"Age shall not weary them." (Laurence Binyon)
It's a phrase that resonates as we remember the warriors, the heroes, the veterans, those we continuously applaud, and particularly on Memorial Day, for their service. In his 400th commemoration year, being celebrated in every country of the world by the British Council and the UK's GREAT campaign, we are reminded yet again of how it is often Shakespeare who has the phrase and the insight for our common feelings. "Age shall not wither her" he writes of Cleopatra, another victim of a world at war who takes her own life after her lover Antony has died after his military defeat at Actium.
It's extraordinary how Shakespeare's echoes and perceptions inform the progress of important events during our year. He spoke to us, in celebration, at Twelfth Night and, politically, at the Ides of March. He's pointed up with wit and wisdom the follies and fallibilities of the US primaries and of other world happenings, some tragic, some less so. Shakespeare will inspire us through midsummer nights, through the autumn ("the sere, the yellow leaf"), through winters tales and "Christmas gambolds." But it is on this Memorial Day, as it will be on November's Veterans Day, that the greatest weight of Shakespearean feeling can transfigure the aching of our loss.
There are more of Shakespeare's plays than not that are gripped by gruesome national and international conflict. Each of the English and Roman histories tells a war story. All the great tragedies are circumscribed by civil or European war. Even in a clutch of the comedies, the shadows of past warfare threaten the present mirth and present laughter. But it is not the tactics of battle or the disposition of troops that cause Shakespeare to return repeatedly to the exigencies of war. For Shakespeare warfare distils the most human of stories, created of the experiences that most test the defining virtues and vices of the human spirit at its most bestial and at its most evolved - the virtues of courage, honor and magnanimity, the traumas of cowardice, anger and savagery.
War's panorama of human initiative and response provides the infrastructure, sometimes sanctified, sometimes violating, of the societies and civilizations that Shakespeare explores. In Coriolanus and Julius Caesar it is militarism that ultimately defines and defends The State. In the "Richards" and "Henries" it is civil war that determines the character and mission of the evolving British enterprise and its contiguities with Western Europe. And in Troilus and Cressida the iconic war between European Greece and Asian Troy--the war in which worlds, literal and metaphoric, were won and lost--both posits the formative Western myth while, in Shakespeare's cutting cynicism, simultaneously undermining it through subjection to human hypocrisy, egoism and callousness.
On this Memorial Day, however, it is the nexus Shakespeare draws between war and remembrance that is most potent. On the night before the decisive battle of the Hundred Years War between Britain and France, it is memory, and the anticipation of future Memorial Days, that is the most emotive feature of Henry V's pep talk to his alarmingly outnumbered troops, to his "band of brothers." Yes, that treasured US military phrase, too, is Shakespeare's.
"For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother, be he ne'er so vile."
Prince Hal, now King Harry of England rallies his men, with contingents from Wales, Scotland and Ireland as well as England, on the night before the onslaught. To command the present, he foresees the future. No denial here; death is likely and they are all probably "marked to die." But this truly is a death "devoutly to be wished," as Hamlet, written at the same time as Henry V, would have it. This would be a death of "honor", that noblest military prize and the one most scorned by Harry's eventually spurned mentor Jack Falstaff. And honor lasts, honor matures in the memories of nations and descendants such that Henry, even before the battle is fought, can predict the commemorations of future Memorial Days.
"And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by
From this day to the ending of the world
But we in it shall be remember'd;"
And those of us who commemorate,
"Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon St Crispin's Day."
That other great military leader, Othello, in his last words before he dies says, "I have done the state some service, and they know't."
Those that have fought in battle, who bear its scars and who have seen their comrades pass, can only truly share their memory with their bands of brothers and sisters. As "we that are left grow old" we cannot share, we cannot remember. We can only honor, only bow the head and thank them for their service. As of Shakespeare's oldest warrior, the dead Lear, "we that are young, shall never see so much, nor live so long."
"Age shall not weary them." (Laurence Binyon)