Lady Macbeth and King Lear

Reading texts from the early years of the war, I’ve got used to spotting certain attitudes. Two of the commonest I label Lady Macbeth and King Lear.

Lady Macbeth boils down to “You must go and kill people. I’d do it myself, only I’m just a girl.”

The attitude is often found, of course, among righteously patriotic committee-persons, and among young girls infected by “Khaki fever” and armed with white feathers. It’s also surprisingly common among feminists. The pages of The Suffragette, which before the war had regarded soldiers as anathema (and as spreaders of syphilis, the “great scourge”) now called for universal conscription and insisted stridently that all males had a duty to defend their country. May Sinclair’s wartime novels bear evidence of this tendency, too.

You don’t have to be a female to be Lady Macbeth. Horatio Bottomley pressured all young men to enlist, while pleading his age as an excuse for himself staying at home and making money.


Others are more like King Lear in the storm, when he exults in the fury of the elements:

Blow winds and crack your cheeks…

and wants it to destroy the unrighteous.

Let the great gods,
That keep this dreadful pother o’er our heads,
Find out their enemies now.

The enemies of the gods, of course, he defines as exactly the people that he himself had a grudge against.

In the same way, in 1914, you get people who welcome the war for all sorts of reasons. Some think it will shock England out of fuddy-duddy Victorianism; others think it will bring back traditional values. Some welcome it because they think it will force the creation of a fairer society; others are glad because it will put an end to nonsense about socialism. H.G. Wells, in that terrible book Boon seems to be welcoming the war because it will mark the end of old-fashioned novelists like Henry James. (I like the word invented by the reviewer in The New Age to describe the way Wells writes about soldiers in this book – “tommywaffle”.)

It all fits with the theory that I’m increasingly coming to believe – that the war didn’t often change people – it just brought out the best or the worst of what was in them already.



  1. Jessica
    Posted July 12, 2006 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    I’m sure you’ve already seen it but Jane Potter has some very good analysis of the Lady Macbeth attitude in _Boys in Khaki, Girls in Print_ (mainly in chapter 3). And I’m not sure about the war not changing people. Many men who did serve felt themselves to have been drastically changed both from the men (or boys) they had been and from the men they had thought they would become.

  2. Posted July 12, 2006 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    Obviously some people were transformed, and many were damaged. And obviously what I’m suggesting can’t be proved statistically. But in many cases I do think the result of the war was that bossy people became bossier, thoughtful people became more thoughtful, sentimentalists became more sentimental, misogynists found more excuses to be misogynistic, Robert Graves became even bolshier, and Horatio Bottomley became even more dishonest.
    So that if they were changed, it was in the direction they were going already.

  3. Jessica
    Posted July 12, 2006 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    Oh, absolutely. And there is also a difference between actual and perceived change as well as change that occurs regardless of the war. But the fact that a large number of people *perceived* themselves to be changed shaped, I would argue, the way in which the war was narrated and remembered.

  4. Dan
    Posted July 13, 2006 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Just been reading biographies/diaries of Hugh Dalton and Duff Cooper, and it strikes me that they’re quite good examples of the blend of pre-shaped experience and post-war change. Dalton is one of the few cases where contemporary diary evidence backs up a later memoir account of suspicion/dislike of the generals, but as he himself said, this was a state of mind he’d entered into before the war. It doesn’t seem like his personality or identity was much altered by the war. On the other hand, his sense of being a survivor of a shattered generation and his Germanophobia were both products of wartime experience. In a completely different way, Duff Cooper (about the most irritatingly inconsequential man ever to hold office, I think) doesn’t seem to have had his behaviour or attitudes much shifted by his (relatively brief, successful) experience of the Western Front. But he too developed a strong sense of being a sole survivor, and his wartime heroism (which he describes in a similarly nonchalant way to the one you analyse in the post above) was definitely a factor in his post-war status.
    He’s also an interesting counterpoint to all those Tories who claimed to have had their eyes opened to the working class by the experience of commanding them in war. I’ve come to think increasingly that this was a result of a wartime emphasis on social unity as much as a ‘lived’ event. Certainly Duff Cooper seems to have come through with his social habits and beliefs absolutely unchanged (and if anything slightly more suspicious of the working class than before).

  5. Posted July 14, 2006 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    The Great War was more all-encompassing than our current War on Terror, or whatever you call the events post-9/11, but isn’t it odd how little the big historical events of the last few years seem to have fundamentally changed people – but how much they’ve reinforced pre-existing attitudes.
    The racists have found more justification for racism, multiculturalists for multiculturalism. The pacifists are more convinced in their pacifism; the militant Islamists have got more militantly Islamic. The Dawkinsites have found more reason to see religion as the root of all evil; some churchy types are a bit chuffed that religion has crept higher up the national agenda. And so on.
    What I’m saying is that maybe we need to get away from a historical model that says “War is a big terrible event – look at how it afected people” and towards one that says “War is a big terrible event – look at how people adapted to it, and used it for their own purposes.”

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