John Gittings

Shakespeare and Tolstoy on Peace and War
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Talk to the Shipton-under-Wychwood Literary Festival, 6 June 2015
A revised version of this text is published in The Spokesman (Nottingham: Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation), No. 130, 2015, pp.55-65.


As we are commemorating the ninth centenary of St Marys  Church, I would like  to begin my talk from the vantage point of a more recent centenary – that of the First World War which we began to remember last year, and shall continue to remember for the next four years.  And in order to introduce my subject today – Shakespeare and Tolstoy on peace and war – I shall take as my starting point a poem by Thomas Hardy, written at the end of the First World War, which to my mind poses the question which we need to ask about peace and war.  And as I shall seek to show this morning, it is a question which both Shakespeare and Tolstoy in different ways sought to address and to answer.

Thomas Hardy should I believe be numbered among the so-called “war poets” of  the First World War (though perhaps we should really call them “peace poets” ). He was of course much older than the poets whose names we remember, Owen, Blunden, Sassoon and others, and unlike them he had no direct experience of the war. But ever since the Boer War, over a decade earlier, he had in a number of poems expressed his anguish on  subject of war.

And in November 1918, he wrote a powerful and moving poem which was called, simply, “On the Signing of the Armistice”.  It is quite long, and I would like to read from it just the final stanza.

Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;
Some could, some could not, shake off misery:
The Sinister Spirit sneered: "It had to be!"
And again the Spirit of Pity whispered, "Why?"

I should explain that Hardy referred more than once in his writings to the Sinister Spirit” and to the “Spirit of Pity” and he took the side, of course, of the Spirit of Pity, and the question which it asked, Why?  Why War?

Asking this question takes us beyond the position  of being for or against war in general, or for or against a particular war,  It makes us consider what are the driving forces behind war, and what are the means by which we can instead  make peace or keep peace.  It is a question which deeply concern the early Christian fathers:  For did not Jesus, they asked, say to Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane “Put up your sword?”  And we may remember the great saying of St Augustine, that

it is a higher glory still to stay war itself with a word, than to slay men with the sword, and to procure or maintain peace by peace, not by war.    

The question “why war” was one which pre-occupied the humanists of the Renaissance, the philosophers of the Enlightenment, and poets, novelists and peace thinkers of the modern age from the early 19th century onwards. And it is a question which lies at the heart of Shakespeare’s own approach, as I shall now seek to show.



War is one of the most significant nouns to appear in the texts of Shakespeare, as we can establish these days by carrying out a computerised word count. Foreign wars and civil conflict are central themes in the two sets of historical plays (Richard II, 1 and 2 Henry IV, Henry V; and 1–3 Henry VI, Richard III, which are sometimes staged under the general  title of ‘Wars of the Roses’). The story of Troilus and Cressida is set in the most famous war in literature,  the Trojan War. Acts of war bring the plots of Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Timon of Athens, and Coriolanus to their dramatic conclusions.  

And yet the adjectives which Shakespeare  uses to categorise war are almost always negative and pejorative.  War is ‘all-abhorred’ (1 Henry IV) and ‘cruel’ (Troilus and Coriolanus), it is ‘none-sparing’ (All’s Well) and ‘mortal-staring’ (Richard III), it is ‘dreadful’ (3 Henry VI), ‘fierce and bloody’ (King John), ‘mad-brained’ (Timon), and ‘hungry’ for men’s blood (Richard III); it is a ‘hideous god’ which has a ‘harsh and boist’rous tongue’ (2 Henry IV).

But, you may object, did not Shakespeare speak of “glorious war” in one of his most famous speeches,  perhaps he even coined the term?  Indeed, the complete line which contains the phrase “glorious war”  is one of the most famous in Shakespeare:  it is the line which speaks of  the  “pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war!”, and when Edward Elgar was looking for a title for his first two Military Marches (written by the way immediately after the Boer War in 1902),  he chose – as we all know – the phrase “Pomp and Circumstance” from this speech.

