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Shakespeare and the Just War Tradition


Paola Pugliatti


Farnham: Ashgate, 2010

Hardcover. x+249 pages. ISBN 978-0754659273. £55.00


Reviewed by Sophie Chiari

Université d’Aix-Marseille



J.R. Hale’s The Art of War in Renaissance England (1961) and Artists and Warfare in the Renaissance (1990) have paved the way for innovative studies devoted to military subject matters in the 16th century. In Shakespeare and the Just War Tradition, Pugliatti follows suit and explores the parallels between the Christian ideology of the just war and the multifaceted representations of military combats in Shakespeare’s major works. As the 1590s were “the most warlike decade in the reign of Queen Elizabeth” [1], it should come as no surprise that Shakespeare himself relied on countless military metaphors in his poems, used several military backgrounds in plays such as King Lear and Othello, and staged various kinds of war, either of conquest or of defence. These are sometimes perceived as noble and necessary enterprises but, more often than not, they prove destructive and absurd. Therefore, it is difficult to say whether the playwright praised peace or whether he actually admired battles. But we can imagine that he found many sources of inspiration in an already vast corpus devoted to the ideology of fighting, and that he took part in the long-standing tradition of debates about the pros and cons of war. So, to what extent has the “just war doctrine” affected Shakespeare’s works? And what exactly was this theory intended for? Was it meant to legitimise warfare or, on the contrary, to restrain violent and non-Christian acts?

Pugliatti’s book, divided into four parts, attempts to provide us with carefully detailed and elaborate answers. Part One, written in a chronological perspective, is devoted to the just war tradition in Europe. It starts with the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410, because what the author calls the “just war tradition” developed precisely from the questions posed by that traumatic event. Before it occurred, eminent thinkers like Tertullian, Origenes and Lactantius had firmly condemned the use of violence. After Alaric’s invasion, Augustine began questioning his predecessors’ stance against war and in The City of God, written between 410 and 430, he regarded war as a necessary evil. After all, “by waging just wars, not impious or iniquitous ones, the Romans were able to acquire such a large empire” [16]. Several statements in the same vein set the foundations of the just war theory. Unfortunately, Pugliatti does not explain how this theory was received by Augustine’s contemporaries nor does she bridge the gap between the 5th and the 11th centuries. For the sake of brevity, she proceeds instead with the repercussions of Augustine’s theory on the works of Gratian and Aquinas, who both acknowledged the accidental side effects of war but nonetheless kept backing the idea according to which war is justified by divine authority.

Then, in the 14th century, the lay tradition of the moral aspects of war was elaborated for the first time, Pugliatti explains, by John of Legnano, the vicar general of Pope Gregory XI. Legnano’s contribution is summarised in a few sentences and we are bound to guess that what mattered for Legnano in his Tractatus de bello, de represaliis et de duello (1360) was not so much the “justness” as the “legality” of war [29]. From then on, the juridical regulation of war became an important and complicated matter, and Alberico Gentili’s De iure belli (1598) encapsulates the major principles necessary to a legal assessment of war. Gentili’s treatise probably had a huge impact in England at the time (its author was appointed to the chair of Civil Law at Oxford), even though nothing is said about the circulation of his book. But did each and every writer, at the end of the 16th century, consider war as a just cause? Not so sure. The pacifist tradition led by More, Erasmus and Vives sanctioned the use of force, even though in More’s Utopia, battles cannot be avoided and must therefore be fought “according to the rules of human judgment and common sense” [40]. In his Dulce bellum inexpertis (1515), Erasmus denounces bloodsheds, arguing that all the justifications given for waging war were biased. Well, nearly all, for he reluctantly admits one exception, that of the war against theTurks.

However, immediately after having emphasised this point, Pugliatti explains that “this part of [Erasmus’s] work will be considered later” [44], without a footnote to say where. Yet, the Turkish menace is also tackled by Vives in his De Europae dissidiis et de bello turcico (1526), and if anything, it shows that absolute pacifism was impossible in the context of the Ottoman peril. The humanists encouraged the princes’ wise rules but they knew that no conciliation between the Christians and the Ottomans could be seriously envisaged. Moreover, as Pugliatti puts it, “[t]he spirit of the age was much more Machiavellian than Erasmian” [52], and the influence of Il principe (1532) throughout Europe—including England in spite of its non-translation—soon put the pacifists’ political doctrines upside down.

