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Political Theater at Its Finest
A review of "The Hollow Crown" by Eliot Cohen.
“You’re here to learn about the human condition—and there is no better way of doing that than by embracing Shakespeare.”
So Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise, portrayed by long-time Royal Shakespeare Company player Sir Patrick Stewart, advised his android second officer Data—and all of us watching at home over the years—as he performs the lead role in Henry V during the cold open for an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Veteran strategic analyst and defense intellectual Eliot Cohen agrees with this sentiment in his just-published book The Hollow Crown: Shakespeare on How Leaders Rise, Rule, and Fall. His book rests on that very premise and applies it to politics and power—a theme so often the implicit and explicit focus of Shakespeare’s plays. The end result is an intriguing and compact volume that’s very much worth reading for Shakespeare aficionados and political junkies alike. It also ought to be mandatory reading for idealistic young policy wonks and staffers innocent of the all-too-often brutal and unsentimental ways power actually works in the real world.
Readers don’t need to agree with all of Cohen’s historical arguments, literary analyses, or even overall conclusions to profit from his book. As might be expected given the rather bleak and often murderous nature of Shakespeare’s more politically-themed work, the picture Cohen paints of power and politics isn’t a terribly optimistic one—though he does direct our attention to some important shafts of light as the book progresses. Ultimately, The Hollow Crown illuminates how Shakespeare—one of the core pillars of Western culture—can shed light on our own, modern experiences and analyses of politics, policy, and power.
All the world’s a stage…
Above all, Shakespeare reminds us that politics (and indeed public life more generally) constitutes its own particular, peculiar form of theater—and political leaders, actual or aspiring, can play their roles well or poorly. As Cohen himself puts it in his introduction, “Shakespeare understood moreover that power is almost always exercised through a kind of theater, and in pondering staging and the juxtaposition of scenes, one can learn about stagecraft as it shapes the exercise of power in corner offices as well as in the public square.”
Shakespeare’s Henry V—a character who appears in Henry IV, Part I and Henry IV, Part 2 as well as his own self-titled play—serves as Cohen’s exemplar here. “Henry is a chameleon,” Cohen bluntly asserts, able to shift between roles and personas with ease. He prefers the self-flattering guise of the “bluff soldier,” Cohen notes, but Henry is also able to present himself as “the generous king, the honor-seeking aristocrat, the stern judge” as well as the rakish Prince Hal and then “the reformed prodigal son.” It’s this almost sociopathic ability to slide between roles that allows Henry to so successfully inspire common soldiers to fight an unjust war on his behalf even as he holds them and their legitimate concerns in contempt. Cohen reminds us that as stirring as Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day speech may still be, it’s ultimately an utterly cynical exercise in political theater.
Likewise, the funeral orations offered by Brutus and Mark Antony in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar offer textbook examples of politicians playing their roles poorly and well. Brutus obsesses “on the purity of his own motives” but remains “silent on Caesar’s real or projected misdeeds,” while Antony goes for “the emotions and the concerns of the populace.” “Where Brutus spoke in prose about himself,” Cohen observes, “Antony speaks in iambic pentameter about Caesar, Brutus, and the people of Rome, putting himself forward only to discuss his overpowering grief at the loss of his friend and mentor.”
In our own time, it’s become commonplace to dismiss concerns about such stagecraft as mere political theater. Indeed, our public discussions about politics don’t seem to register these matters at anything more than a superficial level. Political pundits offer shallow criticisms of certain performances by candidates, elected officials, or other policymakers; their own critics in turn attack their focus on seeming trivialities over substance. Take President Biden’s reported concern over the “optics” of a shift in America’s refugee policy, for instance, or New York Times columnist Paul Krugman’s jeremiad against empty political theater criticism during the 2016 presidential campaign. But there’s precious little sense of what all this political stagecraft is meant to accomplish in the first place, what ends it’s meant to serve. As Shakespeare makes clear, political theater is an integral part of the effective exercise of political power, whether for good or ill.
Cohen’s historical example of Lincoln maneuvering the Confederacy into firing the first shots of the Civil War remind us of the power of political stagecraft. He writes that this episode shows “Lincoln’s power rested on artifice as much as moral force,” but in this particular case Lincoln’s artifice multiplied his moral force: because he could rightly present the Confederacy as the aggressor, Lincoln imbued the Union cause with even greater moral force. It’s an example of how political stagecraft needs to be taken seriously, not considered superficially or dismissed as a distraction from the substantive issues at stake.
