In late December of 1991 I was invited by an artsy girlfriend of mine to accompany her family to a performance of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” at a nearby college.
Though I knew nothing about the play itself, I knew it had to have something to do with Shakespeare… which was good enough for me.
If you’re unfamiliar with Tom Stoppard‘s brilliant play (or the hilariously-deadpan Gary Oldman/Tim Roth film version) it’s basically a “play within a play” with two minor characters as the main protagonists.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare is knocked on its ear in this play, with the two titular characters bantering about contradictions, destiny, free will, and providence, with plenty of tautologies thrown in for good measure.
While I didn’t know anything about these sorts of things at the time (or if I did, it was on a very puerile level) it was nevertheless one of those precious opportunities to strain the bonds of my provincial upbringing. Such opportunities I savored.
Besides, I was more than a little enamored with the young lady in question. Of course I was also at that gaunt and awkward point in my life where I immediately fell in love with any girl who showed me the least bit of attention.
She was smart and popular and interesting. A combination I found to be rare, if not wholly non-existent in the suburban cultural wasteland of East Texas.
After the play we attended a special Advent church service at one of those vast drafty ivy-and-marble sanctuaries in the nearby downtown area.
Though not of a particularly religious household, I enjoyed the sensual aspects of high-church mysticism, especially during Christmas-tide.
Even as a mannish-boy of fifteen, I found little in common between the two venues but now, as a bearded man of five and thirty Winters, I find much that the two share in common.
I only thought of this because last night, due to my inability to sleep soundly ’til the morning, I found myself watching the aforementioned film version on DVD. Though yawning and watching through bleary eyes, a pattern began to emerge that I could not help but consider deeper.
At the close of the program, I took my dog out for a walk in the bone-aching cold of the blue pre-Dawn hours. A thought began to flower…
Advent is a penitential season where we remember that Jesus Christ’s first coming will lead inevitably to his Second. His first coming found God made flesh and contained in a manger. His second coming will find God in the flesh so mighty that the cosmos will be remade to contain Him.
The Lord Jesus is returning and all injustice and evil will be destroyed. That is good news, except for own injustices and evils. Being “not so bad” in a universe where everything is interconnected is very bad.
What far-reaching implication do my careless words and thoughtless actions unleash? It frightens me to imagine.
My sin is a stink in God’s paradise so it cannot last.
Going on the way I am is not an option, so I am born to die. Part of me longs to live forever but my better self knows that as I am this would be a sort of hell of its own. My fear of death is irrational, to be sure, but reason is no match for fear.
Stoppard unknowingly presents the dilemma perfectly, with winsome wit and a cleverly constructed narrative.
His heroes are designed to die by Shakespeare but they don’t want to fulfill their role. It is small and their deaths seem meaningless… especially when you consider all the carnage in Hamlet.
By the time Hamlet joins the choir angelic, the audience has forgotten all about poor Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern. (Or is it gentle Rosencrantz and poor Guildenstern?)
Neither character ever finds a way to escape doom and, though we get to know them better than Shakespeare allows, the only answer to “to be or not to be?” is that for now we are and thus will inevitably not be.
Is it possible for life to come again? Can there be a birth in our death? Stoppard does not suggest so but Shakespeare does.
Hamlet (and even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern!) leaves this life to another world. At times the Prince of Denmark is not sure of it, despite seeing his father’s ghost, but like most of us in his heart he fears it.
The life after life is more frightening than extinction. The fear for a Stoppard character is that Rosencrantz will die, only to awake once again linked to Guildenstern at yet another performance of the tragedy. Eternal cycles of this life make Richard Dawkins’ belief in extinction of being seem cheerful by comparison. Indeed many a man adopts atheism as a crutch against this fear.
Even so, denying what is actually likely, life from death, is not as comforting as atheists hope.
Stoppard is right to wonder if the Great Author is malicious or not, since this understanding of the problem of evil does not lead inexorably to atheism but more naturally to a sort of “bad god” amusing himself at our expense.
It is the message of Christmas that things are just as bad as Stoppard fears, but still hopeful. We can be changed from within and so even Hamlet can hope.
How glorious it would be if life ended but then a better life came? What if our lack of freedom, the constraints we feel, are put there by a truly good God to keep us from destroying ourselves? What if, in the life to come, we have been so glorified that no restraint is necessary?
Thus, the perfect “liberty” of paradise is the result of God’s love.
In that case then the script in which God has placed me is better than any alternative. It accounts for the evil decisions other beings of volition (from my obnoxious next-door neighbor to Satan himself) make. It also accounts for my own sin and folly.
Like any school, this school for souls has patterns and requirements, but also like any good school it ends in a holiday. Christmas is a foretaste of that liberty.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern cannot die, because they are fictional and death is a great gift for men. Someday soon I will be dead and that will be for my good.
Oh but on the other side I will find, finally, what is to truly live.