Monday, June 19, 2006

A Heavy Reckoning to Make

Several months ago I was pondering an art project to memorialize the members of our armed services who have died in Iraq. Since my art focuses on words and language rather than drawing or painting or sculpting the focus of my thinking about this project was an attempt to use the names of the dead to spell out some message. Of course then I had to figure out the message.
It would be more personal if I were to write something myself, however I felt the gravitas of the project would be better served if I could find an applicable quote from a well known writer. Perhaps something from one of the founding fathers about the responsibility of the President during a time of war, or, barring that, perhaps John Locke or another philosopher. Unfortunately I am not very well read in this particular area and so the project came to a halt. I was also having trouble thinking of a visual presentation for the project. So I put the whole thing aside for a while.

Then the other day I was thinking about Henry V, which is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, and I remembered a couple of quotes that are very applicable to the situation in America today. The first is from Act 4 Scene 1 in which Williams, a soldier, is speaking to Henry, who is in disguise:
But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath
a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and
arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at
such a place,’ some swearing, some crying for a
surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind
them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their
children rawly left.
I believe in the concept of a just and necessary war. I also believe the removal of Saddam from power is a good thing. Having said that I believe there was a better way for us to accomplish the goal of removing Saddam and introducing democracy to the region than using cherry-picked and massaged intelligence as a reason. Twenty-five hundred American lives and counting? A heavy reckoning indeed.

The second quote comes from earlier in the play where Henry is discussing the execution of a soldier who looted a church with Fluellen, one of the captains in the army, in Act 3 Scene 6:
We would have all such offenders so cut off: and we
give express charge, that in our marches through the
country, there be nothing compelled from the
villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the
French upbraided or abused in disdainful language;
for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the
gentler gamester is the soonest winner.
I am not sure what I can say about this particularly in light of the recent events, Haditha for example. While we might be able to cling to some scraps of moral superiority by pointing to the insurgency in Iraq, and terrorists in general, and yelling really loudly that they use suicide bombers and we don’t, it is clear that we are not perceived as the gentler gamester on the world stage. American exceptionalism, which I do believe in, has to be used to provide leadership rather than condescension (which is really more of a French thing) and not as an excuse to ignore world opinion.

While I was reflecting on these quotes it occurred to me that this is why Shakespeare endures where others have not. His words, written almost four hundred years ago are applicable right now. The thing I cannot decide is whether it is awesome, by which I mean awe inspiring, or a bit depressing since we have not managed to move beyond the point where statements like these are applicable.

Quotes from the Bibliomania version of Henry V which you can view here.

Semi-Random Thoughts
  1. All this writing and thinking about Shakespeare reminded me to check the webpage for UT’s Shakespeare at Winedale program. This summer they are performing King Lear, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and As You Like It. You can check the schedule here. If you have not been to one of their performances you really should go check it out. It is Shakespeare as it was meant to be seen, up close and personal.
  2. While Henry V is my favorite Shakespeare play, I am also a fan of Much Ado About Nothing, particularly the Kenneth Branagh film which features a young and scrumdiddlyumptious Kate Beckinsale, one of the charter members of the Future Ex-Wives Club.

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