Joy

Learn to rejoice in the good fortune of others and your own happiness multiplies – it’s the best cure for envy. Sharon Salzberg[i]

Sympathetic joy is unselfish joy in the good fortune of others. We rejoice in the happiness, accomplishments, wealth, success, and virtues of others wherever they appear, and we wish them even greater happiness. As we rejoice in the happiness of others, our own happiness is magnified. The opposite of sympathetic joy is envy, the resentment of another’s good fortune.

Much Ado About Nothing opens on a note of sympathetic joy at the achievements of young Count Claudio as he returns with Don Pedro and Signor Benedick from a happily concluded war.  They gather at the home of Leonato, Governor of Messina. Hearing that Claudio’s accomplishments have brought tears of happiness to his uncle, Leonato says:

                                     There are no
faces truer than those that are so washed. How
much better is it to weep at joy than to joy at
weeping! (I.i.26-29)

The joy increases as Claudio seeks and wins the hand of Leonato’s daughter, Hero, and a wedding is planned.  Meanwhile Signor Benedick and Leonato’s niece, Beatrice, both self-professed bachelors, engage in a skirmish of wit at one another’s expense. Hero, Claudio and others of the party decide to pass the time until the wedding by bringing Beatrice and Benedick “into a mountain of affection the one with the other.”  Male characters maneuver Benedick into overhearing a conversation about how much Beatrice loves him, and female characters maneuver Beatrice into eavesdropping on a conversation about Benedick’s love for her.  Their scheme succeeds, and Beatrice and Benedick become engaged.

The atmosphere darkens when the envious Don John arrives.  Hearing of Claudio’s good fortune he says:

Any bar, any cross, any impediment will be
med’cinable to me. I am sick in displeasure to him,
and whatsoever comes athwart his affection ranges
evenly with mine. (II.ii.4-7)

Don John’s envy is the opposite of sympathetic joy. He is one “to joy at weeping.”

Don John devises a plot to convince Claudio that Hero entertains another lover on the night before their wedding, and Claudio is taken in by the deception.  Infected by jealousy, he rejects and shames Hero before the assembled wedding guests.  When Hero faints and at first appears to be dead, the Friar who was to have married the couple perceives her blamelessness and arranges for her to be secreted away until her innocence is proven.  Benedick challenges Claudio to a duel for having killed an innocent lady, but violence is forestalled when the bumbling constabulary exposes Don John’s plot.  The now repentant Claudio, still thinking Hero is dead, agrees to marry Hero’s cousin sight unseen. Then, posing as the cousin, Hero appears in a veil and says:

. . . when I lived, I was your other wife,
And when you loved, you were my other husband. (V.iv.61-62)

Beatrice and Benedick join them to make it a double wedding, and the play ends with a dance before the celebration of two marriages.

Six of Shakespeare’s comedies end with a wedding or with a wedding about to be performed, and what is a wedding but a celebration of sympathetic joy at others’ happiness and good fortune? What Shakespeare gives us at the end of his comedies is joy piled upon joy. Much Ado About Nothing and The Two Gentlemen of Verona each end with a double wedding. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night end with a triple wedding, and Loves Labour’s Lost and As You Like It each end with the impending marriage of four couples. Shakespeare wrote six other comedies that do not end with weddings but joyfully celebrate the achievement of marital happiness.

As audience members we fully participate in the sympathetic joy depicted onstage. We rejoice that the lovers are united.  We rejoice that those thought to be dead turn up alive and are restored to their families.  We rejoice that so many problems have been solved to the benefit of so many people. And after a good performance we rejoice in the accomplishment of the actors. We can even rejoice in the achievement of Shakespeare, who has been eliciting sympathetic joy from audiences on a vast scale for more than 400 years. For most of us the feelings of sympathetic joy begin to fade as we leave the theatre, but we might do well to retain, nurture, and extend them to as many beings as possible.

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[i] Salzberg, Sharon. Wishing Well. May 1, 2001 (Jult 26, 2017). https://www.sharonsalzberg.com/wishing-well/