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My first exposure to Shakespeare’s lessons in leadership came from tragedies I read in high school. When I was a senior, my teacher required us to memorize some lines of Macbeth, including the famous soliloquy describing life as a “walking shadow,” “a poor player” in a brief, forgettable play, and a “tale told by an idiot.” Shakespeare had an indelible way of warning of the dangers of blind ambition, the fleeting nature of fame and the distinctive desire to equate personal advantage with public purpose and to justify any action, even murder, if it advances them. Giving in to such temptations condemns one to a tragic life “signifying nothing.”
Shakespeare intensified my fascination with people, politics and power. He made me want to pay attention to what other people said and did, and to understand why some were guided by their better angels, while others were consumed by fear, hatred or greed.
In the history plays, I found the characters more complex, and more in line with my own experiences: the kings had extraordinary power and responsibilities but remained ordinary and fragile, with weaknesses and strengths, a love of position and a longing for normal life.
In 1980, I was defeated for re-election as Governor of Arkansas. Conditions were bad, President Reagan was strong, and my opponent was constantly on the attack. Still I thought I had done a good job and would win, as did almost everyone else. So when I became the youngest ex-governor in U.S. history, I could certainly identify with Richard II, who also took his adversary Bolingbroke too lightly until it was too late:
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord:
For every man that Bolingbroke hath press’d
To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,
God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel: then, if angels fight,
Weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right.
Richard had obviously ignored President Kennedy’s admonition that “here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.” Having been defeated and imprisoned, the deposed king expresses the agony of power lost, comparing himself to a beggar in the stocks, who knows that many have and others must sit there:
And in this thought they find a kind of ease,
Bearing their own misfortune on the back
Of such as have before endur’d the like.
Such thoughts are cold comfort against the memories of what was and the dreams of what might have been. Richard concedes as much:
Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented: sometimes am I king;
Then treason make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am: then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I king’d again: and by and by
Think that I am unking’d by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing: but whate’er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing.
In 1982, just two years after my defeat, the people of Arkansas gave me a second chance, as I tried to develop the strengths of Bolingbroke’s son, Henry V, who inherited a weakened and divided nation from a father who proved better at deposing kings than being one. Henry took on France with a clear vision; a strategy to realize it; a speech to make it compelling, convincing and exciting; and an army dedicated, disciplined and daring enough to prevail against the odds. In 1982, no previous governor had ever been elected, defeated, then elected again, though several had tried. Those who fought with me then, many of whom did live “into an old age,” still remember with pride their Agincourt when they too were “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers”
Those who helped win our long-shot campaign for President in 1992 felt the same way (as did those who worked for Hillary in 2008, all the more so because she didn’t prevail, but didn’t quit).
When I took office in 1993, I remembered the lessons of the tragedies and America’s recent past and took care to avoid abuses of power. But in eight years of trying to make good things happen in often deficient circumstances, the history plays once again offered more guidance about the burdens of office, the challenge of maintaining the spirit of the campaign in the grind of governing and the necessary suppression and stubborn persistence of the ordinary man behind the title.
Henry V laments:
Upon the king! Let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all.
Richard II explains with an outburst of royal self-pity:
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me I am a king?
Though he wrote in a violent, insecure, uncertain age long past, Shakespeare’s insights should be studied and absorbed by every contemporary leader. It remains easy to confuse personal advantage with the public interest; to justify abuses of power in service of a greater good; to break under the burdens of office; to neglect the private life until only the public one seems real.
The trick is to keep Henry’s “Once more unto the breach” spirit alive day in and day out, for doing good as well as defeating enemies; to embrace our humanity, not bury it; to see the fleeting nature of power as a precious opportunity, not a personal tragedy; to remember that the quality of mercy “blesseth him that gives and him that takes” and so “becomes the throned monarch better than his crown.”
I only wish Shakespeare could have written plays about Mandela or Rabin, who understood with Henry that “the King is but a man as I am” and still found greatness and humanity through persistence of spirit and noble purpose.
Bill Clinton was the 42nd President of the United States. He now dedicates himself to philanthropy and continued public service through the William J. Clinton Foundation.