Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Winter's Tale

The Winter's Tale is said to be one of Shakespeare's final plays. Perhaps that might explain why it defies categorisation – it is most accurately described as a "tragi-comedy". One could very well imagine a playwright at the height of his powers doing what he does best, writing both high comedy and high tragedy into the very same play. It is a tale of two kingdoms – Sicily and Bohemia – and it is fitting that it is staged by The Bridge Project, a transatlantic partnership spearheaded by three New York and London theatre companies. Director Sam Mendes (of American Beauty fame) has cleverly cast the British actors as Sicilians and the American actors as Bohemians.

The first half of the play is set in Sicilia where a Lear-like tragedy unfolds. Leontes, the King of Sicilia, is a jealous tyrant who throws his wife in jail and casts his infant daughter out of the kingdom, mistakenly believing his wife to be an adulteress and his daughter, a bastard. The dark first half ends, fittingly, with Shakespeare's most famous stage direction "Exit, pursued by a bear." The Sicilian nobleman Antigonus, who is given the heart-wrenching task of leaving the infant princess the wild deserts of Bohemia, is consumed by a bear.

The contrast between the first and the second half of the play could not be more stark. The first half, set in Sicilia, takes place in the depths of winter. The stage is sparse and dimly lit. Hanging lamps with flickering flames adorn the back wall. All the characters are dressed in dark, sober colours, mostly black. At the beginning of the play, Leontes' young son is asked by his mother the Queen to "tell us a tale". "A sad tale's best for winter," he replies. The dramatic irony could not be more obvious given the impending tragedy that will rip the Sicilian royal family apart. The young prince himself dies of grief soon after his mother is found guilty of adultery. The Queen faints when she receives this news and is taken away. A little later on, Leontes presumes that she too has died.

Fast forward 16 years later and we find ourselves in Bohemia, where Leontes' daughter, Perdita, had been adopted by a shepherd and has now come of age. She has fallen in love with the young prince of Bohemia, whose father had been accused of committing adultery with the Queen of Sicilia, Perdita's mother. The second half of the play takes place in pastoral Bohemia, where sunlight dapples the ground, flowers are in bloom and a sheep-shearing festival is in full swing. Ethan Hawke makes his much touted appearance as the rogue, Autolycus, singing and dancing, pick-pocketing and cheating his way through the crowd. High comedy ensues when some of the young men and women at the festival break out into a bawdy fertility dance. All this is more reminiscent of Shakespeare's light-hearted comedies in which mistaken identities and misunderstandings are eventually cleared up, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Most of the second half is devoted to a series of fortuitous events, which eventually sees Perdita reunited with her parents, the King and Queen of Sicilia. They too are reconciled to each other. Perdita and her beloved, the Prince of Bohemia, are together at last (the King of Bohemia had originally opposed their marriage, thinking that Perdita was one lowly born), and both kings - erstwhile bosom friends - are also reconciled. Leontes' character is fully redeemed - he has spent the last 16 years remorsefully regretting his actions, and is speechless with joy when he gets both his wife and daughter back from the dead. Everything ends happily, and the tragedy of the first half is entirely reversed. The oracle from the first act has been fulfilled - that which was lost has now been found.

The seeming incongruity between the two halves of the play has led some critics to consider The Winter's Tale to be one of Shakespeare's "problem plays." The play itself is not easily categorised with the two halves so starkly contrasted - dark and light, tragedy and comedy, winter and spring. But perhaps these disparate elements of the play actually represent real life more faithfully than either a straightforward tragedy or comedy could? After all, life is never entirely joyful nor entirely tragic, but often a curious mix of both.

Could it not also be said that the joy of the second half is made more acute by the tragedy of the first? After all, if winter had not been so cold, the trees not so bare, would we behold the first dew and the first bloom of spring with the same wonder? In the same way, if our hearts had not been so dark and hardened, would we be so deeply moved by the immense magnitude of God's grace when first his light breaks in?

The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.
Isaiah 9:2

Friday, March 20, 2009


We were talking about how keen we both were to watch The Bridge Project's The Winter's Tale.

- Do you like Shakespeare?
- I like Ethan Hawke.
- But he's an adulterer! He cheated on Uma Thurman and their two kids!
- You don't know what happened, what it was like to be in his shoes. Maybe he had his reasons. You can't judge.

I mumbled something about penance and repentance, but this kept stewing in my mind all the way home. For all my mock protestations about Ethan Hawke's adultery, I am very excited about the play and the fact that he is in it - I loved Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. In the latter, he might very well have alluded to why his marriage with Uma Thurman broke down. In conversation with Julie Delpy's character, Celine, he (Jesse) describes his unhappy marriage as akin to "running a small nursery with someone I used to date."

We all judge. We judge people for judging. We are self-righteous about the self-righteous. We all have standards of some sort and according to our standards, some people are right, and some are wrong. We cannot avoid making judgments. Despite the ever-present danger of hypocrisy, I still think that it is important to make such distinctions about motivations and action, especially with regards to ourselves. Hate is wrong. Lying is wrong. Cheating is wrong.

However, when we make moral distinctions about other people's actions, the most important thing is to recognise that had we been in their position, we would have done the same - or worse. The difference between making a moral judgment (or being morally discerning), and judging someone - is humility. This is the honest admission that you are nobody's moral superior, and are probably morally inferior in so many ways. Jesus told us as much when he allowed himself to be crucified - for us. He took the judgment that we deserved to bear.

