Thursday, December 10, 2009

Justifying War in "Richard III"

on peace (reposted and revised from December 15, 2008)

In Shakespeare's Richard III, we see the Tudor hero Richmond and the Tudor villain Richard inspire their troops with different justifications for war. Both are familiar.

Good Richmond buoys the troops by claiming they fight for God:

"God and our good cause fight upon our side" (V.iii.241)

"One that hath ever been God's enemy
Then if you fight against God's enemy,
God will in justice ward you as his soldiers" (V.iii.253-255)

"Then in the name of God and all these rights,
Advance your standards, draw your willing swords" (V.iii.263-265)

Written at a time when belief in the divine right of kings was a foundational principle for government, there is sincerity here. Still, Richmond is making a power play: he's waging a war to remove another king and place the crown on his own head. He claims, of course, that he fights on God's side, but he's certainly not an objective student of God's will ("God insists I wage a war to make myself King" is hardly convincing). But then, many killers and warmongers justify their murders and wars by claiming God is on their side. it is often that in a war, the religious on each side calls on God to justify its own cause.

Evil Richard calls for war by demonizing the enemy and by calling on fears of what will happen if they don't fight and win.

"A sort of vagabonds, rascals, and runaways,
A scum of Britains and base lackey peasants,
Whom their o'ercloyed country vomits forth
To desperate ventures and assured destruction.
You sleeping safe, they bring you unrest;
You having lands, and blest with beauteous wives
They would distrain the one, distain the other." (V.iii.317-323)

"Shall these enjoy our lands? Lie with our wives?
Ravish our daughters?" (V.iii.337-338)

Richard dehumanizes the enemy, and calls upon fears of what this monstrous enemy will do to the good people's peaceful homes. They, then, become just warriors: they are merely defending peace by waging war. Earlier, Richmond makes a similar claim:

"To reap the harvest of perpetual peace
by this one bloody trial of sharp war" (V.iii.15-16)

Of course, perpetual war can be justified by both of these claims.

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