“My dear, dear lord,
The purest treasure mortal times afford
Is spotless reputation; that away,
Men are but gilded loam or painted clay.”
–Shakespeare, The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, I.i.176-179
The 19-year-old Jake has a problematic reputation… with me. 24 years ago he headed out on a Mormon mission, a mixture of naivety and arrogance born of untested privilege. Still, he was generally a good kid. Jake honestly thought good would come of his mission. But he was almost fatally self-centered, so he fell.
“Alas, poor duke, the task he undertakes
Is numb’ring sands and drinking oceans dry…”
Recently I read the play Richard II by William Shakespeare. Though it lives in the shadow of other history plays like The Life of Henry the Fifth, Richard II has some of the best scenes and dialogue the Bard ever wrote. Richard is a fantastically deep character who changes a great deal over the course of the play. Initially an arrogant king, Richard plays fast and loose with the fates of others. The unintended consequences prove his undoing.
“Show me thy humble heart, and not thy knee,
Whose duty is deceivable and false.”
The above line comes just after an arrogant nephew kneels before his royal uncle. On his mission, young Jake did not kneel before leaders. He stood for his mission president when he entered the room. He also stood for then-Elder Russell M. Nelson when he visited the mission. Either of those men could have rightly said the above lines to young Jake. For Jake was naive, arrogant, and played fast and loose with other people’s spirituality. He also coveted positions of authority and postured to have a chance at them.
“You may my glories and my state depose,
But not my griefs; still am I king of those.”
Though Jake returned with honor (which is to say a temple recommend), he left his mission in a fallen state. His testimony in the restored Church was wrecked from shocking history lessons and disillusionment. Ultimately, he left church activity. King Richard lost his crown in a similar fashion.
If that parallel sounds melodramatic, bear in mind young Jake had been promised the title of king in his patriarchal blessing. Regardless I think Shakespeare’s plays, like scripture, work magic when we liken them unto ourselves.
As the above couplet conveys, I am the king of my griefs. Nobody really ends clean and victorious in Richard II. As in real life, even for the victor who deposes Richard, there are regrets and sprouting seeds of future conflict. Nevertheless, there is the promise of new days with new opportunities. Once we know how hard life really is, do we dare ask for more than that?
Comments on the above post are welcome. For a previous sampling of great Shakespeare quotes, try reading The Bard Weighs in on Partying
Image of Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm by count_kert.
Sounds like Young Jake grew up. That is a common but not universal experience for returned LDS missionaries.
I’m not a Shakespeare fan at all but I loved your insightful commentary in between the quotes.
Nice post. I might have included, from V.v.:
how sour sweet music is,
When time is broke and no proportion kept!
So it is in the music of men’s lives.
M0st critics feel that Shakespeare adapted a lot of Richard II’s qualities (indecisiveness in particular) as a character and sharpened them in Hamlet. And of course, a good deal of Richard II’s disillusionment is because of his own unwillingness/inability to adapt either himself or his political philosophy in order more effectively to deal with the fraught political milieu in which he finds himself. Bolingbroke, a more clever, subtle and, one could argue, ruthless politician, is the kind of king that Shakespeare suggests England needs in its time of turmoil. It’s perhaps interesting to extend the play’s meditations on leadership and the qualities needed in a time of crisis to the current leadership of our church (and our country) and its philosophies regarding all sorts of issues. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.
Dave B.: “Sounds like Young Jake grew up. That is a common but not universal experience for returned LDS missionaries.”
I wish our people could recognize growing up for what it is.
Richard II is my favorite of the histories. I was introduced to them in the recent BBC Hollow Crown production.
Thank you for showing King Richard’s plight in a new light. Making him more aympathetic and universal.
I love Shakespeare. I wish I had read as much Shakespeare as Book of Mormon (over 50 times). Except I tried to read one of his histories last evening and fell asleep. Staying up much of the previous night around a fire with a bunch of unprepared scouts (boy leadership-not my fault) in cold weather who have all of the 19 year old Jake’s problems magnified enormously by adolescence might be a plausible excuse.
One of the great blessings/cursings of my mission (1970’s) was my first companion. He was so completely unconventional that when I tell stories about him, people think I am making them up. A couple of tidbits: I learned to date well on my mission, a skill I sorely needed. And we tracted without purse or script; in fact I made enough money to pay for a year of college in the 4 months of tutelage under him buying and selling blood diamonds on the black market. He made even more money doing who-knows-what.
Had I married that cute Japanese girl I was engaged to and returned to work there after my mission in the import/export business with another missionary friend (translation-smuggling for the yakuza), the first four months of the mission would have provided a complete foundation for my entire future. But not exactly in ways intended or desirable. Now I would either be long dead or very wealthy.
My first companion did a controlled crash landing that resulted in both of us getting transferred and neither one of us being sent home. But my reputation as a missionary was ruined forever more. I had no hope of any leadership positions and most zone leaders never saw beyond it and so I felt justified fighting with them. This also gave me the freedom to focus on teaching (more like learning from) the Japanese people. I came to see most (but not all) Zone Lords, Apes etc., as self-righteous baby sitters. These were lessons that served me well over the years in various wards.
I went to mission reunions and my mission president seemed pleasantly surprised to see me and to find that I was not in prison or worse. I suppose he might not be so surprised if he were to read this blog and recognize me.
Very much appreciate your reactions and perspectives on Richard II and this post. Thanks you all!
Thanks for the great post, Jake. The Shakespeare quotes were going right over the top of my head…until I remembered once being told that a big key to unlocking Shakespeare is to read it out loud. I gave that a try and… bingo…. it came alive for me!
I also so much agree with you that when we liken the scriptures and other great literature to ourselves it becomes very powerful.
Amen, Fred. Reading out loud helps me a great deal with Shakespeare. Also, I cling to a Riverside edition that comes with explanatory footnotes.