Forbes and Fifth

Lear's Tyranny in Gaddafi's Libya

Have you ever noticed how dogs tend to be afraid of vacuum cleaners? They’re loud, make a lot of noise, and suck up the piles of hair dogs work so hard to shed all over the carpet. To an observer their fear of vacuums would seem nonsensical, but maybe the dogs are the ones with a little bit of sense. In politics, a power vacuum often wreaks havoc both for leadership and for civilians. It pulls in everything a country has, and, if the power vacuum fails to spit back out a stable government, the results are similar to those of a vacuum cleaner’s bag exploding. The mess is then bigger; instead of the floor and furniture being a little dirty, the entire room is covered in a layer of filth. Such vacuums can be seen in Shakespeare’s King Lear and the Libyan Revolution of 2011. In the former, King Lear’s attempts to divide his kingdom creates a power vacuum that leaves him dead and people he never envisioned in charge of his kingdom. In the latter, Muammar Qaddafi’s attempts to hold his kingdom together led to his death and a power vacuum that devolved into further civil war. How can two opposite approaches to government lead to such similar outcomes? While their approaches were different, Qaddafi and King Lear shared many characteristics—despite the 400-year difference between the play and the 2011 Libyan revolution.

Both leaders are suspected of having health issues, specifically mental or behavioral. King Lear is old, erratic, and throughout the play he seems to slip into madness either through hallucinations or violent outbursts (3.6.52-55). He disinherits his daughter, Cordelia, (1.1.108-20) who loves him most, in favor of Goneril and Regan who do not think much of him (2.4.191-92). By the end of the play, through a series of hallucinations and unfortunate events, King Lear changes his mind about Cordelia and suggests that they accept their fate and live out their days in prison (5.3.8-9). Throughout history, many have speculated as to what disease afflicts King Lear. When actor Simon Beale was preparing for his role as King Lear, he took note of Lear’s strange behavior and sought out medical experts so he could understand what symptoms to portray. According to his sources, Lear was most likely suffering from the early stages of Lewy Body Dementia, a quickly acting form of dementia that leads to many symptoms attributed to King Lear throughout the play (National Theatre Discover). Truskinovsky discusses the multiple diagnoses of King Lear in academic literature and suggests that King Lear may suffer from some kind of Bipolar disorder and not full-blown dementia (343). There has also been work done by Coolidge and Sagel who claim that many other dictators share behavioral disorders, such as Kim Jong-Il, Saddam Hussein, and Hitler (195). King Lear and Qaddafi also share some traits of these behavioral disorders. For example, one of the traits mentioned by Segal and Coolidge is Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD), which includes symptoms such as impulsivity, irritability, reckless disregard for the safety of others, and a failure to conform to social norms (Psych Central Staff)—traits which King Lear and Qaddafi both exhibit. King Lear exhibits symptoms of ASPD when he recklessly insists that he and the Fool venture into the storm and remains there totally disregarding his safety and that of the Fool (3.1). Qaddafi exhibited similar symptoms when he commanded his forces to fire rockets and artillery into heavily populated civilian areas without evidence of nearby opposition targets (Chivers). Furthermore, David Blundy and Andrew Lycett claim that a 1982 Central Intelligence Agency reported that Qaddafi suffers from “a severe personality disorder” (23).

Whether King or Colonel (Qaddafi’s rank in the Libyan military after he helped overthrow the monarchy in 1969 (El-Kikhia 40)), those with absolute power tend to delegate power to family members, specifically to their children. King Lear and Qaddafi were no exception. While King Lear chose to abdicate and divide his kingdom before he died (1.1.36-54), Qaddafi planned to hand over control of the entire country to one of his sons, most likely Saiff al-Islam. Although Saiff was the heir apparent, Qaddafi had nine children, and the majority of them were groomed to be capable of managing the nation by receiving military training and/or western educations. He also gave all of his children prominent positions of power (Tharoor). By appointing his children to important positions of power, Qaddafi ensured loyalty in important parts of the Libyan government. Although King Lear chose to divide his kingdom, he could have had similar intentions. By providing his daughters with their own domains and rotating his domicile between them, under the presumption that his daughters love him and are unquestionably loyal to him, he could ensure his own wellbeing while keeping an eye on activities throughout the entire kingdom.

