The following comes from George MacDonald Fraser's Quartered Safe Out Here. MacDonald Fraser, who would become famous for the Flashman books, was an officer of the Border Regiment and fought in Burma during the Second World War. Late in the campaign, just before the battle of Pyawbee, he records this little anecdote:
I got two paperbacks from home which I had requested: Henry V, which we had done in my last year at school and for which I had developed a deep affection, and Three Men in a Boat - not that I was a devotee of Jerome's, but I had felt that comedy and a reminder of the beauties of the English countryside wouldn't come amiss. I had also thought that it might be acceptable when passed round the section, but I didn't expect any takers for Shakespeare, intellectual snob that I was. The result was instructive.
I was laying on my groundsheet, renewing acquaintance with Jerome and the tin of pineapple, when Sergeant Hutton squatted down beside me.
"W'at ye readin', then? W'at's this? 'Enry Vee - bloody 'ell, by William Shekspeer!" He gave me a withering look, and leafed over a page. "Enter Chorus. O for a muse of fire that wad... Fook me!" He riffled the pages. "Aye, well, we'll 'ev a look." And such is the way of sergeants, he removed it without by-your-leave; that's one that won't be away long, I thought.
I was wrong. Three days later it had not been returned, and having exhausted Jerome and the magazines, I was making do with the Fourteenth Army newspaper, SEAC, famous for its little cartoon character, Professor Flitt, a jungle infantryman who commented memorably on the passing scene. And I was reading a verse by the paper's film critic
I really do not care a heck
For handsome Mr Gregory Peck,
But I would knock off work at four
To see Miss Dorothy Lamour
when Hutton loafed up and tossed Henry V down beside me and seated himself on the section grub-box. A silence followed, and I asked if he had liked it. He indicated the book.
"Was Shekspeer ivver in th'Army?"
I said that most scholars thought not, but there were blanks in his life, so it was possible that, like his friend Ben Jonson, he had served in the Low Countries, or even in Italy. Hutton shook his head.
"If 'e wesn't in th'Army, Ah'll stand tappin' [I'm a Dutchman]. 'E knaws too bloody much aboot it, man."
This was fascinating. Hutton was a military hard case who had probably left school long before 14, and his speech and manner suggested that his normal and infrequent reading consisted of company orders and the sports headlines. But Shakespeare had talked to him across the centuries - admittedly on his own subject. I suggested hesitantly that the Bard might have picked up a good deal just from talking to military men; Hutton brushed the notion aside.
"Nivver! Ye knaw them three - Bates, an' them, talkin' afore the battle? Ye doan't get that frae lissenin' in pubs, son. Naw, 'e's bin theer." He gave me the hard, aggressive stare of the Cumbrian who is not to be contradicted. "That's my opinion, any roads. An' them oothers - the Frenchman, the nawblemen, tryin' to kid on that they couldn't care less, w'en they're shittin' blue lights? Girraway! An' the Constable tekkin' the piss oot o' watsisname -"
"Aye." He shook his head in admiration. "Naw, ye've 'eerd it a' afore - in different wurrds, like. Them fower officers, the Englishman an' the Scotsman an' the Irishman an' the Welshman - Ah mean, 'e's got their chat off, 'esn't 'e? Ye could tell w'ich wez w'ich, widoot bein' told. That Welsh booger!" He laughed aloud, a thing he rarely did. "Talk till the bloody coos coom yam, the Taffies!" He frowned. "Naw, Ah nivver rid owt be Shekspeer afore - Ah mean, ye 'ear the name, like..." He shrugged eloquently. "Mind, there's times Ah doan't knaw w'at th' 'ell 'e's talkin' aboot -"
"You and me both," I said, wondering uneasily if there were more passages obscure to me than there were to him. He sat in for a moment and then misquoted (and I'm not sure that Shakespeare's version is better):
"There's nut many dies weel that dies in a battle. By Christ, 'e's reet theer. It's a good bit, that." He got up. "Thanks for the lend on't, Jock."
I said that if he'd liked it, he would like Henry IV, too. "Falstaff's bloody funny, and you'd like Hotspur -"
"'Ev ye got it?"
I apologised that I hadn't, and promised to write for it. By way of a trailer I told him as much as I remembered of Hotspur's "When the fight is done" speech, but I'm no Sean Connery, and although he nodded politely I could see I was a poor substitute for the written word.
He went off, leaving me to reflect that I had learned something more about Henry V, and Shakespeare. In his own way Hutton was as expert a commentator as Dover Wilson or Peter Alexander; he was a lot closer to Bates and Court and Williams (and Captains Jamy and Fluellen) than they could ever hope to be. And I still wonder if Shakespeare was in the Army.
Of course, by this rationale Shakespeare was also a king and, for that matter, an occasional woman. He would have been a prolific murderer and almost permanently suicidal. Some sort of allowance should, and never is, made for imagination. It's terribly unlikely that Shakespeare was in the army, or on the throne, or transgendered. However, his imagination was first rate.
In particular, his was an imagination not easily seduced. His wars are as horrid as they are heroic. Even in Henry V, which has its bellicose moments, he maintained terror among the valour and horror in the heroics.
I feel a trifle bad reproducing so much of a book, so run and buy it from Amazon here.
Another family Christmas turns sour