Robert Fisk on Shakespeare and war
Shakespeare could have been writing about Iraq or Afghanistan,
his scenes of battle were so prescient. Robert Fisk dissects the
Bard's attitude to conflict - and describes how relevant he has
found it to be today
By Robert Fisk
Independent" -- -- Poor old Bardolph. The common
soldier, the Poor Bloody Infantry, the GI Joe of Agincourt,
survives Henry IV, only to end up on the end of a rope after
he's avoided filling up the breach at Harfleur with his corpse.
Henry V is his undoing - in every sense of the word - when he
robs a French church. He must be executed, hanged, "pour
encourager les autres". "Bardolph," laments his friend Pistol to
Fluellen, "a soldier firm and sound of heart, /...hanged must a'
be /A damned death!
"Let gallows gape for dog, let man go free, / And let not hemp
his wind-pipe suffocate: / But Exeter hath given the doom of
death... / Therefore go speak, the duke will hear thy voice; /
And let not Bardolph's vital thread be cut... / Speak, captain,
for his life..."
How many such military executions have been recorded in the past
30 years of Middle East history? For theft, for murder, for
desertion, for treachery, for a momentary lapse of discipline.
Captain Fluellen pleads the profoundly ugly Bardolph's cause -
not with great enthusiasm, it has to be said - to Henry himself.
"I / think the duke hath lost never a man, but one that / is
like to be executed for robbing a church, one / Bardolph, if
your majesty know the man: his face is / all bubukles and
whelks, and knobs, and flames o' / fire, and his lips blow at
But the priggish Henry, a friend of Bardolph in his princely,
drinking days (shades of another, later Prince Harry), will have
none of it:
"We would have all such offenders so cut off: and we / give
express charge that in our marches through the / country there
be nothing compelled from the / villages; nothing taken but paid
for; none of the / French upbraided or abused in disdainful
In France, Eisenhower shot post-D-Day rapists in the US army.
The SS hanged their deserters even as Berlin fell. I have my
notes of a meeting with Fathi Daoud Mouffak, one of Saddam
Hussein's military cameramen during the eight-year Iran-Iraq
war, a sensitive man, a mere Pistol in the great retreat around
Basra where a reservist was accused of desertion by an officer
of the Iraqi "Popular Army". He was a very young man, Mouffak
was to recall:
"And the reporter from Jumhuriya newspaper tried to save him. He
said to the commander: 'This is an Iraqi citizen. He should not
die.' But the commander said: 'This is none of your business -
stay out of this.' And so it was the young man's fate to be shot
by a firing squad... before he was executed, he said he was the
father of four children. And he begged to live. 'Who will look
after my wife and my children?' he asked. 'I am a Muslim. Please
think of Allah - for Saddam, for God, please help me... I am not
a conscript, I am a reservist. I did not run away from the
battle - my battalion was destroyed.' But the commander shot him
personally - in the head and in the chest."
My own father, 2nd Lieutenant Bill Fisk of the 12th Battalion,
the King's Liverpool Regiment, a soldier of the 1914-18 war, was
ordered to command a firing party, to execute a 19-year old
Australian soldier, Gunner Frank Wills of the Royal Field
Artillery, who had murdered a military policeman in Paris. Bill
refused to carry out this instruction, only to be put on a court
martial charge for refusing to obey an order. Someone else
dispatched Bill Fisk's Bardolph. "I ask the Court to take into
consideration my youth and to give me a chance of leading an
upright and straightforward life in the future," Wills wrote in
his miserable plea for mercy. British officers turned it down,
arguing that an example should be made of Wills to prevent
further indiscipline. The war had long been over when he was
shot at dawn at Le Havre. Bill served in the Third Battle of the
Somme in 1918 and I never pass the moment when Shakespeare's
French king asks if Henry's army "hath passed the river Somme"
without drawing in my breath. Did some faint moment of
Renaissance prescience touch the dramatist in 1599?
