The Mystery We Are

Modern understanding of human nature tells us of the value of mourning and expressing our grief. Counsellors, pastors and priests encourage us to off load our troubles. The psychologist and the psychotherapist help us to order our sorrows. Or at least that’s the way the modern theory goes……

Understanding human nature though is not just a modern preoccupation. It goes back a long, long time. I don’t know if anybody actually reads this but if you do then you’ll know that this month I’m exploring Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare and Shakespeare had more than a little common ground with modern wisdom. He saw a lot of things very differently but some things the same and I could suggest that we ought to hang onto those things that are time-honoured and doubt the purely modern but I won’t. At least not at this point. But onto the wisdom of the ages……..

In Macbeth, Shakespeare points us to something that I think is central to balanced human living. 

    Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more!
    Macbeth does murder sleep’, the innocent sleep,
    Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care,
    The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
    Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
    Chief nourisher in life’s feast,– 

(Macbeth Act 2 Scene 2)

The chief notion here is that when our life is disordered, a regular sleep pattern is one of the first things to go. From old Elizabethan times to today, it holds true. When someone comes to me for advice (as they sometimes do, it’s part of what I do), amongst my first questions are “how are you sleeping?”, “how’s your appetite?”. In the play, Macbeth thought that he could handle his deed of murdering Duncan but no matter what he does, his internal nature rebels against his stern exterior. When he killed the King, he killed his own peace of mind. He murdered his own ability to sleep.

This other Shakespearean tragedy has another bolt of wisdom for us. Titus Andronicus might not be as highly rated (or as often performed) as Macbeth but you can’t keep a good writer and wise man down.

“Sorrow concealed, like an oven stopped
Doth burn the heart to cinders where it is.”

(Titus Andronicus Act 2 Scene 3)

The basic notion here is, as I hinted earlier, that with sorrow or grief we have two options either to let it out or to let it eat us up inside. Sorrow is characterised by Marcus Andronicus (for it is he that Will gives these words to) as a great heat that builds up like it would in a oven where there is no outlet or regulator. It turns that which is developing in the oven into ashes and cinders. Score one for our society not losing sight of this with its counsellors et al. The downside I think for modern society is that in the fracturing of community it is robbing us of the most natural way of off-loading our troubles – for free with friends over a drink. We live in a society where it is possible to live in a street without knowing any of our neighbours, never mind understand them. The number of people who live alone is on the increase which is not a problem but when those people do not choose to live in isolation and have no-one to talk to then we have created a huge problem. A huge chasm that we are struggling to bridge.

In Titus Andronicus, the person with the greatest grief is not Titus himself but the woman who he grieves over – his daughter, Lavinia. She has been raped and assaulted. In order to ensure that she cannot identify those who have raped her attackers have cut out her tongue. In Ovid’s “Metamoprheses”, a thousand years earlier, a woman, Philomela is similarly assaulted and also has her tongue cut out. She is able to identify her assaulters by sewing on a sampler and identifying them. Aware of this, Shakespeare makes his villains also cut off Lavinia’s hand. The implication is that she cannot communicate in anyway. This is particularly true in a theatrical work where speech and the hand movements of rhetoric are so central to all communication.

We live in a society where we understand the benefits of talking about  our sorrow but we have created a lack of community which destroys the way that we would best share. It’s an interesting dilemma and we have no Shakespeare to guide us.

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