Shakespeare’s Political Theater

From The Wall Street Journal:

Most of us dislike performative politics, and for good reason. Congressmen and Senators take votes that they know will prove meaningless to the outcome of legislation, give fiery speeches to empty chambers, and rant at befuddled witnesses who have no opportunity to answer their questions because none are really posed. It is theater, in a thoroughly negative sense of the term.

But, as Shakespeare teaches us, theater suffuses all of politics, for better and worse. It is one of the reasons why Lincoln and Churchill adored him and memorized large swatches of his plays’ famous speeches. It is one of many reasons why reading him continues to be an education in politics, including our own.

If one wants to learn, for example, how politicians who are intelligent and upright but dull and theatrically clueless can get beaten by a talented demagogue, study the famous scene in “Julius Caesar” that takes place by the slain dictator’s corpse and before a large, unruly crowd. Brutus, the reluctant leader of the conspiracy to kill Caesar and thus to prevent him from crushing Roman freedom, insists on some terrible theatrical choices. He marches out his fellow conspirators, their arms bathed in blood, when he actually wants to show that they are not butchers. He gives a speech in dull prose rather than stirring poetry, and the word he uses most is “I.” He then leaves the stage to Mark Antony, Caesar’s grieving, cunning and vindictive friend.

Antony, by contrast, not only gives a powerful speech in iambic pentameter, he also uses the body as a prop, gathering the mob around him, saying that he will “Show you sweet Caesar’s wounds, poor poor dumb mouths,/And bid them speak for me.” In an artful speech, artfully delivered, he turns the people to his cause. Consummate actor that he is, in a cynical aside after they go off to burn, murder and riot, he says to the audience, “Mischief, thou art afoot: Take thou what course thou wilt.”

For Shakespeare, politics is theater, and that’s no less true of modern politics. There is costuming: Think of John F. Kennedy going hatless to his inauguration, thereby drawing a contrast between his youth and vigor and that of his much older and more conventional predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower. There is the stage, whether a monumental square or a more intimate fireside. There are the directors—the political bosses and manipulators behind the scenes—and the actors. There’s an audience or, as in Shakespeare’s time, multiple audiences, from the groundlings standing near the stage, delighted by the fight scenes and dirty jokes, to the seated sophisticates reveling in the clever wording. And there are critics, whose equivalents today are journalists and pundits.

Shakespeare’s most brilliant political creation is probably Henry V, the boy king who charms us all even though he launches an unjust war, shuns his dying mentor Falstaff and thereby breaks his heart, and orders the execution of an old friend. Henry threatens civilians with appalling prospects of rape and murder and casually orders the massacre of prisoners. In the biggest hoodwinking of all, he tells his soldiers that they and their noble superiors will be a “band of brothers” after the battle of Agincourt. But he quietly confides to the audience that they are fools, slaves and peasants who do not understand how he maintains the peace, while he fights an unnecessary war for his own glory. It’s all one astounding act, and even though we know the truth, we go along with it.

It is easy to miss this and much more—Henry’s seductions, lies and self-pity—because he is so good at theater. When, for example, before going off to war he has to quash a conspiracy of three nobles, he does so with a mastery of the stagecraft of show trials that would have made Stalin proud. In a public meeting with the unsuspecting nobles, he makes a pretense of showing clemency to a man who had publicly denounced him. They urge severity instead, and then he springs the trap, condemning them to death: “The mercy that was quick in us but late/By your own counsel is suppressed and killed.”

It’s a neat play, staged for the benefit of other nobles, and it makes Henry look good—inclined to clemency if this were merely a personal offense, but obliged by patriotic duty and the heinous behavior of the three conspirators to cut off their heads. As is usually the case, he passes off responsibility to others: They confess and cannot argue for clemency.

Political theater is powerful, as Henry shows, because we as the audience can know all the facts, and yet still feel in our bones that if he showed up tomorrow we would gladly follow him.

But political theater can also do enormous good. When Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, the acting talents of President Volodomyr Zelensky enabled him to rally not only his people but the entire liberal-democratic world to his side. A prominent Shakespeare director once told me that the first and most consequential choices he made had to do with costuming and stage set. Zelensky seems to understand this. He appeared on that night, as he has thereafter, in olive drab garments that are not precisely a uniform but are clearly the garb of, as Shakespeare’s Henry calls himself, a “warrior for the working day.” He dresses like a civilian commander-in-chief, not pretending to be a generalissimo but obviously focused on his role as a wartime leader.

Zelensky’s stage set that first night of the war was a city street in a Kyiv under attack, with his immediate advisers and subordinates clustered by him. “We are all here,” he said. “Our soldiers are here. The citizens are here, and we are all here. We will defend our independence. That’s how it will go.”

It was brilliantly done. Theater requires contrasts. Here, the street scene and the positioning of Zelensky’s team were in vivid contrast—intended, one suspects—with the absurd television pictures of Vladimir Putin glowering, from 30 or 40 feet away, at his cowed underlings in a vast, gilded meeting room. Zelensky’s speech used all the tricks of anaphora, or repetition, that Shakespeare deploys to masterly effect (“We few, we happy few”). Churchill used this simplicity and directness to similar effect in the dark June of 1940, when he said that Britain would fight, “if necessary for years, if necessary alone. At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty’s Government—every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the nation.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)