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Shakespeare on how leaders rise, rule and fall

Shakespeare on how leaders rise, rule and fall
Eliot Cohen's new book, "The Hollow Crown."

Eliot Cohen is a military historian and national security expert who deeply admires William Shakespeare for his astonishing command of the English language, profound insights into human character, and absorbing reflections on political power. And sometimes Shakespeare even helps him understand current events.

Cohen attended the Munich Security Conference in February of 2022, just before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Most of those attending the conference believed that Russian president Vladimir Putin’s threats to Ukraine either were a bluff or, at worst, signaled a minor Russian probe into Ukraine.

However Cohen was more fearful, not because he was privy to special intelligence but because he had just re-read Shakespeare’s “King Richard III” for the seventh or eighth time. He was haunted by the play’s message that leaders do not always moderate their behavior as they get older, but can become more reckless, vengeful, and violent. Cohen feared a similar psychological descent was happening to Putin and that a major war loomed. Unfortunately, he was right.

Author Eliot Cohen. Photo by Kaveh Sardari

Cohen’s compelling and powerful book, “The Hollow Crown: Shakespeare on How Leaders Rise, Rule, and Fall,” is a superb primer on Shakespeare, especially his perspective on human character and political power. “I have come to recognize that that there are few guides more perceptive than Shakespeare who can illuminate our understanding of how people get, use, and lose power,” Cohen writes. “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.”

Cohen is a native of Boston. He has undergraduate and graduate degrees in political science from Harvard where he also taught. He was a professor at the Army and Navy War colleges and at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He taught at SAIS for more than 30 years and was also the dean. Cohen served in the Defense and State Departments and on the Defense Policy Board. He is currently the Arleigh Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Cohen has written several important books including Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime and Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force. He is a contributing editor to The Atlantic.

Shakespeare has captivated Cohen since he was a student at Hebrew Day School in Boston. His essays on military history, national security, and politics are sprinkled with quotes from, and references to, Shakespeare. He created a class on Shakespeare for alumni at Johns Hopkins and for graduate students at SAIS. Developing these classes inspired him to write this book.

“The Hollow Crown” departs from the familiar play-by-play approach many scholars use when writing about Shakespeare. Instead, Cohen draws from Shakespeare to develop the Arc of Power—how leaders acquire, exercise, and lose power.

The book is packed with references to some of Shakespeare’s most unforgettable characters including Henry IV, Henry V, Richard III, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Prospero. Cohen relates their dilemmas and choices with those that confronted more contemporary leaders such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Adolph Hitler, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama.

Cohen describes Shakespeare’s interest in the various ways that power can be acquired; it can be inherited, gained through cunning, or seized by conspiracies or coups. Acquiring power can be a brass knuckles business. “Shakespeare’s view of how self-made men and women get to the top is not a pretty one. Those who are skillful mix soft manners and measured brutality, concealing what they can and revealing what they must,” Cohen writes.

While it can be hard to gain power, it is often more difficult to exercise it effectively. This requires inspiration, manipulation, and constant attention. “‘Henry V knows something that many leaders never fully realize: that having received an office or title, be it king, president, or chief executive officer, the holder must continue to win it day in, and day out. The great politicians are always aware that power can slip through their fingers, that they can be toppled in an election or simply by others failing to take them seriously…Henry V shows us that the wise, or at least the successful, leader never rests,” Cohen writes.

Inspiration is valuable when leaders exercise power, however manipulation is often used as well. “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. And Henry V teaches us that manipulation can in fact achieve great things, the acquisition of a kingdom and of glory. That profound lesson is often difficult for us to accept: we would rather that great results come from clean methods. But that is often not the case,” Cohen writes.

All leaders eventually relinquish power—whether through the mandated conclusion of their terms of office, lost elections, voluntary retirement, or involuntary removal. Shakespeare shows that losing power can be psychologically unsettling, even devastating. Cohen seizes on this truth as describes the final weeks of Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. She was sad, angry, and bewildered as former allies deserted her. She even referred in her diary to Macbeth.

Cohen believes a careful reading of Shakespeare will inform leaders that the pursuit of power will not necessarily lead to personal happiness. “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….In the end, Shakespeare is so powerfully compelling about power because he knows it is not the most important thing about our lives and characters. He can describe power with insight and empathy precisely because he understands that it is not what makes us human. He teaches us that power is necessary and unavoidable, but it also comes with a price. He teaches us most importantly that the wisest wielder of it will, with or without regrets, set aside the bargain of power at the expense of his or her soul, and happy or not, walk away free.”

Cohen believes that a central lesson that emerges from a careful reading of Shakespeare is the importance of empathy. “Empathy is the essential quality for those who desire to understand power and if Shakespeare teaches nothing else, it is the ability to inhabit the personality of someone utterly alien or even repugnant to us,” Cohen writes.

“The Hollow Crown” is deeply interesting and hugely edifying. It is a valuable primer on the timeless wisdom, even genius, of William Shakespeare. It also provides profound insights into the fragile and transitory nature of political power.

John Shaw

John Shaw is a contributing writer for the Diplomat and is the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.