Lear’s assumptions were wrong and his heirs turned against him. Like King Lear, Qaddafi also had to deal with children whose actions contradicted his grand scheme. King Lear disinherits Cordelia for not stating her love (1.1.90), whereas in 2006 Qaddafi’s heir-apparent Saiff was forced to leave the country for criticizing his father (Tharoor). Both children eventually regain their fathers’ favor. Interestingly, the result of coming back into their fathers’ good graces may also have been Saiff’s and Cordelia’s death sentence. Cordelia uses her husband’s forces to try and restore her father and ends up dead, killed by those against the restoration of her father (5.3.255-261). Saiff tried, much like Cordelia, to save his father’s kingdom in his own convoluted manner and for this he was captured, had his fingers cut off, and was sentenced to death by those who now use his father’s capital as their own (as of August 7, 2015 the militia holding Saiff is refusing to turn him over) (Hilsun). King Lear and Qaddafi also shared a penchant for rewarding those they considered loyal. King Lear gave parts of his kingdom to Goneril and Regan for declaring their love for him; Qaddafi adopted a nephew who supposedly saved his life in the 1986 conflict with the United States (Tharoor). While wanting to leave something behind for one’s child is understandable, nepotism at the political level appears to be destructive to a country’s institutions. If Qaddafi had put those with the best qualifications in charge of defending his country he may still be the leader of Libya; if King Lear had listened to his advisers he may have had the chance to die of old age rather than a broken heart.

Furthermore, both leaders shared a love for the superfluous. Both men enjoyed having a large entourage—the purpose of which is hard to pin down. In fact Qaddafi maintained an entourage of bodyguards and servants right up to the time of his death (Human Rights Watch, 23). Both men insisted on keeping their entourage even when circumstances and others dictated it was time to eliminate such groups. For Lear it cost him a night in the rain. He is forced into the rain after an ultimatum from two of his daughters: get rid of the 100 knights or they will no longer harbor him (2.4.232-37). For Qaddafi it cost him his life. Qaddafi was captured and subsequently killed by rebels in late 2011. According to HRW a convoy was attempting to flee Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte (one of the last strongholds of Qaddafi supporters) when it was struck by a NATO drone and quickly attacked by Libyan rebels (4). According to the report by HRW the convoy included Qaddafi supporters, guards, and civilians (6). The report also notes that some believe Qaddafi intended the civilians in the convoy to be human shields from the NATO attack; however, Qaddafi could easily have fled the country in the same conspicuous manner he had moved around Sirte in the previous weeks (16-27). Qaddafi could possibly have saved his own life had he dispersed his entourage and fled into Tunisia alone or with a smaller group, rather than staying in Libya after Tripoli fell. Similarly, King Lear could have avoided wandering in the wilderness as a mad-man had he just given up his knights and accepted his traitorous daughters’ demands. The men share a fatal flaw—both refuse to downsize in order to survive. After King Lear abdicates, he still insists on keeping his title and refuses to dismiss his knights. Likewise, before the revolution, Qaddafi insisted on using his bulletproof Bedouin tent, regardless of where he was, including official visits to New York City (notably lacking room for a Bedouin camp) (Berger). Much like King Lear’s title, Qaddafi’s tent is an example of the tyrant refusing to accept that he is no longer who he once was. King Lear was no longer a king and Qaddafi was no longer a nomad, regardless of what they insisted on telling others. In Lear’s own words: “O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars are in their poorest thing superfluous” (2.4.259-60).

Both men demanded absolute loyalty and obedience. Those who betrayed them were inevitably punished. King Lear exiled his servant Kent for questioning his decision to disinherit Cordelia (1.1.173-179). Suppression and government violence were also the norm for anyone who questioned or spoke out against Qaddafi—evidenced by the testimony of those who spent time in his prisons (Abdul-Ahead). The opulence of the Qaddafi regime, combined with its government-sponsored suppression, was made apparent to all when his family properties were captured, ransacked, and documented by opposition forces (Dehghanpisheh).

Although both men shared many personality traits, foreign interventions in their countries as their reigns came to an end led to vastly different results. For King Lear, the Franks came to his aid to try to restore him. Although the Franks lost to Goneril and Regan’s forces, the defeat is null because Goneril and Regan are dead. After King Lear dies, his allies the Duke of Albany, Kent, and Edgar end up in power (5.3). In 2011, Libyan protesters revolted against Qaddafi after he tried to violently crush Arab Spring protests (Denyer). This disregard for human rights led to many western nations providing air support for Libyan opposition groups. Alongside western allies, the rebels were able to overthrow Qaddafi and “take control” of the country. Despite the success of the air campaign in Libya, no true authority has emerged. The Militias that revolted against Qaddafi continue to fight amongst each other for control (Sherlock). While the story of King Lear’s successors will never be known, according to Hanspeter Mattes, Qaddafi’s successors must confront six issues to restore security in Libya: the proliferation of weapons, armed revolutionary brigades that resist demobilization, the assaults by Islamist brigades on non-Islamic targets, the armed conflicts between hostile tribes and families, the stalling of transnational justice (specifically relating to Qaddafi’s former officers), and the stopping of illegal criminal gang activities (86-87). Ironically, in King Lear foreign intervention fails to restore King Lear, yet his allies still wind up in power— whereas in Libya, foreign intervention succeeds but helps to create a bigger mess with bigger challenges than ever before. In King Lear the vacuum bag manages to hold (sans King Lear), in Libya it exploded.

