April 23 is the day the world celebrates what is thought to be Shakespeare’s day of birth, and then 52 years later, definitely his day of death, and also the celebration of St. George, the patron saint of England. I like to remember Will. Not only is he one of the greatest English writers of all time with one of the largest bodies of work, but he also makes sense of life and relationships and ideas. The plays really have something to say to us even in the 21st century.
Throughout most of the play Hamlet, the title character Prince Hamlet berates himself for not avenging his father’s death. His father, the Ghost, has told him of his murder, but Hamlet values life and will not jump to revenge. He tries to discern the truth. By Act Four, in the Norwegian subplot, Hamlet learns that Fortinbras, the young leader of the Norwegians, is marching across Denmark to attack a part of Poland that is worth nothing and will not even be large enough to bury the dead who are killed in the battle. Prince Hamlet remarks:
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That for a fantasy and trick of fame
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain?”
How many wars are started for worthless land or a “trick of fame”?
Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s first and most bloody tragedy and reads more like a melodrama, full of violence, murder and revenge. There are 14 killings in the play, with nine of them on stage. As the title character returns victorious from 10 years of battle, he brings with him the spoils of war. One prisoner, the Queen of the Goths, Tamora, begs for her son’s life as the Romans call for his sacrifice to counter the death of one of Titus Andronicus’ sons. We hear the words of sense and compassion from Tamora in Act One, Scene One, although Titus Andronicus will not listen.
“Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge.” Do we practice mercy when it is needed or only when we want? Do we practice mercy at all when we use capital punishment?
In Act Two, Scene One of Henry VI, Part Two, the king refers to the seventh verse of the Sermon on the Mount, also the seventh verse of what is known as the Beatitudes. He seems unable to stop the fighting between his nobles. He states:
“For blessed are the peacemakers on earth.” Do we love and respect peacemakers in the world today, or is military might or even physical strength what wins the day?
Why not read some Shakespeare at this time of year. He speaks about almost every subject on earth, but he specifically references peace and war often, with 73 quotes in the plays. Can these great plays stop wars from starting? Unlikely, but what can? Because the plays are captivating, give them a try and perhaps start a discussion about peace.
Ellen Birkett Lindeen, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is an Emeritus Professor of English at Waubonsee Community College where she taught Peace Studies & Conflict Resolution and Human Rights & Social Justice.