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William Shakespeare understood power: what it is, how it works, how it is gained, and how it is lost.
In The Hollow Crown, Eliot A. Cohen reveals how the battling princes of Henry IV and scheming senators of Julius Caesar can teach us to better understand power and politics today. The White House, after all, is a court—with intrigue and conflict rivaling those on the Globe’s stage—as is an army, a business, or a university. And each court is full of driven characters, in all their ambition, cruelty, and humanity. Henry V’s inspiring speeches reframe John F. Kennedy’s appeal, Richard III’s wantonness illuminates Vladimir Putin’s brutality, and The Tempest’s grace offers a window into the presidency of George Washington.
An original and incisive perspective, The Hollow Crown shows how Shakespeare’s works transform our understanding of the leaders who, for good or ill, make and rule our world.
The Arc of Power
It is all very well to see Richard II, Goneril, and Iago on the stage. I, however, have had to work with some of those people.
I am a military historian, a former diplomat, a dean, and an engaged participant in Washington policy circles for over three decades. I have closely observed and occasionally worked with presidents, senators, foreign ministers, counselors, spies, and generals at home and abroad, not to mention corporate executives, provosts, and university presidents. I have even exercised power myself, from time to time. Through it all, I have come to recognize that there are few guides more perceptive than Shakespeare who can illuminate our understanding of how people get, use, and lose power. Shakespeare taught me to read speeches with a discerning eye, to scrutinize how politicians dress and stage public events, and, alas, to understand ever more deeply the darker sides of the desire to rule. He even nudged me into anticipating a major war.
The idea of turning these thoughts into a book occurred to me after seeing a production of Henry VIII at the Folger Theatre in Washington, DC. Henry VIII is not a particularly popular play, and indeed for many years some thought that it might not be a legitimate part of the Shakespeare canon. The present scholarly consensus seems to be that it represents a collaboration with a fellow playwright, John Fletcher. Be that as it may, there is a passage in it that is all Shakespeare.1
Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII’s proud, sagacious, and imperious chancellor, has been abruptly dismissed by his mercurial and in many ways opaque master. The shaken chief minister says to his understudy, Thomas Cromwell,
Farewell? a long farewell, to all my greatness.
This is the state of man: to-day he puts forth
The tender leaves of hopes; to-morrow blossoms,
And bears his blushing honours thick upon him;
The third day comes a frost, a killing frost,
And, when he thinks, good easy man, full surely
His greatness is a-ripening, nips his root,
And then he falls, as I do. I have ventured,
Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders,
This many summers in a sea of glory,
But far beyond my depth: my high-blown pride
At length broke under me and now has left me,
Weary and old with service, to the mercy
Of a rude stream, that must for ever hide me.
Hearing this passage occasioned a shock of recognition. Plenty of eminent persons in Washington have taken a boyish pleasure in swimming upon their sea of glory but are indeed far beyond their depth. I have seen some thrash, like Wolsey, when their floats have burst. I have even watched a few drown in the torrent.
The day after the performance, I had scheduled a get-together with some of my students. As graduate students at one of the country’s leading schools of international affairs, they hoped to discuss Washington politics, of course, and registered some surprise when I suggested that we talk about Wolsey’s speech instead. After a lively hour we agreed that we should explore further what Shakespeare had to teach us about power. So began a series of meetings to discuss other Shakespearean speeches, many of which feature in later chapters. A prod from President Ron Daniels of Johns Hopkins led to a short course for alumni, then to a longer one, on Shakespeare for policymakers, offered to graduate students and even freshmen at Hopkins. This book is the eventual result.
What gripped my students, and what grips me, is Shakespeare’s preoccupation with and understanding of character, which is itself at the heart of the politics that I have seen and lived. Shakespeare knew that individuals mattered profoundly and that the key to understanding political behavior is understanding individual psychology. This is why, upon viewing the plays and reading and rereading them, we often feel that we know his heroes and villains as well as, or better than, many of our contemporaries. We find ourselves uniquely familiar with the protagonists and yet still baffled by them. The same is often true of powerful people in real life, because part of the dark magic of power is the way in which it causes those who wield it to show different sides of their characters, sometimes in bewildering succession. Abraham Lincoln’s famously tender letter of consolation to a bereaved teenage girl, Fanny McCullough, in December 1862 was written just as he expressed regret that he had yet to find a general who would accept tens of thousands of casualties on a regular basis to win the Civil War. Kindness and ruthlessness, candor and deviousness, compassion and cruelty are more often intermingled than one might think.
