Recently, I began watching Amazon Prime’s rendition of King Lear. It’s a surprisingly star-studded affair and makes the interesting choice of presenting the original dialogue in the context of modern England reimagined as a dystopian dictatorship.
The opening scenes, the famous fawning and flattering by the two eldest daughters followed by the refusal to do likewise by the youngest, immediately made me consider just how consistent a tradition there is of mad and petty kings in both literature and history.
Most recently, this was a particularly consistent theme in Game of Thrones. All the various plots and sub-plots trace back to the actions of a literal Mad King. And, throughout the storyline, we are constantly bombarded with the actions and excesses of varying levels of madness and pettiness from those who hold seats of power.
Even the two characters who we thought would be the ones to rise above it all, the ones who seemed destined to “break the wheel” of death and despair, fell into madness that eventually compromised their values. (Yes, that includes Jon Snow because yes, love is madness)
We all know that power corrupts. But what struck me as I watched the opening scenes of King Lear, as I thought about the themes of Game of Thrones, and as I dwelt on the many similarities that we can draw from these tales of fiction to our own present political realities, was that there might be something that corrupts the heart of men far more absolutely than having power.
While we tend to dwell on the horrible actions of tyrants both real and imagined, rarely do we consider the circumstances, and the people, who allowed these awful things to happen. The most striking example from Game of Thrones is the brief but turbulent reign of King Joffrey.
Joffrey is a petulant brat, a petty bully, and a coward. Everyone knew it. His own mother, whose love for him blinded her to all moral consideration, knew it. And yet, he was allowed to rule. His subjects and advisers obeyed his commands. Sure, his uncle mocked him, and his grandfather spoke down to him, but, in the end, he was allowed to plummet the kingdom into civil war, creating a schism with the north that was never reconciled.
Why did the literal adults in the room acquiesce to King Joffrey’s rule? Why did everyone who knew better, which was everyone, hold their tongue and allow events to spiral out of control?
Why do King Lear’s daughters heap praise on him, when we so quickly learn their true disdain for their father? Why have tyrants through the whole of human history been allowed to wreak havoc on their dominions with such rare occurrences of rebellion or resistance?
The answer is simple: the one thing that corrupts more than power is access to power. Far worse than an unstable mind given the reins of power are those who willingly place such a deviant in a position of leadership. A petty man is easier to goad, an unstable mind is easier to manipulate, and an unscrupulous moral center is easier to ply and mold.
In the tale of King Joffrey, is the real villain the boy who should have never been given the throne, or his grandfather who plotted and murdered to put him there, thinking he could control and use him? In King Lear, is the real villain the aging monarch whose mind is leaving him, or the fawning daughters who feed his vanity to gain inheritance?
In America’s recent history, are the real villains those who have abused the office of the President and expanded the scope of the presidency far beyond its constitutional bounds, or those who’ve demonstrated such extreme capacity for setting aside principles, morals, and ideological moorings to have the ear of whoever happens to win the popularity contest we ostensibly still call an election?
This article is adapted from a segment of The Liberty Letter, a recurring newsletter written by Justin Stapley.