Copyright J V Ward. 14th August 2003 

Oh, pity, God, this miserable age!’ The theme of war in Henry VI to Richard III. 

Shakespeare is ambivalent about war. He believes that war is necessary, even laudable, for the protection of England against alien aggressors and for the defence of English interests overseas. However when England becomes embroiled in civil war, Shakespeare demonstrates its destructive power and calamitous effects upon both sides and on England as a whole. The audience is exhorted to be prepared to fight for or support England in external conflict but to view civil strife as the most pernicious of evils.

The England of Gaunt is protected by ‘a silver sea ... which serves it in the office of a wall’. In Iden's garden we see a paradigm of England which according to the proprietor is ‘worth a monarchy’. The hungry Cade represents the rapacity of alien invaders who, scaling the wall, seek ‘like a thief to come and rob’. The stalwart Iden is imbued with the imagery of land and possession in ‘fee simple’, ‘Inheritance’, ‘lord of the soil’ and ‘grounds’ and the proximity of his name Iden" to the earthly paradise ‘Eden’ would not be lost on an Elizabethan audience. The defence of land is characterised by the battle imagery of ‘iron’, ‘sword’, ‘fist’ and ‘truncheon’. The fight between Iden and Cade is a war in miniature and Iden's victory is the consummation of his vigorous defence which is unassailable by an adversary weakened by avarice and the exertion expended in skulking in the woods and surmounting the wall. There is a distinct parallel between Cade's situation and the ill‑fated Spanish Armada fresh in the memory of the Elizabethan audience. Overall the scene may be viewed as an exhortation to stand firm against a malicious enemy.

The archetypical English soldier is Talbot, who is endowed with the chivalric virtues of courage, tenacity and conscientiousness. But when we see Talbot at the countess' castle, we find representatives of two diametrically opposed Talbots. One aspect of Talbot is represented by the imagery of strength in ‘Hercules’ and ‘Hector’ and the other by the imagery of weakness in the alliterative ‘weak and writhled shrimp’. The contrast is accentuated by the debate which dwells on the antitheses of ‘shadow’ and ‘substance’. The situation is resolved when Talbot demonstrates that his substance is a host of individual soldiers all bent on the same purpose. The revelation is made more poignant by the imagery of bodily parts in ‘arms’, ‘legs’, ‘sinews’ and the like. The solitary Talbot is weak and arouses no fear in the enemy but the collective mass of Talbots is the strength of Englishmen joined together in a common purpose. The body parts imagery relies heavily on St Paul whose analogy of parts of the body of Christ was instrumental in exhorting the early Christians to work in harmony. Here Shakespeare similarly advocates a unity of purpose in military affairs.

France has been lost by ‘want of men and money’ and England too might be lost if the Tudors cannot get men to fight. Shakespeare is the recruiting sergeant who urges men to enlist. All arguments against confronting the enemy are demolished in the stylised encounter of Talbot and son, when Young John faces inevitable death in ‘a terrible and unavoided danger’. The enticement of flight is equated with the shame of dishonour of illegitimacy in ‘make a bastard and a shame of me’. It is noticeable that the scandalous act of desecrating the corpses of the Talbots is first, mooted by the Bastard of Orleans. The temptation of returning for revenge is countered in ‘ne'er return again’ suggesting that the opportunity to fight will not be presented on another occasion. The possibility of ‘apparent death of Talbot the elder is refuted by the inevitability of the death of Talbot the elder. That shame of refusal to encounter can be wiped out by the previous honours of an older generation is invalidated by the fact of extinction of that honour in the retreat. The excuse of 'flying for vantage’ is countered by the inevitable lack of eye‑witnesses to the event. The repartee is made more poignant by the rapid interchange in rhyming couplets, each objection being expeditiously and forcefully disposed of. The eventual demise of the Talbots is marked by the personification of ‘Death’ who is addressed on three occasions in quick succession making him almost palpably present on stage. ‘Death’ is aligned with the enemy in ‘Imagine him a Frenchman and thy foe’ and made mortal in ‘then Death had died today’. The continuation of rhyming couplets adds to the emotional appeal that ‘Death’ is not to be feared, that glory is worth dying for and that England's call cannot be refused. After viewing these scenes, no son could refuse to enlist and no father could refuse consent.

A civil war too requires combatants and if you want to avoid internal battles, as in Tudor England you must, a convenient stratagem Is to employ an inefficient recruiting sergeant. Queen Margaret, leading her troops at Tewksbury to make English fight English, fills the role admirably. The nautical imagery of her address is asserted in terms of wreckage:  

What though the mast be now blown overboard
The cable broke, the holding anchor lost,
And half our sailors swallow'd in the flood
(III Henry VI 5/3 4

'Blood, toil and tears’ may have stimulated a twentieth century population but ‘quicksand’, ‘ragged fatal rock’ and ‘ruthless sea’ would discourage potential participants from any era. The nautical imagery is compounded with funereal images in ‘tearful eyes’, ‘sit and wail their loss’ reminiscent of Richard II ‘with rainy eyes shed tears upon the bosom of the earth’. Puns on ‘shrouds’ and ‘course’ (similar to cors, a corpse) complete the lugubrious imagery. The tone of the speech is rhetorical but each demand, instead of suggesting the anticipated negative, tends to provoke a positive response. ‘What though the mast be now blown overboard?' far from eliciting bravado tends to depress. The offered substitute, young Ned (referred to in the diminutive) is condemned as ‘unskilled’ and ‘a fearful lad’. The alliteration in the replacement allies ‘friends of France’ bears a remarkable similarity to the French ‘fiends’ mentioned in the early part of the tetralogy. The oration climaxes with a refrain from the prince asking for anyone with a trepidatious spirit to depart. The invitation lacks the power of Henry V's similar rhetoric which offers the inducement of ‘The fewer men the greater share of honour’. Overall the scene is reminiscent of a funeral without the accustomed promise of resurrection or fulfilment.

