March 20 2005

Good afternoon.  Thank you for attending, and thank you Kathleen Thorne for inviting me to come to this lovely island to speak.  The topic you gave me was “a discussion of how Shakespeare might view today's rulers, the role of war, and other current topics, and what we can learn from his writings that is still relevant to today's issues and events.” 

To begin with, I’d like to consider what prompts this topic.  We are interested in it because Shakespeare is an author with Clout—his works comprise a treasury of cultural capital. 

Cultural Capital is a term invented by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu that has gained currency among scholars in a variety of fields, especially those associated with the school of New Historicism that emerged in the early 1980s.  New Historicists concern themselves with the interplay between art, money and power, and they study works of literature in social and historical context.  They ask how works of art embody, support and challenge  the ideology of the power structure of the times and places they were produced, and also how they function as tools of power and ideology in later times. Most of my talk will focus on these questions—how is Shakespeare’s clout used by people in and out of power today, and how did Shakespeare relate to some of the political issues of his own time.  It’s no accident that New Historicism originated among Shakespeare critics like Stephen Greenblatt, since Shakespeare has accumlated more prestige or cultural capital than any other writer or text since his time.


The recent film release of the The Merchant of  Venice,  now playing on Bainbridge Island, brings to mind some of Shakespeare’s own reflections on the use of  revered  texts for local political and economic purposes, specifically the one text  with even more clout than his own:  the Bible.  A central  theme of this play--the rivalry between  Christians and Jews over interpretation  of the Holy Scriptures—is dramatized in the spectacle  of Old and New Testament references being flung back and forth by the rivals like brickbats .  But the underlying theme  of conflicting appropriation of  authoritative  texts emerges in this kind of language:


The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. . . . O what a goodly outside falsehood hath!' (1.3.96-7, 101)  or

'In religion, | What damned error but some sober brow | Will bless it and approve it with a text | Hiding the grossness with fair ornament?' (3.2.77-80).


As with the Bible,  so with  the Bard: liberals and conservatives,   Democrats and Republicans,  neocons and libertarians,  generals and war protesters  all claim to have them  on their side.

Here’s an example of Shakespeare’s from the days of my youth

More recent examples abound on the other side of the political spectrum.

This is a very successful enterprise catering to CEO’s, Politicians, and Military Top Brass. It’s run by Carol and Kenneth Adelman, a Republican political consultant who was President Ronald Reagan's chief adviser on arms control. A member of Rumsfeld’s Defense Policy board, he is famous for the remark that the war in Iraq would be a cakewalk.  One of their clients is James G. Roche, former secretary of the Air Force, for whom the couple had run seminars between 1999 and 2001 while he was a vice president at Northrop Grumman. For the last two years they have been contracted to do this for the military at taxpayer expense.


The most popular of Shakespeare’s plays among the movers and shakers is Henry V. According to an article by Scott Newstok, it “enjoys an unchallenged predominance on syllabi for graduate courses in leadership and public policy -- for instance, excerpts from this play (and this play only) appear in at least five courses at  The  Kennedy  School  of  Government alone. .. An Army major general recited the Crispin's day speech to his troops before deployment in this second Gulf buildup; and publishers donated copies of Henry V to U.S. military personnel as part of a revived 'Armed Services Edition'."[see Scott Newstrom, "George W as Henry V?", to which many references here are indebted]


The myth of Henry V has a long ancestry.  Ruling between 1413 and 1422, Henry has always been England’s hero king,  celebrated  before Shakespeare in Tudor chronicles and an anonymous play called “The Famous Victories of King Henry the Fifth.”  Known affectionately as Hal or Harry, Henry defeated rebellion at home and achieved conquest  abroad.  As a prince he started out as a barfly, robber and prodigal son, but upon inheriting the throne,  he miraculously converted  to a serious general,  conqueror of France and victor of the Battle of Agincourt. He galvanized  the divided nobility,  common folk and clergy into a unified force of enthusiastic followers and died young,  in the words of Shakespeare’s chorus, “a star of England.”

Shakespeare’ biographical history of this King combines action, suspense, romance, and stirring patriotic rhetoric with deep characterization emphasizing the difference between the king as charismatic performer on the stage of history and his internal struggle with fear, resentment and doubt. Shakespeare also gives voice in the play to trenchant criticism of the King and his policies.  At its core, his Henry V is a study of successful political leadership, the embodiment of Machiavelli’s Prince.