We are all cheaters. God loves us with a faithful, everlasting love, but we have been faithless. We love other things more than Him, in place of Him. Willful self-determination, money, power, success, romance, human approval... the list goes on and on. Even though he gave his whole heart to us, we gave our hearts away - and we have done so at our own peril. We do not love him with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and as a result, we do not come anywhere close to loving our neighbours as ourselves.

We have caused God - and consequently each other - so much pain, and yet his reponse to our betrayal is not to lash out in anger, to hurt us like we have hurt him. Instead, he takes all the pain and hurt of the world - that we have caused - upon himself, so that we may be reconciled to him. We deserved judgment, but he showed us mercy. We deserved his anger, but he showed us forgiveness. We are cheaters, but he is ever loving, ever faithful.

I will praise you, O LORD, among the nations;
I will sing of you among the peoples.

For great is your love, higher than the heavens;

your faithfulness reaches to the skies.

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens,

and let your glory be over all the earth.

Psalm 108:3-5

Sunday, March 08, 2009

When I look at the stars

According to the New York Times, there are two projects underway to allow New Yorkers to get a good look at the night sky. With the current levels of light pollution, most people never have the chance to see the night sky in its full glory.
Indeed, a study published in 2001 in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society in London calculated that more than two-thirds of people in the continental United States never encounter a sky dark enough to see the Milky Way. With the majority of the world’s population now living in or near cities, there is growing concern among astronomers and environmentalists that the permanent twilight of urban areas is making star gazing, once as simple as looking up, a bygone pastime.
Hopefully these projects will succeed and this will be something that we can do here, too.

"I love the night sky. It reminds me of how small and insignificant I and my problems are in light of the infinite. When I look at the stars, I feel like myself." – Jon Foreman (Switchfoot)

Maybe I’ve been the problem
Maybe I’m the one to blame
But even when I turn it off and blame myself
the outcome feels the same
I’ve been thinking maybe I’ve been partly cloudy
Maybe I’m the chance of rain
And maybe I’m overcast
And maybe all my luck’s washed down the drain

I’ve been thinking about everyone
Everyone you look so lonely

But when I look at the stars
When I look at the stars
When I look at the stars
I see someone else
When I look at the stars
The stars
I feel like myself

Stars looking at a planet watching entropy and pain
And maybe start to wonder how
the chaos in our lives could pass as sane
I’ve been thinking about the meaning of resistance
Of a hope beyond my own
And suddenly the infinite and penitent
begin to look like home

I’ve been thinking about everyone
Everyone you look so empty

Everyone, everyone, we feel so lonely
Everyone, everyone, we feel so empty

When I look at the stars I feel like myself
When I look at the stars I see someone

Friday, March 06, 2009

He's just not that into you

The movie was passably pleasant but what really surprised me was that it was actually based on a book which had earlier been published in 2004. Both writers had been involved with Sex and the City, one as a writer and the other as a consultant. I actually remember this line from the series. In one of the episodes, go-getter career woman Miranda has a relational revelation one fine day, when she realises that she doesn't need to keep agonising over whether or not a guy calls back or reciprocates interest. If he doesn't, it just means that he's just not that into you. Armed with this new-found knowledge she goes round the city trying to dispense this wisdom, but is unceremoniously rebuffed by women who want to persist in their self-denial. "He will call," their friends assure them (despite all evidence to the contrary) and they blindly believe.

Which begs the question - why are we so blind?

The contents of the book reads as follows, and the movie is structured along the same lines:

1. He's Just Not That Into You If He's Not Asking You Out
2. He's Just Not That Into You If He's Having Sex With Someone Else
3. He's Just Not That Into You If He Only Wants to See You When He's Drunk
4. He's Just Not That Into You If He's Breaking Up With You
5. He's Just Not That Into You If He's Married

None of these statements are earth-shattering revelations - in fact one would think that they are common sense. And yet the movie - and the book - seems to have struck a chord with quite a few, which leaves me to conclude that we have an amazing capacity for self-denial and deception. What is patently obvious to a disinterested outsider is hardly obvious to the one who is in the throes of a largely one-sided, intense relational experience. This is best exemplified by the character of Gigi (played endearingly by Ginnifer Goodwin). Guy after guy, rejection after rejection, she persists in the hope that the current object of her affection will reciprocate.

I've been reading a bit more about the science of decision-making recently, and one of the things that comes up again and again is that our minds are extremely good at filtering information to confirm pre-existing notions and desires. We all suffer from cognitive biases. (Try this exercise.) I'm guessing that this is one of the main reasons why so often, we just don't see that he's just not that into me/you. So what's a girl to do?

Personally, I know I'm much more susceptible to relational idiocy when I've spent more time marinating in our romance-obsessed culture and not enough reading up on real love. We so often reserve 1 Corinthians 13 for wedding readings, but how often do we singles need to be reminded that love is patient and kind and not envious, boastful, proud, or self-seeking. Armed with such truth, we're much less likely to fall for any cheap love knock-offs.

And probably the best antidote to this relational settling is being filled up with perfect love. The kind that casts out all fears, that was offered to us first and when we were still wretched messes. Love that's unconditional, sacrificial, unending. Love that comes from the One who knit you together in your mother's womb, who knows the number of hairs on your head, who gathers your every tear in a bottle, and who's etched you on the palms of his hands. And why does he do all these things? Because he's just that into you.