Happy Veterans Day Everyone,
War and soldiers come up a lot in Shakespearean plays. After all, he wrote six plays about the Wars Of The Roses. Though most of his work is about the decisions about war made by powerful monarchs, occasionally he gives us some insight into the lives of common soldiers.
We don’t know if he ever fought, but warfare was very much on his mind at the beginning of his career, with good reason. In 1586 The Spanish armada attacked. Was Shakespeare enlisted? We don’t know.
His early plays are generally positive toward soldiers and it’s easy to see why. The growing nationalism in England resulting from the Tudor control over religion and language —was a direct and defensive reaction to the ex-communication of the Tudor monarchs (particularly Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth. Shakespeare probably saw himself —
. He no doubt saw his role as building the epic sagas of England to remind his countrymen of England’s past victories, especially during the Spanish Armada and the later Irish Rebellion of 1599.
Shakespeare cashed in with 9 plays on English history that mainly take place on the battlefield. His plays were met with praise by audiences and critics:
“How would it have joyed brave Talbot (the terror of the French),” he wrote, “to think that after he had lain two hundred years in his tomb, he should triumph again on the stage and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators at least (at several times).” -Thomas Nashe, c. 1590.
In the first tetralogy, common soldiers don’t have any voice. Probably they were played by apprentices, and fencing masters. They were mainly set dressing. Shakespeare mainly focuses on the pivotal importance of leadership and his portrayal f leadership; he understood the consequences of the choices kings make during the war and its effect on millions of common people: like Talbott and King Henry the Fifth.
I want to analyze a short selection from Henry the Fifth, Act IV, Scene I. In this scene, the king is disguised as a commoner the night before a battle to see what his soldiers really think about him, and the impending fight with the French. An outspoken soldier named Williams tells him that if the fighting is wrong, the king is responsible for his soldiers’ deaths, and has to answer for the atrocities that happen during the war:
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 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 any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it. King Henry V, Act IV Scene I.
Many productions of Henry the Fifth interpret this speech as Shakespeare’s attitude towards war, (a tempting prospect, since the soldiers’ name is William), but in the very next speech King Henry completely changes Williams’ mind! Here’s the full scene from Kenneth Branaugh’s 1989 movie version of the play, which he directed and starred as King Henry:
Next, here’s a fascinating article by psychotherapist Anthony King that attempts to diagnose one of Shakespeare’s most diabolical soldiers, Macbeth: https://warontherocks.com/2015/10/macbeth-as-a-ptsd-victim/
Evidence that Macbeth has PTSD:
Every generation recreates the Shakespeare it needs.” -Anthony King
Macbeth is a veteran dealing with atrocious behavior, his own, and those he’s privy to.
Found on AdAA.org
• Re-experiencing the trauma through intrusive distressing recollections of the event, flashbacks, and nightmares.
◦ Sees daggers 🗡, ghosts, and obsessed over infants 👶
• Emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma.
◦ Ignores people and isolated himself in the castle 🏰
• Increased arousal such as difficulty sleeping and concentrating, feeling jumpy, and being easily irritated and angered.
◦ “Macbeth shall sleep 😴 no more”
◦ the murder- in Macbett by Sartre, the soldier actually questions whether the man whom he swore to protect is really worth defending.