From early on, both the historical Henry and Shakespeare’s version have elicited  strongly opposed responses.

Throughout the nineteenth century productions of the play were staged to glorify the expansion of the British Empire with emphasis on the cry in Act III, “God for Harry, St George and England.” The propagandistic nature of the play reached its pinnacle with Sir Laurence Olivier's film, promoted and financed  by  Winston Churchill. Premiering in 1944, its aim was to raise English spirits during the dark days of World War II.  All these productions were heavily cut, deleting  the many passages of the text that might question the idealization of the hero.


The contrary view has a long lineage as well.  In the early nineteenth century,  the Whig essayist William Hazlitt had this to say:

“HENRY V is a very favourite monarch with the English nation, and he appears to have been also a favourite with Shakespear, who labours hard to apologise for the actions of the king, by shewing us the character of the man, as "the king of good fellows." . . . Henry, because he did not know how to govern his own kingdom, determined to make war upon his neighbours. Because his own title to the crown was doubtful, he laid claim to that of France. Because he did not know how to exercise the enormous power, which had just dropped into his hands, to any one good purpose, he immediately undertook (a cheap and obvious resource of sovereignty) to do all the mischief he could.”

During the Vietnam era, productions by The Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, the Canadian Shakespeare Festival and the American Shakespeare theatre took strongly anti-Henry anti war stances. 

Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 theatrical production and popular film, reflecting an influence of the recent Falklands war and partially financed by Prince Charles. took a somewhat balanced view of the war, displaying its grittiness and brutality, but in the end thoroughly glorifying the young king—as well as its young director and star.

In recent years it has become commonplace to read comparisons between Henry and  George W. Bush

Conservative commentators after 9/11 and before invasion of Iraq used them to glorify the new president

* "I thought that last Friday, as Bush stood atop part of the rubble of the World Trade Center, he came as close as he ever will to delivering a St. Crispin's Day speech. That spirit and resolve carried over into the House chamber last night, and it was something to behold." -- Rich Lowry

* "In Bush, the country discovered it had a young leader rising to the occasion, an easy-going Prince Hal transformed by instinct and circumstance into a warrior King Henry." -- Chris Matthews

". . . when trouble hit, how rapidly we left behind the pages of Henry the 4th and suddenly we seem to be into the pages of Henry the 5th. There had been a transformation as young George W. Bush stepped up to bat. Now, to be sure, he has not won his Agincourt, but he has set sail, and for that the country can be grateful." David Gergen


Liberal commentators have taken just as much relish either pointing out the fallacies of the comparison or showing how the president manifested some of Henry’s less than inspiring scharacteristics:

1. The fact that he follows the famous advice offered him by his father upon his deathbed


Therefore, my Harry,

Be it thy course to busy giddy minds

With foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out,

May waste the memory of the former days.

2. The fact that Henry repeatedly shifts to others his responsibility for civilian deaths; 

3. The fact that the clergy support is gained by Henry as quid pro quo for his opposition to a bill in parliament that would expropriate their lands.

One possible application of Shakespeare’s Clout to contemporary events was suggested in a speech by Mackubin Thomas Owens, a professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College. He urged that a speech of Henry's "be printed in Arabic on leaflets and dropped on Baghdad, Basra, and especially Tikrit….King Harry’s speech before the gates of Harfleur might make those Iraqis who claim they are willing to die for Saddam think twice.”


This is the latest parle we will admit:

Therefore to our best mercy give yourselves;

Or like to men proud of destruction

Defy us to our worst: for as I am a soldier,

A name that in my thoughts becomes me best,

If I begin the battery once again,

I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur

 Till in her ashes she lie buried.

The gates of mercy shall be all shut up.


What is it then to me, if impious war,

Array’d in flames like to the prince of fiends,

Do, with his smirch’d complexion, all fell feats

Enlink’d to waste and desolation?


What say you? will you yield and this avoid,

And as typical with such appropriations of cultural capital, the text is quoted out of context.  Here are the lines in that speech which are effaced by Owens’ ellipses


And the flesh'd soldier, rough and hard of heart,

In liberty of bloody hand shall range

With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass

Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants.

…What is't to me, when you yourselves are cause,

If your pure maidens fall into the hand

Of hot and forcing violation?