Context is all-important here. Let us reflect a little on this speech by Othello, for it is he who delivers the vivid word-picture painted by Shakespeare here of ‘glorious war’. It comes at the tragic turning point of the plot of  Othello, when  the Moor has been convinced (falsely) by his lieutenant Iago that he is being betrayed by his wife Desdemona.



I had been happy, [he tells Iago] if the general camp,

Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body,

So I had nothing known. O, now, for ever

Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content!

Farewell the plumed troop, and the big wars,

That make ambition virtue! O, farewell!

Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,

 The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife,

The royal banner, and all quality,

Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war!


This is hardly an untroubled hymn to war, but the desperate cry of a man whose mind is already gripped by delusion—he even imagines that Desdemona might be capable of sleeping with his entire army. The lofty  images of war in this speech, I suggest,  should be seen rather as a flight of nostalgia for the supposed simplicities of martial life which may be no more real than the phantoms bred by Othello’s jealousy. And this bitterly ironical passage is, I repeat, the only time that Shakespeare speaks of “glorious war”.

Let us look at another passage from Shakespeare which is sometimes quoted to support the argument that human beings are, for better or for worse, attracted  by war and over the ages have found war to be more exciting than peace. it comes from a scene in Coriolanus where the servants of the Volscian leader Tullus Aufidius have just learned that Coriolanus, the Roman war hero, has defected to their side, and they now look forward to Coriolanus joining in a war of revenge against his own people.    

Why, then (says one of them), we shall have a stirring world again. This peace is nothing, but to rust iron, increase tailors, and breed ballad-makers.

And the other servant replies:  Let me have war, say I; it exceeds peace as far as day does night; it’s spritely, waking, audible, and full of vent. Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy; mulled, deaf, sleepy, insensible; a getter of more bastard children than war’s a destroyer of men.

The irony and cynicism here is unmistakeable:  indeed it almost amounts to a parody of the arguments of those who argued in the Elizabethan age  that you need a good war to toughen people up – for there was a war party in the court of Queen Elizabeth.

Let me make it clear at this point: I am not arguing that Shakespeare’s views can be simply characterised as anti-war rather than pro-war. Even leaving aside the tricky question of how we can ascertain Shakespeare’s own views when they are always expressed through the voices of his characters….. What I am saying is that for Shakespeare war and peace are always complex, not simple, issues, that in many cases the problem is handled with irony and ambiguity and, more often than not, that the argument comes down on the side of peace and against war.

Let  me illustrate this complexity of Shakespeare’s vision with a fascinating, and quite difficult, passage in Hamlet’s last soliloquy, the moment in Act 4 when he stops hesitating and finally decides to take revenge on King Claudius – who (as I am sure you all know) had murdered Hamlet’s father.  Hamlet has just watched  a contingent of Norwegian troops march by – they have requested permission to cross Danish territory in order to invade Sweden --  and he has asked a captain in the Norwegian army to explain what is the cause for which they will be fighting the Swedes.  The Captain tells Hamlet that  Norway and Sweden are in dispute over what he calls “a little patch of land” which is hardly worth being farmed. It has, says the Captain, “no profit in it but the name”. A classic territorial dispute, in other words, over something of no importance at all.

Hamlet replies to the Norwegian captain that     

Two thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats
Will not debate the question of this straw:

His meaning is that the military engagement is likely to cost two thousand lives, and a large sum of money, all for an argument over a territorial trifle – a “straw”. And in the soliloquy that follows, he reflects that not two thousand but twenty thousand soldiers may

  for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,

But then Hamlet, who only a moment ago has regarded the dispute as senseless and a waste of human life, goes on to see it as reflecting a sense of honour which obliges the Norwegians to fight for this territory however worthless it may be. And if honour does not allow them to stand by even though the cause is so trivial, argues Hamlet, how can he stand by and do nothing when his father has been killed and his mother has been taken into the bed of the killer?  So he finally makes his mind up: 

O, from this time forth, (he concludes)
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth


And the scene is set for the final act of blood and destruction, when Hamlet, his mother and his uncle all end up as corpses.  Hamlet’s argument which leads to this mayhem is, as one recent critic, Alex Newall,   has pointed out, confused and irrational,  ( For first he laments the loss of life which will occur when the Nowergian and Swedish troops fight over a scrap of land,  but then he praises the sense of honour which drives them towards their slaughter).   But by doing so Shakespeare  tells us a good deal both about Hamlet’s confused state of mind and about the irrationality of violence and revenge.


