Saturday, July 18, 2009

Independent Shakespeare, Derridean Forgiveness

Last week when I saw The Independent Shakespeare Company do Henry V, David Melville (ISC’s Co-Founder and Managing Director) told me: “Come see the Tempest. Our Henry V is pretty good. Our Tempest is great.” So yesterday I drove from the Bay Area to Los Angeles just in time to squeeze onto a picnic blanket in Barnsdall Park. And he was right.

Aside from theatrical aspects one could “review”—which I’m underqualified for anyway—I know the show was great because I cried. The Tempest is called both a romance and a comedy, and I don’t think you’re particularly expected to cry at the end the way you are at, say, well, something like Hamlet. (Not that there is anything, or anyone, “like” Hamlet.)

I cried because the end of the Tempest is a scene of grand and surprising forgiveness. Where revenge would be narratively appropriate, if not morally so, only reconciliation is sought. Antonio, who has betrayed his brother Prospero, is forgiven instead of punished, and the way ISC plays this scene (which is very tricky, since Antonio never speaks a word about it, and the entire exchange, if there is one between Prospero and Antonio, must be physical) is incredibly poignant. (Cheers to Ahmad Enani and Joseph Culliton for those moments.)

It’s true that I cry easily, that I’m sensitive to emotional nuances in art, people, myself, everything. But I hate being lumped into some kind of irrational female class; the Cry-At-Movies-Type, the Emotional One, etc. I never cry for no reason. I cried at the end of the Tempest because of how absolutely rare and utterly earth-shattering forgiveness really is. I was instantly aware of how difficult it is to achieve, and how difficult it must be to portray to an outdoor theater filled with Silver Lake hipsters and their funky-booted kids. How shocking it was to me, who grew up hearing Christian rhetoric about forgiveness to see it represented, briefly and in unfamiliar language, like an exotic bird suddenly flying across the dinner table.

It turns out that the kind of forgiveness I grew up believing in was really a sort of private psychological/spiritual affair, during which I asked forgiveness for sins. Forgiveness between people has always been much more problematic of a concept. It was not an activity that changed my relationships much, and certainly not an activity that changed the social, economic, or political landscape around me in any profound way.

But the forgiveness Prospero shows his usurpers does have these effects. Forgiveness in this sense is a political act as much as an interpersonal one, because letting his brother live and return to Naples serves as an example of what kind of ruler Prospero will be hereafter, and offers Antonio the chance to show loyalty, and avoid further betrayal.

I could spend a long time working carefully to tease out the particularities of forgiveness vs. amnesty, reconciliation, etc. I think Derrida’s writing on forgiveness, in which he conceives of it as a paradox one must be continually moving in and out and through, is the closest anyone’s come to understanding the particular problems of the action. Very crudely and briefly: Derrida argues that genuine forgiveness involves an impossibility, which is the forgiving of an unforgivable act. If something were imminently forgivable, then it’s merely an act of logic to forgive it. But for something truly horrific, forgiveness is actually the act of bridging an infinite divide—and therefore it is actually insane/impossible. The very best we can achieve is a sort of conditional forgiveness, in which we have received an apology, come to some accord or terms, or maybe even just begun to feel we understand the motivations of the offender.

So I’ll call the tenderness at the end of the Tempest between Prospero and Antonio forgiveness, because I think it is truly engaged in the tension of Derrida’s impossible moment, in spite of the fact that it may be more accurately called amnesty. This is not about any little clichéd, forced, dishonest moment of being a “better” person who can “put the past behind” them. This is about an offender facing the full horror of their deed (credit here to Enani and director Melville), and a forgiver feeling grace enough to extend a hand in human understanding.

This moment can happen in tandem with the activities of justice—Prospero is returned to his throne. However, that’s difficult to imagine because forgiveness has such a strange place in our social world, given its connotation of conservative Christian values and simultaneous tension with the punitive culture of incarceration conservatives so devoutly support. We simply cannot discuss forgiveness without Christian tropes. And, we can’t discuss it without making some kind of caveats about the differences between what people do for each other to preserve relationships, and what a state does with someone who has violated social order.

