President's Talk September 13th 2022
What Boris should have learned from Shakespeare: aspects of leadership in The Tempest, Antony and Cleopatra and Measure for Measure.
Whatever our political views, I am sure we can all agree that Boris Johnson has been an extraordinary phenomenon in the public life of this nation. Only a few years ago it would have seemed impossible that such a figure could ever have been elected to high office. As he himself said: "I have as much chance of becoming Prime Minister as of being decapitated by a frisbee or of finding Elvis."
Boris is by trade a journalist, one whose exuberance and talent to amuse has made money for himself and his publishers. Having written a book about Churchill (who topped the BBC's poll to be the greatest ever Briton), it's not surprising that he has been turning his attention to Shakespeare (Radio 4's Man of the Millenium). Such books may not be the most accurate ever written but Boris certainly sells. Last year the Financial Times published this article:
Some six years have passed since Boris Johnson first agreed to write Shakespeare: The Riddle of Genius, receiving an advance of at least £88,000 to start work on a book that his publisher hoped would bring his "characteristic curiosity, verve and wit" to retelling the life of Britain's greatest author. Johnson, his publisher said, would determine "whether the Bard is indeed all he's cracked up to be". As the world waits to hear the answer to that pressing question, Downing Street is facing inquiries about whether the prime minister has been spending time writing his book rather than running the country. Westminster is awash with talk that Dominic Cummings, Johnson's former chief advisor in Number 10 turned arch-critic will use an appearance before MPs on Wednesday to claim the prime minister was working on his Shakespeare biography instead of grappling with the impending Covid-19 pandemic.
Shakespeare's plays are touchstones for us all, so perhaps it is reasonable to ask what Boris should have learned about leadership from the plays about which he has reportedly been thinking and writing over the last few years. And perhaps, if he had learned those lessons, and modified his approach to leadership accordingly, they could have saved his premiership.
There is another quotation that it will be useful to have in our minds throughout this talk and that is the school report written by Boris' classics teacher at Eton, words which have been frequently quoted during his Premiership. We should bear in mind that Boris won a valuable King's Scholarship to Eton, a mark of academic distinction - but also one which confers a sense of obligation on recipients: the need to justify their generous scholarship (about £10,000 per annum today) by committing to their studies. Just to remind you these are the words of Martin Hammond:
Boris really has adopted a disgracefully cavalier attitude to his classical studies. [He] sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility (and surprised at the same time that he was not appointed Captain of the school for the next half).
I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation that binds everyone else.
Over the last few years we have been involved in a national and international debate about the qualities we expect in our leaders, a debate which has now reached a climax as we reflect on the life of the Queen and the pledges made by our new king. In this country the figure of Boris Johnson and his style of leadership have sharply divided opinion. On a wave of populism Johnson seemed to typify a new kind of leader, a media personality who was elected to high office not so much despite his personal weaknesses but because of them. His appearances on Have I Got News For You made him famous as someone who made people laugh and many were prepared to overlook his marital infidelities and tenuous relationship with the truth because they felt he was a character, someone who would bring colour and personality to politics, someone to whom they could relate. someone with whom they could imagine having a pint in the pub.
This, of course, was always bound to end in tears and people have gradually realised that a PM has to be more than an entertainer, a journalist and a public orator. There has been national outrage that the country has been led by someone who made the Covid rules yet didn't keep them himself and was less than truthful about this scandal and others like it.
Throughout history a ruler's most important function has been to uphold the law and to exemplify it in his/her own behaviour. Shakespeare knew this key relationship of law and power of course, of course. Conveniently we know exactly what Shakespeare thought a leader should be like because he sets out the king-becoming graces in the encounter between Malcolm and McDuff in Act 4 of Macbeth:
- the king-becoming graces,
As justice, verity, temperance, stableness,
Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,
Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude,
I have no relish of them.....
Shakespeare's first audiences:
- Justice: Upholding the law. Dispensing the law but also being subject to it Also loyalty and fairness.
Temperance: Moderation, self-restraint
Perseverance: Working hard, not giving up despite difficulties
Devotion: i.e. to God
Patience: Putting up with adversity and inconvenience. Putting duty first.
Courage: Moral strength
Fortitude: Physical bravery
Perhaps we should note that the list doesn't include showmanship, rhetorical skills, the ability to make people laugh, a love of whiff-waff, to hanging from zip wires, waving Cornish pasties, falling in rivers or a general mastery of the art of distraction. Much has been made of Shakespeare's 'graces' in the last few, sad days. All of them have been referred to in tributes to the late Queen who seemed to many to exemplify them all. As a check-list of Boris's qualities, however, the list emphasises his short-comings: upholding the law; self-restraint; consistency; putting duty to the nation above all else? These seem to have been for others, not for him.
The fact that Shakespeare's 'graces' are called 'king-becoming' is significant. It's not just that they are appropriate for a ruler but they suggest that a process is involved. Human beings are not born with a full set of all these virtues. They have to be won by a ruler mindful of their importance. Crucially a national leader has to see his/her high office as bigger than they are. A successful leader has to put aside childish things and instead has to suppress their human weaknesses and cultivate qualities which will benefit the state and its population. Leadership may bring with it great privilege but it also entails great sacrifice and a willingness to change.
It is highly significant that 'justice' heads Malcolm's list. A ruler has to uphold the law and in a way that seems fair to his subjects. This also means that he has to act in a way that respects the law and doesn't undermine it. Above all a ruler has to be an example to his people of how to live; indeed, for Shakespeare's first audiences his authority sprang not only from divine right but also from the fact that a monarch was bound by a sense of moral duty. He wasn't necessarily expected to be perfect (a ruler was, after all, only human) but he was expected to have the humility to develop in wisdom and learn from his mistakes.
At least two of the plays on this year's programme are about rulers who admit their failings and who seek to become better. A crucial point about leadership is that a good leader has to be willing to learn: about himself, about human nature, about the world he has to govern. In his explorations he may well make mistakes, but, if he learns from them, he will serve his people better. One of Shakespeare's most enthusiastic learners is Prospero. Indeed he is so keen on his books that he comes near to losing not only his own life but that of his young daughter. He tells Miranda, in Act 1 scene 2, that he forsook his dukedom for his studies. Not, it must be said, to justify his large advance to write a book about Shakespeare but escaping into books when supposed to be steering the ship of state. Prospero handed over the running of Milan to his brother Antonio, dedicating himself 'to closeness and the bettering of my mind'. Prospero trusted his brother to respect the fact that Prospero was the rightful ruler, asking that Antonio should merely deputise for him whilst Prospero was nourishing his mind. However, his brother turns out to be as false as Prospero's trust:
- He being thus lorded,
Not only with what my revenue yielded,
But what my power might else exact, like one
Who having into truth, by telling of it,
Made such a sinner of his memory,
To credit his own lie - he did believe
He was indeed the Duke; out o' th' substitution,
And exercising th' outward face of royalty
With all prerogative.
Indeed Antonio decides he must be 'absolute Milan':
- Me, poor man - my library
Was dukedom large enough - of temporal royalties
He thinks me now incapable, confederates,
So dry he was for sway, wi' th' King of Naples,
To give him annual tribute, do him homage,
Subject his coronet to his crown, and bend
The dukedom, yet unbow'd - alas, poor Milan -
To most ignoble stooping.
Ejected from Milan, left to the mercy of the ocean, Prospero and Miranda drift to the island on which he continues his education, thanks to Gonzalo who
- Knowing I lov'd my books,... furnish'd me
From mine own library with volumes that
I prize above my dukedom.
The plot of The Tempest should be easily predictable. The audience expects Prospero to use his book-learned magic arts to bring his enemies to him so that he can confront them with their sins before punishing them severely. If he has had to learn through pain his own shortcomings, then his enemies will suffer pain too.
The final act of The Tempest begins with Ariel telling Prospero about the plight of the enemy:
- Your charm so strongly works 'em
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.