King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s most remarkable plays because 400 years later, the qualities of a tyrant that Shakespeare describes can be seen in the tyrants of today. As mentioned earlier, the work done by Coolidge and Sagel claims that three of the most infamous dictators of the last 100 years share the traits of behavioral disorders that can also be seen in King Lear and Qaddafi. There are also other parallels between King Lear and other modern day autocrats that have yet to be explored. Other autocrats who could easily be compared with Lear include Fidel Catsro whose health forced him to step down and hand power over to a family member (McKinley), or the President of Equatorial Guinea whose heir apparent enjoys the high life much like Qaddafi and Lear’s (Baume). However, the greatest insight that can be drawn from these comparisons could have significant implications for the crisis in Syria. If parallels can be drawn between leaders such as President Bashir Al-Assad or the leader of the Islamic State Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi lessons from the 400 year old King Lear could be used to bring a quicker end to the conflict and immense human suffering it has caused. Should the link between these autocrats be proven, it would appear indisputable that the stubbornness, decadence, desire for genetic succession, and oppression of tyrants appear to be timeless.


Abdul-Ahad, Ghaith. “Inside Gaddafi’s brutal prison: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad’s Libyan ordeal.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 25 Mar. 2011. Web. 31 Mar. 2015.

Baume, Maïa. “A French Shift on Africa Strips a Dictator’s Son of His Treasures.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 23 Aug. 2012. Web. 23 Mar. 2015.

Berger, Joseph. “Still No Place in New York for Qaddafi’s Tent.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 23 Sep. 2009. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.

Blundy, David and Andrew Lycett. Qaddafi and the Libyan Revolution. Boston: Little, Brown, 1987. Print.

Chivers, CJ. “Qaddafi Troops Fire Cluster Bombs into Civilian Areas.” The New York Times.The New York Times Company, 15 Apr. 2011. Web. 31 Mar. 2015. 

Coolidge, Frederick and Daniel Segal. “Is Kim Jong-Il like Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler? A Personality Disorder Evaluation.” Behavioral Science of Terrorism and Political Aggression 1.3 (2009): 195-202. UCCS. Web. 23 Mar. 2015.

Dehghanpisheh, Babak. “Inside Gaddafi’s Lair.” The Daily Beast. The Daily Beast Company, 25 Aug. 2011. Web. Mar. 26. 2015.

Denyer, Simon. “Libya Says it is Prepared for Free Elections, Leader’s Role Negotiable.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post, 20 Apr. 2011. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.

El-Kikhia, Mansour O. Libya’s Qaddafi : The Politics Of Contradiction. Gainesville: UP Florida, 1997. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 31 Mar. 2015.

Hilsun, Lindey. “Saiff al-Islam Gaddafi: The Prophet of His Own Doom.” The Guardian. The Guardian, 5 Aug. 2015. Web. 6 Aug. 2015.

Human Rights Watch. Death of A Dictator. Beirut, 2012. Print.

Mattes, Hanspeter. “Rebuilding the National-Security Forces in Libya.” Middle East Policy 21.2 (2014): 85-99. Wiley Online Library. Web. 31 Mar. 2015.

McKinley, James. “Fidel Castro Resigns as Cuba’s President.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 20 Feb. 2008. Web. 23 Mar. 2015.

Mohamed, Esam. “Colonel Gaddafi’s playboy son, Saadi, Extradited from Niger for trial in Libya.” The Independent. The Independent, 6 Mar. 2014. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.

National Theatre Discover. “Talking Lear: Simon Russell Beale on King Lear.” Online video clip. Youtube. YouTube, 17 Feb. 2014. Web. 25 Mar 2015.

Palmer, Brian. “What Happens to Frozen Assets?” Slate. The Slate Group, 1 March 2011. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.

Psych Central Staff. “Antisocial Personality Disorder Symptoms.” PsychCentral. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.

Sang-Hun, Choe. “Kim Jong-il to Go on Permanent Display.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 12 Jan. 2012. Web. 23 Mar. 2015.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Shakespeare’s Words: A Glossary and Language Companion. Ed. Ben and David Crystal. New York: Penguin, 2004. Print

Sherlock, Ruth. “ Libya Slipping Toward All-Out cCivil War After Peace Talks Delayed in Morocco.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 11 Mar. 2015. Web. 31 Mar. 2015

Tharoor, Ishaan. “Keeping Up with the Gaddafis: A Who’s Who of the Dictator’s Children.” Time. Time Inc., 20 Oct. 2011. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.

Truskinovsky, Alexander M. “Literary Psychiatric Observation And Diagnosis Through The Ages: King Lear Revisited.” Southern Medical Journal 95.3 (2002): 343-352. Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 Mar. 

previous | next

Volume 7, Fall 2015