene: “The fundamental, chilling irony of the scene is that we never know what the quarrel is about—it is the tendency to quarrel and choose sides that matters” (8). This tendency to quarrel defines the civil struggle beyond the garden scene and throughout the entire trilogy; again, the motivational factor seems simply to be a competitive tendency in the nobility, as Jonas Barish suggests: “[T]he opposing clans of York and Lancaster … turn into warring tribes whose purpose is to dominate and humiliate if not exterminate each other” (13). These purposes become embarrassingly apparent at such moments as when Clifford swears eternal allegiance to Henry by declaring, “King Henry, be thy title right or wrong, / Lord Clifford vows to fight in thy defense” (3 Henry 1.1.159-60; emphasis added).

The fact that war and sport often become indistinguishable is, at once, the result and the cause of this competitive tendency in the nobility. The politics of individual expediency and ambition, which come to replace the old chivalric code of the common good, serve to highlight the simultaneous shift from a culture of honor to a culture of competition. Contrast the chivalric nature of Talbot—the hero of the first part of Henry VI—with the Machiavellian individualism of Richard, the central figure of the last part. After Talbot accepts the Countess' invitation, he arrives at her castle only to be insulted by her mockery of his rather unheroic stature:

I thought I should have seen some Hercules,
A second Hector, for his grim aspect
And large proportion of his strong-knit limbs.
Alas, this is a child, a silly dwarf!
It cannot be this weak and writhled shrimp
Should strike such terror to his enemies.


The Countess believes that she is witnessing the substance of Talbot and that it falls far short of the shadow she has feared for so long. Leggatt is correct to point out that she is completely wrong. She has, in fact, been viewing Talbot's shadow, for his “substance lies in his army, which he summons by winding his horn” (4). Leggatt's shrewd reading of the scene accurately conveys the degree to which chivalric notions of heroism depended on communal effort and solidarity: “Success in battle is the achievement of the group, not the individual” (3). Perhaps no other subject has occupied more critical attention regarding Henry VI than the decline of chivalry over the three plays. The plays trace a rapid movement from the communal notion of heroism and order dominant in the Talbot episodes to the earth shattering solipsism and misanthropic individualism embodied in Richard's famous words, “I am myself alone” (3 Henry VI, 5.6.83). Riggs describes the manner in which this decline serves to expose the dangerous contingency of abstract concepts like “honor”: “In effect these plays keep saying that the received ideals of heroic greatness may be admirable in themselves, but they invariably decay, engender destructive violence and deadly rivalries, and, in the process, make chaos out of history” (99).

Shakespeare's use of sport, as a synonym or metaphor for war, demonstrates the degree to which traditional notions of chivalric honor disintegrate into merely personal rivalries and struggles. This mixing of public with private conflicts always threatens to undermine the stability of the commonwealth. In the opening act of Henry V, for example, the young king rightly interprets the Dolphin's gift of tennis balls as a personal insult, and he promises to meet the challenge on a highly personal level:

But tell the Dolphin I will keep my state,
Be like a king, and show my sail of greatness
When I do rouse me in my throne of France.
          I will rise there with so full a glory
That I will dazzle all the eyes of France,
And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his
Hath turn'd his balls to gun-stones, and his soul
Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly with them.


The Dolphin's “gift” alludes to Henry's “wilder days,” and represents a personal challenge both to his masculinity and his ability to rule. It triggers a response that, though voiced in the language of fearless heroism and bravery, reveals the danger of cultural concepts such as honor. Henry's promise to “be like a king”—that is, his promise to fulfill the sacred, public duties he has sworn to uphold—quickly disintegrates into a personal competition with the Dolphin. The “wasteful vengeance” Henry will reap on the husbands and sons of a thousand widows, as well as the deaths of numerous Englishmen and boys, largely result from his distorted sense of personal honor. Shakespeare cleverly appoints a box of tennis balls a major source of Henry's wrath in Henry V.13