From which words we must surely infer that Ariel doesn't think that Prospero's affections are tender. At this point in the play the audience can't have much doubt that they have been watching a revenge play and that Prospero, having executed the marriage of his daughter with Ferdinand, will now punish those who have hurt him. However, the audience hasn't been privy to the debate occurring within Prospero's mind because what happens next must be the most understated turning-point in any of Shakespeare's plays:
- PROSPERO. Dost thou think so, spirit?
ARIEL. Mine would, sir, were I human.
PROSPERO. And mine shall.
In the simplest possible language (all but two of the words are monosyllables) we hear the momentous change from bitter revenge to compassion. At this point Prospero shows the true colours of leadership with strength shown through mercy rather than severity.
- Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th' quick
Yet with my nobler reason 'gainst my fury
Do I take part; the rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance; they being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further.
At the same time he decides to engage fully with the human after having disengaged so disastrously before the play begins. Nothing was more important than his books and his acquisition of arcane knowledge. Now his priorities are very different:
- My charms I'll break, their senses I'll restore,
And they shall be themselves.
.....this rough magic
I here abjure, and when I have requir'd
Some heavenly music - which even now I do -
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book.
He doesn't forget, of course, that he has been 'struck to the quick' but he has learned that 'virtue' is rarer than 'vengeance'. Prospero is like a playwright who doesn't know how his narrative will end when he is writing it. The end of The Tempest moves us because the emotion seems so raw, so unrehearsed, so spontaneous and so risky. Prospero publicly forgives his brother Antonio:
- You, brother mine, that entertain'd ambition,
Expell'd remorse and nature, who, with Sebastian -
Whose inward pinches therefore are most strong -
Would here have kill'd your king, I do forgive thee,
Unnatural though thou art.
Prospero repeats the sentiment a few lines later:
- For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother
Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive
Thy rankest fault - all of them; and require
My dukedom of thee, which perforce I know
Thou must restore.
However, such words hardly suggest that the forgiveness is without reservation, as the sentence structure shows. Each declaration of forgiveness is followed by a clause reminding us what there is to forgive - Antonio's unfraternal, 'unnatural' behaviour, his multiple faults ('all of them'). Prospero insistently reminds us of the transgressions he claims to have forgiven. After everyone has sailed back to Milan there is surely much learning and healing still to take place. Leadership is a process of constant growth, learning from experience and modifying one's behaviour and decision-making as a result.
The Boris phenomenon has reminded us of something we have always taken for granted: that is, that we expect a considerable degree of personal sacrifice from our leaders, that for the few years they are in office, the personal will have to give way to the public. Mrs Thatcher, of course, was famous for not needing more than four hours' sleep a night and for her total identity with her high office. I wonder what Mrs Thatcher would have made of Boris. She would probably have agreed with Henry IV that
-Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
And with his son before the Battle of Agincourt. The trappings of power are attractive, but the public expects them to be paid for in blood, sweat and tears. Conscientious leadership is often a lonely business, something which takes over one's waking and sleeping existence. As Henry V says
- What infinite heart's ease
Must kings neglect that private men enjoy!
And contrasts himself with the peasant:
- such a wretch
Winding up days with toil and nights with sleep,
Has the fore-hand and vantage of a king.
The slave, a member of the country's peace,
Enjoys it; but in gross brain little wots
What watch the king keeps to maintain the peace
Whose hours the peasant best advantages.
As a classicist as well as a somewhat surprising Shakespearean, Boris doubtless knows the Roman plays well. In Antony and Cleopatra the first word used about Antony is 'dotage'. Here is a man who in the past has put himself totally at the disposal of his country, using his great gifts as a military leader for the public good. Here is a god of war, a hands-on general, someone who risks his life as an expected part of his duty, reduced to Cleopatra's servant.
- PHILO: Nay, but this dotage of our general's
O'erflows the measure. Those his goodly eyes,
That o'er the files and musters of the war
Have glow'd like plated Mars, now bend, now turn
The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front. His captain's heart,
Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
The buckles on his breast. reneges all temper,
And is become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gypsy's lust.
Later Caesar laments Antony's effeminacy, the fact that he wastes his time in self-indulgent trivialities:
- From Alexandria
This is the news: he fishes, drinks, and wastes
The lamps of night in revel; is not more manlike
Than Cleopatra, nor the queen of Ptolemy
More womanly than he.
