Getting into character: Guantanamo Bay and Shakespeare

by Alister Wedderburn

Emblem 13 from H.G. [Henry Goodyere?],
‘The Mirrour of Maiestie, or The Badges of Honor Conceitedly
(London: 1618)
One of the first actions of the domineering drill sergeant in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is to give noms de guerre to his new recruits: Joker, Cowboy, Gomer Pyle. These are the labels by which we know the characters throughout the film; whoever they were before they tumbled into Parris Island is irrelevant. Over the last few months, a curious real-life example of military rechristening has come to light: medical staff at Guantanamo Bay are given the names of Shakespearean characters.[1]

 One can easily spot the rather invidious reasons why this might be militarily desirable. Identifying personnel with fictional characters creates the possibility of a permissive detachment from self, and also makes it difficult to externally ascribe responsibility to misdeeds or illegalities. Joe Bloggs can be called to the dock, but not Joseph, Petruchio’s waiting-man in The Taming of the Shrew.

 It’s more difficult to understand why the reasoning behind these aliases has to be systematic at all, and still more why Shakespeare’s plays are considered the most suitable source from which to draw. The critical and interpretive silt that has accumulated about his work for the past four hundred years is far too rich and fertile to allow for simplistic readings of the sort necessary for appropriation of this kind. The hubris of appropriating it anyway paints another layer of makeup on the Ubu Roi-like creature that Gitmo seems to play within Western political discourse, and offers a gift to anyone hoping to understand a little more about its self-regulated games of identity.

 Dominic Dromgoole and Clive Stafford Smith give us a dramatis personae:[2]

 Senior Medical Officer … . . Leonato (Much Ado about Nothing)
Force-Feeding Doctor … . . Varro (Julius Caesar)
Behavioural Health Doctor … . . Cordelia (King Lear)
Behavioural Health Doctor … . . Cressida (Troilus and Cressida)
Psychiatrist … . . Helena (All’s Well That Ends Well / A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
Medical Corpsman … . . Silius (Antony and Cleopatra)
Nurse … . . Valeria (Coriolanus)
Nurse … . . Lucentio (The Taming of the Shrew)
Nurse … . . Lucio (Measure for Measure)

 Dromgoole and Stafford Smith argue that the US military’s literary criticism is way off: none of these characters are suitable avatars for Guantanamo medics. They’re right. Yet considerable thought will undoubtedly have gone into the choice of plays to plunder and names to lift – one can’t imagine an Edmund or a Iago, a Chiron or a Timon stalking the cells and corridors of the Gitmo infirmary.

 Presuming this discretion, one wonders which names were discarded in the discussion process, and why. It isn’t hard to see why Claudius or Lady Macbeth might have been rejected, but there is one demographic of characters notably absent from the roll-call: Shakespeare’s plays contain four named doctors, none of which make the cut.

 We know that medically-inclined characters were considered: the psychiatrist’s pseudonym is Helena from All’s Well That Ends Well; the daughter of a doctor and a woman herself capable of a herbal form of healing. Figures of this ilk – for all the shortcomings Dromgoole and Stafford Smith point out – are surely the most obvious aliases for a medical professional. The exclusion of the four doctors perhaps, therefore, suggests that to the Gitmo medical unit, these characters represent attributes that they do not wish to encourage in their staff.

 Of the four doctor-characters, one is identifiable as being obviously undesirable as a reference point for a medic. Caius is a doctor in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and there are suggestions (‘Monseur Mockwater’ [sic]) that he is something of a quack. In the farcical climax, he marries a costumed boy whom he believes to be the woman he lusts after. Undignified, libidinous, the butt of jokes and of dubious medical pedigree, it is little wonder that no-one at Guantanamo took his name.

 However, the other three present images superficially more akin to their modern counterparts. Cornelius is the doctor of the king’s court in Cymbeline. He is conscientious, and willing to disobey the queen: when she orders him to give her poison, ostensibly to experiment on ‘such creatures as/ We count not worth the hanging’, he correctly suspects foul play and instead gives her a draught designed to bring on a deep sleep that resembles death, but will not induce it. Cornelius is ill-at-ease with the possibility that his medical and medicinal skill might be misused for political ends, and he is willing to act independently – even if only to a limited extent – in order to ensure his principles are not compromised: ‘She is fool’d/ With a most false effect; and I the truer,/ So to be false with her’.

 Doctor Butts is the king’s personal doctor in Henry VIII. He has a small role limited to a handful of lines, but his role is not insignificant: he is a witness to injustice, as he stumbles upon the exclusion of Cranmer from the King’s Council; he brings Henry to see the scene himself. Henry says they shall watch the council in secret, but together: ‘Let ‘em alone, and draw the curtain close:/ We shall hear more anon’. Butts therefore continues his role of witness even after having informed his superior, elevating his relation of events from mere tittle-tattle into something rather more noble and valued; a whistle-blower of sorts.

 Cerimon is a physician in Pericles who revives Thaisa, Pericles’ wife, when she washes up ashore having been thrown overboard in a storm. Though presumed dead by Pericles and his shipmates, Cerimon knows better: ‘Death may usurp on nature many hours,/ And yet the fire of life kindle again/ The o’erpressed spirits’. Cerimon’s medical work is predicated upon an empathy with the suffering death brings, both to those who die and those who mourn: ‘If thou livest, Pericles, thou hast a heart/ That even cracks with woe!’ He is a doctor who professes to take pleasure in the study of illness and remedy, and who is thereby able to revive patients supposed dead by those without his specialist training.

 Why were these characters overlooked? First, a caveat. Although the notion that these names would have been considered as potential aliases in Gitmo is credible, whether they were or not, and to what extent, is uncertain. However, it remains possible to tentatively hypothesise that a possible reason the names of these three figures were discarded is because they each display characteristics that are considered undesirable for health workers in an illegal detention centre. Cornelius, Butts and Cerimon all exhibit qualities that one imagines would be prized by mainstream medics: an unwillingness for medicine to become a political tool, a readiness to expose injustice when witnessed and an empathy towards those suffering both physically and emotionally. It is not difficult to imagine why such qualities might be viewed with suspicion in the closed circle of military medicine that is Guantanamo Bay.



London Review of Books, 7 November 2013 (accessible at


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