I recall that two New York Times articles about executive pay were entitled “A Rich Game of Thrones”. Neither article explained the metaphorical reference to the popular cable television show, Game of Thrones, a testimony to the show’s popularity. However, no matter how popular Game of Thrones is today, it has a long way to go to match the enduring appeal of another dramatic series about kings and kingdoms – Shakespeare’s eight plays about England in the tumultuous 15th century. But 400 years later, do these stories of medieval kings have any practical application, or are they like the television series just another form of popular entertainment?
This question came home to me with some force during the intermission of an American Shakespeare Center’s production of Henry V. We had just watched the scene in the French camp the night before Agincourt where “The confident and over-lusty French” prematurely brag about their impending victory and dismiss the overwhelmingly outnumbered English army as beneath contempt.
Once the scene ended, the audience filed into the lobby, and two men began discussing the next day’s college football game and how their team would easily defeat a badly outmatched opponent. As they spoke, I thought to myself, “Weren’t they listening to what we just heard? Surely they know how the play ends, don’t they realise they sound just like the French?” And perhaps more importantly, “Can’t we see how the lesson taught in Henry V about the dangers of overconfidence applies to us?”
Spectator overconfidence, of course, has no impact on the result of a sporting event. But it is safe to say that almost everyone who has seen or read Henry V can think of at least one instance when they behaved like the French and paid the price. Why can’t the lesson be learned from Shakespeare rather than being learned the hard way in real life?
There is probably more than one explanation, but the primary obstacle may be accepting the possibility that Shakespeare’s stories of medieval England have any practical application in our twenty-first century lives. After all, few, if any, of us will ever lead armies in battle. But overconfidence isn’t dangerous for just kings and princes: all of us are at risk in some way of acting like the French before Agincourt and suffering the consequences. Such situations can range from peaceful, but intense competition with other people or institutions, to personal projects where the only competition is to do our best work.
Learning this lesson from Henry V can help us avoid at least some potential pitfalls and disasters. Furthermore, personal applications of lessons from Shakespeare aren’t limited to the dangers of overconfidence. Thinking about such possibilities while reading, watching, and thinking about the plays can pay major benefits.
Oh, and that football game? While their team won, it wasn’t anywhere near as easy as the two men anticipated. Perhaps as they sweated it out, they remembered Henry V and learned something for the future.