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Shakespeare on Power

Shakespeare on Power

A compelling new book shows that the greatest writer in the English language was, among many other things, a shrewd observer of power.

Michael Mandelbaum

Power has gone out of fashion. Or rather, the idea of power has gone out of fashion because it has two features that now inspire distaste: inequality—some people have more power than others; and coercion—the exercise of power involves offering rewards but also threatening, or imposing, punishment. 

Despite its current reputation, however, power, with its inherent inequality and coercion, is inescapable. It was a fact of life for the bands of hunter-gatherers to which all humans belonged until ten thousand years ago and it is a fact of life in the massive bureaucracies that dominate the world of today. Someone is always in charge.

The understanding of the dynamics of power thus remains a matter of great interest and even urgency. Not surprisingly, of the making of books on this subject there is no end—although in contemporary discourse power often bears the more benign-sounding name “leadership.” As it happens, some of the best writing on power was done more than four hundred years ago by the greatest of all writers in the English language, the playwright and poet William Shakespeare. 

The exploration of power in Shakespeare’s historical dramas and tragedies is the subject of Eliot A. Cohen’s compelling new book The Hollow Crown: Shakespeare on How Leaders Rise, Rule, and FallThe author brings impressive credentials to his study. He is an accomplished military historian who has written, among other things, an assessment of wartime leadership entitled Supreme Command. He has also served in a high post in the U.S. Department of State and as the dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, both positions from which he could not only observe but also, on occasion, exercise power.

As The Hollow Crown demonstrates, Shakespeare had none of the contemporary illusions or squeamishness about the subject. The kings in his plays rule by threats, murders, and battles. Three of the features of those plays make them particularly vivid depictions of power. First, how an individual traverses what Cohen calls “the arc of power”—securing it, using it, and losing it—comes down to the person’s character: the social and psychological qualities that distinguish him or her. At the depiction of human character Shakespeare remains unexcelled. The literary critic Harold Bloom went so far as to assert that the playwright actually invented character as a literary subject.

Second, those who hold power exercise it in two different settings, and Shakespeare’s plays include both. One is the small group, and much of the action in the plays Cohen discusses takes place in royal courts, where the monarch presides and the courtiers obey, jockey for position, and not infrequently—this is a major Shakespearean theme—plot to seize the crown for themselves. The exercise of power also involves holding sway over large groups of people—the crowd, the mob, the masses. The Shakespearean opus has such moments as well, notably in Mark Antony’s funeral oration for the assassinated Caesar in Julius Caesar and King Henry’s address to his troops on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt in Henry V.

Finally, wielding power is, among other things, a dramatic act. The theater, in the 16th century but even in the 21st with its increasingly elaborate stage props, can afford only a limited scope for presenting some of the elements of stagecraft that leaders employ. It cannot realistically simulate a battle, for example. It does, however, offer the opportunity to emphasize one essential element of the leader’s art: language. No one has ever deployed language in as striking, stirring, and versatile a way as William Shakespeare did.

The Hollow Crown uses discussions of the plays and their characters to illuminate the careers of real-life historical figures. These figures range from admirable, even heroic individuals such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to less—sometimes far less—sympathetic ones such as Benedict Arnold and Adolf Hitler.

In addition, Cohen’s pithy summaries of the lessons that the plays teach provide a series of maxims about the three stages of the arc of power:

On seizing power: 

. . . the success of a conspiracy depends as much on the weakness of those conspired against as the skill of those who are plotting.
. . . like many a successful conspirator, he [Octavius in Julius Caesar] succeeds in part by being underrated.

On wielding power: 

Shakespeare’s most powerful kings are, to a man, calculating and careful, their hearts under control.
. . . having received an office or title, be it king, president, or chief executive officer, the holder must continue to win it day in, day out.

On losing power: 

It is the nature of power to be fragile and contingent, and it is the nature of powerful men and women to forget that fact.

The political theorist Judith Shklar once observed that students of politics are motivated either by the fear of what power can do or the desire to wield it. It is one of the strengths of The Hollow Crown that both types—and indeed everyone else—will learn a great deal from Cohen’s insightful analysis of Shakespeare.

One theme that emerges from his study is the association of power with anxiety, unhappiness, and failure. A well-known Shakespearean phrase from Henry IV, Part 2, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” captures that point. Perhaps, though, in this one respect the great dramatist misleads. Perhaps Shakespeare shunned stories of comfort and fulfillment in the exercise of power because such stories do not make for compelling drama. Perhaps, like Tolstoy’s happy families, happy rulers are all alike, and uniformly dull. 

Just as newspapers seldom purvey good news because it doesn’t sell copies or attract clicks, so the greatest of all dramatists may have bypassed sunny tales of power because they would not have formed the basis for plays that, like those he did write, have become immortal. Perhaps, to use another Shakespearean phrase (from Coriolanus), “there is a world elsewhere” in which subjects are happy, courtiers are contented, and rulers are relaxed and fulfilled. That, at any rate, is what the countless men and women everywhere striving for power in settings wide and narrow, high and low—strivings that Cohen’s study of Shakespeare gracefully illuminates—would like to believe.

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter professor emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, and the author of The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower (2022).

Image: Composite drawn from the first folio of William Shakespeare, from the Elizabethan Club and the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. (Wikipedia)

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