Reading with Righteous Indignation
Harry Potter is appalling. It’s not the witches, wizards, giants and big snakes. What is so gob-smackingly awful is Hogwarts, a posh English private school reinvented as the be-all and end-all of fantasy. The children walk around in Bunter-esque school uniforms, looking down their noses at the muggle-plebs who can’t make it there, whilst the teachers hector them in university gowns. The supreme wizard Bumblebore is wise and good like no teacher I ever knew; in the film version he looks like Michelangelo’s vision of God. This stuff would lead you to religion and aristocracy in no time if you weren’t there already. Potter himself is the time-honoured prince
in hiding with a destiny before him: his choices are at a different level of significance than those of his Beasley friends; he is the monarch in waiting, the child whose birth will out. Potter’s superficial muggledom is about as convincing as Prince Hal’s dallying with Falstaff and serves the same purpose. If you are a prole this should make you indignant.
I also felt a tingle of righteous indignation when I put together the selection of plays for my Shakespeare: Leadership group. My indignation came from the same root as my rejection of Pottermania: I just couldn’t stick the aristocratic nonsense. King Harry did not convince me. The “band of brothers” business had me going until I realised that I was being drawn into the idea that a strong leader was necessary. I remembered my distaste when people used to praise Margaret Thatcher for being a “strong leader” and perhaps
that is the root of my visceral rejection of the call. When we read Coriolanus and Julius Caesar it is hard not to think of Putin and Trump. They gain the popular vote because they come across as strong, but they despise the weak. In Shakespeare this is written large: the shiftless proletariat like a herd of sheep are dragged hither and thither by demagoguery; weak leaders are in hock to their favourites; strong leaders can rapidly turn into tyrants; but the perfect leader joins his men on the barricades and they all learn to love him, their country and honor the more. And this is what the management literature wants: a strong leader you can feel justified in following; a man- always a man- who unites courage, wisdom and humanity in his predestined frame.
It’s enough to make you vomit.
Why read on then? We read because we cannot leave the classics to people who wear cravats and blazers and use the sacred texts to bolster their outdated reactionary ideas. We should stoke the fires of our indignation and read on. The struggle is the more worthwhile because there are cohorts of superficial readers who do little more than trawl Shakespeare for quotations. Leadership as a subject invites this kind of reading, since most leaders are self-professedly too busy leading to spend the time thinking. They want some fast soundbites from the mouth of a universally-acclaimed genius to help them on their way to domination. This throws up amusing paradoxes as when someone says you should “screw your courage to the sticking-plate” forgetting that this was Lady Macbeth’s advice on how to commit murder.
We need not hang around in the shallows, however. Let’s dive right in at the deep end and ask a provocative question: is leadership itself outdated? It is clear that leaders are necessary to get things done, but there is a great difference between a democratic society with leaders that perform functions and the mystical nonsense that surrounds a Potter or a Prince Hal. Nowadays leadership can be a function rather than a personality trait: there can be a rotating chair for an important committee, for example, and the results will be better for everyone. Do we really want our leaders to be brave and wise and fearless and strong? Would it not be better for them to just stop helping themselves to the goodies? Would it not be rather more appealing to have a leader who was a resolute and committed democrat?
“Aren’t those Shakespearean problems old hat?”
I have heard this question often. I would like to believe it is true. I would like to believe that aristocracy and strange ideas about blood and talent were things of the past. Yet there are still kings and queens; there are still people who think they have somehow earned their good fortune by their merits. When I am happiest I believe I am living in different times from Shakespeare, but then I look around me: there is a monarchy in Spain; there is a monarchy in England; there is a sycophantic establishment that maintains them in that position. It is extraordinary, but it is true. And what it means is that, when you read Julius Caesar and find yourself despising the plebeians for turning at the aristocrat Antony’s words, you are despising yourself.
Find out more about Shakespeare reading here: http://www.villandasrural.es/en/courses/leadership/