Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 5, No. 0666. Wednesday, 10 August 1994.
From: Ben Schneider <SCHNEIDB@LAWRENCE.BITNET>
Date: Tuesday, 09 Aug 1994 14:00:50 -0600 (CST)
On July 18th, in reference to the topic of "character" I made the claim that if
we were talking about Kwakiutls instead of Shakespeare, we wouldn't be
insisting on the universal and everlasting human character.
On July 21st Bill Godshalk rejoined that I was wrong to suggest that he and
fellow universalist Pat Buckridge "drove a chevvy to the levee." Indeed (he
went on) they fully realized that in minor outward things, like choice of
beverage, Shakespeare and his contemporaries differed greatly from us but that
they were essentially the same inside.
On July 22, just for the sake of argument, I alleged that "Yes, Bill, I do
claim that you and Pat Buckridge think Shakespeare drove a chevvy to the
levee." I then claimed that, though it is now widely held that Shakespeare's
Henry V is a cold cruel Machiavellian warmonger, he and his audience would have
seen only his very great virtues. In support, I cited 16th-century authorities
on conduct who thought war was good for the soul. I closed by suggesting "that
as a corrective to our late capitalist ethnocentricity, we should be studying
16th century conduct books and their sources in antiquity (which is what I am
Since then I have not been hiding as might be surmised, but incommunicado;
partly in transit and partly out of commission. And very sorry I am to have
lapsed until now. My remarks on Henry V did elicit some objections, and I am
happy to be able at last to respond to them.
Bill, I despair of convincing you of anything because you are a true
believer--not that it appears I can convince anyone else, either. I wish you
were more of a skeptic. Thanks for the benefit of your great erudition, in
this instance and day by day. I will answer your direct communication directly.
David Evett: I very much admire your social role theory. Pat Buckridge says
you "conflate social types, which are not metaphoric." But you don't consider
social types. Falstaff is a social type--braggart soldier--but his role is
Troop Commander, and it is in this capacity that he is examined. Plutarch's
declared project is the evaluation of each worthy's performance of his job, and
I think Shakespeare's mind works the same way. Plutarch didn't leave us any
comparison of Caesar and Alexander as generals, so Montaigne took it upon
himself to complete the job, giving us an almost perfect rendition of the
master's method. If we knew more about early modern standards of behavior for
princes, we'd know better what _Hamlet_'s about. I agree with you also about
Lear: a very astute discovery.
Steven Marx claims (25 July), that there was a significant group of thinkers
who had "strong pacifist sentiments"--Colet, Linacre, More, Erasmus and James
I--documented by Robert P. Adams in _The Better Part of Valor_. I note that
the work of these pacifists spoke largely to the self-glorifying wars of Pope
Julius and Henry VIII, that it did not rule out wars of self-defense, and that
the movement tapers off after 1535. Adams's book also documents just how
strong the warrior ethic was. James I approved of "warres upon just causes"
(Basilikon Doron) which is exactly the position of Henry V. In one sense Henry
V and his father are pacifists--in their tactic of securing civil harmony by
foreign campaigns. And Henry V makes peace by sharing the English crown with
the French. Steven also cites as pacifists Williams and Burgundy in the play.
Williams has a theological problem about those who die in a battle. Grotius,
_Laws of War and Peace_, and Henry in the play give adequate answers to this
question. The real point of the Williams episode is that Henry does not give
himself up for ransom as Williams said he would, but puts his life on the line
as he asks his troops to do. The episode also shows that Henry can forgive and
even reward an honest man's doubts, as a good king should. Burgundy, in
another of Shakespeare's anti-war speeches, is indeed most eloquent at the
peace table, Henry IV having made a similar one at the beginning of part 1.
But from the English point of view, France became the cause of these miseries
when she usurped English territory. From a dramatic standpoint, Burgundy lays
the groundwork for Henry's would-be everlasting peace to come, he dying too
young to see it through. Remember I claim only that it would look like this to
Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Obviously it's full of holes from our point
Nina Walker (25 July) rightly chastises me for suggesting we should view
Elizabethans as "anthropologically studiable groups" like Maoris or others
radically unlike us--as if we are the norm and these are the others.
Apparently one cannot speak of differences between cultures without opening
oneself to the charge of prejudice. Like Montaigne, I tend to prefer the
savages. But there is a human race, each member of which we consider equally
sacred, however different he or she may be. Democracy argues for a common
denominator of all humankind. But only by a sympathetic understanding of the
differences between cultures can we settle the differences between them. I
would suggest that there are always common denominators between cultures, but
that they are not always and everywhere the same ones, like those Shakespeare
is said to have comprehended in his genius.