Shakespeare On Soldiers

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 in 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 towards 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 excommunication 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: Quote from Gabriel Harvey

“How it would have enjoyed brave Talbot…”

In the first tetralogy common soldiers don’t have any voice. Probably they were played by apprentices, fencing masters. They were mainly set dressing. Shakespeatr mainly focuses on the pivital importance of leadership and he portrayal f leadership; he understood the consequences of the choices kings make during 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:

KING HENRY V

methinks I could not die any where so
contented as in the king’s company; his cause being
just and his quarrel honourable.

WILLIAMS

That’s more than we know.

BATES

Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know
enough, if we know we are the kings subjects: if
his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes
the crime of it out of us.

WILLIAMS

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:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=rv7NsGCDVDs

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.

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