The Common Good and the Necessity of War: Emergent Republican Ideals in Shakespeare's Henry V and Coriolanus

By Banerjee, Rita | Comparative Drama, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

The Common Good and the Necessity of War: Emergent Republican Ideals in Shakespeare's Henry V and Coriolanus


Banerjee, Rita, Comparative Drama


The Chorus in act 5 of Henry Vlikens Henry's victory to that of Julius Caesar: Like to the senators of th' antique Rome / With the plebeians swarming at their heels,/Go forth and fetch their conqu'ring Caesar in." (1) To envisage a scene of national triumph for an English king, Shakespeare chose the Roman republic with all sections of the population participating in the triumph--the plebeians and the senators, who presumably included the patricians, although a substantial number of the latter were absent at Caesar's triumph. The sense of a national triumph brings to mind the idea of a matter for common rejoicing, of the common good that involved the entire body of the people. By foregrounding and bringing together the issues of war and the common good, this choric portrayal of victory tempts us to question how far such a war contributes to the general good.

Although the notion of the public good is common to most forms of government, it was the republican form that emphasized the goal. According to Aristotle, all forms of government, whether monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy, were directed toward achieving the public good. (2) Nevertheless, in course of time, the republic (res publica or public thing) came to represent what Cicero calls "the concern of a people." (3) Markku Peltonen emphasizes the notion of the "public good" as an important feature of the classical republicanism of the 1650s, which was indebted to Greek and especially Roman sources. According to Peltonen, 'It conceived of men as citizens rather than subjects; they were characterized not so much by obedience to the king as by active participation in the political life of their community through counselling and the law-making process. The citizens' participatory role was chiefly based on their virtuous characters, which enabled them to promote the public good.' (4) Peltonen emphasizes public good; J. G. A. Pocock writes in a similar vein that republics directed the "intelligence of all to the good of all." (5) Even though the objective of the common good did not feature in England as exclusively a republican notion, its association with the republican ideal would have been recognized.

The question as to how far war could contribute to the general weal could well provide an occasion for debate. Although Henry V portrays Caesar's victory at Pharsalia as an occasion for common rejoicing, in Julius Caesar, Marullus and Flavius rebuke the plebeians who grace this unholy triumph. Marullus carefully distinguishes between Caesar's war of autocracy waged against a compatriot like Pompey and wars of conquest abroad; the latter, he implies, could justify a scene of general rejoicing. Henry's war against France and Essex's unsuccessful venture in Ireland to which the chorus in Henry V refers were both wars of conquest, but their justifiability remains open to question. The analogy can be extended to Coriolanus's triumphant return after the defeat of the Volscians, a victory greeted by the entire populace. Because Henry V and Coriolanus center on the theme of war, it is legitimate to explore the relationship between war and the common good in these plays.

Significantly, soon after completing the second tetralogy with Henry V, Shakespeare turned to the Roman history plays. (6) From a political perspective, Rome could symbolize the empire as well as the republic. Yet Shakespeare's dramatization of the disintegration of the republic in Julius Caesar (7) and Antony and Cleopatra and the early days of the republic in Coriolanus suggests that he was interested in the functioning of the republican form of government, which presented an alternative to monarchy. The change from English to Roman history implies an attempt to review the objectives and ideals of government through the perspective of republican Rome. Charles and Michelle Martindale write, "the three Roman plays are best seen as developments of English histories. By switching his attention to Rome, Shakespeare was able to achieve both a greater detachment and a rather greater freedom of manoeuvre. …

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