All the world's a stage," observes Jacques in As You Like It, "and all the men and women merely players." No sphere of human life is more theatrical than politics. And seldom has the world's political stage seemed more Shakespearean than it does today. To judge by the number of bodies that currently litter it, we appear to be nearing the end of Act V of The Tragedie of King George.
By the concluding scenes of Shakespeare's greatest political tragedies - Hamlet, Julius Caesar, King Lear and Macbeth - nearly all the principal characters lie dead. So it is with King George, the tragic tale of a simple, unworldly fellow who ascends the throne of a great empire, responds heroically to an unprovoked attack, but then wreaks havoc by turning from retaliation to pre-emption.
The latest corpse to slump lifeless beneath the proscenium arch is that of Paul Wolfowitz, who last week finally resigned as president of the World Bank. As one of the principal architects of the Iraq War when he was United States deputy secretary of defence, Mr Wolfowitz was always going to be subjected to intense scrutiny in his new job.
His decision to award his girlfriend, Shaha Riza, promotion and a pay-rise was, to say the least, ill-judged, especially in the wake of his own vociferous campaign against Third World corruption.
Another central character has taken the political equivalent of slow-acting poison. Tony Blair, King George's most loyal foreign ally, is not quite dead yet - indeed, he appears intent on delivering his final monologue in all the major capitals of the globe - but he is not long for the political world.
Think back to 2003, when the decision to invade Iraq was taken. One after another, the politicians who most strongly supported the decision have been ousted from office. The Spanish premier Jos' Maria Aznar was one of the earliest casualties in March 2004. Leszek Miller, the man who took Poland into the war, did not last much longer. Their Italian counterpart Silvio Berlusconi went down this time last year.
As in Julius Caesar, the fault is not in the central characters' stars, but in themselves. George W Bush's dominant character traits, his decisiveness and tenacity, at first appeared to be strengths. But once he had been convinced by his advisers that the attacks of 9/11 furnished a pretext for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, these became weaknesses.
As in Macbeth, King George was soon "in blood stepp'd in so far" that turning back seemed no more attractive than wading onward. Remember: the corpses that litter this stage can already be counted in the tens, if not the hundreds, of thousands.
And, as in King Lear, the whole catastrophe has stemmed from a fatal confusion at the outset between the true and the false, enemy and friends. Lear succumbs to the flattery of the ugly sisters, Regan and Goneril, and casts out the blunt but honest Cordelia (not to mention the straight-talking Kent). The mistaken identity in the tragedy of King George was that of the real enemy in the post-9/11 War on Terror.
It is almost certain that the 19 hijackers hailed from Saudi Arabia (15), the United Arab Emirates (2), Egypt (1) and Lebanon (1). The chief architect of the plot, Osama bin Laden, was also a Saudi. Contrast this list of countries with the list of members of the "Axis of Evil" identified by President Bush in his famous speech of January 2002 as "regimes that sponsor terror [and] threaten America... with weapons of mass destruction": North Korea, Iran and Iraq. President Bush was quite right to target Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, since the Taliban regime was sheltering al-Qaeda's leadership. But the decision to overthrow Saddam was one of history's great non sequiturs.
The real enemy in the Global War on Terror is not the Axis of Evil but the Axis of Allies. Today, the countries most likely to produce another 9/11 are not Iran, much less North Korea, but countries long regarded as (after Israel) America's most reliable allies in the Greater Middle East. Step forward Saudi Arabia (almost certainly still the biggest source of funding for radical Islamists) and Pakistan (very definitely their one-stop shop for nuclear weaponry).
There is, in short, a twist in this tale. Before the curtain can fall on The Tragedie of King George, we need at least three more scenes to decide the fates of three crucial characters - the only principals still left standing aside from King George himself.
First, we need a scene in Israel. Since the failure of the war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's popularity has been in free fall. His current approval rating is around 2 per cent, by comparison with which King George is a pop idol. Somehow, despite the resignation of his foreign minister, Mr Olmert is still clinging to political life. But he surely cannot last much longer. What happens next will be crucial, for if Binyamin Netanyahu returns to power, the probability of a military confrontation with Iran goes up above 50 per cent.
Remember, Mr Netanyahu is on record as comparing the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with Hitler. "It is the year 1938," Netanyahu recently declared, "and Iran is Germany." I suspect his private views are not so very far removed from those of the renowned Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld, the professor of military history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Van Creveld is deeply pessimistic about Israel's future, menaced on one side by an increasingly violent and fissiparous Palestinian population and on the other by a would-be nuclear Iran. But he expects his country at least to go down fighting.
"We possess several hundred atomic warheads and rockets and can launch them at targets in all directions," van Creveld declared in an interview in September 2003. "We have the capability to take the world down with us. And I can assure you that this will happen before Israel goes under."
Then we need a scene in Saudi Arabia. Here the key figure is Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz al Saud who, as Saudi ambassador to the United States, was one of the leading advocates of the attack on Iraq. Since October 2005 he has been back in Riyadh as Secretary-General of the National Security Council, where he is said to be lobbying hard for another attack: this time (you guessed it) on Iran.
Finally, the action needs to shift eastwards to Pakistan, where it is the future of General Pervez Musharraf that hangs in the balance. Eight days ago, 40 people died in rioting in Karachi, apparently as a result of attempts by pro-government forces to discourage a rally by disgruntled lawyers, who have been incensed by Musharraf's decision to oust the head of the Supreme Court.
After eight years of his military dictatorship, Pakistan's democratic forces are stirring. But watch out: these include the Islamist coalition known as the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal. And the recent violence also has an ethnic dimension, pitting Mohaijirs against Pashtuns.
You thought this play was nearly over. Like many an audience at Stratford, you were starting to shift in your seat. But in truth Act V has only just begun. With war looming between Iran and Israel, and Pakistan on the brink of an upheaval that could well end with Islamists in power in Islamabad, the worst bloodshed has yet to come.
I fear, in the words of the immortal Bard, that you have not yet had your fill:
"...Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgements, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forc'd cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall'n on the inventors' heads \u2026"