Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Shakespeare on War

One of the nice things about John Rourke and Mark Boyer's International Politics on the World Stage (at least for those of us who believe that a well-educated person is, among other things, someone who can integrate the insights from diverse disciplines) is that the authors spice up the text with observations from Shakespeare's plays. "The Bard of Avon," they write in the book's opening lines, "was a wise political commentator as well as a literary giant." New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof makes the same judgment of Shakespeare's value today in a piece called "Crowning Prince George."

Kristof focuses on Henry V, the play that most often attracts the attention of those looking for insights on leadership and war. Michael Walzer is among those who have examined Henry V. In Just and Unjust Wars, Walzer considers the Battle of Agincourt in the context of his opening discussion of realism. He brackets Shakespeare's account of the battle in Henry V between the one found in Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (on which Shakespeare based his play) and the one in David Hume's The History of England. Walzer's point is that, in spite of the different judgments about Henry's character reached by the three chroniclers, there is a shared moral language available for making such judgments.

Henry V provides fodder for both enthusiasts and opponents of war. Henry's St. Crispin's Day speech in Act IV, Scene III (a response to Westmoreland's stated desire for a larger army) is one of the passages that thrills the warriors:

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

(Surely someone has made this point before, but it is one of history's ironies that the American general who, during the Vietnam War, often expressed a desire for more troops was named Westmoreland.)

In contrast, Act IV, Scene I, in which Williams (in a conversation with a disguised Henry) states the importance of just cause, offers support for those who oppose particular wars, if not war in general:

But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath
a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and
arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at
such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a
surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind
them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their
children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die
well that die in a battle; for how can they
charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their
argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it
will be a black matter for the king that led them to
it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of

The two sides of Henry V, the glorious epic of war on the one hand and the cautionary tale of imperial hubris on the other, are quite apparent in the contrast between two widely separated film versions of the play. In 1944, with England at war against fascism, Laurence Olivier portrayed Henry in a bright and uplifting version. Kenneth Branagh's 1989 portrayal, on the other hand, is dark and brooding. It presents the play in terms consistent with those expressed by modern critics who see it, in Nicholas Kristof's words, as "an unblinking examination of the brutality and inevitable excesses of war."

Read Kristof's column and then watch one (or both) of the film versions of Shakespeare's Henry V.