… in a moment look to see

The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand

Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;

Your fathers taken by the silver beards,

And their most reverend heads dash'd to the walls,

Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,

Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused

Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry

At Herod's bloody-hunting slaughtermen.

Though this passage makes Henry appear quite monstrous,  the full text of the play adds more complexity by suggesting this is really a brilliant bluff that intimidates the fortified town into surrender without bloodshed, though Henry and his exhausted troops were incapable of carrying out the threat.   

The debate over Shakespeare’s Henry was itself turned into a grand performance at the Shakespeare theatre in Washington D.C. in May 2004

"Let's see what we have here. We have a king whose father had been a king. We have a king who spent a carousing youth," said industrialist and Shakespeare Theatre trustee Sidney Harman as he introduced the program.


David Brooks talked about the fact that while prewar counsels could emphasize prudence, it was a wartime leader's job to rally a martial spirit and "get people to stop thinking prudently."

Ariana Huffington…vigorously demurred, spitting out a stream of comparisons unflattering to both Henry V and George II. Henry's invasion of France was not an invasion of necessity, she said, but one of choice -- and "there can be no moral war of choice."

Ken Adelman, [he keeps showing up] talked about Henry's much-debated decision at Agincourt.. to order his French prisoners killed.  

Adelman… last week had explained to a reporter that he was "ducking" press calls about Abu Ghraib.

At the end of the Shakespeare Theatre debate, Isaacson turned the job of judging a "winner" over to Dame Judi Dench, the great British actress … Dench professed herself unfit for the task: She's a Quaker, she said, and cannot understand why such wars should begin. Then she turned to the last lines of "Henry V," spoken by the chorus, as a way of summing up.

"This star of England: Fortune made his sword," she read, "by which the world's best garden he achieved." Yet it was all for naught, because the young Henry VI and his advisers promptly "lost France and made his England bleed."

Appropriating Shakespeare’s Clout to declare what he would think about present day political issues is risky business, since we have no record of his opinions, only those he put into the mouths of his characters.  And they contradict one another and themselves, and often speak with irony or sarcasm. Nevertheless it’s tempting to look for what the dramatist himself might have been thinking about politics in the context of  events and debates of his own time—the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, known today as the Renaissance or Early Modern period.

As a teacher  of Renaissance Literature I started getting interested in Shakespeare’s attitudes toward war and peace in 1985, when I worried about what looked at that time like a heat-up of the cold war between the US and the Soviet Union under President Reagan.  I was troubled by the fierce militarism of Henry the Fifth since I had first read it during the Vietnam war.  I was confused by the passages that undermined this stance and also by what appeared like a fulfledged opposition to war  in later plays, especially Troilus and Cressida.  Was it possible to find anything in the culture of this early modern period that could substantiate and explain Shakespeare’s presentation of what looked like distinctly modern debates between militarism and its opponents? Four years later I’d come up with some answers in an essay entitled “Shakespeare’s Pacifism,”  as my own take on “a discussion of how Shakespeare might view today's rulers, the role of war, and other current topics, and what we can learn from his writings that is still relevant to today's issues and events.”

Shakespeare’s Pacifism

Reflection upon war and peace was at the heart of the Renaissance  Humanist movement, just as the conduct of war and peace was at the foundation of the European state system during the early modern period.

The humanist response to war and peace often split into opposing positions categorized as martial vs. irenic--that is militarist vs. pacifist. Militarists like Caxton, Machiavelli and Guiccardini lionized an ideal of the prince or courtier as soldier and scholar and regarded the warrior's activity as essential for individual achievement as well as for social order.Their pacifist opponents, like Erasmus, Thomas More, Baldassare Castiglione and Juan Vives envisioned the ideal prince or courtier as a jurist and philosopher, and criticized the military ethos as irreligious, immoral and impractical. This debate shaped the actions of monarchs, the deliberations of councils, the exhortations of divines, as well as the imaginative productions of artists and writers of the time.

