by David P. Gontar (September 2013)
“Give sorrow words.” – Shakespeare
In approaching anything as vital and significant as Shakespeare's principle of Compassion, a clear grasp of meaning is essential. One finds in his texts such disparate terms as Compassion, sympathy, mercy, pity, heart, charity, pardon, forgiveness, conscience and lenity, all of which carry slightly different connotations. Sorting these out can help in coming to terms with Shakespeare's key principle.
The most ample source of insight into Compassion is Buddhist teaching. Shakespeare's natural proximity to Buddhism has been wonderfully shown in James Howe's A Buddhist's Shakespeare: Affirming Self- Deconstructions. But unlike Richard Wagner, the composer whose familiarity with Compassion derives from Buddhism via the writings of philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, Shakespeare, writing circa 1600, had no access to the wisdom of the far east. It is likely, however, that he did have a copy of the Geneva Bible, which was assiduously studied. This is detailed in the magisterial analysis of Prof. Roger Stritmatter. As dramatist, Shakespeare employed the idea of Compassion in many characters and settings, and with each particular instance its form varied. As a prism breaks pure light into many hues, so the radiance of Compassion is refracted as many subsidiary aspects, depending on the resources and maturity of the individual personality. So is it in the world of our supreme artist, Shakespeare.
What is startling about him is his taxonomic understanding of Compassion in relation to its lesser forms. For an explanation of the distinction between Compassion and other expressions of solicitude, we turn to the writings of Cynthia Wall, an experienced social worker and psychotherapist who has worked extensively with dying patients, their families and friends. Her careful distinction between Compassion and sympathy has implications for both philosophy and psychological counseling.
There is nothing anyone can say to take away pain and fear. There is no magic incantation that reduces suffering. What you can do is listen without judging, and offer your time with no expectation it will make a difference. Your willingness to be genuine and kind is all you have to offer. This is the starting point for acting from Compassion. Although sympathy is a form of caring, it implies pity. We express concern and ask what we can do, yet are grateful their problems are not ours. This perpetuates the fear that we couldn't bear the same situation, and keeps us wanting to avoid the truth of their experience. Compassion is a hard-won state of being. Much more than a feeling, compassion is a choice to view suffering as a universal experience. This means viewing illness, loss, and even death as human experiences that are bearable with support. This helps us remain calm and keeps our hearts open, and we become able to sit with someone in great physical or emotional pain. Compassion bridges the distance between people often created by suffering. This is not comfortable to do, as we must acknowledge their problems might reflect our own future.
Separating from someone's pain protects against feeling overwhelmed and helpless. We are born tenderhearted. The presence of pain or problems engenders the impulse to make things better. This is a child's view of how to be helpful. Our job is to make suffering into an enemy and rail against it. The adult perspective embraces the truth that the best gift we have is a willingness to share in their experience without the defense of sympathy. (Wall, online, no pagination)
1. As You Like It
In a remarkable passage, Shakespeare comments on the problem of suffering and our attitudes towards it. It occurs in As You Like It, when we are introduced to the Old Duke and his compeers in the Forest of Arden, living in the barren woods in inclement circumstances. Rather than being downcast, the Old Duke's mood is grateful, even celebratory.
Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,
The seasons' difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter's wind,
Which when it bites and blows upon my body
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile, and say
'This is no flattery. These are counsellors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.'
Sweet are the uses of adversity
Which, like the toad, ugly and venemous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
(II, i, 1-17)
In this play of Shakespeare's middle period, perhaps more than any other, the stream of Compassion flows in vigorous purity. Suffering is acknowledged by the Old Duke collectively, not papered over, fled or denied. As shared it is endurable. As a sign of our common mortality it is an important lesson.
When young Orlando, bearing the elderly serving man Adam, arrives exhausted in the forest, he goes immediately in search of food for his loyal companion. His first impulse is Compassion; his hunger is significant in representing the hunger of his old friend. Breaking into the place where the Old Duke and his men are gathering for their meal, Orlando, with drawn sword, attempts to extort food.
Art thou thus boldened man, by thy distress?
Or else a rude despiser of good manners,
That in civility thou seem'st so empty?
You touched my vein at first. The thorny point
Of bare distress hath ta'en from me the show
Of smooth civility. Yet am I inland bred,
And know some nurture. But forebear, I say.
He dies that touches any of this fruit
Till I and my affairs are answerèd.
An you will not be answered with reason, I must
What would you have? Your gentleness shall force
More than your force move us to gentleness.
I almost die for food; and let me have it.
Sit down and feed, and welcome to our table.
Speak you so gently? Pardon me, I pray you.
I thought that all things had been savage here,
And therefore put I on the countenance
Of stern commandment. But whate'er you are
That in this desert inaccessible,
Under the shade of melancholy boughs,
Lose and neglect the creeping hours of time,
If ever you have looked on better days,
If ever been where bells have knolled to church,
If ever sat at any good man's feast,
If ever from your eyelids wiped a tear,
And know what 'tis to pity, and be pitied,
Let gentleness my strong enforcement be.
In the which hope I blush, and hide my sword.
True is it that we have seen better days,
And have with holy bell been knolled to church,
And sat at good men's feasts, and wiped our eyes
Of drops that sacred pity hath engendered.
And therefore sit you down in gentleness,
And take upon command what help we have
That to your wanting may be ministered.
Then but forebear your food a little while
Whiles, like a doe, I go to find my fawn
And give it food. There is an old poor man
Who after me hath many a weary step
Limped in pure love. Till he be first sufficed,
Oppressed with two weak evils, age and hunger,
I will not touch a bit.
Go find him out,
And we will nothing waste till you return.
I thank ye; and be blessed for your good comfort! (Exit)
Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy.
The wide and universal theatre
Presents more woeful pageants than the scene
Wherein we play in.
(II, vii, 91-138)
Adam, the aged and faithful servant of Orlando, has given his entire life's savings to the young man to allow him to flee from his abusive elder brother. His kindness to Orlando in his desperate circumstances awakens a corresponding feeling of care in Orlando. When they arrive in the forest, Adam is depleted and famished, and Orlando's first impulse is to find him something to eat. In his conversation with Duke Senior he uses the term 'pity', but what moves all three of these characters, Adam, Orlando and the Duke is not 'pity' but pure Compassion. According to one teacher:
The Buddhist compassion has nothing to do with sentimentality or mere pity. Compassion is often thought of as akin to pity, but whereas pity may be condescending, compassion springs from a sense of equality and interconnectedness of life. Genuine compassion is about empowering others, helping them unlock strength and courage from within their lives in order to overcome their problems. The essence of compassion is empowerment. (Soka Gakkai International, no pagination)
Adam's free gift of money to Orlando, then, is not an act of pity, as it is done out of an unadulterated concern for Orlando's plight, and it enables him to flee. Adam's Compassion empowers the young man. So anxious is Orlando for this old fellow's welfare that if necessary he is willing to steal to alleviate Adam's suffering. As Adam's Compassion for Orlando prompts Compassion in the latter, so does Orlando's Compassion invite the Compassion of Duke Senior for him. One Compassionate deed becomes the first link in a chain of goodness, a circle of merit rippling outward in the ocean of life. The “wide and universal theatre” of which the Duke speaks (II, vii, 136) is the world as it is filled with such suffering as is manifest in Orlando, Adam, as well as in the Duke himself and his woodmen. In fact, it is plain that for both Buddhism and Shakespeare, the field of delusion and suffering (“dukkha”) is coterminous with that of Compassion. The Duke's response to Orlando's sword and threatening demeanor is neither panic nor condescension, but a calm and deliberate Compassion which grants permission to Orlando to succor Adam, empowering Orlando's own sense of moral initiative. In this the Duke is neither emotional nor distancing himself from Orlando's plight.
In later scenes of devolution, involving lesser characters, where nobility and wisdom are conspicuous by their absence, genuine Compassion is supplanted by mere pity — or less. Touchstone's mock sympathy with Corin's ignorance of courtly experience and sophistication is a supercilious and disdainful demeanor. (Act III, sc. ii) Corin's reaction to the hunger of Celia (Aliena) is quite different from the feelings of Orlando and the Old Duke for the want they confront in others; Orlando and the Duke have a Verstehen, an immediate and felt insight into what the victim is undergoing. When Corin says, “Faith sir, I pity her” (II, iv, 74) speaking of Celia, though pity is mentioned, the statement is one of mere fact, not sentiment. The heart is untouched. However, when his own interests are involved, as when he is begging shepherdess Phoebe for her favors, his importunacy (“Sweet Phoebe, pity me”) (III, v, 85) is truly pitiful. Indeed, his fawning over Phoebe, the very abjection of his condition, renders him in Rosalind's eyes undeserving of pity. (IV, iii, 66) Concerned with no one but themselves, Corin and Phoebe appear made for one another. Even the Compassion of Jaques for the deer hunted in the Forest of Arden sets him far above pastoral figures who see in such animals merely a source of venison. (II, i, 21-70) Reading such passages in Shakespeare, then, we learn not to take words at face value. Characters may speak of “Compassion” or “pity,” yet intend something quite different. Nobility of spirit, as exhibited by Orlando, Jaques or Duke Senior, is the sine qua non of Compassion. It is generosity of the soul, a magnanimity which the small of heart cannot afford.
And what of Rosalind? As so many have observed, she transcends all boundaries. Her love of Orlando is like that of Venus for Adonis, a celestial ardor for what is essentially human. Rosalind functions in As You Like It not as a mere mortal, but as a magus, an hermaphroditic heroine, an alchemical chameleon in whom heaven is artlessly camouflaged. She has charged herself with the solving of everyone's problems: she would “make these doubts all even.” (V, iv, 25) She does not attain Compassion so much as manifest it, and in this respect is an image of a playful or wanton Goddess, one who cannot succeed in her terrestrial aims without bearing everyone else along in the process. In that respect, what seems to be mortal Compassion in Rosalind turns out to be the universal Compassion itself, the pulse that throbs in the very depth of things. In describing the Dharma, one scholar observes: “Through meditation we can extend and deepen our own compassion until it transforms into the mind of great compassion — the wish to protect all living beings without exception from their suffering.” (About Dharma — International Kadampa Buddhist Festival) Rosalind is the great Compassion — traveling incognito.
