Finding The Hidden InfoSec Story

Lessons from the Big Four – Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes

From Act IV, Scene 1 of Macbeth by Henry Fuseli
From Act IV, Scene 1 of Macbeth by Henry Fuseli

I don’t know if the phrase “the bigger they come, the harder they fall” was around when Shakespeare was alive but it applies to his tragic heroes across the board. If we look at his BIG FOUR, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear, he uses the plays to show how heroes, however mighty, can be brought down by the flaws in their personalities that make them human. The higher and more laudable the character, the more devastating and complete their fall must be, and in this truth lies a cautionary tale, or four, for all organisations, especially those large firms, whom, like the characters, are giants in their field.

Whilst the four heroes are vastly different in many ways, they have a common element, which makes them vulnerable, the human tendency to “err.” To be hasty, judgmental, selfish and self obsessed. To be vain, ambitious, jealous and indecisive, and to be ruled by negative emotions, make bad decisions and ultimately be instrumental in their own downfall, through their individual psychological weaknesses, unable to correct them until it is far, far too late.

These are traits which are common to all humanity and potentially fatal to us all, but which have more serious consequences when they destroy princes, kings and heroes, than when they impact upon the smaller lives of us, mere mortals.

Organisations could learn much from the trials of the BIG FOUR heroes and the overriding purpose and messages of the plays. For Macbeth, a mighty warrior respected for his courage, the idea of continual ruthless ambition blinds him to manipulation and bad decisions (to put it mildly.)   He forgets and betrays the qualities that made him great in the first place and is overwhelmed by his ambition and greed.

Ruthless ambition as an organisational quality is dangerous from a security perspective. It makes companies careless as they assume they are the ones creating the agenda, it establishes and feeds a string of opponents/enemies as ethical behaviour and good relationships fail in the pursuit of margin, and it antagonises and demotivates staff whose loyalty crumbles in the stressful environment of gain before all else.

For Othello, his own insecurity and inability to trust or believe in the loyalty of his wife, precedes utter devastation and his own bitterly sad demise. It is not just that he doesn’t trust the one person he absolutely should, but more that throughout the play all of the characters choose to listen only to what they expect to hear. A form of cognitive bias takes over and people choose to believe the worst about each other, through gossip, and anecdote, prejudice and belief in wrongdoing and subsequent desires for revenge.

Ultimately, the play warns against judging situations, and especially people, at face value, and is a master class in the consequences of snap judgments and the dangers of prejudice.

For organisations, the lessons from Othello are varied but include the obvious problems that are inherent when dealing with large groups of staff, and particularly the issue of identifying the enemy within, whose motives can be varied but whose malice often pollutes the workplace for everyone.   Othello is arguably more about the villain, Iago, than about Othello himself. The other characters like and trust Iago, whom they constantly refer to as “honest” proving that an opportunistic and manipulative attacker can enlist the psychological and physical help of those around them, as both willing and unwilling assistants in their schemes.

Recognising our own Iagos in the workplace is not an easy task but it is necessary to be vigilant and on the look-out for them all of the time. Disruptive influences, whether external or internal, are dangerous because they divide the workforce, and a divided workforce is easier to manipulate, gossips and unloads more, in social media and beyond, and is generally an easier target than a more united, less confrontational team.

Companies need to understand and admit that Iagos in their ranks are often promoted and praised, despite being poisonous in people terms, because they get results. It is then hardly surprising that the resulting organisational cultural landscape is difficult to work with, stressful in the extreme and divided, all of which are threats to security in the indirect sense.

Hamlet’s flaw is his inability to act. He spends too long procrastinating and over-thinking situations at the expense of those around him. This indecisiveness gives his enemies the advantage over him and he is ultimately killed without ever really achieving anything. Indecisiveness and hesitation are a killer for many organisations, when it comes to security, especially when it comes to the more complex, indirect measures, such as training people, required to make a company truly secure.

It is however, the character of King Lear that has perhaps the clearest message for security professionals and the larger firms. At the beginning of the play Lear craves flattery and values appearances over reality when he asks his daughters to publicly declare their love for him.. He wants to enjoy all the trappings and worship of a king but has lost interest in behaving like one, and fulfilling the obligations and responsibility the position demands.

Flattery is such a useful tool to an attacker, and for a social engineer in particular, the concept is often a fast-track way to intel and access for many organisations.

Individuals and organisations alike enjoy hearing good things about themselves and the mindset is dangerous because it promotes the idea that they are invulnerable. A recent conversation with a CISO from a large company confirmed the perception that from the human security perspective “they were covered.” The firm was so large and so well resourced, respected and admired that the idea that a hacker could get past seemed ridiculous to them. This arrogance will be their downfall because it will feed complacency, promote laziness of approach and aggravate their status as a prime target.

Shakespeare’s intention was to teach by example. He showed us through his heroes that even the greatest of us are flawed, often fatally, but that we can still be heroes, because heroes they remain. For each one, regardless of what mistakes and wrongs they commit, Shakespeare allows them all, before the end, moments of redemption, of realisation and of remorse which saves them from themselves and stops them from becoming unsympathetic to us, the audience.

Without the fall from grace, they will never have their moment of redemption, and consequently neither will we. They must fall, and preferably from a great height, in order to learn their hard lessons and they do so, so that we might all avoid the same mistakes, learn the lessons, and not have to fall ourselves. The plays are in this sense, a shortcut for the audience, a tool to be used in lieu of the fall, redemption without the suffering, a vicarious lesson, a close escape.

The Big Four heroes have different messages but are ultimately tools to help us all avoid the same mistakes. Shakespeare endures because his work is so relatable to us all, in so many situations, that his plays are still performed globally and continuously to this day. However, in order to learn the lessons from his work we have to admit that lessons can be learnt and this is a quality that seems to be lacking in many corporate settings. Ironic indeed, that the very settings that the lessons might be most valuably heard in this day and age, are amongst the least likely, of all of humanity, to be listening.

Author: Jenny Radcliffe

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