Prince Hal’s Eloquence
As it happens, the directors of England’s Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) also recognize the value of playacting for building the character of a leader. Here’s how the RSC described the process in a playbill for an autumn 2007 performance of Henry IV: “Shakespeare and his fellow actors could display their own formidable abilities to don royal or ducal robes and speak the way kings and queens ought to speak; did this persuasive impersonation of royal authority hint that leadership was a kind of performance that could be assumed by any gifted person, regardless of rank or experience?”
Thus I found myself, in midsummer, on a three-hour train ride from London to Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace. I had been invited to visit the RSC during its preparations for the fall season — which included all of Shakespeare’s major history plays. It sounded like a rare opportunity for a tutorial in power and performance, watching some of history’s most inspiring rulers deal with unprecedented issues of judgment, responsibility, and the consequences of their actions. What could I learn about leadership by watching a good theater director and his crew of voice coaches and dramaturges at work?
I knew that some great leaders, particularly political figures, had turned to Shakespeare for inspiration. His plays were taught at the premier British barrister academies, the Inns of Court. Queen Elizabeth I copied out parts of Shakespeare’s Henry V while planning an address to her troops on the eve of a decisive battle waged by British forces against the Spanish Armada. Thomas Jefferson made his own pilgrimage to Stratford, even (according to John Adams) getting down on his knees and kissing the ground. Abraham Lincoln spent hours reading aloud from Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies for the benefit of his friends and companions. Even today, Shakespeare’s last history play, Henry V, is one of four works studied by military personnel in the Pentagon’s Legacy Project to develop leadership potential.
At Stratford, I opened my conversation with RSC Artistic Director Michael Boyd by asking him which Shakespearean character he would choose to be led by. It was during a rehearsal lunch, over a plate of vinegary beets and stew so ghastly that it looked like prop entrails from a murder scene. The Shakespearean leader that Boyd most admires is Prince Hal, the protagonist of Henry V.
“Shakespeare wrote about so many different models of consensual leadership during his life,” said Boyd. “Leading from the front, charismatic leadership, leadership by force. But in the character of Hal, he simply showed how a leader puts one foot in front of the other to meet the new challenges of each moment. Why not just enjoy life, enjoy the booze and the women, and reject the very notion of authority?” But Prince Hal, according to the story as Shakespeare told it, is compelled, bit by bit, to play a more difficult and responsible role.
The prince has grown up as the heir to a usurper: His father, Henry IV, murdered the legitimate king. Guilt and treachery marked Henry IV’s reign, and Hal wants little to do with it. “[Hal] has inoculated himself against the problem of being born into an elite,” says Boyd. “He rejects that elite and then nonetheless takes on his responsibility when it comes. He has to spurn that part of his life that is dearest to him to be useful as a king.”
As he grows up, Henry V becomes a consummate man of action — pragmatic and resolute. His most controversial move, as he assumes the crown upon his father’s death, is to banish his closest friend and dissolute tutor, Falstaff. “This doesn’t dehumanize Henry V,” says Boyd. “He’s conscious of his own failings and mortality; he has a fairly profound sense of humility. He even finds a way to embrace his father before his death — and then he braces himself to perform the role of king. Any leader who is not ambivalent about power is not believable.”