This summer, I was able to attend the most recent staging of King Lear at The Globe Theatre in London. While, I first encountered the play in college, coming to it close to 20 years later at middle age was eye-opening to say the least. A few observations of how the play might intersect with legacy families.
The play is an interesting reflection on the transition of power within families. To tell this tale, the Bard sets up two parallel narratives.
The first narrative is of Lear within his own family. Working within in family enterprise systems, there is almost unanimously a tension of when one generation will choose to transition leadership to the next. In King Lear, this dynamic is front and center in Act 1 Scene 1 when Lear tees up an arbitrary competition between 3 siblings to declare who ‘loves him the most.’
The stakes are high as the winner will receive a greater share of the inheritance. I wonder how many families may play such implicit games between siblings. Two of Lear’s three daughters choose to play along – both delivering lofty, though contrived speeches declaring their love and affection for their ailing father. The third, most favored daughter, chooses not to participate in such shenanigans.
This honest, third daughter is immediately disinherited and exiled to France. The two who do participate make lofty promises to their father about his post-power period, but once the transition of power is done, begin to strip and remove his retinue of knights they had agreed to support.
There are some obvious take-aways:
- Arbitrary succession contests are a no-no
- For the “Lears” – Transition means a leaving of power, privilege and perks – those transitioning should be aware that they are transitioning from something to something new. Better to prepare early for where you are going, than be thrust there.
- For the “daughters,” a honest and agreed upon plan about life after the transition
- Lear arguably may not have been in a full state of mind – worth considering decision making issues related to dementia or other dynamics
As the story unfolds, the exiled daughter remains the only one supportive and loyal to her father. The two, who grasped at power, ultimately marginalize and push the King out, on to the windswept hills with his court jester for company.
The second interesting transition is with the Duke of Gloucester and his illegitimate son, Edmund. In this instance, the scheming and gamesmanship is not done from the top, like Lear, but instead from the bottom by Gloucester who manages to remove his brother and father from the their titular inheritance and install himself as the new Duke of Gloucester.
Edmund has high personal aspirations, but because of his illegitimate status has no path forward or access to opportunity in this system. Now, I am no expert in medieval societal structure so as to determine if he in fact could have made other choices. But is interesting to consider Edmund’s tale as largely a question of talent identification and placement within the family.
While Edmund’s actions are quite evil, and lead to the blinding of his own father, you cannot help but be impressed by the speed with which he is able to ascend. Even Machiavelli might blush from the scope of his actions.
Legacy families would do well to consider how they will support and develop ambition and talent that presents itself within the family system. Simultaneously, they must recognize that such abilities also need to be recognized and appropriately rewarded. Edmund’s actions were driven largely from a lack of economic opportunity.
Of course, these are an attempt to generalize a few ideas from a play where seemingly everyone is in the wrong. But not surprisingly, Shakespeare hits on a timeless dynamic as relevant today, as it was in his time.