"A place in the story" : the perspective of Shakespeare's common soldier.

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Date
1985
Authors
Clark, Stephen
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Middle Tennessee State University
Abstract
Critics who address Shakespeare's depiction of military events tend to view the common soldier as a coward engaging in pillage and rebellion. These critics dismiss as anomalous a scene in Henry V that involves three conscripts questioning the disguised Henry about a king's obligation to pursue justified warfare. The scene affords the common soldier dignity and a dimension of intelligence, while asserting his right to expect just cause for a war he must fight. Hardly exceptional, the scene reflects a pattern of military performance based on leadership--a pattern begun in Shakespeare's first tetralogy. When provided exemplary leadership and just cause, the common soldier proves courageous; conversely, he responds negatively to ineffective leadership, which frequently accompanies an unjust cause.
Chapters One and Two analyze the operation of leadership and performance in the two tetralogies. Throughout the early histories, the common soldier responds positively to proper leadership, such as that offered by Talbot and Richmond, while the soldier who suffers under poor leadership becomes a symbol of waste. The second tetralogy points ot Shakespeare's growing interest in exposing the recklessness of zealous militarists, for example Hotspur. Falstaff's actions epitomize callous disregard for the conscript's welfare. The pattern reaches its maximum realization through the full disclosure of the commoner's perspective when conscripts argue with King Henry V.
Chapters Three and Four analyze leadership and performance and the waste surrounding martialism in Shakespeare's tragedies. Enobarbus' plight dramatizes the dilemma of all who must follow faulty leaders in fallen causes. Indeed, agony over Antony's declining leadership contributes to Enobarbus' death. The soldier-as-waste emerges powerfully in the suffering imposed by the supreme militarist, Coriolanus. By endorsing the military model for revenge, Hamlet assures his own demise and the unintended deaths of many others. Similarly, Othello reverts to the martial code of duty in murdering Desdemona. In moving from history to tragedy, Shakespeare reminds us that both uncommon and common soldiers can, like Enobarbus, "earn a place in the story"--a story whose shape and outcome are deeply influenced by those who lead and those who follow.
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