(Nigel Hawthorne as Lear.)
Shankar Vedantam wrote a great piece for today’s Washington Post titled, “What the Bard and Lear Can Tell a Leader About Yes Men”:
In Shakespeare's "King Lear," a powerful man comes to a tragic end because he surrounds himself with flatterers and banishes the friends who will not varnish the truth to please him.
Several controversies in the past six years of the Bush administration -- including two in the news last week -- bring Lear to mind. From discrediting a covert CIA officer whose husband had criticized the invasion of Iraq to having the Justice Department find out which U.S. attorneys were "loyal Bushies," from sidelining a general who said more troops would be needed in Iraq to silencing government scientists who advocated action against global warming, from sniping at an actuary whose numbers didn't square with the administration's health-care cost projections to belittling those who warned against using inhumane techniques against detainees, the Bush administration has regularly evinced a with-me-or-against-me attitude to criticism.
There are two important differences, however, between ordinary people and the powerful. Kings, presidents and CEOs get to decide who surrounds them and what they will hear. Even those leaders who invite critics into their circle may not hear contrary views because the bravest of employees can find it difficult to tell their bosses things they do not wish to hear.
It’s a great, short piece, worth reading in its entirety. This blog has explored the connections between Shakespeare and current events before, including the knaves of King Lear and (back in October 2005) the lack of fools and frank advisors to tell Bush the truth:
Regardless, no one seems "foolish" enough to be an "honest broker" with Bush, who accounts depict as increasingly angry and frustrated, blaming everyone around him. No one has said to him what he has so sorely needed, something in the spirit of:
See better Lear, and let me still remain
The true blank of thine eye.
— Kent to Lear,
King Lear, 1.1, 161-162
In King Lear, virtually every character is either a fool or a knave. However, these terms contain multiple layers. In Act 1, scene 1, Lear banishes his youngest daughter Cordelia and Kent for being honest. The loyal Kent returns to serve Lear disguised as Caius. In Act 2, scene 2, as Lear’s herald, Kent confronts the rude knave Oswald, who serves Lear’s eldest daughter, Goneril. After delivering one of the great torrents of insults in Shakespeare and tangling with Oswald, Kent is thrown in the stocks, a serious breach of etiquette, even after the tussle. The villainous Cornwall, husband of Lear’s second daughter Regan, remarks on Kent:
This is some fellow,
Who, having been praised for bluntness, doth affect
A saucy roughness, and constrains the garb
Quite from his nature: he cannot flatter, he,
An honest mind and plain, he must speak truth!
An they will take it, so; if not, he's plain.
These kind of knaves I know, which in this plainness
Harbour more craft and more corrupter ends
Than twenty silly ducking observants
That stretch their duties nicely. [2.2, 92-101]
Shakespeare is being ironic here, because Cornwall, a knave, is calling Kent, who is a loyal fool, a knave — for being honest!
In Act 2, scene 4, Lear arrives, and is shocked to find Kent in the stocks. Their first exchange veers towards comedy:
What's he that hath so much thy place mistook
To set thee here?
It is both he and she;
Your son and daughter.
No, I say.
I say, yea.
No, no, they would not.
Yes, they have.
By Jupiter, I swear, no.
By Juno, I swear, ay. [2.4, 11-21]
Lear storms off to confront his daughters and their husbands. While he is gone, the Fool is left with Kent, and shares with him a highly ironic, multilayer lesson.
We'll set thee to school to an ant, to teach thee
there's no labouring i' the winter. All that follow
their noses are led by their eyes but blind men; and
there's not a nose among twenty but can smell him
that's stinking. Let go thy hold when a great wheel
runs down a hill, lest it break thy neck with
following it: but the great one that goes up the
hill, let him draw thee after. When a wise man
gives thee better counsel, give me mine again: I
would have none but knaves follow it, since a fool gives it.
That sir which serves and seeks for gain,
And follows but for form,
Will pack when it begins to rain,
And leave thee in the storm,
But I will tarry; the fool will stay,
And let the wise man fly:
The knave turns fool that runs away;
The fool no knave, perdy.
Where learned you this, fool?
Not i' the stocks, fool. [2.4, 66-85]
On the surface, the Fool is mocking Kent for being loyal to Lear when it’s obvious Lear's fortunes are falling. A clever, self-interested courtier will grab “a great wheel” such as Lear in good times and drop him in bad. But as the fool says, for this advice, he “would have none but knaves follow it, since a fool gives it.” The self-interested knave “who serves and seeks for gain” will abandon friends and lords in trouble, but the fool will “tarry” and “stay.” (The use of “wise man” in line 81 is extremely ironic.) As the Fool says, “The knave turns fool that runs away; / The fool no knave, perdy.” The seemingly clever and clearly selfish are idiots and scoundrels, while the honest and loyal, willing to weather out the storm together with those who are suffering, are anything but. The rest of the play acts out these important themes, as suffering rains on the just and unjust alike, and fools and knaves stand revealed.
