King John…umph!?


Shakespeare has a way of getting there before us, not least when it comes to leadership. So what would he have to say about the leader of the free world? My view of Mr Trump has been oscillating over the last two weeks, partly because in the midst of all the recent problems I find myself warming to him (please note that is not the same as agreeing with him).

Part of the reason is because, as Trevor Noah notes, Trump has all the skills of a stand-up comedian. He is good at one liners, and when he moves into his next fabulist story there is a chutzpah there. When he comes out from behind the White House PR team he almost raises sympathy with his belief that he is the victim. Please remember, as I smile, I am not agreeing.

Then it came to me…. the American people have elected Sir John Falstaff as their leader, and this is part of the reason why his base stay loyal to him; they like him.

It is fascinating how we English have taken Jack Falstaff* to our hearts. There are a dozen or more pieces of classical music focused in on him, the most affection of which is Elgar’s symphonic study. Commentators on Henry IV parts I and 2 regularly note Shakespeare’s fondness for the character, and many other writers see him as a quintessential figure of fun. Hence, most commentators see the moment when the new King, Henry V, turns against his old pal, as emotionally challenging; seen by some as a betrayal:

‘I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace
(Henry IV, Act 5, scene 5)

Well, yes, this is a cataclysmic moment, but precisely because the new king has to establish himself as leader. The two plays leading up to this moment have been precisely about how Prince Hal has grown into leadership. Alongside the demands of leadership, is the fun of Jack Falstaff. Hal swithers and has his fun even in a comic trial where Falstaff is to be ‘banished’. His response, quick as a flash, is both fun and poignant, and thus more appealing:

‘No, my good lord, banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins, but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant being, as he is old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s company. Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world’.

But the poignancy is really focused in the knowledge of Hal (Harry) that he will eventually have to do just that. If we weren’t attracted to Falstaff there would be no sense of poignancy. Further, without that attraction, which leads to Hal on several occasions tolerating Falstaff’s behaviour, we would not get a sense of the reality of his struggle to become a leader. This is the struggle that makes him address the tension between the Lord of Rule (his father) and the Lord of Misrule (Falstaff, often characterised as Hal’s surrogate father).

So, what do we have in kind Jack Falstaff?

  • First, we have a man who is obsessed by himself and his gain. Every opportunity he has he looks to make the most of it, from the recruitment of troops to his relationship with Hal.
  • Second, Falstaff is a fabulist who always inflates numbers and events, the two attackers who relieve him of ill-gotten gains soon become eleven, and he fights the dead Hotspur to the death.
  • Third, it is not clear that he really believes that he is sweet, kind, true and valiant but that is what he tries to project; he inflates himself (metaphorically and literally). This is the opposite of Aristotle’s virtue of truthfulness (alethēia) the truthful representation of the self. Falstaff had long ago lost the capacity to actually see his self. Contrast that with Hal and Hamlet who are forever observing the self.
  • Fourth, Falstaff paints himself as a friend of the little man, the ordinary soldier. Hence, in perhaps his greatest speech, he reflects on honour, how this is captured by the rich, and is of no value to the poor. Contrast that with Henry V’s troops prior to Agincourt and their thirst for authentic honour.
  • Fifth, Falstaff is man who actually has no ideology and no moral compass. His world view is centred in himself.
  • Sixth, he is a man who always denies responsibility, either for the event or the significance of the event, preferring to blame others.
  • Seventh, he is a man who does not know boundaries and who cannot read the signs from others. Just before Henry V’s powerful words to Falstaff, Jack is literally outside the boundaries that separate the people from the king. Three times he shouts to the king using an informal title, ignoring the initial responses. He crosses the boundaries and is lost.

Leadership demands a focus on others, service, a grasp of actuality, clear purpose and direction, the capacity to own failure, not denying responsibility, a grasp of clear boundaries and, perhaps above all else, that virtue of truthfulness.

Interestingly, Falstaff and the US president raise questions as to whether truthfulness is not more important than the truth about this or that. It might be argued that our perception of external reality is itself dependent upon truthfulness. When you inflate the self, reality inevitably becomes both inflated and opaque. But because your sense of self-esteem depends upon that inflation you have to keep defending the story of eleven brigands or the biggest crowds ever. These are the measure of who you see in the mirror, and soon become the measure of how we see the organisation that you lead.

Revd. Dr. Simon Robinson

Director, Centre for Governance, Leadership and Global Responsibility

*The character is referred to throughout this blog piece, and indeed throughout society, as both John and Jack, Jack being a common derivative of the name John.










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