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Theme of War in William Shakespeare and Erich Maria Remarque Works Essay


When it comes to discussing the actual significance of the play Henry V by William Shakespeare, in conjunction with the novel All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, one can hardly omit noticing that even though both of these literary pieces are concerned with exploring the theme of war, they are in fact discursively incompatible. This simply could not otherwise. Whereas Henry V does nothing short of glorifying war, Remarque’s novel exposes it as the greatest abomination of humanity. At the same time, however, both of these works are being commonly referred to as such that represent a high literary/philosophical value. In my paper, I will elaborate on what can be considered the main causes of the mentioned discrepancy at length, while promoting the idea that it reflects the fact that the 15th century’s concept of war does not quite correlate with that of the 20th century.

Probably the most memorable aspect of the novel All Quiet on the Western Front is that it contains a number of scenes that expose readers to the graphic accounts of war-induced carnage and death. This is the reason why, until the year 1975, this novel remained the subject of censorship in the U.S. (Tighe 48). For example, here is how the novel’s protagonist Paul Baumer describes the deaths of two French soldiers: “A young Frenchman lags behind, he is overtaken, he puts up his hands… a blow from a spade cleaves through his face. A second sees it and tries to run farther; a bayonet jabs into his back. He leaps in the air, his arms thrown wide, his mouth wide open, yelling; he staggers, in his back the bayonet quivers” (Remarque 55).

It is understood, of course, that this created many objective preconditions for the novel in question to be perceived as such that emanates the strongly defined spirit of pacifism. After all, the author’s naturalistic accounts of death and suffering do imply that there were not any good reasons for ordinary people to be fighting in WW1, in the first place.

The reason for this is that in the novel, the combatants on both sides (French and German) are shown perceptually and cognitively alienated from what the enemies are expected to do, during the time of war – mutilating and killing each other. There is another memorable scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where, after having killed a French soldier, Paul experiences the acute sensation of remorse: “Comrade, I did not want to kill you… You were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. It was that abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me” (Remarque 106). The subsequent effect of this episode on the audience is apparent. As a result of having been exposed to it, people begin to wonder whether the propagandistic justifications for waging war are even slightly valid, especially the ones that are being concerned with the glorification of one’s death in combat.

In this respect, Shakespeare’s play differs from Remarque’s novel rather drastically. The reason for this is quite apparent. Henry V promotes the idea that war is not only the legitimate instrument geopolitics but also something through which men are able to attain self-actualization. The fact that it is indeed the case can be illustrated, in regards to the manner in which King Henry encourages his soldiers to never cease acting courageously in the battle:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;

Or close the wall up with our English dead.

In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man

As modest stillness and humility:

But when the blast of war blows in our ears,

Then imitate the action of the tiger (Shakespeare III.I.1-6)

These lines, of course, do venerate war in the most effective manner possible, because they appeal to the primeval instinct of domination in men.

Some may wonder – since the plots of both literary pierce revolve around the issue of war, then what had prompted Shakespeare, on the one hand, and Remarque, on the other, to adopt rather incompatible attitudes towards the main theme of their works? The answer to this question can be formulated as follows: the very mechanics of the Hundred Years’ War (the episode of which is being described in Shakespeare’s play) differed rather substantially from those of the WW1, the eyewitness account of which is contained in All Quiet on the Western Front.

To support the validity of this claim, we can mention the fact that during the course of the 15th century, the notion of war used to be deemed closely related to the concept of chivalry/knighthood (Morillo 540).

Therefore, those who lived through the historical era in question were naturally predisposed to assume that one’s decision to join the army is being reflective of his person’s genuine desire to do so. This is the reason why, as it appears from the play, the army of King Henry predominantly consisted of mercenaries and of King’s noble vassals. In its turn, the concept of vassalage implies that a vassal remains loyal to his lord (sovereign), for as long as the latter lives up the obligation to protect the interests of its subjects and to act on their behalf (Crunelle-Vanrigh 358). The most convincing way for the sovereign to prove that he is indeed committed towards his vassals is to declare that he would be willing to fight alongside them in the battle, as a common soldier. This is exactly what King Henry does in the scene, in which he delivers his famous Saint Crispen’s Day Speech (prior to the Battle of Agincourt):

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile (Shakespeare IV.III.64-66).

In light of what has been mentioned earlier, we can speculate that one of the main reasons, as to why Henry V treats war as a thoroughly legitimate endeavor, is that, as one can infer from the play, most of those who took part in the described hostilities between England and France, did it out of their own free will. This, of course, validates war as something that is being consistent with people’s deep-seated anxieties. There is, however, even more to it. In Shakespeare’s play, war appears to serve the purpose of providing people with the chance to realize what accounts for their true worth in life, and to prove to the whole world that they are good Christians. After all, one of the main Christian (Catholic) virtues has always been considered a person’s willingness to sacrifice its life for the sake of others (Latham 227).

