Shakespeare has many plays focusing on the emotion, relationship, and cunning of the characters portrayed, and he builds on historical information to give depth and credit to his art. Writing for the masses can be demanding, especially when a profit is concerned, but the truth is that Shakespeare has a recurring theme ensconced throughout many of his plays that may go further than money or fame. And certainly its frequent and ease of usage suggests more than just a common or flippant occurrence. Shakespeare, as it turns out, was a proponent of warrior culture.
It is too easy to say that Shakespeare uses military references due to the patriotism or standard writing practice of the time. If that were the case, his usage would be more limited or less revealing. Shakespeare advocates a standard that elevates the warrior culture even when he reduces a character through evil actions pertaining to plot or character development. Even his comedies have links to military influence. For a comprehensive evaluation, the topic can be broken into three categories of review: comedies, tragedies and histories; these categories are the standard placement of all of Shakespeare’s plays. A full picture can be gained by going through each category to gain a better analysis of the warrior culture influence in specific avenues pertaining to Shakespeare as a writer: portrayal and significance.
Shakespeare’s comedies show fewer references to military influence than the other categories, yet there are promising representations or observations. Two plays show valid points: The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado About Nothing. In “The Complete Works of Shakespeare” by David Bevington, seventh edition, published by Pearson in 2014, (Notes 1-2). The Merchant of Venice provides a unique perspective into theory of the character Bassanio as he may be viewed as a mercenary, developing the portrayal of the character early on (Bevington, 185-218). In Todd H.J Pettigrew’s “The Merchant of Venice 1.161-76: Is Bassanio a Mercenary?” from Explicator 68.4 (2010): 212-215, he suggests that critics have labeled Bassanio as a mercenary, but he views the section of the play as a direct contradiction to that theory.
Significance comes from the view of the critics. The imagery of a golden fleece and stating, “And many Jasons come in quest of her,” suggests travel (1, 172). More lines implicate financial gain, which lead to the theory that Bassanio was a mercenary, but Bevington indicates that this cannot be proven. Critics suggesting warrior culture identification from just evaluating a small section lends credit to Shakespeare developing warrior culture tones in his writing regardless of the theorized title of mercenary.
A better representation of the comedies influenced by the warrior culture is Much Ado About Nothing. This play begins with Benedick and others being characterized as warriors returning from war. Though Beatrice jokes, the Messenger provides the key statement with, “He hath done good service, lady, in these wars” (1, 1, 45-46). The Messenger reinforces his effort as, “And a good soldier too, lady” as Beatrice switches the theme to eating as she attempts to make light of Benedick in jest (1, 1, 50).
The background information about Benedick’s warrior capabilities is not questioned, yet the Messenger feels obligated to maintain the point. Jokes can be made at the expense of the personality/character but not the status as a warrior. Significance pertaining to warrior culture comes in the form of leaving the topic of warrior status alone as it is made evident of being elevated beyond jest. Though killing is brought into the conversation in this play, it is masked as commonplace and compared to hunting fowl because Beatrice has no other way of comparing it, or there is no identification to suggest otherwise. The levity does not take away the idea that Benedick has participated in any struggles. It can actually highlight the humor associated between veterans to cope. This is a good representation of the interaction between a war veteran and a civilian. Beatrice is oblivious to the situation, yet she wishes to address it in question. It is even more significant to observe she does not state this directly to Benedick.
Shakespeare’s tragedies give alternate opportunities to identify influence by the warrior culture. Othello, The Moor of Venice and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark can be reviewed for this purpose. Othello, The Moor of Venice gives a positive view on the military, though Othello can be seen as a coward by the end of the play. His actions are separated from the entity he belongs to by his own proclamation;
Soft you; a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know’t.
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well; (5.2, 348-354)
He distances himself and wishes only to be judged by his deeds. Othello is portrayed as an officer that made an egregious mistake.
Though he invokes his service to the state, he does not utilize it to garner free passage regardless of his elevated position in rank. His subsequent suicide can also be seen as a warrior culture practice, found in ancient Greek culture and Seppuku. Dialogue in this play never suggests the military fostered the actions; deception was the ploy. Othello is partly a representation of military customs of higher ranks with similarities to politics, yet distinctively military in viewpoint. Othello’s speech to the Duke of Venice and nobles strongly pushed the fact of his military achievements. These achievements were received without question; similar to the reception of Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. Warrior status and accomplishments in the beginning of Othello, The Moor of Venice are highly valued by those receiving Othello in contest of his actions. Soldiery is not even questioned with Iago as C.F. Burgess says in “Othello’s Occupation”, in the Shakespeare Quarterly 26.2 (1975): 208–213, “Moreover, Iago has evidently acquitted himself very well in battle. There is nothing in the play to suggest that Iago is not a good as soldier as he is a congenital liar.”
