Chronic relevance

“To be, or not to be, that is the question”, pondered Hamlet, in the eponymous play. Quoted often by students, politicians and literary figures through the years, its simplistic negativity embodies both Hamlet’s indecision and confusion as regards the indecency of his present situation, manipulated and conspired against by his murderous, usurper uncle Claudius.

This simple yet crucial quandary, to be or not to be, to continue to struggle (“against a sea of troubles”) or to give up and end them, faces all people at times in their careers. Not just whilst deciding between suicide and life, like Hamlet, but whether to resign, take on new challenges or back out of a difficult commitment.

Most ostensibly of all, this comes to politicians, especially political leaders. Whether it’s Neville Chamberlain, deciding to “take arms…and, by opposing, end [troubles]” as regards declaring war on Nazi Germany, or to “sleep: perchance to dream” and continue to appease Hitler, or Nick Clegg, choosing whether to stand firm with regard to his manifesto pledges on tuition fees and antagonise his coalition partners or back down and opt for an easier path in Westminster, all leaders have faced this tortuous mental debate.

The internal impact of this situation seemingly devoid of solution is devastating. Hamlet, although slain by the poisoned lance of Laertes, was mentally exhausted and resolute in the end at a much earlier point in the play, and wished only to expose his uncle. Chamberlain, having ceded his office in May 1940 to Churchill after at least 2 years of enthralling, critical and punitive indecision, died in November 1940, weakened greatly*. Clegg’s career is overshadowed by the scandal, and, despite issuing an apology, has undoubtedly lost a great deal of face.

This simple interrogative plagues leaders all over the world, albeit clothed in other wording. From his kingly histories, Shakespeare warns all leaders of the perils of their role. In Henry IV, he conveys, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”; Henry, having usurped Richard II in a coup originally intended to regain his inheritance from John of Gaunt, is frequently unstable as king and relies on the constant support of his nobility to stabilise his rule. In Richard II, as the eponymous character bemoans his downfall and the mortality of his predecessors, Shakespeare warns that “within the hollow crown…keeps Death his court”, and, through Death, shows that misfortune and disaster are proximal to and indelible with the laurels of leadership.

The governmental instability in Shakespeare’s own life – the Elizabeth I succession question, Mary, Queen of Scots scandal, the Spanish Armada, 1601 rebellion, 1605 Jesuit plot against James I and various episodes of regal favourites** controlling the policies of the monarch – influenced him to write extensively about such, warning his audiences of the dangers therein. Not only his histories, but great tragedies like Hamlet, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet all contain skeins of political unrest, shaky alliances and the instability of leadership resting solely on noble support.

Read or watch these plays yourself, and the ingenious messages therein will be ostensible. As such, Shakespeare should be compulsory reading for any who dare to assume a leadership role.

*Please note that this is not a criticism of Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler. Whilst indeed the evil had to be faced head on and conquered fully so as to subdue it conclusively, the years of war which Chamberlain delayed were crucial in terms of readying Britain and the British Empire for war, when it finally came.

**the Earl of Leicester is perhaps the most notorious example.


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