Shakespeare shows furthermore that it is not merely we, the observers, who fail to fully understand the powerful. Often they do not know themselves, or only begin to do so too late. Cardinal Wolsey’s anguished speech begins with a moment of bewilderment but ends with recognition that it was a failing of character that brought him to this pass:
O Cromwell, Cromwell
Had I but served my God with half the zeal
I served my king, he would not in mine age
Have left me naked to mine enemies.2
Shakespeare often employs what the Greeks called anagnorisis, the sudden, piercing recognition of the truth of a situation. It is often (though not always) a moral truth, in any case conveyed through a moment of wrenching self-understanding. The operators of our world sometimes experience anagnorisis too, which is why politically motivated fixers and lawbreakers sometimes become prison chaplains, as did Chuck Colson, one of Richard Nixon’s key advisers, or charitable workers, like John Profumo, the British secretary of state for war who was felled by a dalliance with a nineteen-year-old model. It is why we should perhaps take their confessions more seriously than we sometimes do.
Self-recognition by those who have fallen from power is but one aspect of Shakespeare’s political teaching. There are many Shakespeares, or rather, many Shakespeareans, each of whom looks for and finds different sides of his genius. When I expressed some doubt about writing one more book about Shakespeare to my friend Dale Salwak, a professor of literature, he countered that he thought everyone should have to write a book about Shakespeare. In this he follows the views of the poet, literary critic, and sometime professor W. H. Auden: “It has been observed that critics who write about Shakespeare reveal more about themselves than about Shakespeare, but perhaps that is the great value of drama of the Shakespearean kind, namely, that whatever he may see taking place on stage, its final effect upon each spectator is a self-revelation.”3
Everyone looks for and finds something different in Shakespeare’s work. Some study him in terms of the politics of his age, seeking to place him in the context of the emergence of English theater or the tangled struggles of dynastic succession and religious conflict in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Others approach him through the prism of literary theory, in terms of gender or language. Actors and directors read him pragmatically, as befits their occupations. Still others have studied the plays as works of philosophy detached from the historical circumstances of his time. All of these approaches have their merits but do not satisfactorily come to grips with an issue that lies at the center of so many of Shakespeare’s plays: power, and particularly political power. Moreover, one reads Shakespeare differently when one has seen politicians get, wield, and lose power close up. One reads with new appreciation as well once one has had something of that experience oneself.
The organizing concept of this book, which informs its structure, is the arc of power—namely, the ways in which it is acquired (by inheritance, struggle, or coup), how it is exercised (inspiration, manipulation, and crime), and how it is lost (arrogance, self-deception, and voluntary relinquishment). This approach differs from that of most of the classic commentaries on Shakespeare, which proceed by examining the plays one at a time. My unconventional organization offers some advantages. It is often in comparison of characters and predicaments across plays that Shakespeare’s insights emerge most clearly. Both King Lear in the play of that name and Prospero in The Tempest voluntarily relinquish authority. For one, it ends terribly; for the other, we believe (we cannot be certain) it brings peace and even completion. Similarly, both Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part 2 and Richard II in the play of that name inherit power, but again with very different outcomes.
Looking at Shakespeare through the prism of the arc of power also allows a view into how power works in the real world. Young men and women on the make eventually rise to the top. They are often different kinds of people when they begin their quest than when they have achieved their goals, and they may look very different—to us and to themselves—when they have held power for some time. Shakespeare saw this firsthand, as Queen Elizabeth I aged and declined, as her successor, James I, came to the throne, and as counselors and courtiers, some youthful and others venerable, rose and fell.