2. King John
Alongside As You Like It as an exemplar of true Compassion must be placed King John, with its poignant pleading of young Arthur. Struggling King John, anxious to cut off all possible rivals for the crown, wants the boy Arthur, Duke of Bretagne, eliminated. For reasons never stated, John commissions Hubert to not only assassinate him but put out his eyes as well, a shocking and gratuitous cruelty. To show his loyalty Hubert seals to this monstrous bargain.
Fate, however, has other things in store. For Arthur accounts Hubert a friend and guardian. When he learns what Hubert is about, his protest rises to the very peak of eloquence and catches Hubert unprepared. Further, as we will see, Arthur himself embodies the very Compassion he would have bestowed on him by Hubert, and in the face of Arthur's own loving kindness Hubert's resolve melts like the flesh he would have liquidated. As the scene opens, Hubert has stationed the assassins behind the arras.
Good morrow, Hubert.
Good morrow, little Prince.
As little prince, having so great a title
To be more prince, as may be. You are sad.
Indeed I have been merrier.
(IV, i, 9-12)
Arthur's recognition of Hubert's distress has immediate impact. It is not a mere perception, but a reaching out, a sign of concern for one with homicide gnawing in a corner of his brain. Hubert concedes he is distressed. The Duke observes that John means him no good, and fancies that he would be safer if he were Hubert's own son, “so you would love me, Hubert.” (IV, i, 24) These guileless words sting, making Hubert question whether he can do what he has pledged to do.
If I talk to him, with his innocent prate
He will awake my mercy, which lies dead;
Therefore I will be sudden, and dispatch.
This micro-soliloquy reveals the mind of the wrong-doer, who has managed to squelch his better self, only to find it re-awakened as he becomes the object of love. The sheep looks to the wolf for protection. But inside the wolf-in-sheep's-clothing is . . . the heart of a sheep. Hubert must proceed or lose the name of action.
Are you sick, Hubert? You look pale today.
In sooth, I would you were a little sick,
That I might sit all night and watch with you.
I warrant I love you more than you do me.
His words do take possession of my bosom.
(IV, i, 28-32)
Here the spark of Compassion is ignited and flies across the gulf, awakening the sleeping love in Hubert, who would quash it before it takes effect. Notice that what is instrumental is the Compassion of the victim.
He shows Arthur a paper
Read here, young Arthur. (Aside) How now: foolish rheum,
Turning dispiteous torture out of doors?
I must be brief, lest resolution drop
Out at mine eyes in tender womanish tears.
(To Arthur) Can you not read it? Is it not fair writ?
(IV, i, 33-37)
Already big, manly Hubert is on the verge of tears. His dastardly courage ebbs, and he hasn't got sufficient conviction to so much as utter his awful intentions. The words would stick in his throat. He shows Arthur the commission instead.
Too fairly, Hubert, for so foul effect.
Must you with hot irons burn out both mine eyes?
Young boy, I must.
And will you?
And I will.
Have you the heart? When your head did but ache
I knit my handkerchief about your brows,
The best I had — a princess wrought it me,
And I did never ask it you again —
And with my hand at midnight held your head,
And like the watchful minutes to the hour
Still and anon cheered up the heavy time,
Saying 'What lack you?' and 'Where lies your grief?'
Or 'What good love may I perform for you?'
Many a poor man's son would have lain still
And ne'er have spoke a loving word to you,
But you at your sick service had a prince.
Nay, you may think my love was crafty love,
And call it cunning. Do, an if you will.
If heaven be pleased that you must use me ill,
Why then you must. Will you put out mine eyes,
These eyes that never did, nor never shall,
So much as frown on you?
I have sworn to do it,
And with hot irons must I burn them out.
Ah, none but in this iron age would do it.
The iron of itself, though red hot,
Approaching near these eyes would drink my tears,
And quench his fiery indignation
Even in the matter of mine innocence;
Nay, after that, consume away in rust,
But for containing fire to harm mine eye.
Are you more stubborn-hard than hammered iron?
An if an angel should have come to me
And told me Hubert should put out mine eyes,
I would not have believed him; no tongue but Hubert's.
(Hubert stamps his foot)
(The Executioners come forth)
Do as I bid you do.
O, save me, Hubert, save me! My eyes are out
Even with the fierce looks of these bloody men.
HUBERT (To the Executioners)
Give me the iron, I say, and bind him here.
(He takes the iron)
Alas, what need you be so boisterous rough?
I will not struggle; I will stand stone-still.
For God's sake, Hubert, let me not be bound.
Nay, hear me, Hubert! Drive these men away,
And I will sit as quiet as a lamb;
I will not stir, nor wince, nor speak a word,
Nor look upon the iron angerly.
Thrust but these men away, and I'll forgive you,
Whatever torment you do put me to.
(IV, i, 38-83)
Here Arthur adds to his love and Compassion a token of forgiveness, causing Hubert to hesitate and send the executioners out. Thus far not one word of panic, rage or hostility has crossed Arthur's lips.
HUBERT (To the Executioners)
Go stand within. Let me alone with him.
(IV, i, 84)
It is at this point that the principle of Compassion breaks into view.
I am best pleased to be from such a deed. (Exeunt Executioners)
Alas, I then have chid away my friend!
He hath a stern look, but a gentle heart.
Let him come back, that his compassion may
Give life to yours.
(IV, i, 85-89)
Arthur, hearing the executioner's revulsion at their assignment, refers to him as his friend, and in a masterstroke of forensic rhetoric, urges Hubert to call the man back to awaken the embers of Compassion which we have already heard Hubert admit are glowing inside him. If Hubert hears this plea, it is only as sounds in air, for he appears deaf to the language of mercy at this point.
Come, boy, prepare yourself.
Is there no remedy?
None but to lose your eyes.
O God, that there were but a mote in yours,
A grain, a dust, a gnat, a wandering hair,
Any annoyance in that precious sense,
Then, feeling what small things are boisterous there,
Your vile intent must needs seem horrible.
Is this your promise? Go to, hold your tongue!
Hubert, the utterance of a brace of tongues
Must needs want pleading for a pair of eyes.
Let me not hold my tongue, let me not, Hubert;
Or, Hubert, if you will, cut out my tongue,
So I may keep mine eyes. O, spare mine eyes,
Though to no use but still to look on you.
Lo, by my troth, the instrument is cold
And would not harm me.
(I, i, 90-104)
Arthur has bought a minute's respite in this, and raises in subtle form the question of who will be blind, Arthur for the loss of his eyes or Hubert, for being blinded to his essential humanity and love. Though he gives no outward indication, Hubert's defenses are crumbling as he recovers his inner vision.
I can heat it, boy.
No, in good sooth: the fire is dead with grief,
Being create for comfort, [not] to be used
In undeserved extremes. See else yourself.
There is no malice in this burning coal;
The breath of heaven hath blown his spirit out,
And strewed repentant ashes on his head.
But with my breath I can revive it, boy.
(IV, i, 104-111)
The argument at this point is not about reviving the iron's heat, but about whether Hubert can jump-start his flagging determination to blind and murder Arthur. Hubert's insistence that he can proceed stands in for actually going forward, signaling the defeat of his misbegotten purpose.
An if you do, you will but make it blush
And glow with shame of your proceedings, Hubert.
Nay, it perchance will sparkle in your eyes,
And like a dog that is compelled to fight,
Snatch at his master that doth tarre him on.
All things that you should use to do me wrong
Deny their office; only you do lack
That mercy which fierce fire and iron extends,
Creatures of note for mercy-lacking uses.
And with this Hubert's valiant campaign to betray his better nature collapses.
Well, see to live. I will not touch thine eye
For all the treasure that thine uncle owes.
Yet am I sworn, and I did purpose, boy,
With this same very iron to burn them out.
O, now you look like Hubert. All this while
You were disguised.
(IV, i, 112-126)
Arthur uses his eyes, preserved by the recovered Compassion of Hubert, to recognize the recovery of Hubert's true self. The part of sadistic brute and servant of dread authority which Hubert tried to play, proves in the end infeasible. In response to the warmth of Arthur, Hubert's inner frigidity melts, as he becomes capable of love once more. His appearance as bloody executioner was just a mask. Sparing Arthur is not without consequences, of course, since he disobeys the dictates of his sovereign. But, ironically, two scenes later, Arthur, weary of his imprisonment at the hands of John, in the garb of a ship boy, leaps from the high walls to hoped-for freedom — and dies. (IV, iii, 1-10)
3. Studies in Contrast: King Lear, King Henry VI, King Richard III
The lesson of Compassion in Shakespeare is taught in both a positive and negative manner. In the comedy As You Like It and in the historically-based King John, Compassion is triumphant — however briefly. But often Shakespeare's realism prevails, as we apprehend the bitter consequences of turning one's back on our natural fellow feeling.
Thus, for example, in King Lear, in a jolting scene (III, vii) that eclipses in emotional impact the mass entertainments of Hollywood horror, Regan, Lear's second daughter and her vicious husband Cornwall, capture the faithful Gloucester, and subject him to interrogation and punishment. One of Cornwall's servants rises in defense of the innocent Gloucester and challenges Cornwall with sword. He is stabbed in the back by Regan. It is interesting to note that Edmond the bastard son of Gloucester is in the company of Cornwall, and abandons his natural and loving father to the extremities which Cornwall declares he will inflict on this man. “The revenges we are bound to take upon your traitorous father are not fit for your beholding.” (III, vii, 6-7) Cornwall tears out one of Gloucester's eyes and stamps on it, then, after killing the brave servant, attacks Gloucester's remaining eye.
Lest it see more, prevent it. Out, vile jelly!
(He pulls out Gloucester's other eye)
Where is thy lustre now?
All dark and comfortless. Where's my son Edmond?
Edmond, enkindle all the sparks of nature
To quite this horrid act.
Out, treacherous villain!
Thou call'st on him that hates thee. It was he
That made the overture of thy treasons to us,
Who is too good to pity thee.
O, my follies! Then Edgar was abused.
Kind gods, forgive me that, and prosper him!
REGAN (to Servants)
Go thrust him out at gates, and let him smell
His way to Dover.
(III, vii, 81-92)
In this nightmare scenario there are no sprouts of kindness anywhere to take root and give benefit of shelter. No form of pity can survive this desert of hate and malice. Regan and Cornwall, being morally sightless, put out the eyes of poor deluded Gloucester, who could not see the resentment burning in the eyes of his illegitimate son. And yet, even in this hell of darkness, Gloucester now sees for the first time the harm he has done, and begs the gods for forgiveness, which is, after all, the Compassion which the victim may bestow on the aggressor. The gods in this tragedy are resolutely silent. Like Hubert in King John, Gloucester in Lear finds again his moral vision. Later, in scene five, Edgar in disguise as a peasant, leads Gloucester to what he supposes is the cliff at Dover where the blind man plans to commit suicide. Edgar allows his father to leap on level ground, believing erroneously that he is throwing himself off the steep cliff to his death. Blind father and son driven into fits of madness enter a space of ironic amity, as Gloucester picks himself up after his attempted suicide. “Henceforth,” says the blind and exhausted father to the son he has yet to recognize, “I'll bear affliction till it do cry out itself 'Enough, enough,' and die.” (IV, v, 75-77) As Edgar privately forgives his beloved father, Gloucester finds a way to live — and forgive himself.
b) King Henry VI
Unlike young Arthur in King John, young Rutland in King Henry VI Part Three (Act I, sc. iii) fails to obtain clemency from an enraged Clifford on the field of battle. Why? Because in the previous segment of the trilogy, Clifford's father is killed by the Duke of York. His lifeless body is then discovered by Young Clifford.
Shame and confusion, all is on the rout!
Fear frames disorder, and disorder wounds
Where it should guard. O, war, thou son off hell,
Whom angry heavens do make their minister,
Throw in the frozen bosoms of our part
Hot coals of vengeance! Let no soldier fly!
He that is truly dedicate to war
Hath no self-love; nor he that loves himself
Hath not essentially, but by circumstance,
The name of valour.
(He sees his father's body)
O, let the vile world end,
And the premisèd flames of the last day
Knit earth and heaven together.
Now let the general trumpet blow his blast,
Particularities and petty sounds
To cease! Wast thou ordainèd, dear father,
To lose thy youth in peace, and to achieve
The silver livery of advisèd age,
And in thy reverence and thy chair-days, thus
To die in ruffian battle? Even at this sight
My heart is turned to stone, and while 'tis mine
It shall be stony. York not our old men spares;
No more will I their babes. Tears virginal
Shall be to me even as the dew to fire,
And beauty that the tyrant oft reclaims
Shall to my flaming wrath be oil and flax.
Henceforth I will not have to do with pity.
Meet I an infant of the house of York,
Into as many gobbets will I cut it
As wild Medea young Absyrtus did.
In cruelty will I seek out my fame.
(He takes his father's body up on his back)
As did Aeneas old Anchises bear,
So bear I thee upon my manly shoulders.
But then Aeneas bare a living load,
Nothing so heavy as these woes of mine
(Part Two, V, iii, 31-65)
Young Clifford is perhaps the most aggressive of the Lancastrian warriors. He must actually be restrained by Queen Margaret when he would take on the wounded York. (King Henry VI, Part Three, I, iv, 52-54) Whether Henry's claim to the throne be strong or weak means nothing to Clifford; once the clarion call to war has been sound, it is for Clifford a fight to the death. (Part Three, I, i, 160-163) He is used to upbraiding the King himself for lack of forwardness:
My gracious liege, this is too much lenity
And harmful pity must be laid aside.
To whom do lions cast their gentle looks?
Not to the beast that would usurp their den.
(II, ii, 9-12)
Indeed, one may grasp Clifford by setting him beside that earlier Shakespearean warrior, Hotspur. Hotspur fights for honor and glory, Clifford for vengeance and victory. Hotspur is married, and enjoys tender moments with his wife. Clifford seems without a tender bone in his body. We may suppose, then, that even if York had not slain his father, and even if Clifford had not sworn a solemn oath to give no quarter on the field of battle, confronted by the spectacle of helpless Rutland, Clifford would have killed him. But the Clifford who meets young Rutland is in the grip of a hellish rage, and set on the unchecked slaughter of all who oppose him. Any last possibility of relenting has been wiped away by York's slaying of his father. And that is why, though Arthur's words captivate Hubert, to relentless Clifford the pleadings of young Rutland only send the flames of hate higher and hotter.
How now — is he dead already?
Or is it fear that makes him close his eyes?
I'll open them.
So looks the pent-up lion o'er the wretch
That trembles under his devouring paws,
And so he walks, insulting o'er his prey,
And so he comes to rend his limbs asunder.
Ah, gentle Clifford, kill me with thy sword
And not with such a cruel threat'ning look.
Sweet Clifford, hear me speak before I die.
I am too mean a subject for thy wrath.
Be thou revenged on men, and let me live.
In vain thou speak'st, poor boy. My father's blood
Hath stopped the passage where thy words should enter.
Then let my father's blood open it again.
He is a man, and, Clifford, cope with him.
Had I brethren here, their lives and thine
Were not revenge sufficient for me.
No — if I digged up thy forefathers' graves,
And hung their rotten coffins up in chains,
It could not slake mine ire nor ease my heart.
The sight of any of the house of York
Is as a fury to torment my soul.
And till I root out their accursèd line,
And leave not one alive, I live in Hell.
O. let me pray before I take my death.
[Kneeling] To thee I pray; sweet Clifford, pity me.
Such pity as my rapier's point affords.
I never did thee harm — why wilt thou slay me?
The father hath.
But 'twas ere I was born.
Thou hast one son — for his sake pity me,
Lest in revenge thereof, sith God is just,
He be as miserably slain as I.
Ah, let me live in prison all my days,
And when I give occasion of offence,
Then let me die, for now thou hast no cause.
No cause? Thy father slew my father, therefore die.
(He stabs him)
Dii faciant laudis summa sit ista tuae. (He dies)
Plantagenet — I come, Plantagenet!
And this thy son's blood cleaving to my blade
Shall rust upon my weapon till thy blood,
Congealed with this, do make me wipe off both.
(Part Three, I, iii, 10-52)
Further difficulties are created here for the victim, young Rutland, which were not present in Hubert's case. Hubert and Arthur had been friends, and Arthur had cared for him during an illness. But Clifford and Rutland stand on either side of an abyss in the War of the Roses, and the only thing their families have in common is hate for one another. The entire history sequence beginning with the Woodstock manuscript and King Richard II and running through King Richard III is designed to show how the injustices of one generation are passed down successively in a spiral of social disintegration that leads logically to chaos and anarchy. Such deterioration makes less possible the development and expression of any charitable impulse, and history spins out of control as Yeats attempted to illustrate in his poem The Second Coming. The sort of Compassion we see still at work in King John is a far scarcer commodity by the time we reach the end of the War of the Roses and the onset of Tudor England. Though the claim to the throne of Henry Tudor was negligible, England seized on him in the hope that he might put an end to the confusion that was bringing England low.
c) King Richard III
Despite being dubbed a 'tragedy', and for all its sanguinary mayhem, King Richard III is a dark comedy. Its larger-than-life protagonist is so deliciously awful, so willing to make of us his accomplices in crime, that we go along for the laughs, just to thrill in the Joker's shadow. Yet, in the midst of all the horror-flick humor, we can detect, if we are attentive, the ever-beating heart of Compassion. It is always present. On reflection we discover that despite the brutality and bombast, Shakespeare manages to instill in us, almost in spite of ourselves, the lesson of what we are to one another and what we might be.
Can a man dedicate himself to wholesale evil and feel no guilt, no remorse? Only if he has no conception of what guilt and evil are, certainly not a fair description of premeditated Gloucester. He may keep the wretchedness of his deeds five fathoms deep, but they linger within, as morally radioactive as Chernobyl. Brilliant self-deception is an essential part of Richard's shtick. It is demonstrated on a cruder level by the goons he sends to the Tower to murder his brother Clarence. Amusingly enough, one of them turns out to be a hit man with a heart. By putting Richard's subtle bad faith in the mouths of less devious and sophisticated knaves, Shakespeare illuminates with uncanny insight Richard's own impossible duplicity.
What, shall I stab him as he sleeps?
No, he'll say 'twas done cowardly, when he wakes.
Why, he shall never wake until the great judgment day.
Why, then he'll say we stabbed him sleeping.
The urging of that word 'judgment' hath bred a kind of remorse in me.
What, art thou afraid?
Not to kill him, having a warrant, but to be damned for killing him, from the which no warrant can defend me.
I thought thou hadst been resolute.
So I am — to let him live.
I'll back to the Duke of Gloucester [Richard] and tell him so.
Nay, I pray thee. Stay a little. I hope this passionate humour of mine will change.
It was wont to hold me but while one tells twenty.
[He counts to twenty]
How dost thou feel thyself now?
Some certain dregs of conscience are yet within me.
Remember our reward, when the deed's done.
'Swounds, he dies. I had forgot the reward.
Where's thy conscience now?
O, in the Duke of Gloucester's purse.
When he opens his purse to give us our reward, thy conscience flies out.
'Tis no matter. Let it go. There's few or none will entertain it.
What if it come to thee again?
I'll not meddle with it. It makes a man a coward. A man cannot steal but
it accuseth him. A man cannot swear but it checks him. A man cannot lie
with his neighbor's wife but it detects him. 'Tis a blushing, shamefaced spirit,
that mutinies in a man's bosom. It fills a man with obstacles. It made me
once restore a purse of gold that by chance I found. It beggars any man that
keeps it. It is turned out of towns and cities for a dangerous thing, and every
man that means to live well endeavors to trust to himself and live without it.
'Swounds, 'tis even now at my elbow, persuading me not to kill the duke.
Take the devil in thy mind, and believe him not: he would insinuate with thee
but to make thee sigh.
I am strong framed; he cannot prevail with me.
Spoke like a tall man that respects thy reputation. Come, shall we work?
