What do you do when your boss tells you to do something you know is absolutely wrong? That’s a question Shakespeare thought about a lot. His plays are filled with instances where the ruler demands his subordinates do something absolutely horrible, and they jump to it.
After he finds out that Hastings won’t support his becoming king, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (soon to be Richard III, although not for very long), demands the immediate execution of Hastings because he, supposedly, used witchcraft to wither Richard’s arm. Everyone knows this is nonsense, but they rush to do their master’s bidding. Why? All sorts of reasons. Cowardice. Self-interest. Deference to authority. Any or all or some combination thereof.
But in one of his final plays, The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare confronts the issue directly. The king, Leontes, for no apparent reason, thinks that his pregnant wife is having an affair with his friend, Polixenes. So, among other terrible things, Leontes orders a courtier, Camillo, to kill Polixenes. Then, after his wife gives birth, Leontes orders another courtier, Antigonus, to take the baby to another land and let it die of exposure.
Renaissance thinkers gave confused and contradictory advice. Some said you have to obey your lord in all things. Others said you should only obey honorable commands. How do you know what’s honorable or not? That, one famous writer, Baldesar Castiglione, in The Book of the Courtier (1528), argued is up to your “discretion.”
But in The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare is totally clear about this matter. Camillo, faced with an order he knows is wrong, refuses: “If I could find example / Of thousands that had struck anointed kings / And flourished after, I’d not do’t.” He survives. But Antigonus, despite all sorts of supernatural warnings, doesn’t listen, and the moment he puts the baby down, he finds himself subject to the most famous stage direction in Shakespeare’s works: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”
President Trump’s servants regularly faced, and no doubt continue to face, this dilemma: what do you do when your boss orders you to do something you know is absolutely wrong. The most recent example to come to light is Trump’s ordering that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, be granted top-secret security clearance, despite the reservations and concerns by security officials.
Granted, Trump didn’t demand that anyone die, but the situation is the same as described in Shakespeare’s play. The President, like King Leontes (who also dismisses the oracle’s proclamation of his wife’s innocence as “fake news”), commands his underlings to do something they know is absolutely wrong. And they know that Trump lied when he claimed he had nothing to do with Kushner’s security clearance. Exactly like Camillo and Antigonus, they had a choice to make.
So what did they do? According to the New York Times, they wrote memos. They did not resign. They did not threaten to resign. They did not say, the President should not overrule the advice of experts and give preferential treatment to a family member, and I will not serve in administration where such acts are allowed. Instead, they wrote memos. To what end, and for what audience, remains to be seen.
Imagine if Camillo said, “I disagree with King Leontes on the question of poisoning his friend on flimsy grounds, and I will pen a memo outlining my objections.” Then went ahead and killed Polixenes anyway. Imagine if Richard’s co-conspirators said, “I know Hastings is innocent, and I will pen a memo objecting to his judicial murder” as Hastings is hauled off to have his head chopped off. That’s essentially what John Kelly and Donald F. McGann, the President’s lawyer, did. Why didn’t they do more?
To answer that, we need to return to Richard III. A scrivener tells the audience that the day before, Richard’s ally, Catesby, brought him the rough draft of Hastings’ indictment. The charges are obviously bogus, but who is going to be brave, or foolish, enough to actually say so? “Who’s so gross [stupid] / That sees not this palpable device? / Yet who’s so bold but says he sees it not?”
To paraphrase Hamlet, power, danger, self-interest, fear of consequences, not conscience, makes cowards of us all. Or at least, makes cowards of nearly everyone who serves in the Trump administration. And if, switching back to The Winter’s Tale, Kelly and McGann are unlikely to end up in the stomach of a bear, they will nonetheless be pursued by history, which can be equally merciless.
Peter C. Herman is a professor of English Literature at San Diego State University. He works on Shakespeare, Milton, and the literature of terrorism. He is the editor of the recent book Critical Concepts: Terrorism and Literature.