Shakespeare repeatedly dramatized the disagreement between militarist and pacifist perceptions of warfare in the many plays he devoted to military matters. In the course of his career, he shifted from a partisan of war to a partisan of peace . The turning point of this development occurred between the publication dates of his two battlefield plays, Henry V and Troilus and Cressida--and that shift in outlook reflects a shift in British foreign policy that began during the last years of Queen Elizabeth's reign and was completed with the accession of King James I in 1603

"A prince must not have any other object nor any other thought, nor must he take anything as his profession but war, its institutions, and its discipline; because that is the only profession which befits one who commands." So Machiavelli opens chapter XIV of The Prince entitled "The Prince's Duty Concerning Military Matters." His equation of sovereignty with military strength was both traditional and innovative. Since the fall of the Roman Empire, European political power and social status were vested largely in a warrior elite descended from Germanic chiefs. Their martial values and cultural identity were sublimated by the intellectual and bureaucratic legacy of the Church of Rome into the institutions of feudalism and the ideology of chivalry, but Europe throughout the Middle Ages retained the underpinnings of a warrior culture.

For Renaissance militarists war was an end in itself, the fundamental condition of social life, individual psychology and all creation: "There is not in nature a point of stability to be found; everything either ascends or declines: when wars are ended abroad, sedition begins at home, and when men are freed from fighting for necessity, they quarrel through ambition...I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire after power that ceaseth only with death." [Sir Walter Ralegh, translating Machiavelli’s Discourses]

But if militaristic approval of war was dominant, it was by no means monolithic. In 1516, three years after Machiavelli sent The Prince to his patron, the most prestigious humanist in Europe, Desiderius Erasmus, published The Education of a Christian Prince (Institutio Principis Christiani ), which he wrote as a handbook for the future Emperor Charles V. In it, he advocates an "Art of Peace" contrasted to Machiavelli's Art of War. Rather than normal health, Erasmus sees war and violence as aberrant pathology--in nature, in society and in the individual. Rather than identical with force, Erasmus sees power or authority as distinct from it. The duty of Erasmus' prince consists not of making or preparing for war, but rather of avoiding it and serving his people, on whose satisfaction he depends for legitimacy. Real power and true heroism lie not in physical dominance over others but in self mastery. To establish and maintain peace should be the goal of all princes, a goal achieved by the greatest spriritual and temporal leaders in history, Jesus and Augustus.

In 1517 Erasmus published another of his numerous anti-war works, The Complaint of Peace (Querela Pacis ), headed with the epigraph, "The Sum of All Religion is Peace and Unanimity." In it he adds a series of pragmatic objections against militarism to the spiritual ones in the Instititutio. War is conducted not for the benefit of the people but for the aggrandizement of princes; the hoped for benefits of battle--righting wrongs, gaining territory, resolving disputes, revenging hurts--never approximate the actual costs in lives, property and social disruption:


"There is scarcely any peace so unjust, but it is preferable, on the whole, to the justest war. Sit down before you draw the sword, weigh every article, omit none, and compute the expence of blood as well as treasure which war requires, and the evils which it of necessity brings with it; and then see at the bottom of the account whether after the greatest success, there is likely to be a balance in your favor."

Between 1517 and 1529 alone, The Complaint of Peace went through twenty four editions and was translated into most European languages The visual arts of the sixteenth century display further evidence of pacifist sentiment. Peter Brueghel's "War of the Treasure Chests and Money Bags" (1567) illustrates the satirical indictment of conducting wars for plunder and profit.

The poles of this dispute generate a grid upon which Shakespeare's plots, characters, and themes can be charted--both in individual plays and over the course of his career. That career begins with the Marlovian militarism of the first history tetralogy and the glorification of violence in Titus Andronicus andTaming of the Shrew, all written during the early 1590's. In the middle nineties, with King John and the four plays of the second history tetralogy, the battlefield remains the arena for the exercise of both individual and collective virtue.

In chivalric celebration of war, in Henry V Shakespeare aims the full blast of his rhetorical power at the audience . The choruses inflame us to collaborate with the author in producing a spectacle to sweep away thought in a flood of patriotic passion. Along with the thrills of rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air, he invokes the romantic appeal of battle as an occasion for displaying mettle under fire in the face of bad odds. Chivalry also provided ethical rationales for war which this play repeatedly invokes. Since Augustine, the church had evolved a doctrine of "just war" to regulate the military aristocracy and to exempt it from Biblical taboos against killing. Justification resided both in legitimate war aims--jus ad bellum--and in legitimate conduct of fighting--jus in bello. Shakespeare's Henry is extremely fastidious about securing these justifications, without which, he avers, his course is one of butchery.   

 This play also asks us to admire Henry's Machiavellian effectiveness. It depicts him mobilizing the cynical self-interestedness of all of his subjects, and it shows his success at melding those conflicting interests into the common purpose of making war on France.

