SAA Panel Drafting Shakespeare


Nina Taunton


In response to the question ‘What role does Shakespeare play in the contemporary military?’ I will set out before you some very scratchy thoughts on the treatment of the enemy in the 1590s war campaigns  – their relevance to what’s going on today will hardly need pointing out any more than the relevance of Shakespeare and his contemporaries to today, but I will nevertheless be doing some pointing out.


The keynote in the prescriptive literature is honour – and clemency, and justice.


The prescription is clear and unambiguous: retain the credit and trust of the conquered; negotiate with officers of captured towns; be lenient (but not too lenient – have one exemplary case at least to chasten in public); pardon and pity, punish only those who persist in their opposition.  There was the desire to be perceived as acting with honour, mercy, pity, and to preserve the honour of the vanquished.  The severest punishments were reserved for those who disobeyed orders on both sides, and on traitors, on the grounds that ‘to execute justice is no cruelty.’


That was the idea.  Were there any examples of this in practice? Yes there were - Cadiz, 1596 – at least as far as the propaganda went, which is set out for us in the Privy Council report, and Essex’s account of the action and its aftermath:


This is where Henry V, Tamburlaine, and many other war plays come in. On the sixteenth-century stage as now, in the news that reaches us from Iraq, the message gets scrambled.  In Tamburlaine and Henry V the conquering hero’s strength is demonstrated by unprincipled behaviour, and in The Spanish Tragedy acts of violence on the battlefield merge into acts of violence committed in the aftermath of war. Tamburlaine and Henry articulate the rhetoric of cruelty/retribution/humiliation in contexts which, according to the theory at any rate, require honour/fair treatment/ leniency, and Andrea’s ghost hovers between two distinct categories – the parameters of war and those of revenge. In these three plays, points of reference on legitimate behaviour in specific contexts run into each other in the cross-over between prescription, action and representation, obscuring boundaries between acts of war and crimes of blood.


A comparable merging of bounded categories (that is, categories which should be distinct) took place in the reportage of treatment of Abu Ghraib prisoners (an example of bad practice in the aftermath of war) and the revenge executions – for example, those of  Daniel Pearl and Nick Berg (the journalist and communications worker whose execution was videoed) which took place a couple of years ago.  The reportage of the treatment of Iraqi prisoners is accompanied by a blurring of categories – those of ‘enemy’ and ‘friend’, ‘war’ and ‘revenge’.  For example, a naked, hooded prisoner on all fours on a leash with a girl at the end of it was set up by the ‘friends’ of Iraq, the liberating allies.  This is a story of revenge, though it masquerades as an act of war (to do with the interrogation of enemy prisoners).  And it comes to resemble the rough justice administered against friend and foe by Tamburlaine and Henry (Tamburlaine butchers his son, Caliphas, for not liking war, and Henry tricks and executes his friends, Scroop, Cambridge and Grey, for treason).


The rhetoric surrounding the decapitation of Nick Berg was also notable for its implied denial of the distinction between these categories: revealingly, a White House spokesman called it revenge for abuse of Iraqi prisoners.  It demonstrates the ‘true nature of the enemies of freedom’.  Well, it seems to me that the manner in which the ‘friends of freedom’, the US and UK ‘liberating forces’, treat prisoners of war, on display in those videos from Abu Ghraib, and the manner in which Nick Berg met his death, shown in a video, issued by the  enemies of freedom, doesn’t make the distinction between ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’ very plain, any more than do Tamburlaine’s or Henry’s treatment of family and friends.  It is with good reason that Henry Percy 9th Earl of Northumberland in his copious manuscript writings on the ideal general recommends that family and friendship affiliations be kept strictly out of appointing officers for campaigns.

[Link: the 1590s connection appears in Nina Taunton (2001) 1590s drama and militarism: portrayals of war in Marlowe, Chapman and Shakespeare’s Henry V, Aldershot: Ashate.]


A few more (even scratchier) thoughts  on the rhetoric surrounding Nick Berg ...

The language in which the US protest was couched destroyed the boundaries between war and revenge:

— Iran and those responsible would be ‘pursued and brought to justice’.  (As a military procedure against war crimes?  Or as a persona act of revenge? This was not clear.)

— The White House was ‘pledged to bring the killers to justice’ (Or was it revenge? Or an example of Tamburlaine’s and Henry’s summary rough justice?)

— John McCain, senior senator (Republican) – called Berg’s executioners ‘these barbarians’ – a term applied to Tamburlaine’s enemies, and to Tamburlaine himself.