Warwick prophesies that the struggle ‘between the Red Rose and the White’ will despatch ‘a thousand souls to death and deadly night’ and Shakespeare marks the internecine struggle between the two houses with the imagery of slaughter. As the nobles squabble, France is lost, Ireland is in rebellion and Cade purports to take over the state precipitating civil war. Cade and his followers are symbols of disorder; they represent a society where ‘seven half‑penny loaves are sold for a penny’ not a state of affairs to be wished for by one affluent enough to pay for a theatre ticket in Tudor England. The rebellion is symbolised by Dick the butcher in ‘struck down like an ox' and ‘throat cut like a calf'. All fall before him ‘like sheep and oxen’. Cade flatters him by saying ‘though behavs't thyself as if thou hads’t been in thine own slaughter house’ and his reward is a licence to kill.

The consequence of civil war is alluded to when the opposing sides of Lancaster and York confront each other in Parliament and threaten to turn the palace of Westminster itself into an abattoir in ‘to make a shambles of the parliament house’. After the two sides have met in battle, the kingdom is despoiled. Henry's realm is a 'slaughter house, his subjects slain'.

The responsibility for this state of affairs belongs to those who take up arms for as Warwick says:

'Who finds the heifer dead, and bleeding fresh,
And sees fast by a butcher with an axe,
But will suspect 'twas he that made the slaughter?'

(II Henry VI 3/2 187-189) 

Queen Margaret indicates King Edward as the slaughterer in "yonder stands the wolf that makes the spoil", an ironic comment on her detractor who cites her as ‘the she-wolf of France’. Margaret also refers to the Yorkists as ‘Butchers and villains! bloody cannibals’ and indeed Richard threatens to ‘hew my way out with a bloody axe’. Richard himself refers to Clifford as ‘butcher’ in berating him for the murder of Rutland.

King Henry exemplifies the victims of the slaughter in losing first his kingdom and then his life. Gloucester may be taken as symbolic of the kingdom which Henry will eventually lose and which he bemoans in terms of a calf which ‘the butcher takes away’ ... ‘bearing it to the bloody slaughterhouse’. Henry's inactivity is responsible for much of the carnage, yet he claims he ‘can do nought’ and bemoans the fact ‘with sad unhelpful tears’. Even when he faces death, Henry pleads helplessness in saying:<

‘So first the harmless sheep doth yield his fleece.
And next his throat unto the butcher's knife
(III Henry V1 5/6/8-9) 

By linking Henry's inaction with the butchery imagery, Shakespeare makes him guilty by default of complicity in the civil war and thereby advocates to his audience. the necessity to be vigorous in eliminating the causes of civil war.

Henry's actual act of resignation comes when he sits on a molehill, symbolically giving himself up to the earth as in Richard II when Richard says ‘let us sit upon the ground, and tell sad stories of the death of kings’. Henry's sad story is of the battle which he shows in the imagery of the contending forces of wind and sea, neither of which can overcome the other or be vanquished by it. The unending war and Henry's inaction are further linked in Henry's constant petitioning to God which is in the form of ‘thy will be done’. Prayer is evidently worthless when abdicating responsibility and is effective only when demanding forgiveness as in ‘think not upon the fault my father made in compassing the crown!’. Proximity to religious sentiments is not always advantageous as is evidenced by the duplicitous Richard plotting to seize the crown while flanked by two bishops. The result of civil war, the deaths of fathers and sons, is linked to Henry's surrender in the exclamatory petitions ‘0 God’ from the bereaved who, like Henry, resign responsibility and demand pity as in ‘0, pity, God, this miserable age!’. These words are echoed by the chorus-like Henry in ‘0, pity, pity, gentle heaven pity’. The resignatory attitude and over trust in God have fulfilled Warwick’s prophesy which Henry poignantly repeats ‘If you contend, a thousand lives must wither’. 

Shakespeare's message is didactic: He preaches an intrepid resolution in facing an alien enemy. Shakespeare, like Lord Say, uses words to vanquish enemies for 'Great men have reaching hands: oft have I struck Those that I never saw, and struck them dead.' In the case of civil war Shakespeare's message is that, for your own safety and for England's, you should not participate. Moreover all who do take part are butchers and the agents of civil unrest and massacre. Furthermore, those who weaken in the prevention of domestic contention are guilty by default of England's afflictions.

Links to other essays
 American Beauty   the movie.
Sylvia Plath The Bell Jar
John Milton Lycidas
Brian Friel Translations
Shakespeare Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V
DrydenAbsolem and Achitophel and other works
Virginia WoolfThe Use of Symbolism
Sir Walter Scott Heart of Midlothian and Waverly
Keats and Shelly Adonais and other works
Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice and Emma
Shakespeare Notes on Twelfth Night