On the eve of the decisive battle, Henry  declares his Machiavellian ethos: "There is some soul of goodness in things evil.../Thus may we gather honey from the weed/And make a moral of the devil himself." (4.1.1,12) As he kisses Katharine against her will, against custom, Henry asserts, "nice customs curtsy to great kings...We are the makers of manners Kate, and the liberty that follows our places stops the mouth of all find- faults"(5. 2.263). Henry makes his own rules in love as well as in war, like the hero of The Prince.


On the other hand, as mentioned earlier,  many voices in the play undermine this praise and paint the King, in the Welchman Fluellen’s words as “Henry the Pig.”

The debate within the play mirrors the rivalry in Elizabeths court between the war party and a peace party during the last few years of her reign—the warriors like Essex and Ralegh eager to lead protestant England against the Catholic Irish, Spaniards and French, the peace party of Cecil, Lord Burghley, anxious to avoid foreign adventures and loss of treasure and life.

Well before her deathbed appointment of James Stuart King of Scotland as her successor in 1603, Elizabeth knew of his pacifism. In 1599,  James had published Basilikon Doron, a guidebook for princes dedicated to his own son and modelled upon Erasmus' The Education of a Christian Prince. Like the 1611 edition of his Works, the frontispiece of this book prominently featured a picture of "Pax" carrying an olive branch and treading on a figure of vanity staring in the mirror. Whether or not that figure represents Essex, his brand of swashbuckling militarism went out of favor during the final Tudor years. The dominant Stuart mode of expression might be characterized as a culture of pacifism.

Troilus and Cressida, written in 1602 or 1603, marks a turning point. In it Shakespeare mounts an attack on classical war heros and on the very arguments for going to war he had supported earlier, and he undermines the whole set of values and symbols that constitute Renaissance military culture. The plays of Shakespeare's "tragic period" which follows Troilus and Cressida continue to focus on the problem of war, but with a deepening psychological penetration. Othello, Macbeth, Anthony, Timon and Coriolanus all are great generals whose martial virtues are shown to be tragically flawed. The plays in which they are protagonists reveal that military power, the highest value of both the hero and his society, is a concomitant of deficiency in power over oneself and finally the loser in a battle with the greater power of love.

Troilus forms a companion piece to Henry V. Instead of glorifying, it condemns war and those who make it. In the earlier play Shakespeare counters pacifist objections to war with militarist rationales; here, he counters militarist rationales with pacifist objections. In reducing war from a providential tool to an instrument of chaos, he inverts the rhetorical strategies of Henry V and also shrinks the proportions of epic to the distortions of satire. The chorus of Henry V apologizes for "confining mighty men" of his story in the "little room" of the theatre, implying that the members of the audience are midgets in comparison to the heros who will be portrayed on stage. The prologue of Troilus, on the other hand--"armed, but not in confidence"-- introduces us to "Princes orgulous" with "chafed blood" and "ticklish skittish spirits," whom we may "like or find fault as our pleasures are." Compared to the self-inflated Lilliputians on stage, we spectators are cast as gods.

 The two major sources of the plot, Chaucer's Troilus and Creseyde and Chapman's translation of the Iliad, suggest the two militaristic ideologies which the play continually invokes and mocks: medieval Christian chivalry and classical pagan policy. These are usually associated respectively with the Trojans and the Greeks. The question of jus ad bellum --what is the just cause for making war?--is deliberated by the Trojan council just as it is by the king's council in Henry V.  When Hector warns against the double evil of violating the laws of marriage and the laws of nations, Troilus rejects reason itself in favor of "manhood and honor": "Manhood and honor/ Should have hare hearts, would they but fat their thoughts/ with this crammed reason. Reason and respect/ Make livers pale and lustihood deject"(2.2.45-8). Emphasizing the very absence of jus ad bellum and the consequent immorality and irrationality of making war, Hector ignores his own reasoning, abruptly reverses his position, and goes off with Troilus to celebrate their coming victory.

