Shakespeare and War

Shakespeare and War #

For most of the history of the world we have been at war. From earliest times, most young men were brought up within a warrior culture; going to war was their primary purpose for being born. Women were precluded from war as they were needed as baby incubators to provide replacement warriors for the next war.

The Trojan saga in the early Greek sources tells of the genocide of the Trojans, and the Greek poets explored some of the darkest impulses of human conduct in war. Man’s only purpose is to kill his enemy before he himself gets killed.

The dogs of war are unleased to create an irresistible violence for the warrior blood pulsing to the drum beat of war. His own life is nothing, merely something willingly sacrificed to his mates and country. Both Achilles and Hector are acutely aware, their defeat and death are inevitable; to be faced with courage and valour.

The thrill of war stirs powerful vibes in citizens at first, but subsides after prolonged conflict.

According to Robert Fagles, the 50 some Greek city states were continually at war with one another, sometimes as allies, other times as enemies.

The dominant religion is not Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Judaism, but the pervasive faith in violence. Walter Wink

The greatest threat to peace is the barrage of rightest propaganda portraying war as decent, honourable and patriotic. Jeanette Rankin

Throughout history, according to James Hillman in A Terrible Love of War, during the past 5600 years of written history, there have been 14,600 wars.

Stan Grant writes that Ben Jonson, the 16th century English playwright, imagined Julius Caesar telling the Roman politician and conspirator Catiline:

“Come, there was never any great thing yet aspired but by violence or fraud: and he that sticks for folly of a conscience to reach it … a superstitious slave and will die beast.”

Jonson, like Machiavelli, Shakespeare or the authors of Greek tragedy, wrote the script of modern politics. We may imagine a more enlightened and altruistic political age, but it was ever violent, deceitful, conspiratorial and fraudulent.

Modern nation-states concoct heroic origins but are inherently tragic – born in tragedy, they die in tragedy. Literary critic George Steiner wrote that the Peloponnesian Wars presaged the wars of today. Whereas the various wars of the Old Testament were bloody and grievous, they were ultimately just or unjust, decided by obedience to the will of God. To the Greek poets, our lives are subject to forces beyond reason or justice.

Troy is the great metaphor for tragedy. Whereas a nation razed by God’s will may be raised again by God’s grace, Steiner said the burning of Troy was final because it was “brought about by the fierce sport of human hatreds and the wanton, mysterious choice of destiny”.

We can see human will as the Promethean gift, stolen from the gods who watch us burn. Nations rage against nations and block their borders to keep out the strangers. One need only consider our world with some 150 extant conflicts, most barely covered by news outlets, to see how prophetic the old Greeks were.

Modern nations were born in the ashes of the brutal Thirty Years’ War, when the Peace of Westphalia treaties in 1648 enshrined the concept of state-bordered territorial sovereignty. The Westphalian compact is withering, however: our world is far too intricate. States are not immortal; they are entirely imagined, written in invisible ink.

Robert White Professor of English, The University of Western Australia writes:

In 26 of his 38 plays, Shakespeare includes a war in either foreground or background. In all these, anti-war invectives abound in epigrammatic phrases:

“O, war thou son of hell” (Henry VI, part 2); “the hideous god of war”; “war and lechery confound all” (Troilus and Cressida) ; “dogged war bristle[s] his angry crest / And snarleth in the gentle eyes of peace” (King John).

Soldiers are regarded by civilians as cruelly taking:

“our goodly agèd men by th’beards”

and indulging unbridled sexual violence in:

“Giving our holy virgins to the stain /Of contumelious, beastly, mad-brained war” (Timon of Athens).

For students and politicians used to reciting Henry V’s stirring “Once more unto the breach …” and “St Crispin’s Day” speeches before and after the battle of Agincourt, it is often assumed Shakespeare must support war and heroic values, epitomised in an “ideal king”.

However, the respective dramatic contexts undercut the King’s rhetoric. There are also strong arguments in the play that his invasion of France is illegal and unjustifiable, and he is guilty of war crimes, such as conscripting children, killing prisoners of war, and threatening a town with genocide. Soldiers are “bloody-hunting slaughtermen”. In “impious” war, bloody corpses are seen “larding the plain”.

