FOR God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground, and tell sad stories of the death of kings.” Anyone who caught the BBC’s dramatisation of William Shakespeare’s Richard II at the weekend will have seen not only one of the City’s historic buildings featuring prominently – St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield – but also a timeless analysis of the tragedy of power, one that seemed ever more relevant to today’s leaders as the week wore on.
Richard II is the story of a ruler puffed up with vanity, but overmatched by his responsibilities. Unable to manage disputes, capricious and highhanded in his decisions, careless in his delegation and spendthrift in his habits, his godlike pride is slowly stripped away. A series of bad decisions ends in cruel disillusionment, and the coronation of a replacement.
The bloodletting at Barclays isn’t an exact mirror to Shakespeare’s play. The deposition of Bob Diamond from his throne was a response to lower level wrongdoing more than his vanity or weakness. But the fall of Diamond, his right-hand man Jerry Del Missier and the imminent departure of chairman Marcus Agius from one of Britain’s oldest banks chimes with Shakespeare’s bleak warning, “within the hollow crown that rounds the mortal temples of a king keeps death his court.” Even masters of the universe will meet their comeuppance.
Richard II is also a tragedy of economic mismanagement, offering a warning to today’s debt-happy politicians as well. John of Gaunt’s famous speech celebrating England as a “sceptred isle” is really a complaint that a once-great country has been bankrupted by its ruler.
The main grievance of Gaunt’s son Henry Bolingbroke, who takes Richard’s throne from him, is Richard’s unjust windfall tax – seizing his inheritance after Gaunt dies. We even learn of Richard that “the commons hath he piled with grievous taxes, and quite lost their hearts.”
But above all, the play understands that the disaster which befalls the king is also a disaster for his disaffected kingdom. Groaning under mismanagement, it must pay an even heavier price to restore England’s glory. It is a time when “rich men look sad and ruffians dance and leap, the one in fear to lose what they enjoy, the other to enjoy by rage and war.”
There has been some dancing and leaping over the losses of the rich this week, but it is shortsighted. The Libor scandal may yet prove a tragedy for London’s global standing. For Barclays’ 147,000 employees and its shareholders, as the credit rating agencies made clear yesterday, the loss of senior staff is a hard blow.
Wrongdoing, bad management and economic incontinence all need to be killed off, but Richard’s usurper ends the play by saying “they love not poison that do poison need.” With his once-great rival dead at his feet, he protests “my soul is full of woe, that blood should sprinkle me to make me grow.” The death of a king may be justified, but it remains a tragedy.