Articles and Papers Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 and Ubuntu

Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 and Ubuntu

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! It is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

For most ordinary people like me, this is Shakespeare’s declaration that true love withstands all changes in circumstances – those brought about by serious problems (tempests) or the passing of time and aging – and endures for all eternity. That such love never changes is for Shakespeare, a fact as true as the fact that he has written this sonnet.

For academics and scholarly experts, it is the nature of the love referred to that presents a problem. Is it passionate or platonic love?

Shakespeare’s declaration of faith is in “the marriage of true minds.” He sees such love as a constant in volatile human existence. Those of us who have watched Carl Sagan’s Cosmos can see that Shakespeare’s understanding is conditioned by the accepted view in his day of a fixed universe with the Earth at its centre. Such a concept gave rise to the propagation of absolute truths. Keppler, Copernicus and Galileo had begun to challenge this view and now in the 21st century, prompted by Darwin, Einstein and others, we  have come to accept that we live in an expanding universe in which everything is moving and evolving. That movement, like the earth’s rotation on its axis and its revolution around the sun is imperceptible and is only apparent to most of us in the rising and setting of the sun and the change of seasons.

My small understanding of an expanding universe has helped me to a new interpretation of Shakespeare’s sonnet. The poem presents the continuous movement of change – circumstances change, bodies change, hours and weeks pass. In the face of  these inexorable forces, “the marriage of true minds” remains unchanging. Shakespeare posits it as an absolute truth. And the poem’s popularity reveals it as a desirable absolute.

We, however, live in times in which absolute truths are absolute only in the moment. Truth has become relative. More rapidly than in the past, we are being confronted with our own fallibility and truths, once taken-for-granted, must continually make way for new, improved understandings in our pursuit of perfection. (We see this in everyday things like new car designs and improved cell phone communication.) All our institutions are based on truths that are absolutes but only in the moment. And we are constantly in search of new absolutes. But we are reluctant to “admit impediments” to “the marriage of true minds.” We want Shakespeare’s understanding to be absolute because we have idealized passionate love. 

However, in Shakespeare’s words, “the marriage of true minds” we do not find an expression of passionate physical and emotional fulfilment, but a marriage of understanding. The words “true minds” – ‘true’ meaning complete agreement, ‘minds’ meaning thoughts, attitudes, spirit, dreams, wishes, values, ambitions – turn love into total compatibility at an intellectual level. Such compatibility even absorbs what we might call ‘infidelity’ – “tempests”  and “wandering barks.” “True minds” are not subject to the dictates of convention; they transcend convention. Minds can be true as they do not claim possession and exclusivity in the way physical passion does. Marriages of the mind are of minds in accord and not subject to divorce; they occur between siblings, friends, colleagues, with teachers, mentors, coaches. They also occur between people who never meet. If you enter into Shakespeare’s intellectual world and you learn to love him, it is a love that endures; and even if it seems one-sided, it is not. All artists, through their work, throw their arms wide open to embrace you

It is the workplace that often gives rise to the conscious marriage of minds. Working together to create processes and products is exciting, exhilarating; it arouses the passions and the pragmatic gives way to euphoria. If you watch the DVD, Wagner’s Dream[1], you see people working and creating together. Robert Lepage and his Ex Machina team clearly demonstrate the excitement and joy of working together as they complement one another in creating the stage set for Der Ring des Niebelungen. Inspired by Wagner’s music, they build a set capable of flowing with the movements of Wagner’s musical themes. And the presentation of the drama becomes a visual and auditory demonstration of the marriage of true minds – Wagner’s and Lepage’s. When people working together find themselves supplementing one other’s thoughts, they become excited about their connection and that may lead to physical consummation, but it is the intellectual connection that is “the ever fixéd mark” that sustains the relationship.