I am still to be convinced that Shakespeare saw war in service
in the army of Elizabeth. "Say'st thou me so?" Pistol asks of a
cringing French prisoner who does not speak English. "Come
hither, boy, ask me this slave in French / What is his name." I
heard an almost identical quotation in Baghdad, shorn of its
16th-century English, when a US Marine confronted an Iraqi
soldier-demonstrator in 2003. "Shut the fuck up," he screamed at
the Iraqi. Then he turned to his translator. "What the fuck's he
saying?" At the siege of Harfleur, the soldier Boy wishes he was
far from battle - "Would I were in an alehouse in London! I
would give / all my fame for a pot of ale, and safety" - and
Henry's walk through his camp in disguise on the eve of
Agincourt evokes some truly modern reflections on battle. The
soldier Bates suggests to him that if the king had come on his
own to Agincourt, he would be safely ransomed "and a many poor
men's lives saved".
The equally distressed soldier Williams argues that if the
English cause is doubtful: "...the king himself hath / a heavy
reckoning to make, when all those legs, and / arms, and heads,
chopped off in a battle, shall join / together at the latter
day, and cry all 'We died at / such a place'; some swearing,
some crying for a / surgeon; some upon their wives, left poor
behind / them; some upon the debts they owe; some upon their /
children rawly left..."
This bloody accounting would be familiar to any combat soldier,
but Shakespeare could have heard these stories from the English
who had been fighting on the Continent in the 16th century. I've
seen those chopped-off legs and arms and heads on the
battlefields of the Middle East, in southern Iraq in 1991 when
the eviscerated corpses of Iraqi soldiers and refugee women and
children were lying across the desert, their limbs afterwards
torn apart by ravenous dogs. And I've talked to Serb soldiers
who fought Bosnian Muslims in the battle for the Bihac pocket,
men who were so short of water that they drank their own urine.
Similarly, Shakespeare's censorious Caesar Augustus contemplates
Antony's pre-Cleopatran courage: "...When thou once / Wast
beaten from Modena, / ...at thy heel / Did famine follow, whom
thou fought'st against / ...with patience more / Than savages
could suffer: thou didst drink / The stale of horses and the
gilded puddle / Which beasts would cough at..."
Yet Wilfred Owen's poetry on the "pity of war" - his
description, say, of the gassed soldier coughing his life away,
the blood gargling "from the froth-corrupted lungs" - has much
True, death was ever present in the life of any Tudor man or
woman; the Plague that sometimes closed down the Globe Theatre,
the hecatomb of child mortality, the overflowing, pestilent
graveyards, united all mankind in the proximity of death.
Understand death and you understand war, which is primarily
about the extinction of human life rather than victory or
defeat. And despite constant repetition, Hamlet's soliloquy over
poor Yorick's skull remains a deeply disturbing contemplation of
"My gorge rises at / it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed
I know / not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your / gambols?
your songs? your flashes of merriment / that were wont to set
the table on a roar? Not one / now, to mock your own grinning?
And here is Omar Khayyam's contemplation of a king's skull at
Tus - near the modern-day Iranian city of Mashad - written more
than 400 years before * * Shakespeare's Hamlet stood in the
churchyard at Elsinore:
"I saw a bird alighted on the city walls of Tus / Grasping in
its claws Kaika'us's head: / It was saying to that head, 'Shame!
Shame! / Where now the sound of the bells and the boom of the
The swiftness with which disease struck the living in previous
centuries was truly murderous. And I have my own testimony at
how quickly violent death can approach. Assaulted by a crowd of
Afghans in a Pakistani border village in 2001 - their families
had just been slaughtered in an American B-52 air raid on
Kandahar - an ever-growing crowd of young men were banging
stones on to my head, smashing my glasses into my face, cutting
my skin open until I could smell my own blood. And, just for a
moment, I caught sight of myself in the laminated side of a
parked bus. I was crimson with blood, my face was bright red
with the stuff and it was slopping down my shirt and on to my
bag and my trousers and shoes; I was all gore from head to foot.
And I distinctly remember, at that very moment - I suppose it
was a subconscious attempt to give meaning to my own
self-disgust - the fearful ravings of the insane Lady Macbeth as
she contemplates the stabbing of King Duncan: "...who would have
thought the old man / to have had so much blood in him?"