In the earlier histories, Shakespeare employs the same technique, but the collapse of war and sport is much more thorough than in the latter play. After Burgundy's scoff in 1 Henry VI, war quickly becomes indistinguishable from sport. Hunting imagery is most common, perhaps because hunting is the primary sport of the nobility. Imagery of the hunter and hunted is used to signify the simultaneous helplessness and ferocity the soldier experiences in battle. Talbot uses the hunting/warfare metaphor to represent the battle between the warring enemies:

How we are park'd and bounded in a pale,
A little herd of England's timorous deer,
Maz'd with a yelping kennel of French curs!
If we be English deer, be then in blood,
Not rascal-like, but fall down with a pinch,
But rather, moody-mad; and, desperate stags,
Turn on the bloody hounds with heads of steel,
And make cowards stand aloof at bay.
Sell every man his life as dear as mine,
And they shall find dear deer of us, my friends.


When York meets a Messenger in the very next scene, he inquires: “Are not the speedy scouts return'd again / That dogg'd the mighty army of the Dolphin?” (4.3.1-2; emphasis added).

In the case of the French-English war, hunting is a useful metaphor for describing the ceaseless oscillations of battle. When Shakespeare uses hunting imagery later in the trilogy—now to describe the changing fortunes of rival English factions—he literalizes the metaphorical relation between sport and battle. In 3 Henry VI, the Lancastrian king is taken prisoner by Yorkist sympathizers who also happen to be gamekeepers. The first Keeper announces their intention:

Under this thick-grown brake we'll shroud ourselves,
For through this laund anon the deer will come,
And in this covert will we make our stand,
Culling the principal of all the deer.


When Henry enters shortly after, the first Keeper remarks: “Ay, here's a deer whose skin's a keeper's fee / This is the quondam king” (22-3). Henry becomes the hunted prey in the scene, taken prisoner by two actual hunters.

In the next act, it is the captive Edward who is represented as a deer. When he enters the stage with a Huntsman, he is met by his rescuers who have hidden themselves in the park. Gloucester explains that

[O]ften but attended with a weak guard,
[Edward] Comes hunting this way to disport himself.
I have advertis'd him by secret means
That if about this hour he make this way,
Under the color of his usual game,
He shall here find his friends with horse and men
To set him free from his captivity.


When Edward sees his men, he jokingly asks, “Stand you thus close to steal the Bishop's deer?” (17). In both scenes, the warring monarchs have become hunted prey—specifically, they have become deer. In employing the hunting imagery as a surrogate for actual military confrontation, Shakespeare exploits one of the more fruitful metaphors of the late sixteenth century. Not only had hunting become a target of contempt for precise authors concerned about gentlemen wasting their time, but it also served as a symbolic substitute for land warfare during peacetime. As Roger B. Manning notes,

Hunting was many things in Tudor and early Stuart England. Certainly, it afforded sport and recreation for kings and aristocrats as it had always done and provided an opportunity to develop and display the skills and the courage necessary for war. It was also a ritualized simulation of war involving calculated and controlled levels of violence carried on between rival factions of gentry and peerage. Symbolically, the various rites of hunters derive from the elements of traditional land warfare. …


Deer parks were frequent battlegrounds for rival factions during the Wars of the Roses and in Shakespeare's own day. The playwright's parallel hunting scenes demonstrate the negligence of the idle nobility and indict the court factionalism of the 1590s. Competitive ambition—not differences of political policy—is the cause of England's woes. Furthermore, the scenes demonstrate the degree to which the fears of Burgundy have been realized; war, once only capable of becoming sport, is now superseded by sport. The political struggles that previously took place on various battlefields now occur in a hunting park. Moreover, hunting itself has degenerated from a vigorous contest between “moody-mad and desperate stags” and “bloody hounds” to the less heroic activity of trapping vulnerable prey.