Love is both passionate and pragmatic. Pragmatic love is what sustains families and communities. It is the glue that holds them together. In South Africa, it is called Ubuntu. It is taken-for-granted love, inherent in socialization and reinforced by religion: “love thy neighbour,” “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Despite our capriciousness, we all, unconsciously for the most part, subscribe to it. It is what motivates good Samaritans. We are all, in our tremendous variety, people through other people. And the unconscious love that binds us, abides in our commitment to community, and involuntarily encompasses all other human beings. It is not passion; it is pragmatic; it is necessity. It is the kind of love that keeps families together. It is an ever fixéd mark – not generally recognised as it is not dramatic like passionate love that leads to physical consummation.

In the family, the physical passion which gave it form, is transformed by the need to ensure the welfare of all its members and love becomes pragmatic, a taken-for-granted form of love that endures. It is an unconscious marriage of minds.

All societies, with their wedding rituals, condition us to seeing marriage as the fulfilment of passionate love when marriage really serves a pragmatic end. Marriage came about in order to regulate passion and create families to ensure the survival of the species. To ‘regulate’ means to curb so natural passion is brought under control and leads to unnatural but civilized conventions such as being faithful; such as dictates against adultery, incest, prostitution, “illegitimate” children. Convention ushers us into the idea of the grand passion as a one-time occurrence with a single partner, heterosexual, of the same culture, race, religion, that leads to marriage ‘til death do us part.’ Many fairy tales end at the prospect of the consummation of love; they reinforce such notions of controlled passion in declarations of living happily ever after. Fairy tales dare not venture beyond the particular moment of passion.

Passionate love brought under control in community and made to conform to the need for stability and cohesion, becomes pragmatic. But passion is the key to freedom. Despite attempts to restrict it, it defies all regulation – fornication and adultery are commonplace. And in art, people like Shakespeare, Wagner and others, including even Mills and Boon writers, present over and over, lovers whose passion flies in the face of convention. Perhaps that is what makes passionate love so exciting. Lions mating simply do what comes naturally; like eating or defecating. But human restrictions have turned passion into an art. And art is the striving for freedom. Freedom is not some ideal – it is freedom from human restraint. All children experience it when the bell rings and school is over. It is what Wotan longs for in Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

As homosexuals and single people are not committed to procreation, they are looked upon as aberrations because they do not conform. But is gay love, which is confined to the bond between lovers, entirely passionate because it does not have the pragmatic end of preserving the species? Passion happens in bursts, is fulfilled in consummation, and is not sustainable twenty-four hours a day – but gay couples do live in sustained relationships. Is it an unconscious response to society’s conditioning of individuals for marriage? Or does it mean that relationships are sustained by more than passion? Is that what Shakespeare means by the marriage of true minds – that compatibility accompanies sex in a sustained relationship?

In Wagner’s Die Walküre, the first scene is a scene of passionate love. Siegmund and Sieglinde fall in love at first sight and are swept away, like Romeo and Juliet, by passion and the need to become one. How could theirs be a marriage of true minds? What can lovers know of each other at first sight? But Siegmund and Sieglinde are twins; they know each other instinctively – each one sees him/herself in the other.

Does that mean that people fall in love because they see themselves in the beloved? Is passionate love finding oneself in the other? Is it a form of narcissism? Is that what compatibility means? Not having to contend with the otherness of another? Or is it the excitement of finding oneself in the otherness of the other – extensions of oneself, new dimensions of self in the other.

Why do people divorce? Is it because they are unable to extend themselves through the otherness of the other? The marriage of true minds and physical consummation – are they different forms of love, different stages of love or a necessary blending of passion, difference and compatibility for sustainability?

Shakespeare’s sonnet brings together passion, difference and compatibility and in their fusion, finds, what we all want, a love that lasts forever – the marriage of true minds.

  • [1]Wagner’s Dream, a DVD documentary of the staging of Wagner’s Die Ring der Niebelungen at the Metropolitan Opera House New York, 2010-2011. 

 

 

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