(I, iv, 97-141)
After Clarence is killed by these desperadoes, the Second Murderer's qualms return, and he openly repents what he has done, rejecting the fee to be paid by Richard. (I, iv, 271-273) Even amongst hard-bitten felons, then, the natural feelings for our fellow human beings arise, as Shakespeare shows us here. But their sense of deep wrong is externalized by them as an independent and inexpedient force requiring courage to overcome, an irony depicted with magnificent realism and pathos. These bungling assassins have no conception of Compassion, and seem not particularly acquainted with related ideas such as mercy or pity. They do understand that human beings are afflicted with a psychic appendage called “conscience,” which is forever interfering in the natural and convenient course of life. For a man to allow such an ethical animus to get the better of him and so deprive him of the fruits of living is proof of folly and failure. Shakespeare's point is more subtle than this, however, as these grooms are symbols of Richard's own dissembling mind. Like them, Richard thinks of virtue as a tap he can turn off and on at will.
It is in King Henry VI, Part Three that we are introduced to the mature Richard of Gloucester and his manner of thinking. Descanting on his own deformity he draws a strange inference: he will be a bad person.
And am I then a man to be beloved?
O, monstrous fault, to harbour such a thought!
Then, since this earth affords no joy to me
But to command. to check, to o'erbear such
As are of better person than myself,
I'll make my heaven to dream upon the crown,
And whiles I live, t'account this world but hell,
Until my misshaped trunk that bears this head
Be round impalèd with a glorious crown.
(King Henry VI, Part Three, III, ii, 165-171)
Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,
And cry 'Content!' to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions.
I'll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall;
I'll slay more gazers than the basilisk;
I'll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slyly than Ulysses could,
And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.
I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I'll pluck it down.
(III, ii, 182-195)
In other words, he will so manipulate his own feelings, so deceive himself, that he will become absurd, a caricature of a human being, one who can smother his actual feelings to be a monster of malice, an imp of ill intention. But this is impossible. The ghosts which visit him on the eve of Bosworth Field, observes Marjorie Garber, are Richard's “embodied guilt.” (Garber, 156) They presage the breakdown of the man who thought he could play not upon others, but upon himself, like a pipe, to achieve his desires. In the end the giddy laughter evaporates. And his last thought, so revealingly, is of the Compassion he had banished from his heart. “Conscience,” the very bugbear that so vexed Richard's hirelings, returns at last, but now so toxic that it singes the apprehensive mind.
What do I fear? Myself? There's none else by.
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.
Then fly! What, from myself? Great reason. Why?
Lest I revenge. Myself upon myself?
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O, no, alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself.
I am a villain. Yet I lie: I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well. — Fool, do not flatter.
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Perjury, perjury in the high'st degree!
Murder, stern murder, in the dir'st degree!
All several sins, all used in each degree,
Throng to the bar, crying all, 'Guilty, guilty!
I shall despair. There is no creature loves me,
And if i die no soul will pity me.
Nay, wherefore should they? — Since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself.
(King Richard III, V, v, 134-157)
4. Compassion in The Tempest
At the beginning of The Tempest we witness a shipwreck, just as though we clung to the deck of the foundering barque, overhearing the cries and prayers of passengers and crew. The scene then shifts to shore, where Miranda pleads with her magician father Prospero to spare these poor voyagers.
If by your art, my dearest father, you have
Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.
The sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch,
But that the sea, mounting to th' welkin's cheek,
Dashes the fire out. O, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer! A brave vessel,
Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her,
Dashed all to pieces! O, the cry did knock
Against my very heart! Poor souls, they perished.
Had I been any god of power, I would
Have sunk the sea within the earth, or ere
It should the good ship so have swallowed and
The fraughting souls within her.
(I, ii, 1-13)
Wipe thou thine eyes; have comfort.
The direful spectacle of the wreck, which touched
The very virtue of compassion in thee,
I have with such provision in mine art
So safely ordered that there is no soul —
No, not so much perdition as an hair
Betid to any creature in the vessel,
Which thou heards't cry, which thou saw'st sink.
(I, ii, 25-32)
Shakespeare is deliberate in his craft. He illustrates vividly the principle, defines it, and gives us its name, a term appearing fourteen times in his oeuvre. It is the very fulcrum of his thinking and his teaching. To take on the suffering of others as one's own is goodness itself, running like a golden thread through Shakespeare's poetry.
His choice of trope is also deliberate, for he thereby means to distinguish his teaching from the philosophies of Stoicism and Epicureanism, both of which condemn sympathy and compassion.
Compare Lucretius, in his famous classic, De Rerum Natura.
Suave magni maro turbantibus aequora ventis
e terra magnum alteris spectare laborum;
non quia vexari quemquast jucunda voluptas,
sed quibus ipse malis careas quia cemere suave est.
(Book II, line 1)
Rendered in English by Mr. William Ellery Leonard, this is:
'Tis sweet, when, down the mighty main,
The winds from the land
Roll up its waste of waters,
To watch another's labouring anguish far,
Not that we joyously delight that man
Should be thus smitten, but because 'tis sweet
To mark what evils we ourselves be spared.
(De Rerum Natura, Project Gutenberg, Book II)
Here is the identical metaphor, but employed by Shakespeare to an opposed purpose and effect. When Lucretius stands on the cliff and descries the storm-tossed ship splitting on the reefs, the victims crying for their lives, he takes delight that he is spared, experiencing the calm of ataraxia. To cultivate pity or sympathy in the soul, as does Miranda, would be irrational and contrary to plain sense, as it would cause us suffering to no good effect. The position of Stoicism was much the same, captured in the word “Stoa,” which referred to those porches on which the philosophers gathered in Athens to converse and gaze at the cavalcade of untutored misery in the streets, a misery which could not touch their refined spirits. Christianity, with its more humane concept of the universality of suffering, taken on by God himself, prevailed historically, and reached Shakespeare in the form of the Geneva Bible. (Stritmatter, 101)
Although Prospero shows Miranda what emotion she experiences, he himself at the outset of the play is not wholly given over to compassion, as he still smarts from the ill done him by his brother and collaborators, who robbed him of his Dukedom and abandoned him and his infant girl to the hazards of the deep. Yet he is keenly aware of the ideal — and in the end he achieves it, forgiving those who had caused him so much hurt. Prospero is fortunate that he has so pure and genial a spirit from whom he can gain wisdom.
Your charm so strongly works 'em
That if you now beheld them your affections
Would become tender.
Dost thou think so, spirit?
Mine would, sir, were I human.
And mine shall.
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply
Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?
Though with their wrongs I am struck to th' quick,
Yet with my nobler reason 'gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance. They being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further. Go release them, Ariel.
My charms I'll break, their senses I'll restore,
And they shall be themselves.
(V, i, 17-32)
The difference between Shakespeare and the ancients, then, is not merely emotional. It has to do with reason itself. The context of reason for Epicurus and Epictetus is self and self alone. How can we carve out for ourselves a life of peace and contentment? Placing aesthetic distance between us and the unruly passions of the world, we come to know the serenity of the gods, models of what we wish to be. That seems the very pith of reason. And yet, do not those others suffer as I do? Am I more important than my neighbor? What species of rationality would answer in the affirmative? Man outside of society is either a beast or a god, said Aristotle, knowing we are certainly not gods. Shakespeare clearly saw that Epicureanism/Stoicism fails not through inefficacious methodology, but for being unable to resolve the tension arising when others are recognized only in terms of their insignificance. Julius Caesar represents, among other things, Shakespeare's critique of Roman philosophy, an intellectual creed not well suited for persons thrust into a world of inner and outer embroilments. Those we would spurn turn out to be parts of ourselves, as Caesar's ghost turns out to be the worser aspect of Brutus. (IV, ii, 333) Dasein ist Mitsein, says Heidegger. After their quarrel on the eve of battle, Cassius and Brutus make amends — or try to. Their wobbling friendship reflects the utterly ambiguous status of friendship itself in Stoicism, a sterner and more austere philosophy of consolation than its predecessor, Epicureanism. Consider Brutus. As Stoic he is solus ipse. Yet he professes the “general good.” In fact, he is a feather blown by the breezes of his own ambition. The Stoic thinkers rejected friendship as a virtue, and much of his unhappiness can be traced to his games of one-upmanship with colleagues Cassius, Casca, Caesar, Antony, et al. Exhausted from squabbling with Cassius, Brutus hides his face in his hands:
O, Cassius, I am sick of many griefs.
To which his partner responds:
Of your philosophy you make no use,
If you give place to accidental evils.
(IV, ii, 196-198)
Of course, it was never possible for Brutus to have been a thoroughgoing Stoic, enmeshed as he was in skullduggery and infighting. As a human being with barely grasped feelings, he could not insulate himself with “reason.” Shakespeare shows us in this play the dark side of Stoicism: callous indifference to the plights of others. After all, Rome was the city that entertained itself by watching people slaughtered in novel ways in the Coliseum. No wonder it was supplanted by Christianity, with its emphasis on caritas. Epicureanism and Stoicism were indeed “noble vices.”
At the conclusion of The Tempest, god-like Prospero is still learning humility. Though he does forgive those who trespassed against him, there is still a burr in his soul. Something eats away at him, as Brutus was kept awake at night by his intrigues. As we are applauding and gathering our things to leave the theatre, we look up and see the weary magus himself step from behind the curtain as the Epilogue. What could he want? Everyone falls silent to listen.
Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own,
Which is most faint. Now 'tis true
I must be here confined by you
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got,
And pardoned the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;
And my ending is despair
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so, that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
Though he has forgiven, Prospero still wants forgiveness for himself. He has terrorized the sea travelers. Though he has manumitted them, Prospero originally enslaved Ariel and Caliban, aspects of himself, perhaps, and was an overbearing and manipulative father, afraid to allow Miranda to chart her own course in life. His great powers are buried, not bequeathed to her. What passed between him and Sycorax we shall never know. The genius of the play is that it offers us, the audience, the opportunity to enter the action, to practice the compassion to which we were introduced at the beginning. Do we not see something of ourselves in this still befuddled egotist, stripped of his gear before us? Letting him hear the sound of our Compassion is the least we can do.
Finally, it may be observed that what Prospero calls “compassion” in the response of Miranda to the shipwreck would probably be better denominated “pity.” As the victims are beyond succor or communication and their particular harms and feelings unknown, she cannot embrace them in any meaningful way. Further, she has a sense of guilt which arises from (1) the contrast between her safety and their harrowing condition, and (2) her suspicion that the ship was capsized on account of her own father's actions. Her identification with the suffering she saw is therefore incomplete and strained, and her exclamations overly demonstrative. There is just a touch of condescension and theatricality in her expression more typical of pity than pure compassion. Yet the scene is a most eloquent one which leaves an indelible mark on the audience, and serves as an implicit critique of Roman indifference.