I am sure that many of you have been waiting for me to come to the consideration of Henry V, surely the one play of Shakespeare’s which does beyond doubt celebrate  martial patriotism and glorious war. And it is true that the play has often been seen this way. In particular, King Henry’s tribute to ‘we happy few, we band of brothers’ before the Battle of Agincourt has become part of the mythology of war in its most heroic, patriotic, and self-sacrificial guise. and it continues to be invoked at times of British national crisis, such as the Gulf War and the Iraq War.

This uncomplicated view of Henry V was questioned long ago by the essayist William Hazlitt, in his study of Shakespeare’s characters published in 1817.  Hazlitt wrote that the king ‘seemed to have no idea of any rule of right or wrong, but brute force… “ and that because Henry’s own title to the English crown was doubtful, ‘he laid claim to [the crown] of France’. Henry is an appealing character, Hazlitt acknowledged, but it is the appeal of ‘a panther or a young lion in their cages in the Tower’.   The controversy over how to interpret Henry V  has continued ever since. Here I only have time to illustrate this with one example from the play. 

Not long ago the Shakespearean scholars John Sutherland and Cedric Watts published an essay with this deliberately provocative title:  “[Was] Henry V [a] war criminal/”   [Penguin : Henry V, War Criminal, and Other Shakespearian Puzzle, 2000]. Sutherland’s question  was provoked by a particularly problematic episode in the play during its account of the Battle of Agincourt ( This year we are by the way also remembering the 600th anniversary of this battle).  Briefly, when the fight at Agincourt is almost won, Henry comes on stage with his escort and (according to the original stage directions) ‘with prisoners’. Seeing that the French have reinforced their ‘scattered men’, he gives the order ‘that every soldier kill his prisoners’, and prepares for further battle.

Now here is a rather remarkable fact.  Neither Lawrence Olivier in his famous wartime film (1944) nor Kenneth Branagh in his more recent and much-praised version (1989) included this scene at all.  Of course the killing of prisoners happens quite often in war, but perhaps to show it on screen would have jarred with the heroic image of Henry, the noble warrior king.

Henry V was followed soon after by Troilus and Cressida, a play which throughout takes a jaundiced and cynical view of the virtues of war.  From now on, Shakespeare’s treatment of war becomes increasingly critical: his martial tragedies of the later period (Othello, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus) all have as their subject a general of great military prowess whose character is fatally flawed—by jealousy, ambition, sexual weakness, or pride.

Finally we may note that Shakespeare’s last three plays all reflect a more mellow mood of peace. Peace is the last word of Cymbeline, The Tempest ends with the peaceful resolution of life’s storms, and peace is the subject of the last speech of Henry VIII which looks forward to the mainly peaceful reign of Queen Elizabeth.

In her days every man shall eat in safety,

Under his own vine, what he plants; and sing

The merry songs of peace to all his neighbours:

God shall be truly known; and those about her

From her shall read the perfect ways of honour,

And by those claim their greatness, not by blood.


Let me move now from Shakespeare to Tolstoy…  I hope it does not seem too ambitious for me to attempt to tackle both of these great writers in the same talk. They both present huge challenges to us.  Shakespeare presents one kind of challenge to anyone who seeks to find out what Shakespeare  thought on any particular issue, in this case the huge issue of Peace and War. For Shakespeare does not speak directly to us but through his characters, he does not editorialise except occasionally in a few lines of prologue or epilogue

But if we know too little about Shakespeare as Shakespeare,  one might almost say that we know too much about Tolstoy as Tolstoy. As well as his own autobiographical works,  his novels contain fictionalised versions of himself  -- Pierre in War and Peace, Levin in Anna Karenina. We have his diaries, his wife’s diaries, the memories of his children, of his friends and his enemies, the reports of the Tzarist secret police. We know what he was reading and his critical views of what he read.. We can follow the progression of his philosophy and ideas over the period of some 60 years almost thought by thought.

