Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Shakespeare and politics from an unaccustomed vantage point

A popular seminar at SAIS Europe this autumn was based on four works by an Englishman born in the 16th century, writings that sit comfortably in a literature program. Prof. Eliot Cohen, head of SAIS' Strategic Studies concentration, taught the unusual addition to the Bologna Center's repertoire: "Shakespeare on War and Politics".

Q: How did you get the idea for your seminar, “Shakespeare on War and Politics”?
Cohen: I love Shakespeare and got the idea for beginning to do something like this after my wife and I saw "Henry VIII," which is not often performed. Cardinal Wolsey, who has just been fired by the King, gives a wonderful speech that begins “Farewell. A long farewell to all my greatness.” It struck me then, as now, that Shakespeare gives insights into dimensions of politics that are worth sharing with students. Believe me, there are plenty of Washington figures, including some whom I know personally, who would identify with Wolsey.

Prof. Eliot Cohen
Q: Why would a SAIS student want to devote time to this kind of extra-curricular series?
Cohen: Curiosity. Shakespeare's intoxicating language. A desire to see the world of politics from an unaccustomed vantage point.

Q: How did you choose the four works that were read as part of the series?
Cohen: The theme I wanted to explore was ambition and the dangerous consequences of yielding to it. "Macbeth" is perhaps the darkest of Shakespeare’s plays on that theme and a favorite of Abraham Lincoln’s. "Coriolanus" and "Julius Caesar" are probably the best of his Roman plays, with the former dealing with civil-military relations, among other things, and the latter the way in which different kinds of ambition overwhelm human beings who are neither foolish nor without attractive values. "Richard II" deals with what happens when an illegitimate but highly competent aspirant for power encounters someone who has a legitimate claim on power, but no idea how to use it wisely.

Q: What did you discover as you prepared your series of lectures?
Cohen: One reads much more carefully than on one’s own or when watching a play. I enjoyed most thinking through the questions I would use to get the students thinking, while simply savoring the language.

Q: Will you be using some of what you learned in this lecture series as part of your Strategic Studies courses at SAIS?
Cohen: Shakespeare has shown up in a number of my courses, but the main takeaway is the appeal of this material to students. So I suspect that a noncredit seminar on Shakespeare is going to be part of my teaching repertoire at SAIS for some time. We’re planning another set of plays for SAIS Washington this spring, in fact!

Q: What are the three main lessons for today’s policymakers from the works that were read for the series?
Cohen: That once you launch on a course of action that is violent or illegitimate, you cannot foretell the second and third order consequences that will come your way -- most of which will be bad. That political leaders often deceive themselves about their motives. That leadership which falls back on mere authority, rather than more durable forms of support and acquiescence, will fail. Are these new lessons? No. But are they portrayed more powerfully than anywhere else I know? Indubitably.

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