Podium: Shakespeare's theatre of war

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Nick de


From a speech by the Shakespeare scholar delivered at the

Globe Theatre, London

THE TITLE of this talk is "Alarums and Excursions" but when my computer saved it as "A & E" this morning, it struck me that the title "Accidents and Emergencies" might serve equally well to illustrate the series of Elizabethan anecdotes and extracts I want to talk about tonight. Much of this draws from my book, Shakespeare's Theatre of War.

Of course, "The first casualty when war comes is truth", as the American senator, Hiram Johnson, put it in 1917. His remark perhaps complicates and qualifies Walt Whitman's stark view of the American Civil War that "the real war will never get into the books". The books perhaps, but the stage?

In wartime, as the phrase "theatre of war" itself indicates, the borderline between the real and the feigned is often rather more blurred. Our modern media speak of international dialogues among the major players to avoid worst-case scenarios; one recent book on the war in Yugoslavia even begins with a page of dramatis personae.

In fact the apparatus of fiction has formed a series of strange coalitions with war throughout the 20th century, whether between the Gulf war and virtual-reality video-games, between Vietnam and television, between the Second World War and film, or between the FirstWorld War and music hall.

In the 16th century - a culture to a large extent determined by the theatrical pageantry of power - the technologies of war and the resources of fiction often overlapped on the stage.

What war was this?

Surely Elizabeth the First's was a golden age presided over by the Virgin Queen, the goddess of justice and virtue and peace? Well, in fact, between 1585 (when she first committed English troops to the Low Countries) and 1604 (when her successor King James negotiated peace at the Somerset House conference) Elizabeth reluctantly waged against Philip the Second of Spain what has recently been acknowledged as "one of the longest [wars] in English history". I say "acknowledged" because most of us - indeed most Shakespearian scholars - still tend to remain disproportionately impressed by Tudor propaganda, to the effect that England fought just one battle in Shakespeare's lifetime, a battle that was won at sea. Between 1585 and 1604 one hundred thousand Englishmen were conscripted to fight abroad.

One afternoon, on 16 November 1587, a young lawyer called Philip Gawdy attended a play in a London theatre.

But it was not the brilliance of the production that made him describe it in a letter to his father, but perhaps its striking realism (I should explain that a "caliver" was an Elizabethan firearm, a sort of light musket): "My Lord Admiral, his men-and-players [writes Gawdy] having a device in their play to tie one of their fellows to a post and so to shoot him to death, having borrowed their calivers, one of the players' hands swerved, his piece being charged with bullet, missed the fellow he aimed at, and killed a child, and a woman-great-with-child forthwith, and hurt another man very sore.

"How they will answer it I do not study, unless their profession were better; but in Christianity I am very sorry for the chance; but God his judgements are not to be searched nor enquired of at men's hands. And yet I find by this an old proverb verified: there never comes more hurt than by fooling."

"The players... having borrowed their calivers..." It's interesting how casually Gawdy slips in that phrase; the practice of actors borrowing a real weapon for a fictional "device" does not appear to have been unusual - indeed, more than one of these expensive weapons was apparently available.

In fact this sudden explosion of a real bullet from a theatrical prop was an accident waiting to happen. For the real Philip Henslowe was, among other things, a churchwarden, and as such would have counted among his duties the maintenance of the armouries that church halls had become (the church hall used for drill in Dad's Army accurately represents the endurance of this tradition into our own century).

Much of the military vocabulary we now use - ambush, alarm, squadron, infantry, trench - formed a linguistic invasion altogether more successful than any Spanish Armada's. Molotov cocktail, Jeeps, bazookas, the Blitz, Migs and Scuds have all passed into 20th-century English for the same reasons as "musketeers," "battery," "artillery" and "flank" did in the 16th century.

I just want to say: that is all; thank you very much for your attention: and fall out.