Time Magazine’s venerated Man of the Year award was renamed Person of the Year in 1999. Since then, only two women have been honored with the title (“The Whistleblowers” — Cynthia Cooper, Coleen Rowley, and Sherron Watkins in 2002 –and Melinda Gates). For the most part, the 85 winners have been wealthy, powerful males — much like our very own Lear.
This year, President Barack Obama‘s face appeared on Time Magazine’s cover. Of the four runners up, two of them are women, one an Italian scientist, the other a Pakistani revolutionary. The other two are men in positions of power, and as much as I’d love to blog about how awesome Fabiola Gianotti and Malala Yousafzai are, King Lear is a play about power, so I’m going to focus on Obama and his two male runners up. Obama, Tim Cook and Mohamed Morsi head radically different groups of people with equally different politics and goals, but they have one thing in common: they are considered great leaders and admirable men.
For Lear, kingship was inherited, not earned, granting absolute power along with riches and a crown. King James I was on the throne when Shakespeare wrote King Lear, and no one dared challenge the source of his power. On stage, however, Shakespeare asked that very question: What makes a good king? As twenty-first century dramaturgs, we need to ask the same question: What makes a good leader? In his famous treatise, The Trew Law of Free Moncarchies, James described a good king as the following:
“And as ye see it manifest that the king is over-lord of the whole land, so is he is master over every person that inhabiteth the same, having power over the life and death of every one of them; for although a just prince will not take the life of any of his subjects without a clear law, yet the same laws whereby he taketh them are made by himself or his predecessors, and so the power flows always from himself.”
Lear’s philosophy toward kingship was very much the same: Power was rooted in absolute power.
The Time editors say they chose Obama because of his humble, relatable, American qualities — quite unlike Lear’s materialistic, centralized notions of kingship. He is person of the year “For finding and forging a new majority, for turning weakness into opportunity and for seeking, amid great adversity, to create a more perfect union.”
America no longer wants a president who flaunts his authority. Obama is what Time considers the “New American.” He Tweets and has a Facebook profile. He “is more than just a political figure; he’s a cultural one.” Lear considers himself too great a king to cry in front of his subjects: Touch me with noble anger,/ And let not women’s weapons, water-drops, Stain my man’s cheeks” (II.ii.465).
But just last week, Obama openly cried on national television in response to the Connecticut school shooting. Broadly speaking, Americans didn’t accuse their great leader of being weak or feminine: He was as human as anyone else. In fact, when he was reelected, he said, “The choice that they made was less about me and more about them, more about who they saw themselves to be.”
Runner up Person of the Year Tim Cook has a similarly people-centric leadership style. Many were wary when he took over as CEO of Apple Industries after Steve Jobs died. Their personalities are completely different, Jobs was “loud, brash, unpredictable, uninhibited…He came at you from across the room, flashing his lightning-bolt eyebrows, and he browbeat you till you either agreed with him or pretended to, just to make him for God’s sake stop.” Cook is described as “a seducer, a Southern drawler, slow and soft-spoken. He has been observed winking. He doesn’t come at you; he waits for you to come to him.”
This gentleness is hardly Lear-like. Lear was something like an Iron Age Steve Jobs; he didn’t care about laws or morality, banishing his most loyal servant and daughter when they ” make us break our vows” and “come betwixt our sentences and our power” (I.i.168). Cook might demonstrate a vastly different management style, but it worked: Apple is officially worth more than Microsoft and Google combined.
Mohamid Morsi, the first democratic leader of Egypt, is also distinctly un-Lear-like. After the Egyptian people revolted against Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship, they elected someone who was willing to give up his membership with the Muslim Brotherhood to “strengthen his claim to represent all Egyptians.” He may not be the leader the liberal protesters hoped for, however; he was criticized for trying to acquire more power after his election, and the draft of Egypt’s democratic constitution is under fervent debate.
The entire Egyptian revolution is itself a fascinating case study in contemporary outlooks on power and leadership. It is a relevant, provocative foil to Lear’s leadership style. Lear and the real-life king, James I, ruled over subjects who would never dare come between “the dragon and his wrath” (I.i.123). Today, leaders are largely expected to serve their people; Lear’s and Mubarak’s authoritarianism are now old-fashioned, hardly the democracy America stands for and expects other countries to follow. So when the people of a country like Egypt reject their ruthless, centralized government, they have to pick up the pieces and do what the Times article describes as “The hardest task of all”: “Defining the nature and laws of the newly democratic state.”
America chose these three men to represent the modern world. They are described as altruistic, representative of the common man. America, proudly democratic and people-centered, seems to have completely abandoned Lear’s ancient authoritarian ways. But as we delve into contemporary notions of power and authority, it’s worth relooking at leaders like Cook, Morsi and Obama. What lessons could they learn from Lear’s story? Why is his tragic devolution from king to beggar still relevant? How can we convey that relevancy onstage?