"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, January 23, 2014

King Lear–Shakespeare And The Hard Lessons of Leadership

King Lear is both a political and personal play, for it concerns the fate of a naïve but principled man who learns too late that his arrogance and insularity have kept him from serving the people he rules.  Lear should have known better than to have trusted his greedy, venal daughters.  After a long reign that was certainly beset by the same quarrels, disputes, and wars that have characterized all of English history, he should have seen that dividing his kingdom before his death would weaken him and make him vulnerable to political avarice and the insatiable hunger for wealth and power. 

Shakespeare was never a political poet, one given to polemics, axes to grind, or defensive positions to establish; but he did understand the frightening likelihood of the fragmentation of the realm of the childless Elizabeth I and the real possibility of civil war, and that reality combined with his uncanny understanding of human nature led him to write King Lear, his other history plays, and dramas of kings and princes.

Although Shakespeare was never political, he understood the human dimension of politics and wrote about the personal weaknesses of rulers which led to their downfall and often to the bloody destruction of the empires they governed.  Julius Caesar was becoming – at least in the minds of those conspiring for his death – a megalomaniac. Those who wanted his death were worried that he would become another Tarquin, the seventh and last king of Rome.  Caesar was more interested in building statues and monuments to himself, they said, and portraying himself as a great and just ruler than demonstrating that leadership. He, like Lear, had become insulated from his people and from his court.  Despite the bloody and conspiratorial Roman past, he never suspected Brutus and Cassius; and he was as naïve as Lear.

Henry IV (“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”) and Richard II, the poet king, reflects on his life, the fragility of kingship and power, and the insistent greed and ambition of men:

Give me the glass, and therein will I read.
No deeper wrinkles yet? hath sorrow struck
So many blows upon this face of mine,
And made no deeper wounds? O flattering glass,
Like to my followers in prosperity,
Thou dost beguile me! Was this face the face
That every day under his household roof
Did keep ten thousand men? was this the face
That, like the sun, did make beholders wink?
Was this the face that faced so many follies,
And was at last out-faced by Bolingbroke? (IV.i)

Richard was a poet but a bad ruler who neither understood the ambition of Bolingbroke or his own inability to repel his intentions.  Henry VI at the end of his reign and powerless to stop the civil war or to protect his kingship, reflects on the nature of power and how in some ways he would be better off as a simple shepherd:

Gives not the hawthorn-bush a sweeter shade
To shepherds looking on their silly sheep,
Than doth a rich embroider'd canopy
To kings that fear their subjects' treachery? (Part 3, Act II.v)

Henry IV becomes obsessed with his son, Hal (Henry V) and mixes paternal concern with royal rule.  Both Henry IV plays deal as much with Hal as they do with Henry himself.

It is difficult, therefore, for a king to maintain power, dignity, and personal truth.  Either rulers retreat into their own isolated and megalomaniacal world, become preoccupied with debilitating philosophical quandaries or family disputes, or lose sight of their political duties; but in all but a few cases, they fail and fall hard.

Matthew D’Ancona, writing in the New York Times (1.23.14) about Shakespeare’s kings, their fallibility and fall, summarizes the plight of Lear:

More than any other play in the language, King Lear navigates the terrain between the personal and the political, the threads that connect decisions of state to the vulnerable individual. By stages, Lear is reduced from a mighty ruler to a naked vagrant, no better than a “poor, bare, forked animal,” as he puts it to Poor Tom (the loyal Edgar, son of Gloucester, who is disguised and feigning madness).

Political leaders, D’Ancona says, often become like Lear – too caught up in their own political struggles and too isolated from or indifferent to the plight of those they govern.

Herein lies the timeless demand made of those who govern on behalf of those with no apparent hope. As Conservative leader, Mr. Cameron (British Prime Minister) has intermittently presented himself as the champion of the vulnerable. But his party is still associated in the eyes of the electorate with “pomp” and indifference to the “wretches” of our own time.

Arguably the greatest characters Shakespeare created were kings or princes, and all went through the same crises which pitted personal ambition against enlightened rule, and displayed the conflicting strengths and weaknesses of human nature. Some characters, like Macbeth and Richard III were beyond good and evil, Nietzschean figures for whom the attainment of an all-powerful rule was simply an expression of will; but Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V, and Henry VI had no such driving ambition and are interesting for their uncertainties.

                         Ian McKellen as Richard III

One of the most compelling characters is Coriolanus who is honest, courageous, and martial; but who is so dominated by his greedy and determined mother that he loses his way.  He is also an arrogant genius, contemptuous of the mob, and unwilling to pander to them.  He will never attain power because he has not been able to square personal ethics with rule.

Hamlet, of course, it the best case of a thinking, and therefore weak prince.  His jealousy, sexual envy, and personal insecurities doom him from the start.  He would never make a good king.

D’Ancona closes with the following:

Every generation has its defining “King Lear,” and I am sure this is ours. Shakespeare’s greatest play is an invitation to stare into the abyss and contemplate the fragility of power and decency. As Edgar says to his father, Gloucester, “how fearful / And dizzy ’tis to cast one’s eye

It is rare to find a ruler today or in the past who has been able to both contemplate the fragility of power and decency and to wield authority with strength and wisdom.  Shakespeare understood this, and so should we.

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