Shakespeare and Home Renovations
A Lesson in Mindfulness
I am not a patient person. I hate waiting. I hate the wasted time involved in running errands. Relaxing is not a skill I posses nor one which I normally desire. Patience is no virtue. And whoever said that was a bold-faced liar. So, as you can imagine, being on sabbatical from my full-time job presents some challenges. I joke as my husband goes out in the morning that today will be the day that I tear down that wall between the office and living room. I am only sort of joking. Just between us, I found a sledge hammer in the shed. Last sabbatical I tried to stave off boredom by learning to make pies. Believe me, home renovations will be welcome after that debacle.
Strangely, my favorite play is Shakespeare’s The Tempest — a play where there is virtually no real activity. Short story in case you don’t remember: twelve years prior, Prospero, the Duke of Milan, got caught up in his books and left the work of governing to his treacherous brother Antonio. Antonio cuts a deal with Alonso, the King of Naples, and together they depose Prospero, sending him and his infant daughter to sea, allowing Antonio to rule outright. By some providence, Prospero and Miranda make it to a deserted island, and Prospero spends the next twelve years becoming proficient in magical arts. By another act of providence, just prior to the start of the play, all of Prospero’s enemies happen to be sailing by, allowing him to create an illusion of a storm, a tempest, that brings all of them to his island so that he might enact his “revenge.”
So lots of stuff happens before Prospero and Miranda get to the island. And by the end of the play, we expect that lots will happen when they all return to Milan and Naples. But most of the “activity” that occurs through the course of the play is the work of illusion – tricks of magic that allow Prospero to remind his enemies of the crimes they have committed, so that might feel remorse, and he might, ultimately forgive them. For instance, the storm or tempest does not really occur, and everyone aboard the ship is left untouched; Alonso, who believes his son died on the ship, grieves for naught, for we know he is safe with Prospero and Miranda; and even a secondary plot between Sebastian, Alonso’s brother, and Antonio, to kill Alonso comes to nothing. So in terms of action — the kind of stuff that keeps me relatively calm and balanced — not much occurs.
Towards the end of the play, Prospero, speaking to Ferdinand, addresses this point in what are perhaps the most beautiful, if difficult, lines of the play:
Prospero suggests that the world we live in is akin to the illusions he makes – insubstantial and baseless. Our lives are but dreams. Now, if you are me, this is not an easy sentiment. After all, it seems to mean that all of my projects, all of the stuff that I spend an inordinate amount of time and energy on, are lacking in substance and reality. I am busying myself with mere illusion.
But to say that there is no real activity in the play is not the same as saying that nothing real happens. For several important things occur, even if they are not the stuff of an action film. For instance, while the romance between Miranda and Ferdinand is contrived by Prospero, they nonetheless fall in love. And the many villains of the play (with the exception perhaps of Antonio and Sebastian) are brought to regret their crimes and seek to be reconciled to those they have harmed. Finally, Prospero, moved perhaps by the image of love he sees between Miranda and Ferdinand, responds with love in kind, forgiving his enemies rather than wreaking vengeance on them. While the external activity of the play is based in illusions, the internal activity and movement of the characters is very real. While ships are not wrecked and harpies don’t truly descend, the contrition, forgiveness and love that occurs in the play are nonetheless true.
Dante’s Inferno begins with a beautiful image. Having woken up in a dark wood, Dante is terrified, but his fear subsidies when he sees a mountain girdled in sunlight. All he has to do is climb the mountain and he will be able to see his path home. Dante writes that upon seeing the mountain, “the fear that had endured in the lake of [his] heart … was calmed”(I, i, 19–21). This, however, is only a momentary reprieve for Dante, as he is unable at this point to climb the mountain and must take a much more difficult route through Inferno. Of course, we don’t actually think that Dante descends into Inferno. Instead, we understand that the journey he takes is through the lake of his heart. He must turn inward and confront the kind of person he has become, take stock of his crimes and seek instead to love and be loved in turn. We know that the tempest that begins Shakespeare’s play is just an illusion, one that Prospero creates so as to manipulate his enemies. And yet, the tempest itself is real. It exists in the heart of each character. Like Dante, they must each confront the lake of their heart.
As I tap, though, on the wall that separates the living room and office, it seems pretty substantial. And I expect whacking it with a sledge hammer will feel pretty satisfying. So what are we to make of the finite order and the “illusions” that permeate all aspects of our lives? At the end of the play, Prospero gives up his magic, he will no longer busy himself with illusions, but rather, we anticipate, as he nears his death, he will focus on the reality that exists somewhere beyond the purely material order, hoping for forgiveness and love. And yet, the illusions he created are the means by which he was reconciled to his enemies and his daughter was brought to love. These illusions led to reality and truth. The world might be ever changing and nothing in it might avoid undergoing transformation and destruction, yet, for Prospero, the illusions of this world reveal the reality that lies behind it.
Prospero counsels that the external business of our lives is not the “real” stuff of our lives. Instead, reality consists of those mostly unseen transactions that occur within our minds and hearts, and the hearts and minds of others we encounter. Yet, we are often tempted to mistake illusion or appearance for reality, and so we should strive, as much as we can, to shape the “illusions” of our lives as much as possible according to the truth of our hearts.
So for today, that wall continues to stand. I know it doesn’t really matter, but it’s a good reminder of the temptation to look outward rather than inward.
Originally published at sara-macdonald.com on October 26, 2016.