I have seen firsthand the danger of believing that any powerful person is static. In February 2022 the Munich Security Conference—an annual gathering of experts and officials from around the world, but particularly Europe and the United States—occurred in the context of an ominous concentration of Russian forces on the borders of Ukraine. US intelligence warned of an impending invasion. Yet, curiously, the predominant view among current and former senior officials and experts was that either the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was bluffing or he would launch only a limited operation to seize a small part of Ukraine. The consequences of an all-out invasion would be out of all scale with the potential gains in the eyes of these prudent and experienced men and women. Besides, Putin might be cold and callous but was no adventurer; he had committed his murders on a retail, not a wholesale, basis. At worst he might level a city in obscure Chechnya, but he would not be mad enough to blow to pieces jewels like Odessa or Kyiv in the heart of central Europe. The costs would be utterly disproportionate to whatever gains might accrue to him and his country.
I was not so sure. My reasons had nothing to do with a reading of secret intelligence (my security clearance had expired some years before) or a deep knowledge of Russia (which I lack) and everything to do with Shakespeare. In particular, having just reread Richard III for the seventh or eighth time, I thought something much worse for Ukraine and for the West was in the offing.
For the first three acts of that play, Richard III, Shakespeare’s consummate villain, commits a variety of deceits and crimes, including the murder of his own brother by having him drowned in a cask of sweet wine. But then in Act 4, immediately after his coronation, he commits his greatest crime, ordering the murder of his two nephews in the Tower of London. Yet something has changed. When he orders his loyal lieutenant Buckingham to kill the two princes, Buckingham has qualms. These take the form only of hesitation, not refusal, let alone rebuke. Still, Richard explodes:
Cousin, thou wast not wont to be so dull.
Shall I be plain? I wish the bastards dead,
And I would have it suddenly performed.
What sayst thou now? Speak suddenly. Be brief.4
This, Richard’s first murder as king, is different from the earlier ones. He has, until this point, concealed his intentions and his motivations. He has been deceptive, clever, and witty. Now, however, he is direct, violent, and dictatorial. Kingship and the experience of successful murder have transformed him into one who thinks he no longer need conceal his crimes or his purposes—indeed, he now revels in doing in the light what he has hitherto done in the dark. When Buckingham fails instantly and thoroughly to fall in line with Richard’s desires, he is, in effect, banished from the court, and his own murder becomes inevitable.
When talking to colleagues at Munich about Putin, I recognized a similar trajectory. Previously, the Russian dictator had acted ruthlessly but shrewdly. In 2008 he ripped away a chunk of Georgia and effectively crippled it as a potential member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In 2014 he seized Crimea, but did so with “little green men,” soldiers in uniforms without identifying insignia. This blurred for a time the world’s recognition that this was a Russian coup de main, though Putin subsequently acknowledged that these were in fact Russian special operations forces. In 2014 he also launched operations to seize parts of Ukraine’s Donbas provinces, but again he used a subterfuge: the supposed aspirations of local Russian speakers for autonomy. As Russian forces built up around Ukraine’s frontiers during the fall and early winter of 2021 and 2022, many observers expected a similarly masked landgrab.
On February 24, 2022, just a couple of days after the end of the conference, the attendees were stunned by the scale and wantonness of an invasion of Ukraine on three fronts. Putin’s speeches and writing began by expressing his intent to restore Ukraine to its status as a Russian province, or at the very least a protectorate, eventually giving way to a declared intention to eliminate it as a distinct nation-state altogether. The psychological pattern was the same as for Richard III. Having achieved tremendous successes with crime, a dictator lacking any moral center no longer felt inhibited about saying clearly what brutality would come next or dreaming of future, equally monstrous crimes. Indeed, like Richard, he positively relished it. “Like it or don’t like it, it’s your duty, my beauty,” Putin remarked in early February 2022.5 This threat, with its evocation of rape, is not unlike Richard’s attempt to conquer women, although without Richard’s more adroit efforts at seduction as well. For tyrants, rape and murder often seem to go together.
Shakespeare’s political insights at their most powerful reveal how leaders evolve, for better or worse, and why easy assumptions about leaders becoming more seasoned and cautious as they age may be wrong. They may grow wiser or more foolish, cautious or more reckless, but they will change. For that reason too it seems to me wisest to explore Shakespeare’s psychology of power as an arc. This provides another benefit, because some characters, particularly in the history plays, appear in more than one play. We see them change, and we also see different sides to their characters as the plays unfold.