However I am going to make this simpler for me – and for you – by concentrating on a very small portion of Tolstoy’s life and thought – a portion of huge importance but that is often overlooked. I am not going to discuss the last 30 years of his life when he embarked on his voyage of religious discovery and developed his ideas of what we now know as Tolstoyan pacifism. I am not even going to say very much about War and Peace.  I am going instead to concentrate upon Tolstoy’s very early experience of war in real life, the actual business of killing or being killed, And I am going to look at the early writings in which Tolstoy reflects this experience, an experience which stayed with him for the rest of his life.

Tolstoy was still a comparatively young man, at the age of 34, when he settled down on his country estate in 1862, with his new wife Sonya, happier than he had been ever before, to start work on the novel which would become over the next five or six years, War and Peace.  So where did the wealth of  descriptive and generally accurate description of the mechanics of war,  and the horrors of war, come from? More important,  from where did he derive  the  psychologically acute and vivid portrayal of the complex emotions which beset all those engaged in war, and the most important of all, the moral complexity presented by war to all those who are willing to think about it?

Ten years earlier, in 1852, disgusted  with his spendthrift and idle life as a young man in fashionable Moscow society,  Tolstoy had  joined his brother who was an officer in the Tsarist army in the Caucasus – the region now known as  Chechnya and Dagestan.  The  army was engaged in trying to subdue by force the local people, the Tartars, some of whom collaborated with their occupiers while the majority fiercely resisted.  Tolstoy was described as a “volunteer” when he arrived there but he was really what we would now call a “war tourist”, an observer and onlooker. However he soon applied for and eventually obtained a regular appointment as an artillery officer.

Tolstoy’s diary for this period tells us that he was still atruggling to improve his behaviour, without much success. He continued to gamble, this time with the army officers – he even had to sell the family home to meet his debts –and he continued to chase women, this time the local Tartar women.  Tolstoy then and for the rest of his life was someone of many contradictions.  But suddenly, in a diary entry of 6 January 1853, we find this entry which I have given you here in full:  

A stupid parade. Everyone drinks – especially my brother – and it’s very unpleasant for me. War is such an unjust and evil thing that those who wage it try to stifle the voice of conscience within them. Am I doing right? Oh God, teach me and forgive me if I’m doing wrong.

From the very beginning, Tolstoy was asking himself that great question  posed by Thomas Hardy in the poem with which I began this talk: Why?  Why war? And he posed it explicitly in his very first short story – only the second piece of his to be published. The story is called The Raid, and it is based upon his own experience of taking part in  a punitive expedition launched against  a  hostile Tartar village. The village is burnt to the ground, but the army then has to retreat while being harassed by Tartar guerrillas, and suffers several casualties. This short story was published in a Moscow journal a year later, but with a number of cuts, most of which were imposed by the Russian censor. In the story, and especially in the material that was cut, we can see the beginning of Tolstoy’s lifelong enqury into the morality of war. Tolstoy begins with this bald statement:  [ T2A ]

“War always interested me, not war in the sense of manoeuvres devised by great generals…  but the reality of war, the actual killing”. How was it possible, he asked himself,  for a soldier, “with no apparent advantage to himself, [to] decide to subject himself to danger and, what is more surprising still, to kill his fellow-men?”

Halfway through the short story, in a passage which also was cut by the censor, we find this already very mature reflection.         

War! What an incomprehensible phenomenon! When one's reason asks: 'Is it just, is it necessary?' an inner voice always replies 'No'. Only the persistence of this unnatural occurrence makes it seem natural, and a feeling of self-preservation makes it seem just.

The passage which I have quoted  continues with a long reflection on how the justice of the Russian campaign against the Tartar tribes is balanced, we might say cancelled out,  by the justice of those desperate tribesmen and their families who fear the destruction of their villages and who take up arms to resist. And in another passage, also deleted by the censor, Tolstoy describes how the general in charge of the Russian troops  allows them to loot and burn the village which they have captured.