Shakespeare would certainly have witnessed pain and suffering in
daily London life. Executions were in public, not filmed
secretly on mobile telephones. But who cannot contemplate
Saddam's hanging - the old monster showing nobility as his
Shi'ite executioners tell him he is going "to hell" - without
remembering "that most disloyal traitor", the condemned Thane of
Cawdor in Macbeth, of whom Malcolm was to remark that "nothing
in his life / Became him like the leaving it." Indeed, Saddam's
last response to his tormentors - "to the hell that is Iraq?" -
was truly Shakespearean.
How eerily does Saddam's shade haunt our modern reading of
Shakespeare. "Hang those that talk of fear!" must have echoed
through many a Saddamite palace, where "mouth-honour" had long
ago become the custom, where - as the casualties grew through
the long years of his eight-year conflict with Iran - a
Ba'athist leader might be excused the Macbethian thought that he
was "in blood / Stepp'd in so far, that, should I wade no more,
/ Returning were as tedious as go o'er". The Iraqi dictator
tried to draw loose inspiration from the Epic of Gilgamesh in
his own feeble literary endeavours, an infantile novel which -
if David Damrosch is right - was the work of an Iraqi writer
subsequently murdered by Saddam. Perhaps Auden best captures the
nature of the beast:
"Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after, / And the poetry
he invented was easy to understand; / He knew human folly like
the back of his hand, / And was greatly interested in armies and
In an age when we are supposed to believe in the "War on
Terror", we may quarry our way through Shakespeare's folios in
search of Osama bin Laden and George W Bush with all the
enthusiasm of the mass murderer who prowls through Christian and
Islamic scriptures in search of excuses for ethnic cleansing.
Indeed, smiting the Hittites, Canaanites and Jebusites is not
much different from smiting the Bosnians or the Rwandans or the
Arabs or, indeed, the modern-day Israelis. And it's not
difficult to find a parallel with Bush's disasters in
Afghanistan and Iraq - and his apparent desire to erase these
defeats with yet a new military adventure in Iran - in Henry
IV's deathbed advice to his son, the future Henry V:
"...Therefore, my Harry, / Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
/ With foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out / May
waste the memory of the former days."
The wasteland and anarchy of Iraq in the aftermath of our
illegal 2003 invasion is reflected in so many of Shakespeare's
plays that one can move effortlessly between the tragedies and
the histories to read of present-day civil war Baghdad. Here's
the father, for example, on discovering that he has killed his
own child in Henry VI, Part III:
"O, pity, God, this miserable age! / What stratagems, how fell,
how butcherly, / Erroneous, mutinous and unnatural, / This
deadly quarrel daily doth beget!"
Our treachery towards the Shi'ites and Kurds of Iraq in 1991 -
when we encouraged them to rise up against Saddam and then
allowed the butcher of Baghdad to destroy them - was set against
the genuine cries for freedom that those doomed people uttered
in the days before their betrayal. "...waving our red weapons
o'er our heads," as Brutus cried seconds after Julius Caesar's
murder, "Let's all cry, 'Peace, freedom, and liberty'."
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. Similarly, the saintly Prospero in
The Tempest contains both the self-righteousness and
ruthlessness of bin Laden and the covert racism of Bush. When he
sends Ariel to wreck the usurping King Alonso's ship on his
island, the airy spirit returns with an account of his success
which - despite his subsequent saving of lives - is of near-Twin
"Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin, / I flam'd
amazement, sometime I'ld divide / And burn in many places... /
Not a soul / But felt a fever of the mad, and play'd / Some
tricks of desperation; all but mariners / Plung'd in the foaming
brine, and quit the vessel; / Then all afire with me the King's
son Ferdinand / With hair up-staring (then like reeds, not hair)
/ Was the first man that leap'd; cried Hell is empty, / And all
the devils are here."
In almost the same year, John Donne was using equally terrifying
imagery, of a "fired ship" from which "by no way / But drowning,
could be rescued from the flame, / Some men leap'd forth..."
Prospero's cruelty towards Caliban becomes more frightening each
time I read of it, not least because The Tempest is one of four
Shakespeare plays in which Muslims appear and because Caliban is
himself an Arab, born of an Algerian mother.
