King Lear, St. Louis Actor’s Studio, and Machiavelli’s The Prince

Power is so important that you should not relinquish all of it even to your children, King Lear so potently teaches. The ancient themes of loyalty and friendship, truth told in the guise of a joke, the corrupting power of wealth, and the unpredictability of kindness, even within the family, make for great Shakespearean drama.

The last Shakespeare I saw was Merchant of Venice last summer in Oxford, since I missed the play in Forest Park this spring. Somehow the main motivating factors rang more true in Merchant than the exaggerated silence of Cordelia and the wrath of Lear. But once the action got going, it was as modern as could be.

You had better hurry to see this particular production at the Gaslight on Boyle by St. Louis Actor’s Studio because the last weekend has nearly ended. It is excellent, as I have come to expect from this troupe. I particularly loved the costumes with their loose doubled belts and roughly woven undershirts. I also liked the spare set with its double stairs.

If this were a regular theater review, I would go on and on about the acting, pointing out the sobbing of Kent and the crazy yet wise eyes of the fool. I might have mentioned the smarminess of Kent’s bastard son, or the complacency of the evil older sisters. But I will just say it is a great, a visionary production and you should go see it. Now I want to talk about Machiavelli.

You probably remember a few gems from The Prince, out of context and exaggerated, so you think, as I did, that Machiavelli is a monster. Perhaps most famous is that it is better to be feared than to be loved. This is in the book, true enough, and it is an awful thought. But there is more than just that to it. Machiavelli goes on to say that you should not be hated when you are feared. He says the way you get to be hated is to take someone’s property or someone’s women. He says a leader should under no circumstances do either of these things, for they will lead to very undesirable hatred. He also says there should be no excuse ever for taking property or women, for once you have one excuse, others will easily come to mind.

Remember, this book is about a leader, a prince, not about how a parent should be in a family, or even an administrator in a department. So don’t think that being feared and not loved is an indiscriminate form of advice.

Machiavelli also warns against generosity. But again, this is from the perspective of a leader interacting with other leaders of other principalities. So any generosity ultimately does not come from one’s own purse, but involves increasing taxation, taking away the wealth of one’s own people and giving it to others.

He says the main job of a prince is war, and he would do well to keep that in mind. He talks about visiting the countryside to hunt, and discussing what it would be like were they to have a battle there. He talks about listening to the opinions of others, so that when the time comes, everyone will behave optimally. I hope few states today have their main job as war, but one might interpret that as advice to look out, not within. A leader more than anything guides interactions with other leaders of different constituencies. An effective leader puts together great teams. An effective leader is always thinking about different solutions to problems. This might not be such bad advice for anyone.

Machiavelli has some other interesting opinions. Here are a couple. He has no use for mercenaries. He says they will be great during peace, but useless during war. Who exactly is a mercenary today, and what do they do?

Since Machiavelli’s advice for princes mostly involves war, he also has advice for successful princes that must rule new states. He gives a number of options. An interesting one is that you should live among the new people if you are going to rule them effectively. You have to get to know them, effectively to become one of them.

What does this have to do with Lear? Only that Lear should have listened to Machiavelli. After all weren’t the troops from France preparing to invade Lear’s weakened and divided state? After all, Shakespeare wrote well after Machiavelli did.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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