Wednesday, February 18, 2009

That one may smile and smile and be a villain

The subtitle of the Hurder article, To Be or Not To Be a Problem-Solving Negotiator, reminded me that references to Shakespeare's Hamlet appear with some frequency in law school, sometimes overtly and sometimes more subtly. While I was reading your focus-and-feedback questionnaires regarding The Deal, the same thought returned.

Several of you mentioned that the Gordon Brown character smiled only rarely, which brought to mind Hamlet, for reasons I describe below. Because so much of our course focuses on roles, both authentic and assumed, I think this constitutes a teachable (and blogable) moment. The image above is of British actor Anthony Lester as Hamlet, by the way.

For the next few minutes while you read this post, I would like you to ponder the idea that The Deal is, in some ways, like Hamlet. When you have finished reading, please explore the idea some more and see where it leads you. I hope the idea prompts some questions, and that you will share those questions with the rest of us, either here on the blog or in class.

So what does The Deal have in common with Hamlet, and how does this mental exercise help us become effective collaborative counselors and powerful dispute-resolution advocates? Let me address the first question first, and the second question later.

Maybe you studied Hamlet at school or in college. If so, stretch your mind back in time to that distant pre-law-school era. If not, look for a plot summary online, read the play, rent the DVD (I'd opt for Kenneth Branagh's 1996 version or The Tragedy of Hamlet from 2002 with Adrian Lester) or, best of all, go see it live in a theater. Unfortunately, I can't offer you credit for any of these activities. In the meantime, here's a thumbnail sketch of Hamlet, with apologies to Shakespeare and my old English Lit teachers.

Hamlet is a prince whose father, the old King Hamlet of Denmark, has died. Denmark is facing the threat of invasion from Norway. Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, has married her late husband's brother, Claudius, who is the new king. Claudius' chief adviser is Polonius. Hamlet courts Ophelia, Polonius' daughter.

Hamlet meets the ghost of his father, who tells Hamlet that he (Hamlet's father) was murdered by Claudius and that Hamlet must avenge the murder by killing Claudius. Hamlet hesitates to kill Claudius, feigns madness, rejects Ophelia, and kills Polonius, thereby causing Ophelia to lose her life, possibly by her own hand. Eventually Hamlet does kill Claudius, but not before Gertrude (Hamlet's mother), Laertes (Polonius' son and Ophelia's brother) plus Rosencrantz and Gildenstern (Hamlet's college friends) have all met untimely deaths. Norway invades Denmark and the dying Hamlet (yes, he dies too) names the Norwegian leader as his heir.

Got it? OK, back to The Deal.

If we think of The Deal as, on one level, a version of Hamlet, then John Smith becomes the father figure (the old king) with Gordon Brown his heir (Hamlet), and Mandelson serving as the trusted adviser (Polonius). That leaves one central male role for Blair: Claudius. You will recall that Claudius is the bad guy.

In Act One, Scene 5, Hamlet says "O villain, villain, smiling damned villain... one may smile, smile and be a villain." As I noted above, many of you observed that in the film Gordon Brown hardly ever smiles. Blair, in contrast, smiles nearly all the time. Is that smile a signal that Blair is the villain of the piece?

After the death of John Smith, Brown, like Hamlet, hesitates and agonizes. While Brown is mourning, Blair, like Claudius, is planning the succession with the aid of the scheming Polonius figure, Mandelson. When Blair calls Mandelson at Brown's apartment, Mandelson ducks into a back room to take the call, out of sight from Brown, like Polonius hiding behind the arras.

Duty, honor, and the agony of procrastination are all familiar dramatic devices. If you want to see them all rolled into one, rent the 2008 move In Bruges, starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes, although I should warn you that it contains the occasional profanity and a wee drop of blood here and there. I think we see those themes in The Deal as well, but without the bloodshed.

Perhaps I'm way off the mark and the similarities between The Deal and Hamlet exist solely in my imagination. Or, if I'm right, maybe it is the subtle evocation of Hamlet that helps make The Deal so watchable. Even if I am right I'm not sure that the director and actors consciously intended the viewers to draw parallels with Hamlet, but the play is so embedded in British and U.S. culture that their intentions are almost irrelevant.

As drama, The Deal is a story of two young men who become rivals for an inheritance. This is a familiar motif in faith, fable, and literature. Think of sibling rivals Jacob and Esau; Romulus and Remus; Brutus and Mark Anthony in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. If we put our heads together we could probably come up with many other examples drawn from the folklore of Africa, Asia, Scandinavia, and, of course, Wales. With this in mind, we can look at the screen characters of Brown and Blair as the latest incarnations of ancient archetypes.

How does this relate to our work as interviewers, counselors, and negotiators? In one important way, I believe. We humans like stories. They help us make sense of the world and our place in it. We need to be aware of our tendency to take the situations we find ourselves in and drop those situations into familiar narrative categories and to cast ourselves in distinct roles. Does the phrase "rights warrior" ring any bells? And what about Gerald the Gladiator?

Paying attention to stories, roles, and archetypes is part of our training, cultivating our mindfulness, which in turns helps us develop the quality that Cochran puts at the heart of collaborative counseling and calls "practical wisdom."

What do you think?

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