Shakespeare on War – Memorial Day 2016

Memorial day battle

Shakespeare, as far as we know, never served in any military capacity, was never forcibly pressed into service (which was how Elizabethan England filled its military ranks), yet he seems to know something of it. Many of his plays contain characters, high and low, connected to military action, from men in the field to the Kings who order those men to their deaths. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, Queen Elizabeth conducted war with Spain and the poor Irish people, and these wars lasted years. The subject of war must’ve been common talk, and many people must’ve lost loved ones in the wars.

I consider Shakespeare’s works the heart and soul of Western morality, and The Bard’s approach to war is no different. Ambitious warmongers fill his plays, some coming to bad ends (the Richards, the Macbeths), some glorified (Henry V), and some just outright mocked (Falstaff). A majority are treated with profound authorial ambivalence, left to the reader (or spectator) to decide for themselves.

This latter category I consider the most instructive. There are many examples to choose from in Shakespeare. In recognition of Memorial Day here in America, where we honor our fallen soldiers, I’d like to highlight a passage from Julius Caesar, where Caesar and his wife Calpurnia wax poetic about war, and the difference between cowardice and valor.


Caesar, I never stood on ceremonies,

Yet now they fright me. There is one within,

Besides the things that we have heard and seen,

Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch.

A lioness hath whelped in the streets;

And graves have yawn’d, and yielded up their dead;

Fierce fiery warriors fight upon the clouds,

In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,

Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;

The noise of battle hurtled in the air,

Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan;

And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.

O Caesar,these things are beyond all use,

And I do fear them!


What can be avoided

Whose end is purposed by the mighty gods?

Yet Caesar shall go forth; for these predictions

Are to the world in general as to Caesar.


When beggars die, there are no comets seen;

The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.


Cowards die many times before their deaths;

The valiant never taste of death but once.

Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,

It seems to me most strange that men should fear;

Seeing that death, a necessary end,

Will come when it will come.—

Julius Caesar, Act II Scene ii

Caesar uses death both as a metaphor and literally. ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.’ A noble sentiment. I suspect that many of those we consider valiant–many of those who died–were terrified: but the valiant conquer their fears, the cowards don’t. And there is Shakespeare’s use of death as a metaphor: each time the coward suffers under the failure of his own fear, a small piece of him dies.

Crucial to this scene is Calpurnia’s more feminine perspective about the violence of war: her soaring and terrifying description of battle. If Shakespeare wasn’t in battle, he certainly must’ve read of it, or heard of it from those who had suffered it first hand. Or, miraculously, applied his own brilliant and empathetic imagination:  

‘Fierce fiery warriors fight upon the clouds,

In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,

Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;

The noise of battle hurtled in the air,

Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan;

And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.’

In sad remembrance to all of those who have fallen in defense of our country. I can never know what it must be like, and certainly don’t have the imagination of Shakespeare to recreate it. To those who suffered it, and died for our country, honor, awe and profound sadness.

The image is from Kenneth Branagh’s film version of Henry V, here showing men dying for their country at the Battle of Agincourt. Today we honor our own fallen. In 600 years we haven’t learned much, have we?


Hump Day Shakespearean Quote – 25 February 2015


Good writers typically save their best for last. But Shakespeare was all about breaking the rules. To start out his early history play, Henry V, he sends out a single actor to announce to everyone that this play is big business–so big that the paltry stage he stands upon can in no way do it justice. He apologizes to the audience for the lack of grandeur and setting, but then pleads the audience for their imagination. But here’s the trick: the language is so stunning, so spectacular and powerful that in the hands of a great orator or actor, this prologue sweeps up the audience into a grand illusion of history: 


O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend

The brightest heaven of invention,

A kingdom for a stage, princes to act

And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,

Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,

Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire

Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,

The flat unraised spirits that have dared

On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth

So great an object: can this cockpit hold

The vasty fields of France? or may we cram

Within this wooden O the very casques

That did affright the air at Agincourt?

O, pardon! since a crooked figure may

Attest in little place a million;

And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,

On your imaginary forces work.

Suppose within the girdle of these walls

Are now confined two mighty monarchies,

Whose high upreared and abutting fronts

The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;

Into a thousand parts divide on man,

And make imaginary puissance;

Think when we talk of horses, that you see them

Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;

For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,

Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,

Turning the accomplishment of many years

Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,

Admit me Chorus to this history;

Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,

Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.


Henry V, Act I, Prologue 

Technically, this kind of intro is called an ‘Invocation of the Muse’, a trope Shakespeare borrowed from the Classical Greeks. But no one ever did it like Shakespeare–before or after. 

Please read this aloud–and you’ll hear the imagery leaping to life, even as the chorus asks the audience to please use their imaginations. Thus we step into the miracle of live theatre.

The image is of Kenneth Branagh as King Harry, in his quite excellent movie of the play from 1989.