James L. Calderwood has called attention to the prevalence of trapping imagery in 2 Henry VI. The dominance of such imagery in the transitional play, I should like to argue, emphasizes the degeneration of war from 1 Henry, in which the battle with France is merely comparable to sport, to 3 Henry where civil war has literally become sport. Calderwood focuses on several key passages where trapping imagery is used to describe the nobles' conspiracy against Humphrey, concluding that “the division of characters into the trappers and the trapped … is at best a rudimentary means of distinguishing Humphrey from the nobles,” since he is the one character who “lacks self-interest and political ambition, and hence cannot be lured.”14 Calderwood correctly acknowledges the degree to which representations of the conspirators as trappers signal their “sheer craft and self interest.”15

That ambition and contest are the sources of conflict in Henry VI becomes yet clearer during the actual battles between the York and Lancaster factions. In the second act of 3 Henry, the battlefield is figured as an athletic space wherein athletes compete for victory. When Warwick stumbles on stage in the third scene, he remarks, “Forespent with toil, as runners with a race, / I lay me down a little while to breathe” (2.3.1-2). A moment later, Enter Edward running. And shortly after, Enter Richard running. The “forespent” runners wail their losses and lament their current, bleak situation. But the scene ends with Clarence's attempt to stir up their courage and spirits:

Yet let us all together to our troops,
And give them leave to fly that will not stay;
And call them pillars that will stand to us;
And if we thrive, promise them such rewards
As victors wear at the Olympian games.
This may plant courage in their quailing breasts,
For yet is hope of life and victory.


The scene begins with thoroughly exhausted athletes and ends with psyched-up would-be champions.

Clarence's words grant as much glory to victory as to life itself. But there is no politically inspired argument underlying them. Unlike Henry V's rallying speech at Agincourt or Richard's speech at Bosworth—both of which focus on national duty and the contingent stability of the nation—Clarence's speech focuses on the agony and the defeat of contest. Victory becomes an end in itself rather than a means to an end. In Henry's pastoral lament—which Edward Berry calls “the most important scene in the series” (163)—a scene that begins twelve lines after Clarence's speech, the ineffective monarch ponders the nature of victory. Henry compares the fluctuating fortunes of war to the furious takedowns and reversals of two Olympians engaged in a wrestling match:

Sometime the flood prevails, and then the wind,
Now one the better, then another best;
Both tugging to be victors, breast to breast,
Yet neither conqueror nor conquered;
So is the equal poise of this fell war.
Here on this molehill will I sit me down.
To whom God will, there be the victory!


Henry's relinquishment of military victory to the will of God stands in stark contrast to the Yorkist will to power. When juxtaposed with Clarence's rallying speech or Richard's great soliloquy in Act 3, the monarch's paralyzing, self-pitying lament exposes a general lack of will as the cause of his inability to rule. Not a true competitor, Henry grants to God what Richard seeks for himself.

When Richard finally murders Henry in the final act of the trilogy, Shakespeare returns to the hunting/trapping metaphor. Henry describes his son's murder by Richard as the trapping of an innocent bird by a snare, and sees his own similar, impending fate:

The bird that hath been lim'd in a bush,
With trembling wings misdoubteth every bush;
And I, the hapless male to one sweet bird,
Have now the fatal object in my eye
Where my poor young was lim'd, was caught, and kill'd.


Richard stabs Henry savagely. The final image of the monarch is that of a helpless animal seized and destroyed by a fierce hunter. Indeed, the very absence of any connotation of athleticism in the final sporting metaphor—signified again by the shift from hunting to trapping imagery—suggests the further degeneration of war over the course of the three plays.

War and political conflict are a sort of royal sport in the world of Shakespeare's Henry VI plays. Though authors had emphasized the similarities between sport and war for centuries, Shakespeare struck out in a notably original direction by appropriating sport in order to condemn the evils of modern warfare. “Writing in the post-chivalric era,” remarks Theodor Meron, Shakespeare “shows that wars are not only tragic and bloody, but also futile” (8). The numerous instances in which Shakespeare employs athletic metaphors and imagery serve to expose the military and political conflicts as little more than empty contests between noblemen. These men wish desperately to be kings, but their ambition stems less from political principle than from an infectious will to power. Whereas sport had traditionally figured as a vital component of military training and a cultivator of prowess, its purposiveness and functionality were undermined by the development of early modern weaponry and changing attitudes toward war. In the minds of many Renaissance intellectuals, including the author of Henry VI, sport by the 1590s had become as base and superfluous a phenomenon as warfare itself.


