War Crimes Law Comes of Age: Essays

By Theodor Meron | Go to book overview

III
Crimes and Accountability in Shakespeare*

Accountability for crimes, a theme central to Shakespeare's plays, is also extraordinarily pertinent to our times. Newspapers have reported on the care taken by the leaders of the former Yugoslavia to order atrocities against "enemy" populations only in the most indirect and euphemistic way. Even the Nazi leaders constantly resorted to euphemisms in referring to the Holocaust. No explicit written order from Hitler to carry out the final solution has ever been found. At the height of their power, the Nazis treated the data on the killing of Jews as top secret.1 Similarly, a high-ranking member of the former security police told the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission that written instructions to kill antiapartheid activists were never given; squad members who carried out the killings simply got "a nod of the head or a wink-wink kind of attitude."2

For a generation that grew up with the memory of the Holocaust, and witnessed the genocide in Cambodia, as well as the atrocities in Kurdistan, Yugoslavia and Rwanda, no question can be more cogent than personal responsibility. Shakespeare's treatment of the accountability of leaders sheds light on the antecedents of our notions of personal responsibility. Throughout recorded history, most egregious crimes -- the mass atrocities, the genocides and the crimes against humanity -- have been ordered by leaders; it is they who must be held primarily accountable. But Shakespeare also pondered the roles of executioners and courtiers -- in modern terms, aides, staffers and bureaucrats.

In this essay, I intend to show how, in his works, Shakespeare dealt with crimes committed or ordered by leaders, as well as such related, but different, concepts as the arrogance of power; constraints on the prince's power; commitment versus interest; the leader's special responsibility;

____________________
*
This essay draws on my book, Bloody Constraint: War and Chivalry in Shakespeare (O.U.P. 1998). I am grateful to the Filomen D'Agostino and Max E. Greenberg Research Fund of New York University Law School for its generous support of this study, to Professors John Baker, Liam Murphy, Thomas Nagel, Benedict Kingsbury, Detlev Vagts and Julie Peters, and Monroe Leigh for their comments and advice, and Aryeh Neier for suggesting some important sources. Thanks also to Ronald Brown of the NYU Law Library, my research assistant Laurie Rosensweig, and my secretary Sharon Town.
1
PHILIPPE BURRIN, HITLER ET LES JUIFS142, 148, 163, 166-67, 172 ( 1989).
2
N.Y. TIMES, Nov. 6, 1996, at A5.

-67-

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