The Henriads (named after the Iliad) all relate the wars, both civil and foreign. In each if you wish, you can find Shakespeare’s subtle questioning of war.

Richard II #

In Richard II, besides Richard seizing John of Gaunt’s estate to wage a futile war in Ireland, many other leading characters warn about civil war if Bolingbroke retaliates.

On his death bed, John of GAUNT predicts that due to Richard II’s incompetent rule will lead to internal strife:

That England that was wont to conquer others
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.

Gaunt further claims that in killing his brother Gloucester, Richard

respect’st not spilling Edward’s blood. (family)

YORK also attacks Richard for betraying his own father, The Black Prince:

But when he frowned, it was against the French
And not against his friends.

His hands were guilty of no kindred’s blood,
But bloody with the enemies of his kin.

On his return from Ireland, Richard is happy to be on home soil, yet apprehensive:


Dear earth, I do salute thee with my hand,
Though rebels wound thee with their horses’ hoofs.

RICHARD further warns Northumberland the consequences of their rebellion:

God omnipotent,
Is mustering in his clouds on our behalf
Armies of pestilence, and they shall strike
Your children yet unborn and unbegot,

Tell Bolingbroke—for yon methinks he stands—
That every stride he makes upon my land
Is dangerous treason. He is come to open
The purple testament of bleeding war;
But ere the crown he looks for live in peace,
Ten thousand bloody crowns of mothers’ sons
Shall ill become the flower of England’s face,

The Bishop of CARLILSE issues another warning (for which he is arrested) about crowning Bolingbroke:

And if you crown him, let me prophesy
The blood of English shall manure the ground
And future ages groan for this foul act.
Peace shall go sleep with Turks and infidels,
And in this seat of peace tumultuous wars
Shall kin with kin and kind with kind confound.
Disorder, horror, fear, and mutiny
Shall here inhabit, and this land be called
The field of Golgotha and dead men’s skulls.
O, if you raise this house against this house,
It will the woefullest division prove
That ever fell upon this cursed earth.

KING RICHARD gives the final warning to Northumberland,

Shall break into corruption. Thou shalt think,
Though he divide the realm and give thee half
It is too little, helping him to all.
And he shall think that thou, which knowst the way
To plant unrightful kings, wilt know again,

Richard II and Henry IV Battles Timeline #

1337 - 1453

The Hundred Years’ War between England and France.


Wat Tyler led a march by discontented peasants on London.

Dec 1387

A group of English barons defeat Robert de Vere and his supporters at the Battle of Radcot Bridge near Oxford.


The ‘Merciless Parliament’ appoints five Lords Appellants to rule England and sidelines Richard II of England.


Richard II of England begins a purge on the Lords Appellant, who were voted by the ‘Merciless Parliament’ to rule in his stead. They are executed or exiled, including Henry Bolingbroke.

3 Feb 1399

Death of John of Gaunt, son of Edward III of England and Duke of Lancaster. His son Henry Bolingbroke inherits the title and the claim to the throne.

Jun 1399 - Jul 1399

Henry Bolingbroke lands in northern England with a small invading army and marches south.

Sep 1399

Richard II of England is imprisoned in the Tower of London by Henry Bolingbroke.

Reign of Henry IV of England.


The Welsh leader Owain Glyn Dwr declares himself the Prince of Wales.

21 Jul 1403

Henry IV of England defeats rebellious barons at the Battle of Shrewsbury. Prince Henry, future Henry V of England also participates.


The Welsh rebel leader Owain Glyn Dwr captures Harlech Castle.


The ‘Long Parliament’ haggles with Henry IV of England over state finances.

Feb 1408

Henry IV of England wins the Battle of Bramham Moor against the combined Welsh and English rebels.


A royal army led by the Prince of Wales, future King Henry V of England, recaptures Harlech Castle in Wales.

20 Mar 1413

Henry IV of England dies of illness.

