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What King Lear teaches us about the depths of human nature

Effective corporate culture is also about understanding people, building a network of positive relationships between them, and appreciating the value and values of the men and women we work with. And classic literature can give us some essential pointers. Take Shakespeare for example, and one of his most significant works – “King Lear” – which was discussed on Tuesday 22 January during a meeting organised by the HR Community Academy at Fondazione Pirelli. Organised by the Group’s Human Resources managers, the initiative was an in-depth debate between directors of leading Italian and multinational companies, experts in the field and academics.

So why King Lear? Because like many of his other works, this tragedy of Shakespeare’s explores the depths of human nature, looks into its heart of darkness and reveals some startling truths.

The story is well known. King Lear decides to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, according to the love that each declares for him. The first two, Goneril and Regan, go overboard with flattering, extravagant declarations, while the third, Cordelia, refuses to be drawn into the competition: avowals can be deceitful and duplicitous –  actions, and true feelings, speak louder than words. Lear flies into a rage and disowns Cordelia, splitting up the kingdom between the other two sisters. But tragedy lurks in the wings: once Goneril and Regan come into wealth and power they mistreat their father, turning him out into the wilderness. The resulting conflicts of interest tear apart the courts and countries of Britain and France and end in the deaths of the main characters.

There are important lessons to be drawn from this play regarding empty promises, and how avidity takes over in the absence of wise, just rules; on the importance of understanding people’s characters, aptitudes and values. Power dynamics are a part of all relationships, and the same naturally goes for businesses, which are shaped by rules, an underlying culture and aptitudes: in a word, values. The precipice is ever-present: if we want to steer clear of it we need to build long, positive pathways. In other words, effective corporate culture. Take Shakespeare’s word for it.