It’s often said, often bitterly, that we get the leaders we deserve. After all, ’we voted for them’, right? Or at least broadly 100,000 have: in a population of 65-million-odd, way less than 1% have made Boris ‘Bolinbroke’ Johnson our Prime Minister. Quite clearly ‘the will of the British people’ in the twenty-first century is a highly elusive and nebulous concept.
Right here, right now, the question of the type of leader we want, need, or deserve is as urgent as it has been since the end of the Second World War. As is the debate about whether we prefer harsh truths or comforting lies …
Welcome to our latest stop on the Pony Tail Shakespeare read-through 1 Henry IV, Act I scene iii.
Whilst the scene belongs to Hotspur, and I’ll come back to him later, let’s take a look at King Henry first …
Henry ‘Boris’ Bolinbroke should listen to other people, not simply the voices in his head. He believes he’s the master tactician, a strategist whose like hasn’t been seen since the glory of the ancients. Yet he has a massive problem, straight out of the Machiavellian playbook.
A man who becomes prince with the help of the nobles finds it more difficult to maintain his position than one who does so with the help of the people. As prince, he finds himself surrounded by many who believe they are his equals, and because of that he cannot command or manage them the way he wants. [a]
His remarkable, unstoppable rise – against the odds, because he’s not as talented as he believes – is largely down to the weakness of the opposition, but also to far from altruistic support by others. Now, naturally, they want recognition, and/or for him to make good on any campaign promises he might have made in those grubby corridors of power. Worcester, Northumberland and Hotspur were some of Bolingbroke’s earliest cheerleaders when he returned to England to claim his birthright (and nothing more, apparently) in Richard II.
Machiavelli would counsel a ruthless bloodbath, I suspect, but Henry contrives instead to piss his supporters off over the relatively minor matter of the Scottish prisoners taken by Percy. He makes something of nothing, with even Sir Walter Blunt suggesting they draw a line under Percy’s spat with the king’s effeminate representative. Rather, with the bit between his teeth, Henry dismisses Percy’s uncle, Worcester, peremptorily:
Worcester, get thee gone; for I do see
Danger and disobedience in thine eye:
O, sir, your presence is too bold and peremptory,
And majesty might never yet endure
The moody frontier of a servant brow. [b]
My emphasis. It seems unwise to remind Worcester of hierarchical chasm that has opened between them. Then he goes out of his way to offend Percy by slighting his brother-in-law, Mortimer, who has valiantly but unsuccessfully given battle to ‘that great magician, damn’d Glendower’. Frankly, calling Mortimer a traitor and asserting with some finality ‘on the barren mountains let him starve’ is like a declaration of war with Percy. And it only strikes me today, reading the scene afresh, that in the end it is Bolinbroke who sweeps offstage: Shakespeare won’t have intended this, but immersed in the narrative as I am, I find it highly symbolic of his inability to deal with his opponents. Like his twenty-first century equivalent, he does a runner instead.
OK. Those who have been following the read-through know well that I’ve never thought Boris, err, I mean Bolinbroke worth the steam off my urine. The rest of you might have realised the depth of my contempt for him. Let’s move on to Hotspur.
If this is my favourite Shakespeare play, and I think it is, then it’s because of two very different characters who I identify with. First, of course, there’s:
That villanous abominable misleader of youth,
Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan.
Who represents one side of my personality, sure. But I also have a generous dose of Hotspur, best summed up by:
‘I will ease my heart,
Albeit I make a hazard of my head’
One of the things I admire in him (probably because I see it in myself so regularly) is his emotive side – and his willingness to speak truth to power. Foucault defines it thus:
In parrhesia, the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy. [c]
It’s this parrhesic quality which Bolinbroke can’t deal with, coming away with – at best – a score draw when he dismisses – no, LEAVES – the Percys with threats rather than punishments. Its passion allows Harry to dare to directly oppose the king. Henry says:
I shall never hold that man my friend
Whose tongue shall ask me for one penny cost
To ransom home revolted Mortimer.
And yet all this leads to is a fiery twenty-line rebuttal from Hotspur which finishes with the fairly direct accusation that the king has ‘slandered’ Mortimer. Impressive stuff, and we’ll see him use this parrhesia to wind up Glendower later in the play.
For now, he extends his honest appraisal of the situation to his father and uncle. Hotspur is never devious, but at least he understands Machiavelli, who says:
Whoever is responsible for another’s becoming powerful ruins himself, because this power is brought into being either by ingenuity or by force, and both of these are suspect to the one who has become powerful.
I’ve been called a ‘Cassandra’ before for my doom-ridden prophecies, where I prefer to think of myself as ‘the canary in the mine’, more sensitive than others to the changing direction of the prevailing wind. Hotspur sees these, too:
Revenge the jeering and disdain’d contempt
Of this proud king, who studies day and night
To answer all the debt he owes to you
Even with the bloody payment of your deaths
And I think his uncle, Worcester is persuaded.
bear ourselves as even as we can,
The king will always think him in our debt,
And think we think ourselves unsatisfied,
Till he hath found a time to pay us home
Their plot, I think, is sprung from necessity rather than ambition.
Back to leadership, finally, and some naïve, idealistic thoughts. This they may well be, and yet if the system is broken to the extent that democracy means less than 1% of the population electing an incompetent, utterly narcissistic, serial liar, perhaps we do need to find another way, to acknowledge that the whole thing is ruined and we need to start again from scratch?
In Bolinbroke, we have someone who has achieved supremacy through the good graces of others, and now means to renege on his campaign promises, reckless of the consequences. His son appears to have inherited many of the same characteristics, not least the complex relationship he has with the truth. I think he’s more frightening, inasmuch as he is more calculating, ruthless and unemotional to the point of being almost sociopathic. Finally, we have Hotspur, consistent in his honesty and willingness to speak frankly. In this arena, though, coupled with his rash emotional temperament, it’s almost a weakness to speak the truth, a naïve quality.
He may be king for another play yet, but Bolinbroke is on his way, as is Falstaff. The play is about youth, and the direction the country will take with the next generation. Faced with fairly binary choices, which do we want? Harsh truths? Comforting lies? Speaking truth to power, or the rhetorical brilliance of ‘once more unto the breach, dear friends’?
[a] Niccolò Machiavelli, Il Principe (transl. George Bull, ed. Anthony Grafton), (London: Penguin, 2003)
[b] all play quotations taken from http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org
[c] Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech, (2001)