For those who are elite, however, we’ve set up a social norm of “retraction” and “apology,” wherein public figures can appeal to America for “forgiveness” when they’ve said something racist, sexist, or otherwise stupid. But it’s perfunctory, and we all know it, in the same way that many appeals for forgiveness interpersonally, or in confession, are perfunctory. Dishonesty on the other end occurs when one proclaims forgiveness but holds a grudge, or forgives half-heartedly to avoid more conflict, or tries to forgive in an effort to be moral but wishes, deep-down, for reparation. I’ve done all these things. I’m conflating the interpersonal and the broader social processes here to show how tangled of a notion forgiveness is once you realize nothing, nothing, nothing, is private life. And Derrida would dismiss all of the above as not even part of a conversation about real forgiveness anyway.

How are 21st century Americans to understand an imaginary Shakespearian king who forgives? A king who sets his slaves free and then begs the audience to set HIM free? Our understanding of power is polluted by so much self-protectiveness that it’s nearly impossible, I think, for us to hear a character give so many commands earlier in the play and still think of him as vulnerable, graceful, and tender. But he is.

And this is where my tears come from. Everybody and nobody really deserves to be forgiven. It’s impossible to know beforehand whether forgiveness is, in any given relationship, an act of grace or passivity. It is one of the greatest risks possible to take in love, and an even greater risk, in terms of human life, to take in politics.

Prospero knows exactly who has wronged him, in what way, to what degree, and with how much malice. I fancy myself someone who does not keep score in this way, but it’s not true. I also have a short list of people who would have to come to me with abject apologies for me to feel tenderness towards them. In fact, a few of them would have to basically read an apology I’ve already written in my head for them. Simultaneously, I forgive some other people almost instantaneously. On a good day, this is because I’m filled with grace. On a bad day, it’s because I’m conflict-avoidant and have trouble mustering anger when it would be appropriate. I ask those in my life who’ve felt the business end of this habit for forgiveness.

I celebrate The Tempest’s model of forgiving, as envisioned by ISC. No time wasted on revenge—only creative pranking play, much like Nietszche's Zarathustra. The goal is a restoration of justice and nurturing of new love, new visions. Those who have been immoral face the gravity of their deeds while they are invited to reenter the light. If they refuse to choose morality when given the chance, they can stay on the island, hunting for grubs, while the rest of us set sail for Naples!

PS: If you will be in SoCal at all this summer, go see the show.


  1. Well said, Vanessa. Thank you so much for the kind and very insightful commentary on our production (full disclosure: I play Alonso in the show). Your take (and Derrida's take) on forgiveness reminds me of Belize's monologue towards the end of Angels In America as he and Louis stand over the body of the recently deceased Roy Cohn (a person whose vile deeds were as unforgiveable as anyone's):

    "He was a terrible person. He died a hard death. So maybe...A queen can forgive her vanquished foe. It isn't easy, it doesn't count if it's easy, it's the hardest thing, Forgiveness. Wish is maybe where love and justice finally meet. Peace, at last."

  2. once again you have written a commentary that jolts us into looking at a subject that is so much a part of our daily lives that we do not even see the significance until it is enlightened as you have done with the theme of Forgiveness here. More importantly it moves one to introspection and action. Just as you fuse your interpersonal self with a broader social perspective, I read actively fusing my experiences with my desire for a more humane society. Conditional love and regard is easy, unconditional is hard. Thats what makes it so beautiful and fills us with "grace" or why it requires us to be in a state of grace to achieve. If more individuals (and certainly more Christians) aspired to truly being able to forgive, would we have developed such an inpenatrable prison culture costing us so much as measured by the tortured lives of prisoners and their families, high price of maintaining convicts in their roles, and the demise of our humanity by adopting an attitude that we should "lock em up and throw away the key" I look forward to checking in often for another dose of stimulations..

    Outlaw Mom