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William Shakespeare: Death of twenty thousand men for fantasy and fame

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

British writers on peace and war

William Shakespeare: Selections on war and peace

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William Shakespeare
From Hamlet

HAMLET
Good sir, whose powers are these?

Captain
They are of Norway, sir.

HAMLET
How purposed, sir, I pray you?

Captain
Against some part of Poland.

HAMLET
Who commands them, sir?

Captain
The nephews to old Norway, Fortinbras.

HAMLET
Goes it against the main of Poland, sir,
Or for some frontier?

Captain
Truly to speak, and with no addition,
We go to gain a little patch of ground
That hath in it no profit but the name.
To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it;
Nor will it yield to Norway or the Pole
A ranker rate, should it be sold in fee.

HAMLET
Why, then the Polack never will defend it.

Captain
Yes, it is already garrison’d.

HAMLET
Two thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats
Will not debate the question of this straw…

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HAMLET
Witness this army of such mass and charge,
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit, with divine ambition puff’d,
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,
Even for an eggshell…

I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain?

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HAMLET
Dost thou think Alexander looked o’ this fashion i’ the earth?

HORATIO
E’en so.

HAMLET
And smelt so? pah!

Puts down the skull

HORATIO
E’en so, my lord.

HAMLET
To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander,
till he find it stopping a bung-hole?

HORATIO
‘Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so.

HAMLET
No, faith, not a jot; but to follow him thither with modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it: as
thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of
earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel?
Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away:
O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw!

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