William Shakespeare War in Shakespeare's Plays

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

War in Shakespeare's Plays

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

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

(The entire section is 119,067 words.)