This series examines Shakespeare from a military veteran's perspective and offers a new angle on Shakespeare's text and characters, while delving deep into the challenges facing American theater and society.
Our modern military and Shakespeare's plays are both infused with honor—a powerful tool in recruiting and building camaraderie. But what exactly is honor?
During my recruitment and service, I was convinced that if I served with honor, then after dying, honorably, I would be buried with honor and my name would live on synonymously with the word honor. I would ultimately deserve burial at Arlington National Cemetery, where our military personnel who served and were discharged honorably are interred. I would be buried with full military honors, much like the fallen sons of Titus at the beginning of the play Titus Andronicus, Act I, Scene 1:
Make way to lay them by their brethren.
There greet in silence, as the dead are wont,
And sleep in peace, slain in your country's wars!
O sacred receptacle of my joys,
Sweet cell of virtue and nobility,
How many sons of mine hast thou in store,
That thou wilt never render to me more?
In peace and honor rest you here, my sons.
All of my military training, memorized creeds, orders, or even unwritten rules included honor. Honor is in the very first paragraph of the Ranger Creed:
Recognizing that I volunteered as a ranger, fully knowing the hazards of my chosen profession, I will always endeavor to uphold the prestige, honor, and high esprit de corps of my ranger regiment.
Honor is central to the Army’s motto, and was the theme of General MacArthur's Thayer Award Acceptance Address to cadets at West Point in 1962:
Duty, Honor, Country: Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying points: to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn.
Even an average citizen with little or no exposure to Shakespeare has probably heard one of the countless speeches he wrote where a military commander or king is calling upon their soldier's honor before a battle. The Saint Crispin's Day speech (or "band of brothers" speech) in Henry V, Act IV, Scene 3 famously invokes camaraderie through honor:
If we are marked to die, we are enough
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honor.
Even throughout Hamlet, honor is oft called upon and for my purposes, most notably at the end of Act IV, Scene 4, when Hamlet encounters military forces from Poland and Norway facing off to fight over “…a little patch of ground/That hath in it no profit but the name.”
This launches Hamlet into a soliloquy where he states:
...Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honor's at the stake.
But again, what is it? Specifically: what is honor when the very country for which they served strips soldiers of their military honors?
What is honor when women who fought disguised as men throughout the Revolutionary and Civil wars died in obscurity?
What is honor when Japanese Americans and German Americans fought for the U.S. in World War II, while their families lived in internment camps back home?
What is honor when thousands of Filipinos fought for the United States in World War II, but were denied veteran status at war's end?
What is honor when countless African American veterans from the World Wars, The Korean War, and The Vietnam War served honorably, but could not participate in the democracy for which they fought?
What is honor when our returning veterans from Vietnam were ignored while they suffered from Agent Orange and untreated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?
What is honor when so many veterans affected by combat remain untreated for their difficulties and are then incarcerated for their behavior?
What is honor when after honorable service, thousands of gays and lesbians are dishonorably discharged?
What is honor when one of every three women in the service is raped, but eighty percent of the perpetrators and those accused of rape are discharged with honor?
What is honor when entire National Guard units deployed into combat on multiple tours are being denied the services of the Department of Veteran Affairs (V.A.)?
And of course, what is honor when our veterans from active duty are not automatically signed up for the V.A.? And despite needing immediate help, must then endure long waits by an extremely overburdened organization that does not guarantee anything?
What is honor? A bumper sticker?
I do not have an answer to this question. I only know that it is not a new one. Shakespeare asked this question centuries ago through Falstaff in Henry IV, Part One, Act V, Scene 1:
…honor pricks me on. Yea, but how if honor prick me off when I come on? how then? Can honor set to a leg? no: or an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no. Honor hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is honor? a word. What is in that word honor? what is that honor? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? he that died o' Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no. Doth he hear it? no. 'Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I'll none of it. Honor is a mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism.