Entranced of Humility: Part 1

I recently read Joseph Pearce’s book Through Shakespeare’s Eyes: Seeing the Catholic Presence in the Plays in which he explicates the influence of Catholicism upon the major plays, particularly The Merchant of Venice, which also happens to be my favorite Shakespearean drama. I like it for its moral (and somewhat ethical) dimension, for of all of Shakespeare’s plays none so clearly invites the audience to consider humility par excellence in the context of marriage. How is this invitation so?

Bassanio introduces the fair lady of “wondrous virtues” (1.1.170) whose “name is Portia” (1.1.172). Indeed, because of her virtue”renowned suitors” (1.1.176) from Venice quest for her love upon her nearby home of Belmont. Portia also happens to be searching for a husband, but her heart lies in tension when the will of her dead father invites her to provide a test for the suitors to discover of which of them would be worthy of husbandry, but in the process her freedom of choice diminishes, for the choice would be that of her father’s (1.2). Indeed, Portia states, “I / may neither choose who I would nor refuse who I / dislike” (1.2.22-24), for the power of choosing and refusing a husband would be completely out of her hands. Shakespeare invites the audience to judge whether she ought to provide the test for the suitors or not?

Portia notes that it would be good to follow her father’s instruction, for the “youth” (1.2.20) in their “blood” (1.2.18), that is in their mere emotions, would be ignorant of “good counsel” (1.2.20) due to the fact that mere emotions without reason harbors intemperance and imprudence. Portia recognizes that her emotions cloud her judgement of what is prudent and moderate in choosing a good husband. Would it not be prudent then for some influence outside of herself to guide her to a good husband? If so, what would this guidance look like?

We know from Portia’s maiden Nerissa that Portia’s father was “ever virtuous” (1.2.27) and as such his instruction as it were should not be simply ignored, for Portia desires a virtuous man for a husband, and whose counsel is better than a virtuous man’s himself? Many people might find such a test of virtue impossible or foolish to provide, for who would give up their freedom for a potential spouse? Should not a marriage bring forth such freedom rather than diminish it?

A marriage built on false freedom would cultivate a freedom of pure materialism, whereby the chooser of a spouse has the freedom of choice cultivated by a self-gain attitude (i.e. one’s choices would culminate in the gaining of something rather than the giving of something). A marriage built on true freedom would cultivate love, which is the gift of self for the sake of another. Is not this gift of self a humble act? That is to ask, if Portia were to provide her father’s test of virtue to her suitors, would she not be humbling herself by subjecting herself to an objective test of virtue? The test would have to be truly objective I suppose, and in that case, a look at its objectivity is in order.

The test is indeed objective because in order to pass it one would have to “give and hazard all he hath” (2.7.21-22) for their lover. In other words, the one who Portia should “rightly love” (1.2.32) would be the man who gives of himself fully and completely for her in marriage. The test is objective, for all men are invited to take it. Indeed, Portia freely chooses to subject herself to her father’s objective test (Pearce 37). Reminiscing Pearce’s words here, she humbly limits her freedom in order to conform to practical reason, which allows her to be free of the issue of imprudence and intemperance due to her clouded judgement (Pearce 37). Here lies a radical didactic framework for all those in Portia’s place, for how many would find conformity to the will of another foolish in a culture that celebrates false freedom?

This blog is part 1 of my interest in the virtue of humility in The Merchant of Venice. I appreciate the invitation to observe humility par excellence in the context of marriage. In my next part I will be analyzing Portia’s perspective of others due to her humility.

Works Cited:

Pearce, Joseph. Through Shakespeare’s Eyes: Seeing the Catholic Presence in the Plays, Ignatius Press, 2010. Print.

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice, FOLGER Shakespeare Library, 1993. Print.

Perspective of the Envious

I recently read the poem “Beowulf,” in which the author seemed to be aware, either consciously or perhaps as a part of his subconscious, of the nature of a human being, particularly of the major vices and virtues and how they manifest in humans. What I found most interesting was not so much that the work displayed the major vices and virtues but rather the nature of an envious perspective in light of the vice of envy. What do I mean by this statement?

I would like to examine the character Unferth son of Ecglaf and his first appearance in the poem. Why? Because in it he proudly proclaims Beowulf’s foolishness as a warrior in light of an envious perspective of Beowulf. Indeed, “Beowulf’s coming, / his sea-braving, made [Unferth] sick with envy” (501-502), for Unferth could not stand that Beowulf was more illustrious and glorified than he. The vice of envy manifests in Unferth. How does this vice pan out?

Unferth who is envious of Beowulf’s glory attempts to diminish it. How? He reminisces about an old competition at sea between Beowulf and his friend Breca and wonders as to why Beowulf would fight a friend just to claim a victory for itself as opposed to for glory. A victory for itself is “vanity” (509) according to Unferth, whereas glory manifests in charity. Unferth mistakes Beowulf’s intentions in battle, thereby translating Beowulf’s competition with Breca into something less significant than it actually was. The first contributor to Unferth’s perspective is misinterpretation, for Beowulf fights for his people and not for victory solely.