Surprisingly, Pugliatti does not analyse Machiavelli’s work, which is only used as a transition. Her topic now concerns what she calls the “theatres of war”. The second part of her book thus begins with a study of the reception of the English victory over Philip II’s Armada. Sermons justified the war and the cause of the battle against the Spanish fleet was “advertised as the just and ‘holy’ cause par excellence” [59]. No wonder then if the year 1588, far from bringing any conflict to an end, opened a time of repeated military aggressions against Catholic powers of all sorts. Pugliatti aptly reminds us that in the 1590s, England was engaged on at least four different fronts (Spain, the Low Countries, Ireland, and France), and that such conflicts necessarily reverberated on the plays performed in the 1590s. In The Massacre at Paris (1592) for instance, Marlowe criticised Catherine de Medici’s cruelty and exposed the horrors of the wars of religion. However, his denunciation was ambiguous, to say the least, as the St Bartholomew massacre had rapidly become an anti papist-weapon for many Elizabethan playwrights and pamphleteers. Pugliatti nevertheless aims at showing that “The Massacre is a much more complex text than ‘the piece of crude Protestant propaganda’ usually pronounced by critics” [70], but she only partly succeeds in doing so because here, as elsewhere in the book, her analysis is far too succinct. She then proceeds with 1 and 2 Tamburlaine, relevantly defined as a “genocidal saga” [71] where war never ends.

Several works staging wars and soldiers are then briefly examined, and the author comes to the conclusion that “[a]part from the notable exception of Richard III (and, in part, of John), no English sovereign can be suspected of waging unjust wars” [81]. In Shakespeare’s Henry V, for instance, just like in The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth (1598), the war against the French is led by a charismatic leader supported by God himself. At this point, Pugliatti discusses a selection of treatises devoted to war in order to identify the books which may have influenced Shakespeare, albeit indirectly, for nowhere in his works can we find literal quotations from, say, Matthew Sucliffe’s The Practice, Proceedings, and Lawes of armes (1593) or Bernadino de Mendoza’s Theorica y practica de gverra (1596). This is precisely the limit of Shakespeare and the Just War Tradition. For who can say what Shakespeare read or not, or, to put it differently, what he intuitively knew and what he learnt from others? The answer has never varied, and probably never will: nobody can. Therefore, Pugliatti has to rely on hypothetical links, and the catalogue-like structure of her essay only makes the exercise more difficult. On top of that, the absence of any well-defined problematics leads the author to enumerate various texts dealing with issues of war without telling us in what way and how far such texts may be considered as relevant for the study of Shakespeare’s play. Truisms such as “[d]iscourses of war inevitably imply discourses of peace” [103] do not clarify her point. However, it is true that any detailed study of the just war tradition must also consider issues of peace, and the author does this quite efficiently in the third part of her book.

Indeed, in some of Shakespeare’s plays, war breaks into a peaceful context, and the idea that war justly waged “is the prerequisite of peace” [110] is notably found in Antony and Cleopatra, as Octavius Caesar looks forward to peace after his fight against Antony (4.6.4-6). But all is not so simple and “peace is also the nourisher of vices” [114], as idle soldiers run the risk of becoming effeminate. In this part ambitiously devoted to “Shakespeare on war and peace”, issues of succession are persuasively addressed even though they do not figure prominently in the just war doctrine. In The Two Noble Kinsmen, Hamlet, Henry IV, or King John, such tricky issues are frequently mentioned, causing huge civil wars and political degradation. We are here far removed from defensive wars, ranked into three different types by Alberico Gentili: the “necessary” ones, the wars “of expediency”, and the “honourable” conflicts. These three types are convincingly used by the author in her study of several defensive wars in plays such as Othello, where the threat of the Turkish fleet, merely hinted at in Cinthio’s novella, is developed by Shakespeare.

