Happy Holidays (or not) as your beliefs take you. Yet one gift we all share any time of year, is the gift impermanence. You may be thinking, “If this is your gift, then point me to the exchange window!” Shakespeare disagrees. For him, impermanence is the gift that keeps on giving. Here are five illustrations from six plays.
Gift No. 1: The Fish Story
The Battle of Agincourt is hours away. The badly outnumbered English hear a rousing speech from King Henry V. Shakespeare reimagines the speech and he tucks in a joke. Henry predicts that those who outlive the day (St. Crispin’s Day) shall, on the battle’s anniversary, feast his neighbors, roll up his sleeves and proclaim these wounds I suffered on St. Crispin’s Day. The punch line: “Old men forget/ yet all shall be forgot/ But he’ll remember with advantages/ what feats he did that day.” The fish that got away gains in poundage, the battle scars become more numerous and severe. Impermanence makes for elastic memories that provide comfort and solace, and, yes, a smile at an all-too-human moment.
Gift No. 2: Love in the Moment
We fritter away time don’t we? We will love later once we finish my punch list: dean’s list, law review, a clerkship, making partner, books to write, awards to receive. It’s the contingent lifestyle. Shakespeare rejected it. Think about a passage from “Twelfth Night:” “What is love? ’Tis not hereafter/ Present mirth hath present laughter/ What’s to come is still unsure/ In delay there lies no plenty/ then come kiss me sweet and plenty/ Youth’s a stuff will not endure.” Kisses brought to you by your boon companion impermanence.
Gift No. 3: Centering Ourselves
We take the wrong path because we lack a moral center. A tragedy because we know better. Banquo and Macbeth come upon three witches. They promise Macbeth that he will become King with his every desire fulfilled. The witches then go poof! Where did they go? Macbeth’s vivid insight: “Into the air, and what seemed corporal/ Melted, as breath into the wind.” This insight should compel him to embrace the concrete: honor, loyalty, friendship. Instead, he embraces the ephemeral: titles, power, castles. Impermanence, if we are paying attention, teaches us what is important and what is not.
Gift No. 4: Hope
Know where the idea of “It’s always darkest before the dawn” comes from? Yes, Shakespeare. Malcolm is the son of the king murdered by Macbeth. Malcolm seeks to arose the nobles to overthrow a weakened Macbeth. They hesitate. Malcolm exhorts: “Come, go we to the king. Our power is ready/ our lack is nothing but our leave…/ The night is long that never finds the day.” The wheel turns. A new day, a new chance, a new opportunity arises. They always do.
Gift No. 5: Comfort
“The Tempest” is his last play. He ends his career on impermanence. The protagonist Prospero learns to forgive his enemies (“the rarer action is/ in virtue than in vengeance”); show joy as his daughter matures to a woman and falls in love; and reconciles himself to the end of life. Listen: “Be cheerful sir/ our revels are now ended/ … 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.” In discussing this column with a colleague, she remarked that we seek to relive the moments in time when we were the most happy, the most fulfilled, the most loved. Hugging hard onto the status quo. “Groundhog Day” but with a different script. But this script would be about a life without texture. Which, when you think about it, would really be no life at all. Have a fulfilled 2018.
Michael P. Maslanka is an assistant professor of law at UNT Dallas College of Law. Maslanka can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.