Shakespeare's Unjust Wars

in Critical Survey

Critics to date tend to identify Shakespeare’s perspective on war with either pacifism or militarism, stances seen as embodied by Erasmus and Machiavelli. This dichotomy leads to a stalemate, since the plays articulate both of these extremes. A third option, however, is the more pragmatic, circumstantial approach to the ethics of war formulated through just war theory. Over the course of the plays, characters gradually develop complex ethical arguments both for and against the justice and injustice of wars. They consider traditional prerequisites for a just war such as just cause, right intention and legitimate authority, but give specific emphasis to the principle of proportionality. A violation of this principle, as becomes obvious, renders the war in question unjust.