Shakespeare and Governance


shakespeare quoteOK, it’s over week since the four hundredth anniversary of the bard’s death. I blame my wife for this tardy production. She never reads these blogs, so I am safe.

But, of course, that is precisely what those in power thought right before governance crises hit. The Enron managers who emailed staff to say delete any smoking guns from you emails clearly thought that no-one could or would able to see them. This is much like my two year grandson Bertie who used to think that by closing his eyes and putting his head in his hands no-body would see him. But…. your sin will find you out! (Numbers 32: 23)

There is a lot of that in Shakespeare. So many of the leaders he portrays want to deny responsibility for what they are doing or have done. Macbeth, the straight talking Scottish warrior, suddenly wants to hide himself from the things that are going on, to dissociate himself from them. It is common for members of a board to dissociate themselves from decisions that have been made, after all they don’t have any real power, do they?

But for Shakespeare, as Stephen Greenblatt (2007) observes, such attempts are doomed. Richard II, Lear, Cleopatra, Coriolanus and even Prospero all, in different ways, attempt to distance themselves from the power they have had. For Shakespeare, however, power ‘exists to be exercised in the world; it will not go away if you close your eyes and dream of escaping into your lovers arms, or you daughter’s house’ (ibid, 7). Being a member of a board demands the exercise of power. It does so because you have been given authority. The director is in simultaneous relationships with stakeholders, internal and external, and has the authority to change and develop what the organization thinks and how it practices it core vision and values.


So Shakespeare wants the people in power to take responsibility for people, practice, principles and power. Despite their authority too many directors allow others to take the power, usually the CEO. After all she is person who is paid to take responsibility… isn’t she? Yes, but not yours…..

This is explored in detail in Richard II. In particular this shows a ruler/ruling body which has come to see itself as above accountability. Richard does not understand his uncle’s attempts to soften governance and does not even feel himself accountable to the law, as he distributes his uncle’s lands after his death to raise money for a campaign. Brilliantly Shakespeare shows how this is about the lack of Richard’s integrity, i.e. he could never connect his actions to his self, and thus never actually feel responsible.  Sometimes whole boards have done this intentionally, like Enron. Sometimes, boards have done this without intent, such as the bank board made up mainly of retailers who simply did not understand the consequences of their actions like HBOS.

Shakespeare constantly returns to responsibility and integrity, and in four plays focuses specifically on the means of governance: Coriolanus, Troilus and Cressida, Julius Caesar, and Measure for Measure. The first of these asks questions of how the board will deal with stakeholders, which Coriolanus can’t really engage. Julius Caesar shows how easily members of governing body can be swayed. Every board needs to watch out for, and challenge, not just for its Coriolanus (the CEO who things the world revolves round her) but for its Cassius (or Iago). Measure for Measure takes us into regulation. Do we rely on regulation to guide us in all aspects of governance? Yes, says Angelo, like other leaders distancing himself from the responsibility to interpret, and thus himself be held responsible. Troilus and Cressida shows Ulysses as a leader who takes responsibility for exercising reason and responding to complex situations. Ulysses really thinks.

It would be possible to develop core principles of governance from each of these plays, such as transparency and accountability and from these inform practice. However, typical of Shakespeare, his focus on governance is not about how to operate smoothly but about the sheer difficulty of responsibility… which is why Henry IV had sleepless nights. Macbeth understands this when he says:


‘We still have judgement here, that we but teach

Bloody instruction which, being taught return

To plague th’inventor’ (Macbeth 1: 7).

The actions of boards and board members have consequences, and these will be judged. Fear of this is why many boards try avoid questions, because questions require accountability, and with that at least some awareness of consequences. It is much better to ask the questions in the board and say what you think and feel then not tow the party line. This is the nitty gritty of governance which Edgar sums up at the end of Lear:

‘The weight of this sad time we must obey,

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say’ (King Lear, 5: 3).

Greenblatt, S. (2007) ‘Shakespeare and the Uses of Power’, New York Review of Books, April 12.

 Dr. Simon Robinson

Director, Centre for Governance, Leadership and Global Responsibility




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