No theme of Shakespeare’s resounds more powerfully with modern audiences than his treatment of war. At first glance, he may seem to glorify the experience, for in several works, monumental battles provide a dramatic conclusion. Shakespeare, however, never romanticizes the reality of warfare. Indeed, he emphasizes the barbarism of this ever-present aspect of existence. To be sure, he presents individuals who perform bravely in combat, but these exploits never supersede the images of brutality and death that are intrinsic to this most horrible of human enterprises.
One way in which the playwright communicates the madness of war is through the structure of the plot. For Shakespeare, warfare represented the breakdown of the social order, and he portrays this chaos in brief, uneven scenes that reflect such madness. In the final acts of Julius Caesar, for instance, the forces of Brutus and Cassius, assassins of Caesar, are opposed by the armies of Antony and Octavius, two of the three generals who will shortly compete for leadership of Rome. During the battle, characters run off and onstage, seemingly out of control, as rumors of the deaths of various soldiers swirl about. First Cassius is discovered dead, then his ally Titinius (V, iii, 90–93), and gradually bodies drop with bewildering rapidity.
The same technique is used to sharper effect in Antony and Cleopatra, in which scenes are more jarring in their brevity. Before and during the battle of Actium, the action moves rapidly among Octavius Caesar’s camp, Cleopatra’s palace, and Antony’s camp. This plot construction also mirrors Antony’s own dilemma: he is caught between duty to Rome and love for Cleopatra. Meanwhile reports of triumph and defeat follow on top of one another (IV, iii–xiv), and like the characters themselves, we are never sure who is winning, nor where, nor why. Only when Antony bursts out in despair do we understand what we have witnessed: