The Church Enigma: A Guide for Seekers & Skeptics

Today (May 23rd) is exactly one year since the last day of shooting for Up to Date, the short comedy I directed about a blind date that doesn’t go as expected. By far the worst experience that I had as a filmmaker in regards to that short came from the Life Film Festival in Baton Rouge.

I won’t go into the details of what happened here. If you’re curious, you can read my comments on their Facebook page. My preference is not to call out other organizations in public, but on occasion some things need to be said. To their credit, they could have deleted my critique as they did my original comments, but they allowed it to remain, suggesting that they are at least open to criticism.

The point here is that the Life Film Festival wasn’t just a life-affirming festival. It had a strong religious orientation, something I didn’t realize when I submitted our short. That of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. You would think that a religious-minded festival would be more concerned about treating its participants with consideration than other festivals, but that festival was the one where my team and I felt the most manipulated.

The girl who ran the festival went to my church, and because of what happened, I was too upset to attend church for a few weeks.

The triumph of Death – Valdes Leal, 1672

 

As I’ve mentioned before, the worst experiences of my life have come from religious people and from religious-like peddlers of idealism. And yet, some of my best friends and my noblest aspirations also come from the church. It’s complicated, you know.

Before going further, I should clarify my intentions. This is not meant to be a raging polemic against religion in the manner of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.

(Of the recent outspoken atheists to take the stage, Christopher Hitchens was the one I found most agreeable. His work suggests a healthy appreciation for awe and uncertainty, and I suspect that his arguments against God might be mere channelled condemnations of religion gone bad. In any case, I imagine I would have enjoyed sharing a few beers with him, which is not something I can imagine about his colleagues. Pity then that he is no longer with us. Another time perhaps.)

Nor do I aim to discuss church in the effusive language of an evangelist. I go to church on occasion. Sometimes I find it encouraging. Other times I am left wondering why it is so and not otherwise.

I approach the topic with enough humility to recognize that some of the things that frustrate me about church might be due to my own shortcomings, but sometimes a problem is institutional  in nature and not specific to an individual. From wherever a problem may come, it cannot be corrected unless it is first identified, and so it can be helpful to acknowledge the obstacles that come with the territory rather than to act as if they do not exist.

The tone I’m aiming for is similar to that of the seminal book The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature written by Harvard psychologist William James back in 1902. In that book James refuses to reduce religion to the by-product of sublimated sexuality or mental illness. Rather, James argues that while religion has occasionally caused problems it is a subject with its own intrinsic value that significantly affects the human experience, often for the better.

The Annunciation – Fra Angelico, c. 1437-1446

 

To extrapolate William James into today’s preoccupations, we can acknowledge that a desire for profit might have motivated the creation of the iPhone, but the phone has inherent value as an elegant communication tool that transcends the profit it produces for Apple. Of course, religion is a more significant matter than the phone one chooses, but anthropologists of the future might have difficulty discerning as much from the recorded history found on social media relics.

To quote William James, “No one organism can possibly yield to its owner the whole body of truth. Few of us are not in some way infirm or diseased, and our very infirmities help us unexpectedly.” That quote reminds us of the potential for fallibility, in ourselves and in our religious institutions, but how can fallibility be helpful? Perhaps we will find an answer in our discussion to come.

For now, let us proceed with a different question.

If we assume that Christianity is true, in what ways would we expect an ideal church to be different from other assemblies of people? There is nothing about Christianity that suggests the church as a whole should be smarter, more attractive, or more affluent than the rest of society, but it should be capable of more goodness.

According to Galations 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (NIV) In other words, those who are guided by the spirit of God will grow in character. Other passages indicate that a body of believers is said to have a sort of spiritual amplifying effect. For example, Matthew 18:20 says, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (NIV) Then there are all those passages that compare the church to a human body. Once again the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

OK, so the ideal church should amplify goodness in noticeable ways: Its members are theoretically attuned to the Creator of a moral universe, and in fellowship they grow stronger and have a better sense of their unique purposes within that universe. That doesn’t sound so bad, but is that what we find when we step away from the ideal and into the realm of messy reality?

It does not always seem that way.

I grew up in a restrictive fundamentalist church, the kind of place that frowned on going to the movies, playing cards, and drinking alcohol. While there are no definitive references to movies in the Bible, there are numerous references to wine, but my former church believed that wine actually meant grape juice in ancient times. That is an awkward position to maintain. For one thing, much of the Bible was originally written in Ancient Greek, and the early Greeks certainly did not mean grape juice when they mentioned wine in their writings.

The Disrobing of Christ – El Greco, 1577-1579

 

Then there are verses like Matthew 11:19: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’” (NIV) That verse sets up a clear correlation: Christ ate and some people called him a glutton; Christ drank and some people called him a drunkard.”

Not to take anything away from the delicious oak-infused flavors of Welch’s Grape Juice, but I have never heard anyone called a drunkard after imbibing too much Welch.

Still, I can understand the church’s inclination to protect its members from potential corrupting influences. Alcohol, if abused, can have devastating consequences, so can sex. There is risk even in watching movies, as many of them are conduits for corrosive ideas, and only a fool would deny the escalating increase of sex and violence in the films being produced now.

Did this protective mindset produce people of stronger character though? That is hard to say. Perhaps in some cases it did, preventing members from being led astray, but it did not produce young people who would defend me when I was picked on and excluded in school, or even at church events. If I ever have a son, I will teach him to do otherwise.

In a similar vein, I felt out of place in school, and I felt only marginally less out of place in church. There is some social pressure to be friendly to others in church, and that made church more bearable, but those who offered friendliness in church did not extend that same friendliness in school. There, social status is not awarded for displays of inclusive friendliness, so there is less incentive to sustain a veneer of it.

Not that I was much different. I was not considered one of the most popular kids back then, but nor was I on the lowest rung of my school’s caste system. I did everything I could to avoid being associated with the untouchables, lest I give others more reason to exclude me.  I regret that. High school is a little microcosm of the world at large, is it not?

Madonna of the Meadow – Raphael, 1505

 

The teenage years are challenging years for most people, so I am not looking to place blame on others. Is it possible, though, that the church’s theology influenced the actions or inactions of the people who significantly affected my life during those years.

My apologies to those who wish to avoid theology, but I don’t know how to proceed without discussing it. A church is, at any rate, a religious group with certain commonly held beliefs. Those beliefs will vary slightly or significantly from one church to another, and those beliefs will influence how the church members act in the world at large.

A particularly unhelpful belief of that church and many like it is that faith is sort of like an on-off switch. That theology goes something like this: Before someone says the right prayer he or she is damned to endure an eternity of burning in hell. After saying the prayer, he or she is guaranteed heavenly bliss, regardless of what kinds of choices are made after the prayer. Once the prayer is said, keeping the faith is simply about following a list of dos and don’ts to build up enough rewards so that heaven is more comfortable.

That off-on theology is in keeping with the way machines work in our industrial world, but that is not how faith is described in the Scriptures. There, the emphasis is more organic. Christ’s parable of the sower isn’t so much about the seed hitting the ground. The bigger issue is whether the seed will take root and grow. Similarly we are instructed to bear fruit, and fruit doesn’t sprout overnight. It happens over time when the right conditions are in place. Character is like that.

Book of Kells, Folio 32v – c. 800

 

Christ is also described as a fountain of water and the bread of life. The thing about food and water is that we have to keep eating and drinking to stay alive.  Why does this distinction matter?

If you believe in off/on theology, the most important thing that you can do for others is to get them to say the right prayer. It doesn’t matter why they say that prayer, so you can scare them into saying it or offer incentives, but once they say it then you should probably move on to the next person who has yet to say it. After all, the more time you spend lingering with one person, the less time you have to persuade other hell-bound souls to say the prayer before it is too late.

While searching for others who might be receptive to the prayer, it is recommended that you adhere to a list of dos and don’ts. The better you are at following that list, the better your rewards will be in the afterlife.

The Crucifixion of Christ – Tintoretto, 1568

 

Usually defending someone against a bully is not on the checklist, but you know what is almost guaranteed to be there? Helping the children in Africa, and what could be better than helping those poor, precious children in Africa?

That kind of thinking drives me crazy, but everyone seems to buy into it. Even Madonna. (In this case, the reference is to the singer and not to the mother of God. It is unclear how the holy mother feels about the Africa question.)

Let me clarify: Working to help the less fortunate is admirable, and the people of Africa have faced much suffering in recent years and can benefit from aid, as can other developing countries. If you are a decent person who is involved in your community and have the resources to improve the situation in Africa, or places like it, then go for it.

So many people, though, will send money to Africa INSTEAD of being considerate to those around them. Africa feels exotic, and it lets people buy into the idea that they are making a difference, that they are doing something positive. These types tend to write a check or go on a do-gooder tour and then proceed to treat those closest to them in indifferent or callous ways for weeks, months, and years.

Misguided people, do you not realize that the consequences of your cruelties to those closest to you will do far more harm than any petty niceties that you momentarily offer needy strangers in a far away land?

There is a character in Charles Dickens’ book Bleak House who is like that. Her name is Mrs. Jellyby, and she likes to ramble about her mission to  Borrioboola-Gha, Africa, but she neglects her family entirely, much to their misfortune.

First serial cover for Bleak House – 1852

 

For a real-life alternative, let us look to Jason Russell. You might not recognize the name, but you probably remember the hipster-friendly KONY 2012 outreach he organized through his Invisible Children charity. A few weeks after the KONY outreach gained traction, he was filmed running around naked while swearing and acting like a mad man. You can find the video on YouTube if you are so inclined, but the video itself is not suitable for The nsavides Blog.

After the breakdown, some sites began investigating the Invisible Children charity and discovered that less than 32% of the $1 million + raised by the KONY campaign went to direct action. It seems the outreach was profiting handsomely from the help-Africa impulses of others. While it would not have been as glamorous, I suspect that Jason Russell could have done more to make the world a better place by first conquering his own demons before trying to conquer those of Africa.

One last thing about Africa. Why is it that religious communities can easily imagine that God would call someone to ministry in Africa but not to design more comfortable chairs or to be a personable manager at the local shopping mall?

In addition to correcting the injustices in Africa, why wouldn’t a benevolent God want his children to sit in comfort or to have friendly supervisors? Is this omnipotent God only capable of solving one problem at a time, and must all of His people be dedicated to that one problem in order for it to be solved? Surely God is more versatile than that.

Ecstasy of  Saint Teresa – Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, c. 1647 – 1652

 

Moral of the story: Don’t be a Mrs. Jellyby or a Jason Russell. Charity should start at home. That’s enough of that side tangent though.

Back to off/no theology. I’m not trying to be facetious in my descriptions. That is how some churches seem to operate. It’s why some preachers resort to unnatural diction and fear mongering.

One night my mom asked me to come with her to attend a service with that kind of preacher. The night I attended was teen night, which means that teenagers around town were invited to the church for a night of free pizza and games. As payment, the teenagers had to sit through one sermon. Just one. That’s not asking so much, not when free pizza is involved, right?!

The guest speaker started in a friendly manner, but his tone began to change as he spoke of hell. He started to yell. No one would tolerate that tone in a normal conversation, but in some church settings it is acceptable. In response, one of the teens got up and left. The church leaders positioned deacons to guard the doors after he left. I was happy he escaped. I would have joined him, but that would have embarrassed my mom.

An alternative to the off/on theology involves seeing salvation as an on-going process. It goes something like this: The Spirit of God is whispering to us in an indiscernible language, from when we are born, nudging us toward union with the divine, toward harmony within a moral universe, toward our ultimate destinies, but the other side is there too, trying to lead us away from that destiny.   Each step toward union or toward rebellion shapes who we become, and the most important day of our lives is the day we die when we face the consequences of our choices.

Winter landscape – Casper David Friedrich, 1811

 

In this arrangement, the emphasis is on the moment-by-moment fellowship with, or search for, the Spirit of God, and so showing others how to gracefully navigate through the difficulties they are facing, or helping them get unstuck from past trauma, is more important than ensuring that they say the right prayer.

It’s true, Christian theology maintains that Christ’s sacrifice made union with God possible. It is just that some Christian traditions place more emphasis on the importance of knowing the name than others.

To illustrate by way of example, here in the United States we have certain freedoms because brave men and women died fighting for them. You do not need to know the names of these people to recognize the gift you’ve been given.

Furthermore, you can choose to squander that gift by enslaving yourself to cat videos and other questionable pursuits, or you can choose to take full advantage of the opportunities before you and strive to make something of yourself. Learning about leaders like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln might help you appreciate your freedoms, but that is not absolutely necessary for you to be free.

C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia are in keeping with this tradition. Aslan tells the children throughout the series that he is known by many names, but the important thing is to know how to follow after him when he comes. Interestingly enough, Christ himself did not beg his followers to remember his name at all costs. Instead, he tells them to “become like children” if they wish to enter the kingdom of heaven. To phrase it in a more modern way we might say, “remember the innocence you once knew before you were corrupted into what you’ve become if you want to enjoy union with God.”

The Concert – Marc Chagall, 1957

 

In this cosmology, hell is more about the separation from God than about physical anguish. As C. S. Lewis explains, “the doors of hell are locked from the inside.” The idea here is that someone chooses to move away from fellowship for one reason or another. Gollum makes that choice after being consumed with desire for the one ring and for the power it brings him. Annie Collins-Nielsen in What Dreams May Come makes that choice after being overwhelmed with grief for the loss of someone she loved.

Let’s take a moment to elaborate on that. Gollum’s descent into a hellish existence is one that we can readily understand; The thirst for power is something that we recognize as having a corrupting influence. Why might excessive grief lead to hell, though? Isn’t it appropriate to mourn the loss of our loved ones?

It is, but even appropriate grief can sour into something ugly if it becomes all consuming and distracts attention from a relationship with God. In the film, Annie is so distraught by loss that she would rather live alone in a twisted, hellish world than live in relationship with others and face  the vulnerability and potential heartache that comes with doing so.

Garden of Earthly Delights, detail – Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1480 – 1505

 

Let me give another example in context of religion that might help to get the idea across. Have you ever been to a church service where you felt out of place? It happens to me more than I care to admit, and it is a terrible feeling. I think to myself, “I don’t fit in even here, even in a place where friendliness is encouraged and where fellowship has the utmost significance? To hell with this. I am never coming back.”

Sometimes I will stay away from church for weeks when that happens. Sometimes though the positive influence of a friend or a loved one will bring me back sooner, will give me reason to try again. Come to think of it, that’s not all that different from What Dreams May Come.

Without delving into all the sectarian differences between one Christian denomination and another, we can understand some of the key variations by simply understanding the difference between the off/on theology mentioned earlier and the relationship-oriented theology that we’re discussing now.

Obviously I have a preference for churches that are relationship oriented, but those can have their shortcomings too. The focus there sometimes becomes about encouraging community at all costs, to the point where services become substance-free, entertainment-driven comforts. 

It’s partly a generational thing, a macrocosm of shifts in parenting styles.

The World-War-II generation faced some difficult things, and many of them rose to the challenges of their times, leading historians like Tom Brokaw to dub them the Greatest Generation. No doubt influenced by the difficulties faced by their parents, that generation was forged in households with strict discipline.

When soldiers returned from the war, they wanted to enjoy a more comfortable existence. This is understandable, considering the horrors that were enduring during battle.  Homes were purchased in the suburbs as were automobiles and swimming pools, and so the consumer culture of the 1950s came into prominence.

Along with a desire to provide more material comforts grew the inclination to be more permissive as parents. This mentality was exemplified by people like Dr. Benjamin Spock whose bestselling book Baby and Childcare  advocated a softer, less authoritarian approach to parenting. Again, parents remembered past difficulties, in this case their own strict upbringings, and wanted to offer something better for their children.

Similarly, the upcoming generation of church leaders remembered the sometimes unpleasant, overbearing services that result from off/on theology and reacted against that.

Consequently, modern relationship-oriented churches are less likely to feature screaming ministers and hellfire-and-brimstone sermons, but they are also less inclined to take a stand on important issues. I have been to a few modern churches, and I don’t remember ever hearing sermons addressing pornography, abortion, digital piracy, living within ones means, the importance of a good work ethic, or civility in public discourse.

The Third of May 1808 – Francisco Goya, 1814

 

These are big problems our society faces, but modern churches, like modern parents, prefer to avoid confrontation in the name of community, and so my generation has grown up entitled, bratty, and not very tough. I’m not saying that churches should take on every difficult issue out there. Sometimes it is wise to leave some things unsaid, and there is a time and a place for everything, but if a pastor never says anything that anyone might find disagreeable, then there is no leadership there.

“You guys, we really need to help those orphans in Africa.” Yes. It’s true, but we need other things too, and a spine is needed to get them.

It is telling that one of the best cases I’ve read against porn comes not from a church sermon but from this blog post on the Art of Manliness. Similarly, the best quote I’ve discovered against digital piracy doesn’t come from a minister but from Steve Jobs who once said, “From the earliest days of Apple I realized that we thrived when we created intellectual property. If people copied or stole our software we’d be out of business. If it weren’t protected there’d be no incentive for us to make new software or product designs. If protection of intellectual property begins to disappear, creative companies will disappear or never get started. But there’s a simpler reason: it’s wrong to steal. It hurts other people, and it hurts your own character.”

To the permissive churches who only want to discuss love and community I ask, if a friend was about to overdose on heroin, how loving would it be to accept him for who he is and watch in silence as he dies? I wouldn’t want friends like that.

In Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean pleads with his dad to “stand up for me.” I want a church that will stand up for me and my generation. Our society is dying. The pornographers, the phonies, and the bureaucrats are winning. We need to find a new moral clarity or our civilization will not long endure. In the colonial days, moral clarity started in the churches and then spread to the statesmen and then the people at large. That led to the Declaration of Independence. It can happen again.

Lamentation of Christ – Giotto, c. 1304 – 1306

 

Moral clarity is a tricky thing though. I will elaborate:

There is a common fallacy that assumes that the significance of the message is somehow related to the status of the person giving it. Celebrities, for example, are deemed to have value for one reason or another, and because of that value, their comments on topical matters become newsworthy regardless of how asinine the comments may be.

Dennis Rodman is a skilled basketball player, but his background in no way suggests that he is qualified to assess the risk posed by North Korea after one meeting with the country’s leader. That did not prevent him from commenting. Nor did it prevent the media from covering his comments as if they were somehow significant.

While we will accept messages of questionable merit from those with higher status, we are hesitant to accept even deep, transformative insights from those who do not at least match our status in some way. Here are some examples of how that plays out, “She is too fat to know anything about relationships.” “I have more money and more Twitter followers than he does.” “He isn’t enough of an intellectual.” “I’m cooler than she is.”  And so on.

These examples might seem petty, but they pose real barriers to those trying to influence the behavior of others. A wide range of people from all kinds of socioeconomic backgrounds go to church, so the difference in status can pose substantial resistance to someone’s participation within the community or acceptance of any given message.

Creation of Adam – Michaelangelo Buonaroti, 1511

 

As I mentioned earlier, an ideal church should amplify goodness, but reality tends to be less than ideal. Everyone has shortcomings and struggles, even those who go to church, but that is quickly forgotten when perfection is expected. Think of the pastor who serves his congregation for years but commits adultery in a moment of weakness. He might have spoken for years with moral clarity, but with one bad decision he obliterates his status as a spiritual leader and calls to question the moral clarity of anything he ever said.

That’s not to say that it is fair, just that it happens. We can still recognize the value in the sentiments expressed in the Declaration of Independence, even though its author, Thomas Jefferson, owned slaved. Why should it be otherwise with church?

I suppose now would be an appropriate time to confess that I had a few too many drinks last night and masterbated before going to sleep. The purpose of that was to give myself a compelling reason not to finish writing this. I figured that would be a sufficient deterrent, since I cannot write honestly while trying to hide vices. I did not anticipate writing this paragraph though.

After some deliberation I have chosen to include this personal information because it feels like I should and because my honesty might be of some use to others who have experienced similar struggles.

While I spend much time writing about issues of character, I do not yet consider myself to be a good man. Someday I’d like to be, but there are still struggles, and I don’t always do the right thing. In my defense I will say that I was better at living virtuously until recent heartaches destabilized my world once again.

Not that I buy into astrology entirely, but Geminis are said to have heightened, but warring, spiritual and earthy sides, and that description could work as a short, makeshift bio for me. There’s a Biffy Clyro’s song “God & Satan” that relates.  The song begins, “I talk to God as much as I talk to Satan ’cause I want to hear both sides.” All of us hear both sides, but we choose which side to heed, and it isn’t always the good side.

Michaelangelo Buonarroti – Jacopino del Conte, c. 1535

 

That said, it is a disservice to the faith to pretend that anyone who discusses religious matters has no shades of gray in his soul, but that is exactly what contemporary “Christian” art tends to do. Most  Christian bookstore that I’ve visited don’t carry books like William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, or Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov but are filled with treacly sentiments and comforting images of Christ. That’s a tragedy.

Not only are these books some of the best pieces of literature that our civilization has ever produced, but they are rigorously Christian in outlook. The only problem is that these books also depict vice in detailed, sometimes troubling, ways and involve complexity and moral ambiguities. That is too unsettling to Christian communities who take solace in believing that people’s capacities for good and evil correlate exactly with their participation, or lack thereof, in the church.

For similar reasons Christian bookstores don’t tend to sell Martin Scorsese’s films or Johnny Cash’s records, although Christianity is an important aspect in the work of both artists. I’m generalizing here. I’ve read some brave and insightful Christian books and enjoyed hearing some contemporary Christian bands, but comfort seems to be the default preference for many of those bookstores, and that’s a problem.

It seems more realistic to acknowledge the close proximity of vice and virtue in matters of faith. In the history book The Age of Faith, Will & Ariel Durant recount stories of knights who would do horrible things before going on religious quests. Even the apostle Paul admits to having a conflicted nature: “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” Romans 7:19 (KJV) Pretending that it is otherwise just makes the faith seem less authentic.

I had an inclination that I should write this post, that it was something that was asked of me. That’s why I am writing, but I am wary of doing so. Rarely does listening to what is asked of me make my life easier. Lately it has brought lots of heartache, but I sense that it will lead to something good eventually if I can persist long enough. Time will tell.

Complicating matters, I also have a strong inclination not to write this post, to do anything possible to avoid it. That struggle of opposing inclinations is at the heart of any spiritual endeavor, it seems. In the words of the renowned philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, “faith overcometh the world by overcoming every instant the enemy within him.”

 

Skeletons Fighting Over a Pickled Herring – James Ensor, 1891

 

If such conflict rages in the heart of just one person, how much more potent must be the conflict to control the destiny of any given church?

There are spiritual forces at work in the world, for good and for ill, and I’ve experienced the influence of both. Sometimes I will have a sense to call a friend, and after calling I discover that he went through a difficult breakup or that she was robbed just a day ago. Other times though I will get information about the best way to manipulate someone. If my heart is not in the right place, then I am swayed by the dark side more easily, but being in fellowship with other good-hearted people helps me to stay the course.

Saturn Devouring His Son – Francisco Goya, 1819-1823

 

Demons and other servants of the dark lord surely realize the potential good that any church can do, so it stands to reason that they would have elaborate strategies in place for corrupting that potential. Building a church is a team effort, one that cannot prevail if enough of its members stand in the way of its destiny.

It’s sort of like the New York Knicks. If Carmelo Anthony is the only one scoring points, then the team will only get so far. I believed, and still believe, that the Knicks had a chance to win the championship this year if everyone had done what was asked of him, but everyone did not do what was asked. Some did the opposite of what was asked, disrupting the destiny at hand in various ways.

When that happens in regards to a church, the consequences can be much more severe than a lost championship. A better analogy might be a marriage. If one person is doing everything he or she can to make the relationship work, but the other person consistently obstructs those efforts, then a marriage can only last so long.

Sometimes even a flippant sexual joke in a moment when intimacy is needed can ruin everything. I’ve seen relationships crumble and churches falter for smaller reasons. Be vigilant with your heart. Your destiny and that of others may depend on it.

The Last Supper – Tintoretto, 1594

 

A few church communities have excluded or mocked me in scarring ways, but I still go to church on occasion. I still try to make things work. To quote from the Varieties of Religious Experience once again, I go “because the best fruits of religious experience are the best things that history has to show. They have always been esteemed so.”

I would like to be a good man someday. That would be an admirable thing to be, and maybe church will help me get there.

Even more compelling to me is that the people I know who have the happiest marriages are people of faith who are active participants of the churches they attend. Watching them I am reminded of what it looks like to live with joy and affection. I had forgotten.

It’s like that song from the Mountain Goats:

I used to live here
I used to live here
I used to live here
I used to live here

Sainte Chapelle, Paris. Photo crédit: Didier B

 

It takes me a little longer to write the kinds of posts I prefer to write, and sometimes my schedule gets complicated, so I can’t promise to have new posts available on a consistent schedule. That’s why I encourage you to sign up by email. You can do that by clicking here.

If you’re following along by  email, you’ll know right away when I have a new post waiting for you.  It is very easy to unsubscribe, and you won’t receive anything unrelated to my blog.

Lastly, if you appreciate my writing, why not write a comment or share the post with a friend? It would encourage me to keep sharing some of my heart with you.

As always, thanks for reading and God bless.

A Very Merry (Un)Birthday to you Mr. Shakespeare!

Depending on when you read this, today is the birthday or close to the birthday of William Shakespeare. Technically this was supposed to be ready on the 23rd, but I was late in finishing it. I was deliberating over an ending, truth be told. However, there are some discrepancies about the actual birth date, so let’s not make much ado about nothing, or a missed deadline in this case.

 

A birthday is as good of a time as any to explore the work of the world’s most influential writer, but there’s no way that I can do the Bard justice in just one blog post. Instead I will focus on a few distinctive qualities that are meaningful to me as a jumping off point for your own explorations.

Shakespeare’s world is so vast that no one who studies it intently will walk away with the same impressions. A general will see something different than a poet, a mother, or a slave. In that spirit, I’m not offering you a definitive guide. It’s just my own personal interpretation.

While I am not a Shakespearean expert in the vein of someone like Harold Bloom, I have spent some time studying Shakespeare’s plays and seeing them performed. I’ve been blessed to see a live performance by the Royal Shakespeare Company and to visit London’s Globe Theatre and the recreated Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia.

I’ve also done some theater work that involved Shakespeare, most notably I played a part in Othello for a local theater company in Virginia. Also, the first screenplay I ever wrote happened after I saw a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and met a certain girl, so Shakespeare has been an important part of my life for several reasons.

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing – William Blake, 1786

 

I have worked hard to distill Shakespeare into a reasonably brief (“reasonably” being the operative word!) blog post that is entertaining and informative. If I succeed in doing that, would you agree to comment, say thanks, or share this with others?

Whenever I find value in something, I look for ways to show appreciation. Sometimes that means paying for a valuable service or product, but if there is no cost involved, then I might take a moment to say thanks or to share my thoughts. Can you commit to do the same? If you can, I would be grateful!

With that said, let’s get on with it. Once more unto the breach, dear friends!

William Shakespeare’s birthday has been traditionally placed on April 23rd, 1564, but some intellectuals have called to question the exact date of his birth. They site discrepancies in the Gregorian calendar as justification for disputing the long established historical tradition that placed Shakespeare’s birth on the 23rd.

By doing so they avoid acknowledging the once unquestioned bit of trivia that Shakespeare died on the same day in which he was born, April 23rd, which happens to be St. George’s day. That St. George is the patron saint of England adds some significance to the birth date in question, much to the annoyance, it can be presumed, of the very intellectuals who dispute the date.

There is something symmetrical about a birth and death that happen on the same day, a day that has special meaning to the nation into which our person of interest was born, and any self respecting intellectual knows that there is nothing particularly symmetrical about life, excluding of course, the phenomenon known as the Circle of Life, a key concept that has been sufficiently demonstrated, to the satisfaction of most intellectuals, in Disney’s The Lion King.

Celestial Map – S. L. Hegrad, 1783

 

As Sir Elton John beautifully conveyed in his sweeping ballad, the Circle of Life “moves us all,” or as Shakespeare might say, “the wheel is come full circle.”

But, Elton John’s Circle, while beautiful, is not likely to come up in many Shakespearean discussions, so let us not dwell on it too long. However, the film from which the song is derived is widely understood to be an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. So, as you can see, even a seemingly arbitrary Disney song is at least tangentially related to the topic at hand, the topic being the wide and wondrous world of William Shakespeare.

While the exact date of Shakespeare’s birth is still being debated, no one questions that Shakespeare died on April 23rd, 1616. Say what you will, but the year 1616 does have a certain symmetrical je ne sais quoi, right?

Regardless of whether Shakespeare died on the same day as his birth, we can say with certainty that Shakespeare died on the same day as another notable historical figure. His is the visage that children around the world paint to celebrate the coming of spring, at least so Google would have you believe.

That man, as you must have guessed, is Cesar Chavez, a left-wing activist who died on April 23, 1993.  In California, Chavez is influential enough to get several murals painted in his honor along with the above doodle which was featured on the Google homepage on March 31, 2013. Elsewhere on that very day, others chose to celebrate the coming of spring in a somewhat different manner:

 

Now, it is very strange that Bing would display painted eggs on Cesar Chavez Day. Those eggs do look nice, but they don’t look like any Cesar Chavez mural that I’ve ever seen! I say give them a C+ for effort, or you know, C for Cesar Chavez, because his name starts with a …

Right then.

What a brave new world in which one of the world’s most influential companies can ignore a holiday celebrated by millions to acknowledge a semi-obscure Californian activist.

Shakespeare, for one, did not shy away from spiritual matters. His plays are filled with prayers to heaven, prophecies, ghosts, magic, reflections on the afterlife, confessions, and conversations about good and evil. That is not to say that Shakespeare used his plays to sermonize, just that he refused to sterilize religion out of his work.

Then again, Shakespeare did live a few hundred years ago. How relevant could his work really be in these modern times? Well, let’s take a look.

You would be hard pressed to find any reputable university that doesn’t have a dedicated Shakespearean scholar or two, and there is a Shakespeare Society in all kinds of places including Southern Africa and China. Hmm. OK, but then China has everything these days. Let us examine further.

Shakespeare’s stories have been re-imagined as a gang rivalry in New York (West Side Story), A Broadway-bound musical (Kiss Me Kate), a sci-fi adventure in outer space (Forbidden Planet), a modern dramatization of French Revolutionary ideals (Three Colors: Red), and a couple of samurai pictures from Akira Kurosawa (Ran, Throne of Blood).

 

Throne of Blood – Toho, 1957

 

Earlier I mentioned that Disney’s Lion King is a retelling of Hamlet, but so is The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, a New York Times best sellerThose two stories are about as different in tone as possible while still involving animals and alluding to the Great Dane of Denmark. (The term “Great Dane” in this context is meant to reference King Hamlet and not the admirable canine breed, although the double meaning is at least partly responsible, I suspect, for the admittedly brilliant recasting of Hamlet as a troubled dog-trainer in Wisconsin.)

Nor is Lion King the only Disney film to borrow from the Bard. The treacherous talking parrot in Aladdin is named Iago, an obvious reference to the villain in Othello, but the genie’s yearning for freedom also recalls the spirit Ariel’s same yearning in The Tempest.

We’ve gotten so used to seeing Shakespeare’s plays set in different times and places that we take it for granted, but we don’t see the same kind of fluidity with the works of other great writers. I can’t imagine a production of Oliver Twist set in the world of Haitian voodoo doctors, for example, but that’s exactly the setting that Orson Welles used for his stage version of Macbeth. The critics who saw the production lavished praises on it, which paved the way for Welles to direct Citizen Kane.

Forbidden Planet poster – MGM, 1956

 

William Falkner named his novel The Sound and The Fury from the line in MacbethBand of Brothers comes from a speech in Henry V.

Hamlet is in a league of its own for the titles it inspired. David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest is taken from Hamlet’s speech about Yorick, the court jester who has been dead for 23 years when Hamlet encounters his skull. (Bold text added as update!) Hitchcock also turned to Hamlet for naming ideas and walked away with North by Northwest. The seminal visual-effects film What Dreams May Come also gets its name from Hamlet

We still use words Shakespeare coined like “assassination,” “cold-blooded,” courtship,” “critic,” “frugal,” “lonely,” “madcap,” “moonbeam,” “puking,” “rant,” “worthless,” and  “zany.” He also gave us phrases like “all that glitters isn’t gold,” “remembrance of things past,” “to thine own self be true,” “salad days,” “tower of strength,” “pomp and circumstance,” and “forgone conclusion.”

My youngest sister requested that I also mention Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and how the play gifted Western Civilization with the timeless phrase “it’s all Greek to me.” It is so very witty, you see, to use that phrase when someone is speaking in Greek. Consequently many Greeks who have heard this very phrase while speaking Greek feel an eternal debt of gratitude to the Englishman for that phrase and that phrase alone. I am not one of those Greeks.

Moving right along.

In a prison copy of Shakespeare’s plays at Robben Island prison, Nelson Mandela signed his name next to these lines from Juliet Caesar: “Cowards die many times before their deaths,/ The valiant never taste of death but once.”

Another quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar made its way into the season 6 premiere of Mad Men. Yet another Julius Caesar quote was the inspiration for the title of The Fault in Our Stars, which was TIME Magazine‘s #1 fiction book of 2012.

Shakespeare is a recurring character in The Sandman, Neil Gaiman’s award-winning graphic novel about the keeper of dreams. Woody Allen has attempted a Shakespearean adaption of sorts as has Ingmar Bergman, Roman Polanski, Baz Luhrmann, and Joss Whedon. Notably Joss Whedon chose to do Shakespeare right after his white-hot success from The Avengers, at a time when he could have probably done anything he wanted.

The Sandman: “The Tempest” – DC Comics, 1996

 

Russell Brand, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mel Gibson, Ethan Hawke, Anthony Hopkins, Bill Murray, Ian McKellen, Al Pacino, Natalie Portman, Patrick Stewart, Meryl Streep, and Elizabeth Taylor are a few of the actors who have performed Shakespeare.

Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture back in 1999 and then there’s that Taylor Swift song: “you were Romeo, you were throwing pebbles, and my daddy said stay away from Juliet.” You get the idea.

To paraphrase Clarence the Angel, each man’s life touches so many other lives, but some men touch more lives than others. Can you imagine the awful hole that would be left if Shakespeare did not exist?

There are those who claim that he did not exist, or to be more precise, that Shakespeare the writer as we know him did not exist and that his plays and sonnets were written by others like the Earl of Oxford. This idea was recently popularized in the film Anonymous, an idea that Bill Bryson valiantly assaults in his book Shakespeare: The World as Stage.

I won’t go into the arguments here, but Bryson examines and then mocks all the foolish assumptions necessary to discredit hundreds of years of  recorded history which all points to Shakespeare as the original author. Bryson is better known for writing A Short History of Nearly Everything, so he would probably make a fierce debating adversary. You can debate him on the topic if you wish, but I wouldn’t advise it.

The Oxfordian conspiracy theorists strike me as the Occupy Wall Street protesters of the literary world: driven by envy, they look for opportunities to debase greatness while self-aggrandizing each other.

Speaking of which, Shakespeare lived through the Guy Fawkes rebellion, and Guy Fawkes is a celebrated figure in occupier circles. As a reminder, Guy Fawkes was the Catholic revolutionary who tried to blow up the English Parliament. Nice guy. Suitably heroic for any movement to adopt, right?

Actually Guy Fawkes was mostly reviled throughout history—the English still celebrate the day when he was apprehended—but after Alan Moore referenced him in his graphic novel, V for Vendetta, Guy Fawkes gained a cult following. The graphic novel was adapted into a film, and the Guy Fawkes mask soon became a cultural symbol for protesters to wear when challenging governments or multinational corporations. The irony that each mask sold produces revenue for Time Warner, a powerful multinational corporation, is somehow lost on the occupiers.

 

Guy Fawkes – George Cruikshank, 1840

 

Shakespeare himself was born into a Catholic family when England was moving toward Protestantism, a dangerous differentiation in Elizabethan England. English Catholics were executed along with other enemies of the state for small provocations, and Shakespeare probably suspected that the death of his contemporary Christopher Marlowe involved political intrigue.

In Hamlet there is a scene where the Prince of Denmark stages a play and then watches the reaction of the king to test his guilt. (Shakespeare was doing the play within the play within the play, long before Charlie Kaufman tried it in Synecdoche, New York.) Presumably that scene had special resonance for Shakespeare, who was also in the business of producing plays for kings, queens, and nobles, some of whom were guilty of more crimes than others.

If Wall Street traders learned to watch the briefcase size of (former US Fed Chariman) Alan Greenspan for clues about economic fluctuations ahead, then it stands to reason that Shakespeare too might have learned to watch his theater patrons for clues about their motivations, just like Hamlet, especially if the patrons were powerful enough to have him killed.

The questions about the authenticity of Shakespeare’s prolific output are understandable though. If Shakespeare was able to accomplish all that he did during a turbulent time of transition, and without the help of modern conveniences, what excuses do the rest of us have?

That is not to say that we can all become Shakespeares with enough gumption or with a studious implementation of the laws of attraction. There is only one Shakespeare, and he was given a special gift, one that he refined with diligence and practice, but that does not mean we don’t have our own gifts to discover and refine.

“It is the stars, The stars above us, govern our conditions.” Shakespeare wrote those words in King Lear, but Shakespeare’s own star has come to shine so bright, that it does not require much poetic license to apply the words to Shakespeare himself.

History suggests that at least on some occasions, Shakespeare did consider the influence of the stars on his decisions and not just those of his characters: the opening of his Globe Theatre was delayed until the new moon that came on June 12th, 1599. It was believed to be an auspicious day. I am inclined to agree; The Globe is now the best known theater in the world, and June 12th is also my birthday.

William Shakespeare came into the world just as England desperately needed a strong, unifying culture to counterbalance the internal  strife that came from severing ties to the Catholic church and from the threat of foreign invasions. That made conditions right for Shakespeare’s astronomic assent into the upper echelons of world culture. Whether Shakespeare was born great, achieved greatness or had it thrust upon him, heaven might’ve had a hand in it.

Shakespeare began his career in obscurity as an actor but through some happy coincidences or by the hand of fate, Shakespeare was welcomed as a performer into The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a prominent theatrical company, first as a performer and then as a writer who would produce plays for the company to perform.  Before long, Shakespeare’s plays were being performed in front of crowds that included the nobility and even a king or queen on occasion.

Will Kemp, one of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men

 

At that point, Shakespeare could have contented himself with the decadent comforts that have consumed many a celebrity, but that is not what he did. It’s better when Shakespeare explains, so here’s an appropriate quote from Henry IV Part I, “O gentlemen, the time of life is short; To spend that shortness basely were too long.”

Shakespeare entertained his countrymen, but he also held a mirror up to some of the ugliness in his society and questioned the actions of those in power through veiled attacks. Recognizing as much Queen Elizabeth is said to have declared, “I am Richard II, know ye not that?”

Remarkably Shakespeare produced one of the greatest tragedies of world literature, Hamlet, after the death of his only son Hamnet, who died at the age of 11. As historian Michael Wood suggests in his In Search of Shakespeare series, the death of a child often causes the parents to lose their faith in God or to drown their sorrows with whatever vice is at hand.

Somehow though Shakespeare remained prolific after the tragic loss of his son and then his father, who died in the year when Shakespeare was revising Hamlet.

 Hamlet und Horatio auf dem Friedhof – Eugène Delacroix, 1839

 

Hamlet declares to Horatio that “there is a divinity that shapes our ends,” but the play ends tragically with senseless loss of life, an ending that is possibly influenced by Shakespeare’s own sense of loss. If there is a divinity guiding the fates of Denmark’s denizens, it does not appear to be well intentioned by the end, and Hamlet’s initial speculation that the ghost of his father might be a “goblin damned” seems prescient.

It is a tricky matter to decipher whether the spirits at hand come bearing good or evil intentions. At least that is true enough in my own observations. Have you found it to be otherwise?

Whatever the case may be, the thread of fatalism in Shakespeare’s plays appears strongest in Hamlet, although some critics might point to the speech in Macbeth as a competing example:

Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Remember though, that speech is given by Macbeth after he allowed his ambitions for power to lead him astray. His outlook is bleak because he has tainted his soul by spinning innocent blood. Macbeth has disrupted the natural order of things, and so Macduff must depose the corrupted king to set things right. The similarity in names is not a coincidence. Macduff is everything that Macbeth is not, a just leader and a force for good.

Macduff would not say that life is merely a tale told by idiot with no purpose. He has a sense of purpose that comes from being noble hearted.

The 1971 film adaptation of Macbeth directed by Roman Polanski uses a clever costume detail to get this across:

Let’s go back to Hamlet for comparison. In that play, the title character is not seeking to gain power for himself, but to avenge his dead father, the king. Uncertain about how to proceed after suspecting Claudius of murder, Hamlet spends much time deliberating but finally takes action against a perceived crime. In so doing he brings death to himself and those he cherishes.

Hamlet did try to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but the stars did not align in his favor, so what’s the point of it all, right? Well, the play is subject to multiple interpretations. It helps to see it or read a few times.

Modern audiences are used to watching films like Inception several times in hopes of unravelling the mysteries of a story, and Hamlet set the stage for that kind of storytelling.

How reliable is Hamlet as a narrator after all? Is he merely pretending to be mad to trap Claudius as he tells us, or is his desire for revenge so overwhelming that his madness becomes very real? Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film adaptation of the play suggests that latter.

Also, to what degree do the circumstances at hand cloud Hamlet’s judgments? Hamlet’s mother Gertrude does marry Claudius shortly after Hamlet’s father dies, giving Hamlet reason to question her faithfulness to his father. “Frailty thy name is woman,” Hamlet exclaims when contemplating how quickly Gertrude changed lovers.

Notice that he makes a generalization about all women after suspecting the weakness of just one. Might that explain the motivation behind his callous command to Ophelia to “get thee to a nunnery” shortly after he confesses that he once loved her? Gertrude’s actions in the play might merit derision, but the same cannot be said of Ophelia. Whatever reason Hamlet has for his change of attitude toward her, it is not driven by anything she has done.

Ophelia – John Everett Millais, 1851

 

How certain can we even be that Claudius committed the crime he is accused of committing? The ghost tells us as much, but Hamlet himself acknowledges that a ghost might not be the most reliable of messengers. Later, Hamlet produces the play Mousetrap to test the king’s guilt, and the king reacts in conspicuous manner at a critical moment, but then his reaction might have been due to Hamlet’s unnerving stare. Hamlet does catch Claudius at confession, but then Hamlet might be close to delirium at this point, and Claudius might be merely harboring guilt about marrying his brother’s wife too quickly.

What really happened? I’m not sure. Clearly though Hamlet is not merely acting as a virtuous and impartial agent of justice, but his desire for revenge has tainted his actions to some degree. As the play progresses, notions of justice dissolve into thoughts of revenge. To quote Hamlet himself, “The croaking raven doth bellow for revenge.”

Claudius probably killed one man. Seeking revenge, Hamlet exponentially increases the death toll. He kills his enemy but also himself in the process. That’s a little different than the ending in Django Unchained, is it not? Shakespeare understood revenge fantasies, but he did not celebrate them with reckless exhilaration in the manner of some contemporary storytellers. 

Revisiting Shakespeare’s plays for this post, I was surprised by how often revenge comes up. Along with madness, love, and the rise and fall of those in power, revenge is a major theme. It is at the heart of Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s first tragedy, and it is a driving force in Hamlet, the Merchant of Venice, and the Tempest, but it also shows up in other, less expected ways.

Revenge is also a factor in Twelfth Night, although the zany comic action makes that hard to remember. In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo kills Tybalt to avenge the death of Mercutio, and the death of Tybalt is what dooms the lovers.

Richard III – London Films, 1955

(Laurence Olivier’s performance as Richard III remains unsurpassed.)

 

Shakespeare’s villains also seem to be motivated by vengeance, but that takes some additional explanation. Let us look at a portion of the opening monologue from Richard III, where Richard explains the reason for his villainy:

I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

In other words, Richard laments being born a hunchback and feels that he has been deprived of a happy existence. Against this perceived wrong, he vows to take revenge on others by living as a villain. Aaron the Moor suggests as much in Titus Andronicus with his line, “Aaron will have his soul black like his face.”

Some critics interpret this line as proof of Shakespeare’s racism, that Shakespeare wants us to see Aaron as evil because he is black skinned, but I disagree. It strikes me as Aaron’s way of saying that he was born with black skin, and he was reviled for it, so he is determined to become the villain that others accuse him of being. In Julie Taymor’s production of Titus, Aaron’s face appears scarred from knife wounds, which supports the interpretation that Aaron became a villain to avenge the cruelties inflicted upon him.

Considering the dignity that Shakespeare gives to Othello, another dark skinned Moor, it seems unfair to conclude that Shakespeare was a racist. Yes he plays on stereotypes but then so does every comedy ever made. Do you think Tyler Perry’s Medea films or movies like Boyz n the Hood DON’T play on stereotypes?

Othello is one of the few characters in Shakespeare’s stories who tries to fight off the stereotype that threatens to stifle him. While Othello might be a Moor, he is also a skilled and noble leader. Adding to his appeal, Othello says of his new wife Desdemona, “I do love thee! and when I love thee not, chaos is come again.”

Othello Relating His Adventures to Desdemona – Carl Ludwig Friedrich Becker, 1880

 

Sadly, Othello is undone by the machinations of Iago, a vengeance-minded man who Othello believes to be honest and loyal. The source of Iago’s discontent is not clear, but there are implications that he is impotent and that he was passed over for a promotion. Just like Richard III and Aaron, Iago believes that he has been wronged  and commits to a life of villainy, of taking from others what was taken from him. Like the others, he maintains that commitment even to the point of ruin.

By the play’s end, Iago is condemned to die, but he has succeeded in pulling Othello back into chaos. The once noble Moor has reverted to the stereotype of a black man driven by violent passions. Ashamed when he realizes what he has been manipulated in to doing, Othello calls himself a “circumcised dog” and kills himself.

Tragic, but then that is probably why it is called a tragedy, I suppose.

In previous blog posts, I have noted that the venerable literary critic Harold Bloom does not share my appreciation for Harry Potter, nor does he buy into my interpretation of Oedipus Rex. At this point I have come to expect that any given erudite quote of his will somehow undermine my meticulously crafted theories.

Imagine my surprise then when I came across this Harold Bloom quote, “The most remarkable of Shakespeare’s achievements is that he is the only dramatist that we have in the entire history of Western drama who is equally excellent at comedy and at tragedy,” and the quote goes on, but that will do for now.

I cannot believe it. I agree! Surprisingly, that quote does not in any way undermine anything I have said. How refreshing and unexpected!

Since we have finally established common ground, I would like to respectfully point out to Mr. Bloom that even the distinguished Shakespearean actor Kenneth Branagh has played a part in the epic Harry Potter films. I don’t want to be pushy or anything, but maybe give it another viewing, OK? I hear it looks gorgeous on Blu-ray! Oh, and as it turns out, Shakespeare once lodged with a family on Muggle St., which is interesting because in Harry Potter the non-magical people are known as … Just think about it Bloomie, OK? That’s all I’m asking.

The Stonemason’s Yard – Caneletto, 1725

 

Mr. Bloom brings up a good point though. It is rare for a playwright to excel at both comedy and tragedy. It’s not just a matter of mastering a different technique. Comedies and tragedies involve opposing outlooks. A proper comedy has to end happily, so there is not much room for fatalism or nihilism. That is not to say that a story cannot combine elements of comedy and tragedy. Woody Allen is an example of someone who masterfully blends those two dramatic conventions. 

Ultimately though, storytellers must decide if the conditions and choices in their stories, if not in the universe at large, lead to celebration, union, and merriment or mourning, isolation, and destruction.

Earlier I paraphrased Clarence the Angel, so let me now quote from Frank Capra, the director of the film from which Clarence hails: “Comedy is fulfillment, accomplishment, overcoming.  It is victory over odds, a triumph of good over evil.” Tragedy is the opposite of that.

Michael Wood makes an insightful comment about Shakespeare in the “Lost Years” episode of In Search of Shakespeare that relates to the discussion at hand. He says Shakespeare “had a fabulous, almost chameleon-like ability to empathize with the other, good or bad. It’s not just Juliet or Othello that he’s good at. It’s evil people like Iago and Macbeth.”

While Shakespeare was never a king, he did rise from a bohemian actor to an influential playwright so he could relate to Henry V’s transition from a scoundrel to king. Similarly, while we don’t have any records of Shakespeare killing anyone, we can imagine that he would have faced some persecution growing up in a Catholic family when England was transitioning to Protestantism and that like Richard he might have wished, at one point, to be born into different circumstances.

Barring official confirmation from Shakespeare after we leave this mortal coil, we’ll never know which parts of his stories were based on his own experiences and which parts were entirely imagined. From the thematic vacillations of his stories though, it does seem as if he struggled for most of his life to determine whether the human experience was one of ultimate tragedy or comedy.

He would even vacillate within a play, leaving the audience uncertain about the kind of story they were experiencing until end. Take Romeo and Juliet for example. The star-crossed lovers die, but then he ends the story on a hopeful note: The prince chastises the warring families by saying, “See what a scourge is laid upon your hate, that heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.” To which the Capulet leader responds, “O brother Montague, give me thy hand”: the fighting between the families has ended, but the young lovers had to die for that to happen.

Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet does not get the same kind of critical esteem as Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 adaptation, but it does a better job of conveying Shakespeare’s fluid transitions from comedy to tragedy and back in the confines of a single play. Interesting too is the Christian symbolism in Luhrmann’s production, symbolism that you’d have to be asleep to miss. That seems to be a strange stylistic choice at first, but then there is something inherently Christian about a love that brings reconciliation in the dying.

Romeo + Juliet, 20th Century Fox, 1996

 

If Google did a version of Romeo and Juliet for one of their YouTube channels, I imagine that it would be plastered with Cesar Chavez murals! But then, why do Shakespeare when you can monetize more cat videos, right Google? Well OK, Google also hosts some of my videos, so they aren’t all that bad, but I’d like them more if they didn’t act like California hipsters all the time. They are based in California though, so therein lies the rub. Expanding the office in NY would be a step in the right direction, Google.

Now let’s get back to comedy and tragedy.

The Merchant of Venice is considered a comedy, but Shylock the Jew is a ruined man by the end, so there are some tragic elements involved. That is not because Shakespeare was an anti-Semite, folks. Shakespeare lived during an age when anti-Semitism was rampant, but with Shylock as with Othello, Shakespeare works to undercut, not to inflame, the stereotypes.

I have to admit that while Henry V is the Shakespearean character I most admire, Shylock is the character with whom I can most relate. He is certainly Shakespeare’s most sympathetic villain, if he can even be classified as a villain, and The Merchant of Venice adaptation with Al Pacino is Shylock at his most sympathetic, which makes Shylock’s villainy even more debatable.

This is Shylock’s best known speech:

“If it will feed nothing else,
it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison
us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.”

Who can’t relate to that. I know I can.

I consider myself to be a person of faith, but the people who have made my life the most miserable have been other people of faith and seeming idealists. To be frank I’d prefer to do business with those who aren’t overly religious or dogmatic. If others are competent and capable of calculating that it is in their best interest to deal fairly with me, then there is less of a chance that I will get screwed in the name of Jesus.

Oh, I have been screwed in the name of Jesus, let me tell you. When I was younger and not strong enough to defend myself, religious kids laughed at me, excluded me, and threw things at me. The religious kids who did not harass me were content to stand by and watch with amusement. While defending me might have been charitable it would most certainly have eroded the coveted social status of the bystanders, and one does not throw away social status, not for mere charity. Everyone knows that.

Nor have I found that religious organizations are filled with people who are significantly friendlier and more considerate than their secular counterparts. There are some exceptions of course, and I have met a number of seemingly decent religious people, but then I have also met a number of seemingly decent secular people as well.

For the sake of the discussion, allow me to offer another story. A few years ago, a religious girl had requested that I do a glamour shoot with her, not as paid work, mind you, but as a gesture of kind-hearted charity. I agreed since it would be a chance to get a few interesting portfolio pieces.

I exchanged several emails with her and sent some reference photos to make sure that we were both on the same page. On the day of the shoot, I rented some lights and did exactly what we had discussed, imitating to a T the photos that we referenced, but she became tyrannical during the shoot and then refused to let me publish any of the photos. Nor did she think it was appropriate to pay me for my time or for the equipment that I had rented. Prior to that incident, she was the girl in my life who was most inclined to tell me that I should go to church more often. I haven’t spoken to her since.

I could give you more stories like that, but I won’t. I too have my flaws, but then I do not spend much time telling others how to live. I’m still trying to get my own life right.

I try not to dwell on past hurts, but they still come to surface from time to time. If an opportunity for revenge were to present itself I don’t know how I would react. I hope that I would do the right thing, but that is easier to do in theory than in practice.

Nativity – Piero Della Francesca, 1470

 

Going back to Merchant of Venice, Shylock has lived as an outcast and been condemned as a usurer for most his life, so his desire for revenge is understandable.

(In the Renaissance, a usurer was anyone who charged interest on lended money. This seems strange to us since our modern financial system is built upon the premise that borrowing and lending money involves interest. Back then, money was understood by the Church as another resource meant to be shared with those in need, and interest rates were seen as an interference to a just distribution of goods.)

In the play Shylock makes a legally binding arrangement with Antonio. Shylock will lend Antonio 3000 ducats, but if he is not paid back in time then Shylock will be entitled to a pound of flesh from Antonio. When Antonio loses some of his ships at sea, Shylock insists on being repaid in flesh, even though fulfilling the agreement would kill Antonio. As far as the law is concerned, Shylock is fully justified in his demands.

Merchant of Venice – Sony Pictures, 2004

 

Before we look at what happens next, let’s go back to a similar setup in Titus Andronicus. In that play Tamara, Queen of the Goths, and her sons have been captured by Titus, a powerful Roman general. Titus lost several sons in battle, and so by Roman tradition he is entitled to sacrifice the oldest son of an enemy.  Tamara begs him to be merciful, but he doesn’t listen. To paraphrase the words of a younger Al Pacino, “It’s not personal Tamara. It’s strictly business.”

A blood bath ensues. After her son is sacrificed, Tamara is hell-bent on revenge. She has her sons rape and amputate Titus’s daughter. Titus responds by killing Tamara’s two remaining sons and feeds Tamara a pie baked from their flesh. Just like in Hamlet, almost everyone dies in the end.

Titus – Fox Searchlight, 1999

 

Titus Andronicus is such a violent play that many critics consider it inferior to other Shakespearean plays.I see it as Shakespeare’s first attempt to resolve an internal struggle, one that continues through to Merchant of Venice. Shylock has a decision to make, much like that of Titus Andronicus, but this time something changes.

Enter Portia.

Portia is the love interest of Bassanio, and he had asked Antonio for money to woo her. That is why Antonio made the deal with Shylock.

Many suitors come to Portia’s home hoping to win her heart, but as stipulated by her father’s will, she will only marry the suitor who picks the right casket. There are three caskets to choose from, each made of a different material: gold, silver, and lead.

The correct  one is the lead casket, and it bears the inscription, “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.” It is worth mentioning that according to the traditions of the time, lead was the material that alchemists would turn to gold. In other words, true love has the same effect as the alchemist’s magic.

From the beginning of the play, Portia is set up as a reward for choosing wisely. The payoff for that comes when Portia, in disguise,  gives Shylock a choice in her famous courtroom speech:

“The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.”

In spite of Portia’s plea, Shylock chooses justice over mercy. This forces Portia to declare that Shylock is entitled to a pound of flesh but not one drop of blood. Dejected Shylock leaves the courtroom a defeated man.

In contrast, Bassanio chooses wisely, as demonstrated by his selection of the lead casket back in Belmont. He chose true love and that allowed for grace and for happily ever after for him and his friends.

Portia and Shylock – Thomas Sully, 1835

 

And so, love disrupts the cycle of revenge. That theme resounds again in The Tempest, widely believed to be the last play that Shakespeare wrote by himself. (The Two Noble Kinsmen possibly came later but that was a collaborative effort between Shakespeare and John Fletcher.)

In The Tempest, Prospero causes a storm that shipwrecks certain designated travelers and brings them to a magic island. That sounds familiar. Where oh where, have I heard that story? Was it one of those reality TV shows? Maybe Survivor? I don’t know.

Anyway, Prospero is determined to get revenge, but then he changes his mind, partly due to the growing love between his daughter Miranda and Ferdinand, the Prince of Naples.

“The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance,” Prospero concludes. With that he sets things right and then breaks his staff, often interpreted as Shakespeare’s way of saying goodbye to the magic that he created with his pen. This time the one seeking revenge doesn’t have to be stopped by someone else. Prospero himself changes his mind.

Once again love turns a potential tragedy into a comedy, at least in the fictional world, but sometimes reality is stranger than fiction. 

Shakespeare’s will famously left his wife Anne Hathaway the “second-best bed with the furniture.” There are lots of theories about this. There is even a book entitled The Second Best Bed. It has 137 pages. 

 

I checked out that book from the library, but I will not be reading it. Who has time to read 137 pages about a dead man’s will?

I just wanted to photograph it for you, so that you will know that such a book exists. That being said, if you take interest in that book and read it as a direct result of this post, then I’d love to hear your thoughts! I’ll buy the tea and crumpets for our discussion.

Some scholars have suggested that the children of a family would get the best items by tradition, so it would be understood that the best bed would not go to Anne. Others like Michael Wood argue that the best bed might have come from Anne Hathaway’s family, and so it might not have been Shakepeare’s bed to give away.

I’d like to think that there was something special about the phrase that only Anne would appreciate, much like how the lead casket in Merchant of Venice seems undesirable until you understand its significance. The interpretations that see Sonnet 145 as a love letter to Anne give some support to that belief. (“Hate away” is similar to in pronunciation to “Hathaway” and the line “And saved my life” sounds the same as saying “Anne saved my life.”)

The Last Kiss of Romeo and Juliet – Francesco Hayez, 1823

 

So did Shakespeare’s life end as a comedy or a tragedy? It’s hard to say for certain.

Harold Bloom believes that Hamlet is the play that best embodies the “internal truths about the human conditions” which suggests that human life is essentially tragic, even that of Shakespeare’s, but what if it doesn’t have to be?

Much like students of Shakespeare’s work, Harold Crick, the main character in Stranger than Fiction, spends considerable time debating whether the story he inhabits will end as a comedy or a tragedy. (Fun fact: Dr. Hilbert devises 23 questions to help Harold make the determination. That’s a veiled reference to Hilbert’s 23 problems, a list of 23 unsolved mathematical problems published by David Hilbert back in 1902.)  The literary figures in that film want a tragedy for artistic reasons, but Harold has his own ideas, and in the end it comes down to the choices that he makes, just as it does for all of us.

Speaking of choices, there is one more Shakespeare reference that I did not mention in the beginning. In Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2, the Cullens look to Shakepeare’s Merchant of Venice for clues about what to do regarding the impending war between the werewolves and vampires. Guess whose name is on that book? Why that would be our pal Harold Bloom!

Bloomie, if you have an exclusive deal with the Twilight franchise that prevents you from also supporting Harry Potter, then you should have just said so!  I promise to buy a poster to support your film but only if you agree to sign it with an encouraging line or two. How about something like, “The Circle of Life moves us all. All’s Well That Ends Well. Forever.”

 

It takes me a little longer to write the kinds of posts I prefer to write, and sometimes my schedule gets complicated, so I can’t promise to have new posts available on a consistent schedule. That’s why I encourage you to sign up by email. You can do that by clicking here.

If you’re following along by  email, you’ll know right away when I have a new post waiting for you.  It is very easy to unsubscribe, and you won’t receive anything unrelated to my blog.

Lastly, if you appreciate my writing, why not write a comment or share the post with a friend? It would encourage me to keep sharing some of my heart with you.

As always, thanks for reading and God bless.