Monday, May 26, 2008

Few people today recognize, and, such are our times, few educators want it known that the plays of Shakespeare teach in their details, themes and story patterns the basic tenets of Judaism and the Noahide mitzvot. Let us clarify our understanding of the redemptive capabilities of these plays and how they can illuminate what those seeking a Godly way can do to discern and live the divine goodness in the Creation.

Aptly for our stormy time when the end of days seems near, when evil is called good, deference and integrity are mocked and "a man's worst enemy is his own household" (his wife), Shakespeare's last play is entitled the Tempest. It is a story of learning and remembering, of learning from books and experience about the limits of relying totally on any human and about applying to the real world what we learn in books to sustain the continuance of holy generations; about unswerving commitment to and love for a child focusing on her proper education and culminating in seeing that child properly married to a spouse who understands that the essence of human happiness is serving one’s nearest and dearest. The Tempest also is about punishment, repentance, forgiveness and the re-integration of a broken social order, about a betrayed scholarly brother who cared so little about power he readily delegated all of it returning to claim his inheritance and to see his beloved daughter find her true king and inherit the gates of those who had stolen her inheritance.

It's about ruling the appetites without destroying them; about recognizing that they are dangerous but essential to a sanctified human life, -- to a humane life; that they are a means of grace and alive to wonder as well as to transgression. It is about a man becoming wise through study and love so as to rule a world and make it like a garden.

Yes, it sounds familiar…

Here’s the story in brief.

The play is set twelve years after the events that created its context. Prospero, originally Duke of Milan, was renowned for his love of study, knowledge of the liberal arts and "betterment of my mind," he recalls. So much did he love his books, a wholesome man living in their tents, that "to my state I grew a stranger" he recalls, and delegated all his authority to his brother, Antonio. This abdication of his inheritance, "awaked in [Antonio] an evil nature" proportionate to Prospero's boundless confidence. After creating his own servants, Antonio has Prospero and his baby daughter, Miranda cast adrift in leaky boats. Only the kindness of a faithful servant, Gonzalo who will not worship power and who gives them food, water "and books that I prize above my life" Prospero tells Miranda, saves father and daughter for a joyous return that includes restoring the humanity to all involved in their lives.

When Miranda asks her father, "how came we hence," to this island, Prospero answers, "by Providence divine." And she asks further, "what foul play was it that we came from thence? Or blessed was it?" That puts the main issue of the adventure of our lives quite astutely. "Both, both, my girl!" answers the father. "By foul play were we heaved thence but blessedly helped hither" (1.2.60-3). The Tempest like nearly all of Shakespeare's plays is a story of exile and return, of the effort to bring good out of evil, to find the most redemptive way to right wrongs, to motivate the sinner to return to goodness, service, awe and joy.
Above all, Prospero bids and helps his daughter to remember who she is and they are. The injunction to "remember" rings through the play like an echo of Tanach: for "the hour’s now come. The very moment bids thee open thy ear…'T'is time." And to seize the appointed time for redemption also is the refrain of Prospero's struggle and collaboration with his spirit, Ariel who, left to his own will would seek unstructured freedom without service or purpose: "The time twixt six and now must by us both be spent most preciously" Prospero impresses on him (1.2.241) warning Ariel that he will not brook a rupture of their covenant, not now especially.

In Shakespeare's plays every character from the lowest to the highest, from kings and queens to anonymous peasants are brought to moments of choice that test their potential for allegiance and justice, that define their character and degree of suffering, nobility or repentance. So is it in the Tempest whose tight scope has many different personalities and an ongoing demonstration about the nature and limits of authority which never in Shakespeare is merely about social rank. Just as in Tanach, with which he clearly was familiar, one has to know when to say 'no' to a ruler who has broken the bonds that keep us human. Dignity and character result from free will and responsibility to choose wisely based on an understanding of one’s core obligations.

The play ends with the reintegration of society, the betrothal of the beloved daughter to a worthy king, the return of the exiled to their inheritance, a general feeling of wonder that is "like a dream" for all but one, the evil brother whose envy seems fixed, irredeemable: Antonio, he is Esau… But the end of the end is the re-telling of the story amid wonder and joy that implants the reality of miracles in every one’s mind; it is like the Haggada, and the telling continues after the play, in private so to speak, in an extended day of rest, an eighth day like Shemini Atzeret when the epitome of joy is extracted for the original family who will reflect it to the redeemed usurpers, -- hope for our day: az Edmon, b'tzeil tzalmon..."

As he implements his wisdom in a marriage celebration that quickly turns to disarm the various kinds of wickedness, using weapons and remonstrance appropriate to each, Prospero demonstrates that he is "one whose works exceed his wisdom" and thus, "his wisdom will endure" in the renewed and expanded kingdom his applied wisdom has won (Pirke Avot 2:2, 3:12). Had Shakespeare given King Lear an epilogue to show an aged Edgar (note the Hebrew correlative, etgar, "challenge") grown to fulfill his "specific service assignment and challenge" we would have seen a man like Prospero, truly sovereign and intact, shaleim.
Via this review of Shakespeare's last play we have briefly re-chartered part of the course for the regeneration of a saving education and discernment in our nation.
Jews and those who honor the laws of Noah have the challenging but saving tasks of bringing humankind back to a sense of awe, conscience, justice, repentance, generosity of spirit and the example of liberating service to the only rules not made by human hands or minds. The happy aspect of this work is that it makes us more human; and to the extent that we persist others will want to walk by the radiance of our shine. We are not one in the forced unity of a consciousness drowned by slogans, strong drink, lusts or mysticism, there is no cultic rapture or loss of individual consciousness, responsibility or joy; but by sanctifying the daily work and joys of life: restoring the distinctions between private and public, between youth and age, man and woman, husband and wife and the centrality of deference and respect; showing how the practical and spiritual always combine in preparing a meal, in reading to children, in defending one's land, in tending a garden or making a marriage bed in joy and happy expectation.

Freedom through following the basic commandments of the Eternal One is the antithesis of the state coercion and slogans of which the modern, progressive world increasingly consists. Our understanding of freedom through the commandments of Torah must be demonstrated with joy and protected with vigilant might until most people acknowledge how sweet they are and share them with us. What a glorious and liberating service this will be, the re-union of Joseph and Judah in the fulfillment of freedom (Leviticus 25).

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September 21, 2012 at 1:07 PM  

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