Embrace your Shakespearean character and bid adieu – Sydney Morning Herald

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A person at work is leaving after a very long time. I have worked with them for years and have never got on with them. In fact, I would go so far as to say I have a deep-seated dislike of them.
The head of our area has organised a going-away gift that includes messages from every single person in the division. Our instructions are to make it “heartfelt” and “warm”. I will not be able to bring myself to do this; if I can, I will be expressing a baldfaced lie.
What can I do?
Illustration: John Shakespeare Credit:
As soon as I read your email, the following words popped into my head: “Discretion is the better part of valour.”
For a long time I thought that this saying meant that valorous behaviour is not a monolithic thing composed entirely of flamboyant bravery; that you can be cautious while remaining brave.
At some point I found out it came from Shakespeare and heard somewhere that it was, in fact, a joke. Perhaps Shakespeare didn’t mean that at all.
After receiving your question, I went back to the proverb to get a definitive explanation. And, to be honest, I couldn’t find one.
What I know for certain is that it comes from Henry IV Part 1. In it, the character Sir John Falstaff says: “The better part of valour is discretion, in the which better part I have saved my life.” And it is indeed a joke – or at least uttered by one of his most famous comic characters.
Falstaff – a bloated, constantly inebriated, arrogant and unprincipled man – says it after playing dead during a battle to avoid being killed. At first glance it might seem like Shakespeare is being ironic: this is a pathetic man attempting to justify his cowardice – don’t listen to him.
But the whole thing is much more complex than that. Scholars and Shakespeare fans seem to be almost unanimous in their opinion that Falstaff is a rogue, but a loveable one. Many have called him Shakespeare’s best character. Some have called him an “anti-Jesus”. Others have said his name is actually a cheeky reference to Shakespeare (fall-staff equals shake-spear). Sharon Stewart wrote a long essay on Fallstaff in which she said, “[he] shows us just how much fun life can be ignoring or, better yet, making fun of it”, and went on to say “he never seeks our approval”.
What Fallstaff teaches us is that valour is subjective and contextual, and that’s how I would approach your conundrum.
I don’t mean you must play possum to avoid professional death, although that may end up being the most judicious option. If you can protect your career while passing on totally insincere tributes to your odious colleague, do it. Perhaps with the slightest hint of a smirk or a subtle raising of the eyebrow (or the written equivalent).
If you can opt out entirely – perhaps through a well-timed “illness” or very long trip to the lavatory – go for it.
And if your risk analysis comes to the conclusion that you can tell the truth without being sacked, well… for every pearl-clutcher who abhors your reckless lack of propriety, you might find there are two, three or four co-workers who applaud your vicious candour.
Be like Fallstaff… whatever that means to you.
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