Skip to content

Becoming Becoming

October 19, 2013

The quality of mercy is not strain’d

Yesterday, I met with twelve men in the Pendleton Correctional Facility. We all brought our wants and fears with us. One man anticipates the completion of his sentence and wants to spend his remaining months inside with something interesting to occupy his time. Another man had caught the enthusiasm of a friend of his who had participated in a Shakespeare program at another prison. His friend had said that working with Shakespeare had given him a reason to live, had, indeed, saved his life. Another inmate had with him a paperback copy of the complete works of Shakespeare, and he gave me a long list of the plays he has spent his personal time reading. Yet another has been trying his hand at writing plays, and as he put it, why not learn from the master of playwriting? One man identified prison as a cultural desert; he is joining us to fill a void of cultural value in his life. He too has read a lot of Shakespeare. And yet another inmate wants to know the answers to the Shakespeare clues on Jeopardy; he is interested in Hamlet as the story of a son avenging his father’s death.

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes—

Thirteen men, thirteen mixtures of wants. I have never been an inmate in a prison, though I have been a prisoner, or, as the Bible puts it, a slave to my own angers, envies, lusts, and vanities, in my thoughts and manifested in my actions. One of the men fairly questioned my intentions for being there. Why am I starting Shakespeare at Pendleton? I have a variety of wants, and I would be lying if I said that my vanity doesn’t appear in my reasons somewhere. It’s nice to be appreciated or to be thought really intelligent. Especially on that last point—the desire to be thought really intelligent—I will have to be particularly vigilant: Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. (Or does knowledge blow up? … Explodes?)

But the men need mercy and want mercy, and I want mercy and need mercy, and Mercy blesses him that gives mercy, and Mercy blesses him that takes mercy. I could be entirely selfish, and entirely honest, if I were to say that I am doing Shakespeare at Pendleton for myself. But my self becomes a different self when I share in the need for mercy, and in the blessing of giving mercy, and in the blessing of receiving mercy, from the men society deems unworthy of any mercy whatsoever. “Society” may be right about them, but it could not be more wrong about itself. Because we are all, all, all of us, in “the place beneath.”

‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest

There is a counterpoint to what I’ve written above, and in the play itself upon which I’ve based this meditation. Portia, in The Merchant of Venice, is not just stating eternal verities; as one of the men pointed out, she is pretending to be a judge and she is testing a character who has believed himself to be a victim, and has indeed been a victim, as he seeks for legal revenge. It cannot be taken for granted that everyone wants mercy or wants it to the same degree or in the same kind. When we discussed Portia’s speech yesterday, the men began on this line with observing who the mightiest are—kings, presidents, prison wardens, and all those with social positions of power. But then another man noted that this line may also refer to people with personal might, and they show themselves to be mightier by not always showing all of their might in whatever they may be mightiest (physical strength, intelligence, popularity). This is a paradox—to be mightiest is not to be the mightiest. And it is so hard to be the mightiest the merciful way; every character in The Merchant of Venice fails to be the mightiest in trying to be that one.

Or, I’ll put it this way: whether “’tis mightiest in the mightiest” is true or a bunch of flowery hokum depends not upon the truth of the words but upon the truth of the person.

It becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown—

After I began writing this meditation, I remembered that I ended the session yesterday with asking the men to freewrite anything they want to about the whole of Portia’s speech, translating it into their own English, meditating upon the passage itself, or anything else that they want to do. I only considered later that with this post, I am completing my own assignment.

Yesterday we had a great opening session, but my favorite time was when we were discussing these lines, “It becomes/ The throned monarch better than his crown.” The men first offered what I think is the usual interpretation of these lines: “Becomes,” here, has the sense we think of when we say that a woman is becoming or comely. Thus, the quality of mercy is more attractive for, more appropriate for, a throned monarch than his crown. A king is a better, more attractive, king for being merciful than for his possessions.

But then one of the inmates gave us all a lightbulb moment, an epiphany if you’d like: Suppose Mercy itself becomes the throned monarch. Mercy as king v. Crown as king.

I am delighted that most of the men picked up on what I think has been the usual interpretation of these lines; we are understanding Shakespeare. But we’ve transformed the passage too: Mercy becomes those of us who are becoming.

So this becomes my prayer for this week, that in my life, in my work at Huntington, in my time with the inmates, and in my church community, that I will become a person who is becoming. May we all become becoming.

In the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.

From → Uncategorized

  1. Alice M. Johnston permalink

    Jack, You are gifted in your way of communicating! I’m awed. Alice Johnston

  2. Jack, God’s richest blessings on this endeavor. I think we share the belief that great books change lives, and you are living out your calling as a professor in a marvelous way!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: