Forgiveness

Forgiveness

While actions and consequences unfold as they will, the proper human response to wrongdoing is forgiveness. Without forgiveness we are trapped in painful thoughts of the past and suffer from negative emotions in the form of resentment and anger. We break free of this trap when we let go of the past and dwell mindfully in the present.

Measure for Measure presents a stark contrast between strict justice and forgiveness. As the play opens Duke Vincentio deputizes a nobleman, Angelo, to rule Vienna in his absence and then disguises himself as a friar to observe what follows. Once in power Angelo takes it on himself to enforce a neglected law against fornication, condemning to death one Claudio, who his gotten his contracted but not yet married spouse with child. Claudio’s sister, Isabella, a novice nun, goes to Angelo to plead for her brother’s life. Angelo is smitten and, indulging the very lust that he condemns in others, says that he will spare Claudio if Isabella sleeps with him. Still disguised as a friar, Duke Vincentio has Isabella pretend to agree to Angelo’s dishonorable proposition and then sends Angelo’s neglected fiancé, Mariana, to keep the assignation in Isabella’s place. Thinking he has slept with Isabella, Angelo still seeks to have Claudio killed. It appears that Claudio has been executed, but thanks to Duke Vincentio, Claudio is secretly spared.

When Duke Vincentio throws off his disguise and returns to court, Isabella comes before him to seek justice for her brother’s death, and Duke Vincentio hands down Angelo’s sentence:

‘An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!’
Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure. (V.i.465-467)

At this Mariana, now Angelo’s wife, pleads for his life, and when the Duke proves resolute, asks Isabella to join her. Isabella, still thinking her brother, Claudio, is dead, kneels beside her, saying:

Look, if it please you, on this man condemn’d,
As if my brother lived: I partly think
A due sincerity govern’d his deeds,
Till he did look on me: since it is so,
Let him not die. (V.i.509-513)

The Duke still does not relent, and the now repentant Angelo craves death. But when the living Claudio is produced Angelo is pardoned, and the play comes to a happy resolution.

Isabella’s act of forgiveness in pleading for the life of Angelo is more than remarkable. She is forgiving the man who sought to violate her chastity as a novice nun and, thinking he had done so, still tries to kill the brother he had promised to spare in return. It would be difficult to imagine a greater triumph of forgiveness over the natural human desire for justice.

The spiritual lesson is central. Measure for Measure is Shakespeare’s only play with a title based on a verse from the Bible:

For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged, and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you again. Matthew 7:2.

And the Buddha teaches:

Do not be the judge of people; do not make assumptions about others. A person is destroyed by holding judgments about others. The Buddha, from the Anguttara Nikaya.[i]

While judgment is to be expected, it belongs to the Lord for Christians and Jews and to karma, or to the unfolding of actions and consequences, for Buddhists.  It belongs to us to forgive.

In The Tempest, his last complete play, Shakespeare leaves us with another demonstration of the power of forgiveness. Prospero, the Duke of Milan, has much to forgive. His brother, Antonio, with the help of Alonso, Duke of Naples, has deposed him and cast him away in a leaky boat with his infant daughter, Miranda. They land on an enchanted island inhabited by Caliban, the half-human son of a witch. Using magic powers attained through long study, Prospero subdues Caliban and rules over the island.

During the course of the play Prospero – assisted by the spirit, Ariel – uses his magic to:

  • Raise a tempest that brings his former enemies to the island unharmed;
  • Foil a series of plots hatched by Antonio, Caliban and others; and
  • Cause Miranda and Ferdinand, son of Alonso, to fall in love;

Prospero then begins the work of reconciliation and forgiveness with the following speech:

Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ’gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance. They being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further. Go, release them, Ariel. (V.i.34-39)

Prospero openheartedly embraces the company of his former enemies in a general welcome, with special warmth for Alonso.

