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Peace of Heart – and Shakespeare

Posted on Friday, December 29, 2023
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by AMAC, Robert B. Charles
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Shakespeare's Plays written in antique book on yellowing pages

No one who is seeking peace of heart much likes the daily news, hearing about violence, how humans cause each other suffering, dehumanize and degrade themselves, leave the world worse. Nor will that occur here. This is about trying harder, moving from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Othello’s Iago to better thoughts, Romeo, Juliet, Isabela in Measure for Measure, Prospero in The Tempest.

When everything you read makes you wonder, worry, or get nauseous, not just about humanity’s loss of the path, but whether it is even true, the time has come to go back to the basics – back to Shakespeare’s lessons.

Why do people re-read Shakespeare, or any classic fiction or non-fiction, from Homer and Virgil to Euripides and Socrates? From Jack London or Charles Dickens’ work to philosophers, like John Locke and Edmund Burke?

Here is why, and why history and literature matter: When all the world looks crazed, like we are experiencing depravity as never before, lack of kindness, compass, and decency; when it looks like humanity will auger in, never recover from our loss of orientation, there is, alas, another reference point.

Beyond the Bible, another source offers hope, an indication that we have been here before, seen it all before, humanity’s capacity for darkness – outweighed by light.

One could use a thousand books, mutually corroborating lessons in them, to make the point, but start with Shakespeare’s works, since he captured better than most the timeless, recurring, tragic and comic, historic, woeful, hopeful nature of life.

Interestingly, one of his first plays was Titus Andronicus, which almost no one remembers, as repulsively violent. Read anything on World War II, China’s Civil War, Korea, Vietnam, or the Rwandan, Cambodian, Armenian, or Sudanese genocides, cartel violence or end of Carthage, terrorists attacks by Hamas, Hezbollah, anything in Gaza, and you will find – believe it or not – Shakespeare was already there. He knew human demoralization, depravity, and insanity.

In that play, a character (Aaron) declares: “Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand, blood and revenge are hammering in my head.” For sake of inner peace, we will leave the violence untold, but humanity’s ability to dehumanize and disregard life’s value, was well known in Shakespeare’s day. Nothing exceeds it now.

Then go to the character of Iago in Othello, who embodies a different kind of evil, the sort we must address within, which causes us to be cautious in assessing others and concerned about ourselves.

At once tragic and vile, this betrayer of trust causes others to believe the untrue, triggers a cascade of emotion-laden events, death of Othello and his wife Desdemona, death of blindly trusting Roderigo and Iago’s wife, Emilia – a tragedy that was utterly avoidable. 

Combining lessons on where hate leads from Titus, and not appreciating truth from Othello, Shakespeare reminds us bad things are preventable, but only if we hold ourselves and others to standards that prevent them, act to stop evil when we see it.

As time passed, Shakespeare evolved. In the characters of Romeo and of Juliet, whose romance flies in the face of tribal hate, who rise above it, only to shock their respective clans in a tragic end, we are reminded about the human spirit, what it can overcome, and in overcoming evil, the legacy it leaves.

In Measure for Measure, we get introduced to Isabela, who – beyond specifics – is about honor, faith, decency, and virtue, yet she understands the vexed state of humankind, always wrestling between what can be and should be, “twixt will and will not,” and thus in need of forgiveness.

Finally, Shakespeare takes us – in his very last play – to The Tempest, a storm at sea, putting Prospero ashore and in a position, with magic, to create a positive world, one that makes use of mankind’s unspoken abilities to transcend evil, yet – he knows – must contend with it.

Perhaps Prospero’s final speech, which some take to be Shakespeare’s nod to mortality, as he wrote no more, says what we most need to remember – that we see the world, can help the world, must accept the world – only as we see it, not as others tell us to see it.

Unlike any other play he wrote, Shakespeare concedes to Prospero he can write his own story, and thus – in a parting nod to all of us – that we too can, and we should.

Says Prospero: “Our revels now are ended. These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits, and are melted into air, into thin air; and like the baseless fabric of this vision, the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve; And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded, with a sleep.”

What he means, of course, is that we have but a short time to write our story, and should not be knocked off course by the “tempest,” but rise and thrive, keep hope alive, just as he and Prospero did. Peace of heart is a thing to be found, but lives.

Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.

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Lieutenant Beale
Lieutenant Beale
5 months ago

”Inside of me there are two dogs. One is mean and evil, the other is good and they fight each other all the time. When asked which one wins, I answer, the one I feed the most” – Sitting Bull.

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