Shakespeare’s Leaders - why a world at war needs The Bard more than ever
A misogynistic sexist, a racist colonialist, a hopeless imperialist…? Poor old William Shakespeare, who turns 458 years old on April 23 2022. Like many playgoers, I have watched his currency rise and fall over the years. Currently he is regarded in some quarters as less of a draw than a hot young playwright tackling today’s buzzword issues. Theatre companies do their utmost to freshen him up with diverse casting, gender-flipping, modern dress and a hip-hop vibe; rising stars still want to sink their teeth into his juicy lead roles. Yet he is still vulnerable to attack. If you look at him through an unforgiving 2022 filter, he will inevitably be found wanting, a writer whose values might seem out of joint.
I was reminded of today’s arguments about the Bard’s shortcomings when I was reading recent reviews of Henry V at London’s Donmar Warehouse, with Kit Harington, late of Westeros, in the title role. It’s apparently a zippy modern-dress affair, though not the first to depict young Prince Hal as a modern-day warrior by any means. In my own lifetime, I have seen Michael Pennington with a semi-automatic weapon cheered on by an army of skinhead soccer hooligans, and Adrian Lester in desert camouflage fatigues, in both cases in productions that explicitly referenced recent conflicts (the Falklands war, the Iraq war).
What struck me, though, was not the updated historical burden the play can be made to carry but — and this is one of the reasons many people do still treasure Shakespeare — the way he can still come through loud and clear from the 16th century on the key issues in our lives. Laurence Olivier’s film of the play in 1944 used Henry V as the basis of a rousing patriotic blast, yet it is more interestingly about the complicated qualities great leadership demands — especially the role-playing the leader must engage in, to appear omnipotent when he feels anything but. Hal is no jingoistic advertisement but a canny study in kingship.
Was there ever a playwright who tried harder to understand what makes a great leader tick? Shakespeare’s plays are full of strong men, some brought low and intent on revenge, like Prospero in The Tempest, some brought low by their own ambitions, like Macbeth. In most of his plays, characters will be complaining about having to “act" roles to survive or win back their old status, from Rosalind’s boy in As You Like It to Edgar’s Fool in King Lear. But acting a part brings better results for them than nakedly showing their hand, unlike Lear, who tragically discovers why candour isn’t clever when he tries to divide up his kingdom between his three daughters.
For Prince Hal, too, acting a role is key to his ability to lead. As a young man he rubs shoulders in taverns with ordinary mortals. Even as king, he creeps around his army’s camp at night in disguise, to gauge the temper of his troops. I couldn’t help thinking of Ukraine’s beleaguered president, an actual actor who turned politician when a TV series suggested how well he might carry off the role. Under attack, he has shown his mettle but still with the common touch that had appealed to the voters -- a seemingly ordinary man in a T-shirt with an unshaved face who can engage with his fellow Ukrainians, citizen to citizen.
But Shakespeare’s history plays also suggest this facility as an actor can have a darker side. Hal’s transformation into a king in Henry IV part 2 is at the expense of his friendship with that roguish force of nature Sir John Falstaff, whom he coldly and publicly cuts out of his life, one of the saddest scenes in Shakespeare. By Henry V, this Janus-faced approach has become a defining feature of his kingship: I don’t think I am alone in suspecting Shakespeare knew he had to humanise Hal by adding an odd coda to the main action, the lightly comic scene where he woos Katherine of France.
The disguised Henry tells his troops he is just a man like any other, yet when they admit they fear for their lives in the coming combat, his response is to dismissively trot out arguments for why their king is right to demand their loyalty and is not ultimately responsible for their deaths. Once alone again, though, as a mere man, he tears into his own frailties, the burdens he shoulders as a king that ordinary men never have to bear. You can’t help imagining that Zelensky’s most private thoughts run along the same lines.
Henry V is presented overall as a man of integrity, his duplicity a necessary disguise. Think back to Richard III, though, an actor-king with these same abilities to act a part — in his case, to shield his base ambitions — and you find a portrait of a ruler who beguiles and browbeats all around him and becomes a ruthless monster, an appalling infanticide. You don’t have to think much beyond President Zelensky to arrive at men who have crossed this line into autocracy, and nobody more obviously than his adversary in the Kremlin. And as we are discovering, he’s been a successful dissembler all his working life, cosying up to the world’s leaders while plotting against them.
I’d say we need Shakespeare more than ever.