In a 2010 General Conference address, President Uchtdorf told of when he, as a newly called General Authority, was riding in a car with President James E. Faust, who talked about how members of the Church would behave toward him because of his calling:
He said, “They will treat you very kindly. They will say nice things about you.” He laughed a little and then said, “Dieter, be thankful for this. But don’t you ever inhale it.”
In practical terms, a worldwide Church needs General Authorities to administer it, and yet such “high” callings bring the risk, as President Faust pointed out, of going to the heads of those who hold them.
William Shakespeare wrote extensively about the difficulty of balancing a practical need for leadership with the potential for abuse that attends such positions of power. The scriptures do give plenty of occasion for kings or people in power to think highly of themselves. In Psalm 110 God endows the king with a “mighty scepter” that “will shatter kings on the day of his wrath,” going so far as to invest the monarch with sacerdotal power: “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” This stuff could fuel a serious power trip if you let it.
Shakespeare’s Richard II drinks deeply of this cup. At a moment when power has in fact already shifted to Bolingbroke, the man who will usurp his throne, Richard says:
So when this thief, this traitor, Bolingbroke,
Who all this while hath revelled in the night
Whilst we were wandering with the Antipodes,
Shall see us rising from our throne, the east,
His treasons will sit blushing on his face,
Not able to endure the sight of day,
But, self-affrighted, tremble at his sin.
Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm from an anointed king.
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord.
For every man that Bolingbroke hath pressed
To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,
God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel. Then if angels fight,
Weak men must fall; for heaven still guards the right. (3.2.43-58)
The level of delusion here is stunning: Richard believes so ardently in his own rule by divine right that he compares himself to the Sun (very nearly the Son), such that the mere sight of his face will cause Bolingbroke to shrink and withdraw, and he then insists that God will keep him in office, backed by sufficient angels to overwhelm Bolingbroke’s superior military force. By the end of the scene, the force of material fact has dissipated Richard’s illusions, and by the end of the act he is traveling to London in Bolingbroke’s custody.
Such passages ought not be read, however, as critiques of monarchy per se, because Shakespeare presents them as contrasts to a more positive model of kingship. This model appears negatively in Richard II, where the eponymous king falls because he, among other things, seizes Bolingbroke’s inheritance to fill royal coffers emptied by an extravagant court populated by meddlesome favorites—vices of the sort God anticipated when permitting the Israelites to establish a monarchy in lieu of divine rule, and also taken into account when King Mosiah, abolishing the Nephite monarchy, invokes the memory of King Noah.
Mosiah does see value in the rule of righteous kings, and the nearest Shakespeare comes to this is in his portrayal of Henry V. The playwright fabricates the rambunctious Eastcheap exploits of the young Prince Hal as a way of giving the future king the popular touch, but also as a way of showing that he never wanted to be king. This distinguishes Hal from his own father, Bolingbroke, and also from the nobles who (later in history, but earlier in Shakespeare’s career) would grub for the crown in the Wars of the Roses.
Addressing his dying father, Hal explains his attitudes to the crown (which he’d borrowed for a moment, thinking his father was dead) that differ markedly from those on display in Richard’s speech:
Accusing it, I put it on my head,
To try with it, as with an enemy
That had before my face murdered my father,
The quarrel of a true inheritor.
But if it did infect my blood with joy
Or swell my thoughts to any strain of pride,
If any rebel or vain spirit of mine
Did with the least affection of a welcome
Give entertainment to the might of it,
Let God forever keep it from my head,
And make me as the poorest vassal is,
That doth with awe and terror kneel to it. (2 Henry IV 4.3.293-304)
Hal here is the opposite of the disciples James and John, wrangling over who is the greatest and will get to sit at God’s right hand. Rather, in accordance with Jesus’ counsel then, reiterated in modern revelation, he knows that being ordained of God does make a person great, but only in being the least and the servant of all.
As King, Henry understands that being in a position of power entails certain public display—just as President Faust acknowledged that members of the Church will heap kindnesses on General Authorities. This public life deprives those who must live it of a certain privacy that most of us enjoy. In a speech before Agincourt, Henry disdains this public display, even as he acknowledges its necessity:
O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness: subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing. What infinite heart’s-ease
Must kings neglect that private men enjoy?
And what have kings that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
And what art thou, thou idol ceremony?
What kind of god art thou, that suffer’st more
Of mortal griefs than do thy worshippers? (Henry V 4.1.215-24)
Henry sees that the pomp and ceremony of public life easily turn into an idol, and the only fruit of worshiping it is grief. This is the blank-verse equivalent of President Faust’s “Don’t you ever inhale it.” The governing authorities of the earth may have been instituted by God, as Paul writes, but this does not exempt rulers from the general obligation to serve God (which means serving others) in humility. Shakespeare’s Henry V was willing to put on the show that monarchy required—witness the famous “band of brothers” speech just before the battle—but he remained duly skeptical of his own PR. In a Church that calls so many of its lay members into positions of responsibility, this is good advice for all of us. May we honor the memory of Shakespeare by heeding it.
William Shakespeare, playwright, 1616
The Collect: Almighty God, who in the person of Jesus Christ descended below all things so that we your children might be saved: grant that we, inspired by the wisdom expressed by your servant William Shakespeare with such force and eloquence, might wield our power in kindness, humility, and love, as moved upon by the Holy Spirit. Amen.
For the music, here is a setting of the Te Deum (a hymn praising Christ as King) by Shakespeare’s contemporary, countryman, and fellow genius William Byrd. This is an arrangement of the plainchant that Shakespeare’s Henry orders to be sung after the improbable victory at Agincourt.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQoEOcOMkKs]
References to Shakespeare’s plays are to the second edition of The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al.