The Hollow Crown spends most of its time on the better-known tragedies (e.g., Macbeth or King Lear) and the histories, particularly the eight-play cycle that begins with Richard II and ends with Richard III. Questions of power—how it is acquired and exercised—are present in many other plays, but these deal with those issues more directly and more accessibly than, say, Timon of Athens. Inevitably, and with regret, I have made less use of some of the best-loved plays (Hamlet, most notably), confining myself to those plays in which power is a central preoccupation.
This book assumes no deep familiarity with Shakespeare’s plays, though such knowledge will, of course, add to the reader’s enjoyment. Indeed, I hope that it may stimulate reading, or in some cases rereading, including of old favorites like Julius Caesar and perhaps more obscure plays such as Cymbeline as well. These plays look different depending upon the age and life experience one brings to his or her reading. That too is part of the joy of revisiting them—teaching them as well. It has been instructive to me that my younger students say that they would gladly follow Henry V after reading aloud his magnificent St. Crispin’s Day speech, even after I have done my best to show them that Shakespeare reveals him as a selfish and cold-blooded deceiver. For that matter, they probably think of my sympathy with Belarius, the despairing tutor of exiled princes in Cymbeline, as just the kind of crankiness you would expect of a battle-scarred old-timer. That was the view the princes took of Belarius too, come to think of it.
Shakespeare’s characters are often unnerving because he enables us to crawl inside the psyche of even the most repellent of them. William Hazlitt, one of the greatest of all Shakespearean critics, observes in his 1817 book Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays that “Shakespeare was in one sense the least moral of all writers; for morality (common so called) is made up of antipathies; and his talent consisted in sympathy with human nature, in all its shapes, degrees, depressions, and elevations.”6 It is this quality of empathy—so extraordinarily executed that audiences can feel moments of sympathy with villains and revulsion for heroes—that makes Shakespeare so penetrating and at times alarming to a student of the politics of power. We like our heroes and villains straight up, as it were, and Shakespeare pointedly denies us that.
If there is one quality essential for understanding politics it is empathy, the ability to imagine the other and see the world as they see it, no matter who they are and what they have done. The historian John Lukacs once observed that Winston Churchill was a better war leader than Adolf Hitler because he could, to some extent, imagine what it was like to be Hitler, while Hitler could never imagine what it was like to be Churchill.7 If we wish to understand the way powerful people behave, even if we loathe their behavior and mean to thwart their desires, we have to feel their passions and quirks, their ambitions and resentments, while temporarily suspending moral judgment. The study of Shakespeare’s characters develops our ability to empathize with those who seek, use, and leave power. This is not always a pleasant experience and often an unsettling one. Who, after all, wants to suspend judgment and say, in a tone of cool neutrality, “Yes, I can imagine what it is like to be that pitiless monster”?
Using Shakespeare to understand power requires navigating a number of pitfalls. Because Shakespeare’s characters are so remarkably distinct and well-defined, it is tempting to define our contemporaries too closely in terms of a particular Shakespearean character. Very few office conspirators are as wily and implacably malicious as Iago; not every indecisive president is as clueless as Richard II. Shakespeare’s characters are sometimes so well known that they can be too easily invoked as simplistic shorthand for real people. The 2016 production of Shakespeare in the Park, for example, was off base in portraying Julius Caesar as Donald Trump. The Roman was indisputably a great soldier, the American politician anything but. Caesar was a fatalist and Trump a believer in his unique abilities to achieve whatever he wanted.8 There were some points of resemblance, to be sure: the inflated ego (compare Trump’s “I alone can fix it” and Caesar’s “I am as constant as the northern star”), the superstitiousness, the quiet but fearful contempt elicited from their displaced rivals and subordinates. But too close an analogy is always bound to break down sooner or later, as have even wilder attempts to compare Trump with Richard III or Macbeth.