5. Titus Andronicus
That very Roman indifference and its consequences is explored at length in Titus Andronicus. When victorious Titus returns to Rome with soldier sons and barbarian captives in tow he is given the hero's welcome to which he has become accustomed. After opening the family crypt to receive more of his soldier sons slain in his service, Titus listens to Lucius's request that he be permitted to make a sacrifice to the gods of one of the defeated Goths, Alarbus.
Give us the proudest prisoner of the Goths,
That we may hew his limbs and on a pile
Ad manes fratrum sacrifice his flesh
Before this earthly prison of their bones,
That so the shadows be not unappeased,
Nor we disturbed with prodigies on earth.
(I, i, 96-101)
To Titus's approval of this cruelty, Tamora, Queen of the Goths, protests.
Stay, Roman brethren! Gracious conquerer,
Victorious Titus, rue the tears I shed —
A mother's tears in passion for her son —
And if thy sons were ever dear to thee,
O, think my son to be as dear to me!
Sufficeth not that we are brought to Rome
To beautify thy triumphs, and return
Captive to thee and to thy Roman yoke;
But must my sons be slaughtered in the streets
For valiant doings in their country's cause?
O, if to fight for king and commonweal
Were piety in thine, it is in these.
Andronicus, stain not thy tomb with blood.
Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods?
Draw near them then in being merciful
Sweet mercy is nobility's true badge.
Thrice-noble Titus, spare my first-born son.
(I, i, 104-120)
See, lord and father, how we have performed
Our Roman rites. Alarbus' limbs are lopped
And entrails feed the sacrificing fire,
Whose smoke like incense doth perfume the sky.
Remaineth naught but to inter our brethren
And with loud 'larums welcome them to Rome.
(I, i, 142-147)
During the course of this long and violent play so many calamities fall on Titus' head it is easy to see him as a figure of suffering Job, forgetting that his willingness to make a spectacle of Alarbus' dismemberment is the very summoning of Nemesis. To adopt a better biblical metaphor, Titus is the Samson who pulls the roof down on himself as well as his enemies. Think of Odysseus, who after he has put out the eye of the Cyclops, in response to that Titan's cry to know the perpetrator of this deed, shouts from the safety of his ship that it was he who did it. This boast leads swiftly to the revenge of Neptune and a host of troubles. Odysseus had his victory; he didn't need to sing advertisements for himself at just that moment. In the case of Titus Andronicus, his cruelty to Alarbus is his act of hubris. He already had his northern triumph. Why should more blood be shed, more agony endured? As King Richard III observes above, our viciousness is ultimately viciousness against ourselves. Outrage begets outrage. Soon enough Tamora has become the wife of Roman Emperor Saturninus, and is plotting with her surviving sons for revenge on Titus. Prompted by Goth ally Aaron the moor, Chiron and Demetrius lay a trap for Bassianus and his betrothed, Lavinia, only daughter of Titus. After Bassanius is stabbed to death by them, his body thrown into an ugly forest pit, they turn their attention to Lavinia, for rape and an unspeakable dismemberment which echoes the brutish hacking of Alabus' limbs. Now it is the Andronicus clan's turn to bid for Compassion.
O, Tamora, thou bearest a woman's face —
I will not hear her speak. Away with her!
Sweet lords, entreat her hear me but a word.
DEMETRIUS (To Tamora)
Listen, fair madam, let it be your glory
To see her tears, but be your heart to them
As unrelenting flint to drops of rain.
When did the tiger's young ones teach the dam?
O, do not learn her wrath! She taught it thee.
The milk thou sucked'st from her did turn to marble,
Even at thy teat thou hadst thy tryanny.
Yet every mother brreeds not sons alike.
(To Chiron) Do thou entreat her show a woman's pity.
What, wouldst thou have me prove myself a bastard?
'Tis true. the raven doth not hatch a lark.
Yet I have heard — O, could I find it now —
The lion, moved to pity, did endure
To have his princely paws pared all away.
Some say that ravens foster forlorn children
The whilst their own birds famish in their nests.
O, be to me, though thy hard heart say no,
Nothing so kind, but something pitiful.
I know not what she means. Away with her!
O, let me teach thee for my father's sake,
That gave thee life when well he might have slain
Be not obdurate, open thy deaf ears.
Hadst thou in person ne'er offended me
Even for his sake am I pitiless.
Remember, boys, I poured forth tears in vain
To save your brother from the sacrifice,
But fierce Andronicus would not relent.
Therefore away with her, and use her as you will —
The worse to her, the better loved of me.
(II, iii, 136-167)
Lavinia forgets not only her father's savagery in allowing Tamora's son to be hideously sacrificed, but also the words of derision and contempt she directed to Tamora when, a few minutes earlier, she and Bassianus discovered Tamora's tryst with Aaron the Moor. How could she be so obtuse? She knew quite well on entering the forest that Tamora was now a queen of power in Rome and still grieving over her eldest son's public slaughter in streets. What could have possessed her as she hurled insults at Tamora? (II, iii, 66-71; 80-84; 86-87) Her thoughtlessness mimicked that of her father, Titus. Seeing her in her ravished and amputated condition, Titus goes entirely berserk, yet still projects responsibility for all his family's suffering on Tamora and sons, Saturninus, and Aaron. Of course these people are themselves a clan of sadistic felons, but the wrong Titus imposes on them is a red flag in front of the wrong bull. And, by the way, might we dare to ask what the armies of Rome were doing in the land of the Goths in the first place? Was not Rome an ever-expanding behemoth entrenching on the lands of simpler peoples? Had they no right to defend themselves in their own home?
The madness of Titus is provoked in part by the presence within him of loving impulses which are suppressed by his outward aggression. He has spent a lifetime as a killing machine, but has not yet quite killed the spirit of Compassion in himself. How does such a one love and receive love? That is his dilemma. And so one day it all tumbles out in the open. The Andronicus family is at their table having dinner when his brother Marcus strikes at a fly with his knife.
What dost thou strike at, Marcus, with thy knife?
At that I have killed, my lord — a fly.
Out on thee, murderer! Thou kill'st my heart.
Mine eyes are cloyed with view of tyranny.
A deed of death done on the innocent
Becomes not Titus' brother. Get thee gone.
I see thou art not for my company.
Alas, my lord, I have but killed a fly.
'But'? How if that fly had a father, brother?
How would he hang his slender gilded wings
And buss lamenting dirges in the air!
Poor harmless fly,
That with his pretty buzzing melody
Came here to make us merry — and thou hast killed him!
Pardon me, sir, it was a black ill-favoured fly,
Like to the Empress' Moor. Therefore I killed him.
O, O, O!
Then pardon me for reprehending thee,
For thou hast done a charitable deed.
Give me thy knife. I will insult on him,
Flattering myself as if it were the Moor
Come hither purposely to poison me.
(He takes a knife and strikes)
There's for thyself, and that's for Tamora. Ah, sirrah!
Yet I think we are not brought so low
But that between us we can kill a fly
That comes in likeness of a coal-black Moor.
(III, ii, 52-77)
Out of hearing, Marcus laments:
Alas, poor man! Grief has so wrought on him
He takes false shadows for true substances.
(III, ii, 78-79)
What is learned in this remarkable passage? Compassion for Shakespeare lies close to the ens realissimum. It is not something on which we turn our backs without consequences. Titus, a career homicide and now victim of a vendetta managed by Aaron, has gone so far as to slay one of his own sons, Mutius, who had the audacity to oppose him. (I, i, 285-290) The negative energy exuded by Rome and channeled by Titus circulates throughout the city and returns to Titus as Nemesis. This is figured in the mangled body of Lavinia which awakens Titus' sleeping sympathy and draws from him streams of tears. That sympathy aroused and active within him is unfamiliar and uncontrolled, and as such is part of the nervous breakdown he is suffering. He is sick of the sea of bloody violence and, alas, more awaits him. In this distraught condition he reacts to the killing of a fly by Marcus. Regarded by his brother as a symptom of lunacy, Titus' response to the fly's death may be understood as the awakening of Compassion within him, akin, for example, to the lamentations of Jaques in As You Like It for the deer hunted in the Forest of Arden. The life of Titus functions as the reductio ad absurdum of universal carnage and destruction. That is why Titus laughs earlier when he is confronted with his severed hand and the heads of his two sons brought by messenger from Aaron and Saturninus. And yet he is still resisting Compassion, as a sworn enemy.
Why dost thou laugh? It fits not with this hour.
Why, I have not another tear to shed.
Besides, this sorrow is an enemy,
And would usurp upon my wat'ry eyes
And make them blind with tributary tears.
Then which way shall I find Revenge's cave?
(III, i, 264-269)
When Marcus suggests he killed the fly because it was an image of the dark-hued Aaron, the labile mind of Titus swings in the other direction and he stabs at the dead insect and curses it. Compassion is within him, but in a bleeding form, seeping through his soul like a lymph or rheum, a rising flood which cannot be usefully applied. By chance it alights on a fly. But it does so in a man who will shortly slit the throats of Demetrius and Chiron and grind their bones, using their bodily substances as ingredients in a pie to be consumed by their unknowing mother. Following that act of insanity, the hero of this tragedy will snuff out the life of his own poor daughter as havoc ensues and death embraces all. Through the mayhem we can still discern Shakespeare's philosophy of Compassion, owed by us to all sentient creatures. As we turn against this, we turn against ourselves, the very pith of tragedy. Madness is the last refuge in our hopeless attempt to hide from what we have made of ourselves.
6. A Theological Medley
The universality and ideality of Compassion naturally raises a theological question in Shakespeare: it is a form of what is called today the 'problem of evil', a toy of professional philosophers. For Shakespeare it was a burning coal in the human heart. If the gods are the citadel of all that is holy and good, how is it that they permit us to suffer? When this is taken up it is always as a cry of anguish, not as an abstract puzzle. A few examples will illustrate.
a) Titus Andronicus
Recall that as she pleads with Titus to show mercy to her first-born son, Alarbus, Tamora cites the model of the gods, who embody goodness and restraint.
