‘Joseph,” my friend Edward Shils said to me, “we have spoken about many things, among them about various writers, but we are both too civilized ever to talk about Shakespeare. After all, what could one say?” Yes, what can one say? Over a long writing career, I have never written about Shakespeare, and, best I can recall, among the many millions of words I have produced, have never even quoted him. Truth is, I have long admired Shakespeare without being especially nuts about him. 

Shakespeare’s reputation is, of course, at least two stages above the iconic. In the vast library of writings about him, Shakespeare’s genius is rarely if ever at issue; most writing about him sets itself to certify that genius or explain how it works. Harold Bloom, never one for the light touch, wrote that Shakespeare “taught us to understand human nature”; his power of creating personalities is “beyond explanation”; and he is ultimately “a system of northern lights, an aurora borealis visible where most of us will never go … almost too vast to apprehend.” Bloom’s final book carries the title Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.

Samuel Johnson extolled Shakespeare, as did Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Hazlitt. In Tales from Shakespeare, Charles Lamb and his sister Mary wrote a book retelling Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies for children. In 1946, W.H. Auden gave a yearlong course at the New School for Social Research on Shakespeare that filled the school’s auditorium to capacity. Shakespeare has had no shortage of passionate admirers. 

On the other, the contra, side, Tolstoy contemned Shakespeare at considerable length. In the essay in which he did so, Tolstoy calls Shakespeare “an insignificant and inartistic writer.” Tolstoy held that the unmitigated worship of Shakespeare really took international flight with Goethe’s admiration for him at the turn of the 19th century, which spread to the point that, for any young person, “when he is reading or listening to Shakespeare the question for him is no longer whether Shakespeare be good or bad, but only: In what consists that extraordinary beauty, both esthetic and ethical, of which he has been assured by learned men whom he respects, and which he himself neither sees nor feels?” 

Absent from Shakespeare, for Tolstoy, was the religious essence of art. By this Tolstoy meant not Christianity or any specific religion, “not the direct inculcation of any religious truths in an artistic guise, and not an allegorical demonstration of these truths, but the exhibition of a definite view of life corresponding to the highest religious understanding of a given time, which, serving as the motive for the composition of the drama, penetrates, to the knowledge of the author, through all of his work. So it has always been with true art, and so it is with every true artist in general and especially the dramatist.” For Tolstoy, this element is crucially missing in Shakespeare. Toward the close of his essay, Tolstoy wrote: 

If people wrote of Shakespeare that for his time he was a good writer, that he had a fairly good turn for verse, was an intelligent actor and good stage manager—even were this appreciation incorrect and somewhat exaggerated—if only it were moderately true, people of the rising generation might remain free from Shakespeare’s influence. But when every young man entering into life in our time has presented to him, as the model of moral perfection, not the religious and moral teachers of mankind, but first of all Shakespeare, concerning whom it has been decided and handed down by learned men from generation to generation, as an incontestable truth, that he was the greatest poet, the greatest teacher of life, the young man cannot remain free from this pernicious influence.

Tolstoy was not alone in being unconvinced of Shakespeare’s genius. Voltaire, after first being an admirer of Shakespeare, later turned against him: “I was the first who showed to the French a few pearls which I found in his enormous dunghill.” George Bernard Shaw wrote that “I have striven hard to open English eyes to the emptiness of Shakespeare’s philosophy, to the superficiality and second-handedness of his morality, to his weakness and incoherence as a thinker, to his snobbery, his vulgar prejudices, his ignorance, his disqualifications of all sorts for the philosophic eminence claimed for him.” T.S. Eliot, too, had his reservations, and about Hamlet Eliot wrote: “We must simply admit that here Shakespeare tackled a problem which proved too much for him. Why he attempted it at all is an insoluble puzzle; under compulsion of what experience he attempted to express the inexpressibly horrible, we cannot ever know.”

Along with 154 sonnets, Shakespeare wrote 37 plays (38, according to Mel Brooks, who in his guise as the 2,000-Year-Old Man, claimed to have put money into the last one, Queen Alexandra and Murray, which closed in Egypt.) Of these, Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice, and Julius Caesar are at the center of the canon of Anglophone literature. All have brilliant touches, memorable characters, word-music playing throughout. That Shakespeare wrote these and his other plays under the pressure of commercial production is all the more impressive. Yet Shakespeare was better at deploying language than at contriving plots. D.H. Lawrence wrote: “How boring, how small Shakespeare’s people are! / Yet the language so lovely! like the dyes from gas-tar.”

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In The Hollow Crown: Shakespeare on How Leaders Rise, Rule, and Fall, Eliot A. Cohen is firmly in the towering-genius camp. A counselor to the State Department under Condoleezza Rice and a former dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of International Studies at Johns Hopkins, Cohen is a political scientist with a literary bent. In The Hollow Crown, he sets out to establish that Shakespeare adumbrated nearly all the significant behavior of politicians and others in power (CEOs, university presidents and provosts, etc.). Read Shakespeare and you will better understand the behavior of politicians, past and present—that is the theme of The Hollow Crown. Cohen allows that “insofar as politics is concerned, his [Shakespeare’s] focus is narrow: the dynamics of courts and the drama of power as theater. But that is room enough for us to learn whence power comes, how it is used, and how it is lost.” 

