Richard Nisley

Shakespeare’s Clinic on Leadership
History - World Released - Jan 08, 2013

It’s as if William Shakespeare is conducting a clinic on leadership every time Henry IV Part 1 is staged.

On one side is Harry Percy, or Hotspur as he is called: fearless, forthright, a man of action and not words, and, as his name implies, a hothead.  On the other side is Sir John Falstaff--the Fat Knight, one of  Shakespeare’s great comic characters--a born talker and master of wordplay and punning, an inveterate lover of wine, women and song. In between is Henry Bolingbroke, or Prince Hal as he is known, next in line to be crowned king of England.  Hotspur and Falstaff serve as Prince Hal’s role models.  Hotspur frequents the royal court, Falstaff frequents the local watering hole, a.k.a., the Boar’s Head Tavern.

As the play begins, Prince Hal is a fixture at the Boar’s Head Tavern, where he drinks and trade puns with Falstaff, much to the displeasure of his father, King Henry IV.  Prince Hal promises his father he will reform . . . eventually.  In fact, he’s learning to cope in a world where rhetoric wins the day, and Falstaff is master.  We see that Hal has surpassed the master. 

Hotspur, meanwhile, has taken up with a rebel faction of English and Welsh noblemen who have put together an army and plan the overthrow of King Henry IV.  Hotspur and Prince Hal are destined to meet in combat, but not until Shakespeare has given us a good look at all three characters in action.

Hotspur -- Yes, he’s fearless and forthright, but he’s also uncompromising, idealistic, and disinclined to partake in the world of realpolitik, where winning the war is as much about words and image as it is about action.  Hotspur sees the world in terms of black and white, in good and evil, and therefore lacks political savvy.  It’s a fault that leads to his death, as his co-partners in rebellion manipulate his lust for honor in order to refuse King Henry IV’s offer of a truce.  Ultimately, Hotspur is the tragic figure of the play, inflexible, and caught in the trap of his own idealism.

Falstaff -- Falstaff has lived long enough to be cynical of war.  As a knight, he’s asked to head up a battalion.  Rather than put together a first-class outfit, he recruits the dregs of society and pockets the money that’s intended as their pay.  As he puts it, they’re mere “fodder for bullets” and won’t live long enough to spend it.  “They’ll fill a pit as well as better (men),” he says.  He scoffs when Prince Hal tells him he owes God a death, and dismisses talk of honor.  “Can honor set to a leg? No. Can honor mend a wound?  No.  What is honor?  Air. Therefore I’ll none of it.”  When confronted in battle, Falstaff falls on the ground and plays dead.  After the fighting, he finds Hotspur’s corpse and takes credit for the kill. For all his impropriety on the battlefield, Falstaff proves to be more politically astute than Hotspur: able to bluff, and to bide his time.  In the end, it is he, and not Hotspur, who accompanies Hal off the battlefield. 

Prince Hal -- The rebel uprising provides Prince Hal with a reason to walk away from the tavern and take his rightful place beside his father in the royal court. His years in the tavern have taught him well in the art of rhetoric and verbal give-and-take, making the transition smooth and effortless.  Indeed, it is to Falstaff, the actor and liar, to whom Hal is most indebted, as the world of the court is one where power belongs to those best able to improvise in response to ever-changing circumstances, and where compromise and consensus-building are the tools of effective leadership.  When he allows Falstaff to take credit for Hotspur’s death--credit that is rightfully his--Hal promises to make his friend appear in a glorious light.  Of course, no one will believe Falstaff capable of such a deed and suspect the truth.  Thus, the prince will reap a double benefit, in acquiring a reputation for selflessness.  It’s not entirely honest, but it’s how the game is played.  When it becomes politically expedient (in Henry IV Part 2), Hal will dispense with Falstaff. 

With Shakespeare, as with life, the leaders who are pragmatic and avoid idealism--who give a little to get a little--are the one’s who succeed.
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