What the Great Greek and Shakespearian Tragedies Have to Teach About Modern Crises

Originally published on The Huffington Post, April 6, 2012

The senseless killing of Trayvon Martin is not only a monumental tragedy, but it has all the elements of the great epic Greek and Shakespearian tragedies. In fact, all crises do.

The prime lesson: Get thee to the Greek playwrights and Shakespeare if one would better understand crises!

First of all, individual character and institutional flaws are a prominent, if not the most important, element of all crises (think Rupert Murdoch, Goldman Sachs, etc.). They are certainly prime aspects of the Trayvon Martin tragedy: George Zimmerman’s use of the “f__ word,” the botched handling of the case from the beginning by the Sanford Police Department, and no less the state of Florida, which allowed Zimmerman to operate as a self-appointed vigilante under its surreal “Stand Your Ground Law.”

Second, all the basic elements of tragedy — spectacle (protest marches, staged rallies, etc.), music and rhetoric (the incessant 24 hours “news” cycle, half-truths, self-serving analysis) — are integral parts of virtually all crises.

Third, the major over arching component of tragedy — the plot with its turning points, or “reversals,” based on “discoveries and recognitions” which cause the action to turn in unexpected ways — is a prime feature as well. Look at the ongoing spate of discoveries in the crisis enveloping Rupert Murdock and his empire.

The word “empire” strikes a chord. It brings to mind the world’s most famous tragedy, Hamlet, which is not only the story of a prince, but of an entire nation. The critical turning point in Hamlet is a double discovery that occurs in the middle of the plot. It happens during “the play within the play” that Hamlet stages. Hamlet not only succeeds in “catching the conscience of the king,” but as a result, he now knows for sure that Claudius, the king (his uncle), killed his father. At the same time, Claudius discovers that Hamlet knows. The action “turns” via these discoveries because the pursuer, Hamlet, becomes the pursued, and the pursued, King, become the pursuer.

More often than not, great wars hinge on crucial turning points. For example, Hitler invades Russia and discovers that his Nazi juggernaut is not invincible, and Stalin discovers that not only can he defeat Hitler, but by doing so, he can annex large sections of Europe. This, of course, leads to the Cold War, a crisis that dominates the second half of the 20th century until the plot turns again and “seems” to result in a happy ending. In fact, it merely leads to the beginning of another complicated drama, and so on.

Nonetheless, every tragedy has a final ending. In Hamlet, the double discovery leads to an absolute conclusion, although in a circuitous route that gives Shakespeare the opportunity to further develop Hamlet’s character. For example, Hamlet is so inflated by his discovery that he fails to notice that since the king now knows that he knows, he had better get out of Dodge City as fast as he can. Instead, he is so pumped that he talks about “drinking hot blood.”

“Hot blood” talk is another prominent feature of all major crises. We’ve already seen it rear its ugly head in the case of Trayvon Martin by right-wing commentators and the charge that Trayvon Martin attacked, and thus provoked, George Zimmerman. Rhetoric and false testimony attempt to reverse Trayvon Martin from the role of victim to the dramatic persona of the villain.

In Hamlet and many other tragedies, inflation and hubris are major aspects of the character of the tragic hero. To put it mildly, they are prime aspects of the principal actors in today’s crises, e.g., Rupert Murdoch, Goldman Sachs. Often, the very things that promote inflation are the exact same traits that make a person admirable, powerful, and an outstanding leader. The audience of course sees all of the “mixed bag,” but the hero doesn’t. This, of course, is tragic irony.

In Greek tragedy, the chorus often functioned as the “people” (today’s TV audience) who in some way saw what was happening or going to happen. They embodied the fear, but were powerless to stop it. They played the role of a witness. They were the ones who literally sang about what they feared and knew. They were something like today’s crisis experts who try to warn leaders by telling them what they don’t want to hear. For instance, in the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was the civilian leaders who told the military leaders what they did not want to hear and thus avoided what would have been a total tragedy of epic proportions.

One of the many sources that fed into the theater of Shakespeare — that incredible period of dramatic/theatrical growth and accomplishment — were the Royal Entries into London. These happened when a new king was granted permission to enter the city and claim it as a seat of power. The formal procession of lords and statesmen that accompanied the King wound its way through the streets and often stopped at the crossroads where large structures were used as water stations. Little plays would be staged on top of the structures which were sometimes cautionary tales about what makes a good King and how bad Kings fall on bad times. The tragic plays that developed later were, of course, much more complex, but they retained, something of that message. In the great outdoor theaters of Shakespeare’s day, people from all walks of life were reminded of the rise and fall of the great and noble throughout history.

The Puritans, of course, didn’t go to the theater, and so when they seized power in 1642, they tore down all the theaters. In 1660, they were themselves torn down. They should have gone to the theater. Their supreme arrogance and hubris reminds one of the Tea Party, Santorum, Rush Limbaugh, the Catholic bishops and all the others that want some kind of theocracy.

What this should teach us is that crises cannot be avoided altogether. As that other great character of destiny, Macbeth, says we are all merely players who strut our stuff upon the stage and then are “heard no more.” The metaphor — “all the world’s a stage” — is a central meme Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare may in fact have made it into a central meme. We certainly believe that it’s a useful trope for Crisis Management. Perhaps it’s even a necessary prelude to management in general. It starts with the recognition that not even the hero has complete control over the events to come.

We are not gods, merely players. One can only hope that CEO’s would finally understand this and muster some of Macbeth’s humility. Unfortunately, Macbeth’s humility only emerges three short scenes before he looses his head. What a metaphor for our time!

The prime lesson for Crisis Management occurs in the final scene of Hamlet. By this time, all of the principal characters have been dispatched and the state of Denmark, having lost its leadership, is taken over by Fortinbras who has been at war over “a little patch” of Poland “that hath in it no profit but the name.” He just happens to be marching back home to Norway via Denmark and finds an empty throne surrounded by a dead king, queen, and prince. Thus, he claims the country for himself.

According to Horatio, Hamlet is positive about Fortinbras’ taking over. Earlier in the play, he sees Fortinbras in the distance going off to fight a worthless war, but because honor is at stake, he views Fortinbras as his personal model even though he declares that undertaking such a war reflects a hidden cancer (“imposthume”) of too much “wealth and peace.” (Shades of our Iraq folly.)

The cults of the hero, wealth, power, especially when coupled with ego inflation, hubris, ambition and rigidity of thought are unfortunately the perfect conditions for tragedies and crises.

If only we could finally learn from the Bard!

Originally published on The Huffington Post, April 6, 2012

About imitroff

Dr. Ian Mitroff is Professor Emeritus at the Marshall School of Business and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He is the president and founder of Mitroff Crisis Management, a private consulting firm based in Oakland, California, that specializes in the treatment of human-caused crises. He is a Senior Affiliate with the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Berkeley.
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