Monday, September 25, 2006

Running Fast

I used to teach high school English. One of the things that I taught to my freshmen every year, along with Animal Farm and endless preparation for CAPT, was Romeo and Juliet. I always looked forward to it.

One of my favorite ways to bore my students was to use Friar Laurence to make a point about moderation. Here's what he has to say in Act II, sc. iii. on the subject:
For nought so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give,
Nor aught so good but strain'd from that fair use
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse:
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied;
And vice sometimes by action dignified.
Within the infant rind of this small flower
Poison hath residence and medicine power:
For this, being smelt, with that part cheers each part;
Being tasted, slays all senses with the heart.
Two such opposed kings encamp them still
In man as well as herbs, grace and rude will;
And where the worser is predominant,
Full soon the canker death eats up that plant. (II.iii, l. 17-30)

It's then that Romeo comes in to tell him he's going to marry Juliet, at which point Friar Laurence promptly tells him he's an overhasty young idiot. Which he is.

But the point of the speech was that you can have too much even of good things, and that everything has some sort of use or purpose. When a man becomes unbalanced and tilts too far to one side or the other, it's like being poisoned.

And that's how I live my life, and form my politics. Everything has a use, a purpose. All things in moderation. "Wisely and slow," the Friar counsels Romeo, "They stumble that run fast." It seems like good advice. We often push change too hard or restrict ourselves too much, we either try to do too much or do nothing at all. We don't move with wisdom and forethought. We listen to our emotions, and not our minds. It's dangerous. We stumble.

My students thought this was dumb. They lived emotional lives. They acted on impulse. Meeting a girl one night and marrying her the next morning seemed a little weird, but it made a certain amount of sense to them.

But Shakespeare may have sneaked one past me, clever soul that he is. Friar Laurence tries desperately to walk the middle path throughout the play, but at crucial moments he is unable to act decisively. His plan to fake Juliet's death and then sneak her out of the city to where Romeo waits is clever, but far too indirect. He's still on a middle course, trying to cause as few waves as possible. Better to simply abscond with her to Mantua and Romeo, and let the consequences fall where they may. His plan leads to tragedy and death. When it unravels, and Romeo lies dead as Juliet awakens, Friar Laurence panics and runs away, leaving Juliet just enough time to stab herself to death. Fear masters even the wise.

The lesson seems to be that there are times when caution and moderation at the expense of the ability to act decisively is just as dangerous as rushing headlong into the unknown. Friar Laurence commits just as blindly to his middle course as Romeo and Juliet do to their extreme one. Maybe that's the wisdom lost in the play.

Or maybe it's that events will destroy us, no matter what we do or how hard we try. Romeo and Juliet had a night of pure bliss before they died. Friar Laurence ends up with nothing but ruin and ashes. Who am I to say who was the wiser?

And so. How does this relate to Connecticut politics? I'm sure I could think of a dozen ways. Maybe Ned Lamont, who is riding a tiger that will someday consume him. Or Joe Lieberman, who plays the moderate from time to time. Maybe Lamont's tiger will carry him to dizzying heights. Maybe Lieberman's desperate moderation keeps him from seeing the big picture.

Maybe this nation is a tragedy.

And maybe I'm just depressed this morning.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Anyone see that the Pakistani Gov't called for Nancy Johnson to remove her "Space Invaders" commercial? Now that's funny!

Anonymous said...

OK Genghis, I think it's time for an intervention. Slowly put down your computer...

Genghis Conn said...

What's the point of having a blog if you can't ramble on about stuff from time to time?

Anonymous said...

I thought it was a nice post. What Genghis is getting at sounds like a paradox of sorts. We are no longer comfortable with paradoxes. We Americans crave the false promises of certainty too much. Better to control our anxiety, hang over the abyss between the two poles of certainly,(A Heidegger metaphor) just BE in the middle of the paradoxical situatiuon and give up this irrational quest that if we can only know and be certain of our answer, that we will be happy.

Anonymous said...

Lieberman could help get at least one recruit by convincing his 18 yr old daughter,Hana, to put off her "Studying overseas" in Israel and instead signing on for a 4 yr hitch in the US armed forces.

turfgrrl said...

Great post. But, perhaps you've been weighed down by the virtual Tybalt's that grace this site.