— ‘These people have no regard for humanity or common decency’.  Given the logic of Tamburlaine’s rhetoric, we may well ask, which people?

— There was more inappropriate language to describe this event from Ben Nelson, senator, Democrat: ‘One mistake doesn’t justify other mistakes – particularly of this kind’.  Nelson describes acts of retribution in a context of war as ‘mistakes’.


Other curious parallels:

Daniel Pearl and Nick Berg were dressed in orange jump suits.  Recall Tamburlaine’s colour coding.  In each instance, there are verbal evocations of violence, copy cat tactics, escalations of retribution.  In Tamburlaine the cycle of violence burned itself out with the ‘choler adust’ death of Tamburlaine – or was it divine retribution? Though in reality the war against the Turk rumbled on; In Henry V the war ended with a short-lived victory of the hero, though in reality Calais was soon reclaimed by the French; in The Spanish Tragedy the cycle of personal revenge plays itself out, though in the real world the enmity between Spain and England, hinted at in the play, continued to dominate Elizabeth’s war policies.  We’ve yet to see where Iraq will end.


Additional thoughts, arising from the panel discussion:

1)  Shakespeare’s Henriad, along with his Roman plays, and his contemporaries’ treatment of the military theme, complicate straightforward sixteenth century manual prescription in other ways, too .  They expose the ambivalence of military leadership.  In addition to David Perry’s theme, Henry V’s interrogation of the ethics of certain aspects of warfare, Shakespeare’s representation of Henry V questions notions of ideal generalship, particularly when the monarch is also the commander of his own troops.  The manuals take it absolutely for granted that the rationale for going to war, and therefore confine the personal responsibility of the royal general to determining the strategy and tactics of a particular action, to being a visibly present on the battlefield, and to a rousing speech just before battle commences.  There is no discussion of private conscience or individual accountability.  Shakespeare’s decision to expose the mauvais fois of Henry’s deliberations, and to raise the whole issue of personal responsibility by allowing the audience to be privy to the king’s actions and thoughts on the eve of battle not only muddies the limpid simplicity of the prescriptive literature; it casts into doubt the very premise upon which Henry embarked upon the war with France.  Historically, the full ironic content of a play celebrating victory over the French would be manifest to an audience watching the play in the aftermath of the irrevocable loss of Calais – an event which in itself calls for a complicated response to the play. Calais was the last of the English strongholds gained through Agincourt, and had been signed over to the French in the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis in 1559.  Its capture by Spanish troops in 1596 meant that Elizabeth and her war council’s hopes of getting it back had, at the time of the play’s first staging, been dashed forever.  So the question of leadership, cause and outcome of the war, would be offset against the specific circumstances surrounding  Elizabeth’s involvement in several offshore military campaigns.


2)  The treatises list ways to improve the conditions in which the common soldier served.  They recommended  provision of adequate clothing, arms and pay, even to the extent of suggesting a hearty, meat-rich breakfast for the fighting force on the morning of the fray.  At the same time, they uniformly express a contempt for the ‘common sort,’ and typecast them as cowardly, battle-shy, badly behaved children, unresponsive to reason and in need of constant supervision, discipline and restraint.  Shakespeare, however, enters sympathetically into the plight of the common soldier and shows him to be more thoughtful, more aware of the dangers of conflict and much more concerned with the ethics of that conflict than those under whose initiative he must serve.  This concern for the common soldier is not present in Marlowe’s two Tamburlaine plays, nor in Chapman (See Taunton, 1590s Drama and Militarism).




A last-minute thought, moving backwards...

The rhetoric of post 9/11

Since this day, the world via the BBC has been resounding with the rhetoric of Tamburlaine.  Blair and Bush are Tamburlaines; they threaten the Islamic world in high astounding terms.  Bush is God’s Instrument, the Scourge of God, just like Tamburlaine.  ‘Will’ and ‘shall’ best befitteth both Tamburlaine and the Bush’n’Blair team in their promises of wealth and a rosy global future to all their supporters.


But Osama Bin Laden is Tamburlaine too – he wages his propaganda war against the Infidel just like Tamburlaine, and projects his own image onto the world in a video – his version of the rhetorical strategy of amplification by which Tamburlaine’s image is projected.  We even had our own Zenocrate – Yvonne Ridley, taking on Arab dress in her self-appointed mission as emissary behind enemy lines, held hostage, like Zenocrate, and like Zenocrate ending up half in love with her captors and therefore living to tell the tale.