We are unable to display your institutional affiliation without JavaScript turned on.
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Download PDF

Reviewed by
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 take “‘The sin upon my head,’” he is hardly envisaging punishment in this world— “his own decapitation” (74). Similarly, no one in the play, French or English, attributes the miraculous Agincourt victory to “‘superior technology’” (Michael Bogdanov, quoted by David Carnegie in “So the Falklands. So Agincourt. ‘Fuck the Frogs’” [215]). Bogdanov’s view is at least attached to an avowed theatrical project of “mapping Shakespeare onto more recent history” (221). There is less reason for Diana E. Henderson—especially since she registers the juxtaposition of “the abstraction ‘honour’” with Henry’s mercenary motives (“Meditations in a Time of [Displaced] War” [233])—to drain the king’s nocturnal negotiation with his “God of battles” of the high-voltage charge it must have carried for its first audience as a prayer that foregrounds the institution of chantries).4

In sum, while the first page of the introduction cites St. Augustine’s City of God as the source of Christian arguments for just war (1), the subsequent essays tend to lose sight of the religious dimension—sometimes taking doubtful pretenses at face value: “As a good Christian prince, Henry has been careful to establish in his initial conversation with the Archbishop of Canterbury that he has God on his side” [End Page 114] (King, “‘The Disciplines of War’” [25]). More often, however, the dimension is simply stripped away. A salient instance concerns not Henry V, but his glorious precursor in the typological thinking of the time, Edward III. Ellen C. Caldwell fruitfully situates Edward III in relation to problems of succession in England and France. Yet her evocation of the French Wars of Religion all but leaves their (dé)raison d’être, and hence the primary English interest, out of the picture. (Caldwell also misidentifies the Duc de Mayenne as the son of the murdered Henri de Guise, rather than his brother [33].) This excision anticipates her reading of Prince Edward’s exalted final speech, which aims a prophetic warning at “‘not the territories of France alone, / But likewise Spain, Turkey, and what countries else / That justly would provoke fair England’s ire’” (40). Caldwell’s conclusion is resolutely secular—and inflected by the antiwar vein of our own time: “The playgoer is thus faced with the uncomfortable insistence on an endless spiral of violence in the service of political legitimacy” (40). But Edward does not merely “speak . . . to the succession of English power in its [sic] warrior princes” (40); he speaks, as established in the preceding (uncited) lines, to God, unmistakably the proto-Protestant “God of Battles”: “To thee, whose grace hath been [my] strongest shield: / That as thy pleasure chose me for the man / To be the instrument to show thy power.”5 The future enemies singled out are Catholic and Muslim, bundled together, as often, in an ungodly package.

The volume’s pervasive problem, then, is that too many of the readings appear mandated by the “demands of the present”—basically, to cite the editors again, by the assumption (which most of us would instinctively share) that “war is the most terrible of human activities” (4). Such thinking informs King’s suggestion that Pistol’s “sudden outbursts of violence” may reflect “shell shock, post-traumatic stress disorder—or whatever clinical term is coined for those whose life and psyche have been blighted by combat” (18). Does this not blunt the truly unsettling piquancy of Pistol? Like the traditional braggart soldier, but endowed with a strong touch of the comic grotesque and at home in familiar milieux, he is understood to be “naturally” a shirker, a cheat, and a dangerous bully (“the man is dead that you and Pistol beat amongst you”).6 One senses both early modern meanings and the language of religion receding from our grasp here.

Disconcertingly, looking for Shakespeare “our contemporary” and inevitably finding him turns out to be an activity alive and well in our post-postmodern age. Again, the introduction strikes the keynote: “Shakespeare is aware” (4). Historicity is less than convincing when harnessed to this cause—in Thomas Kullmann’s production, for instance, of a pacifist Shakespeare actively “collaborating” with James I “on a shared project, a project to which from the point of view of the twenty-first century we may well accord some sympathy” (“Shakespeare and Peace,” 52). Those essays are more persuasive that either trace patterns of language and ideas in traditional ways, such as Ruth Morse’s “Some Social Costs of War,” or track Shakespeare’s relocation elsewhere, sometimes in ways which return productively [End Page 115] to the playtexts (Dana Chetrinescu Percec on Romanian Shakespeare; Simon Barker on Julius Caesar and Brecht’s Arthuro Ui).

Finally, with Henderson’s attack on the appropriation of Henry V by American proponents of the war in Iraq (and more broadly of Shakespeare by the corporate culture that surely, to a great extent, has replaced Politik in Clausewitz’s enduring pronouncement about war), we come full circle—back, not only to the volume’s centralizing text, but also to the editors’ introductory judgment that Shakespeare “has too often been used for pro-war propaganda” (4). The circling back includes a demonstration of the difficulty or perhaps the outmodedness of Derridean decentering, although the shards and relics of poststructuralism circulate throughout the volume, not least in the theatrical practices abundantly documented.

Henderson proposes a recognition of “economic calculations (coupled with or masquerading under another name such as ‘honour’ or ‘freedom’)” (239). She (re)discovers the ubiquity of material downdraft in the play as a counterforce to idealistic uplift. But presenting this as critical news, offering new hope of dislodging idealism, amounts to reaffirming the binary thinking that has long accommodated Pistol and Henry as two sides of the same coin, whereas the play’s multiple intertexts arguably put a great many different coins, domestic and foreign, into provocative circulation. Meanwhile, Henderson’s real targets are moving off the radar screen, so to speak: of the many web sites she references, almost all are now inaccessible; the pace of oblivion is obviously accelerating.

A final technical disappointment with this volume must be registered: the index is poorly organized and compiled. A number of subject headings are oddly chosen, and following them up sometimes leads nowhere (what have pages 237 and 238, for instance, to do with “chivalry”?). The numerous theater directors are merely listed under “theatre directors.” Although there is no statement of policy, the notes do not seem to have been indexed at all; nor do the names of critics. This limits, among other things, our ability to consider engagements with existing commentary. More readers, one supposes, might search for, say, “Greenblatt, Stephen,” than would seek out “battle of the sexes.” The latter heading in any case seems anachronistically out of joint, even if the entry merely shunts the reader off to one more promising: “see gender difference.” There, however, one finds only references to The Taming of the Shrew.

Richard Hillman  

Richard Hillman is Professor at the Université François-Rabelais, Tours, France (Department of English and Centre d’Études Supérieures de la Renaissance / CNRS). His books include Shakespeare, Marlowe and the Politics of France (2002), French Origins of English Tragedy (2010), and French Reflections in the Shakespearean Tragic: Three Case Studies (2012). His published translations of early modern French plays include La Tragédie de feu Gaspard de Colligny by François de Chantelouve and La Guisiade by Pierre Matthieu (2005).


1.  I recently said some of it in a monograph, French Reflections in the Shakespearean Tragic: Three Case Studies (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2012).

2.  See my Shakespeare, Marlowe and the Politics of France (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2002).

3.  I anticipated much of this argument, and introduced some of the same passages from Holinshed, in Shakespeare, Marlowe and the Politics of France, 189–97.

4.  For “God of battles,” see Henry V, 4.1.289, in G. Blakemore Evans, gen. ed., The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997). Quotations of Shakespeare’s plays not quoted from the title under review will be taken from this edition.

5. Edward III, ed. Giorgio Melchiori (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998), 5.1.216–19.

6. 2 Henry IV, 5.4.16–17.