9 Apr 1413 Coronation of Henry V of England in Westminster Abbey.

Henry IV 1 & 2 #

KING HENRY IV’s opening speech, suspending his crusade to deal with local wars echoes, that of Richard II. eschewing civil strife:

No more the thirsty entrance of this soil
Shall daub her lips with her own children’s blood;
Nor more shall trenching war channel her fields,
Nor bruise her flowerets with the armed hoofs

Despite these good intentions, Henry’s management style, antagonises many of his original supporters and he is faced with revolts from the north and from Wales. The fact that Richard II had nominated his cousin Mortimer as his heir, plagued all other Kings until Henry VII defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485.

On his death bed, Henry’s advice to Prince Harry is: Be it thy course to busy giddy minds/With foreign quarrels, to unify the country in order to quell local wars.

Henry V #

To “let slip” a dog was to release it from the leash when it was time to begin the pursuit. It has been suggested that “the dogs of war” are fire, sword, and famine, for in “Henry V” the poet says of the warlike king,

and, at his heels,
Leashed in like hounds, should Famine, Sword, and Fire
Crouch for employment.

Henry VI 1, 2 & 3 #

Shakespeare’s manifested the national unease in the Henry VI trilogy; a warning of grim topicality against the horrors and dangers of civil butchery. He dramatizes the greatest of civil (and natural) disorders:

“Enter a Sonne that hath kill’d his Father … and a Father that hath kill’d his Sone” (Henry VI, part three, II.v).”

The War of the Roses:

Battle time lines:

Meanwhile, in other plays, some sympathetic and morally scrupulous characters condemn the tragic futility and violence of war.

Hamlet meditates over a piece of worthless, depopulated scorched earth “wasteland”, over which “the imminent deaths twenty thousand men’ … [will] go to their graves like beds”, fighting “even for an eggshell” “which is not tomb enough and continent /To hide the slain”.

The saintly, pacifist King Henry VI quotes Christ’s words while brooding on the high moral ground of a hill overlooking battle in “civil butchery”, intra-family, mafia-like vendettas pitting families against each other and resulting in mutual slaughter of fathers and sons. In revenge plays such as Titus Andronicus and Hamlet, the cessation of one conflict is simply the prelude to the next in a succession ending only with the deaths of all antagonists, like today’s nightmare specter of a sequence of retaliatory nuclear strikes.

In Julius Caesar, “Havoc.” in battles of ancient times this cry was the signal that no quarter was to be given to prisoners.

Antony uses the language of hunting. (See lines 205-211)“let slip the dogs of war.” To “let slip” a dog was to release it from the leash when it was time to begin the pursuit. It has been suggested that “the dogs of war” are fire, sword, and famine, for in “Henry V” the poet says of the warlike king,

and, at his heels,
Leashed in like hounds, should Famine, Sword, and Fire
Crouch for employment.

An outspoken anti-war work Troilus and Cressida is widely acknowledged as among the most outspoken anti-war works of all time. It chronicles a squalid war waged over the forced abduction of a woman, who is regarded as little more than a symbolic trophy.

The prophetess Cassandra, speaking as much for future generations as her own, condemns the Trojan war, calling upon:

“Virgins and boys, mid-age and wrinkled old,
Soft infancy, that nothing canst but cry”,
to weep in protest at the “mass of moan to come”.

The fate of the “heroic” Hector in the play is ignominiously humiliating:

He’s dead; and at the murderer’s horse’s tail,
In beastly sort, dragg’d through the shameful field
… Hector is dead, There is no more to say.

So much for heroism.

Another brutally dismissive epitaph – “Let’s make the best of it” – is uttered over the corpse of Coriolanus, the most single-minded, professional soldier in Shakespeare’s canon. “Chief enemy to the people”, he is a sociopath and prey to violent outbursts of anger. More machine than man, his role resembles the modern arms industry, owing allegiance to no national state and selling weapons indiscriminately to either side of conflicts.

Having turned against Rome and then against his new associates in arms, Coriolanus is finally hacked to death unceremoniously by Volscians baying “kill, kill, kill…”

He is remembered as one who,

“in this city [Rome] …
Hath widow’d and unchilded many a one,
Which to this hour bewail the injury”.

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