Brush Up Your Shakespeare. Please.

Brush Up Your Shakespeare. Please.

Brush Up Your Shakespeare. Please.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Dec. 22 1999 5:42 PM

Brush Up Your Shakespeare. Please.

It was inevitable that--as the New York Timesreports--Shakespeare would come to rival Machiavelli as the most popular adviser in world literature for businessmen who want to lie, cheat, and scheme their way to the top. (The Brothers Grimm and A. A. Milne, author of Winnie the Pooh, dabble in that line of work too, but their output is noncompetitive--only one book to Machiavelli's and Shakespeare's several each.) It is also fitting that the character chosen by the authors of Shakespeare in Charge: The Bard's Guide to Leading and Succeeding on the Business Stageas a role model for CEOs is Henry V. Hal, as he is called, is widely acknowledged to be the playwright's most Machiavellian hero.

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Most people like to think of Henry V as a jolly patriot who conquered France for England--hurrah!--which is how Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh play him in the two movie versions of Henry V. But read the play more closely and you realize that the cheerfully successful king bears little resemblance to the man Shakespeare created. At best, Shakespeare's Henry V was, as critic William Hazlitt wrote, "an amiable monster"--"that is, he was ready to sacrifice his own life for the pleasure of destroying thousands of other lives." At worst, he was a cold and cunning strategist without a glimmer of moral doubt, a man as happy to humiliate his friends, even execute them, as he is to commit mass murder--all in the name of consolidating power.

Just the sort of man a CEO should emulate! you may be thinking. Culturebox agrees. The Shakespearean (as opposed to the Oliverian or Branaghian) Henry V embodies several telling bits of wisdom for he who would develop the character of a true-blue businessman:

1. Learn everything you can from your friends, but drop them the minute they get in your way. In Henry IV, young Hal is a roustabout who keeps the company of a band of merry thieves led by the obese drunkard Falstaff, who has been described by critic Harold Bloom as the life force incarnate. Falstaff teaches Hal how to be a quick-witter punster and a master of play; he also teaches him a commoner's skepticism of power and its pretensions. In short, Hal learns from Falstaff a street savvy that will make him enormously popular later in life. As soon as Hal ascends to the throne, however, he pretends not to know his old and embarrassing mentor:

I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream'd of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell'd, so old and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.

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2. Don't worry about whether you have a good reason to initiate a hostile takeover; simply having the means to do so will suffice. Why does Henry V gather up an army and sail to France? For no better reason than that he suddenly came upon a way to pay for it. At the beginning of the play, England's church officials offer to underwrite an invasion as a bribe to keep Henry from appropriating church lands. Upon receiving the proposal, he asks England's bishops several times to give him a clear justification for the invasion, which will necessarily entail the deaths of thousands of men. The bishops give him long-winded answers that make no sense at all, at the end of which he asks again, confused: "May I with right and conscience make this claim?" More incomprehensible replies ensue. The scene ends without good reasons having ever been offered, after which he goes ahead and invades anyway.

3. Threaten to loot, pillage, and rape the daughters of your competitors if they don't give up the fight as soon as you enter the field--and explain that they have forced you to do so. Consider Henry's speech before the town of Harfleur, whose crime has been to hold out against a siege:

What is't to me, when you yourselves are cause,
If your pure maidens fall into the hand
Of hot and forcing violation?
What rein can hold licentious wickedness
When down the hill he holds his fierce career?

4. If a former friend has committed a crime, however minor, make sure he receives the maximum punishment in order to make an example of him. Just before the great battle with the French at Agincourt, Henry V is told that Bardolph, a member of his old gang, has been caught stealing a small statue of Christ from a local church. For this act, Bardolph is to be hanged. Rather than pardon the poor fool, Henry has him killed in order to show the French that his is an orderly army that means them no real harm.

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5. Take no prisoners. But if you do, kill them. When Henry hears at Agincourt that the French have sent in reinforcements, he orders his men to kill their French prisoners--a terrifying act for men facing the prospect of imprisonment themselves. As one soldier remarks: "'Tis expressly against the law of arms: 'tis as arrant a piece of knavery, mark you now, as can be offer't." Neither Shakespeare (who alludes to the incident only in passing) nor history offers any justification for this gross violation of the laws of war: "Was there, as it was later claimed, some sudden movement on the part of French cavalry which lead Henry to fear an attack from the rear? It is possible, though no such attack took place," writes historian John Julius Norwich in his forthcoming book Shakespeare's Kings: The Great Plays and the History of England in the Middle Ages: 1137-1485. Norwich, who calls the command "the darkest stain on [the historical Henry's] reputation," says that so many of Henry's men refused to obey his order that "he was at last obligated to designate 200 of his own archers specifically for the task."

6. Marry a woman appropriate to your station, and say anything you have to to win her. In wooing Katherine, the French princess whose country and relatives he has just laid waste to, Henry, having never met the girl, calls her an angel and claims to be in love with her. When, reasonably enough, she objects, he subtly menaces her:

No; it is not possible you should love the enemy of
France, Kate: but, in loving me, you should love
the friend of France; for I love France so well that
I will not part with a village of it; I will have it
all mine: and, Kate, when France is mine and I am
yours, then yours is France and you are mine.

To sum up, then: What does Shakespeare really have to say to businessmen who think that his kings make good role models--rather than, say, troubling, interesting, morally questionable dramatizations of the effects of power? "Lord, what fools these mortals be!"