Andronicus, stain not thy tomb with blood.
Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods?
Draw near them then in being merciful.
Sweet mercy is nobility's true badge.
(I, i, 116-119)
The source and validity of this idea may be questioned. Was the Roman pantheon a wellspring of Compassion? The mythic content implies otherwise. Is the Thunderbolt merciful? Is there not passion, jealousy and vengeance on Mt. Olympus? Were the Goths known for their gentility? Setting aside this caveat, and accepting for the sake of discussion that it has always been plausible to identify the gods with goodness (as mere etymology will always imply), the problem is obvious. Why is suffering permitted? Do the gods draw near themselves, learn their own lesson? It would seem not. Death is the most reliable form of mercy we can expect from those quarters, and delivery is often delayed.
Shakespeare is an artist, not a discursive philosopher. The issue comes to the fore not in dispassionate argument, but in the cry of helplessness at moments of loss and nearly unbearable sorrow, the sort of harrowing experiences counselors like Cynthia Wall must confront in the course of their business. (See, Introduction, supra) Thus, later in the play, we hear the question of divinity sounded again, as Titus meets his pillaged daughter, arms hacked off and tongue cut out to silence her.
O, why should nature build so foul a den,
Unless the gods delight in tragedies?
(IV, i, 58-59)
Here the awful logic is traced to its apparent conclusion. If the gods might shield us but decline, is that mere indifference . . . or sadistic entertainment? Do the gods have their own amphitheatre and recline as did the Romans in their Coliseum, thrilling at sanguinary spectacles to keep away ennui? Then the gods are monsters, not the noble benefactors we had so delusively imagined. We live in hell. That intellectual option has always been open. On the other hand, a common Tribune like Marcus is hardly going to explore the question in detail. His utterance is a mere ejaculation, a verbal extremity, a Job-like lamentation, not the preface to a discourse. It might be observed in that context that it is difficult to imagine the function of Compassion in the abstract. How would the gods exercise their bountiful mercy in the absence of suffering creatures upon whom to bestow it? In other words, though the possibility can be raised (and always will be raised) that divinity is wickedness itself, the delight in the agonies of sentient creatures, the conclusion is not compelling. If we follow Stoicism and siphon off the anthropomorphic dimension of the divine, and then swerve by substituting undiluted Compassion for apatheia, we arrive at a position that may have been occupied by Shakespeare, one close to the animating spirit of Buddhism.
Also not to be ignored is Shakespeare's jab at his own profession. What are we who “delight in tragedies”? Is the poet's art humanity's opportunity to “purge” (that is, burn away) pity and fear, or indulge in lurid fantasies of inner and outward torments?
What resolution does Marcus find in his dilemma?
O heavens, can you hear a good man groan
And not relent, or not compassion him?
Marcus, attend him in his ecstasy,
That hath more scars of sorrow in his heart,
Than foemen's marks upon his battered shield,
But yet so just that he will not revenge.
Revenge the heavens for old Andronicus!
(IV, i, 122-128)
We cannot “trouble deaf heaven with [our] bootless cries.” (Sonnet 29, l. 3) Our voices will not be heeded or even heard. The part of Compassion, neglected by the immortals, must be taken up by ourselves, and this good Tribune and brother resolves to do. Unfortunately, the Compassion of Marcus extends only to Titus, not to his enemies, and so falls short of that precept that enjoins us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. After all, these are the folks that gave the world the gift of crucifixion. So Marcus will “compassion” his brother while the Andronicii pursue their enemies with no less a fury than theirs The only difference between the homicides of Titus and Aaron is that Aaron boasts openly of his wickedness, while Titus decorously camouflages his with the Roman flag. One man forthrightly professes evil, while his opposite number adds hypocrisy to his repertoire by speaking of ideals while slitting throats and taking the lives of his own children. In that regard, compare the murder of Mutius by his father Titus with the tender solicitude of Aaron for his newborn son. Aaron yearns for outrages, but, unlike Titus, he has the decency to spare his own. Shall we call this Aaron's tragic flaw?
b) Pericles, Prince of Tyre
Picture a storm-tossed ship at sea. As the ship lurches from watery peaks to valleys of doom, the wife of a weary king is giving birth. In the end of her agony, she perishes, but the infant is preserved, and given on the howling deck to her father, whose plight reminds us of Lear on the heath.
The god of this great vast rebuke these surges
Which wash both heav'n and hell; and thou that hast
Upon the winds command, bind them in brass,
Having called them from the deep. O still
Thy deaf'ning dreadful thunders, gently quench
Thy nimble sulph'rous flashes. — O, ho, Lychordia!
How does my queen? — Thou stormest venemously.
Wilt thou spit all thyself? The seaman's whsitle
Is as a whisper in the ears of death,
Unheard. — Lychordia! — Lucina, O!
Divinest patroness, and midwife gentle
To those that cry by night, convey thy deity
Aboard our dancing boat, make swift the pangs
Of my queen's travails! — Now, Lychordia.
(Enter Lychordia with an infant)
Here is a thing too young for such a place,
Who, if it had conceit, would die, as I
Am like to do. Take in your arms this piece
Of your dead queen.
How, how, Lychordia?
Patience, good sir, do not assist the storm.
Here's all that is left living of your queen,
A little daughter. For sake of it
Be manly, and take comfort.
O you gods!
Why do you make us love your goodly gifts,
And snatch them straight away? We here below
Recall not what we give, and therein may
Vie honour with you.
(Scene 11, 1-26, following not Taylor & Wells, but the Stratford Town Edition, 1904)
This kind of protest is always a possibility for distraught mortals. The Los Angeles Times, September 29, 2009 reported the murder of a young Hispanic boy. The boy's mother was quoted as having cried out: “Why did God bring him to me if he was going to take him away so quickly?” Had Marlene Ramirez read Pericles?
Here the paradox of evil is resolved in a slightly different way. The gods are not portrayed as torturers wielding whips and thumbscrews, but as insincere donors who give us just enough time with our blessings to cherish them and then rudely take them back. Like an angry Odysseus, Pericles raises his fist to the sky and rebukes the gods, reminding them the gifts we mortals confer on one another are genuine, not yanked back after the recipients have come to love them. Pericles spits in the faces of the Olympians and dares them to do their worst. What saves him and his newborn daughter from annihilation? It is beyond question the invocation of Diana, referred to here as “Lucina,” the patroness of childbirth. It is her beneficent spirit that presides over the entire play and leads critics to term it a “romance” rather than comedy. Not happenstance but providence rules these actors. It is Diana who brings the still-respiring Queen Thaisa in her richly appointed casket to the studio of magus Cerimon, who will blow upon the glowing embers of life and restore Pericles' queen. Her first words on awakening are: “O dear Diana, Where am I? Where's my lord? What world is this?” (Scene 12, l. 3-4) Believing her husband and daughter drowned, Thaisa announces her intention to take “a vestal liv'ry” and “never more have joy,” whereupon Cerimon recommends she seek refuge in Diana's Temple at Ephesus. Much later, after Pericles is re-united with his grown daughter Marina, the Goddess Diana appears to him to inform him that his long-lost wife survives, a votary in her Order. What we witness in this tale is the evolution of the Goddess herself, whose origins are as austere and forbidding as any of the gods, as we can see by considering the myth of Artemis and Actaeon. But by the time Shakespeare begins to focus on her as the principal deity of his own pantheon, Diana has grown to become the very embodiment of Compassion, the western equivalent of Chinese Kuan Yin, she who hears the cries of the world.
To make “the very firstlings of [his] heart” the firstlings of [his] hand,” Macbeth sends murderers to slaughter Macduff's wife and children, acting quickly before he is reproached by pangs of doubt. “No boasting like a fool, This deed I'll do before the purpose cool.” (IV, i, 69-70) When this awful deed becomes known, it is the sad duty of the Thane of Ross to acquaint Macduff with what has happened.
Your castle is surprised, your wife and babes
Savagely slaughtered. To relate the manner
Were on the quarry of these murdered deer
To add the death of you.
(To Macduff) What, man, ne'er pull your hat upon your brows.
Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak
Whispers the o'erfraught heart and bids it break.
My children too?
Wife, children, servants, all
That could be found.
And I must be from thence!
My wife killed too?
I have said.
Let's make medicines of our great revenge
To cure this deadly grief.
He has no children. All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?
Dispute it like a man.
I shall do so,
But I must also feel it as a man.
I cannot but remember such things were
That were most precious to me. Did heaven look on
And would not take their part?
(IV, iii, 205-226)
Such is the language of shock and heart rending grief. Could the gods have presided over such an unspeakable loss? It is interesting to note that though many take such incidents to disprove the existence of God, it is precisely to religion that people repair in times of insupportable sorrows. Thus Malcolm exclaims “Merciful heaven!” meaning, “Merciful heaven protect us from such harms!” We want to blame the gods and wind up calling on their mercy instead. What does this imply, except the dumb but stubborn faith we have as human beings that in some way we cannot quite articulate we are loved and cared for not just by each other but by That which brought us to this place of woes? As we are flesh and blood, there is a limit to our tolerance and ability to absorb, and so we lash out in vengeful reprisals. But, contradictory creatures that we are, we sense at the same time that we are not alone, and that the Compassion we share with others is Something larger than ourselves. Notice the supporting roles played in this scene by Macduff's friends Ross and Malcom. Whether a sage might not grant Malcolm's words of consolation and encouragement the highest marks, who could read them and not feel the tenderness and sharing of pain?
d) King Henry V
King Harry is the great pragmatist in Shakespeare, full of high sentence and a bit of a knave. He will play dice with the Deity and try to rig the game. Speech is a sharp tool he uses to attain his objectives, and if necessary he will clip the coin of truth for an advantage in bargaining. One of his favorite guises is paragon of mercy. At the outset of course, as we are struggling to maintain our love for him we must swallow down his banishment of his friend and mentor, Falstaff. It turns out that he was just using Sir John and the Boar's head group to make a bigger impression on his accession to the throne. He tells us this in a notorious soliloquy. (Part One, I, ii, 192-214) Henceforward we tend to take his words with a grain of salt. Had Harry been merciful, Falstaff would never have been publicly humiliated and rudely banished. What about the faction of traitors who plot against him and are apprehended at Southampton on the eve of the invasion of France? Harry tricks them into denying themselves mercy by pretending to suspend the sentence on a soldier who got drunk and railed against the King. Cambridge, Masham and Northumberland, the faction, protest that this soldier (a fiction devised by Harry as bait) should be severely punished for his insolence. When their treason is revealed, all three instinctively beg for mercy, which is denied on the grounds that this was waived by pleading for a heavier punishment for the aforementioned soldier. Harry is then in a position to execute them summarily, as a warning to others. Of course, his clemency toward the drunken soldier was nothing more than a charade. What Harry really wanted was the heads of Cambridge, Masham and Northumberland set up on pikes. Further, Harry represents that these traitors acted against his regime and planned to assassinate him merely because of bribes from the French. Yet we learn later that Harry has only a doubtful claim to the throne, and was keeping Edmund Mortimer, the true heir, locked up in a dismal prison, no mercy there. Mortimer had done no wrong to spend all his adult years in a stone-cold cell. (King Henry VI, Part One, II, v, 1-129) It was not French bribes that led these lords to rebel against Harry, but rather the illegitimacy of his title, inherited from his usurping father, Bolingbroke. This is all admitted by Harry on his knees in prayer on the eve of Agincourt. When Harry speaks of “mercy” it is either to dissimulate or to threaten, as he does before the gates of Harfleur.
