From Tennis Balls to Cannon Balls

Author: Nigel Baker

From Tennis Balls to Cannon Balls

Nigel Baker*

On the four hundredth anniversary of William Shakespeare's death

In Shakespeare's day, the concept of a permanent ambassador, living at the court of another country and accredited to a ruler, was still in its relative infancy. The first ambassador of the English Crown sent to live in another realm — as opposed to an envoy sent on temporary business from one ruler to another — was the ambassador to the Holy See, John Sherwood, Bishop of Durham, sent by Edward IV to the Holy See in 1479. By the time of Queen Elizabeth, in whose reign Shakespeare did most of his work, there were also resident English ambassadors to the Venetian Republic, the Holy Roman Empire, the Kingdom of France and the Ottoman Empire. Shakespeare would have known something of court life as a member of a company that performed entertainment at court. The company was later known under the official title of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (the Lord Chamberlain was the official responsible for the formal management of the royal court), and from 1603, the start of the reign of James I, as the King’s Men.

So he would have seen and perhaps known some of the ambassadors at the English royal court. It is probable that they attended plays written and produced by Shakespeare for the monarch, such as the Christmas entertainment Twelfth Night. His experience of court life certainly informed his many depictions of court intrigues and statecraft, from his history plays to the bloody and incestuous court of Elsinore in Hamlet.

We can therefore assume that Shakespeare’s depictions of ambassadors were based on his observation of real people, if not on specific individuals. He found them extremely useful in his plays. In Shakespeare’s world, diplomats are used to move the action forwards; to bring in news from the outside world; and to carry messages from one protagonist to another. They sometimes have the formal title of ‘ambassador’, and at other times are simply envoys sent between rulers. How they act, and the way they conduct themselves, is often central to the way Shakespeare’s principal characters respond, and therefore useful in revealing the protagonists' character and motives.

Three plays, each set in the world where high politics intersects with great drama — Henry V, Hamlet, and Antony and Cleopatra — provide examples of Shakespeare’s use of diplomats/ambassadors for his own dramatic purposes.

In Henry V, the arrival of the French ambassadors from the Dauphin at the court of the young English King provides the platform for all subsequent actions, the catalyst for the Agincourt campaign, and reveals the streak of iron in Henry V’s soul. The ambassadors speak openly after requesting the King “Freely to render what we have in our charge”. “We are no tyrant, but a Christian king”, responds Henry. The ambassadors then proceed to pass the message that the Dauphin believes Henry is too young to rule, that he should drop his claim to France, and as a final insult accept a gift ... of tennis balls. Henry’s anger rises: “When we have matched our rackets to these balls, / We will, in France, by God’s grace, play a set / Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard”. He vows vengeance, to turn “his balls to gun-stones”, and throws the ambassadors out. The “merry message” of the ambassadors leads directly to war.

Matters are different in Antony and Cleopatra. Here, ambassadors are far less grand. One ambassador from Octavius receives a royal beating at Antony’s orders for bringing unwelcome news. Another is sent by Antony to Octavius to make terms after the defeat of the battle of Actium. Antony calls him “our school- master”, and Octavius’s aides appear to laugh at this diffident envoy from a great general brought so low. But Octavius treats him correctly, while returning an uncompromising message to Antony that there is no option but complete surrender. Here, the difference in treatment of the ambassadors serves to show the difference in character between the two protagonists. One, Antony, grown decadent, abuses his position of power to beat up his enemy’s envoy. The other, Octavius, acts — like Henry V — with mercy and forbearance towards the diplomat, showing himself to have the character of a true ruler. Neither ambassador succeeds in his task. They are the instruments of their masters.

The ambassadors in Hamlet play a different role, reflecting the atmosphere of deceit, double-dealing and revenge that dominates the play. Voltimand, sent by Claudius to discover the intentions of the neighbouring kingdom of Norway, returns with the message that Nonvay’s army is directed against a different foe. It is only later that we learn from Fortinbras — Hamlet’s alter-ego — that the message was a trick, and his military preparations are indeed directed against the tottering Danish kingdom. Voltimand has been used to deceive Claudius about Norway’s real intentions. The most famous ambassadors in the play, however, are Hamlet’s erstwhile friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Claudius employs them as spies, and then despatches them to England accompanying Hamlet, carrying a letter urging the English King to put Hamlet to death. The plot goes awry. Hamlet discovers their dispatch. And, as he later relates to Horatio, swaps the letter with another which asks the King of England to execute the bearers — in other words, Guildenstern and Rosencrantz. The decision shocks Horatio, but Hamlet is unperturbed by his own personal descent into cruelty and the fate of his former friends. After all, he explains, they chose Claudius to be their master: “Why, man, they did make love to this employment; they are not near my conscience”. The diplomats in Hamlet move the story forward, but also reflect the degeneration of morals at the court and in the divided royal family as Elsinore rushes to its doom.

It grieves me to say so as a diplomat myself, but I do not think Shakespeare was impressed by the ambassadors he met and knew, if they are indeed reflected in his plays. His ambassadorial characters are weak figures, used in his plays as vehicles of plot, reflections of character, or bringers of news. Their importance lies in what they tell about 16th century politics and society and the ethics of statecraft at the time. This was, after all, the age of Machiavelli and Castiglione, men who fully believed — like their unscrupulous masters — the dictum that the ends justify the means. Perhaps Shakespeare thought the ambassadors he met at court to be pompous and giving themselves airs. He would not be the first to think so. I think that Shakespeare’s best advice to any future diplomat comes from Touchstone in As you Like It: “a fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool”.

*British Ambassador to the Holy See

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
29 April 2016, page 20

For subscriptions to the English edition, contact:
Our Sunday Visitor: L'Osservatore Romano