The Shakespearean Jack Layton

Like that of Henry V, Prince Jack’s passing leaves a big hole

As a Shakespeare prof, I am always interested to see how the popular media represent my particular expertise, so this piece by Don Macpherson over at the National Post caught my eye. Macpherson suggests provocatively that the race to replace Jack Layton as NDP leader is a story worthy of Shakespeare — yet somehow the Bard of the St. Lawrence manages to get through the entire piece without mentioning a single Shakespearean play or character.

But the idea intrigued me, and since I have a passing knowledge of the Shakespeare canon, I wondered if there really was an instructive Shakespearean parallel here.

And I think there is. It’s the end of Henry V.

Without boring you with too many details (you have to shell out over a thousand bucks in tuition fees for that), let me tell you that Shakespeare’s Henry V was a heck of a guy. At first people thought he was a crazy radical, hanging with the wrong crowd and just not cut out to be king. But one day when the moment was right, he caught on, got the country behind him, and, against overwhelming odds, conquered the land of the French. Any of this sound familiar?

But Shakespeare’s Henry V ends on a sombre note. With barely time to savour his victory, Henry dies, and everyone knows that there is no one like him waiting in the wings. Sounding very familiar?

Following the death of Henry V, a terrible, divisive civil war breaks out (chronicled in three more plays) and it’s another generation before the path back to peace and prosperity can be found.

I won’t labour the point by trying to match up every NDP hopeful with a Shakespearean counterpart (is Thomas Mulcair destined to be the tyrannical Richard III?), but the lesson that Shakespeare draws from Henry V should not be ignored. Shakespeare’s point is that a dynamic, charismatic leader is a wonderful thing. He can do what others didn’t even dream of. But such leaders, by virtue of their own greatness, unintentionally set a dangerous trap for the future. Shakespeare saw that no man can cheat death, and the bigger the man, the bigger the void he leaves behind.

The New Democrats find themselves staring into just such a void and on the verge of their own civil war. The rest of us will have to be content to chronicle it as best we can. Oh, for a muse of fire…

Todd Pettigrew (PhD) is an Associate Professor of English at Cape Breton University.