  1. Quotations from Shakespeare are from The Riverside Shakespeare.

  2. Oxford English Dictionary, s. v. “Sport.”

  3. The conversation begins with Tillyard where the author argues that the two tetralogies “show … the justice of God punishing and working out the effects of a crime [the deposition of Richard II], till prosperity is re-established in the Tudor monarchy” (36). For works that support this Tillyardian notion of justice, see: Campbell; Ribner; Traversi; Reese; Sprague; Richmond; and Riggs. Though they depart from this viewpoint in significant ways, Helgerson and Greenblatt both uphold the notion of Shakespeare as conservative historiographer. The literature prompted by both authors is too great to record here. Over the past thirty years, however, critics have questioned Tillyardian conceptions of the histories as mere propaganda for the Tudor establishment: see Talbert; Keeton; Bevington; Kelly; Prior; and Boris. For a useful overview of the debate, see Wells. Leggatt may state something like a consensus viewpoint when he remarks: “It is now customary for a critic dealing with the English histories … to begin with a ritual attack on E. M. W. Tillyard's Shakespeare's History Plays. I think we have had enough of this. We have established that to see Shakespeare as a propagandist for the Tudor Myth, the Great Chain of Being, and the Elizabethan World Picture will not do” (x).

  4. See Hale, 1985, 41-42.

  5. Milner argues that Machiavelli's Art is a “thoroughgoing attempt to augment, modernize, illustrate and supplement Vegetius” (Vegetius, xiv).

  6. Hale, 1985, 91.

  7. Milton's comments in Paradise Lost are the most famous: after Satan has revealed his war engines to his legions, the narrator remarks: “In future days, if malice should abound, / Someone intent on mischief, or inspired / With devilish machination might devise / Like instrument to plague the sons of men / For sin, on war and mutual slaughter bent” (6:502-506).

  8. Webb, 108. See also Hale, 1962, 21.

  9. Peacham, 136.

  10. Ascham, 19042, 55.

  11. See Hughes and Larkin, 1:266-68.

  12. Oxford English Dictionary, s. v. “Sport.”

  13. That it is not the only source is clear both from Henry IV's advice to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels” (2 Henry IV 4.5.213-14) and the bishops' extended discussion of motives for invading France at the opening of Henry V.

  14. Calderwood, 484. The author notes trapping imagery in the following passages from 2 Henry: 1.2.91-4; 2.2.73-74; 2.2.54-7; 2.2.261-64; 2.4.59-63; and 2.4.15-16.

  15. Ibid., 484.


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Further Reading

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Arnold, Margaret J. “‘Monsters in Love's Train’: Euripides and Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida.Comparative Drama 18, no. 1 (spring 1984): 38-53.

Compares Euripides' several plays focusing on the Trojan War with Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. Both dramatists, Arnold contends, present a grimly realistic view of war and depict self-divided characters struggling to retain their idealism in a world where moral relativism prevails and events are beyond their control.

Baldo, Jonathan. “Wars of Memory in Henry V.Shakespeare Quarterly 47, no. 2 (summer 1996): 132-59.

Demonstrates the ways in which the sixteenth-century movement in England toward national unity is reflected in Henry V.

Bowen, Barbara E. “‘Read My Labia: U.S. Out of Saudi Arabia’: Gender in the Theater of War.” In Gender in the Theater of War: Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida,” pp. 161-78. New York: Garland, 1993.

Links the misogyny and dialectics of Troilus and Cressida to the war in the Persian Gulf in the early 1990s.

