Sunday, April 4, 2010

World Without End

Today is Easter. It's an old holiday, older than Christianity--the pagan feast honored Ostara, the goddess of spring. Ancient peoples needed to celebrate spring, because winters were hard, and usually one emerged from them having lost a lot. Children born in winter often didn't make it, old people (and for much of history, a person my age was considered old) relinquished their fragile hold on life, and farmers whose fall harvest hadn't measured up to expectations often starved. Things are different now, but we're still grateful when the ice melts. In spring, we celebrate what remains, and begin again. New lambs, new growth, new possibilities.

Passover celebrates this, too. Those who were spared the wrath of God, and of the elements.

But Easter is a Christian holiday, and that's what I wanted to write about today. If you've been reading this blog with any regularity, you'll have ascertained that I've read my Bible, and I've studied religious history. I'm not a theologian, but I am a medievalist, which is sort of like a watered-down religious historian. I've said little about my own faith here, and I'm not going to start now, because I'm a contemplative sort--more Mary than Martha, if you remember that story--and I believe that faith grows best in the quiet places of the human heart.

But I do want to think, and write, about how Shakespeare understands Christianity. Christians come off pretty poorly in The Merchant of Venice, as I've discussed. But I don't think that means Will was anti-Christian, or a secularist. Yes, the Venetian Christians are hypocrites, and they don't practice what they preach. Those of us who grew up Catholic are confronted daily with this spiritual dissonance. About the scandals that are once again shaking the moral foundation of the Vatican, I will say--or rather quote--only this:

But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
Matthew 18:6.

I think we're going to need quite a few of those millstones.

But what do the plays tell us about Christianity? In order to address (but not answer) that question, we have to think about death.  Hamlet is perhaps Will's most enduring and explicit meditation on faith, so it's a good place to start. Hamlet worries about death. It cuts into his rationalist world-view and stops time. He's just back from college, full of philosophical rationalizations and scientific questions. He believes in reason.

And then he sees a ghost. Imagine it. You're, say a budding physicist. You believe in what your senses tell you. Empiricism all the way. And then your father dies, and you're wondering about death. What is it? Where do dead people really go? Are we just molecules, or is there something else? You've just about rationalized this whole thing, when...your dead father appears to you, all ghosty-looking and muttering about vengeance. Conjuring up old stories, ancient ideas that you, in your scientific smugness, had dismissed as mere superstition.

There are more things in heaven and earth than are written about in college textbooks. Lots more.

So Hamlet becomes an extended question. Or series of questions. What dreams may come when we've shuffled off this mortal coil? Is sweet religion just a meaningless rhapsody of words?  What does social hierarchy mean when a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar?

In the end, there are no answers. A man's life is no more than to say "one." In the cosmic scheme of things, our lives last as long as one breath. So there isn't enough time for all our questions to be answered. We've gotta just go for it, even without certainty. We have to defy augury--to believe in free will--but also, paradoxically, remember that there's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. We are free, but we are part of a plan, too. It makes no sense rationally, but it's no less true for all that.

In King Lear, Will worries about community. All the best people end up wandering the heath, homeless, while the worst take over the world. Sometimes things seem like that, don't they?  It's a bleak vision, and a paranoid one, too--Lear has trouble distinguishing his own pain from everyone else's.  But mostly it's about hierarchy, and what it means. What is honorable service? What is a ruler? A father? There's a lot of angry misogyny in this play--the evils done by Lear's two wicked daughters are linked to the moral failings of Woman. There's a strong thread of antifeminism in Christianity, and Lear makes a whole world out of it. But there's hope, too, and it's a Christian kind of hope.  Edmund is a character made in the Machiavellian tradition of Richard, or Iago, or Don John. He's a man who proclaims his own desires as his only god. And yet, at the end of his life, he repents. "Some good I mean to do," he says, dying, "despite of mine own nature." 

None of these other evil men--or women--are capable of repentance. It's a radical idea. A Christian idea. The last shall be first.

And then there's that final, sublime image of Lear holding his dead daughter in his arms--a Pieta in reverse. The woman as Christ figure. She won't be resurrected, but he still believes.  "Look on her, look, her lips! Look there!"

We need faith. We need to believe in a world without end. We need the expansiveness of the Venetians, their sense of the limitless--even if they can't measure up to it.  We need to believe in mercy, un(con)strained. Portia is a poor Virgin Mary, and Antonio a flawed Christ figure. They're fallen people in a fallen world. But they're adventurers, risk-takers, believers in the infinite. And you have to admire that, at least.

Today is a beautiful, sunny day in my part of the globe. It's warm, but the air has that cool edge I always associate with spring. My dog is blissed out, running around like a wild thing. There are ducks on my pond, male and female. Some days life is so good, it can't just be an accident.

Happy Easter, Passover, and Ostara.

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