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Better Plays for Better Lives: Hamlet

August 22, 2013
by Guest author
I've seen corruption boil and bubble

I’ve seen corruption boil and bubble

Today we publish the next article of a summer series in which Kimberley Botwright of the OECD Public Affairs and Communications Directorate looks at OECD work through a Shakespearean lens.

When the ghost of the old King of Denmark appears at the beginning of Hamlet, Horatio, once doubtful of ghosts, decides, “This bodes some strange eruption to our state.” In a second (private) appearance to young Prince Hamlet, the ghost King reveals an unvoiced injustice; he was murdered by his brother, (Hamlet’s uncle), who has now married the Queen and claimed the royal title.

As the play unfolds we realise that adultery, fratricide, fathers spying on sons, friends spying on friends, bribery, trickery, and murder are the hallmarks of this society. The only major character that does not display some corrupt tendency is Ophelia, Hamlet’s one-time beloved girlfriend. A pure soul in an impure world, society necessarily destroys her; she goes mad and commits suicide. The church is still prepared to bury her though, (despite suicide traditionally preventing burial on hallowed ground), because she’s from a rich family.

Fortunately, today we don’t need to the appearance of ghosts to make us aware of “some foul play.” The OECD’s CleanGovBiz initiative, launched in 2011, is designed to help governments, business and civil society build integrity and combat corruption. This is done through knowledge sharing events as well as a multi-pronged Toolkit, which brings together relevant work on 18 policy areas from across different OECD departments. Users are provided with priority checklists, implementation guidance, good practice examples, as well as access to tools elaborated by international and civil society organisations.

The tricky part about corruption is that it is not always obvious or easy to detect. Hamlet is all too aware of the difference between outward appearance and inward reality; “That one may smile and smile and be a villain.” Polonius, Ophelia’s father, notes, “’Tis too much proved – that with devotion’s visage / And pious action we do sugar o’er / The devil himself.” Sharp detection is needed to identify all sorts of double-dealing. The OECD offers tools such as a Money Laundering Awareness Handbook.

It is inferred early on in the play that upon Hamlet’s decisions “depends the safety and health of this whole state.” Tools to set healthy governance standards as well as secure effective prevention are critical. Examples include OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, lobbying principles or Public Sector Integrity Reviews, the latter helping to identify and review areas in government vulnerable to misconduct fraud and corruption.

Follow-up tools are needed to ensure robust prosecution and recovery; when Hamlet’s uncle meditates on his devious actions he wonders whether he can repent but keep his stolen assets (the Queen and the title); “May one be pardoned and retain th’offence? / In the corrupt currents of this world / Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice, / And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself / Buys out the law.” Asset recovery is an important part of the corruption limitation, as is criminalising bribery.

Hamlet’s uncle eventually bribes the Prince’s friends to assist in an assassination plot; but Hamlet suspects their treachery long-before, describing Rosencrantz as a sponge, “that soaks up the king’s countenance, his rewards, his authorities.” Current estimates show that over $1 trillion in bribes are paid annually. The OECD’s Anti-Bribery Convention has established legally binding standards to criminalise the bribery of foreign public officials in business transactions.

Hamlet didn’t have a CleanGovBiz Toolkit and as the play progresses he becomes increasingly pessimistic about society’s integrity, telling Polonius, “Ay, sir: to be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of two thousand.” When Rosencrantz jokes that “the world’s grown honest”, Hamlet replies, “Then doomsday is near.” Despairing of the rot in human nature he asks Ophelia, “Are you honest?” and then cries, “Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” Never mind that he had formerly promised her, “Doubt truth to be a liar / But never doubt I love.” Even Hamlet is inconsistent in the morally corrupt world that encircles him: he murders four people.

Just before the final disastrous scene where the remaining characters all kill each other, Hamlet converses with a gravedigger and asks him how long it takes a body to rot. The reply sums up society, “I’faith, if he be not rotten before he die – as we have many pocky corpses now-a-days…” Corruption corrodes society; leading to suspicion, deception, violence, and death, or “carnal, bloody and unnatural acts.”

If Hamlet’s end doesn’t convince you, modern estimates suggest that corruption causes a 5% to 10% waste of US Medicare and Medicaid annual budgets; a 10% average increase in the cost of doing business; and 20% to 40% of official development assistance to be stolen. Child mortality rates in countries with high levels of corruption are about one third higher than in countries with low corruption, whilst student dropout rates are five times as high.

Corruption also leads to the breakdown of that flighty yet vital thing we call trust in society. As the OECD tells us, we fight corruption because it “corrodes public trust, undermines the rule of law and ultimately delegitimises the state.” The cost of mistrust is high. The OECD Secretary General has stated in his 2013 Strategic Orientations, “Without strong, smart and trusted institutions our efforts to implement and deliver better policies for better lives will be undermined.” No wonder OECD Forum 2013 was all about Jobs Equality and Trust, where a different Prince reminded us; “If you think about it, 100 does not always equal 100. There is a considerable difference between a group of 100 people full of self-confidence, with trust in each other and good basic skills, and a group of 100 people with low self-esteem, a lack of trust and poor basic skills.” Can we (re)build trust?

When integrity crumbles, trust disappears, society spirals downward and “The rest is silence.”

Useful links

OECD work on bribery and corruption

OECD Forum: Rebuilding Trust

 

 

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