Two years later Tolstoy, having by now joined the army, applied for a transfer from the Caucasus to the Crimean front to ‘see the war’. He saw action as an artillery  officer there spending some time in one of the bastions of the Russian defence against the British, French and Turks. But he continued to write, and completed three pieces of reportage. The first, published in a Moscow magazine, was fairly straightforward and was commented on favourably by Tsar Alexander II; but passages in his second and third instalments describing the blood and carnage of the siege were suppressed by the Russian censor as ‘anti-patriotic’. Here too we find themes which will appear in War and Peace, notably, the way in which a soldier can feel himself to be invincibly brave at one moment, yet succumb to abject terror and fear the next… the rapidity with which a peaceful scene with soldiers standing around and laughing and joking can turn into bloody carnage and severed limbs when a shell arrives in their midst, ….  The tendency for those who have survived a battle to dramatise and embellish their own memories of how they behaved during it.  All these acute observations, which illustrate both the horrors of war and the human capacity for self-deception about war, can be found in Tolstoy’s three Sevastopol sketches from the Crimean War.    

When Tolstoy started to write War and Peace ten years after the Crimean War he had not yet reached the conclusion that it was a human obligation to resist war and not take part in it. But his exceptional sensitivity to the ambiguities of human behaviour still enabled him to convey in War and Peace the moral complexity of war, its fatal fascination, and its unmitigated horror—the one sometimes following the other with terrible speed. Let me quote from his description of the Russian troops at Austerlitz, fleeing in disorder and panic from the French across a narrow wooden bridge.

It was growing dusk. On the narrow Augesd dam where for so many years the old miller had been accustomed to sit in his tasselled cap peacefully angling, while his grandson, with shirt-sleeves rolled up, handled the floundering silvery fish in the watering-can….    on that narrow dam amid the wagons and the cannon, under the horses’ hooves and between the wagon wheels, men disfigured by fear of  death now crowded together, crushing one another, dying, stepping over the dying and killing one another, only to move on a few steps and be killed themselves in the same way.

Passages such as these may lead readers to conclude that Tolstoy already goes well beyond a sympathetic portrayal of human emotion, and of the haphazard way in which war unfolds, to convey an implicit judgement on war as such. Not all Tolstoyan scholars would agree, but the pioneering translator (and friend of Tolstoy) Aylmer Maude [ cf OUP translations] had no doubt that War and Peace amounted to a condemnation of war. Certainly, it would take Tolstoy two more decades to reach the position that a true reading of Christianity requires one to reject violence in all its forms. However, in War and Peace Tolstoy had already come a long way towards his later conviction that war is based upon a confidence trick: that wars are started by individuals with pretensions to exercise power, but that the reality of such power is a fraud. 

Tolstoy set out his views on the nature of this power in the second epilogue to War and Peace, which like the other epilogues is often mistakenly regarded as wordy and superfluous to the book. Wars may appear to be justified by rational argument and decision, writes Tolstoy,  but this is an illusion: These justifications release those who produce the events from moral responsibility. The justifications for war are

like the broom fixed in front of a locomotive to clear the snow from the rails in front: they clear men’s moral responsibilities from their path. Without such justifications, there would be no reply to the simplest question that presents itself when examining each historical event. How is it that millions of men commit collective crimes—make war, commit murder, and so on?

Again, Tolstoy is asking that same question, the question with which we started: Why? Why War? Why not Peace?     

In conclusion, let me say this: All of the greatest authors understand the complexity of the issues of war and peace, and particularly the moral challenge posed to us by war – which is perhaps something which we should ponder particularly as we are sitting in this church.

We need to read Shakespeare as well as Tolstoy with our ears wide open to all the subtlety of their words and the complexity of their thought.  The same, I might say, is true of that other great writer who stands alongside Shakespeare and Tolstoy – the third of the three great giants who have had such a huge influence upon Western culture.   I am referring to Homer, and to Homer’s Iliad. There is a great deal in the Iliad about the values of peace as well as about the brutalities of war. But that perhaps is the subject for another talk on another day.