“Ah, gracious lord, these days are dangerous:Gloucester, the king’s uncle, in Shakespeare’s play King Henry the Sixth, Part 2: III.i.142-144
Virtue is choked with foul ambition,
And charity chas’d hence by rancor’s hand…”
Do you ever feel like you have one hand grasping the iron rod and one hand on the doorknob of the great and spacious building? Maybe you believe your destiny lies with Lehi’s family, but there are people in the building you care about. In any case, you dread committing to either side.
The Book of Mormon’s allegory reflects real life conflict. In religion, politics, or romance, you may feel torn—like there’s no way forward without an ugly fight. People on both sides, including loved ones, point a condemnatory finger at the opposing faction. They’re all making the same basic value statement Uncle Gloucester makes to King Henry, in essence: we are in peril and they are to blame!
“…harmful pity must be laid aside.Clifford, in King Henry the Sixth, Part 3: II.i. 9-18
To whom do lions cast their gentle looks?
Not to the beast that would usurp their den.
Whose hand is that the forest bear doth lick?
Not his that spoils her young before her face.
Who scapes the lurking serpent’s mortal sting?
Not he that sets his foot upon her back.
The smallest worm will turn, being trodden on,
And doves will peck in safeguard of their brood.”
In Shakespeare’s trilogy of plays about Henry the Sixth, there are two sides: the House of York and the House of Lancaster. Both sides believe themselves entitled to the crown. While exploring the plays, I came to this perplexing realization. At different times, I felt myself rooting for both sides.
Likewise, I could think of times I felt disgusted by both the House of York and the House of Lancaster. Sooner or later, they both let me down. There was no Rebel Alliance or Fellowship of the Ring I could root for all the way through. Just some really troubled folks full of contradictions, but for whom I wished tragedy could be avoided. Perhaps I feel like King Henry may feel when, in the above quote, Clifford scolds him for being too nice.
Why can’t pacifism be sexy? Why does humanity always go to war with itself?
“Ah, simple men, you know not what you swear!King Henry, speaking in Part 3: III.i.83-89
Look, as I blow this feather from my face,
And as the air blows it to me again,
Obeying with my wind when I do blow,
And yielding to another when it blows,
Commanded always by the greater gust,
Such is the lightness of you common men.”
King Henry is not the only king who rebukes followers with wavering loyalties—people who seem neither hot nor cold (Revelation 3:15-16). And among followers of kings, the most zealous entrench or retrench. When I went back through my annotations of Shakespeare’s plays, looking for quotes to share, the sensation of feeling caught in the middle became the prevailing theme.
It’s nothing new. Whether divided by church or state, we are a species given to tribalism and feuding. Perhaps we’re most foolish when we suppose we have transcended the barbaric past. Yet there is this glimmer of something I realized after putting down my Shakespeare collection. I felt compassion for both the House of York and the House of Lancaster. Among the bitterly divided in our world, perhaps that is the starting point for progress.
This post comes at the end of a big reading project. Over the last few months I’ve been reading all of Shakespeare’s plays. Well, the ones I hadn’t read in high school and college. I saved the King Henry the Sixth trilogy for last, arguably the most fun that difficult reading has ever been for me.
For another devotional post inspired by Shakespeare quotes, try Justifying Mercy in Measure for Measure.