Sunday, July 5, 2009

Image management in Henry IV

As the hills darkened and the moon rose, Henry IV defended his crown against the young Hotspur and his rebels from the north. Swords flashed and clanged in the night. It was Shakespeare outdoors in Western Massachusetts – and even here the issue of public image arose.

Go back a few scenes from the battlefield to the exchange between the King and his no-account son. How did Henry IV gain men’s confidence and rally support for his own ascension? Here’s the formula, son:
Had I so lavish of my presence been,
So common-hackneyed in the eyes of men,

So stale and cheap to vulgar company,
Opinion, that did help me to the crown,

Had still kept loyal to possession

And left me in reputeless banishment,

A fellow of no mark nor likelihood.
(Henry IV, part 1, III, 2)

If he had been “lavish of his presence” – i.e. hung out in public all day – favorable opinion that helped him gain the crown would have been withheld – leaving him just a regular guy, not king. He would never been able to depose the previous monarch if he hadn’t swayed “opinion” to his side.

And then: “By being seldom seen, I could not stir, but like a comet, I was wonder’d at.” His tactics worked – as he instructed his aimless son, who was famous for loafing around Boar’s Head Tavern with a bunch of drunks.

That instance of public image I had remembered. But out in the hills of Massachusetts I learned that Hotspur and the rebels ALSO cared about public opinion. As they prepared to fight the king, a dispatch came to announce that Hotspur’s father, the Earl of Northumberland, was sick, and would miss the battle. A terrible blow – a “maim to us” – the rebels say – “a gash, a very limb lopped off,” cries Hotspur. And yet what’s the next thing they think about? They fret over public opinion! A rebel lieutenant worries thus:
It will be thought
By some that know not why he is away,

That wisdom, loyalty, and mere dislike

Of our proceedings kept the Earl from hence.

And think how such an apprehension

May turn the tide of fearful faction

And breed a kind of question in our cause.
(IV, 1)

Yes, think what could happen if people draw the wrong conclusion! Some won’t believe that the old Earl is really sick – and suspect that he is deliberately avoiding the rebellion! “The eye of reason may pry in upon us” – that would be disastrous. And think how that will “breed a kind of question in our cause.”

Time for skillful opinion management – or better, a retreat.
But no. Hotspur – keeping his own PR counsel – thinks that the old Earl’s absence could actually help his cause:
It lends a luster and more great opinion,
A larger dare to our enterprise.

“More great opinion”? Ah, too sad, young Hotspur. If you had only seen the simple truth that, without your dad’s military power, you were sunk. But you thought that you would receive “more great opinion” from your weakened position… a fatal mistrust in the power of public opinion and certainly a prelude to your ultimate demise.