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark pulls a greater variety of warrior culture to the forefront. He manages to be seen as a decline into madness, yet he does not skirt away from open combat. He embraces the chance for mutual engagements even in sport. He is portrayed as slow to fight, but this may be due to evaluation of the situation. His timing is telling as he dispatches some individuals prior to his primary target. Critics could say he sat on the confrontation with his main objective, but it coincides with politics and military custom. In true warrior fashion, Hamlet marked his target and began a campaign in Psy-Ops.
Warrior customs are individually significant and can be utilized to better understand a broader situation as Shakespeare delves into the creation of Hamlet. Thomas Vargish in “War and Literature: A Reciprocity”, from War, Literature & The Arts: An International Journal Of The Humanities 20.1/2 (2008): 19-23, states:
“What might it mean to read Hamlet as a soldier’s tale, as Othello has been read? Hamlet has most often been considered a drama about a philosophic youth, a contemplative man mired in a wicked stew of family desire, fratricide, and ambition. And yet there are many indications that a complete picture of Hamlet would include his role as a soldier – as Ophelia and Fortinbras consider him. We might start from the perspective of Denmark as a ‘warlike state,’ move to Hamlet’s explicit admiration for the profession of arms – including his mastery with a sword – and emerge with quite a different character, the character of a tragically foiled warrior king” (Vargish 22).
Actions prove grander in the histories Shakespeare covered through his plays. The Life of King Henry the Fifth, The Second Part of King Henry The Fourth and The Tragedy of King Richard the Third are often compared side by side in this category. They each show further evaluation into warrior culture in a hierarchy than anticipated at first glance. Henry V stands out as being identified as a close to the soldiery. Vimala Pasupathi in “Coats and Conduct: The Materials of Military Obligation in Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V”, from Modern Philology 109.3 (2012): 326-351, states, “In all three of Shakespeare’s Henry plays, clothes are not just worn materials but also verbal cues that position characters in social networks and hierarchies and help audiences chart characters’ mobility within them” (Pasupathi 326). Further evaluation is considered as,
“There, ‘with his beaver on’ (4.1, 103), Hal makes good on his promise to ‘wear a garment of blood’ (3.2.135) and fight his father’s enemies. As the overarching narrative of Hal’s succession progresses, the play grants audiences fewer and fewer glimpses into the ‘worn worlds’ of the tavern at Eastcheap and the royal household in Westminster. In fact, the apparel of tavern chatter and ‘silken dalliance’ retreats into ‘the wardrobe’ (Henry V chorus, act 2, line 2) even before Hal dons ‘the new and gorgeous garment, majesty’ (2 Henry IV 5.2.44). From the coats worn by his father’s decoys at Shrewsbury (1Henry IV 5.3.25) to the ‘war-worn coats’ Englishmen wear before Agincourt (Henry V chorus, act 4, line 26), the clothing imagery in the final three plays of the tetralogy shifts almost exclusively to soldier’s apparel and, therein, the quality of the bodies wearing it” (Pasupathi, 327).
Henry grew into a soldier. War became a prominent issue with him, and Shakespeare pushed this ideology in his portrayal. Robin Headlam Wells in “Manhood and Chevalrie’ Coriolanus, Prince Henry, and the Chivalric Revival,” from The Review of English Studies 51.203 (2000): 395–422, states, “Commenting on the prince’s enthusiastic interest in colonial expansion, the Venetian ambassador wrote: ‘To the ears of the Prince, who is keen for glory, come suggestions of conquest far greater than any made by the kings of Spain.’ Ironically of course, Henry never had the opportunity to win the military glory he craved. As Erasmus wryly put it, ‘dulce bellum inexpertis’ – war is a beautiful thing to those who have not experienced it” (Wells, 404). Shakespeare capitalized on the iconic, yet strayed away from bashing the prince outright. Other observers such as James Black in “Counterfeits of Soldiership in Henry IV,” from Shakespeare Quarterly 24.4 (1973): 372–382, states, “All the action is judged by the touchstone of authentic heroism, a heroism which is reposited in dead Hotspur; stolen and counterfeited by Falstaff, Pistol, and even Shallow; uttered again in Feeble; and restored by Hal” (Black, 382). He continues with, “The exhibition of Falstaff justifies the existence of any play, but I think that 2 Henry IV was planned not only to exhibit Falstaff but also, as part of Shakespeare’s creation of an ideal English hero, to emphasize Hal’s worthiness” (Black, 382). Shakespeare pointedly crafts Hal for the stage as Susan Snyder in “Ourselves Alone: The Challenge to Single Combat in Shakespeare,” from Studies In English Literature (Rice) 20.2 (1980): 201, identifies, “Shakespeare is using single combat in Hal’s case to make a more complicated comparison than that of Antony or Troilus. The clash of the old and new indeed animates Richard II-to-Henry V tetralogy, but his major figure in these plays, Hal, emerges as distinct not only from the empty forms of Richard’s court but also from the least attractive elements of Richard’s Lancastrian successors and their new politics” (Snyder, 201).