The justice of the Greeks' war aims in reclaiming Helen is never mentioned; their militaristic rationales are not chivalric. But their two Machiavellian mechanisms of policy, force and fraud, are set at odds in the struggle between Achilles and Ulysses, the lion and the fox. Thus split, the Greeks are as incapable of achieving their own purely pragmatic purposes for war--morale, prestige, and conquest--as the Trojans are incapable of achieving honor and love.  As Thersites the clown: "the policy of these crafty-swearing proved not worth a blackberry, whereupon the Grecians begin to proclaim barbarism and policy grows into an ill opinion" (5.4.10).

It is the fool's perspective--the perspective of an outsider critical of assumptions that in general are taken for granted--that marks Troilus and Cressida 's genre of satire. A year after the play's first appearance, another anti-militarist satire called Don Quixote was published in the nation that most Englishmen thought of as their "natural enemy." That same year King James made a lasting peace treaty with Spain.

If war is no longer validated either by a heroic tradition or by the arguments of Realpolitik, one is forced to confront the question of why human beings continue to wage it and suffer its attendant disasters. By seeking the answer to this question with the analytical and educational approach to social action of the old Christian Humanists, Shakespeare and other writers under James Stuart’s rule undertook pyschological and political studies of warriors and war-oriented societies in the attempt to understand and reform them. Many of their plays depict the demise of great military heros, not through the triumph of superior arms, but through failures of insight, compassion, and self-control attributable to an identity forged in battle.

 Othello, for example, though possessing the martial virtues of "the plain soldier," is shown to lack the learning necessary to exert self- mastery and leadership in civil society. His deprecatory self- description turns out ironically accurate when it comes to his inability to communicate with anyone but Iago: "Rude am I in my speech,/And little bless'd with the soft phrase of peace...And little of the great world can I speak/More than pertains to feats of broils and battles" (1.3.81). Othello's confidence too is based on war, but the base is shaky and the support is portrayed as dependency. His prowess leaves him defenseless against those who prey upon him and dangerous to those he should protect. Even his very identity as a soldier is shattered by his underlying personal, sexual, and social insecurity:


 O now forever

 Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content!

 Farewell the plumed troops and the big wars

 That make ambition virtue. O Farewell!

 Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,

 The spirit-stirring drum, th' ear piercing fife

 the royal banner, and all quality,

 Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!

 Farewell! Othello's occupations's gone. (3.3.347)

Of all the plays, Coriolanus carries forward this effort in the most concerted manner. The play criticizes war by repeatedly showing how military violence takes on a life of its own, severed from its purposes and justifications. The heroic Coriolanus switches from the defender of his city to its attacker because of a personal grievance:

"O world thy slippery turns! Friends now fast sworn...on a dissention of a doit, break out/ To bitterest enmity: so fellest foes/ some chance/Some trick not worth an egg, shall grow dear friends/and interjoin their issues" (4.4.12). And his erstwhile opponents, " patient fools/Whose children he hath slain," ignore their enmity and " their base throats tear/With giving him glory" (5.6. 50).

Following Erasmus' path, Shakespeare traces the causes of political violence to psychological aggression. Even before Coriolanus' first appearance, a citizen suggests the connection between the general's battlefield heroics and domestic neurosis: "Though soft-conscience'd men can be content to say it was for his country, he did it partly to please his mother and to be proud..." (1.1.37).  As the play proceeds, the more he seeks to confirm his manhood in battle, the more infantilized he becomes.

 Like Macbeth's, Coriolanus' compulsive need to fight results largely from his vulnerability to the influence of a woman's vicarious aggression. His mother, Volumnia, is introduced as a horrifying creature: "if my son were my husband, I should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he won honour than in the embracements of his bed where he would show most love...had I a dozen sons...I had rather had eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action...the breasts of Hecuba/ when she did suckle Hector, looked not lovelier/than Hector's forehead when it spit forth blood/at Grecian sword, contemning"(1.3.20-80). 

In addition to mocking, criticizing and analysing militarism, Coriolanus demonstrates the possibilityof stemming the tides of war and civil strife set in motion by its excesses. Its depiction of Rome's transformation from a warlike to a more pacific society recapitulates the evolution of England's foreign policy as well as of Shakespeare's political position between the early 1590's and 1608. The structure of the play's plot and its manipulation of dramatic tension induce the audience to move in a parallel direction. When they want to have him elected to political office, both his friends and his mother regret having intensified Coriolanus' hatred of the commons and the Volsicans. In the third act they belatedly try to teach him the peacetime virtues of tact and compromise:

"You are too absolute ...I have heard you say / honor and policy like unsevered friends/ I th' war do grow together: grant that and tell me/ In peace what each of them by th' other lose/ That they combine not there. Throng our large temples with the shows of peace/And not our streets with war "(3.3.36).

