Having seen Shakespeare’s Henry V the night before finishing Robert K. Massie’s book, Peter the Great, I found myself comparing these two unforgettable men who led their countries through years of brutal war. Though these rulers lived three hundred years apart and in completely different countries, they shared a remarkable and disturbing paradox—a penchant for savagery and an ability to bring about positive changes.
Henry V’s reign marked the beginning of standard English, as well as the adoption of English as the language of record within the government. Peter the Great replaced the archaic medieval social and political system with a modern scientific-oriented system, and expanded Russia into a vast empire that became a major European power.
Both Henry, who stood at six feet and three inches, and Peter, even taller at six feet, eight inches, inherited nations in great flux. The English had lost valuable possessions to the French and were hungry for war. Similarly, Russia needed better access through the Baltic areas to European countries if it was to be a successful trading partner. Their strong leadership and influence over their soldiers helped both achieve their goals.
In the muddy fields of Agincourt, Henry V rallied “his men in a brilliant speech that eliminates divisions of class and ethnicity and forges them into a “band of brothers”, writes Robert Blacker, Dramaturge, Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Henry’s army goes on to defeat the much larger French army, becoming Henry V’s greatest battle.
But Henry V then made three decisions that badly stained his reputation and clearly reflected his affinity for violence. First, he ordered French prisoners taken during the Battle of Agincourt be put to death. Next, when women and children from Rouen tried to get past Henry’s army in order to travel to Paris for food and safety, Henry refused to let them pass. Subsequently, the women and children died of starvation in ditches. Third, when Henry V’s friend, Bardolph, was caught stealing, Henry authorized his execution.
“The contradictory nature of his dispatches from the field of human conflict mirror the profound moral complexities of war itself,” writes Des McAnuff, director of Stratford’s Henry V production. “Shakespeare is a master of paradox and ambiguity, and the questions he raises in Henry V are as troubling today as they were four hundred years ago.”
Peter the Great is as mired in contradictions as Henry V. From his childhood, when he formed a small army of servants and used them in live ammunition war games, to his creation of the Russian navy in order to gain ports, to his nine-year battle with Sweden, Peter revelled in war, fighting alongside his men and living in the same dismal conditions, which enhanced his image as a leader within his tsardom. He also learned how to torture people.
“Throughout Peter’s reign, noseless, earless, branded men, evidence of both the Tsar’s wrath and his mercy, roamed the edges of his realm,” writes Massie. “Yet, Peter was not a sadist…He tortured for practical reasons of state: to extract information. He executed for punishment for treason. To him these were natural, traditional and even moral actions.”
It is hard to reconcile this harsh autocrat with the simple man he could also be, a shipbuilder, who lived anonymously in Amsterdam to learn this craft. Throughout his life, he preferred smaller, less ornate homes and plain food to the more typical royal accommodations.
“The Tsar felt ill at ease in spacious chambers and preferred small, low-ceilinged rooms, but in order to present a symmetrical line in the facades of the palaces along the river, he was forced to make each storey of his own house higher than he liked. His solution was to install a false lower ceiling beneath the upper one in all the rooms he inhabited.”
But beneath this seemingly-humble exterior, lay a man savage enough to exile his wife and order his own son to be executed. Miserable with his first wife, Eudoxia, and anxious to be with his mistress, Peter had Eudoxia sent away for life to the Suzdal Convent where she would live as a nun. Their son, Alexis, was taken away from his mother and raised by people within Peter’s household.
Years later, after Peter had married Catherine, Alexis fled Russia and his father who demanded his son prepare for his role as future Tsar. Afraid that his son’s disappearance was part of a plot to overthrow him, Peter tricked Alexis into returning.
“On June 16, Peter specifically passed to the court the power to proceed against Alexis as it would against any other subject accused of treason, “in the form required and with the necessary examination”—i.e., torture.”
Alexis received twenty-five blows of the knout on June 19 and again on June 24, with the flesh on his back torn off “in bloody ribbons.” By June 26, Alexis was dead.
“Peter did not evade the charge against him. Although he said that it was God who ultimately had taken Alexis’ life, he never denied that it was he who had brought his son to a trial which had led to a sentence of death…Nor did he bother afterward to make a false display of grief.”
This unbelievable tragedy occurred near the end of Peter’s reign, tarnishing his legacy and forever tainting his success in war and in bringing modernity to Russia.
Just as Henry V shed his youth and humanity during his rule, Peter the Great became more savage the longer he ruled, with the climax and worst offense being the execution of his own son.