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.