Tagged: Shakespeare

Because of Fairies

Recently, I spent twelve hours discussing Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with sophomores in the Torrey Honors Institute. (What a job!) I love this play more and more. It’s easy to miss its richness–it’s such a romp!

Here’s the thing that struck me in reading the play this time, and it’s a line that I began each class with: Sometimes thing just work out.

Somehow, and Lord knows how, we inhabit a cultural moment in which we distrust narratives of resolution and reconciliation. Our cynical eye sees goodness and knows–it just knows–that things aren’t that simple. Things don’t hold together; things fall apart. Goodness from afar looks grim up close; it is joyless austerity at best, more likely a hypocritical mask covering the grim truth of humanity. Scandal doesn’t surprise us, but confirms what we already knew–that no one is as good as they appear, that all that glitters is only ever fool’s good. (If you’re looking for a trenchant essay along these lines, check out Marilynne Robinson’s “Facing Reality” in The Death of Adam.)

Christians have good reason to follow this line of thought. We believe in original sin, that, in the words of Bing Crosby in White Christmas, “Everybody’s got a little larceny working in them.” Good luck finding an untarnished heart.

But Christians also have abundant reason to follow another line of thought. We believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, and so we believe in more than mere suspicion. We believe, too, in unexpected resolution. Without an ounce of the saccharine, Christians believe that enemies can become friends, that the death can–and have, and will–rise to new life. And so I find Midsummer a marvelous tonic for my sub-Christian skepticism in the face of resolution and reconciliation. I find in it a gentle rebuke in its rollicking insistence that sometimes things just work out.

But wait–there’s more. How do they work out? Well, at the start of the play, there’s a Rome and Juliet scenario, with star-crossed lovers on their way out of town to get married, against her father’s wishes. In Romeo and Juliet, this scenario ends in a double suicide. In Midsummer, it ends in a triple wedding. What’s the difference? Why do the lovers in this place end up happily paired off, with the right men loving and being loved by the right women? One student scrunched her brow and offered hesitantly, “Because of…fairies?”

She was exactly right. Because of fairies. The lovers enter the forest, and the magic of mischievous fairies works to the end that, returning home, they are reconciled, rightly matched, and ready to get hitched. In a modern tale, were we to dare such reconciliation, we would at least be sensible enough to attribute this readiness for marriage to the moral progress of the lovers. Or perhaps they found the right recipe or followed the right plan, thus being rewarded with marriage. But that’s just it; they lovers don’t progress in character or knowledge. Moral progress and methodism have nothing to do with it. Marriage in Midsummer couldn’t be further from a reward; it’s a gift.

What I love about this play is that it defies explanation. No calculus can explain a gift, after all. Consider Midsummer a witness to the wide mercy of our God, who gives lavish gifts, and whose distribution of them cares little for the qualifications of its recipients. Midsummer is a witness to the deep truth that marriage–like all of God’s best gifts–is a gift, to be received with dumbfounded, gobsmacked gratitude. Perhaps that’s why St. Paul likens it to the covenant of God with the church–because it evokes the saving God by whose mercy things, at the Last Day, will just work out.

War is Swell: Crispin’s Day

Okay, war is not really swell. But today (October 25) is the anniversary of two battles that live on in our memory because of the martial virtues conspicuously displayed in them. These battles conjured poetry from two of the greatest poets in the history of the English tongue.

First, the Battle of Agincourt, on the Feast of St. Crispin, 1415. Henry V’s outnumbered troops whooped the French with fancy footwork, English longbows, good old British pluck, and, if Shakespeare is to be believed, the greatest battlefield speech ever. Of course Shakespeare is freely inventing the words in Henry’s mouth, nearly two centuries later.

But what words! Noting how outnumbered the English army is, the king’s cousin quite sensibly remarks that he wishes some of the men at home in England were here with them now. “What!” replies King Henry. On the contrary, having more soldiers would be a major disadvantage, because then the glory of the day would have to be divided more ways.

This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’ …

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Second, the Charge of the Light Brigade during the battle of Balaklava, 1854. This was not a victory for the English, but a slaughter. Based on botched military intelligence, the commander of the British cavalry sent his men straight into the path of the heavily-armed Russian army. The Russians gunned them down easily, thinking they were probably drunk or crazy to attempt such a direct assault. But above the wasted lives, what stands out with astonishing clarity is the radical obedience and courage of the soldiers. And this is what poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson captured in his contemporary poem about the charge:

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

There was a third major battle on October 25, the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944. It is far more epic in scope than Agincourt or Balaklava: Probably the largest naval battle that has ever been fought, it shut down the Japanese Imperial Navy. But it has not been the subject of poetry, to my knowledge. Get busy, ye poets of war!