Wednesday, November 4, 2009

two sides to the story

in my first semester in college, i took two english courses: an introductory literature survey taught by the professor assigned to be my advisor (and who encouraged me, after that semester, to reconsider my english major for women's studies--if you know me, you'll know that i had a new advisor before long) and a shakespeare course with a professor from whom i not only took several more courses and for whom i was a t.a., but who became my honors thesis advisor several years later. i don't remember much about that course, to tell the truth, but i do remember one exam--the final, i think.

the professor told us in advance that we would be writing an in-class essay. he would give us a quotation from one of the plays we had read (and whether he gave us the context or not, i can't remember, but i don't think he did), and we would need to write an essay "about" that quotation. or something like that. though i can't remember the details, i do well remember the quotation.

if you've ever read any shakespeare, you probably have a few guesses, just as we wet-behind-the-ears freshmen (or should i say "first-years"?) did: "to be or not to be," perhaps, or "wherefore art thou, romeo?" or, "friends, romans, countrymen, lend me your ears." or maybe, if you're a bit more well read, you might come up with, "o, that this too too sullied (solid?) flesh would melt": a good choice, certainly, with the endless possibilities for essay blathering on the word choice question. maybe, "if music be the food of love, play on": countless ideas for thesis statements there.

(but, "'tis better to be brief than tedious," says a murderer in shakespeare's richard iii. i won't keep you in suspense.)

the gasp was audible, as i recall, when we sat down to the exam and read the quotation: "both, both." needless to say, none of us was prepared for that one. none of us even knew whence it came, much less what it meant or what we could write about it.

i have no idea what i wrote. nor do i have any memory of any of the (no doubt excellent) discussions in that class or of the other exams or papers. i vaguely remember the plays we read, mostly the ones that appeared in my honors thesis years later, and those very vaguely at best. the space in my brain once reserved for shakespeare lines was rather quickly refilled with lines from "the very hungry spider" and "where the wild things are" several years ago.

but i remember that exam (and the context of the quotation, too--prospero in the tempest), and this morning, that quotation returned to me in the midst of a completely unrelated discussion.

the context is this: prospero and his daughter, miranda, are discussing their island exile and miranda's few memories and many questions about their life before. prospero's response to her question of the value of that exile, be it curse or blessing, is this: "Both, both, my girl:/ By foul play, as thou say’st, were we heav’d thence;/But blessedly holp hither" (i.2.76-78). he goes on to explain that, though they were banished to the island under the worst of circumstances, their time there has turned out to be a blessing.

it occurred to me this morning that so many things are that way, both curse and blessing: things no smaller than questions of life and death and their merits. both, both. so many questions with two answers that seem incompatible and over which i like to lose sleep: faith vs. works, predestination vs. free will, submission vs. righteous indignation. both, both, we're told.

which just doesn't sit well with me. i'm a black-and-white kind of girl. death is either a blessing or a curse, not both. God either determines long before i'm born what my destiny is, or i determine it myself, not both. because, with my limited capacity to see beyond right now, i can't seem to see both sides.

would that i could, though. would that i could, like prospero, look at the truly wretched circumstances in my life and both despise them and be grateful for them. would that i could see beyond my very present circumstances and the past that got me here into the future--the no-doubt very far future, in some cases--in which they will be resolved.

both, both, indeed.


Meredith said...

Beautiful reflection, Daniele. I don't have words to add.

And isn't amazing how those lines still come back? So many times I have gone to quip a line from the bard to someone only to realize they have no idea what I am saying..

Oh, and that's a really stinkin' mean test.

Katie said...

Oh, how I remember that test! I recently read a book about a ship called the Sea Venture, destined for Jamestown to rescue its starving inhabitants with food and supplies. The ship and its travelers end up shipwrecked in Bermuda, apparently helping to inspire our friend Will to write The Tempest. So, The Tempest has been on my mind of late. Thank you for the reminder of our 18 year old selves... and how the meaning of a few lines of Shakespeare can change and grow more meaningful with time, age and life. Your reflections always make me stop and consider. Thank you for that.