Washington Examiner

The William Shakespeare Guide to Gaining and Wielding Political Power

Associate Director, Center for the Future of Liberal Society
Portrait of William Shakespeare. (via wikimedia commons)
Portrait of William Shakespeare. (Wikimedia Commons)

For a man who died well before the Mayflower reached Plymouth Rock, William Shakespeare still looms large in the American mind. Words and phrases he coined permeate our daily language, and his plays captured many of humanity’s most enduring characteristics. Teenagers who understand Romeo and Juliet have a better perspective on their seasons of puppy love; readers of The Merchant of Venice recognize the racist hatred against Jews spewing out of campuses across the country.

The Bard’s plays cover with equal felicity everything from the most intimate details of private life to soaring affairs of state, and he is considered the greatest of English authors for good reason. In The Hollow Crown, Johns Hopkins University professor Eliot A. Cohen describes how Shakespeare weaves together the high and the low to show how power works.

The Hollow Crown is a departure from much of Cohen’s earlier work. Formerly Condoleezza Rice’s counselor at the State Department, now a think tanker and professor of strategy, Cohen has previously written historically informed reflections on topics like how democracies fight and win wars. In The Hollow Crown, Cohen draws parallels between some of the historical figures he has studied and the characters of Shakespeare’s plays, but this book is mostly applied literary analysis.

The Hollow Crown focuses on what Cohen describes as “The Arc of Power”: how people acquire power, exercise it, and lose it. Unlike many Shakespeare analyses, Cohen does not move from one play to the next but rather compares characters across plays to illuminate each of his points. He explains how Shakespeare shows how power is necessary for human society to function, but it also has a deeply corrosive effect on the human heart. The character of a person wielding power affects the nature of their power.

As Cohen puts it, “Shakespeare knew that individuals mattered profoundly and that the key to understanding political behavior is understanding individual psychology.” He was so skilled at creating and portraying characters that his readers “often feel that we know his heroes and villains as well as, or better than, many of our contemporaries.”

This emphasis on individuals makes for better stories, but it does limit what kinds of power Shakespeare can portray. The plays that Cohen focuses on — mostly the Henriad histories and tragedies depicting famous moments of antiquity like the death of Julius Caesar, leavened occasionally by lighter fare like The Tempest — revolve around court politics. This setting is more familiar to modern readers than they may realize: “Strip away the trappings of robes, crowns, and scepters,” Cohen argues, “and one realizes that today as well courts run almost all human organizations.” For example, “there is someone at the top who rules or reigns. There is often a designated (or aspiring) successor” filling the role of crown prince, and there are people at various other stages of authority who jockey for power.

Gaining power is rarely a simple task. Some people inherit it, but receiving a title does not necessarily confer the power behind the title too. Richard II and Henry VI grew up in courts, but their education did not give them the traits they needed to keep their thrones, and many business deputies have trouble putting their stamp on their organization once they take over. Maneuvering their way into the top job is a skill that democratic politicians need to master. But like Henry IV, they often find themselves haunted by a trail of broken promises and destroyed friendships along the way. Worst of all is seizing power through coups or murder. Macbeth and Richard III both died horribly, largely because of the natural consequences of their own bloody deeds.

Exercising power effectively is even harder than gaining it. Inspiring other people to take risks on your behalf is an essential quality for a leader, but it is difficult to pull off. It can be done in different ways: Henry V and Winston Churchill both gave soaring speeches and mastered the theatricality necessary for power; other battlefield commanders have done their best work in informal conversations. If inspiration does not work, manipulation can tide things over for a time. According to Cohen, Henry V was a master manipulator. This is not necessarily a bad thing: Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt both arranged things so that their enemies fired the first shot, which helped build the domestic unity needed to win the Civil War and World War II.

If persuasion fails, there is always murder. Neither Shakespeare nor Cohen recommend that course of action, but Cohen does draw an interesting contrast between Henry IV and some of Shakespeare’s more vicious killers. Henry IV cannot sit easily on the throne while the deposed Richard II still lives, so he has the imprisoned king murdered. But he draws the line there, and although he spends the rest of his life uneasily looking over his shoulder, he dies peacefully in his bed. Neither Macbeth nor Richard III can restrain himself after the first bloodletting, and each multiplies his enemies faster than he can cut them down.

Knowing when and how to let go of power is also a challenge. Cohen points out that in Shakespeare’s plays, and frequently in real life, leaders do not get wiser with age; they get more oblivious. Often, like Duncan in Macbeth, they do not see the end coming even when the problem that causes their downfall is clear. Power has a nonrational element, which Cohen points out is somewhat magical, and it can inspire people and propel them to great accomplishments. But leaders who believe their own hype often are the most surprised when the magic does not work. It is far better to walk away on your own terms, like Prospero in The Tempest or one of that play’s most famous admirers, George Washington.

The Hollow Crown is a thoroughly readable and enjoyable survey of some of Shakespeare’s finest work. Cohen hits many of the highlights, such as Julius Caesar and Henry V, and he covers less famous but equally insightful plays too, such as Coriolanus.

There are places to disagree. Henry V is treated too harshly. The book’s emphasis on the uses and abuses of power leads Cohen to paint King Harry as a very cynical figure, more than the Shakespeare or the historical character really deserves. But overall, Cohen’s book will shed light on history and literature while provoking thought about how to read and how to operate today. He sprinkles in analogies to a wide variety of important historical and current events, so readers will leave the book with a better understanding of one of the most important influences on American culture, as well as some of the key moments in 20th-century history.

“If there is one quality essential for understanding politics,” Cohen notes, “it is empathy, the ability to imagine the other and see the world as they see it.” He is right, and he has written an excellent book about how to do it.

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