The Fool speaks truth to power, but he gets away with it and doesn’t get thrown in the stocks because he’s so clever. He speaks in the form of jokes, jibes, and multilayered, cryptic statements, and knows his audiences expertly. Kent is a good man, but it’s the Fool who would make a highly skillful political operative for the good guys. The challenge for the honorable is to cultivate more of these people, principled but savvy.
In terms of King Lear’s fools and knaves, almost all pundits are knaves, certainly all the unrepentant war hawks. Not that Bush ever deserved a position of greatness, but many of the neocons abandoned him in the pages of Vanity Fair last fall before the midterm elections. Still, while most neocons have criticized Bush, they have not abandoned their mad, disastrous cause — these are ambitious knaves, heedless to what’s best for the country, viler than even Goneril, Regan, Cornwall and Oswald. They are adolescent, armchair Macbeths, “bloody, bold and resolute,” but only with other people’s lives and bodies.
Cheney is more like mad king Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, seeing enemies everywhere and ordering harm upon those who love the country, willing to slay his own child out of fear, rage and paranoia.
Libby is not a true fool. He is loyal to Cheney, it’s true, but a fool is both loyal and honest, and Libby has repeatedly lied in the service of evil men and evil causes. In addition to his starring role in Plamegate, he playing a key role in manipulating the pre-war intel and selling the war, to Judy Miller, to Colin Powell, and in a thousand other ways. Similarly, Rove has not told the truth to Bush, even if this has stemmed at times from self-delusion. Bush is not a fool; he is a idiot, and a selfish, knavish one at that (the GOP’s conceit that Bush was the best man to be President of the United States brings new meaning to the term “pathetic fallacy”). Lear’s tragedy is to banish those who, out of love for him, tell him the truth. Bush not only banishes those who tell him the truth, at times he seems not to recognize the truth on the rare occasions it’s spoken to him in the first place. An incurious, impatient man of the slenderest gifts, hopelessly in over his head, Bush is happy to be handled, and as Ron Suskind argues in The One Percent Doctrine, doesn’t want to know what’s going on. It seems unlikely that ever in his life he will achieve the self-realizations Lear does in Act 4, scene 6, when he reflects:
me like a dog; and told me I had white hairs in my
beard ere the black ones were there. To say 'ay'
and 'no' to every thing that I said!--'Ay' and 'no'
too was no good divinity. When the rain came to
wet me once, and the wind to make me chatter; when
the thunder would not peace at my bidding; there I
found 'em, there I smelt 'em out. Go to, they are
not men o' their words: they told me I was every
thing; 'tis a lie, I am not ague-proof. [4.6, 96-105]
In the film The Madness of King George (based on Alan Bennett’s play The Madness of George III, and starring Nigel Hawthorne) Dr. Willis ponders how remarkable it is that any monarch should grow up sane, surrounded by people who always tell him how wonderful he is. The character Thurlow also captures this sentiment when he remarks, “It takes character to withstand the rigours of indolence.” Vedantam’s article touches on this when Dutch social psychologist Roos Vonk relates a Dutch proverb: “Powerful men and beautiful women never get to hear the truth.” It’s no surprise that The Madness of King George directly quotes King Lear. It’s also no surprise for those who love Shakespeare’s play to see how many parallels the Bush administration evokes. As Vedantam concludes:
Greenstein said history would have to rank how Bush compares with other presidents in aversion to dissent, but said there is little doubt Bush has hurt himself by shutting out people who disagree with him -- as King Lear also did.
"Shakespeare is one of our great social scientists," Greenstein said.
There is another reason the Lear analogy may be particularly apposite. By the end of the play, with death and disaster all around, Shakespeare makes sure you understand that King Lear's tragedy was not just his own.
Vedantam is correct to a point, but he might be holding back due to tact. Inflicted tragedy is not the same as self-induced, and in King Lear, suffering stems from human agency, not divine forces. Lear learns, at great personal cost and cost to the country, the depth of his folly, but only comes to these realizations because he undergoes the punishing trials of the storm. Bush’s bubble, constructed with his willing approval, has protected him from any possible storm, and “he hath ever but / slenderly known himself.” [1.1, 298-299] The tragedy of Bush, surrounded by knaves and yes-men, is that he has no interest in seeing the ‘true blank of his eye.’ He has banished all honest brokers; his bubble is Fool-proof.
(Edited slighty for clarity.)