Corruption Starts at the Top

Oswald (Heffernan) is swayed by his boss in “King Lear”


Yesterday I taught King Lear in a University of Ljubljana Shakespeare class and noticed parallels with White House behavior. Observing Donald Trump’s corrupting influence on underlings and supporters, historian Robert Dallek talks of the fish rotting from the head, and we can see the process at work in the Lear and Gloucester households as well.

Dallek describes the problem as follows:

Like Nixon, Trump has created a culture in his administration in which people feel comfortable with corruption. Trump himself has shown a complete indifference to democratic norms, to rule of law, and that sends a pretty clear signal to the people beneath him.

A Center on American Progress article makes a similar point, noting,

The corruption is broader than just the President and his family. President Trump has assembled the wealthiest and least experienced Cabinet in recent memory. Unsurprisingly, the president’s senior leadership has taken cues from their boss: While arguing for devastating cuts to services that millions of Americans depend on, several Cabinet members have engaged in extravagant—and at times legally questionable—spending on themselves at the taxpayer’s expense. Public service requires a respect for and responsible stewardship of public resources. But, based on public information to date, the Cabinet has spent nearly $2 million on questionable flights and private office upgrades. For scale, these expenditures are more than 33 times what the average American family earned in 2016.

In King Lear, the rotten heads are Lear and Gloucester. The rot then seeps down to Goneril, Regan, and Edmund and, in Goneril’s case, to her servant Oswald. Think of the three children as Trump’s family and cabinet officials and of Oswald as those in the population at large who now feel empowered to let their racist and sexist flags fly.

Shakespeare’s play shows how the process operates. From the first we encounter Gloucester boasting about the adulterous escapade that gave birth to Edmund and then Lear putting his selfish desires above the good of his kingdom.  Their children take the hint. Declaring nature—which is to say, his individual desires—to be “my goddess,” Edmund flouts moral law and overthrows both brother and father. Goneril and Regan, meanwhile, reject their father and (in Goneril’s case) poison her sister to get what they desire.

Oswald interests me because I see in him those Trump supporters who suddenly feel they have license to openly insult people of color, abuse positions of authority (I think particularly of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials), and otherwise act as jerks. The rotting head has gotten to them.

Oswald is someone who has been deliberately instructed to insult others. Goneril has Oswald insult her father’s knights in order to initiate a quarrel with him:

And let his knights have colder looks among you;
What grows of it, no matter; advise your fellows so:
I would breed from hence occasions…

Oswald then takes his insults to the next level, disrespecting the king himself. When he deliberately ignores Lear, Lear calls him out:

Lear: O, you sir, you, come you hither, sir: who am I, sir?
Oswald: My lady’s father.
Lear: “My lady’s father!” my lord’s knave: you whoreson dog! you slave! you cur!
Oswald: I am none of these, my lord; I beseech your pardon.
Lear: Do you bandy looks with me, you rascal?
Striking him

As a sycophantic follower looking out for himself, Oswald is the antithesis of Kent, who loyally follows the king even when it goes against his own self-interest. Kent does not hold back when expressing his contempt for the Oswalds of the world:

Oswald: What dost thou know me for?
Kent: A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition.

The assessment may seem over the top, but we later learn that Oswald is only too ready to kill a blind man if he thinks it will profit him. At Regan’s behest, he prepares to slay Gloucester, not realizing that the “peasant” who accompanies him is actually Edgar, an accomplished fighter. As a result, he himself dies an “untimely death.”

King Lear shows what happens when those in authority violate norms, conventions, and basic morals. By the end of the play, the nation is in ruins.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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