An elegant king walks into a room. Dozens of his nobles and lords wait for his arrival, but as his steps carry him deeper and deeper into the room, his eyes witness something they’ve never encountered. Not one man bows to him. For a man who believes that God gave him his throne, this sight drives him nearly mad.
Another king of sorts, of great power and influence, sits in silent darkness. His head drooping towards the ground, his once-mighty arms languid at their sides, he broods listlessly on a recent war that has stripped him of his sovereignty. Yet, no one is around to witness his great debasement but a beautiful, old friend who remembers him in his glory.
Failure makes for great literature.
In the first example, we have Shakespeare’s Richard II, a bad king who played the part well. Arrogant, greedy, and without an ounce of compassion, but he looks and sounds so good doing it! Only Shakespeare can make us sympathize with him when he is deposed by his clunkier, brute, but somewhat righteously-angry cousin Henry Bolingbroke.
And for a second example, we have Keats’ Saturn from his masterful poem “Hyperion.” The former Titan king of the Gods, Saturn has been deposed by a younger, stronger Olympian, Jove/Zeus.
In both cases, Richard II and Saturn makes such woeful speeches of regret, loss, and sheer rebellion against their lot that they seem to mirror our own falls from grace, our own very big failures, our own crash-your-car-into-a-brick-wall-oh-no-what-do-I-do-now(s).
Because even the most humble of us will sometimes think ourselves as invincible as kings. We might really want something, really thought we were going to get something and then…we are told we’re not qualified for the job, or they only think of us as a friend, or you have no talent for this sort of thing, consider a change in your line of work, or a flat-out “You’re Not Worthy.”
Hmm, maybe you already have that job, or that great person in your life, or otherwise “living the good life”, and then some crazy, random, unforeseen event happens and you have nothing. Hey, Richard II was the King of England and Saturn was the King of the Titan Gods, and they were both deposed by men supposedly inferior to them.
Sometimes you fail and there’s ABSOLUTELY NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT. The only thing to do usually is to make your peace with it and move on. So, how deliciously wonderful it is to read characters in literature who refused to do so. In fact, they griped and whined their way to the bottom of the food chain.
King Richard plays a total diva, crying in front of the old, regal men of the court. He even calls for a mirror so he can see himself crying! (You see, we are not the first silly people to run to the mirror to catch a glimpse of our bawling.) He wails: “Was this face the face/That every day under his household roof/Did keep ten thousand men? was this the face/That, like the sun did make beholders wink?”
Saturn, too, turns a mirror on his soul to figure out just what happened. When you fail, of course you need someone to gripe to, so he mourns to Thea: “Who had power/To make me desolate? whence came his strength?/How was it nurtur’d to such bursting forth,/While Fate seem’d strangled in my nervous grasp?/But it is so; and I am smother’d up…I am gone/Away from my own bosom: I have left/My strong identity, my real self,/Somewhere between the throne, and where I sit/Here on this spot of earth.”
Oh yeah, the darkness has fallen. But did you notice an integral human factor in each of their speeches? Failure is usually accompanied with a severe identity crisis. Sometimes we get so wrapped in our positions (social or otherwise) or we identify so strongly with our possessions whether they are things, jobs, or people, that our self-concept cannot survive their sudden end.
“WHO AM I?” you ask, like Saturn. Or “I AM NOTHING IF I AM NOT KING!” you think, like Richard II.
Hopefully, just hopefully, you learn to center your identity on worthier criteria. Hopefully, you move pass the temporary loss with its subsequent wounds, smarter and stronger than before, even if you’re a lot more humble than before.
As a writer, even as a human being, you will encounter a lot of failure. Most of the time, our entire identity will be wrapped in whether or not we succeed or fail. As opposed to feeling sorry for yourself and quitting, pick up Shakespeare’s “Richard II” and John Keats’ “Hyperion” and let their characters gripe for you. Then move on and live your life.