The skeletal remains of England’s King Richard III were found beneath a parking lot in the midlands city of Leicester, where once a monastery of the greyfriars stood before it was destroyed in the English Reformation.
The 16th-Century bard William Shakespeare devoted an entire play to the doomed king, one of four plays devoted to the War of the Roses. In it, the playwright creates perhaps the greatest villain in the history of the stage.
Great art arises from deep pain. Whatever the medium – be it in sight or sound, words or texture – deep-felt human emotion gives rise to great art. Deep calls on deep, and the human heart responds to the emotion it encounters in great art.
The skeleton found beneath the parking lot reveals a serious case of scoliosis, a curved spine, but Shakespeare revealed that the twisted form of Richard III went far deeper than his bones. He makes the man’s physical deformity the embodiment of his moral deformity. While the set of plays in which he is cast unfolds, we are introduced to Richard with the words of one character describing him as “a foul, undigested lump, as crooked in manners as in shape.”
When Richard comes onto the world’s stage in Shakespeare’s retelling, the audience is masterfully led beyond the physical deformity. We are invited into the private realm of his feelings, his thoughts, his motivations. We are taken in to his heart. We are led to feel as he feels – deeply, passionately, madly – and as we feel his pain we are led to pity the man so cruelly treated by nature and fate.
Richard turns toward the audience in a soliloquy and opens his heart:
“Love forswore me in my mother’s womb,
And she did corrupt frail nature with some bribe
To shrink mine arm up like a withered shrub,
To make an envious mountain on my back —
Where sits a deformity to mock my body —
To make my legs of an unequal size,
To disproportion me in every part.
Am I then a man to be beloved?
O, monstrous fault, to harbor such a thought!
Then, since this Earth affords no joy to me
But to command, to check, to overbear such
As are better person than myself,
I’ll make my heaven to dream upon the crown,
And while I live, to account this world but hell,
Until my mis-shapen trunk that bears this head
Be round impaled with a glorious crown.”
From deep pain, great art has arisen. Richard has concluded that he is unlovable, and so his only recourse against the unfairness of his life is to achieve power and greatness. “I cannot be loved,” he seems to say, “and so I shall gain respect in power.” At that point, the audience wants to cheer him on to success, wants to see him realize his dreams, wants this lonely and misshapen man to be happy.
At this point Shakespeare can say, “Gotcha!” The master has led us to leave reason behind and follow Richard with pure emotion as passionate as his own aching heart.
The audience now has empathy with this pitiable man, and as in subsequent scenes as we are led through his achievement of his goals, we want to cheer him on. We can almost overlook the cruelty by which he rises to the throne of England by the murder of all who stand in his way. He deserves something better than what fate has given him, and his crass disregard for right and wrong has no meaning in his path to fulfillment. Moral judgments are suspended; right and wrong are turned upside-down because we so want this lonely man to find happiness in his dream of power.
Although Shakespeare casts his play as a tragedy, the real tragedy is that this type of moral manipulation goes on everyday around us.
Watch for it in the secular news and in secular entertainment. Whether on radio, television, internet, or in print, the same gambit is used constantly to lead us beyond the point of moral judgment and into accepting what – with clear reason and unclouded emotion – we would always recognize as wrong.
A story is told. In the story we meet a person with deep emotions: fright, confusion, self-doubt, hurt, anger, loneliness. We are invited by the retelling of the story to pity the person, and when our own emotions are captured in the dragnet of the story’s sentimentality – gotcha! – only then are we confronted with the real crux of the story: something which, with unclouded reason, we would otherwise recognize as a moral wrong. Over and over again this pattern is repeated, in news and in sit-coms, in films and in human interest stories. With the skill of the great bard long ago, the story opens us to deep emotion and then asks us to suspend moral judgment in favor of pity.
But right is right and wrong is wrong, sin is sin, and what is disordered remains disordered even if we so desperately want the subject of our pity to find happiness. The goal of this trap is for us to conclude that the only absolute is the right to happiness, and any means are acceptable to attain it. What we would recognize as wrong or sinful or evil in any other setting becomes something we can overlook when we fall into this trap. Gotcha!
There is a cruel reality which every generation has had to face: life is sometimes unfair and there are things that happen in life that we can’t always understand or explain. This reality points us in hope toward a goal beyond this world, and by realizing that some aches cannot be healed and some thirsts cannot be slaked in this life, we allow a more penetrating reality to remain always in our purview: we were created for infinity, for Heaven, for life with God, and nothing less will suffice.
From deep pain arises great art. Even more so, from deep pain arises great faith.
February 9, 2013