Macbeth as Founder

Macbeth has been on my mind because of the new-ish movie by the Coen brother and a Broadway production with Daniel Craig. So when I recently saw that Shakespeare scholar Paul Cantor had died, I checked out his lecture series on how (among a lot of other things) Macbeth’s tyranny is deeply connected to his sense of destiny. This dynamic also maps uncomfortably well to some startup founders.

Cantor explores “what happens politically when you start to think you’re destined, that there is a kind of current of history that’s behind you.”

It’s the source of Macbeth’s tyranny… And that’s what I find most extraordinary about the play, that Shakespeare seems to intuit something about tyranny in the modern world, that is going to take the form of men destiny
What’s most peculiar about it is that it is a transformation of a Christian principle and specifically it involves taking the idea of heaven and now searching for heaven on earth.

Man of Destiny

In the play, three witches present a future to Macbeth where he is king. To Macbeth, this is heaven on earth. Macbeth obsesses over this vision of the future until he ends up rationalizing killing the King of Scotland. Cantor explains how Macbeth sees this blatant betrayal as bringing about “the be-all and the end-all” today. The promise of heaven-after-death is transformed into heaven-on-earth-today.

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’ld jump the life to come.

Cantor emphasizes that promising heaven-on-earth-today is the formula for lots of modern tyrannies. Do this bad thing in the name of this “grand vision, a higher purpose, a noble mission!” It is also the formula for lots of modern startups.

Matt Levine made this point covering the Theranos story:

I just finished reading John Carreyrou’s “Bad Blood,” the story of the fraud at Theranos Inc. and his work to uncover it… There are a lot of passages in the book about Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes inspiring and cajoling her employees to work harder, to get with the mission, to override their moral objections to faking the technology and push ahead. None of those passages mention shareholder value or profit maximization. They mention Holmes’s vision of revolutionizing health care to save lives and treat cancer patients. If you want to inspire people to do terrible things, it is very useful to sell them on a grand vision, a higher purpose, a noble mission. Shareholder value is nobody’s idea of an inspiring mission. That’s what’s good about it!

Elizabeth Holmes playing Macbeth in upcoming off-Broadway production (would work better as Hamlet that is the question joke but we are talking about Macbeth!…)

I am pro mission. Working on stuff that is self-evidently aligned with enabling people to thrive is a very satisfying job if you can find it. But the trouble with mission (i.e., destiny) is the tendency for weightings of the future’s value to overwhelm the practical and ethical constraints of today.

Private markets might be resetting. And this could lead to some Shakespearean choices for startup employees.

Blog of a newspaper in London (a very good blog…)

As founders must work harder to stretch into valuations they were meant to grow into, incantations of “Double, double toil and trouble” might become more common. “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well It were done quickly” also works as a response to justifying shifting the goalpost to hit a quarterly metric or an aggressively reading a contract to avoid customer churn. Anything to make sure that Uber-for-the be-all-and-the-end-all achieves its grand vision, its higher purpose, its noble mission!

Founders and employees alike should prepare themselves for Act V of the private market cycle. If fleeing to England or gathering boughs from great Birnam Wood are not available options, those employed in the private markets should at least try to set away enough savings to avoid rationalizing regicide or having to make choices they are ethically uncomfortable with.

As Samuel Johnson said (Money Stuff once informed me…): “There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money.” At the very least, getting money is more innocent employment than being a thane in Scotland.

2 thoughts on “Macbeth as Founder

  1. Sterlo

    Wonderful meditation. Would undoubtedly make Shakespeare much more relevant to those aspiring capitalists (and regulators) trudging through high school and wondering why they should read the Bard. And a great concrete example for struggling English teachers!


  2. Spartyon

    Because our idea is better, this mean is justified by the end… We’re doing good because our ideas are better… People will understand when they see what we’ve done for them… This time is different… And on and on. But the tie to Macbeth is something I never considered!



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