Nevertheless, by the beginning of the 20th century, the notion of war has undergone a rather drastic transformation. As the realities of the WW1 indicated, this war can be best conceptualized as such that invokes the image of an enormous meat-grinder, the main function of which was to turn millions and millions of young men into the heaps of rotting flesh (Lerner 15). Therefore, unlike what happened to be the case with the account of the war in Henry V, the one provided by Remarque implies that if anything, the WW1 had the least to do with helping people to overcome their animalistic anxieties. Quite on the contrary, All Quiet on the Western Front presents war as the instrument of destroying basic humanity in the representatives of the Homo Sapiens species and reducing them down to being ‘hairless apes,’ solely concerned with trying to survive (Rosenwald 163).

Paul’s ‘prayer to earth’ confirms the soundness of this suggestion: “Earth with thy folds, and hollows, and holes, into which a man may fling himself and crouch down. In the spasm of terror, under the hailing of annihilation, in the bellowing death of the explosions” (Remarque 27). What Remarque’s novel does, is pointing out to the fact that there can be no ‘glory’ in any modern war, by definition, simply because this type of war automatically deprives its participants of their sense of individuality, in exchange for increasing their chances of survival. This is exactly the reason why, throughout the novel’s entirety, Paul continues to talk about his inability to look in the eyes of the enemy. As Middleton-Kaplan noted: “He (Paul) knows that if he sees the enemy as human, or as innocent and holy, he will not be able to function as a soldier” (80).

It is understood, of course, that while being treated as a ‘cannon fodder’ in the trenches of the WW1, Paul and his friends could not help experiencing the growing sensation of resentment towards this war’s actual organizers – the greedy and cowardly representatives of the world’s financial elites. After all, unlike what it happened to be the case with King Henry, they did not rush into the battle themselves, while preferring to have their dirty work done for them by ordinary citizens. This explains the significance of the scene, in which Paul’s friend Kat suggests that: “A declaration of war should be a kind of popular festival with entrance-tickets and bands, like a bullfight. Then in the arena, the ministers and generals of the two countries, dressed in bathing-drawers and armed with clubs, can have it” (Remarque 20).

Apparently, this suggestion reflected the author’s own outlook on the WW1, which Remarque used to perceive as having been nothing short of the institutionalized slaughter of men. This naturally caused his novel to contain a number of clearly defined pacifist overtones.

I believe that the earlier deployed line of argumentation, in regards to the discussed subject matter, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. It indeed appears that the actual reason, as to why Henry V and All Quiet on the Western Front tackle the theme of war from the diametrically opposite perspectives, is that during the course of the historical eras, affiliated with both literary masterpieces, the discourse of war continued to evolve.

Works Cited

Crunell-Vanrigh, Anny. “’Henry V’ as a Royal Entry.” Studies In English Literature 1500-1900 47.2 (2007): 355-377. Print.

Latham, Andrew. “Theorizing the Crusades: Identity, Institutions, and Religious War In Medieval Latin Christendom.” International Studies Quarterly 55.1 (2011): 223-243. Print.

Lerner, Paul. “Psychiatry and Casualties of War in Germany, 1914-18.” Journal of Contemporary History 35.1 (2000): 13-28. Print.

Middleton-Kaplan, Richard. “Facing the Face of the Enemy: Levinasian Moments in All Quiet on the Western Front and the Literature of War.” MFS: Modern Fiction Studies 54.1 (2008): 72-90. Print.

Morillo, Stephen. “’A Feudal Mutation’? Conceptual Tools and Historical Patterns in World History.” Journal of World History 14.4 (2003): 531-550. Print.

Remarque, Erich M. All Quiet on the Western Front. New York: Ballantine Books, 1987. Print.

Rosenwald, Lawrence. “On Modern Western Antiwar Literature.” Raritan 34.1 (2014): 155-175. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Henry V. London: Penguin Classics, 2005. Print.

Tighe, Joseph A. “All Quiet on the Western Front: A Phenomenological Investigation of War.” Critical Survey 16.3 (2004): 48-61. Print.

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IvyPanda. (2020, June 9). Theme of War in William Shakespeare and Erich Maria Remarque Works. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/theme-of-war-in-william-shakespeare-and-erich-maria-remarque-works/

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"Theme of War in William Shakespeare and Erich Maria Remarque Works." IvyPanda, 9 June 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/theme-of-war-in-william-shakespeare-and-erich-maria-remarque-works/.

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IvyPanda. "Theme of War in William Shakespeare and Erich Maria Remarque Works." June 9, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/theme-of-war-in-william-shakespeare-and-erich-maria-remarque-works/.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Theme of War in William Shakespeare and Erich Maria Remarque Works." June 9, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/theme-of-war-in-william-shakespeare-and-erich-maria-remarque-works/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Theme of War in William Shakespeare and Erich Maria Remarque Works'. 9 June.

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