How yet resolves the Governor of the town?
This is the latest parle we will admit.
Therefore to our best mercy give yourselves,
Or like to men proud of destruction
Defy us to our worst. For as I am a soldier,
A name that in my thoughts becomes me best,
If I begin the batt'ry once again
I will not leave the half-achievèd Harfleur
Til in her ashes she lie burièd.
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the fleshed soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh fair virgins and your flow'ring infants.
(King Henry V, III, iii, 84-97)
What kind of person confines his use of 'mercy' to threats? An even more graphic illustration of Harry's curious version of clemency can be found in Act III, sc. vi, when it is explained to him that Bardolph, the aide-de-camp of Falstaff, now dead of a broken heart following his banishment by Harry, is awaiting hanging for pilfering from a French church. Without so much as a blink of the eye, the merciful King Harry, a/k/a Hal-of-the-Boarshead Tavern, approves the execution of his erstwhile chum and drinking buddy. His words are a small miracle of deceit.
We would have all such offenders so cut off, and we here give express charge
that in our marches through the country there be nothing compelled from the
villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the French upbraided or abused
in disdainful language. For when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom,
the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.
(III, vi, 108-114)
Harry's idea of lenity is to hang his own friend from a tree for pilferage rather than return the stolen items or compensate the church for the loss. Ironically, in the conversation between Gower and Fluellen in Act IV, sc. vi, in extenuation of Harry's harshness, and in distinguishing Harry from Alexander the Great who killed his best friend Cleitus, Gower protests: “Our King is not like him in that. He never killed any of his friends.” (IV, vii, 38-39) Well, that's a strange thing to say, since we have just confirmed Harry's killing of his friend Bardolph. And what about his betrayal of Falstaff? Is that forgotten by the troops? Not quite.
As Alexander killed his friend Cleitus, being in his ales and his cups,
so also Harry Monmouth, being in his right wits and his good
judgments, turned away the fat knight with the great belly-doublet —
he was full of jests and gipes and knaveries and mocks — I have forgot
Sir John Falstaff.
That is he. I'll tell you, there is good men porn at Monmouth.
(IV, vii, 43-50)
Fluellen's sarcasm is almost palpable. First the good King Harry casts out his mentor, protector and friend, Falstaff, causing him to die of a broken heart. This is followed up by hanging their mutual friend Bardolph, as faithful a companion as ever drew breath, for the snatching of a few unconsidered trifles.
Scholars have also noted that at the conclusion of Act IV, sc. vi, the “merciful” King Harry orders the slaughter of all the French prisoners, a heinous act and contravention of the rules of war to which Fluellen refers extensively in Act III, sc. iii. (See also, IV, i, 66-75) These scenes are regularly scanted by jingoistic directors in Hollywood bent on using King Henry V for hero worship and the rationalization of international aggression. A close reading of the text will show that Harry orders the destruction of the French prisoners of war not because the French attack the English boys and carriers but rather because they have the temerity to continue to defend their homeland, and send in reinforcements. What a guy! (See, IV, vi, 35-37)
On the eve of Agincourt we are graced with “a little touch of Harry in the night.” (IV.0, 47) The King lurks about the camp in disguise to spy on his own men. What he hears is disturbing. There is full realization amongst the ranks that they are being used as cannon fodder to promote a dubious enterprise. (IV, i, 133-45) Maintaining his disguise, Harry indulges in gross sophisms to put a smiley face on grim visaged war. (IV, i, 146-184) The result is an unseemly quarrel between the Monarch/General and one of his miserable footmen. (IV, i, 190-216) Though he later pardons this aggrieved soldier after the battle, that pardon comes only after the soldier points out that he was entrapped by the King who incited him to reveal his fears and resentment and then bickered with him.
All offences, my lord, come from the heart.
Never came any from mine that might offend your
It was ourself thou didst abuse.
Your majesty came not like yourself. You
appeared to me but as a common man. Witness the
night, your garments, your lowliness. And what your
highness suffered under that shape, I beseech you take
it for your own fault, and not mine, for had you been
as I took you for, I made no offence. Therefore I beseech
your highness pardon me.
(VI, viii, 47-57)
The pardon we see granted is the only act of clemency we see of King Harry. It is granted to a poor common soldier tricked by the King-in-disguise into revealing his real fears of death before a battle in which most of the English fully expected to perish. This is not a feather in Harry's cap but a nail in his moral coffin.
In a stroke of genius, Shakespeare gives a better peek at the nocturnal Harry by letting us overhear his soliloquy and prayer before the dawn of armed combat. It turns out that Harry lives in disgraceful envy of the common men who serve him and feels sorry for himself for having a monarch's responsibilities. (IV, i, 227-281)
The prayer is revealing and worth looking at.
O God of battles, steel my soldiers' hearts.
Possess them not with fear. Take from them now
The sense of reck'ning, ere th' opposed numbers
Pluck their hearts from them. Not today, O Lord,
O, not today, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown.
I Richard's body have interrèd new new,
And on it have bestowed more contrite tears
Than from it issued forcèd drops of blood.
Five hundred poor have I in yearly pay
Who twice a day their withered hands hold up
Toward heaven to pardon blood. And I have built
Two chantries, where the sad and solemn priests
Still sing for Richard's soul. More will I do,
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after ill,
(IV, i, 286-301)
Here the truth — or most of it — emerges. Harry is guilty. And yet, even before the King of Heaven, Harry plays the dissembler. Shakespeare could hardly paint a more shameful picture of the human soul. Hours before one of the bloodiest sieges in history, the leader of the English forces confesses he has no actual right to the English throne, which by law belongs to the imprisoned Edmund Mortimer. But if Harry is not rightful King, how does he behead Scroop, Masham and Northumberland? What is he doing making war abroad but following his crafty father's counsel to “busy giddy mind with foreign quarrels”? (King Henry IV, Part Two, IV, iii, 342-343) If no King of England, none of France. (II, ii, 189-190) The man who hangs his friend Bardolph for pilfering a paten in a church is willing to spend the lives of thousands to rob a whole nation. At the end he entreats God Almighty to show him Compassion and forgiveness, after cataloguing most of the reasons he is undeserving. But still he wants to fight, and asks the Maker of Heaven and Earth to be his accomplice by sending his hapless soldiers into battle with “hearts of controversy.” (Julius Caesar, I, ii, 111) In the character King Harry of England, Shakespeare gives us a handsome rogue whose self-knowledge is limited to the burnished reflection of himself he sees in his armor. Whatever his swashbuckling bravado, he is a sweet-faced villain who can only talk about charity, not do it. What Compassion preserved his person and career we shall never know.
e) Measure for Measure: A Psychiatric Case History
Patient's name: Isabella
Siblings: One brother
Education: BA , Rhetoric Major, Minor in Theology
Vocation: Postulant, Order of St. Clare, Vienna, Austria
Isabella, are you aware we're recording today's session?
And you understand we're doing this to train counselors?
And we have your permission to do this, correct?
Now, I understand you've returned here to the Convent, is that right?
Yes. Well, not exactly. You see, the prioress granted me a short leave to take care of some urgent family business and I did that, but now I'm not really sure I want to remain with the Sisters. I may just pack my things and confer with the prioress.
Hmmm. Sounds complicated. I imagine something happened during your stay in town.
Uh, yeah, you could say that.
You weren't injured?
No, but a lot happened. I met a man I like. But not right away, I mean, I met him but I didn't know who he was, and, uh, you see, my brother was in jail, and they were trying to execute him for having sex with my cousin, and she was pregnant and so I tried to talk to the Magistrate to get him released.
Sounds like you had a big adventure.
Yeah, it was crazy there for a while.
And I take it that your brother's OK now?
Yes. But even at the last hearing I thought he was dead.
And what about the man you met? Who is he?
It's the Duke. He asked me to marry him.
Did he know you were a postulant?
Well, at first he was a friar, and then I was trying to help my brother and the Magistrate, he tried to . . .
Tried to what?
It's rather hard to say.
Well, OK, see, he said he wouldn't commute the sentence, my brother had to die, and I tried to get him to be merciful. And he wouldn't do it.
So what happened?
Uh, so he did a really bad thing. He said if I would sleep with him, he'd let Claudio go free.
Really? And did you do it?
No, of course not.
Where was the Duke all this time?
Oh, he was around, I would talk to him, but I thought he was Friar Lodowick.
Isabella, let's talk for a moment about what happened with the Magistrate, OK?
What's his name?
His name is Lord Angelo.
Had you ever met him before?
So why do you think he made an indecent proposal to you? Did you behave seductively in any way?
How can you ask such a question? I was pleading for Claudio's life! I'm just a novice in this Order. How could I be seductive?
I don't know. I am just trying to understand what happened. Do you remember?
Well, I was trying to tell him he should be merciful and he kept saying that he'd show more mercy to others by punishing the offender than letting him go. (II, ii, 102-103)
OK, then what happened?
