Is Theresa May Macbeth? Might King Lear agree with Jeremy Corbyn? On Monday night, one of Europe’s leading political thinkers – former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis – will tell a London theatre audience the lessons for contemporary politics and economics that he believes can be found in Shakespeare’s plays.
Varoufakis achieved Europe-wide celebrity in 2015 when he attempted to renegotiate Greece’s debt to the European Union during a financial crisis that paralysed his country. The politician resigned after a bailout plan was rejected by Greek voters in a referendum, but has remained a high-profile figure due to his style – he is often filmed riding motorbikes in black leather – and his ideas, outlined in books such as 2016’s And the Weak Suffer What They Must?
His books and speeches have always been studded with Shakespearean quotations, but it is only in next week’s lecture – to be given at the Rose theatre in Kingston, which is modelled on a playhouse from Shakespeare’s day – that the depth of Varoufakis’s investment in the dramatist will become clear.
“We never studied Shakespeare at school because we have our own great playwrights: Euripides, Sophocles,” he told me on the phone from his home in Athens, where he was finishing the Rose speech, and making plans to launch a new Greek party to contest the 2019 EU elections.
However, the teenage Varoufakis, knowing that Shakespeare had been influenced by the Greek tragedies, found on his parents’ bookshelves Greek translations of the canon, starting with Hamlet. “I was absolutely mesmerised by it: the play within the play, the prince’s existential angst.”
In the late 1970s, when his parents sent him to universities in England (first Essex, then Birmingham) to escape the Greek military dictatorship of that time, Varoufakis used Shakespeare to improve his English, studying all 37 plays over three years. He even kept a Collected Shakespeare in the bathroom.
King Lear has influenced him most ideologically. Shake the Superflux, the title of the London lecture, comes from a speech in which the English king, seeing his poor citizens helpless in a storm, vows to challenge “superflux” (excess) in society, and, casting off his clothes, becomes at one with the vulnerable. In what political commentators would call a U-turn, the monarch acknowledges that his reign has favoured the wealthy, saying: “I have taken too little care of this.
“The beauty of this speech, and King Lear,” says Varoufakis, “is that it encourages us to think about inequality, and the underlying causes of it. I will end my speech by asking what it would mean to ‘shake the superflux’ in today’s democracies.”
So, if he were running an economy today, what lead would he take from Lear? “Some would say it would mean a wealth tax. But, for me, the inequalities that we are facing are a symptom of the unequal distribution of property, land and information. That is what has to be addressed.”
The chancellor, Phillip Hammond, might point out that Lear endorses the redistribution of wealth during what is commonly referred to as his “mad scene”. Rightwing economists and politicians might also cite Timon of Athens – in which a Greek philanthropist gives away all his money to people who prove undeserving – as an example of a Shakespearean warning against socialism.
“They would read Timon in that way,” acknowledges Varoufakis. “But remember that the greatest critic of philanthropy – of the mindset of giving all your money away – was none other than Karl Marx. Coming from that tradition myself, I don’t see Timon of Athens as an endorsement of freewheeling, all-singing, all-dancing capitalism. I see it as a reasonable critique of the belief that inequality can be addressed without questioning the underlying structures of the society.”
Macbeth – in which a leader who finds that the reality of power does not match the dream – may, he thinks, have relevance to Brexit Britain: “Macbeth becomes captured, trapped by his own scheme. He keeps doing worse things to try to resolve the original mistake. At the end, he realises that he is at the mercy of forces beyond his control. The greatness of this play is that is shows the immense powerlessness that power can bring. I don’t know if Theresa May has realised that yet!”
Varoufakis’s favourite Shakespeare speech – apart from Lear’s “shake the superflux” – is Macbeth’s conclusion, after multiple murders, that he is “in blood stepped in so far” that it is now easier to carry on with the mayhem than to stop. For Varoufakis, these lines, along with Lady Macbeth’s declaration that “what’s done cannot be undone”, reflect a ruinous political belief that, once started on a disastrous path, it is better to carry on to the end.
“During my first meeting as finance minister with Christine Lagarde, the director of the International Monetary Fund, about the Greek debt, she said that the EU had put so much political capital into its debt proposals for Greece that it was now impossible to go back. And, I thought: ‘Oh my God, do I quote that speech from Macbeth to her?’”