Caesar has traditional ideas about leadership. You can't expect to win the respect and confidence of your followers unless you suffer as much as they do. You have to undergo more pain, more privations than those you command. You can't go off on holiday if your troops are having to face the enemy. Caesar's admiration for the old Antony was enhanced by the fact that he wasn't only willing to put the surface of his body in harm's way but that he was also prepared to show his men extreme ways to survive by closing his mind to disgust and ingesting things which even animals would think more than twice about:
- CAESAR. Antony.
Leave thy lascivious wassails. When thou once
Was beaten from Modena, where thou slews't
Hirtius and Pansa, consuls, at thy heel
Did famine follow; whom thou fought'st against,
Though daintily brought up, with patience more
Than savages could suffer. Thou didst drink
The stale of horses and the gilded puddle
Which beasts would cough at. Thy palate then did deign
The roughest berry on the rudest hedge;
Yea, like the stag when snow the pasture sheets,
The barks of trees thou brows'd. On the Alps
It is reported thou didst eat strange flesh,
Which some didst die to look on. And all this -
It wounds thine honour that I speak it now -
Was borne so like a soldier that thy cheek
So much as lank'd not.
Caesar says Antony 'fought' against famine, praising his courage in eating 'strange flesh', bearing his privations like a soldier.
What Antony's story reminds us is not only is sacrifice expected from a leader but also an ability to engage with human hearts. Like Boris Antony has huge charisma. Even in his 'dotage' he is still the Antony of Julius Caesar's great forum speech. The prevailing tone of Rome in Antony and Cleopatra is set by Caesar's sister Octavia who is 'of a holy, cold and still conversation'. not something of which Antony could be accused. or indeed our former Prime Minister. The play constantly invites us to make comparisons between Antony and Caesar, as the strengths and weaknesses of both men are writ large. Caesar is a man of strong self-control; cool judgement and a clear sense of how other people affect his position: all good qualities in a leader. What we see later in the play is something less admirable. however. When he's giving orders for the battle, he's particular about the troops who've joined him, after having deserted Antony:
- CAESAR. Go charge Agrippa
Plant those that have revolted in the vant
That Antony may seem to spend his fury
This is not only a hard piece of thinking - it's a cruel way of attacking Antony by making him attack those who only recently followed him. The symbolism appeals to Caesar: Antony, in his eyes, is someone who's destroying himself, so why not enact that on the field of battle?
Another symbol, and one which shows Antony at his magnanimous best, is the treasure chest he sends to Enobarbus. Caesar would never have done this - or have had the ability to break a heart:
- ENOBARBUS. O Antony,
Thou mine of bounty, how wouldst thou have paid
My better service, when my turpitude
Thou dost so crown with gold! This blows my heart.
If swift thought break it not, a swifter mean
Shall outstrike thought; but thought will do't, I feel.
I fight against thee? No! I will go seek
Some ditch wherein to die; the foul'st best fits
My latter part of life.
Self-sacrifice, physical and moral courage, consistency, intelligence: all these are necessary leadership qualities. But Antony and Cleopatra also suggests that softer qualities (which Boris is much better at) are needed too: generosity of spirit, an ability to reach into people's hearts, to empathise, to see the world as others do. Perhaps all this is too much to expect of one man - but a serious lack of any is bound to end in failure.
Every national leader should be made to read Measure for Measure whose first words are: "Of government", most of the play being concerned with Duke Vincentio's attempt to be a better governor of Vienna. When the play opens the Duke admits his failings in applying the law and sets out his plan to improve the government of his state. The problem is that he has applied the law too leniently, so he decides to try a stricter approach. However, instead of applying the crackdown himself he leaves his puritanical deputy Angelo, a man "whose blood/is very snow-broth", (according to the libertine Lucio) in charge, As the Duke explains to Friar Peter, the city needs harsh measures, and fast:
- We have strict statutes and most biting laws,
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong jades,
Which, for these fourteen years, we have let slip;
Even like an o'ergrown lion in a cave
That goes not out to prey. Now, as fond fathers,
Having bound up the threat'ning twigs of birch
Only to stick it in their children's sight
For terror, not to use, in time the rod
More mocked becomes than feared so our decrees,
Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead;
And liberty plucks Justice by the nose,
The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
Goes all decorum.