Well, he kept, like, insinuating things, I don't know. He talked in riddles and asked me what I would do if my brother was going to die and the only way to save him was to “lay down the treasures of my body,” what would I do?
What did you say? Do you recall?
Yes, I do, exactly. I'll never forget.
As much for my poor brother as myself.
That is, were I under the terms of death,
Th' impression of keen whips I'd wear as rubies,
And strip myself to death as to a bed
That longing have been sick for, ere I'd yield
My body up to shame.
(II, iv, 99-104)
What happened then?
He asked me to take off my clothes (II, iv, 138) and asked me to give him love.
And you refused?
He got very angry and said Claudio was going to be executed, and that if I told anyone about what he proposed, it would be my word against his and no one would believe me. (III, iv, 154-170)
And do you have any idea why he behaved as he did?
None at all?
No. No, I don't. Do you know why?
Do you think of yourself as attractive, Isabella?
Well, uh, yeah, I mean, reasonably. I'm not ugly if that's what you mean, but . . .
How did you feel when I asked you if you were attractive?
I got annoyed. I thought you were implying I came on to the Magistrate.
But just setting that aside, would you agree you aren't ugly?
Well, if you put it that way. . .
OK, you win. I know I'm not bad looking.
Right. And you were discussing a sex act with the judge, correct?
What are you implying?
Claudio and Juliet had sex, correct?
And you were there to tell him that that wasn't something so bad, correct?
And then he asked you to have sex with him, I take it?
So what do you think?
I don't know.
What about those words you used?
“Impression of keen whips”
“Wear as rubies”
Were those bad words?
May be something there to think about . . .
Tell me about your mother and father.
OK, my mom died when I was nine.
And you had a younger brother.
And after your mom died, did your father remarry?
No, he didn't.
So, who took care of the household after your mom passed away?
You took care of your Dad?
Yes, and did the laundry and I also had my studies to keep up with.
Right. You were still in school.
And then your Dad died too.
Yeah, after three years.
I see. And during those three years were you pretty close to him?
What do you mean by that? What are you suggesting?
Isabella, you know I'm trying to find out what happened to you.
So what happened with you and your Dad?
Nothing. Everything was normal. He loved me. I respected him. That's all.
Is that what you told the intake nurse?
I think so.
You didn't mention one night your Dad came into your room?
Oh. Yeah, one time he came in to check on me.
I asked him to leave.
And after that?
I don't remember.
Do you remember coming to see the prioress? You wanted to move out of your house?
And what happened?
And then you were living alone with your brother, weren't you?
And he was starting to see your friend, Juliet, right?
Yes, that's when I decided to try living in the Convent.
Yes, seven months ago. Now we're almost out of time, I want to ask you one more thing.
I understand that at the last hearing the Duke asked you to marry him.
Yes, that's right.
And you wouldn't say yes or no.
And the Duke sentenced Angelo to death.
And what did you do?
I begged the Duke for mercy.
Mercy on the man who tried to coerce you into sex, right?
Do you recall the words you said on that occasion?
Yes, shall I repeat them?
Most bounteous sir,
Look, if it please you, on this man condemned
As if my brother lived. I partly think
A due sincerity governed his deeds,
Til he did look on me. Since it is so,
Let him not die. My brother had but justice,
In that he did the thing for which he died.
His act did not o'ertake his bad intent
That perished by the way. Thoughts are no subjects,
Intents but merely thoughts.
So you pleaded for mercy on behalf of the man who would not show mercy to your brother unless you gave him sex. Is that right?
Yes, I guess so.
So, what will you do now, Isabella? Remain in the convent or return to Vienna and be the Duke's wife?
I don't know.
That's right, you don't. But our hour is up, isn't it?
See you next time.
f) Hamlet: The Petition of Claudius
We close with a recollection of Compassion in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Illumination may be gained by glancing at Claudius' prayerful soliloquy in Act III. This presents again the question of absolution for misdeeds, and how that is to be achieved by those who have committed substantial offenses, crimes so significant that they imply irremediable faults of character. This is surely the case with Claudius. As he rounds out the speech, Hamlet approaches from behind, and for a moment each of them is in a state of suspended animation.
O, my offense is rank! It smells to heaven.
It hath the primal eldest curse upon't,
A brother's murder. Pray can I not.
Though inclination be as sharp as will,
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,
And like a man to double business bound
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect. What if this cursèd hand
Were thicker than itself with brother's blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy
But to confront the visage of offence?
And what's in prayer but this twofold force,
To be forestallèd ere we come to fall,
Or pardoned being down? Then I'll look up.
My fault is past — but O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? 'Forgive me my foul murder'?
That cannot be, since I am still possessed
Of those effects for which I did the murder —
My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.
May one be pardoned and retain th'offence?
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence's gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft 'tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law. But 'tis not so above.
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature, and we ourselves compelled
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults
To give in evidence. What then? What rests?
Try what repentance can. What can it not?
Yet what can it when one cannot repent?
O wretched state, O bosom black as death,
O limèd soul that, struggling to be free,
Art more engaged! Help, angels! Make assay.
Bow, stubborn knees; and heart with strings of steel,
Be soft as sinews of the new-born babe.
All may be well.
(III, iii, 36-72)
Well, all here is ill, not well. Claudius has a heart so 'brassed' that it is “proof and bulwark against sense;” it will not soften and yield. (III, vi, 36-37) What he seeks from angels is the mercy he cannot grant himself. And though it be true that he stands still possessed of the things for which he did the crime, that is not the full extent of his plight. Nowhere in this speech does he actually say he's sorry for what he's done, nor does he decide to reform. He will apologize to none, not even to God, though he begs forgiveness on his knees. He is indeed “a man to double business bound,” and poorly served by deep duplicity. Will he go to Gertrude and ask her to pardon him for the mess he's made of everything? No. His wife stands but in the suburbs of his affection, and at his core is naught but cold and darkness. He has not learned that forgiveness is not a gift that falls from heaven like a roof tile on our heads, but a reflection of our own genuine resolve. Because he has no Compassion for others he has none for himself, and is his own worst enemy.
But to take the full measure of Claudius' corruption, we need to go a back a few lines, to the opening of this scene, when Claudius strides onstage with Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet is being sent to England where by letters and commission it has been arranged that Hamlet will be killed. (IV, iii, 66-70) These instructions are found by Hamlet, and re-written to entail the deaths of these two toadying courtiers. (V, ii, 1-63) What is significant is that in Act III, sc. iii, Claudius has already signed Hamlet's death warrant. The planned assassination is no mere postscript. Claudius refers directly to their “commission.” (III, iii, 3) Having then decided to have his nephew (who is most likely his own bastard son) exterminated in England, he proceeds to fall on his knees in prayer, petitioning God for mercy and complaining that he cannot do so with unction and authenticity. “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” (III, iii, 97-98)
If Claudius were truly desirous of reconciliation, he would summon Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern and cancel the order to have Hamlet slain in England. Instead, with this murder pending, he pounds like a peddler on heaven's gate.
Meanwhile, something is happening to our beloved Prince. In his adventures at sea, in the outwitting of the King's emissaries, in crossing swords with pirates, some switch is thrown in Hamlet's brain. For the first time since childhood he manages to get his head screwed on straight. Whether he be the child of Hamlet the Dane or Claudius is irrelevant to his own worth as a person. In this mood of renewal he encounters the skull of Yorick, the kind and witty jester who gave the boy Hamlet unconditional love. For one instant the whole dusty course of life rests in Hamlet's hands. Then follows the discovery of Ophelia's death. Thus is Hamlet's action now charted: he will do what needs to be done.
We defy augury. There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.
If it be now, 'tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it
be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man has
aught of what he leaves, what is it to leave betimes?
(V, ii, 165-170)
Some attentive readers will notice that in saying “We defy augury,” Hamlet employs the royal 'we'. By contrast, in Twelfth Night Sir Toby Belch exclaims, “Lechery? I defy lechery.” (I, v, 121) In his readiness to encounter his fate, Hamlet has mastered himself. He is promoted, now the captain of his soul.
The conclusion is that there is no conclusion of Compassion. Like the bounteous love of which Juliet boasts, Compassion is as “boundless as the sea.” (II, i, 175) And on that sea are we now afloat, propelled by our own capacities for fellow feeling. When his characters suffer pain or trauma, Shakespeare shows us how their hearts contract, grow smaller, diminishing humanity. The flood of Compassion seems to narrow, and in its stead we find emotions like sympathy and pity, or penance and forgiveness. As the soul shrinks in fear, it lacks not only a full compassion to bestow on others, but just as much a kindly regard for the self in all its tenderness and fragility. In cases of dim wittedness Compassion is regarded as an external agency we confront as “conscience.” (King Richard III)
As life draws to a close we find to our dismay the tensions which have crept into all our relations. Too late we try to restore amity, make amends. But late is better than never. In King Richard III, Act II, sc. i, the dying King Edward IV suddenly is struck by all the grim infighting in his court, and takes desperate steps to bring the squabbling to an end. Rivers, Hastings, the Queen, and Buckingham, even Richard himself, all set aside their quarrels and profess their love for one another. (II, i, 1-73) That is, like ourselves, they suffer correction. But each vessel can hold only according to its volume. The pledges of love, peace and cooperation are uttered not sua sponte but at the behest of a dying monarch, to please him. And when Richard announces the death of Clarence, all these vows are blown out the window. There is always the risk in reading Shakespeare that we will recognize in this character or that something of ourselves and our own half-realized foibles. But that risk is offset by Shakespeare's clear presentation of Compassion in its purity. In his imperishable dramas we learn that when realism is allowed to complete its mission it becomes the most edifying idealism.
Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare After All, Anchor Books, 2004
James Howe, A Buddhist's Shakespeare: Affirming Self-Deconstructions, Associated University Press, 1994
The Los Angeles Times, September 29, 2009
William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, Second ed., S. Wells, G. Taylor, eds., Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2005
Roger Stritmatter, The Marginalia of Edward de Vere's Geneva Bible: Providential Discovery, Literary Reasoning, and Historical Consequence, Oxenford Press, 2003
Cynthia Wall, “Compassion and Sympathy”
“About Dharma,” International Kadampa Buddhist Festival
Soka Gakkhai International
David P. Gontar's latest book is Hamlet Made Simple and Other Essays.
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