"This damned Witch Sycorax / For mischiefs manifold, and
sorceries terrible / To enter human hearing, from Argier / Thou
know'st was banish'd..." Prospero tells us. "This blue-ey'd hag,
was hither brought with child... / A freckl'd whelp, hag-born...
not honour'd with / A human shape."
Caliban is the "terrorist" on the island, first innocently
nurtured by Prospero and then condemned to slavery after trying
to rape Prospero's daughter, the colonial slave who turns
against the fruits of civilisation that were offered him.
"You taught me language, and my profit on't / Is, I know how to
curse: the red plague rid you / For learning me your language."
Yet Caliban must "obey" Prospero because "his art is of such
power". Prospero may not have F-18s or bunker-busters, but
Caliban is able to play out a familiar Western narrative; he
teams up with the bad guys, offering his help to Trinculo -
"I'll show you the best springs; I'll pluck thee berries; / I'll
fish for thee..." - making the essential linkage between evil
and terror that Bush vainly tried to claim between al-Qa'ida and
Saddam. Caliban is an animal, unworthy of pity, not honoured
with a "human shape". Compare this with a recent article in the
newspaper USA Today, in which a former American military
officer, Ralph Peters - arguing that Washington should withdraw
from Iraq because its people are no longer worthy of our Western
sacrifice - refers to "the comprehensive inability of the Arab
world to progress in any sphere of organised human endeavour".
Prospero, of course, prevails and Caliban survives to grovel to
his colonial master:
"How fine my master is! I am afraid / He will chastise me /
...I'll be wise hereafter, / And seek for grace..." The war of
terror has been won!
Shakespeare lived at a time when the largely Muslim Ottoman
empire - then at its zenith of power - remained an existential
if not a real threat for Europeans. The history plays are
replete with these fears, albeit that they are also a product of
propaganda on behalf of Elizabeth and, later, James. In Henry
IV: Part I, the king is to set out on the Crusades:
"As far as to the sepulchre of Christ... / Forthwith a power of
English shall we levy, / Whose arms were moulded in their
mothers' womb / To chase these pagans in those holy fields /
Over whose acres walked those blessed feet."
Rhetoric is no one's prerogative - compare King Henry V's
pre-Agincourt speech with Saddam's prelude to the "Mother of All
Battles" where Prospero-like purity is espoused for the Arab
"side". This is Saddam: "Standing at one side of this
confrontation are peoples and sincere leaders and rulers, and on
the other are those who stole the rights of God and the tyrants
who were renounced by God after they renounced all that was
right, honourable, decent and solemn and strayed from the path
of God until... they became obsessed by the devil from head to
Similar sentiments are espoused by Tamberlaine in Marlowe's
play. Tamberlaine is the archetypal Muslim conqueror, the
"scourge of God" who found it passing brave to be a king, and
ride in triumph through Persepolis.
But Othello remains the most obvious, tragic narrative of our
Middle Eastern fears. He is a Muslim in the service of Venice -
close neighbour to the Ottoman empire - and is sent to Cyprus to
battle the Turkish fleet. He is a mercenary whose self-hatred
contaminates the play and eventually leads to his own death.
Racially abused by both Iago and Roderigo, he lives in a world
where there are men whose heads supposedly hang beneath their
shoulders, where he is black - most Arabs are not black,
although Olivier faithfully followed this notion - and where,
just before killing himself, he refers to his terrible stabbing
of Desdemona as the work of a "base Indian" who:
"...threw a pearl away / Richer than all his tribe, of one whose
subdued eyes, / ...Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees /
...Set you down this; / And say besides, that in Aleppo once, /
Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk / Beat a Venetian and
traduced the state, / I took by the throat the circumcised dog /
And smote him, thus."
That, I fear, is the dagger that we now feel in all our hearts.
Robert Fisk will be in conversation with Joan Bakewell and Tim
Pigott-Smith for the Royal Shakespeare Company on 'Shakespeare
and War' at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon on
Sunday at 1pm. His latest book 'The Great War for Civilisation:
the Conquest of the Middle East' is published by Fourth
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