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Shakespeare and Public Administration

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Benjamin Paley 
September 20, 2020

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is perhaps one of the most remembered and revered playwrights in the British literary canon. His work, such as Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth, are introduced to high school students every year. Later on in college, some students, like myself, take a collegiate Shakespeare class. The course I took was engaging and many of the lessons taught in that class are applicable in the public sector—particularly government.

In government, power is the one element that Shakespeare explores in great detail. His characters grapple with issues that come with positions of power — greed, jealousy, treason and uncertainty.

The lessons from Shakespeare’s plays that deal with power are especially poignant for government officials today. Government officials are responsible for many aspects of the public’s needs. Government leaders are especially susceptible to the worst qualities of Shakespeare’s characters.

Shakespeare’s plays are filled with government leaders and public officials. Kings, government ministers, princes, advisors and military generals fill the pages of Shakespeare’s works. These characters exhibit some of the best and worst qualities leaders in government can possess.

For your reading pleasure, I present three quotes from Shakespeare’s plays and elaborate on the quote’s importance for officials of power in the government. The quotes that I am elaborating on were obtained from here.

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” The King in Henry IV, Part 2 (3:1.31)

This short quote gets to the heart of restlessness and care that comes with a position of power. Although the quote was discussing kings, this quote is still applicable to government employees especially those in management positions. Ultimately, power causes anxiety, both in terms of holding on to your job and doing what is best for the people you work for (the residents of your town/county/state). Decisions made by government officials at all levels of government can have profound impacts on everyone. The consequences of those actions can keep even the most confident government employees up at night.

“I think the King is but a man, as I am. The violet smells to him as it doth to me. The element shows to him as it doth to me. All his senses have but human conditions. His ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man.” King Henry in Henry V (4.1.105).

The second quote speaks to the humanity of even the highest government official. Although our government does not have a king, this quote is still applicable today. Government leaders are people too. They may appear to be high and mighty individuals who do not connect with the regular citizens, but they are people just like us. The decisions they make weigh on them like the important decisions made by family members and employees in the private sector. Government leaders have to deal with making the most efficient and effective decisions possible, but they also understand the consequences their actions can have, and they think about that as other people do with the decisions they make in their jobs. Government officials have private lives. They go out, they pay rent and they shop in grocery stores. Everything that makes us human exists in government officials.

“Think’st thou that duty shall have dread to speak when power to flattery bows? To plainness honor’s bound when majesty falls to folly.” Kent in King Lear (1.1.164-167).

When it comes to the importance of good leadership, look no further than King Lear. In one of Shakespeare’s most revered tragedies, the reader, or audience, watches King Lear go slowly insane as his own children conspire against him, and his madness takes over. This quote, simply put, is about being honest. No matter how it makes others feel, you need to be honest and forthcoming and not hide your real thoughts simply because you are afraid that you might offend someone else (like the king). In government, where decisions can affect the citizens and residents of your town, honesty is even more so important. Government leaders and employees must be honest with their supervisors and with their residents. If people get upset, people get upset; at least you let them know the truth, and now you can all move forward together.


Author: Benjamin Paley is a board member of the South Florida Chapter of the ASPA. He graduated in 2018 from Florida Atlantic University with a Master of Public Administration degree. He currently studies law at Nova Southeastern University. Email: [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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