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Reflecting on the timeless horror of war

As noted by Robert White, a professor of English at The University of Western Australia, just two days separate Anzac Day and the assumed birthday and actual death-day of William Shakespeare [both are observed on April 23].

In an excellent essay titled ‘What do William Shakespeare’s plays tell us about war?’ that was apparently prompted by this proximity, White canvases the Bard’s canon for clues about what attitude “the world’s most-quoted, most-performed and most studied writer” had towards martial conflict.

Given that 68 per cent of Shakespeare’s plays [26 out of 38] involve a war as either part of the foreground or background plot, it turns out there’s plenty to pick over.

Given the frequency with which the stirring, army-rousing “Once more unto the breach…” and St Crispin’s Day speeches before and after the battle of Agincourt in Henry V tend to be publicly trotted out, it might be surprising to many readers that White concludes there’s a preponderance of evidence to suggest our man Will ultimately had the disposition of an anti-war peacenik.

In play after play, including Titus Andronicus, Troilus and Cressida [in which the butchery of the Trojan War is anticipated as the “mass moan to come”], Coriolanus, and Hamlet [which has the eponymous prince musing about “the imminent deaths [of] twenty thousand men … [who will] go to their graves like beds”, fighting “even for an eggshell”], “sympathetic and morally scrupulous characters condemn the tragic futility and violence of war”.

“Shakespeare places the blame for unjust and destructive wars squarely upon the heads of morally fallible military officers,” writes White, while exhibiting an abiding respect for the “low-born, often conscripted soldiers” who serve as cannon fodder and express “profound doubts about war”.

Even Henry V’s famously rousing rhetoric is undercut by the dramatic context in which they’re made, and White observes the play also contains strong arguments – which could be ripped from any number of current headlines and op-eds – “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’.”

In Henry V, the monarch’s martial triumphalism is quietly repudiated by foot solider John Williams, who questions how leaders deploy the lives and bodies of the ranks and file for their own questionable ends:

“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 a 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 anything when blood is their argument?”

Concludes White: “Since Shakespeare’s plays are still internationally performed with ever-changing contemporary applications, their treatment of war can on stage make the phrase ‘lest we forget’ more than an empty slogan, implicitly prompting the question, ‘when will we ever learn?’.”

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