Practical Shakespeare: Our fundamental, existential choice – ‘To be or not to be’ – happy
To be happy is a decision you can make right now. It entails doing the work required to tackle the obstacles to your happiness – but the rewards far outweigh the payoffs of being a martyr to and victim of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
The immortal, fundamental existential choice ‘to be or not to be’ is at the very heart of all Shakespeare’s works. Although it is not made explicit until Hamlet, it subtly permeates the entire works – including The Merchant of Venice. Here, in the beginning, Antonio frivolously gives away his Word to his enemy, Shylock. And his Word is made flesh – a pound of flesh. Once again Shakespeare’s cryptic theological genius takes us by the throat into the very heart of who we really are.
I call this ‘Shakespeare’s Choice‘: are you willing to choose ‘to be’ true to the true you and gain the deep, lasting happiness that resides within, or do you choose not to be true to the true you, and suffer the dilemma, confusion, insecurity, fear, and sadness of the false self and its neuroses?
The Merchant of Venice: a moment of truth
The sub-text of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is a heretical, dangerous allegory of John’s Gospel centred around the inscrutable verses ‘In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was made flesh.’ It leads to the notorious trial of a Christian by an outraged Jew symbolising the trail of Jesus 1500 years before. Shylock is offered the choice ‘to be‘ merciful, but by insisting on his pound of flesh, vengeance and the law, he fails to chose ‘happiness first‘ and brings disastrous (avoidable) consequences upon his own head.
The play opens by offering us (through Antonio) the choice to be or not to be – happy. See how the genius Shakespeare, weaves his seminal question, his challenge to us all, subtly expressed in his verse. He uses the character of Antonio, high-achiever, ‘successful’, wealthy merchant, and bigot who cannot understand why he is so unhappy.
His friends challenge Antonio to choose happiness instead of sadness. He eschews their advice with dire consequence: as do we!
In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself.
Salarino tells him he can choose ‘to be’and simply change his paradigm, his way of looking at himself and the world – and be happy.
Then let us say you are sad,
Because you are not merry: and ’twere as easy
For you to laugh and leap and say you are merry,
Because you are not sad. Now, by two-headed Janus,
Nature hath framed strange fellows in her time:
Some that will evermore peep through their eyes
And laugh like parrots at a bag-piper,
And other of such vinegar aspect
That they’ll not show their teeth in way of smile,
Though Nestor swear the jest be laughable.
Gratiano admonishes him on how he is not putting ‘happiness first’. He makes what happens in the outer world more important than his inner world, and spells out the reason he’s sad – he’s putting material goals before his own happiness and sacrificing the inner support of the true self.
You look not well, Signior Antonio;
You have too much respect upon the world:
They lose it that do buy it with much care:
Believe me, you are marvellously changed.
Antonio gives up his chance to choose to be happy, defines himself as destined to be ‘sad’, and condemns himself to the erroneous (not to be) paradigm with a ‘perfect reason’.
I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano;
A stage where every man must play a part,
And mine a sad one.
As the play plays out, Shakespeare dramatises the price we pay for denying our true self and not valuing the sanctity of our promises. Antonio, by carelessly giving away his word to Shylock, gambles his life on the vicissitudes of wind and rain, narrowly escapes his own brutal death and then sabotages the happiness of his best friend, Bassanio. Only by the wise intervention of the infinitely wealthy Portia is Antonio’s life spared and does Shylock get the ‘justice’ he craves – and everything that same law brings with it!
Disaster and ‘victimhood’ eagerly await us when we approach life with vinegar in our veins and are quick to judge, slow to forgive.
Happiness and success are right here when we respect ourselves, honour our word, and forgive quickly.
For you to get the full life-changing benefit from this unique personal development work, it’s vitally important we both equally feel we have the right chemistry to work together. Basically we need to talk it all through quite thoroughly. I’m willing to invest as much time as necessary for us to reach a decision either way.
I invite you to take the next small step.