The Autodidact’s Bookshelf: Learning What It Takes to Be King

Shakespeare’s ‘Henry IV’ is a story of professional development that resonates today as King Charles III accedes to the English throne

Now and then, read a good book. Louie Burrell (English, 1873-1971), A Man Reading. Image Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum

Earlier this week, the world mourned a legend during the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II of England, the longest-ruling British monarch ever. She held the throne for more than 70 years, from the youthful age of 25 until her death at age 96. Only Louis XIV of France is known to have ruled longer over a sovereign country.

Waiting in the wings was her eldest son, the Prince of Wales—now King Charles III. Charles, at 73 years old, has been preparing for this moment his entire life. Few princes have had as much preparation, mentally and emotionally, as Charles.

Our instinct is to say that preparation matters. And yet the idea of professional development feels a little like a lost art in today’s world. Consider the music industry. U2’s album “The Joshua Tree” was the band’s fifth studio album. Thought by many to be a masterpiece of modern pop music, could it ever be made in today’s music environment, where bands routinely get dropped from major labels if their first album isn’t a smash?

The same goes for Bruce Springsteen, who is enjoying a career well into his 70s and has even had a hit musical on Broadway. His first several albums were commercial disappointments, but his label stuck with him because they believed he had talent. “Born in the U.S.A.”—probably his most memorable record and the one that cemented his status as a superstar—was his third studio album.

Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part I” is also a tale of professional development of sorts. While the titular Henry IV is the reigning monarch during the play’s events, the play is really about the evolution of the king’s son, Hal, and his journey into manhood and ultimately to the throne.

Although Hal would eventually become Henry V, this outcome is far from assured when the play begins. Hal is an unserious prankster. He plots with a friend to dress in disguise and participate in a faux robbery, in a silly attempt to fool his compatriot Falstaff as part of a practical joke.

Drinking buddies: Falstaff (standing, center) and Prince Hal (seated) in a tavern. Image Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library/Wikimedia Commons

When Hal meets with his father, the king admonishes his son for his lack of seriousness. The kingdom is in the midst of a crisis, and Hal’s antics aren’t helping. Worsening matters, Henry IV’s claim to the throne is insecure. He had opportunistically overthrown the previous king, Richard II, which creates a question as to whether he has a divine right to be king. Hal has a stronger claim because his father is already king, and he could help establish a lineage. Not to mention, he is free of the political baggage associated with King Henry IV’s coup.

But first Hal will have to prove himself, and an opportunity arises when rebels stage an uprising. Hal ends up casting aside his childish pranks, dispensing with the petty behavior that defines both the rebels and his friend Falstaff, who is a fun companion but also lacks discipline and honor. At one point, Falstaff fakes his own death to avoid battle, and he enriches himself by taking bribes from those who want to avoid military service, when he should be organizing the strongest army possible to defend the kingdom.

An important theme of the play is the distinction between actual honor—being guided by a sense of right and wrong irrespective of what’s popular—and perceived honor, something gained as a result of fickle social status. Hal never loses sight of the former. The latter, meanwhile, is illusory, eventually contributing to the rebels’ downfall.

For example, King Henry IV shows the rebels compassion, offering to pardon them if they stand down in their revolt. This is a bold move considering the rebels are led by legendary warrior Owen Glendower (who, like Charles, was the Prince of Wales) and the earls Thomas and Henry Percy. They are all formidable rivals constituting threats to the throne.

Victorious prince: Hal defeats rebel leader Hotspur. Image Credit: Thomas Ryder (English, 1746-1810)/Wikimedia Commons

But the rebels have too much pride to take the king up on his offer. They deceive themselves into believing their movement is stronger than it really is. Some will lose their lives as a result. Hal eventually proves his honor and courage when he is victorious in an epic duel against Hotspur, the rebel Henry Percy’s son.

A lesson here is that sometimes the leaders of the future look relatively weak or even foolish early on. How many of us can spot the “Hals” among us? In their recent book, “Talent: How To Identify Energizers, Creatives and Winners Around the World,” economics professor Tyler Cowen and venture capitalist Daniel Gross argue that the most talented individuals and leaders are not always the smartest, best educated or best credentialed. Perseverance and drive may be more important, as well as genuine curiosity and a willingness to pivot when a particular strategy isn’t working.

Those with endurance, like Hal, may also be prone to making mistakes. Washington Post writer Megan McArdle, in her book “The Up Side of Down,” argues that learning from failure is one of the most important paths to success. Like Bruce Springsteen, that might mean a few disappointments before hitting it big with “Born to Run.” While it is easy to understand the logic of playing it safe, for example by dropping bands that don’t have a hit with their first album, following that approach might mean we never experience a “Thunder Road” that was waiting right around the corner.

Hal’s story is one of transformation, and his development shows that having common sense, a strong moral compass and the ability to recognize and seize opportunity are traits of successful people. Careful planning and preparation can certainty help when the opportunity comes, but some of the response will just be innate.

The new king of England is better prepared than most kings for the job that awaits him. But does that mean he will succeed? Preparation can only get you so far if you don’t have the talent to back it up. In that sense, we’ll have to wait and see whether King Charles III has what it takes.

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