Bulman, James C. “Coriolanus and the Matter of Troy.” In Mirror up to Shakespeare, edited by J. C. Gray, pp. 242-60. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.

Compares Shakespeare's portrait of Hector in Troilus and Cressida, whom he regards as a symbol of the chivalric code and its ideals, with Coriolanus, whom he views as a psychologically complex character torn by the uncertainties of war and politics.

Draudt, Manfred. “Venus and Mars: The Relationship of Love and War in Shakespeare.” Cahiers Élisabéthains 46 (October 1994): 9-21.

Provides an overview of the various ways Shakespeare adapted the traditional literary trope of love-as-war. Draudt cites references to Venus and Mars and the interchangeable attributes of these mythological deities in Love's Labour's Lost, The Rape of Lucrece, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and All's Well That Ends Well.

Hassel, Chris. “Fluellen: Wars of Discipline and ‘Disciplines of the Wars.’” Literature & Theology 12, no. 4 (December 1998): 350-62.

Connects Fluellen's repeated allusions to military discipline in Henry V with late sixteenth-century Protestant formulations of proper conduct within a Christian community.

Kay, Carol McGinnis. “Traps, Slaughter, and Chaos: A Study of Shakespeare's Henry VI Plays.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 5, no. 1 (April 1972): 1-26.

Provides an analysis of the way major image patterns in the Henry VI trilogy underscore the progression from order, to viciousness, to uncontrollable lawlessness as England is wracked by civil war.

Lane, Robert. “‘When Blood Is Their Argument’: Class, Character, and Historymaking in Shakespeare's and Branagh's Henry V.ELH 61, no. 1 (spring 1994): 27-52.

Maintains that Branagh's film is a simplistic reduction of Shakespeare's play, effectively obscuring the dramatist's complex portrayal of war and the men who engage in it. Lane calls particular attention to the result of Branagh's textual excisions and abridgements, asserting that these serve to elevate the king's heroism, avoid unflattering commentary on his rhetoric, and minimize the gulf between common soldiers and aristocrats.

Manheim, Michael. “The Function of Battle Imagery.” Literature/Film Quarterly 22, no. 2 (1994): 129-35.

Considers the different perspectives on war and national honor in Akira Kurasawa's films Ran and Kagemusha and in the Henry V adaptations directed by Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh. Manheim proposes that the Japanese director vividly depicts both the glory and the futility of the sixteenth-century samurai military codes; he also suggests that while Olivier's film contains many subtleties and is more than mere wartime propaganda, Branagh's is more enigmatic, eliciting a truly divided response from the audience.

Marx, Steven. “Shakespeare's Pacifism.” Renaissance Quarterly 45, no. 1 (spring 1992): 49-95.

Discerns a change in Shakespeare's dramatic perspective on war over the course of his career, from glorification of war in the early history plays to celebrations of pacifism in the late romances. This essay offers substantial coverage of Henry V, Troilus and Cressida, and Coriolanus.

———. “Holy War in Henry V.Shakespeare Survey 48 (1995): 85-97.

Explores correspondences between the portrayal of holy war in the Bible and Shakespeare's representation in Henry V of the linkages between war, religion, and politics.

Mayer, Jean-Christophe. “Pro Patria Mori: War and Power in the Henriad.” Cahiers Élisabéthains 51 (April 1997): 29-46.

Evaluates war as a political strategy in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V. The critic is particularly concerned with rationales for military action, the ways sovereigns use war to quell internal dissent, and the conjunction of church and state to justify a “holy war” that is politically motivated.

Meron, Theodor. “The Siege of Harfleur and Treatment of Occupied Territory: The Limits of Protection.” In Henry's Wars and Shakespeare's Laws: Perspectives on the Law of War in the Later Middle Ages, pp. 75-130. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

Analyzes the ultimatum Henry delivers to the besieged citizens of Harfleur in the context of medieval laws of war, Renaissance perspectives on those laws, Shakespeare's sources, and modern concepts embodied in the Hague Regulations and the Geneva Conventions. Meron contends that this speech and Henry's subsequent conduct toward the inhabitants of the city are generally compatible with the standards that prevailed during the Hundred Years' War.