Shakespeare does not provide us a set of stereotypes but rather enriches our understanding of psychology and behavior more generally. We can see points of resemblance to contemporary figures (and this book will explore some of those), but we benefit chiefly from the broader and deeper understanding of human nature he grants us. And he does that by dealing not in archetypes but in variety and idiosyncrasy. Hazlitt again: “Every single character in Shakespeare, is as much an individual, as those in life itself.”9
In an era when statues and their heroes are toppled from their plinths, bardolatry may still be reckoned at least a venial sin. I take refuge in the words of one of the shrewdest of commentators: “An over-strained enthusiasm is more pardonable with respect to Shakespeare than the want of it; for our admiration cannot easily surpass his genius.”10
More than four centuries after his death, Shakespeare still has a great deal to teach. My own understanding of politics has been deepened by Shakespeare not only through his study of character but in how he can teach us to observe closely, to listen for not only what the powerful say but what they omit. 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.
The reader will note a somewhat dark tone in what follows. That is not coincidental. Shakespeare beguiles us with the fascination that power exerts; through him, even if we do not aspire to exercise it, we can better understand those who do. But the more I have experienced and observed of power and its workings, something else has emerged from my study of Shakespeare. In a variety of subtle ways, his plays reveal just how much damage power does to all human relationships and to the souls of those who wield it, particularly those who wield it without constraint. It is for that reason that I end the book by looking at whether Shakespeare believes it is possible to exercise power without crippling one’s soul and to relinquish it without, as does Lear, going mad.
There is, finally, a bit of a subtext in the book, which has to do with my own experiences with and observations of people wielding power in government, universities, foundations or institutions, and businesses. While I confess to a wry thought now and then, it would be foolish for anyone to suggest that in describing any particular Shakespearean character, be he or she hero, villain, or victim, I have some unnamed person in mind as a particularly compelling example, particularly of duplicity, arrogance, or some other vice. I almost never have. Besides, Shakespeare was a master at covering his tracks, and I have tried to emulate his example.
On August 17, 1863, not long after the Battle of Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to James H. Hackett, an American actor of some note in both the United States and Great Britain. Lincoln admired Hackett’s portrayal of Falstaff, but his letter grew particularly effusive when he described his love of Shakespeare’s broader body of work: “Some of Shakspeare’s [sic] plays I have never read; while others I have gone over perhaps as frequently as any unprofessional reader. Among the latter are Lear, Richard Third, Henry Eighth, Hamlet, and especially Macbeth. I think nothing equals Macbeth. It is wonderful.”1
He concluded by inviting Hackett to visit him in the White House. When Hackett did so, however, he was treated to a presidential chewing out for having omitted the play scene between Prince Hal and Falstaff in his recent performance of Henry IV, Part 1.2 The hapless actor learned, as have many since, that practicing politicians, including those of the first rank, have found in Shakespeare not merely diversion but truths about their chosen profession. He also learned that some of them do not take kindly to the cutting of their favorite scenes.
Lincoln had, like many on the frontier, been exposed to few books—but those he was able to acquire and read, he mastered. And one of those select volumes, for him as for so many others, was an edition of the collected works of Shakespeare. He carried cheap reprints of the plays with him in his early circuit-riding days and read and reread the plays to his final days, declaiming favorite speeches. During the war he often read aloud from Shakespeare to his somewhat bewildered young secretary John Hay, who noted his particular fascination with Richard II’s nervous collapse in Act 3 of that play: “For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings.”3
Later in the war, Lincoln visited the former Confederate capital, Richmond, newly occupied by Union forces. There he witnessed the devastation of the fires that swept the city as rebel forces retreated and was acclaimed by the formerly enslaved citizens of the town, now freed by Ulysses S. Grant’s army. On the steamer bringing him back to Washington, DC, he read this passage from Macbeth to his fellow passengers:
Better be with the dead
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave:
After life’s fitful fever, he sleeps well.
Treason has done his worst: nor steel nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,
Can touch him further.
