Saturday, May 21, 2005

Book 7: Henry V, by William Shakespeare

In Weber’s analysis of charismatic leadership, he speaks of how the best leaders are those who realize that a person cannot head a government without committing immoral acts. But what separates great leaders from all others is the ability of the elect few to face this dilemma unflinchingly and take responsibility for all their actions, whether good, evil, murderous, or disastrous.

George Bush obviously never had time to read Weber while at Yale – being fratastic and spending daddy’s money does takes up a lot of time after all. But perhaps Laura could turn off “Desperate Housewives” for one night and read her husband Henry V as a goodnight story. There’s plenty of violence and a rather unjustified war, so he’d be sure to like it.

But our fearless GW might be shocked when Laura got to the first scene of Act 4, when Henry V engages in an activity apparently unheard of in contemporary Washington – self-reflection. In a play that fails to measure up to Hamlet, King Lear, or Othello, one of those marvelous Shakespearean moments pops up after pages of threatening gibber jabbing and testosterone driven dialogue. It is the moment when Henry V appears his most human, when he understands that a significant part of being a King is accostuming oneself to acting as if one is separate from the rest of humanity, despite the knowledge that no such divide actually exists. The King laments:

“And what have kings that privates have not too/Save ceremony, save general ceremony?/And what art thou, thou idol Ceremony?/…O Ceremony, show me but thy worth!/What is thy soul of adoration?/Art thou aught else but place, degree, and form,/Creating awe and fear in other men?/Wherein thou art less happy, being feared,/Than they in fearing./What drink’st thou oft, instead of homage sweet,/But poisoned flattery?”

Kings are normal men adorned in the vestments of God – the clothes, pomp and circumstance, gilded environs – is the very “ceremony” of pretense Henry V is astute enough to see through. He is mortal just like the men in his army, just like the French whom he is fighting a war against, a war based largely on solidifying his position as King and proving to his constituency that he does in fact deserve the role. His actions may seem kingly to others, but Henry V knows he can’t escape the layers upon layers of pretense requisite in leading other men.

Henry V seems to embody Weber’s ideal of good leadership. Whether it is when he kills traitors attempting his assassination or dealing with thieves within his own ranks, Henry V is a king who acts and then accepts the consequences of these actions. You would never hear Henry V blame Abu Ghirab on a “few bad eggs” or shelter Donald Rumsfeld or Alberto Gonzalez. Like Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs, Henry V doesn’t shy away from any of the results of his war against the French. It’s refreshing to see a leader respond in such a fashion, even if this is a piece of literature and not “real life”. In many ways similar to Julius Caesar, and suffering many of the same pitfalls of that work, from elongated, insubstantial dialogue (frequently unnecessary and downright boring), to a focus too heavily on violent action and an overlooking of the insight which makes Hamlet the masterpiece it is, Henry V still exhibits many of Shakespeare’s talents. Most importantly as an accurate depiction of how to lead effectively, choosing where there are no right answers, only options that are less harmful than others, the play is an interesting study into the nature of political maneuvering and war. Now if only GW would put down the William Bennett, kick Karl Rove out of the room, and open a book with multi-syllable words. It would make Weber proud.

No comments: