Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (emphasis added)
William Shakespeare, Macbeth
Hindsight is 50-50, as they say, and life doesn’t give us that chance! It goes without saying too, that there has never been a School of Experience, similar to the London School of Economics or Harvard School of Law etc., etc., for example.
One of my mentors once told me that he prays not to be treated by a medical doctor who has never read a poem. I pondered on his words until I asked him to explain what he meant. He went on to say that the difference between a poet and a non-poet is use of language. While the poet explores all the resources of language to convey simple and complex meanings, the non-poet speaks or communicates in simple, everyday language, and for the latter life is conflictless and the harbinger of today’s fast food culture! The poet on the other hand, dreams and communicates in images, symbolisms and metaphors, like King David in the Psalms or his son Solomon in Proverbs, for example. It goes without saying, my mentor surmised, that a doctor who is familiar with all the nuances of poetic language would understand that medication alone isn’t always the key to curing diseases – that peace of mind, laughter and joy could be more curative than antibiotics and other pharmaceutical products.
In the course of his illustrious career William Shakespeare wrote many powerful plays, tragedies and comedies, and lots of poetry too, Shakespearean sonnets as we call them in literary parlance. The epigraph above is one of the most pessimistic utterances in Shakespearean tragedy. The utterance by Macbeth came after a lifetime of wheeling and dealing, culminating in the death of Lady Macbeth. Every one of us would reach our “vanity of vanities” moment in life at one point or another, as it happened to the great wise Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes, and this you might say was Macbeth’s moment, leading him to ponder on the meaning and meaninglessness of life! Consequently, the same Macbeth who had inter alia proclaimed that “[l]ife’s but a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage” – “a defensive and self-justifying quality to Macbeth’s words” perhaps! Like all tragic heroes imbued with a tragic flaw in his/her character – if indeed “everything is meaningless, then Macbeth’s awful crimes are somehow made less awful, because, like everything else, they too ‘signify nothing’.”
But that’s hardly the truth and one of the salient lessons about tragedy is its avoidability! It’s for this reason that Aristotle described tragedy and its cathartic effects as a drama of balance. The following renders the Aristotelian premise rather succinctly:
Catharsis established tragedy as a drama of balance. Sorrow alone would be ugly and repulsive. Beauty pure would be imaginative and mystical. These together constitute what may be called tragic beauty. Pity alone would be sentimentality. Fear alone would make us cowards. But pity and fear, sympathy and terror together constitute the tragic feeling which is most delightful though it is tearfully delightful. Such tragic beauty and tragic feeling which it evokes constitutes the aesthetics of balance as propounded for the first time by Aristotle in his theory of Catharsis. Therefore, we feel, the reverence which Aristotle has enjoyed through ages has not gone to him undeserved. His insight has rightly earned it.
Thus, what I’ll tell my younger self is simple: strive for balance as your search for the meaning and of course, meaninglessness of our existence!
University of Limpopo