Then, after exploring diverse just causes for taking arms, Pugliatti analyses Shakespeare’s popular rebellions—exemplified by what she calls "Jack Cade’s communist rising" in 2 Henry VI [137]—as well as the topic of revenge in Hamlet, yet another play where the war is never staged but keeps being alluded to. For the Prince of Denmark, can revenge be “a just cause for waging war” [140]? No, it cannot be “just”, Pugliatti answers, because Claudius may well be a usurper, but he is definitely not a tyrant. Rising against a tyrant is a much nobler task, seen as an act of “vindication” [143]. In that case, as in many others, military leaders generally address their soldiers before the battle, and this tradition goes back to Vegetius’ Epitoma rei military, composed in the 4th century and translated into English in 1572. In several of his plays, Shakespeare gives military orations pride of place. With the contrasting speeches of Richard and Richmond, Richard III is a case in point, even though Pugliatti considers that “the most moving” pre-battle speeches are Henry V’s [157]. This is one of the few personal judgments made by the author, who is more interested in providing us with a rigorous survey of war theories and represented battles than in offering her own viewpoints. However, if such a judgment is hardly controversial (who can forget the address of such a perfect army leader as Henry?), the idea that Troilus and Cressida might be “a deeply unpleasant play” [169] seems more debatable. It is true that the play turns all the clichés upside down, and dismisses all ideas associated with the just war tradition, but this is precisely what makes the play… pleasant. Honour and cowardice, Shakespeare tells us, are but the two sides of the same coin. The author does not study them in detail, but acknowledges their presence in other plays such as Titus Andronicus, in which Aaron wants his bastard son “to be a warrior and command a camp” (4.2.179). At this point, Pugliatti’s numerous insights into Shakespeare’s works would require further developments, but they nonetheless provide us with new (and, as such, useful) critical tools to reassess what are now considered as classics.

After an important subpart devoted to the legacy of chivalry, where the author notably explains that, contrary to her father, Queen Elizabeth herself did not seek military glory at all price (which is true, but which somewhat questions some of the assumptions made earlier on in chapter 4, devoted to the Spanish Armada), Pugliatti eventually examines Henry V, a play already discussed several times throughout the book in relation to “the wars of our time” [195] in her last and shortest part. What she defines as “the wars of our time” remains quite vague, but the 1991 Gulf War is considered as the hallmark of current conflicts. Are these conflicts just? The word “just”, Pugliatti explains, is ambivalent, meaning both “morally acceptable” and “legally justifiable” [198]. The ideal of an ethical war still pervades our society and a play like Henry V has been exploited in countless political ways in order to raise patriotic feelings. Interestingly enough, the author’s outline of the well-known ideological exploitations of Henry V actually serves to introduce the lawyers’ points of view on Shakespeare’s text. “[T]he fact that Henry V is considered the ideal text even when you instruct would-be soldiers in the articles of the Geneva Convention shows that the play can be read as a comment on the wars of our time”, Pugliatti writes [206]. Of course, it can. It does not mean that it should.

In any case, Henry’s speech before the walls of Harfleur (3.3.84-126) has raised many comments and some of them have given the author food for thought. In his War and Nation in the Theatre of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (2007), Simon Barker has for instance pointed out that “Harfleur invites us to consider the real distance between military conflict and civilian ethics” and that “Henry’s threat amounts to a catalogue of images and allusions that come close to contravening a majority of both the seven deadly sins and the Ten Commandments” [220]. Pugliatti thus considers in her study what the infringements of the laws of war are exactly in the play, before discussing one “last issue” [225], i.e. the fact that “wars can be waged in God’s name and that they can be won with God’s help” [225]. She does not take sides because God himself, today, would not know what side he ought to protect: “the heroes of our time […] are neither as captivating nor as charmingly roguish as Henry” [228]. Such concluding words, humorous as they are, do not really help us analyse Shakespeare’s play, but one cannot help noticing that the concept of a just and holy war seems more present than ever, at a time when wars of aggression are increasingly regarded as just wars. In that sense, the elements of continuity emphasised by Pugliatti in the closing section of her essay are relevant. Henry’s war decidedly questions our own wars and our own ambiguous ideologies. Still, reading Shakespeare with our own concepts in mind may well amount to misreading Shakespeare.

Beyond the English Renaissance, Shakespeare and the Just War Tradition covers a wide spectrum from the 5th century to the present day, and it explores a fascinating subject. In spite of its fragmented analyses and some minor defects, this dense, well-informed monograph remains a stimulating and fruitful reflection on the issues of war in Shakespeare’s plays and in a number of other literary texts often forgotten by today’s scholars. Except for poetry and iconology, Pugliatti neglects nothing and pays attention to letters, treatises, translations, and plays imbued with the spirit of war. In short, her book proves invaluable not only to scholars of early modern drama, but to all those interested in the ethics of war and the representation of holy war in literature.


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