Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, November 19, 2012

SHAKESPEARE: Antony and Cleopatra (Act III)

One of the complaints about the Great Books is that they’re old and not really relevant for life in the modern world.  This complaint may say more about the reader than it does about the Great Books.  Let’s see if we can find relevant material for America in the 21st century by using Antony and Cleopatra as an example.  Here’s a quote from the play: …learn this, Silius; better to leave undone, than by our deed acquire too high a fame when him we serve's away. Caesar and Antony have ever won more in their officer than person…  What’s the meaning of this passage?  Consider the American office environment.  Are there any departments in business or government where assistants do all the work and the boss gets all the credit?  Do managers like having superstars on their staff or do superstars threaten their own careers too much?  Marc Antony says: …if I lose mine honour, I lose myself…  What does Antony mean when he talks about his “honor”?  Does it mean the same thing to him as it does to modern Americans?  How does someone go about earning “honor” by working in an office cubicle?  Or let’s say you’re a politician and get caught having an affair.  What is the “honorable” thing to do?  Is the honorable thing to simply resign or is the honorable thing to stay on the job and fulfill the commitment you’ve made to the voters?  Take another example.  Caesar looks dimly on Antony’s affair with Cleopatra and says he hath given his empire up to a whore…  Have there been any businessmen or politicians or military leaders lately who have thrown away careers because of poor judgment in personal relationships?  Did that sort of thing end after Antony and Cleopatra?  But the lessons from this play don’t just apply to those working at the top.  Bad executive decisions also have consequences on mid-level managers.  Suppose the CEO or Director of a department makes not just a bad decision but a disastrous decision.  What does an honest mid-level manager do then?  Antony’s mid-level manager is named Enobarbus.  Here’s how Enobarbus handled Antony’s mistake: Mine honesty and I begin to square.  A modern American version might say: well, now I really have to face up to the facts.  The loyalty well held to fools does make our faith mere folly…  I want to stick with my boss but boy did he screw things up this time.  It would be dumb for me to stay on with this company.  On the other hand he that can endure to follow with allegiance a fall'n lord does conquer him that did his master conquer and earns a place i' the story.  Maybe I should stick it out.  It’s not the end of the world and maybe we can turn things around and everything will be ok again.  Besides, staying loyal to the boss and the company may pay off later in my career.  That’s the modern American paraphrase.  Even today that's one way to make a  career decision.  Here’s the other way.  This (by the way) is also from Enobarbus: Now he'll outstare the lightning. Let’s say the boss has screwed up and now he’s really determined to patch things up, no matter what it takes; even if he has to outstare the lightning. How does someone go about “outstaring the lightning” anyway?  But we get the idea.  The boss has come unhinged.  He may be determined but he’s not acting rationally.  This isn’t good because to be furious, is to be frighted out of fear; and in that mood the dove will peck the estridge (ostrich)…  If the boss is furious he can’t see straight.  In that mood he may take on problems ten times his size with zero chance of success because he can’t see that the end result will be disaster.  This is especially bad because when valour preys on reason, it eats the sword it fights with.  There are times when courage is needed but there are also times when cool thinking is needed.  If the boss is furious he can’t think straight.  And in that situation no matter how brave he is the results will not be good.  Therefore, I will seek some way to leave him.  In other words, it’s time to quit this boss and this company.  I’ll just cut my losses and move on.  Those are just a few of the lessons from this play.  Here’s the conclusion: Shakespeare may be old but he’s never out of date.


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