———. “Principle under Stress.” In Bloody Constraint: War and Chivalry in Shakespeare, pp. 132-49. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Considers how political opportunism, the desire for revenge, and misogyny lead military leaders in Shakespeare's English history plays to violate medieval laws of war. Meron calls attention to such transgressions of the chivalric code as the breaking of solemn oaths and legal obligations and refusing to extend mercy to captured soldiers.

Rauchut, E. A. “Hotspur's Prisoners and the Laws of War in 1 Henry IV.Shakespeare Quarterly 45, no. 1 (spring 1994): 96-7.

Asserts that Henry IV's demand that Hotspur relinquish his prisoners violates both the chivalric code and accepted military conventions. Rauchut also argues that Hotspur's observance of the rules regarding captives accentuates the difference between his commitment to honor and Henry's political pragmatism.

Ronan, Clifford J. “Lucan and the Self-Incised Voids of Julius Caesar.Comparative Drama 22, no. 3 (fall 1988): 215-26.

Argues that significant concepts and imagery in Julius Caesar imitate Lucan's first-century Roman historical epic Pharsalia. Ronan calls attention to references to disemboweling, self-mutilation, and parricide in Shakespeare's tragedy as descriptors for civil insurrection.

Shaughnessy, Robert. “The Last Post: Henry V, War Culture and the Postmodern Shakespeare.” Theatre Survey 39, no. 1 (May 1998): 41-61.

Provides an overview of the influence of cinematic techniques on the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1980s and 1990s. In an extended discussion of Matthew Warchus's 1994 production of Henry V, Shaughnessy argues that its representation of war was deeply influenced by British “nostalgia” for the Second World War; he also maintains that every RSC staging of this play since 1944 constitutes, to some degree, a response to Laurence Olivier's noted film version.

Taylor, Gary. “The War in King Lear.Shakespeare Survey 33 (1980): 27-34.

Comments on how the textual divergences in the Quarto and Folio versions of Lear affect the play's presentation of the war between Cordelia's army and the combined forces of Albany and Edward. Taylor suggests that the Folio version of Acts III through V speeds up and intensifies the preparations for war and, with diminished references to French troops, represents Cordelia as the leader of a civil revolt rather than an invasion.

Waith, Eugene M. “The Wounds of Civil War in Plays by Shakespeare and His Predecessors.” In Patterns and Perspectives in English Renaissance Drama, pp. 127-37. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1988.

Surveys the use of such dramatic devices as dumb shows, formal declamations, lamentation speeches, and visual imagery in five tragedies written between 1560 and the early 1590s, including Titus Andronicus, that focus on the causes and consequences of civil war. Waith points out that, beginning with Gorboduc, these plays depict conflicts within families as both leading to and emblematic of civil disorder.

Wells, Robin Headlam. “‘Manhood and Chevalrie’: Coriolanus, Prince Henry, and the Chivalric Revival.” Review of English Studies n.s. 51, no. 203 (August 2000): 395-422.

Characterizes Coriolanus as Shakespeare's final and “most emphatic” critique of basing reputation on military valor. In Wells's judgment, the play's principal concern is with the opposition of martial and humanist value systems, and he suggests that it represents Shakespeare's contribution to the early seventeenth-century public debate in England about the militaristic aspirations of James I's son, Prince Henry, who was the figurehead for militant, expansionist Protestantism.

Yoder, R. A. “‘Sons and Daughters of the Game’: An Essay on Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida.Shakespeare Survey 25 (1972): 11-25.

Considers Troilus and Cressida a play with unique appeal to modern audiences, particularly with respect to its analysis of a drawn-out war fought for dubious causes. Yoder argues that not only is the love of the title characters sacrificed to the demands of the war effort, Eros itself is subjugated for the sake of duty to the absolutist state.

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