Microsoft according to Shakespeare

Microsoft according to Shakespeare

Before we get lost in the details of the upcoming battle between the US Department of Justice and Microsoft, I think it's a good idea to step back and get a cultural perspective on what major antitrust confrontations are really all about.

And what could be more cultural than seeking wisdom directly from the Bard of Avon? Surely, no one has written more frequently, subtly and humanly about the nature of power, ambition and justice than William Shakespeare.

Unfortunately for Microsoft, most of what the great man has to say is clearly on the side of the Justice Department. Throughout the Shakespearean canon, few themes are more consistent than how excessive ambition often leads to personal destruction and social chaos.

Indeed, in one of Shakespeare's most famous works, we learn that uncontrollable ambition is the fatal flaw of the otherwise noble Macbeth. Worse still, when coupled with revenge, unchecked ambition leads to the high villainy of Richard III or Edmund in King Lear.

In contrast, the ideal Shakespearean leader, Henry V, uses his strength and satisfies his ambitions but recognises that both sometimes need to be restrained.

In addition to those memorable characters, one of the more amazing things about Shakespeare is that he has conjured up quotes for all occasions. Here are a few worth keeping in mind during the coming months:

"O, it is excellent to have a giant's strength; but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant." Measure for Measure, II.ii.107.

"But ‘tis common proof that lowliness is young ambition's ladder, whereto the climber-upward turns his face; but when he once attains the upmost round, he then unto the ladder turns his back, looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees by which he did ascend." Julius Caesar, II.i.21.

"Then every thing include itself in power, power into will, will into appetite, and appetite, a universal wolf (so doubly seconded with will and power), must make perforce a universal prey, and last eat up himself." Troilus and Cressida, I.iii.119.

Vaulting ambition

"I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself, and falls on th' other." Macbeth, I.vii.25.

"We must not make a scarecrow of the law, setting it up to fear the birds of prey, and let it keep one shape, till custom make it their perch and not their terror." Measure for Measure, II.i.1.

Of course, Shakespeare's timeless tales of heroes and traitors and love and war are far removed from the narrow business disputes of today. Nevertheless, the underlying issues are often remarkably similar. Current antitrust law is founded on the very Shakespearean belief that giving too much power to any one company or man is fundamentally not a good idea.

To win its case, the Justice Department will have to show this is one of those times when the common good demands that the strong be reined in. Shakespeare would likely agree.

For him, the tougher question would be whether this particular story will play out as a comedy, where all's well that ends well, or as tragedy, where the great axe eventually must fall.

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