If it is wise, every society that sends its young citizens off to war will find a way to reassimilate them when they return. Biblical Hebrews required their warriors to undergo a purification process before re-entering camp after battle. The highly militarized ancient Greek society used the ritualized Athenian theater to purify, heal, and reintegrate veterans, expecting them not just to watch plays on themes of war but to create and perform in them as well. In Rome, vestal virgins bathed returning soldiers to purge them of war’s corruption. Medieval Christians who participated in battle, even those who had not killed, transitioned by doing penance. Maasai warriors of East Africa underwent purification rites before being fully welcomed home. Native Americans held sweat lodge purification rituals for returning warriors.
Shakespeare, who lived in a time of incessant warfare, began at least ten of his plays with triumphant soldiers “crossing the return threshold” (as the mythologist Joseph Campbell puts it). His subject was not successful reintegration, however, but the consequences of its absence. With rare exception, Shakespeare’s returnees fail disastrously to reassimilate to civilian life. They are unable to leave on the battlefield their combat values, attitudes, and weapons, instead bringing the war with them into post-war life, in the process destroying themselves and those who are closest to them. In the wake of their failed transitions, the social order is worse off than it was before.
Shakespeare was never a soldier, and he lacked our modern vocabulary of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In his genius, though, he was able to dramatize warriors who suffer from what we now call PTSD. The lament of Kate, Hotspur’s wife, in Henry IV Part I (Act 2, Scene 3), is one of the great evocations in all of English literature of the psychological toll of returning from war. She enumerates in anguished detail the symptoms manifested by her husband, who has physically come home but remains psychically at war. She speaks of social withdrawal, isolation, random rage, sexual dysfunction, depression, and insomnia.
“Tell me, sweet lord, what is’t that takes from thee,” she cries. “Thy stomach, pleasure, and thy golden sleep?/Why dost thou bend thine eyes upon the earth/And start so often when thou sit’st alone?…/Thy spirit within thee hath been so at war,/And thus hath so bestirred thee in thy sleep,/That beads of sweat have stood upon thy brow/Like bubbles in a late-disturbèd stream.”
I spend most of my new book, Shakespeare’s Returning Warriors–and Ours, analyzing scenes such as this, exploring how the playwright understood war and its aftermath. At the conclusion of the book, though, I look to our own time of forever war, and write about how theater artists, mental health professionals, and military veterans, working together, use Shakespeare’s plays (and other works of art) for healing purposes.
Organizations such as Feast of Crispian, the Veterans Center for the Performing Arts (VCPA), and DE-CRUIT dramatize Shakespeare and his tragic veterans to aid in the process of what is sometimes called de-cruitment. The theory, one that Shakespeare would almost certainly endorse, is that de-cruitment is as important as, and should mirror and reverse, military re-cruitment. Watching the plays, but more importantly performing in and producing them, young soldiers who had been “wired for war” are enabled to unwire from war.
It seems self-evident that societies that send their citizens off to kill and be killed have both a moral and practical obligation to provide care – physical, mental, psychic, financial – for returnees. It is an obligation analogous to the medical profession’s primary tenet, “First do no harm,” but goes beyond it. We must aid those we have already harmed. We should assess and address the damage that recruits commonly sustain to their psychic beings while in military service, and find ways to help and reintegrate those who bear the symptoms, scars, and contamination of death, debilitating injuries, and PTSD.
Shakespeare knew this. It is ironic, or maybe just appropriate, that he now helps us in our efforts to meet that obligation.
Alan Warren Friedman holds the Thaman Endowed Professorship in English at The University of Texas at Austin. Read this excerpt of his book, Shakespeare’s Returning Warriors–and Ours, to learn more.