William Shakespeare Engraving
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Shakespeare: The Bard Of War

It’s been 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare, so what better time to reflect on his thoughts about, and perception of, warfare...

William Shakespeare Engraving
It’s been 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare, so what better time to reflect on his thoughts about, and perception of, warfare.
 
They can come as brief insights, such as when misanthropic Timon of Athens complains that “civil laws are cruel; Then what should war be?” (Presumably a 16th Century version of First World Problems). Or as references to the belief in just war, such as bad guy Hotspur’s line in Henry IV Part 1 “the arms are fair; When the intent of bearing them is just”.
 
But there’s many more examples of the Bard's work that deal more directly with conflict, battle and its inevitable outcomes. 
 
Many may remember the 2012 recovery of Richard III’s body from a car park in Leicester. Remarkable how little he resembles his descendant Benedict Cumberbatch.

Shakespeare establishes immediately that the “ill stamp’d” crippled Duke of Gloucester seethes with jealousy for the current king, lamenting the cessation of hostilities and commencement of a jovial peace that his deformity prevents him from enjoying. 

Now are brows bound with victorious wreaths;

Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;

Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings;

Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.

Grim-visaged war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;

And now, instead of mounting barded steeds

To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,

He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber

To the lascivious pleasing of a lute. 

The personification of war as a grim-visaged, wrinkled, angry brow is taken to the next level in Henry V (played by Kenneth Branagh in 1989.)

During his battle and subsequently glorious victory against the French at Agincourt in 1415, Henry rallies his men to charge “Once more into the breach” (of battle), and to “imitate the action of the tiger” and stiffen their sinews, or source of strength. And then to literally screw up their faces, let anger burn through their eyes, and frown so that their brows resemble the overhang of a cliff:  

Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;

Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;

Let pry through the portage of the head

Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it

As fearfully as doth a galled rock

O’erhang and jutty his confounded base”

Henry V is also notable for another famous speech. Right before the main battle, his men outnumbered, Henry appeals to their desires for future glory to get them to fight on. Sound familiar?

This day is called the feast of Crispian;

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,

Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,

And rouse him at the name of Crispian.

He that shall live this day, and see old age,

Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,

And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’

Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.

And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’ 

The famous pre-Battle of Stirling speech in Braveheart, inspired by Henry V

Meanwhile, battle in MacBeth is a far less glorious, far darker affair. The ruthless Scottish king, inspired by witches and his power hungry wife to murder his way to the crown, is surrounded in his castle by rebelling nobles. As the noose tightens, he yells “They have tied me to a stake. I cannot fly”.

He’s finally cornered by MacDuff, who growls “My voice is my sword; thou bloodier villain; Than terms can give thee out!” right before he slaughters said villain for killing his family. 

Macho posturing also occurs between Ralph Fiennes and Gerard Butler in Coriolanus, as Butler’s Tullus Aufidious says of his rival: 

I have fought with thee: so often has thou beat me,

And wouldst do so, I think, should we encounter

As often as we eat. By the elements,

If e’er again I meet him beard to beard,

He’s mine, or I am his.

Unlike MacBeth, Coriolanus, a disillusioned Roman general, defects to the enemy Volsci camp and allies with his rival Aufidious. He’s so committed to the destruction of Rome by this point, that when his wife and mother beg him to stop, he spits back “Let it be virtuous to be obstinate”.

There is obstinacy in spades as Julius Caesar bats away concerns about the Ides of March, proclaiming that “Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once”. When Caesar’s pride comes before his fall and he is murdered in the senate, Mark Anthony trumpets the need for retribution.

And Caesar’s spirit, raging for revenge, 

With Ate by his side come hot from hell,

Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice

Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war.

Finally, Hamlet can’t help but invoke the imagery of war to illustrate the extent of his self-loathing. He observes that it can be a sign of nobleness “to stir without great argument” (or fight without good reason), and “to find quarrel in a straw” (of mere grain) when a great man’s honour is a stake. He stands, aghast then, at his own inaction under the circumstances: 

How stand I then,

That have a father killed, a mother stained,

Excitements of my reason and my blood,

And let all sleep— 

His pain is worsened by knowing that men are prepared to go to war for trivial desires like money or fame, and be slaughtered in vast numbers over insignificant tracts of land. And so he resolves that his thoughts shall be worthless if they are not bloody. 

--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? Oh, from this time forth,

My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!