Monday, August 6, 2012

Sucking Up to the Boss—When He’s Your Dad?

We hear a lot of talk about how small businesses are what drive the American economy. Certainly, stats I have seen indicate that the vast number of businesses are small—many are, in fact, solo proprietorships. This is even true of lawyers. Despite all of the attention given to the big law firm model, most lawyers work for very small shops or for firms comprised of one lawyer. And another interesting statistic is that 50% of small businesses—including small law firms—fail in the first few years. Small family businesses, it seems, are peculiarly vulnerable. To get some sense of this phenomenon all you have to do is take “Business Associations” in law school, wherein virtually all of the cases spring from ugly family feuds.
That is how the trouble starts in King Lear. Seemingly, vast tensions in the royal family (which consists of a patriarch and three daughters) have been kept in check. But when the play begins, Lear announces his plan to divide up the family business. He has carved his kingdom into three pieces so that he might “shake all cares and business from our age,/ Conferring them on younger strengths while [he]/ Unburdened crawl[s] toward death.” (I.1.41-43)
Well, let’s just say that retirement plan of his does not work out so well. He thinks he can head off “future strife” by giving his daughters their inheritance in advance, including a portion to his youngest and favorite daughter, Cordelia, which will serve as her dowry. All he asks is that the girls go through a little ritual for his benefit—publicly declaiming their great love for him. The two older daughters, who do not like him very much, are happy to oblige. They seem to shrug and say to themselves: If that is what the doddering old fool wants, why the hell not?
Goneril, the eldest, goes first, offering up this sing-songy bit of doggerel:

Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter;
Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour;
As much as child e'er loved, or father found;
A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable;
Beyond all manner of so much I love you.

Then Regan follows suit with similar sycophantic rhapsodizing:

Sir, I am made
Of the self-same metal that my sister is,
And prize me at her worth. In my true heart
I find she names my very deed of love;
Only she comes too short: that I profess
Myself an enemy to all other joys,
Which the most precious square of sense possesses;
And find I am alone felicitate
In your dear highness' love.

The insincerity is palpable. But no one seems to care—except for Cordelia. She refuses to play along. She says essentially: “Look, Dad, I love you, okay? I’m your daughter. Enough said.” Lear, however, is not pleased. He’d reserved a nice, fat chunk of the kingdom for her. But after she embarrasses him in front of his colleagues and competitors, he goes ballistic. He decides not to give her anything, hastily carving up her share and giving it to her sisters instead. With this impulsive, wrathful gesture, Lear sets in motion his demise—and everyone else’s too, including that family business.

One lesson here: the games that a person is expected to play in the business context are not always compatible with family dynamics. What makes a person a good employee and a good child are not one and the same. Employees are more often expected to do what they are told and put a positive spin on things as needed for public relations; employers do not care so much about the depth of their sincerity if their workers just act like they care. Family is supposed to work a bit differently. Grown kids will not always do as they are told. And one hopes that the trust that accumulated during childhood years means that kids can and should speak their minds when they think a parent is doing something hurtful or stupid or unjust. At least that is the way it seems to work in those big, loud, robust Mediterranean families that I look upon with envy. . . . See (again) My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Anyway, finding a way to keep the two different roles straight—employee v. progeny—when the family goes into business together must be tricky. Which may explain why so many small family businesses succumb to “the Dragon and his wrath.” (I.1.124.)

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