Academic journal article The Upstart Crow

Governance and the Warrior Ethic in Macbeth and Henry V

Academic journal article The Upstart Crow

Governance and the Warrior Ethic in Macbeth and Henry V

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

Macbeth and Henry V depict shifts in governance that profoundly affect th ethic of the warriors each society sends into battle. In Macbeth, this shift is from tribalism to feudalism; in Henry V, from feudalism to statism. The tribal warrior's ethic is defined by reassuring absolutes of blood and kinship, with loyalty to the clan trumping other moral claims on his actions; he lives in a simple world with sharply demarcated ethical choices, definitive consequences associated with each, and rigid expectations regarding his behavior as a warrior. "The feudal warrior or knight, like his tribal predecessor, also demonstrates a sense of personal loyalty to the lord who has granted him his fief, but his ethic is no longer purely an implicit consequence of membership in the clan or tribe. Instead, it is now explicitly defined in a chivalric code that formally enumerates the roles and responsibilities of the knight but without imposing the sanction of statute; the code is enforced more by a sense of honor and personal obligation than by the threat of punishment. With the emergence of the nation state, the knight's formal code of conduct evolves into an impersonal, primarily legalistic relationship between the citizen-soldier and his government. The soldier now fights less to honor his chief or lord than to fulfill his legal responsibility to the state; eventually he becomes a "paid professional," conscripted for pay and treated more as a political or bureaucratic tool than as a unique individual with an intellect and a conscience. (1)

Through his focus on the warrior, Shakespeare explores how the evolution from tribalism to statism expands the government's control over its citizens even as it increases their personal responsibility for determining whether they should obey laws that they may find, in a particular situation, to be unethical or immoral. As Shakespeare shows, this evolution in governance increasingly alienates the soldier from the very rules of engagement designed by the state to guide his behavior in battle. The more rigidly the state attempts to regulate the warrior's code of conduct, the less dependable it is in actual situations that lack clear separation between right and wrong. In an ironic twist, the warrior now finds himself in a moral quandary at the very moment he must act decisively and ethically. Shakespeare does not necessarily offer a definitive solution to the soldier's ethical dilemma, but his characters do model a set of responses that suggest a pragmatic ethic for coping with the uneasy contradictions arising between the moral ambiguity of war and the codified rigidity of law. My approach, then, will be to demonstrate how the evolution from tribalism to statism alters and complicates the warrior ethic, how the ethic conspicuously shapes the action and meaning of Macbeth and Henry V, and how together the two plays embody a penetrating inquiry into the moral and legal issues confronting the warrior and, by extension, the citizen and ruler.

II. Evolving Models of Governance and the Warrior Ethic


The driving principle behind the evolution from tribalism to legalism or statism, as centered on the role of the soldier in battle, is to fully articulate a verbal model of martial behavior, captured in statute, that will cover all contingencies and allow for gradations of moral responsibility. The need to specify precisely the responsibilities of the warrior derives in significant part from increasingly sophisticated technological developments in warfare that require an individual soldier both to think independently in operating his equipment and to function intelligently and collaboratively within progressively more complex battle formations. Adam Max Cohen has shown that advances in military technology demanded more complex and disciplined behavior from soldiers; operating a musket could require over forty discrete actions, all performed in the heat of battle while trying to maintain formation. …

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