At the hearing into the News of the World phone hacking scandal in London this past Tuesday, the commissioner of Scotland Yard did something unusual for a policeman. He quoted Shakespeare. Explaining the swiftness of his resignation, he mangled a bit of Macbeth: “If ’twere best it were done, ’twere well it were done quickly.” The reference was perfectly fitting for a scandal whose defining adjective is coming to be “Shakespearean.”
Many have noted superficial similarities between the scandal and Shakespearean tragedy: overheard messages, hired thugs. There’s a hashtag sprawling through Twitter: #shakespeare4murdoch. (My favorite so far: “remorse, remorse, my kingdom for remorse.”)
Usually comparisons between events in the news and Shakespeare are strained, cropping up with each downfall of a prominent public figure. Eliot Spitzer slept with a hooker. He is not Marc Antony. Tony Hayward, formerly of BP, is not Julius Caesar. Neither is Dominique Strauss-Kahn an aging version of Prince Hal. But in the case of Rupert Murdoch, the comparison is, for once, accurate: the scandal is exactly like a Shakespearean tragedy, in specific and profound ways.
The great Shakespeare tragedies fuse crises in families and in states, connecting the most significant historical events with the most delicate psychological realities. In “King Lear,” a family squabble about a retiree can be rectified only by a full-scale invasion by France. In “Antony and Cleopatra,” the fate of the Roman Empire hinges on a man who likes his Egyptian mistress more than his family.
In “Hamlet,” Shakespeare makes it clear that Claudius is a capable ruler, but because he has killed his brother and married his brother’s sister, the state must fall. The corruption within a family matters more to the health or disease of government than any policy matter.
The domestic has always mingled with the political for the Murdochs as well. The children have occupied different outposts of the empire. Rupert Murdoch’s marriage to Wendi Deng Murdoch was supposed to open access to Chinese media markets. (On Tuesday, defending her husband against a pie-wielding protester, she provided instead a sweet right hook.)
But the real scandal in Britain is how far a modern democracy came to resemble a family. Hacking into a murdered girl’s voice mail is grotesque, but the coziness of everyone involved is the bigger danger to society. Perhaps the most damaging revelation about Prime Minister David Cameron is that he had dinner over the Christmas holiday last year at the home of the former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks (often described as another Murdoch daughter) along with Mr. Murdoch’s son James.
The corrupting power of such connections is one of the core anxieties in Shakespeare’s great tragedies. “Lear” shows a king dividing his kingdom on the basis of his daughters’ love. Goneril and Regan are happy to play the game, but Cordelia refuses to exaggerate her love for her father in order to procure power. Later, the bastard Edmund, after betraying his father in an attempt to take his title, seduces both Goneril and Regan — the ultimate incestuous political order. Family should not act like politicians, and vice versa.
The Murdoch drama is now entering its fifth act, the part when the bodies start to pile up. At the hearing before a parliamentary committee, Mr. Murdoch interrupted his son near the beginning of the proceedings to say: “This is the most humble day of my life.”
His native Australian optimism may be misleading him, however. The mood in Britain seems to desire nothing less than his complete destruction. Everything he cherishes must be sacrificed. The paper. The BSkyB deal. Rebekah Brooks. Possibly his son’s takeover of the company.
We go to tragedy to watch a man be destroyed. Macbeth must be destroyed for his lust for power, Othello for his jealousy, Antony for his passion, Lear for the incompleteness of his renunciation.
They are tragic precisely because their flaws are all too human. We do not yet know how far Mr. Murdoch is implicated in the crimes of his company, so we do not know which of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes he resembles most. If he didn’t know the extent of the phone hacking, then he’s most like the bungling Richard II, who fails to spot the decay within his kingdom. If he did know, then he’s more like the conniving Richard III, whose love of the machinations of power eventually grinds him into the machinery he’s created.
Regardless, Mr. Murdoch’s distinguishing flaw is common ambition — an outsider’s desire to force his way into the establishment. He has been singled out because his flaw is so ordinary, so widespread. Putting aside for a moment the complicity of every single reader of The News of the World, nearly all journalists and politicians played the same game, only Mr. Murdoch played it better.
One of the most profound feelings that follows watching a Shakespearean tragedy, once we have witnessed the destruction we crave, is how empty the world seems. The tension of tragedy lays bare a part of our hypocrisy that we should at least recognize in the case of Rupert Murdoch: Maybe he is a monster. Maybe he needs to be punished. But he is being destroyed because we cannot stand seeing ourselves, whether on stage or before Parliament.
Stephen Marche, the author of How Shakespeare Changed Everything.