Can You Stage a War? What Shakespeare Knew

There’s one thing—and one thing alone—that Shakespeare couldn’t do. He couldn’t show war onstage.

He could talk about it, he could examine it and debunk it. But for all the numerous battle scenes in the plays, he never describes how one should be done. To be sure, there probably would have been a few actors clanking about the “wooden O” of the Globe in clumsy armor, swords drawn, lots of noise, maybe lots of red paint, too. But Shakespeare knew something every modern director secretly knows in their frustrated hearts: It’s impossible to stage a battle scene convincingly.

It’s difficult enough at the best of times. A battle scene onstage is a lot of actors farting about in makeup pretending to kill each other. Sometimes—too often times—they do it in slow-mo. Thus war becomes choreographed. Or the lights go down and there’s lots of smoke and drums and flag-waving—making it seem like glory and entertainment.

Which reminds me of the unfortunate sword fight between Simon Russell Beale’s portly prince and Laertes in the recent National Theatre production of Hamlet. The athletic Laertes smacked poor Mr. Beale so hard with the flat of his sword that he became the first Hamlet to cry out, “Ow!”

Be that as it may, the reality of war doesn’t belong onstage. The theater is a poor, poncy substitute for the real, horrific thing we see in photojournalism and documentaries, and sometimes on TV. The only way to represent a bloody battlefield onstage isn’t via realism, but the creation of a brilliant image representing a symbolic, stunning shock to the system.

It might be they’ve existed. But I’ve never seen one! Kurosawa achieves it stunningly on film. But for myself, when it comes to images of war, even the greatest of theater directors have faltered.

Rose Rage, the well-regarded version of the three parts of that lingering feast of blood, Henry VI, at the Duke Theater on 42nd Street, is set, none too subtly, in a Victorian slaughterhouse where masked butchers symbolically slice up raw meat and various intestines to represent the carnage. For good measure, the action of England’s civil war is punctuated by the grating sharpening of knives. Or during a beheading, for example, an actor will take a swing with a baseball bat at a red cabbage and smash it to bits.

A cabbage is a cabbage is a stage effect. The gifted British director, Edward Hall, and his all-male troupe from the Chicago Shakespeare Theater have at times staged a near-Jacobean farce of England’s monstrous War of the Roses. As a troupe, the actors do well, though they play too broadly for my taste. As a concept, Mr. Hall’s central metaphor is merely, obviously illustrative and surprisingly small. What’s a few giblets to a butchered army? What’s a well-meaning actor to the shame of an Abu Ghraib?

Nothing can begin to capture the merciless killing that’s actually happening in the Henry cycle—except the words, the one living, eternal thing, the power and beauty of the language. In several sly ways, Shakespeare gave us advice about staging his plays. He wanted us to “hear” them rather than “see” them. Language is paramount, inviolate and true—never more so than when words themselves have gone rotten on us, when words have lost all trust and meaning in the spin of posturing politicians and the Bushite babble of “stuff happens.”

Far from telling us how battle scenes should be staged, Shakespeare takes great care to instruct us not to stage them. The prologue to Henry V is an inspired, ironic apology: “O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend / The brightest heaven of invention! / A kingdom for a stage, princes to act / And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!”

All Shakespeare has, all any playwright has, is an empty space—”this unworthy scaffold,” goes his description—on which to bring forth the vast killing fields of an entire country and cram the armies and coffins.

And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,

On your imaginary forces work.

In other prosaic words, we must imagine the battle.

It’s mundane when commentators and experts on the Iraq war refer to the war as theater. Bob Woodward, slow and ponderous and statesmanlike, shook his head despairingly on Larry King recently to say “there aren’t really good words” to describe the latest atrocities. “It’s ugly theater,” he said, grasping.

“Very ugly theater,” Mr. King added solemnly before cutting to a commercial.

But Iraq isn’t theater. It’s real; theater is pretend. Theater is where space and words and those ciphers and kings called actors work on our “imaginary forces.” It is the one place left on earth where there are the words.

It’s why we need Shakespeare more than ever: on leadership and self-delusion, on the psychology of war, on mob mentality and lies, on the fate of the common soldier and the collapse of a moral universe—everything. Still, my favorite battle scenes belong to Falstaff. Because the “Lord of Misrule” lampoons war. Falstaff’s farcical ragtag recruits were all he could find, for the sons of the rich have bought their deferment. He’s also a coward, true! But what use honor to the vanquished soldier? Falstaff would rather live than die. Falstaff chooses Life. He’s everyman in his right mind.

The most astonishing battle scene Shakespeare wrote occurs in Part 3 of the Henry plays. These early dramas are almost more renowned for a single line—”The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers!”—than for their dramatic poetry. Even the authorship of big chunks of its verse is debatable. But, suddenly, in the midst of the battlefield comes the extraordinary confession and soliloquy of King Henry.

The ineffectual Henry has been miscast in the role he was born to play. He’s a weak ruler who would have made a good priest. He’s made a bad marriage to Margaret of Anjou—”England’s happiness” later described as the power-hungry “she-wolf of France.” Henry is ill-equipped for war’s barbarity and treachery. And there he sits as the battle rages around him in this world of grief:

O God! Methinks it were a happy life,

To be no better than a homely swain;

To sit upon a hill, as I do now …

If only he could change the unruly course of his life to a shepherd’s, he could contemplate the days and hours until white hairs brought him fulfilled “unto a quiet grave …. Ah, what a life were this! how sweet! how lovely!” A king’s life made rich by looking on “silly sheep”!

The speech is the most unexpected, touching thing. (And Henry in time will be murdered.) But what follows immediately is horrible and fantastic.

A young soldier enters the battlefield carrying the dead body of his father. In the chaos of battle, the grieving son has killed his own father. “O piteous spectacle!” cries the woeful king. Then a father enters carrying the body of his own soldier-son. The father has killed the son. “O pity, pity, gentle heaven, pity!”

And all three—the king, the father and the son—mourn and weep together. Was ever there unbearable grief and death like it?—except in the pitiful reality of war today, when we shield our eyes and there are no words.