Shakespeare and War ed. by Ros King and Paul J. C. M. Franssen (review)
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Shakespeare and War. Edited by Ros King and Paul J. C. M. Franssen. Basingstoke, UK, and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Illus. Pp. xii + 250. $89.00 cloth.

Given the recent preoccupation with Shakespearean war in both critical analysis and performance practice, this is clearly a collection whose time has come. In general, it is a welcome contribution to both aspects of the topic, not least for the connections it develops between them, and will doubtless stimulate further debate. It provides a wide range of entry points into a complex question—by the sheer number of essays (seventeen), the shifting of perspective across four principal sections (“Ideas of War and Peace,” “Rhetoric of War,” “Translation and Adaptation,” “War Time Interpretation”), and the geographical diversity of authorship and focus. There are thoroughly contextualized studies of translations, adaptations, and productions in Romania, Germany, Denmark, Italy, and Croatia, as befits the volume’s origin in the 2003 conference, Shakespeare and European Politics, held in Utrecht.

Yet the range of this collection is more limited, in both content and approach, than might be at first supposed. On the one hand, several plays obviously deserving attention receive virtually none. On the other, there is a general tendency to downplay the metaphysical aspects of war in early modern culture, the codes and values associated with that most down-to-earth of human practices. The guidelines laid down by the editors in their introduction are restrictive on both counts: “The Shakespeare plays in which war features as a direct activity and subject are centrally concerned both with the identity of the nation and the nature of the contract between ruler and people” (3).

By this measure, as no doubt by others, Henry V deserves the preeminence it receives as the subject of several essays, a position the editors justify by citing “the range of angles” supplied, which “indicate a way of reading dramaturgically: one that is historically rigorous, while answering the demands of the present; and one that remembers it is dealing with writing intended for performance” (8). It is evidently more difficult to apply questions of national identity and relations between monarch and subject outside the English sphere—for instance, to Titus Andronicus, Troilus and Cressida, or Coriolanus. These are plays in which, unquestionably, “war features as a direct activity and subject,” and it diminishes the volume’s scope, as well as its depth, that they are all but excluded.

Helen Wilcox’s essay emerges as one of the book’s strongest for its close attention to All’s Well That Ends Well’s interrogations of honor (an early modern preoccupation that is otherwise given short shrift), although much more remains to be [End Page 113] said about war in that play, particularly about the French in Italy.1 Moreover, in contrast with Ros King’s more elusive evocation of “Shakespeare’s Tragicomic Vision” (in a broadly illuminating essay on Elizabethan war manuals in relation to the plays), Wilcox provides a supple working definition of tragicomedy—as a “merging of tragic potential with almost-happy endings, cynicism with hope” (84). (In these terms, however, would not Troilus, which she also labels as tragicomedy, rate instead as comi-tragedy, given its unhappy endings, realized and impending, for all concerned?)

The relative neglect of honor as part of the early modern discourse of war, Shakespearean and otherwise, suggests a broad post-new historicist / cultural materialist tendency to view war in narrowly political, social, and material terms. Yet these factors were imbricated for those who lived, fought, and wrote in the period, with issues of a less tangible kind. In particular, the rhetoric of religion is ubiquitous. Henry V furnishes the supreme, and supremely problematic, example in ways that intersect provocatively with the Protestant discourse issuing from the French Wars of Religion.2 Yet contrary to the editors’ claim for historical rigor, that rhetoric goes under- and sometimes unrecognized. I agree with much of what R. Scott Fraser says about Henry’s projecting of responsibility upon others (“Henry V and the Performance of War”) and about the historical sources returning intertextually with subversive effect.3 But when the Archbishop of Canterbury is made to...