Chapter 13: Forgiveness

“Look how he abused me and beat me, how he threw me down and robbed me.” Abandon such thoughts and live in love. The Buddha, The Dhammapada[i]

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.

 

Hamlet is Shakespeare’s great revenge tragedy, but it closes on a note of forgiveness. After fatally wounding one another with the same unbated and envenomed sword, Laertes and Hamlet exonerate one another.

Laertes: Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet:
Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee,
Nor thine on me.

Dies

Hamlet: Heaven make thee free of it!  (V.ii.361-364)

This forgiveness comes too late to have any effect on the outcome of the play, but in Buddhism as well as in Christianity we are taught the importance of exchanging forgiveness before death.

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 a series of substitutions arranged by Duke Vincentio, Claudio is secretly spared.

When Duke Vincentio throws off his disguise and returns, Isabella comes before him to seek justice. After giving Angelo further opportunity to demonstrate his guilt, 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. from the Anguttara Nikaya.[ii]

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.

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 the 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. With the help of his attendant spirit, Ariel, he raises a Tempest that brings Antonio, Alonzo, his brother Sebastian, his son Ferdinand, and servants Stephano and Trinculo to the island. Once on the island, Antonio and Sebastian conspire to kill Alonso for his crown, and Caliban colludes with Stephano and Trinculo in a drunken plot to kill Prospero and rule the island, but Prospero foils the plots with the help of Ariel. Meanwhile, Miranda and Ferdinand fall innocently in love. As the play nears its end Prospero the magician has everyone on the island in his power, and the work of reconciliation and forgiveness begins.

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)

All past wrongs are reconciled, and with the innocent love of Miranda and Ferdinand, a new day of concord begins.

Prospero gives up his magical powers, frees the spirit, Ariel, forgives Stephano and Trinculo, 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.

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[i] Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 2.

[ii] Kornfield, Jack with Fronsdal, Gil Ed. Teachings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 123.

 

One Response to “Chapter 13: Forgiveness”

  1. Beula Says:

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