Crowning Prince George

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

The New York Times

September 1, 2004

ASHLAND, Ore. — The most common literary allusion to President Bush is Shakespeare's Prince Hal, the hard-drinking, wild-living young man who sobers up, reforms and emerges as the great English warrior King Henry V.

So, as the Republicans once again crown Mr. Bush as their nominee, I decided to seek lessons from an expert on King Henry who is also one of the shrewdest analysts of current American politics and international affairs. That's right: Shakespeare. I went to Ashland for my annual pilgrimage to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, then started thinking about what Shakespeare might say if he were speaking at the Republican convention this week.

The paramount lesson in Shakespeare's plays is that the world is full of nuances and uncertainties, and that leaders self-destruct when they are too rigid, too sure of themselves or - Mr. President, lend me your ears - too intoxicated by moral clarity.

You see Shakespeare's passion for nuance in the way he portrays Henry V himself (you also see his prurience, for "Henry V" is Shakespeare's most obscene play, laced with X-rated double-entendres that make it an attractive introduction to the Bard for teenagers).

Shakespeare admires Henry, who, like Mr. Bush, is strong, decisive and funny to be around, as well as a victor in overseas battles that help soothe doubts about his legitimacy. Thus for several hundred years, the play "Henry V" was regarded as a celebration of Henry's invasions of France, and for that reason George Bernard Shaw and other liberal critics recoiled from it.

Yet beginning in the 20th century, critics began to see another subtext in "Henry V": an unblinking examination of the brutality and inevitable excesses of war, even depicting the Abu Ghraib scandal of the 15th century: Henry's order to murder French prisoners at Agincourt. Shakespeare's play can be seen as scorning the empty-headed jingoism that inflicts so much suffering as the ruler wraps himself in the flag. As Shakespeare writes in "Henry V" about wars of choice:

"But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make when all those legs and arms and heads chopped off in a battle shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such and such a place,' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeared there are few die well that die in a battle."

A related lesson for Mr. Bush, if he has time to read Shakespeare, is the inevitability of intelligence failures. In just about every play, characters put their faith in information that turns out to be catastrophically untrue. Lear believes his elder daughters; Romeo believes that Juliet is dead; Othello believes Iago's lies.

Shakespeare begins "Henry IV, Part 2," with the character of Rumor (who could today be played by Ahmad Chalabi), and he shows how kings get in trouble by relying on partial truths or flattery spun by sycophants like Goneril Tenet and Regan Wolfowitz.

"All these figures in Shakespeare suffer from hubris, and that's what W. is suffering from," says Kenneth Albers, a veteran Shakespearean actor who is playing Lear in Ashland.

Indeed, the only person who seems to provide Shakespeare's kings with sound advice is the court fool, who cannot be punished for saying unpalatable truths because jesting is his job. I urge Mr. Bush to appoint a White House fool.

Shakespeare is warning us against rash actions on the basis of flawed intelligence. Hamlet is sometimes seen as an indictment of indecision, but his "to be or not to be" soliloquy is a careful examination of the pros and cons of immediate action - a measured approach that Mr. Bush might have emulated before the Iraq war.

Instead, Mr. Bush emulates Coriolanus, a well-meaning Roman general and aristocrat whose war against barbarians leads to an early victory but who then proves so inflexible and intemperate that tragedy befalls him and his people.

Unless Mr. Bush learns to see nuance and act less rashly, he will be the Coriolanus of our age: a strong and decisive leader, imbued with great talent and initially celebrated for his leadership in a crisis, who ultimately fails himself and his nation because of his rigidity, superficiality and arrogance.