William Bloody Shakespeare

We went to see Shakespeare in the Park last week.  The play was Julius Caesar, and it was a good production, but what came to my mind, sitting out on Art Hill on a perfect summer night, were some words from another Shakespeare play, words that have been coming back to me again and again for the past few years.  They’re from Henry V, in the scene where King Henry is in disguise and talking with some of his soldiers the night before a battle:

. . . methinks I could not die any where so
contented as in the king’s company; his cause being
just and his quarrel honorable.

That’s more than we know.

Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know
enough, if we know we are the king’s subjects: if
his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes
the crime of it out of us.

But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath
a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and
arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at
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; for how can they
charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their
argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it
will be a black matter for the king that led them to
it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of

King Henry’s response to this accusation, after some lame analogies, is that the king is not responsible for soldiers’ deaths because their deaths are not his express purpose in going to war.  This is also the argument that no one is morally responsible for “collateral damage,” even though such deaths, like soldier’s deaths, are a certainty of going to war.

I saw my brother play the soldier Williams when I was a kid, but if you Google “But if the cause be not good” and “Iraq” together, you get over a hundred hits, covering everything from casualty numbers to the justification for the war to torture and atrocities,  so clearly I am not alone in being haunted by this scene.

And it’s worth mentioning that in Julius Caesar, replacing the “king” doesn’t help, as long as those who replace him suffer from the same blindnesses.