Shakespeare at war

Dr. Paul Budra interview

by Diana King and Joseph Roberts


Shakespeare included numerous elements of war – battle scenes, fear of invasion, civil insurrection, even reminiscences of military feats – in an astonishing number of his plays. Simon Fraser University’s Dr. Paul Budra leads a forum on Shakespeare at War at the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival (see end of article) where the following plays are being staged this season: Much Ado About Nothing, Antony and Cleopatra, Falstaff (Henry IV, I & II), and Henry V. Dr. Budra is the associate dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at SFU. He teaches Shakespeare and early modern literature and has published articles on Renaissance literature and contemporary popular culture.

What does Shakespeare say about war in the four plays being staged? Do his plays reflect a common ideology?

War stories have been popular throughout the history of literature because they offer narratives of great conflict and sacrifice, of adventure and tragedy and of suffering and victory [see The Iliad]. They make for excellent novels, movies and plays. Rather than give us a statement about war in the abstract, Shakespeare presents different characters reacting to war in different, and very human, ways. Clearly, he understood the human price of war and we see that price being paid in his plays; he was partisan for the English side in war (see Henry VI, I) and he knew war could be a tool of political control – “busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels.” But he also knew war makes for amazing theatre and he was a man of the theatre, not politics.

Which qualities of human character did Shakespeare focus on within his treatment of war in his plays?

Pretty much all of them. You have a character like Hotspur who finds war a glamorous adventure that will allow him to gain honour. You have a Falstaff who sees war as a way to make money. There are commoners who just wish they were home and soldiers who question whether the cause they are fighting is just. Then there are politicians like Henry V who use war as an extension of policy. Bravery, cowardice, cruelty, stupidity, nobleness – they’re all there in Shakespeare’s depictions of men at war.

What do his plays and characters say about the consequences or outcomes of war?

This comes out most clearly at the end of Henry V: King Henry promises his troops, in the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech “…he today that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile.” He imagines a future in which the survivors of the coming battle will proudly show their wounds and brag of their deeds on this day. But after the battle, Pistol is beaten and tells the audience he will return to England to become a thief. And Falstaff’s description, in Henry IV, I, of pressing men into combat and then dismissing them as “food for powder” is ominous. So Shakespeare acknowledges both the glamour of war and its dire consequences, especially for the lower classes.

If Shakespeare had experienced today’s wars, what would he be writing about regarding the theme of war? How much has the human element of war changed?

I think the big change in modern warfare is the advent of high technologies that allow for a disassociation between the warrior and the victim. Most killing in Elizabethan battles was done close up. Yes, there were the famous English longbow archers and, yes, there were cannons but most battles were won with hand-to-hand combat. In fact, this was often seen as more honourable than long distance fighting. There is an example of this in Henry IV, I, in Hotspur’s story of the gentleman on the battlefield who thinks “vile guns” are cowardly. If Shakespeare were writing today, he might focus on the human impact of the new technologies of war.

Did Shakespeare have any concept of peace?

Well, the obvious answer is absence of war. Much Ado About Nothing is about the romantic adventures of soldiers who have just left the wars. If I had to guess, I’d say the various pastoral scenes in Shakespeare reflect his idea of peace. He was, after all, a country boy.

Shakespeare at War forum: Monday, July 12, 7:00 PM. Bard on the Beach Mainstage Tent, Vanier Park. Tickets $10. Call 604-739-0559 to order or visit Sponsored in part by Common Ground.

Alessandro Juliani as Henry V at Bard on the Beach. Photo by David Cooper.

The wages of war

There were numerous wars in Shakespeare’s lifetime, including an intermittent religious war in France between the Catholics and the Huguenots (Protestants) spanning from 1562 to 1598 AD. England, as a Protestant country, followed this conflict with interest. The most notorious event of this war was the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572, in which Catholics went on a rampage in Paris and killed between 5,000 and 30,000 Huguenots. Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s great contemporary, subsequently turned the event into a play.

Yet another protracted war raged between Spain and the Netherlands from 1566 to 1648. Initially a war over taxation, it became largely a religious war. The English became involved, recognizing Holland and sending Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, along with an army to help govern the country. The Dutch quickly turned against the English.

The two most important military events came later. In 1588, Phillip II of Spain, who had been married to Elizabeth’s older sister, Mary, launched the Armada, the greatest naval fleet since antiquity, on a mission to reclaim England, bring it back to the Catholic Church and kill Elizabeth the “bastard queen.” Bad weather and the nimbleness of the English ships defeated the invasion, however. For years afterward, there were periodic panics on the English coast whenever rumours of another Armada invasion circulated.

The second major event was the war in Ireland, which the Irish dubbed the Nine Years’ War (1594-1603). Ireland had officially been under the dominion of England since the 12th century, but, by the 16th century, England had very little control over that island. After the Armada, Phillip of Spain sent troops and supplies to aid the Irish rebels. In 1601, 4,000 Spanish troops landed in Kinsale (near Cork) and the Irish rebels, led by Hugh O’Neill and others, used this moment to launch a major rebellion. The English responded with force. Up to 18,000 English fought in Ireland, making Ireland the largest battlefront of the Elizabethan era. The rebellion shows up in Shakespeare’s Henry V, in the chorus at the beginning of Act 5: “The general of our gracious Empress . . . from Ireland coming.” This may refer to the Earl of Essex, who led a disastrous Irish campaign in 1599 or it may refer to Lord Mountjoy, who led a successful campaign a few years later.