Spokes & Mirrors by Steven Leigh Morris

Vengeance & Forgiveness in Shakespeare, and In Our Culture

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[dropcap]An[/dropcap] entrancing, outdoor production of The Tempest just closed this summer’s al fresco Shakespeare festival in Griffith Park, presented by Independent Shakespeare Co.

The production, and its closing, not only alerted us that summer is drawing to a close, it also signaled, once again — with Prospero’s closing monologue — the eternal interchange of vengeance and forgiveness, like fire and the air it feeds on, in so many of Shakespeare’s plays. And if that clash had nothing to do with the world we live in, and the worlds we learn of in our media, there would be little reason to keep doing this play, or this playwright.

The premise of vengeance is, and has always been, to redress a wrong. But what is a wrong? The torture of an innocent child: There’s little argument in that. The killing of innocents by a drone strike orchestrated by a foreign nation and targeted at terrorists? Are the families of the dead entitled to justice? Or even vengeance, by, say, blowing up a crowded café in Paris, or New York, or at an airport? What right to vengeance have those honoring their children and siblings gunned down in a drive-by shooting, when retribution is symbolic — i.e. vengeance against those who had nothing directly to do with their loss — or those whose anger stems from social injustice of all shapes and sizes? When does forgiveness become the lesser of two evils? When does an act of grace become the greater moral, and when does it become a free pass for aggressors to continue their persecution, or greed, or abuse?

If we take the ancient Greek plays as a guide, forgiveness does not seem to have been part of that ancient civilization’s moral code. Oedipus the King provides a typical example. The play is based on the gods calling for vengeance (justice) against whomever killed the former king, in exchange for the gods lifting the plague from Thebes. King Oedipus springs into action as investigator and judge. When he learns that the criminal is actually himself, there’s no dissembling; there’s no convenient silence; no “I did not touch that woman” defense made into any camera; no hiding of tax returns. Among the beauties of the ancient Greek plays is that each character speaks his or her unwavering truth, which is what makes these plays so primal. Oedipus takes full responsibility for his deeds and commits himself to exile and blindness. He doesn’t yet know he has killed his own father, or married his own mother, but still, he condemns himself for his deeds — regardless of mitigating circumstances and without forgiveness.

The Bible contains among the earliest references to forgiveness found in the European literary heritage that informed Shakespeare, yet the Bible sends decidedly mixed messages on the theme.

There are passages that incite/inspire a kind of justice bordering on revenge:

  • “Eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” – Exodus 21:24-25
  • “If a man causes a field of vineyard to be grazed over, or lets his beast loose and feeds on another man’s field, he shall make restitution from the best in his own field and in his own vineyard.” – Exodus 22:1-31
  • “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” (I believe this was in the rules and regulations of the Homeowners’ Association I used to belong to.) – Ephesians 4:26-27
  • “Since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you.” – 2 Thessalonians 1:6

There are also references to forgiveness that are more of the, Leave it alone, God’s got your back and He’s a vengeful God variety.

  • “May the Lord judge between me and you, may the Lord avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you.” – 1 Samuel 24:12
  • “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” – Revelation 21:8
  • “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” – Romans 12:19

And finally, there are clear calls for mercy and forgiveness:

  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” – Matthew 5:38-39
  • “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” – Leviticus 19:18
  • “See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:15
  • “But I say unto you which hear, love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despiseth you… For if ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? For sinners also do even the same. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again… ” – Luke 6:27-35

In the Hollywood condo where I used to live, I had a neighbor who would tremble with rage at the woman who lived in the house next door for her crime of leaving peanuts on the garden wall that separated our properties, in order to feed the wildlife. The squirrels would eat the peanuts and chuck the shells onto our side of the wall, which the aggrieved neighbor claimed he was forced to clean up. We — those who lived in our building — were all “wronged” by the peanut vandal, he claimed. We can’t come to grips with justice, or policy, or the vengeance done in its name, without some agreement on what injustice actually means, including the distinction between a wrong and a petty dispute.


Steven Leigh Morris

Steven Leigh Morris

Steven is the Executive Director of LA STAGE Alliance, and is the founding editor of the community-funded digital arts venture Stage Raw (www.stageraw.com). Morris chaired the Jury for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2012, and served on that Jury in 2011. He received the Critic of the Year prize for his print reviews by the National Entertainment Journalism Awards in 2011.