An envious man obsesses with achieving his desired ends. Hence, Unferth purports that Beowulf was “obsessed” (512) to be victorious in competing against Breca. The envious Unferth attempts to provide evidence by remarking on the small details of the fight, in this case those details were of Beowulf maneuvering through the water in which the competition took place. The water was tough because of its current, but according to Unferth, Beowulf “vied” (517) on, for an obsessive man would do so selfishly for victory. The second contributor to Unferth’s perspective is hypocrisy, for Unferth ironically obsesses over Beowulf’s so-called ‘obsession’ of victory.

Alas, Beowulf was not victorious in the competition, but he had been victorious in many battles since. However, this fact does not prevent Unferth from concluding on a message of doubt for Beowulf. An envious man views any and every failure by another as contributing to the doubt of that one’s glory. Indeed, Unferth proclaims that no matter how Beowulf had fared in battle since his loss at the competition, Beowulf would ‘certainly’ lose the real battle against the monstrous Grendel, as if Unferth knew for certain (525-528). Unferth in his envy chose to be doubtful of Beowulf’s capacity to acclaim glory in defeat of Grendel even though Beowulf’s past since the competition would suggest otherwise.

Here I have demonstrated a clear example of the relationship between the vice of envy and one’s perspective under the influence of said vice. Unferth manifests misinterpretation, hypocrisy, and doubt on his road to declaim Beowulf. But of course the story does not end there, for Beowulf redeems Unferth’s envious perspective later on.

I applaud the author of “Beowulf” for displaying human nature properly, particularly of how one’s perspective of others protrudes under vice or virtue.

Works Cited:

Heaney, Seamus. “Beowulf.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, edited by Stephen Greenblatt et al., W. W. Norton & Company, 2013, pp. 41-106.

Winter Communion

One of the most attracting bands in the 21st century is Twenty One Pilots with its two talented artists, Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun. They attract audiences because they intertwine intelligibility and Christianity (and other elements), for their work invites its listeners to critically think, as all modern music ought to do. In this sense the band strives to be intelligent in its creativity. Additionally, its songs revolve around Christianity, or at least the Christian lens as it were on the world at hand. This element resides in the practicing Christian that Joseph is and Christianity’s influence upon him and his work.

One particular song that I will examine is ‘Oh Ms. Believer,’ the title of which is a paronomasia pun between the meanings ‘misbeliever’ and ‘an unmarried woman with beliefs.’ The song addresses misconstrued belief and its resurrection. The former meaning provides the premise upon which the rest of the song builds, while the latter meaning provides an element of love within the song that lends itself to the manner in which Christ mitigates the misbeliever of misconstrued belief through communion. How does the song revolve around misbelief? What is significant of communion?

I would like to begin with the phrase “the dead of winter.” This phrase resides in the fourth line of the song, however, with the words ‘winter’ (1.4) and ‘dead’ (1.4) switched around in order to make an internal rhyme at the end of verse 1. This internal rhyme lends itself to the deeper meaning of the phrase “the dead of winter” in that the writer(s) not only refers to the time of winter but of winter as the symbol of death, for the lyric states “the winter of dead” (1.4).

The composer(s) of the song explicates how the misbeliever finds herself colder than the winter of dead. Her ‘shaking shoulders’ (1.3) signify that her ‘twisted mind’ (1.2) is more dead to belief than the death that results of winter. I wonder if Joseph purposely alliterated ‘shaking shoulders’ to impress the listener’s mind with this reality of the misbeliever? Whatever the case, the rhetor of the poem finds himself with a Christian tension when his ‘pretty sleeper’ (1.1) muffs her ears, as any misbeliever might do in the cold environment, thereby preventing any mitigation of misconstrued belief from the Christian whose duty it is in part to mitigate the woman of her ignorance.

The singer of the song attempts to mitigate the misbeliever through sympathy and ultimately love. The singer proclaims he loves her (the unmarried misbeliever), and through his love he judges her. I wonder how many would find Christian judgment radical and foolish? But indeed, he first judges her to be a ‘sleeper’ (1.1), and than he proclaims that her muffs distill her fears. Of what fears we know not but only that she has them. The significance of verse 1 lies in that the rhetor travels with her through the cold environment despite her ignorance. In this sense, he is Christ-like. Moreover, the composer pleads for the struggling believer to “take his hand” (4.3) as Christ invites all to take His.

The rhetor of the song gives hope to the misbeliever by emphasizing the element of community in traveling through the “foreign land” (2.3) and repeating the line “together we go” (pre-chorus, 2.5, 6) four times. The composer purports in verses 3 and 5 how traveling might get deadlier as the years go on, but together they will learn to walk slower despite the cold and any fears that may arise. The singer acknowledges the manner of mitigation here in that through communion he and his lover will grow stronger in their beliefs.

I appreciate the work of Twenty One Pilots, and I hope they continue to invite their listeners to ponder their lyrics.

Works Cited:

Joseph, Tyler. “Oh Ms Believer.” Twenty One Pilots, 2009, www.youtube.com/watch?v=sKU91Zjf2uQ.