Today, I’m going to focus my Lear goggles on a modern-day parallel of Shakespeare’s famous crotchety old man. I have a running list of contextualized versions of Lear (including King James I, on whom I will be writing the first chapter of my thesis, specifically in terms of his influence on the character of Lear), but one of my favorites, and this post’s focus, is the one and only Vladamir Putin.
I’m no expert in politics, international relations, even celebrity fandom, but when I stumbled upon an article about Putin’s most recent election and the turmoil that erupted around it, I immediately thought of Lear. Briefly, Putin was reelected just this March for a third term as Russia’s president; at the end of his term, that could bring his total time in office to 24 years, second only to Joseph Stalin. During his first run, he was an overwhelming success: he pulled his country out of an economic slump, boosted employment, and returning Russia to political stability.
But with each reelection, Putin’s approval ratings have slipped. Critics have accused the leader of destroying democratic principals in favor of a more authoritarian political system; law enforcement, for example, is widely considered corrupt and domineering (Pussy Riot, a feminist Russian punk band, was arrested for “hooliganism” earlier this year in response to a performance in a Moscow church that asked the Virgin Mary to remove Putin from power); he has been accused of rigging polls; and the surge in political riots surrounding his recent reelection was swiftly suppressed, a reflection of what some assert is his fear of any form of opposition.
Ruthless leader, dictator, second Stalin — whatever you call him, there are distinct Lear parallels, both in terms of his political biography and his personal life as well. These include:
– A love of power. He was president of Russia for two consecutive years, wasn’t allowed to run a third so ruled behind the scenes as prime minister, and ran again as soon as possible. Critics of his consider him antidemocratic, even dictatorial. I think it’s fair to say this echoes Lear’s own divine right of kings ideology; both Lear and Putin firmly believe in their place as rulers, despite opposition and protest.
– In 2000, he divided the 89 districts of Russia into 7 federal districts to be overseen by representatives whom he named himself
– He likes to advertise himself as a “macho man.” He has driven race cars, tranquilized polar bears, played ice hockey, co-piloted a firefighting plane, tracked down tigers, and flown jets.
– He has two daughters, no sons.
– He isn’t afraid to restort to violence to restore peace. The 2011-12 election and inauguration protests were based on five main points: Freedom for political prisoners; Annulment of the election results; The resignation of Vladimir Churov, head of the election commission, and an official investigation of vote fraud; Registration of the opposition parties and new democratic legislation on parties and elections; New democratic and open elections. In response, hundreds of protesters were arrested or injured through altercations with police.
– And this one isn’t so much a similarity as a really fascinating piece of trivia: His name is used for advertising and brands, including Putinka Vodka.
Whether you consider him corrupt or fair, authoritarian or democratic, he’s certainly a modern-day Lear. The English king’s story may have originated hundreds of years ago, but his dilemma rings true today; we still see many of our political leaders struggling with their own desire for power in the face of public dissent. Putin’s spiraling popularity and unwavering fight for presidency is one of numerous examples in today’s political sphere.
We may not channel much Putin into our interpretation of Shakespeare’s tragic hero, but my research validates one point that we’ll need to constantly remind ourselves of: Lear’s themes — power, corruption, greed, mortality — are alive today. Which begs the question: What is our audience going to be reminded of when they see our king onstage?