fbpx Faint Slumbers | HowlRound Theatre Commons

Faint Slumbers

Shakespeare Through the Lens of a Military Veteran

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.

Shakespeare, in my humble opinion, wrote the best description in the English language of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). In Henry IV, part one, Lady Percy is talking to her husband, a combat veteran, who is about to redeploy to combat (2.3). Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay in his book, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, clinically breaks down her monologue:


O my dear lord, why are you thus alone?:  Social withdrawal and isolation

For what offense have I this fortnight been

A banish’d woman from my Harry’s bed?: Random, unwarranted rage at family, sexual dysfunction, no capacity for intimacy

Tell me, sweet lord, what is’t that takes from thee

Thy stomach, pleasure: Loss of appetite, somatic disturbances (peripheral nervous system connected to the skin sensory organs and all skeletal muscles), loss of ability to experience pleasure

And thy golden sleep?: Insomnia

Why dost thou bend thine eyes upon the earth: Depression

Why hast thou lost the fresh blood in thy cheeks: Peripheral vasoconstriction, autonomic hyperactivity

And given my treasures and my rights of thee

To thick-eyed musing and cursed melancholy?: Sense of the dead being more real than the living, depression

In thy faint slumbers I by thee have watch’d: Fragmented vigilant sleep

And heard thee murmur tales of iron wars,

Speak terms of manage to thy bounding steed,

Cry “Courage! To the field!” And thou hast talk’d

Of sallies and retires, of trenches, tents,

Of palisadoes, frontiers, parapets,

Of prisoner’s ransom, and of soldiers slain,

And all the currents of a heady fight.

Thy spirit within thee hath been so at war

And thus hath so bestirr’d thee in thy sleep: Traumatic dreams, reliving episodes of combat, fragmented sleep

That beads of sweat have stood upon thy brow,

Like bubbles in a late-disturbed streams: Night sweats, autonomic hyperactivity

I believe that here, Lady Percy describes the effects of combat on the veteran. I also believe that she shows, first-hand, the effects of war on the veteran's family. I find it awful that a monologue describing a rift between a combat veteran and his wife, which was written more than 400 years ago, is a rift that still exists today—throughout most of our society. This rift is a large part of what, I believe, prevents the reintegration of veterans back into society. But what is the rift between veteran and civilian?

I believe that we, as a nation stigmatize having, showing or sharing emotions, truthfully disclosing personal traumatic events, and close/intimate relationships that are not sexual, only to name a few stigmas.

As a result, in America, we are emotionally illiterate. Therefore, to break the cycle, if we wish to reintegrate our veterans and their families, we must establish and increase our "emotional literacy." Based on years of research studying boys in America, Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson explain emotional literacy in their book Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys: “...The basic skills of emotional literacy (are): empathy, conscience, the vocabulary for meaningful emotional expression, and the idea that emotional interdependence is an asset—not a liability.”

And what's the solution? How do we increase our national emotional literacy to reintegrate our veterans? Shay offers one way to do so: “The official and folk culture of the American military must change so that grieving enjoys high status—is valued, not stigmatized. The capacity to weep and to feel the pain of sorrow does not weaken a soldier..."

The American civilian culture too must also change in this way. Shay offers a new model for community healing and empowerment:

We must create our own new models of healing which emphasize communalization of the trauma. Combat veterans and American citizenry should meet together face to face in daylight, and listen, and watch, and weep, just as citizen-soldiers of ancient Athens did in the theater at the foot of the Acropolis. We need a modern equivalent of Athenian tragedy. Tragedy brings us to cherish our mortality, to savor and embrace it. Tragedy inclines us to prefer attachment to fragile mortals whom we love....

The theater is where we once communalized our trauma. We can use the theater again as a model for healing and for raising our emotional literacy. And who better than Shakespeare as a textual tool. Shakespeare's tragedies and histories, at least in my opinion, are about the human experience in combat. Shakespeare on the surface may seem to be writing about the romantic notion of war and mighty kings, clear villains, and infallible heroic leaders, as well as other grand notions of masculinity. But on a deeper level, at least the way I read it, he is writing about humanity, about actual human beings with human emotions and thoughts. Whether they be noble or common, general or private, hero or villain, male or female, they are first and foremost human. Further, his characters ponder what it means to be human, out loud to the audience, and those questions resonate as loudly today as they did four centuries ago.

Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.

What do I fear? Myself? There's none else by.

Richard loves Richard, that is, I [am] I.

Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.

Then fly! What, from myself? Great reason why:

Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?

Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good

That I myself have done unto myself?

O, no. Alas, I rather hate myself

For hateful deeds committed by myself.

I am a villain. Yet I lie; I am not.

Fool, of thyself speak well. Fool, do not flatter.

...I shall despair. There is no creature loves me,

And if I die no soul will pity me.

And wherefore should they, since that I myself

Find in myself no pity to myself?

(Combat veteran Richard III the night before battle in Richard III, 5.3)  

Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark
Thoughts from the curator

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 theatre and society.

Shakespeare Through the Lens of a Military Veteran


Add Comment

The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

Newest First

Yes. Yes. Yes!!! Mark, great comment. This blog is being circulated by American Theatre mag, National Endowment for the Arts, Seattle Rep and more. Our voices are growing louder and stronger. Stephan, your work is amazingly relevant and poignant. Playing Lady Percy while married to a veteran who has PTSD was a healing experience for me. Count me in too!

I'm a little saddened to be the first responder to this fine, brave essay.

But a slow trickle of readership and response should not surprise me, I guess.

How else could these piercingly accurate, clear descriptions by the world's most-read, most-performed playwright have gone so utterly unnoticed? How could they have been for 400 years so seldom examined and brought to life by performers (indeed, so often cut from the text)?

How else but by our intense, deep refusal to acknowledge the human price of war -- except in bodies. Preferably dead ones, so we can project the palliative fantasy of heroism upon them and they cannot answer. (Wounded bodies are attached to minds and voices who might speak truth to us, so they are to be shunned. Pitied, and shunned.)

So yes, the long work must be undertaken.

And theatre is an excellent place -- the oldest place to begin healing a communal soul sickness.

Count me in.

And thank you, Stephan.

Subscribe to HowlRound

Sign up for our daily, weekly, or quarterly emails so you never miss the latest theatre conversations.

Sign me up

Supporting HowlRound

We fundraise to keep all our programs free and open and to pay our contributors. Thank you to all who make our work possible!

Donate today