Cohen takes his title from a speech of Richard in Richard II: “For within the hollow crown / That rounds the mortal temples of a king … ” He has organized his book around three central sections: Acquiring Power, Exercising Power, and Losing Power. Within these sections he takes up such matters of political leadership as inspiration, manipulation, magic, self-deception, departing office, and a final chapter on “Shakespeare’s Political Vision.” In each section and subsection, he consults the plays of Shakespeare for his wisdom on the subject at hand. 

Shakespeare’s historical plays take up much of these consultations, though Professor Cohen also deals at length with King Lear and Macbeth. More often than not, he begins with setting out what Shakespeare has to say about his various subjects, and then connects this to the careers of actual political figures—among them Winston Churchill, Adolph Hitler, Richard Nixon, Margaret Thatcher, Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, and others. (Steering clear of the uncomfortably current, he mentions Donald Trump only a few times in passing and Joe Biden merely once.) As Cohen notes at the close of his chapter “Magic and Self-Deception”: “Shakespeare teaches us that magical powers, or something that very much resembles them, can be real—but you still need to be able to count votes, fight battles, and make a prudent and clear getaway. Otherwise, you can find yourself deposed, overwhelmed in battle, or, in the worst case, burning at the stake.”

Cohen allows that Shakespeare had no discernible politics, or at least, none that can be conveniently labeled monarchist or republican, right or left, liberal or conservative. “We do not know Shakespeare’s political views or, indeed, whether he had any,” he writes. Tolstoy found this among the most distressing things about him. Shakespeare, in his view, had “no convictions at all, but heaped up in his drama all possible events, horrors, fooleries, discussions, and effects.” Tolstoy thought art the most efficient, and effective, means of putting humanity in touch with the mysteries of the universe, with heightening our consciousness of moral struggle, and with determining our place in it. The writing of Shakespeare’s having abandoned this primary role of serious art rendered his plays for Tolstoy “trivial and immoral.”

As for Cohen’s politics, they are centrist and measured. Evidence of this is found in his treatment of such modern political figures as Richard Nixon, Barack Obama, and others. He grants Nixon all his accomplishments—extricating America from Vietnam, opening relations with China, stabilizing them with the Soviet Union, repairing the welfare state—while recognizing that “if anything destroyed Nixon it was petty hatreds, his desire for revenge against those he believed looked down on him or had kicked him around.” After summarizing Nixon’s farewell speech upon his resignation from office, Professor Cohen concludes: “Like Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII, the fallen president had acquired bitter wisdom too late to benefit from it.” 

Barack Obama is for Cohen almost a reverse case. He thinks Obama, who was rare in being undaunted by his attaining high office, suffered from what he calls “magical thinking, a belief that mere will or conviction or intelligence would translate into action.” As we now know, it didn’t; and Obama’s achievements in office, unlike Nixon’s, were few. “Like Prospero,” Professor Cohen writes, “Obama neglected the small arts of politics. This man—so celebrated at home and abroad—ended up with results that can only be described as mediocre.” 

But the larger question raised by The Hollow Crown is whether we can truly learn significant lessons about politics and political life from Shakespeare’s plays. I not long ago wrote a brief book arguing that the novel, and imaginative literature generally, provided knowledge deeper than that provided by social science, history, and philosophy. I claimed that imaginative literature took up the crucial matter of human nature, that in dealing with particular cases and dramatizing them it exhibited life in its rich variety in a way no other discipline or division of learning did, that, in the words of Milan Kundera, it dealt with “the paradoxical nature of action” and “the role the irrational plays in our decisions in our own lives.” All this being so, I ought to be an ideal reader of The Hollow Crown. 

And yet throughout Cohen’s pages I found myself doubtful that Shakespeare’s plays have much to teach us about the life of politics. As with writing, quarterbacking, and lovemaking, politics, I believe, can be learned but not taught. Allow me to unravel what sounds like a Zen koan. Political ideas abound, from Plato and Aristotle, to Bacon and Machiavelli, to John Locke and Edmund Burke, to John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. But Shakespeare does not deal in ideas. Nor is he interested, as Professor Cohen notes, in economics or religion. His chief subject is kings and courtiers, and the acquisition, expenditure, and loss of monarchial power. He deals, as an imaginative artist ought, with particular cases and facts that may or may not turn into ideas, though, in Shakespeare’s case, they rarely do. One may be swept up by the stories he has to tell, but the usable takeaway from them is minimal at best. 