After having created such a Frankenstein monster, mother Rome and mother Volumnia discover the difficulty of taming it. At first the general acquiesces to the civilians, but provoked by the tribunes of the people, he loses control over himself altogether, insults them so intemperately that he is banished for treason, and ends up joining the enemy Volsicans, allowing his hatred of the plebs to extend to hatred of his own family. As he threatens revenge against the whole city of Rome in the last act, peace is given a second chance. At her son's tent in the camp of the besieging army, Volumnia abjures both force and policy and invokes the agency of mercy:

"Our suit /is that you reconcile them: while the Volsces/May say 'this mercy we have showed' the Romans/This we received;' and each in either side/give the all-hail to thee, and cry 'Be blest/for making up this peace.'"

This conversion scene of recognition and reversal displays the mother's ability to pacify her son with the persuasive force of language. The power of her love overcomes his hate, just as the power of her eloquence overcomes his refusal to speak:

"Coriolanus [holds her by the hand silent]: Mother, mother O/you have won a happy victory to Rome; /But for your son.../Most dangerously hast thou with him prevailed/If not most mortal to him....I'll frame convenient peace" ... Ladies, you deserve/To have a temple built you. All the swords /In Italy, and her confederate arms,/Could not have made this peace" (5.3.183-209).

 The cruel warrior has been transformed into a merciful emissary of peace who will approach the Volsicans with humility and tact, subordinating his own mixed feelings to the requirements of his diplomatic mission.  The dramatic climax of Shakespeare's play enacts James' emblem: the triumph of Eirene over Mars.

Such hoped-for outcomes guided James' foreign policy, as he negotiated armistice between the Low Countries and Spain and marriages of his children into both Protestant and Catholic royal families.

The shift of Shakespeare’s clout from supporting a hawkish worldview to supporting the outlook of a peacemaker  can be ascribed to a desire to please his sovereign.  After all, Elizabeth I commissioned the acting company he wrote for and held stock in as The Queen’s Men and James commissioned it as The King’s Men.  But on the basis of  my readings of the plays, I’d argue that after 1599, Shakespeare's own abhorrence of war became steadily more emphatic and that his enthusiastic support for James stemmed at least partially from a personal desire to further the king's peacemaking mission. It is true that after Shakespeare's death, James' continuing endeavors in this cause could not forestall the tragic outbreaks of either the Thirty Years War, in the latter days of his reign, or of the English civil war, during the reign of his son. Nevertheless, by recovering the early Humanists' rejection of military politics, culture, and ideology, both the mature Shakespeare and his royal benefactor strengthened a fragile tradition that too often remains ignored or denied.

When this essay was published in 1992, it seemed to be of interest only to Shakespeare critics and Renaissance historians.  But then came 9-11 and the buildup leading to the second Iraq war.  In November 2002, I came across a website  affiliated with The Ludwig von Mises Institute, a libertarian think tank in Atlanta Georgia. - ref


The author,  Joseph Stromberg, had discovered in this essay a correction to the appropriation of Shakespeare’s Clout by those he referred to as neocons and Whigs: 

With so many high-toned writers these days recommending a return to the warlike "wisdom" of classical thinkers and their Renaissance interpreters, it is worth our while to look at other points of view.

I suppose this means that the long campaign against the Stuarts was, at least in part, waged in behalf of Whig mercantilist war-mongering and empire-building, as well as anti-Catholicism. And so much for Whig history…


Then last August I received an email from a young scholar in Minnesota who had written a brilliant though highly partisan study of the Bush-Henry V connection:


He suggested we collaborate on organizing a panel for the 2006 annual convention of the Shakespeare Association of America which brings together over a thousand academic Shakespeareans.  Since then we have agreements to participate from David Perry, a professor who teaches ethics at the U.S. Army War College,  Nina Taunton, a British authority on 16th century military discourse, Kent Thompson, artistic director of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, who has mounted a production of Macbeth funded by the Department of Defense to tour military bases,  and none other than Mr. Kenneth Adelman.  The title of the panel is: “Drafting Shakespeare, the Military Theatre.”  So here I hope is one answer to the question posed by your Humanities Inquiry 2005—Why Shakespeare Matters.