Five days later, treason indeed did its worst in Ford’s Theatre.4
- “A thoughtful consideration of the complexities of power.”—Kirkus
- “In The Hollow Crown, Dr. Eliot A. Cohen blends his deep knowledge of Shakespeare with his decades of senior experience in public service and academia to produce a unique and compelling look at how Shakespeare’s themes about power and leadership continue to recur throughout history. Whether looking at unchecked ambition and the corrupting nature of power seen in Macbeth and Richard III, the manipulation and deception of Iago, or the integrity and moral clarity of Brutus, Dr. Cohen finds striking parallels throughout different chapters of American and world history. Cohen is one of the rare people who (like Hamlet) can rightly claim to be a man of thought and a man of action. Few can match his remarkable career chapters of public official, historian, writer, and educator. He is now bringing all those experiences together to reflect as Shakespeare did on the nature of power—how it can be used for good, how it can corrupt, and how it can be fragile and transient. Seeing the Civil War, World War II, and the war in Ukraine through the Shakespearean lens provided by Cohen is both illuminating and educational, as is considering how Vladimir Putin’s utter lack of a moral center is not unlike Richard III. Readers who love literature and history will love this book.”—General James Mattis, former United States secretary of defense
- “A terrific book by a thoughtful, articulate, and exceptional teacher-practitioner. In government and out, Cohen has consistently been one of the shrewdest observers of the exercise of power, and now we know one reason why: his mastery of Shakespeare. The Hollow Crown is a great read that is as instructive as it is enjoyable.”—David H. Petraeus, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency
- “The acquisition, holding, and loss of power in every realm of life are subjects of enduring fascination, most especially to William Shakespeare. Cohen, no stranger to power himself, in The Hollow Crown has written a remarkable book delving into Shakespeare’s unique insights into the psyche and arts—dark and otherwise—of those who wield power. Cohen brings his own perspective to the lessons Shakespeare offers about leadership for our own age, above all, ‘the preeminent importance of character in all of its complexity.’ The Hollow Crown is a must-read for self-understanding by all who seek or hold power and for those who seek insight about them from the greatest observer of human nature in the English language.”—Robert M. Gates, former United States secretary of defense
- “Cohen has come up with a genius idea for an entirely original book on leadership. Drawing on his encyclopaedic knowledge of Shakespeare—mainly the history plays, but also some of the tragedies—he weaves in his profound knowledge of modern politics to produce a subtle, scholarly, and highly convincing account of what it means to be a leader. This book represents an intriguing, insightful, witty, and often unsettling tour de force.”—Andrew Roberts, author of Churchill
- “After a career spent walking the corridors of power, Cohen now turns to Shakespeare to explain what he saw and experienced. Witty and erudite, this book relates Shakespeare’s heroes, rogues, and tyrants to the modern world, producing lessons all of us can use.”—Anne Applebaum, author of Red Famine
- “To Cohen’s many laurels earned as a public servant and scholar, add another: his deep reading of the West’s deepest student of humanity has yielded perennially pertinent lessons about the challenges of governance.”—George F. Will
- “The Hollow Crown is a book that’s not just about Shakespeare—it’s a guide to understanding power, and it should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand the mysteries of Washington in these troubled times. The book draws skillfully on Cohen’s years of experience observing the foibles of leaders up close to add modern perspective to the iconic kings and tyrants, generals and demagogues, who populate Shakespeare’s plays. It is insightful, fast-moving, and strikingly relevant to the present day.”—Susan Glasser, coauthor of The Divider
- “Thank goodness there still people in America who think and write with the subtlety of Cohen. His brilliant meditation on power and statecraft, The Hollow Crown, is a double helix; he takes us deep into Shakespeare’s plays and emerges with vivid portraits of our modern political figures. In Cohen’s reading, Shakespeare becomes a kind of Elizabethan Machiavelli—a man who observes power and politics with such a nuanced and unsentimental eye that his work is timeless. Cohen finds some astonishing Shakespearean moments on the American political stage—from Washington and Lincoln to Nixon and Obama—presidents whose ambitions and flaws match the characters Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies. People worry that reading and critical analysis are dying arts in America. Here’s powerful evidence it isn’t so.”—David Ignatius, columnist, Washington Post
- On Sale
- Oct 24, 2023
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Basic Books