My own experience of war has changed my feelings towards many of Shakespeare’s characters. The good guys in Shakespeare’s plays have become ever less attractive, ever more portentous, ever more sinister as the years go by. Henry V seems more than ever a butcher. “Now, herald, are the dead number’d?” he asks.
“This note doth tell me of ten thousand French
That in the field lie slain: of princes, in this number,
And nobles bearing banners, there lie dead / One hundred twenty six: added to these
Of knights, esquires, and gallant gentlemen,
Eight thousand and four hundred…”
Henry is doing “body counts”. When the herald presents another list–this time of the English dead, Henry reads off the names of Edward, Duke of York, the Earl of Suffolk, Sir Richard Kikely, Davy Gam, Esquire:
“None else of name: and, of all other men,
but five and twenty… O God, thy arm was here…
Was ever known so great and little loss,
On one part and on th’other?”
This is pure Gulf War Part One, when General Norman Schwarzkopf was gloating at the disparate casualty figures–while claiming, of course, that he was “not in the business of body counts”–while General Peter de la Billière was telling Britons to celebrate victory by ringing their church bells.
Shakespeare can still be used to remind ourselves of an earlier, “safer” (if nonexistent) world, a reassurance of our own ultimate survival. It was not by chance that Olivier’s Henry V was filmed during the Second World War. The Bastard’s final promise in King John is simple enough:
“Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them: nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true.”
But the true believers–the Osamas and Bushes–probably lie outside the history plays. The mad King Lear–betrayed by two of his daughters just as bin Laden felt he was betrayed by the Saudi royal family when they rejected his offer to free Kuwait from Iraqi occupation without American military assistance–shouts that he will:
“…do such things,
What they are yet, I know not, but they shall be
The terrors of the earth!”
Lear, of course, was written in the immediate aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, a “terrorist” conspiracy with potential September 11 consequences.