How Shakespeare Can Teach Us About Politicians and Power

By Timothy Furnish Published on March 19, 2024

Comparing former President Donald Trump to Hitler is now conventional “wisdom.” Google brings up more than 41 million hits on that topic while “Biden as Hitler” gets 17 million hits. But many of those, based on the first few pages, are about POTUS 46 defaming “my predecessor” as (you guessed it): Hitler.

The more sophisticated Leftist isn’t so crass as to outright Nazify Trump. No, he would much rather liken him to one of William Shakespeare’s scoundrels. Using the Bard to score political points has a long history, after all. Just a few decades after the playwright’s death, John Milton likened the late King Charles I to the scheming, amoral Richard III. Fast-forward four centuries, and critics did the same to another Richard (Nixon). After the “conquests” of Afghanistan and Iraq, George W. Bush was compared — unfavorably — to Henry V. “Cerebral” Obama got lumped in with Hamlet. Not-President Hillary Clinton received the Lady Macbeth treatment.

But since 2015, political propagandists have most often leveled their Shakespearean slander at Trump. The most ambitious attempt was Stephen Greenblatt’s book Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics (2018), in which the learned Harvard humanities professor asks the president, “Shall I compare thee to Shakespeare villains?” Yes! Greenblatt finds many Bard baddies comparable to Trump: Richard III, of course. But also lower-class revolt leader Jack Cade (Henry VI Part 2). The murderous male Macbeth. The mad King Lear. And the clueless, militant Coriolanus. Briefer rundowns of how Trump personifies Shakespearean political evil have been done, such as in The Guardian and at Cleveland.com. There were so many of these that even The New York Times finally tired of this censorious cottage industry — but not until after the Big Apple’s Shakespeare in the Park 2017 production killed a Trump look-alike Julius Caesar.

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A Book with a Different Approach

Thus, it’s incredibly refreshing to see a book using Shakespeare’s plays as a lens through which to view modern politics that isn’t simply a Trump-bashing exercise. Eliot Cohen does this in The Hollow Crown: Shakespeare on How Leaders Rise, Rule, and Fall (2023). Unlike past writers in this vein, Cohen is neither a post-modernist English professor nor a journalist simply citing the Bard sans any real knowledge. He’s an Army veteran, with a doctorate in political science from Harvard, dean of Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies. And a Republican who served in the second Bush’s Cabinet. (He’s also a neocon who advocated the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But let’s not dismiss him outright.)

Cohen’s approach is to look at “the arc of power” — how it is acquired, exercised, and ultimately lost. “This approach differs from that of most of the classic commentaries on Shakespeare, which proceed by examining the plays one at a time.” Instead, he compares “characters and predicaments across plays.” He focuses on the history plays, but “assumes no deep familiarity” with them. So this is an accessible book. And he warns against doing what Greenblatt and others have done, which is “to define our contemporaries too closely in terms of a particular Shakespeare character” or “invoke [them] as simplistic shorthand for real people.” The Bard deals not in archetypes, or even stereotypes. Rather, he delights in “variety and idiosyncrasy.”

Cohen points out that both Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill admired and drew upon Shakespeare for “his truths about human nature” as well as “the art of rhetoric.” But, alas, so too did the Nazis, big fans of the antisemitism of The Merchant of Venice and the naked will to power of Coriolanus. “That Shakespeare could be adored by both the heroes and the monsters of modern politics is disturbing.”

Thus it’s best to use him as a “mirror,” per Samuel Johnson. “We like to think that whatever we see in the mirror is beautiful; Shakespeare forces us to realize that there may be ugly or even hideous things there. And he shows that sometimes the bad guys understand their world and the characters of those around them better than the good guys do.” In this vein Cohen likens Vladimir Putin, not Trump, to the murderous Richard III.

Why put any stock in a playwright’s take on political actors? Because Shakespeare was quite familiar with the English court of his time. And he was extremely well-read in both English and classical (Graeco-Roman) history. He thus examines politics in three types of plays: most obviously, the English histories. But also the ancient world. And “imaginary kingdoms.” In these three settings, Cohen draws most heavily upon, respectively, Henry IV Part 1; Julius Caesar; and The Tempest. Cohen divides the book into three major sections. Acquiring, wielding, and losing power. He then draws lessons from the plays for each category.

Acquiring Power

One can gain power by inheritance, cunning acquisition, or outright seizure. The hapless but arrogant Richard II exemplifies inherited power. Henry Bolingbroke, who takes the crown away from him and rules as Henry IV, embodies the second approach. Cohen in fact sees Henry IV as “one of Shakespeare’s canniest kings.” (A view I support, having studied him and played him on stage.) Julius Caesar and Macbeth personify seizing power, although both ultimately fail. Cohen adduces no modern analogs for inherited power, but it’s not hard to see Hillary Clinton as most akin to Richard II. Cohen likes Churchill as one who maneuvered himself into power, although Trump is just as good an example. Cohen, again, brings up Putin, this time in the Caesar or Macbeth vein. (Rather confusingly, as Putin has won elections — so probably fits better into the second category.)

