Shakespeare and War

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Seventy years ago last night thousands of bombs fell on Coventry in what has been called the worst air-raid on any British city during the 1939-1945 war. A friend of mine, who was ten at the time, remembers walking into her back garden in Stratford-upon-Avon and seeing the sky red. ‘It was so bright’, she said, ‘that you could read a newspaper by its light, and we knew Coventry was suffering.’ The allies had just bombed Munich (on the anniversary of the founding of the Nazi party), and awful destruction would follow. But Coventry has become especially significant over time because of its Cathedral and that’s why this weekend was an important anniversary to mark.

As you might expect, Shakespeare is especially articulate when it comes to the horrors of war. I think, for example, of the son who accidentally kills his father and the father who accidentally kills his son in The Tragedy of Richard, Duke of York (Henry VI Part 3). King Henry himself sits at one remove and comments on their grieving:

‘Weep, wretched man, I’ll aid thee tear for tear;
And let our hearts and eyes, like civil war,
Be blind with tears, and break, o’ercharged with grief’ (2. 5. 76-8).

These are strong words from the head of a state which is tearing itself to pieces.

Even more vivid are the sentiments of the English soldier, Michael Williams, who talks to the disguised Henry V on the night before the Battle of Agincourt:

‘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 in 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. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle.’ (Henry V, 4. 1. 133-41).

These Shakespearian passages very much in my mind when I attended a special performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem in Coventry Cathedral on Saturday evening. Britten’s extraordinary work (which he rather modestly considered an experiment) helped to open the new Cathedral in 1963. On Saturday there were the German Ambassador, the Mayor of Dresden, the Bishop of Coventry, other special guests, and about two thousand people.

I sat and listened to the unfolding of music which is part liturgical – the Latin words of the Mass are chorally and lyrically set – and part an expression of anger about the horrors of war. Britten sets some of the most powerful of Wilfred Owen’s poetry. The choir stood in front of the great west window (designed by John Hutton, who also designed some windows for the Shakespeare Centre around the same time), and the effect was overwhelming.

It is a dark and brooding work, a journey through half a century of suffering. The War Requiem marked the anniversary of the bombing of Coventry; those lines from Henry V represent Shakespeare’s most direct description about the horrors of war.

Words, music, place, and the anniversary of the bombing all combined to help re-member (re-form, re-shape, re-construct) our perceptions of war and peace, and to refresh my own understanding of the events which shape our time.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson

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