The Tragedy of King Richard the Third holds true to military order and warrior culture as even as it is embroiled with politics. Chris Hassel, Jr. provides his view in “Military Oratory in Richard III” in Shakespeare Quarterly 35.1 (1984): 53–61, by stating,
“Shakespeare seems to have followed Hall very closely in these respects. Richard’s battle oration simply did not work, in Hall or in Shakespeare. ‘So was his people to hym unsure and unfaithful at his ende.’ The murderous Machiavelli could have schooled Richard better on military oratory. But then, there was no ‘good thing’ that Richard could have wrought by the final scene of his life, except his death.
According to the standards of the foremost military manuals of the time, Richmond overwhelms Richard before the Battle of Bosworth Field. Richard knows the oratorical rules, but his speeches remain vacuous and desperate. In contrast, Richmond is a savvy military orator who is also a good man. Further, he has good men to respond to his good words. If God and good cause fight on Richmond’s side, so do considerable rhetorical skills. The power of his ordered rhetoric predicts his subsequent success at arms. Richmond’s words have been weighed too lightly in the critical and the theatrical traditions. Perhaps filtering them through these military manuals will help to right the balance” (Hassel, 61).
Though Mr. Hassel identifies a possible flaw, it still highlights Shakespeare’s interest and attempt to provide entertainment while trying to stay true to reality and promoting the warrior culture. Shakespeare delves far into the realm of the warrior mindset. It is easy to identify in his various characters. Stanley Wells in “What Was He Really Like?”, from Critical Survey 21.3 (2009): 107-111, provides, “But Shakespeare comes to us primarily through writings which, more than those of most other writers, call for subjugation of authorial personality, for the capacity to enter imaginatively into the minds and hearts of a wide range of characters, to identify with the values of civilizations very different from his own, to imagine with the one hand a society such as that of Ancient Rome in which suicide in face of defeat can be seen as a noble action, and on the other hand that a world permeated by Christian values in which men are required to ‘bear/Affliction till it do cry out itself/ ‘Enough, enough’, and die’” (Wells, 110). Shakespeare has indeed gone through great lengths to portray the warrior culture in a way that only a major proponent could garner. His evaluation of topics can be seen today in common military practice, giving us links back in time for continuity and reference. His emphasis on counterfeits (stolen valor) and mental stressors (PTS, leadership concerns, and conduct) prove the warrior culture influence impacting him.
What are YOUR thoughts? Have you ever read, studied, or seen any of Shakespeare’s timeless plays? Perhaps Hamlet, Henry V, or maybe even A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Do you think the analysis above supports the notion that Shakespeare was a proponent of warrior culture? Do you disagree? Either way, why do you agree or disagree with the idea? What evidence supports your position? Finally, can you think of any OTHER examples besides the ones mentioned above that support the analysis OR support a different point of view?
Take a few moments to think about these questions, then write your answers in the comments below so the community can discuss, engage, learn, and grow!
- All following quotations from this source will be annotated as act, scene, line: example, (1.1, 1-2)
- Each play from “The Complete Works of Shakespeare” will be identified in italics as a standalone article. Other publications will be labeled in italics but identified with an article prior in the same sentence for clarification.
Bevington, David. “The Complete Works of Shakaespeare”. Seventh Edition, Pearson (2014) Print.
Black, James. “Counterfeits of Soldiership in Henry IV”. Shakespeare Quarterly 24.4 (1973): 372–382. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.
Burgess, C. F.. “Othello’s Occupation”. Shakespeare Quarterly 26.2 (1975): 208–213. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.
Hassel, R. Chris. “Military Oratory in Richard III”. Shakespeare Quarterly 35.1 (1984): 53–61. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.
Pasupathi, Vimala C. “Coats And Conduct: The Materials Of Military Obligation In Shakespeare’s Henry IV And Henry V.” Modern Philology 109.3 (2012): 326-351. Academic Search Premier. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.
Pettigrew, Todd H. J. “The Merchant Of Venice 1.161-76: Is Bassanio A Mercenary?.” Explicator 68.4 (2010): 212-215. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.
Snyder, Susan. “Ourselves Alone: The Challenge To Single Combat In Shakespeare.” Studies In English Literature (Rice) 20.2 (1980): 201. Academic Search Premier. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.
Vargish, Thomas. “War And Literature: A Reciprocity.” War, Literature & The Arts: An International Journal Of The Humanities 20.1/2 (2008): 19-23. Academic Search Premier. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.
Wells, Robin Headlam. “’Manhood and Chevalrie’ Coriolanus, Prince Henry, and the Chivalric Revival”. The Review of English Studies 51.203 (2000): 395–422. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.
Wells, Stanley. “‘What Was He Really Like?’.” Critical Survey 21.3 (2009): 107-111. Academic Search Premier. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.