This series will have three parts about Shakespeare's plays, and then the fourth and last part will be a post on "Is your work life a Shakespeare play?". Enjoy!
I love theater, and I strongly believe that the best plays can teach us something important about the world we live in. What amazes me most is that this remains true of the 400-year-old plays of William Shakespeare. Arguably, no one has ever written plays more relevant today, and in such numbers: Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet, Henry V, Richard III, Henri IV Parts 1 and 2, Julius Caesar and more continue to teach us more about human nature than many books published in this century or last.
Part of the reason, I think, is that today's marketplace is obsessed with feel-good stories and heroes we can root for. If the story line to sell books or movie tickets is always of a good hero facing some struggles but ultimately vanquishing the bad guy in either 256 pages or two hours top, we do deprive us from a whole range of possibilities and thus important glimpses into the less savory aspects of human nature. This is particularly true in the United States, where a whole lot of people are obsessed with making blockbuster movies or best-selling books. Yes, you don't get out of a performance of Macbeth or Othello or King Lear or Julius Caesar feeling particularly uplifted, but you do get insights into the things people do to cling to power that are rarely available in fictional form (whether books or movies or contemporary plays) today, except maybe House of Cards. And real life, although I hope for your sake that your life isn't like House of Cards.
Below are a few thoughts on some of Shakespeare's plays. Obviously they don't begin to scratch the surface of what could be said on those plays, but hopefully they'll motivate you to grab a copy at your local independent bookstore.
First, the more cheerful plays.
Henry V is a great read for college students because it tells of a young king (Henry V) who, after a dissolute youth spent partying in the taverns of Eastcheap, rises to the challenges of becoming king and leads his country to victory against France at the Battle of Agincourt. Still, you'll recognize some elements of manipulation: the clergy in the first scene of the first act is eager to start a war because it is worried about a proposal that would make them lose a lot of land. Henry V is betrayed by three of his men, although they are found out before they can murder him. He cares about what his men think of him, and even disguises himself to go and chat with soldiers. He faces struggles and hardship but valiantly leads the charge on Saint Crispin Day and then also wins the girl (Katherine of France). Still, in the last chorus you learn that he did not enjoy his wins for very long since he died on the battlefield a few years later when his son was still a baby, and the counselors surrounding Henry VI managed to lose France and "make England bleed". But if you forget that epilogue, Henry V the play has a happy ending, and Henry V the man is portrayed as a good king who, in spite of his young age, emerges as a great leader because of both his determination in war (he can be very tough or sometimes ruthless with the enemy), his integrity (an old friend from the Eastcheap days is hanged after he loots a church), his interest in his own men, and his ability in rallying his troops through his oratory. The leadership lessons there are so obvious I'm not even going to bother spelling them out.
Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 are the set of plays immediately before Henry V. In those plays, the king is still Henry IV and his son, named Hal, enjoys the tavern life a bit too much, to his father's dismay. The king is even more appalled because his enemy has a son, Hotspur, who is as valiant and fierce in combat that Hal seems to be a big drunk spineless blob, to use a technical term. In the play, Hal really has two fathers: his real one, with whom he doesn't get along, and his chosen one, Falstaff, who is a rather bad influence on him, although it later seems that Hal intended to become a worthy king all along. He even kills Hotspur in combat. Ultimately, Hal has to let go of Falstaff (he repudiates him when he becomes king) so that he can become all he can be. But the play is named after Hal's father and not Hal himself, and I think there is something to be said for the king himself (who grabbed power by killing the previous king, an episode he feels quite conflicted about), because he lets his son be and his son grows up in the end when faced with the real-life trials of battle.
Richard III recounts the ascent of an evil man to power, and it should not come as a surprise that Kevin Spacey played both Richard III in a recent revival and Francis Underwood in House of Cards. Richard III has men, women and even little children killed as he forges his way through to power. It is breath-taking to see the unctuous manner in which he worms his way to the throne before he has gotten rid of his enemies, manipulating people left and right, blaming others, pretending to do what is in the best interest of the throne, making false accusations.
The scary part is that you can see how such a man could achieve power today. How many workplaces have a Richard III at the head of their department, division or even entire company? Someone who has backstabbed and lied his way up behind great bedside manners and the pretense of caring for the company, and is hanging to power through intrigue, fear and absolute dictatorship. No one does misinformation like Shakespeare, and in Shakespeare's plays, Iago and Richard III fight each other to be the most manipulative man. Richard III goes through various stages before he achieves power, and if you feel you have a Richard III in your life, the proper reaction depends on the stage he's in. If it is still early in his scheming, maybe you'll get rid of him by building a coalition and exposing him. Coalition-building takes time, though, and by the time you're ready to cast light on his true nature, he might have maneuvered to force you out. A skill of Richard III's is to see people against each other. If he's at the top of his powers, but before his people are fed up, lay low and bid your time, if you can't go away. And then if it's time for battle, you can be the one that makes him fall to the ground and shout "a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!" Interestingly, or sadly, Richard III was capable of finding henchmen to do his bidding until he reneged on certain promises he had made. Dictators today know how to surround themselves with people who remain loyal to them because they enjoy the proximity to absolute power. This is not a pleasant situation to be in if you're not part of the happy few.