In an attempt to avoid being held liable for any mistreatment of detainees the Guantánamo Bay medical staff have adopted Shakespearean names. Until recently, some of the doctors there used their real names, which made it easy to report them for misconduct. Now the military wants the medical staff to ignore the Tokyo Declaration of 1975, which forbids the force-feeding of mentally competent hunger strikers, and refuse to inform prisoners of the results of their own medical tests.

It’s hard to tell why Shakespeare was chosen as a source of pseudonyms. If it’s from a conviction that his characters are exemplars of civility and good behaviour, that shows little understanding of his work. Perhaps it reflects a dim hope that some of his reputation might rub off. But Shakespeare’s plays provide no whitewash for political calumny; one of their main subjects is man’s inhumanity to man.

Here is the Guantánamo medical team’s dramatis personae:

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)

In Guantánamo, Leonato is a nurse. Shakespeare’s Leonato is the father of Hero in Much Ado about Nothing. He’s a man given to violent outbursts, usually because he allows unreliable evidence to lead him to mistaken conclusions. With his own daughter, he’s duped into deciding that she’s playing her fiancé false, and joins in her public humiliation, loudly wishing her dead.

Varro is a figure of some weight in history, but reduced to a run-on-and-off role in Julius Caesar. He has only six lines, yet they comprise a perfect script for a man who exists to follow orders, appropriate for someone who daily force-feeds the protesters in Guantánamo:

Calls my Lord? …
So please you, we will stand and watch your pleasure …
My Lord? …
Did we, my lord? …
No, my lord, I saw nothing …
It shall be done, my lord.

Dr Cordelia, who specialises in behavioural health, is a Navy lieutenant commander. The detainees report that she is in her mid to late thirties, perhaps too old to be cast as King Lear’s youngest (and favourite) daughter. Cordelia is a figure of virtue and truth, but also one of stubborn principle, whose unbending sense of her own righteousness provokes a chain of events that leads to tragedy, as such moral certainty frequently does. She is banished from her homeland and, on her belated return, is executed – a fate that might well await some of the detainees if they are returned to America’s more questionable allies. In Guantánamo, as in Lear, tragedy results from the clashing of differing moral certainties.

Dr Cressida is a Navy lieutenant and said by the detainees to be the rudest of all the doctors there. Troilus and Cressida is a bleak tragedy, revolving around an intolerable and senseless war, the first great clash between East and West. The squalid manoeuvrings of men cause Cressida to betray her most solemn pledge and to become the paragon of deceit – the notorious ‘False Cressida’. In one scene she is almost gang-raped by a line-up of purported Greek heroes. It is not a choice of name to inspire confidence.

Dr Helena is a 35-year-old psychiatrist in the Behavioural Health Unit. In All’s Well That Ends Well Helena cures the sick King of France with the aid of some herbs – which might be the reason for this Guantánamo pseudonym. If so, the reading was too shallow. Helena follows the man who has spurned her for a foreign war with a determination that borders on obsession. Once she has found him, she disguises herself and tricks him into sleeping with her. This doesn’t seem a very good example of behavioural health. The other Helena, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, isn’t much better. She chases Demetrius into a dark wood, and hurls herself at him at every opportunity.

Silius, a corpsman, has a bit part in Antony and Cleopatra. The use of this name is a gift to those who accuse the Department of Defense of cultural insensitivity. Silius is a soldier returning from a successful campaign against the Parthians in what is now north-eastern Iran, who zealously urges his commander to conquer further territory in Media and Mesopotamia.

Valeria is a minor character in yet another tragedy of war. Coriolanus is set in a Rome given over to a cult of violence, and uneasily dominated by an elite that sees war as the only arena in which the state can prove itself. Other opinions surface in the play, but are quickly quashed. In her one significant scene Valeria delights in the belligerence of an infant, and scoffs at Coriolanus’ wife, Virgilia, for her squeamishness. Rome, Coriolanus and all his family come to a bitter end, as Shakespeare would have us believe that such a violent society must.

In The Taming of the Shrew, Lucentio falls in love with Bianca and marries her. In Guantánamo, Lucentio is one of the most hated nurses in the camp. He recently insisted to the media that he isn’t a monster, and is force-feeding the inmates for their own good. Perhaps he is sincere. Shakespeare’s Lucentio is a game but shallow trickster, deceiving both his own father and his intended father-in-law to achieve his ends. But his prize, Bianca, turns out to be far more shrewish than she first appears. His early puppyish enthusiasm dissolves into a chastened sense of defeat.

Lucio is just as unpopular with the detainees as Lucentio. He recently tried to make a prisoner give up his hunger strike by adding more liquid to the force-feeding tube when the prisoner was vomiting. Lucio in Measure for Measure is an exuberant liar, always ready to overstate his own contribution to state affairs, happy to trash-talk the Duke behind his back, though swift to fall into line when his deceptions are confronted. He is punished by being forced to marry Kate Keepdown, the prostitute he jilted when she gave birth to his child. Lucio refers to this marriage as like ‘pressing to death, whipping, and hanging’.

It’s hard to see why any of these names seemed like a good idea. When the curtain falls on these characters there isn’t likely to be much applause.

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Vol. 35 No. 22 · 21 November 2013

Dominic Dromgoole and Clive Stafford Smith understandably refrain from applauding the Guantánamo force-feeding of mentally competent hunger-strikers (LRB, 7 November). But, before we claim any superiority, we should remember that for the last 13 years Ian Brady has been the victim of the same treatment in Ashworth Hospital with the explicit approval of our judiciary, confirmed by Mr Justice Kay on Brady’s judicial review of the decision.

Benedict Birnberg
London SE3

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