Optimism & Shakespeare

The elephant in the room

Andrew Breland

Last weekend I had the opportunity to escape from the monotony of studying and reading to attend a performance of “Richard III” down at Playhouse Square.

First, I want to encourage everyone reading this to take advantage of the Great Lakes Theater Company at the Hanna Theater downtown. They are all locally based and are an extremely talented and enthusiastic group of actors. We are blessed to have them here in Cleveland. And students can get tickets for $13.

However, I’m not here to be an advertisement for Great Lakes. For as good as they are, they don’t pay me to do that. I will, however, use their performance here. Near the end of the play, before the final battle, Richard claims that “Conscience is but a word that cowards use devised at first to keep the strong in awe.” This statement in context leads Richard to take up arms against the French despite an obvious disadvantage, both in physical numbers and moral quality. And in delivery, this line is always glossed over in the lead-up to war.

However, during the performance last weekend, I stopped listening after this line. I was stuck.

On its face, this line seems to suggest that morality is not important. It seems to say that strong, powerful people live and succeed without morals. Conscience only gets in the way. I don’t think that is what Shakespeare meant here.

While to Richard that interpretation might be true, one has to remember that Richard is the antihero whom audiences love to hate in this play. Instead, might Shakespeare be saying that conscience, morals or whatever you call them are abandoned by those in power? Might he mean that losing one’s moral compass leads to catastrophe and conflict in your kingdom? Might this quote have something to say about our daily lives?

I think the answer to each of those questions is yes. To explain perhaps a bit further, “Richard III” was Shakespeare’s first play after the invasion of the Spanish Armada and revolts in Ireland. In both of these cases, foreign, arguably dictatorial leaders (the Spanish monarch or Irish revolution leaders) tried to impinge on the English peoples’ freedoms and livelihoods. They tried to take out Queen Elizabeth. Shakespeare, in response, develops his “Richard III” around these individuals. He models Richard’s motivations, actions and character off the evils committed. And that is all fine. However, this line questions the veracity of those actions. That the strong can ignore morals, conscience and character, leads most to want a change—if not a full revolt.

For the non-English majors who continue to read this piece long after most would have given up, I thank you. This is where it gets good. How does this relate to you?

Here at CWRU, and any college for that matter, we’re always told to get involved in leadership. Leadership, we’re instructed, is the pathway to future success and security. While the veracity of that statement is dubious at best, let’s assume for a minute that there is truth in this ideal. If that’s the case, then each of us is affected by this quandary between morals and leadership and we all have to balance ourselves accordingly.

Over the past couple weeks though, I can’t say we’ve seen the best examples of that sort of behavior. On a national scale, the country is divided like it has never been before and our leaders in Congress fail to reach a compromise or solutions to most problems. The president, formerly a well-liked figure, has fallen to a 40 percent approval rating due in part to “lies” told about the Affordable Care Act and electronic surveillance. Closer to home, the Cleveland mayoral race pitted two Democrats against one another, with one campaigning simply on the “he’s wrong” platform. And finally here on campus, a lawsuit has been filed against the dean of the law school alleging sexual harassment and retaliation, possibly the most immoral of the acts committed by leaders cataloged here.

So there’s obviously something to be learned from the sins of the past, as they still affect all of us. Maybe worse though is the realization that we all have a little bit of Richard in us. Whether it’s the off-handed comment about race, a joke made in a perhaps bad light or the string of vulgarity you used to express your team’s latest loss, no one is perfect. We are all at risk of being like Richard, and letting the moral get replaced by So how do we balance the need to be right and good, with the desire to be strong and “leader-like”? This is an especially important question since we are constantly bombarded with information on how to be a “strong leader.” The answer, provided by another thinker, is to be fair. To not let your values change your conclusion or your analysis—thank you, Raymond Aron.

To figure out what exactly professor Aron meant by his philosophy is a struggle, and is worthy of attention. I’ll recommend this, in the spirit of Aron. Make a conscious effort, when bombarded with being a strong leader, to remain independent of what other people say. You were chosen to lead by election, appointment, hiring or some other method. Live up to it. Don’t emulate the failures, but seek the positives. Don’t look up to someone just because they did great things, but consider the cost. Remove yourself from the decision and do what is best for the future. Richard lives in all of us. Acknowledge it, harness it and change something.

This column wasn’t typical for me, and I probably won’t write another one like it all year. But with the changes coming on campus, both in things and people, with the added enjoyment of the season’s change, with the ability to improve for next semester, I decided that is was worth it.

Andrew Breland is a double major in political science and English, planning on getting a master’s degree in political science before attending law school. He is the vice president of the Phi Alpha Delta pre-law fraternity and the treasurer of CWRU’s undergraduate mock trial team.