A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Sonnet #59 and Reincarnation


Dead Again is the 1991 thriller directed and starred in by Kenneth Branagh, who is this generation's leading expositor of Shakespeare on the screen. Dead Again, however, has a modern setting and deals not with Shakespeare but with reincarnation. But then come to think of it, so does Shakespeare, in Sonnet 59:

If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled,
Which, laboring for invention, bear amiss
The second burden of a former child!

Nothing is new, and everything that is has been here before. Our brains, which labor for invention, are tricked into ignoring the second burden of raising a child already raised.

The child we are tricked into re-raising seems to be our entire culture, which we are tricked into perpetuating, with the suggestion that opting out from assuming this burden might be the logical response.

You would need to consult with adherents of Hinduism, perhaps at this admirable Sepiamutiny site, to see if they agree with the Bard's interpretation. India's recent economic rise, reflecting an eagerness to labor for invention, suggests that a belief in reincarnation need not engender a corresponding sense of futility.

In Branagh's Dead Again, the two lovers are separated by a murder for which one of them is wrongly condemned and executed. Their spirits are then re-poured into two new bodies (with an obligatory gender-reversing twist) and then reunited by destiny forty years later.

Whatever. It was tightly written and directed and got Branagh on the radar screen. And who knows if this generation's splendid incarnation of Shakespearean movies produced under his hand (the second burden of a former child indeed) would have come into being otherwise:

O, that record could with a backward look,
Even of five hundred courses of the sun,
Show me your image in some antique book,
Since mind at first in character was done!

Did Shakespeare see Branagh's movie? "Since mind at first in character" means since thoughts were first set down in writing. He even knew about Chinese characters! I think that few western minds (more accurately minds raised is the west) fail to flirt with the concept of reincarnation. The idea is certainly romantic, although the odds are vanishingly small of finding one's star-crossed lover among three billion members of the opposite sex (whoops – members of one's preferred sex) who are spread throughout the world. Does reincarnation include the proviso that reborn lovers settle in the same suburban communities in order to meet each other? I suppose the answer is - why not? But let's look at Shakespeare's answer (Remember to say compo-sed. It's more Shakespearean! Also we'er means whether):

That I might see what the old world could say
To this composed wonder of your frame;
Whether we are mended, or we'er better they,
Or whether revolution be the same.

How would the old world have reacted to the compo-sed wonder of you? Now there's your breathtaking love poetry for you. And parenthetically how would our world compare to theirs – better, worse or a draw?

In place of asking for the check, English sonnet readers call for the concluding couplet, and here's ours:

O, sure I am the wits of former days
To subjects worse have given admiring praise.

Yesterday's poets have written about less important subjects than this. Well, that's a kind of fudge of the issue - both dismissive and accepting, and probably representative of the usual western view of reincarnation. Attractive, undisprovable, foreign in origin and thus not requiring serious thought or a final conclusion.

Bardseye's view is that whatever we take with us into the next life can hardly be expected to remain our property and certainly would not include our personalities. Old spirit – enriched or degraded by prior contact with flesh – may be poured into new vessels, but it won't be "our" individual spirits, again in bardseye's modest view. Those seeking solace in advance of death (and well, that would be all of us) should thus look elsewhere. The contemplation of timeless truths in religion, or of works of timeless beauty in art, seem like the best starting points.

And so do all roads lead to Shakespeare.

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Please remember to take the bardseye survey (for which problem now corrected). Click below to let me know who you see as today's Hamlet, today's Julius Caesar, today's Cleopatra and today's Lady Macbeth. I will write a blog post for the winning candidates for each - the Hamlet, Caesar, Cleopatra and Lady M that you select.

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