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Plays and Power Plays

CC Political Science Professor Tom Cronin examines politics and leadership in Shakespeare's works

Plays and Power Plays

It may seem odd in this age of digital media and electronic gadgetry to turn to a 16th-century playwright for lessons about 21st-century politics.

But as Colorado College Political Science Professor Tom Cronin notes in his chapter in the newly published “Shakespeare and Politics,” more than 20 of Shakespeare’s plays deal explicitly with politics and leadership. Shakespeare’s works – especially his histories and tragedies – reverberate with issues of leadership succession, seizing power, rulership, manipulation and deceit, authority, the uses and abuses of power, and the rule of law and justice.  An underlying theme of Shakespeare’s is that the possession of power reveals character.

Cronin’s chapter, “On Shakespeare’s Commanders and Kings,” contends that Shakespeare was an insightful and astute student of human nature and human behavior. “He lays before us the good, the bad, and the ugly of politics and power and the precarious nature of the human condition. He reaffirms that no one is perfect and that all of us, leaders especially, are a composite of good and evil inclinations. This was his genius and why we find him so relevant in our time.”

Cronin notes that “Macbeth” deals with kingship, “The Tempest” with power, “Julius Caesar” with individual glory and the battle for a republic versus empire, “Coriolanus” with pride and democracy, “Cymbeline” with war and peace, “Measure for Measure” with the rule of law and hypocrisy, “King Lear” with political succession and temperament, “Henry V” with what it takes to be a leader, “Hamlet” with decision making, “Richard III” with how power is exercised and abused, and “Othello” with power, emotions, revenge and how, paradoxically, powerful people can be manipulated and misled.

In conclusion, Cronin finds that leaders and leadership mattered to Shakespeare, and that he portrayed the job of being a leader as difficult, the path slippery, the pitfalls and paradoxes many. Most leaders fail because of their inability to control their human weaknesses, as evidenced in Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our starts/but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

The book, edited by Bruce E. Altschuler and Michael A. Genovese, is published by Paradigm Publishers.