Alonso and his son, Ferdinand, who have thought one another lost in the tempest, are reunited, and Prospero and Alonso join in mutual joy at the coming marriage of their children. When Alonso asks forgiveness of his future daughter-in-law, Prospero responds:

There, sir, stop.
Let us not burden our remembrances with
A heaviness that’s gone. (V.i.236-238)

Prospero gives up his magical powers, frees Ariel, forgives the plotters, and even pardons Caliban as he prepares to return as Duke to Milan. In the closing lines Prospero invites members of the audience to remember their own culpability and join in the spirit of forgiveness:

As you from crimes would pardoned be
Let your indulgence set me free. (Epi.19-20)

Not all of Shakespeare’s malefactors are forgiven. There is no forgiveness for the unrepentant Richard III, Macbeth, Iago, or Claudius. But with The Tempest Shakespeare ends his career with a reminder that if we wish to be forgiven we must be ready to forgive.

Remorse & Purification

It is the part of one who has suffered wrong to forgive. It is the part of one who has done wrong to purify the action by confessing it with genuine remorse.

What we find in Buddhism is remorse rather than guilt. Remorse means full acknowledgement of a wrong action, resolution never to do such a thing again, and a determination to do what one can to correct it. Remorse differs from guilt in that it condemns the action and not the doer of the action. Buddhists believe that even the worst actions can be purified because our fundamental nature is unstained. All beings have buddha nature, however badly they may have acted.

In The Winter’s Tale Leontes, King of Sicilia, behaves very badly indeed when he wrongly thinks that his wife, Hermione, has been unfaithful to him with the visiting King Polixenes of Bohemia. In a jealous rage he imprisons Hermione, takes away her son, and tries to have the fleeing Polixenes poisoned. When Hermione gives birth to a girl, Perdita, Leontes assumes it is the child of Polixenes, threatens to have it burned, and then has it taken away to be abandoned to the elements. Even when the oracle of Apollo says that Hermione is innocent, Leontes does not relent. Only when his son dies as a consequence of his actions does Leontes recognize his terrible mistake. Hermione swoons on learning of the boy’s death, and soon after Leontes is told that she has also died, but Hermione is alive and secreted away under the care of her friend, Paulina.

At the beginning of the play, before their lives are shattered by the King’s attack of jealousy, Polixenes tells Hermione about his happy childhood days with Leontes:

We were as twinned lambs that did frisk i’ th’ sun
And bleat the one at th’ other. What we changed
Was innocence for innocence. We knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dreamed
That any did. (I.ii.85-90)

Polixenes goes on to say that had they not taken on the desires and responsibilities of adulthood they would have remained guiltless before heaven of any inherited stain. What we have here is a doctrine of original innocence as opposed to original sin. Original innocence is more consistent with the Buddhist belief that our fundamental nature remains unblemished, however it might be obscured by our faults. Even our worst faults can be purified through remorse.

Original innocence is personified in the infant, Perdita, abandoned to the elements on the order of Leontes. Happily, she is found by a shepherd and grows up in Bohemia in idyllic pastoral simplicity. At the age of sixteen she falls in love with Florizel, son of King Polixenes, and they flee to Sicilia to escape Polixenes’ wrath at his son’s betrothal to a mere shepherd’s daughter.

For these sixteen years, back in Sicilia, Leontes has been suffering terrible remorse and making daily visits to the tomb of Hermione and his son, where tears are his “daily recreation.” He also patiently bears the admonishments of Paulina, who tells him of Hermione’s incomparable qualities and makes him promise not to remarry.

After the years of remorse a courtier, Cleomenes, says:

Sir, you have done enough, and have performed
A saintlike sorrow. No fault could you make
Which you have not redeemed—indeed, paid down
More penitence than done trespass. (V.1.1-4)

Perdita and Florizel arrive at the court of the grieving Leontes, pursued by Polixenes. Perdita’s true identity is soon discovered, and Perdita, Leontes, Polixenes, and Florizel are happily reunited.

At last Hermione’s friend, Paulina, leads them all to a chapel containing what appears to be a statue of Hermione. The statue comes to life, warmly embraces Leontes, and addresses Perdita:

You gods, look down,
And from your sacred vials pour your graces
Upon my daughter’s head! (V.iii.153-155)

With his bad behavior purified through remorse, Leontes finds grace in the restoration of his innocent wife and daughter.

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[i]Anguttara Nikaya: The Book of Gradual Sayings, Volume V, F.L. Woodward and E.M. Hare, trans. (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1994), p. 140.