The idea of laws being mocked, and the disappearance of decorum are concepts which recent events have rendered all too familiar for us. The Duke states what should be obvious: a ruler should uphold the law, keep it himself and maintain decorum. But as the Duke admits, he hasn't practised what he preaches and so needs to reset his state. He places Angelo in charge so that disused morality laws can be revived. He fears that to resurrect these laws under his own authority might give them too great a force; this way he can see how they are received and act accordingly.
It is, of course, important to note that the Duke stresses that government is about balance. He says that he has 'Lent [Angelo] our terror, dressed him with our love'. Leadership is not just about punishment, it's also about mercy.
- Mortality and mercy in Vienna
Live in thy tongue and heart.
Yes, impose the death penalty where absolutely necessary but be merciful, spare the guilty when that seems the right course of action. The Duke implies that empathy is crucial: understand yourself, your people and what feels right for the proper governance of the state. In fact, it's all about tact. Although the Duke recognises that he's failed to govern Vienna as he should, he also recognises that governing is not simply a matter of following the rules. To govern is to recognise 'terror' and 'love', 'mortality' and 'mercy'. I.m not sure that history will come to judge Boris Johnson as one of our more tactful prime ministers.
In character Boris may appear to be at the opposite extreme to Angelo, the coldly calculating lawyer at ease with administering justice. But both characters demonstrate something crucial about the idea of justice: rulers can't impose laws on their subjects if they don't keep the law themselves. Angelo is confident that he can rule Vienna but the play shows him unable to govern himself. Partygate/illicit sex: it all boils down to the same inability to connect the public and the private, to identify personal needs with those of the state, to empathise, to be tactful.
It would be interesting to talk to Boris about Angelo because Angelo´s story is about the meeting in one character of a razor-sharp mind and a heart which can't be kept under control.Measure for Measure seems to show that however neatly we sort out the intellectual issues, being human is far messier and far more difficult to handle. Angelo knows very well what the law demands but he can't control the wild passions of the human heart. The audience never gets to find out whether he learns that lesson. However, a thinking, feeling audience should have learned that lesson by the time they leave the theatre - and so should anyone who is writing a book on Shakespeare.
Angelo makes a mess of his life; he´s given the opportunity to restore Viennna and he ends updoing exactly what the rest of the population does - indulging his sexual appetite. And because he's in charge he is aactually worse than they are, because he abuses power as well as attempting to have sex with a woman who repels his advances. When he learns that the Duke is returning , he's aghast at what he has done. Appropriately his troubled soliloquy reviews his actions in the manner of a judge summing up the main features of a case:
- A deflower'd maid!
And by an eminent body that enforc'd
The law against it! But that her tender shame
Will not proclaim against her maiden loss,
How might she tongue me! Yet reason dares her no;
For my authority bears a so credent bulk
That no particular scandal once can touch
But it confounds the breather.
Like the lawyer he is he sees clearly his crime: he is after all the 'eminent body'. And how many times have we heard in our age of Savile, Weinstein etc that idea that no-one will believe the word of the lowly victim against the eminent molester? We should remember that the chief of all the kimg-becoming graces is justice: not only administering the law but exemplifying it, being bound by it as well as imposing it on others. If one side of the equation fails, then the whole equation is nonsense: measure does not answer measure.
Boris is highly unusual amongst British Prime Ministers, having been removed from office not because he lost an election or because he made a disastrous policy decision. Rather it was because of weaknesses which included a lack of respect for the truth and a perceived attitude that rules are for other people and not for him. No one who has read (let alone written about) Shakespeare should ever have made Boris's mistakes or forgotten the graces of justice, verity, perseverance,etc which lie at the heart of a nation´s expectations of its leaders.
Nottingham Shakespeare Society 13 September 2022