S is for Shakespeare

It was my birthday last week – which I only mention because it fell on the same day as the cataclysmic events that unfolded in the United States. Somehow my little domestic celebrations felt a tad out of place! On the eve of this pivotal day in history, Jamie and I headed up to Stratford – where we enjoyed spending our Christmas present of theatre vouchers, watching The Tempest. It was a feast. I can heartily recommend it. In fact, I have been thinking about it ever since. And now I am wondering if there is not a strong link between the two (Trump and The Tempest, not my birthday)…

On Radio 4’s Any Questions, one of the panelists made the point that it does us no good to call Mr Trump names. He may very well be all those things that we are calling him, but that does not in any way address, or begin to solve, the problem of having to deal with him. In fact, if anything, it just makes it all the harder.

In a similar way, exiled and much-wronged Prospero, spends a great deal of time and energy berating his evil slave, Caliban: (go with me here)

“A devil, a born devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never stick; on whom my pains,

Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost, / And as with age his body uglier grows,

So his mind cankers.”

In fact, the parallels at times get even better, including: “a freckled whelp… Dull thing… “When thou didst not, savage / Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like / A thing most brutish”…

Need I go on? I think not!

And so Prospero develops a very clear case to punish and damn Caliban for ever (and with good cause; he even catches him trying to rape Prospero’s daughter and later discovers his plot to murder Prospero himself). And yet…

Prospero, for all his great “reason”, his magical powers, his ability, his moral high ground, his intellect and education, in short, his unquestionable superiority, comes finally, after much show of power and drama and coercion, to a place where he is able to say of Caliban:

“This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”

What a moment!

And with that single, humble act of recognition and self knowledge, Prospero the all-powerful and over-weening magician, the over-bearing father, the exiled and usurped Duke, becomes (in also burying his magic powers) fully human. Having spent most of his life wielding his power, glorifying in his own aggrandizement, controlling events around him and trying to wreak vengeance, he finally recognises his own brokenness and need to receive mercy:

“Now my charms are all o’erthrown, / And what strength I have’s mine own,

Which is most faint…”

And in a clever metaphor in the epilogue, having freed his servants and forgiven his enemies, he asks the audience for their applause, which of course, is also the same act as putting hands together for prayer: “release me from my bands with the help of your good hands”. He continues:

“And my ending is despair / Unless I be relieved by prayer,

Which pierces so, that it assaults / Mercy itself, and frees all faults.

As you from crimes would pardoned be, / Let your indulgence set me free.”

And so, I suppose the question we need to ask, in the light of Prospero’s great dénouement  is: can we Caliban-like, rehabilitate Trump in some way? Can we find a way, not to ignore his short-comings or diminish his faults, but to establish at least a common ground, from which we can proceed? If we recognise that his brokenness is a very human condition, a condition that we all share, does that help? I think it does. It does not solve all the problems, and it certainly does not even guarantee a good relationship, let alone outcome, but it does at least give us a very solid foundation on which to start to build. We would be deluded if we honestly thought that we are not at least capable of committing the same offences; the trouble with name-calling is that we end up on very thin ice. We end up obsessing over things like scale or magnitude – and our moral superiority leads us, if we are not very careful, to where we completely fail to see or acknowledge our own weaknesses, frailty and frankly, need for mercy. And that is a very dangerous place to be. Because, inevitably and logically, the only alternative to mercy is pure, unadulterated, unblinking justice. And which of us can stand utterly unblemished before that inquisition?

Well, perhaps if we are honest, much of the time we think we would probably be all right. There is so much in our culture, climate and society that is so good and helpful, that given the right start in life it is possible to go many years feeling pretty OK. I mean, how often do we get to discover our limits? How many of us get to have a good long look at what lies beneath when all that good, helpful and pleasant circumstance is pulled away?

The answer of course, is any one who has suffered. Forgive me if this reads like a tract from the Ministry of the Obvious! I can only surmise that my life was largely so charmed that I had not had to face most of this stuff. It is in this time following my cancer treatment that I have had plenty of opportunity to contemplate my humanity – my own “cankers,” my weakness, my emotional, physical, and spiritual bankruptcy, and hence recognise my absolute need for mercy. Infact, the pressures of life’s circumstances had driven me to this place once before*, so although I was re-visiting this strange land, I was perhaps even more shocked to find myself there again, and for much longer! It was such a long, dark tunnel, that I really felt that I was only just starting out on this journey of life; that what I had known before was largely either irrelevent or erroneous and that I was only just beginning to see the truth of who I was and the human condition in general. I certainly felt I was not fit to be a mother and that I had no right to express any opinions to any one, least of all the young and impressionable.

Fortunately, where I was looking, mercy was freely available.

Now that I am feeling stronger, less weak, less broken, I need to remember my time languishing in “Lost Property.” I need to not lose sight of where I have come from and what I have received. Firstly, so that I don’t project a false notion of who I am, and secondly, so that I can continue to extend mercy to others.



  • William Shakespeare; obviously, for his profound, searching and humane genius which he so skillfully shared with us all in his many writings, not least of which is the The Tempest.
  • My in-laws; for buying us the theatre vouchers in the first place.
  • Jamie; for coming with me and for staying awake through the second half, after an ice cream.
  • Charlie Mackesy; for the stunning painting at the title of this blog. It is beautiful, powerful, rough and physical but it is also so still, tender and personal. I LOVE it and all that is represents.

It is a painting I came across when I was looking for a present to give Jamie… I had no idea at the time I was in such a fragile state * but when I saw this painting, over 14 years ago, quite inexplicably and utterly uncharacteristically, I burst into tears. My wise sister, who is much better at joining the dots than me, said that maybe there was something going on that I was not aware of and perhaps I should examine what lay behind this unusual emotional outburst…! (This did not take a Sherlock to untangle: there was an awful lot going wrong in our lives at the time: literally one thing after another, until finally, literally, even the very life of our eldest child looked like it was in the balance… They were very dark days. But, I am so thankful to be able to say that she is still with us and in very fine fettle!)

Anyway, all this by way of saying a big thank you to Charlie: before I saw your painting, I was utterly crushed but unaware that mercy was available for me. Seeing this gave me permission to be broken; in my error, I had assumed that all my many privileges and unfair advantages precluded me, that that was only for others less fortunate than myself. But the truth dawned on me the instant I saw it: I was in fact truly broken, and therefore, I also qualified to receive mercy and help.

Deo gratis.


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