Wielding Power

Once gained, power can be wielded in three ways. Via inspiration, manipulation, or murder. Henry V is much more inspirational than his capable but uncharismatic father. (Here’s cinematic proof.) According to Cohen, Churchill (again), John F. Kennedy and Ukrainian President Volodomir Zelensky are of this type. I would add Ronald Reagan.

The author also thinks that Henry V exemplifies political manipulation of the masses. He finds Lyndon Johnson to be the best modern American example of this, for he “had, as cunning manipulators do, a feral instinct for others’ weaknesses.” LBJ was, in fact, “vile” but “accomplished some great things.” (David Frum’s recent attempt to rehabilitate the racist Woodrow Wilson comes to mind.)

As for ruling by murder, Cohen distinguishes between Shakesperean leaders “who kill in a limited fashion and those who wallow in slaughter.” Henry IV is the former. Richard III and Macbeth and (for Cohen) Putin are the latter. Although his claim that the Russian President “carpeted Ukrainian fields with corpses and apocalyptic threats” is hyperbolic, Cohen cannot avoid a Hitler comparison himself — but at least it’s to Putin, not Trump. He then brings in China’s leader Xi Jinping, accusing him of “near genocide” (whatever that means) of the Uyghurs.

Losing Power

A politician can lose power by folly, mischance, or abdication. Henry VI — Henry V’s pious but hapless son — lost the throne the first way, but he had help. Cohen notes that in all three Henry VI plays, “the interests of England are ignored or subverted by a flawed elite consumed by their competition for power at the expense of the country’s needs.” Is there a more apt description of the bipartisan malady afflicting America in 2024? Henry’s best modern analog is former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, “the brilliant intellectual who fails utterly in practical politics.”

To explicate the second category of power loss, Cohen joins mischance to “magic and self-deception” — not entirely successfully. He cites The Tempest here. Prospero, deposed from the dukedom of Milan and exiled to an island, learns magic to take control and ultimately regain his political power. Barack Obama is his modern stand-in, having a “kind of magic” due to his “imperturbability and oratory.” But Obama fell victim to hubris, and both he and his ardent supporters “succumbed to magical thinking,” believing that Obama merely speaking about something made it happen.

Indeed, the Obama and Biden administrations’ magical thinking about Iran continues to bedevil American foreign policy. Cohen can’t resist a shot at Trump here, opining that when Obama’s second term ended, “his political party suffered a devastating loss to an American Jack Cade, a populist businessman with a long history of lying and grifting.” Finally, Lear gives up power willingly, with no idea of how much trouble will follow. “Lear is not just the tragedy of a choleric old man in his dotage; it is also the story of the troubles that come hurtling down on a kingdom when its leader has taken leave of his senses.” I wonder which current American leader that might describe?

Politics Is About People, Not Just Politicians

While Cohen, like Shakespeare, focuses on elites and leaders, he wants us to remember the masses, “average people.” “Repeatedly in Shakespeare, the elites, no matter how brilliant or skilled, fail to appreciate why normal people do not think the way they do or share their values.” This same malady explains the surprise successes of Brexit and Donald Trump. Shakespeare often rebukes elite contempt for the “groundlings” and does not hesitate to show politicians’ dark sides. Yet at the same time “he does not deny the possibility of real political greatness.” 

What were his politics? No one knows for sure. Shakespeare was, as noted earlier, a “mirror of life. … not a political philosopher or a pundit.” But he expressed his sage observations on political leaders more beautifully than anyone else in English literature. And while true that Shakespeare very rarely openly espoused Christianity, he was clearly both a Christian and a Christian Renaissance humanist writer.

Cohen downplays Christian faith in the plays too much, in my opinion. God is present in his plays (and often invoked by characters), but mostly behind the scenes –much as He is in current American and world politics. Shakespeare reminds us that good Christians can be bad rulers (Henry VI) and bad Christians or non-Christians can be effective ones (Prospero). But both types need the support, and prayers, of us average people.

And that is a valuable lesson.

 

Timothy Furnish holds a Ph.D. in Islamic, World and African history from Ohio State University and a M.A. in Theology from Concordia Seminary. He is a former U.S. Army Arabic linguist and, later, civilian consultant to U.S. Special Operations Command. He’s the author of books on the Middle East and Middle-earth, a history professor and sometime media opiner (as, for example, on Fox News Channel’s War Stories: Fighting ISIS). He currently writes for and consults with The Stream on matters of international security.

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