War in Shakespeare's Plays
The theme of war is a prevalent topic in Shakespeare's plays. Commentators on the subject address a wide range of issues, including Shakespeare's concern with questions of legal, ethical, and religious justifications of war, his representation of ties between church and state in promoting and waging war, and his depiction of the costs of war both in terms of monetary expense as well as the effects on common soldiers and civilian populations. Several critics call attention to Shakespeare's depiction of war against a foreign enemy as a political strategy used to downplay internal problems and unite a nation around a leader whose legitimacy is in question. This is illustrated by Henry IV's advice to Hal “to busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels” (2 Henry IV). Theodor Meron (1998), taking up the issue of “just war,” contends that Shakespeare's plays show that a nation's rationale for war is often spurious, having more to do with “exaggerated notions of honour” or saving face than with a sound and legitimate motive. Critical evaluation of Shakespeare's portrayal of war principally focuses on the history plays, which chronicle both the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453), when there were periodic military conflicts between England and France, and the Wars of the Roses, the term used to describe the civil strife between the houses of York and Lancaster between 1455 and 1485. Commentators point out that during the course of these conflicts, the cult of militarism changed dramatically and traditional notions of chivalric warfare declined, partly as a result of early modern developments in armaments. Scholars also note that Shakespeare's plays reflect contemporary public debate over whether to employ foreign wars to expand territory, an issue that was hotly contested during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras.
Critics consider Henry V to be Shakespeare's most important play on the topic of war. In her discussion of the legal requirements for a just war, Janet M. Spencer (1996) evaluates the play's perspective on the legitimacy of Henry's invasion of France as well as the legitimacy of his reign. Spencer remarks that although Henry violates moral and legal laws, he is the beneficiary of religious authority that, in effect, absolves him of guilt. Jean-Christophe Mayer (see Further Reading) also addresses the question of the legitimacy of Henry's rule and his war against France. Pointing to the king's use of pretexts and deceptions, Mayer asserts that Shakespeare depicted this war as a political act, not a “holy” undertaking. By contrast, John Mark Mattox (2000) argues that Henry's war is clearly represented as a just one. Mattox reaches this conclusion by examining the war in the context of Western legal traditions that define jus ad bellum (“the justice of war”)—that is, the criteria that must be met before one nation takes military action against another—and jus in bello (“justice in war”)—the standards of conduct that soldiers and their leaders should uphold. Theodor Meron (1993) focuses more narrowly on the legality of Henry's order to kill French prisoners. Meron maintains that this was not a violation of established laws of war and that Shakespeare represented this episode “in the best possible light.” The issue of the connection in Henry V between war and nationalism arises in both commentary on the play and in critiques of film adaptations by Laurence Olivier in 1944 and Kenneth Branagh in 1989. Noting the overtly “patriotic purpose” of the first film, Elizabeth Marsland (1995) argues that Olivier's idealization of Henry's French campaign is based on a national tradition that romanticized war. Though she discerns significantly different cinematic devices in the two adaptations, Marsland contends that Branagh was as committed as Olivier to simplistically depicting Henry as merely a heroic figure. Robert Lane (see Further Reading) similarly regards Branagh's treatment of Henry, asserting that Branagh represented the king and his war from a far more approving perspective than Shakespeare did. In her essay, Ellen C. Caldwell (2000) discusses how, over the centuries, English and French artists and writers have portrayed episodes in the Hundred Years' War, noting that on both sides the depictions have been invariably concerned with the idea of promoting a national ethos. Caldwell describes Shakespeare's Henry V as a much more complex delineation of the war and its effects than is typically found in earlier representations and characterizes Olivier's Henry V film as “a vehicle for nationalistic propaganda.”
Evaluating the portrayal of war throughout the Henry VI trilogy, Gregory M. Colón Semenza (2001) suggests that the decay of chivalric ideals, radical changes in the nature of warfare, and the clash of personal rivalries chronicled in the Henry VI trilogy are enhanced by Shakespeare's use throughout these plays of sport as a metaphor for war. The critic points out that allusions to warfare as a kind of competitive sport increase as Henry's nobles discard traditional concern with political principles and the common good in favor of pursuing their own ambitions. R. Chris Hassel, Jr. (1984) focuses on Richard III, the play that chronologically follows the Henry VI trilogy. Noting the need of military leaders to convince their troops that God is on their side, he assesses the relative effectiveness of Richard's and Richmond's addresses to their soldiers before the battle at Bosworth Field. Laurence Lerner (2001) comments on several invocations of God made in King John to defend the legitimacy of rule and war. He also discusses the play's depiction of the wisdom of using either military force or diplomacy to settle the conflict between France and England, pointing out that peace is finally achieved neither by armed combat nor by treaty: instead of culminating in a pivotal battle, the war “simply fizzles out.” Remarking on a similar absence of a crucial battle scene in both Othello and Hamlet, Susan Snyder (1996) notes that Shakespeare did not dramatize the Turkish attack against Cyprus in Othello and represented Fortinbras's invasion of Denmark in Hamlet as a relatively bloodless one. Both tragedies, she contends, depict the enemy within as a greater threat than the foreign antagonist. Michèle Willems (1995) examines Hotspur (in Henry IV, Part 1) and Coriolanus as men who regard military prowess as the principal means of achieving self-fulfillment and honor. Willems calls attention to the way these plays depict the differences between professional warriors and common soldiers, as well as their similar portrayals of the challenges of managing peace when there is no identifiable, external enemy. The critic also argues that both Hotspur and Coriolanus, steeped in the cult of military honor, are victims of the political strategies of other, more pragmatic people. Robin Headlam Wells (see Further Reading) asserts that the principal concern of Coriolanus is the issue of military versus humanist values. In his judgment, the play focuses on the question of whether victory in battle is the most significant factor in defining masculine honor.
In Shakespeare's comedies, as Jonas Barish (1991) observes, war is generally a peripheral issue, a way for young men to acquire fame and honor, gain self-definition, and demonstrate leadership abilities. Indeed, R. B. Parker (1984) remarks that in All's Well That Ends Well, the reasons for the Italian conflict “are not only vague but more than a little dubious” and suggests that the principal function of the conflict is to provide an outlet for Bertram and the other French courtiers to express their aggression, achieve some measure of fame, and—in the case of Bertram—escape responsibilities. Parker also addresses the tension between ideals of love and war in All's Well That Ends Well. Jo Eldridge Carney (1991) comments on the treatment of this theme in The Two Noble Kinsmen, wherein, she concludes, it is never resolved, leaving audiences and readers struggling to accommodate the play's presentation of the rivalry between sexual desire and military obligations. One Shakespearean comedy whose portrayal of war has drawn a great deal of commentary is Troilus and Cressida. Lorraine Helms (1989) focuses on this play's presentation of the violence of war and calls attention to the correspondence between Cressida and the literary tradition that feminized the Trojans, making them active participants in their own victimization. With Cressida's surrender to and collusion with masculine aggression, Helms contends, she becomes a surrogate not only for other Trojan women but for the city as well. Steven Marx (see Further Reading) maintains that Troilus and Cressida marks a pivotal change in Shakespeare's view of war, for here the dramatist attacks the same arguments for pursuing war he endorsed in earlier plays. Marx proposes that in Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare does more than deprecate classical war heroes; he invalidates every value and symbol of Renaissance militarism.