King Lear, Narcissism & Leadership

Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s take on King Lear is compelling and presents a characterization of the King as a narcissist whose ultimate suffering is being anything different. In fact, in their article, The Madness of King Trump: On Being Unfit to Serve, they claim that the King’s Act 1 Scene 1 attack against Cordelia is only a tough love lesson on what it means to be royal. Is it harsh? Maybe. But in their words, Lear “like other egocentric rulers, rewards sycophants and punishes honesty whenever it strikes them as a threat to their grandeur.”

What follows is an intricate analysis of leaders and well, their narcissism and mania. The following question is posed: “What leader isn’t something of a narcissist, elected or no?”

Sure, no-one can argue that there are selfish political figures concerned more with their own interests rather than a constituents.

But is putting yourself first actually being a leader?

Can someone who lacks empathy, like a narcissist, be a leader?

A central point of the play is Lear learning to understand others. Lear starts to regains his empathy in the storm. After being confronted by his daughters, he recognizes the hardships that await those outside the comfort of his kingdom walls. He compares himself to them and realizes while he is complaining about how many servants there are to his name, some have no choice but to sit out in the storm. Eventually, that empathy also extends to Cordelia. Through it, he remembers why he was in power in the first place and turns the play into a humbling, arguably heroic narrative for the King.

This is when we see Lear at his best. Even though it was too late.

Maybe that’s why we excuse narcissism and “unfitness” in leaders especially political ones. If we are judging the capability of a leader based on their influence and their ability to command a troop into battle, then yes. A narcissist would be perfect for the job. Narcissists are expectional at manipulating opinions and influencing minds in order to get what they want.

Using that as the measuring point, the question is no longer whether narcissists can be leaders but when do you draw the line? And if they are the precedent, who is to follow? When Lear was deemed to mad to lead, Regan and Goneril stepped into the picture and brought wicked plans with them.

Lear doomed himself. Why? Because as narcissists do, he alienated himself. He begins the play by banishing Kent, his most loyal servant and sending Cordelia away, his most loyal daughter. He isolated himself until the power was only in one vehicle and was so easy to take. Like candy from a baby.

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