Cohen would argue otherwise. His method in The Hollow Crown is to adduce a section of one of the plays, often explicating the text, and then show how the same or similar conduct has turned up in actual, usually contemporary politicians. He cites the course of murder that Macbeth, after having slain King Duncan, sets out on. His contemporary analog to Macbeth in this regard is Vladimir Putin, of whom he notes, in Ukraine, his “indiscriminate bombing of cities, the kidnapping of children, and the torture and assassination of Ukrainian officials escalated over time,” adding that “whether he had an inclination to stop or not, he no longer could.” But the notion of Putin as a modern Macbeth doesn’t persuade. Macbeth, who listened to witches, was in the end quite mad, Putin villainous beyond psychology. 

Or take the case of John F. Kennedy, who appears in Cohen’s chapter “Inspiration.” After discussing the wont of inspiration in Henry Bolingbroke, later the key figure in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, he briefly takes up Winston Churchill, who through his brilliant use of language in his speeches in World War II did inspire the English against great odds to continue the fight and emerge victorious over the Nazis. Cohen then goes on to cite John F. Kennedy, who “himself inspired a generation in his presidential inaugural speech of 1961, evoking as he did the transition of leadership, at a critical moment in the Cold War, from the leaders of World War II to the subalterns who fought in it.” The problem here is how short-lived that inspiration was. Soon after delivering the speech—written, as is well known, not by him but by Ted Sorenson—Kennedy, fearing the loss of support in the South, failed fully to back the civil-rights movement and next set out on the misbegotten Bay of Pigs venture. Kennedy’s assassination, sad truth to tell, may have been a good career move when it comes to the historical record.

Cohen takes up the case of Lyndon Johnson in his chapter on manipulation. He finds “Shakespearean flaws” in Johnson. “Johnson,” he writes, “was a great manipulative leader, until he encountered a problem [the Vietnam War] he could not manipulate his way through. Henry V was an extraordinary leader, who could both inspire (in a way that Johnson never could) and manipulate. For both men, Fortune had the final say, no matter what their talents, aspirations, or dreams.”

Similarly, Cohen notes that “the tale of Margaret Thatcher’s fall … has themes that Shakespeare would have recognized.” In Xi Jinping’s ruthless rise to power, he finds that “a Shakespearean dynamic infuses these acts: some repression requires more, for the simple reason that one’s enemies accumulate over time.” He finds, too, the Bard in the fall of Nikita Khrushchev, who was “deposed by his own proteges … and at the peak of his power when the blow fell.” He compares Shakespeare’s Richard II to Ashraf Ghani, the last president of Afghanistan before he departed office and gave way to the Taliban.

I was surprised that Cohen did not compare the indecisiveness of Adlai Stevenson, who when running for president could not seem to get his tongue around the phrase “I want it,” to Hamlet. Or Hillary Clinton to Lady Macbeth: “Out, out blond Trump?” Or George W. Bush, the ultimate legatee, to Henry VI? Lining up contemporary politicians with Shakespearean characters—we have here, perhaps, the makings of a parlor game. 

Throughout his relatively brief book, Cohen pauses to explain the contents of various speeches in Shakespeare and the characters of the figures making them. Some of these passages, old-fashioned explications de texte, run to 10 or more pages. Mid-book he offers an 18-page summary of Julius Caesar, a play I have long thought ought properly to have been given the title Marcus Brutus, for Brutus is its true subject. Along the way, he quotes from many of these speeches, and that put me in mind of Tolstoy again, for according to the Russian, all characters in Shakespeare sound alike:

Shakespeare always speaks for kings in one and the same inflated, empty language. Also in one and the same Shakespearian, artificially sentimental language speak all the women who are intended to be poetic: Juliet, Desdemona, Cordelia, Imogen, Marina. In the same way, also, it is Shakespeare alone who speaks for his villains: Richard, Edmund, Iago, Macbeth, expressing for them those vicious feelings which villains never express.

Whatever the sameness of the speech Shakespeare allows his characters, he could nonetheless ring music out of words, rendering so many of them memorable. “To be or not to be: that is the question.” “The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women mere players.” “If music be the food of love, play on…” Life is “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / signifying nothing.” “To thine own self be true.” “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” “Ah, the Bible and Shakespeare,” an old joke runs, “so many clichés.” 

I not long ago read seven of Shakespeare’s plays, thinking I would make my way through all of them before departing the planet. (Who knows, there may be a quiz at the gates of heaven or, more likely, to get out of that other place.) The plays I read are The Tempest, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Richard III, Henry VIII, Coriolanus, and Julius Caesar. Some I had read before. Not all gave pleasure. None blew me away. Might Mae West have been wrong when she said that you can’t have too much of a good thing? Or is Shakespeare perhaps, contra the world, not all that good a thing? In any case, were I packing those nine or 10 desert-island books, a volume of Shakespeare’s plays would not be among them.

What I find missing from the plays of William Shakespeare is engagement of a kind that is central to the writing I care most about. One admires his range, but not his depth. He could do comedy and tragedy, magic and realism, fools who are intelligent and kings who are fools, witches and bitches both. Yet he tends to view the world of his characters from 30,000 feet above the earth. More amused than concerned about the moral complexities of their plights, he sometimes seems more puppet master than playwright. Let others read him and rave on, I, for one, have had my fill of the old Bard of Stratford on Avon.

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