The king is but a man…
“At the center of power, as Shakespeare reminds us, there always and only resides a fallible human being.” Indeed, Shakespeare’s characters are almost always undone by their own personal flaws and shortcomings. Some like Henry IV and Henry VI are aware of their own failings, at least at some level—though, as Cohen notes, they come to this self-awareness far too late to make much of a difference. Others like Julius Caesar and Brutus remain blinded by their own very different forms of hubris and arrogance until the very end, while Macbeth refuses to take his own apprehensions to heart and finds himself “trapped by the logic of violence even though he has seen it coming.”
Self-delusion and -deception abound in Shakespeare. Cassius convinces Brutus to join the conspiracy against Caesar, for instance, by appealing to his friend’s moral vanity and “high opinion of his own virtues.” Though his professed concerns are sincere and by no means baseless, Brutus is nowhere near as dispassionate or lacking in ambition as he believes himself to be. He has deceived himself in ways easily understandable today, deluding himself that his own motives remain pristine and fueling the hubris that ultimately dooms himself and his cause.
Then there’s arrogance and ambition. Caesar stands the primary example of the former, famously proclaiming himself to be as “constant as the northern star” when he brusquely refuses to even entertain the notion of pardoning a rival. The words Caesar speaks, Cohen observes, are those “of a man who has lost touch with reality,” one displays “a kind of intoxication with power and self” and “has lost all sense of proportion about himself.” If Caesar’s arrogance blinds him to obvious dangers, Macbeth’s ambition overrides his reason and drives him to commit one murder after another even though he remains well aware of where such a bloody path will take him.
At the same time, however, few of Shakespeare’s characters find themselves laid low because they’re too scrupulous or virtuous to live. Some like Macbeth’s Banquo simply fall victim to the machinations of other characters; they are not naïve or blind, but simply overpowered. Others like Brutus are undone by their own character flaws or shortsighted decisions rather than their ideals; his refusal to kill Antony along with Caesar results as much from his own hubris and moral vanity as it does any larger ethical concerns. Innocence and naivete likewise fatally undermine King Duncan of Scotland in Macbeth and Henry VI, a lack of self-awareness prevents Henry IV from accurately assessing the potential of his successor, and so on.
A tale told by an idiot…
The most difficult question Shakespeare and Cohen pose is this: does the pursuit and exercise of political power necessarily destroy our humanity, either in whole or in part? For Cohen and Shakespeare, the answer appears to be a qualified yes: partly under normal political circumstances and wholly when murder or other unethical means are involved. As Cohen bleakly remarks, “All of politics, and indeed all leadership, involves to some extent the manipulation of human beings, appealing to their emotions as well as their reason, occasionally cloaking motives and distracting others from unworthy deeds.”
It's certainly true that politics requires a great deal of moral compromise and frustration. As Cohen argues, it also inherently involves the use of other people as means for some particular ends rather than seeing them as ends in themselves. To a great degree, this reality is one that anyone hoping to make politics and policymaking their profession or livelihood ought to know going in. It’s simply the nature of the enterprise, not one that can be avoided in either theory or practice. But does that mean it’s impossible to exercise power without necessarily losing a part of ourselves in the process?
That was very much the case in Shakespeare’s plays, especially given the rather brutal and often fatal political worlds his characters inhabit. It’s even the case in the magical world Shakespeare builds in The Tempest, where the protagonist Prospero comes to understand that power inflicts “a kind of damage” on its users. Politics and the exercise of power remains a ruthless business today, full of fair-weather friends and cold-blooded calculations of self-interest. But knowing that reality going in can help us act accordingly and retain our humanity, or at least minimize the damage done to our souls. Unfortunately, too few of us enter politics and public life with this sort of awareness—it’s something we have to learn along the way, far too often at significant personal cost.
Still, it’s an open question as to whether power necessarily deprives us of our humanity. Personally, I’m more inclined to agree with Marcus Aurelius when he tells himself that wherever it’s possible to live, it’s possible to live well—even in a palace. And imperial Roman politics wasn’t a walk in the park; Marcus himself confronted the prospect of a major civil war during his time as emperor and wrote at least part of his Meditations while prosecuting a border war against barbarian tribes. That said, it’s easier to keep the faith Marcus professes if we’re clear in our own minds about the moral compromises and messy realities inherent in the business of politics and power when we embark on this enterprise in the first place.
In The Hollow Crown, Cohen persuasively illustrates how Shakespeare can help us do just that—and much else besides. He presents readers with an intellectually stimulating exploration of these issues, giving us a practical philosophical and literary guide to many of the realities of politics, power, and public life that many of us in Washington would like to have had at hand when we first arrived in our nation’s capital.
Politics and public life may bruise and batter us, but with Shakespeare as an advisor we need not lose our humanity in the process.