by STEVEN LEIGH MORRIS
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:
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.
And finally, there are clear calls for mercy and forgiveness:
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.