Martyrdom: a word with two very different common settings. All those who have died for Christ, from St. Stephen to St. Thomas à Becket to St. Maximilian Kolbe, are martyrs. The title is also reasonably applied to those who die for their countries, friends, or families; to all those who give up their lives because something greater can be gained by the purchase, whether it’s the safety of others, or the lasting of a truth, or because, in the last toss-up, the life of the eternal soul is a better bargain than the life of the mortal-anyways body. So that is one connotation that springs to mind. Another is that Islamic terrorists on suicide missions call themselves martyrs.
These are very different—and I don’t mean in differences of religion, but in the fundamental meaning of their act. But why? What makes the great difference between these two groups of people who lost their lives when they could have kept them? While I know nothing more of it than a few sentences, a story I read in Nightwatch almost two years ago helped me to see some of that great difference. So here is the story; and afterward the sonnet I have written in reflection on it.
Photo credit: Grandma Dianne
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,John Donne, Holy Sonnet XIV
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Today at least, these lines of Donne’s are profoundly countercultural. Our idea of freedom is to be ourselves; and quite rightly. But our idea of being ourselves is to eat, drink, play, live, and love however we want, no matter what anyone else or any of their rules tell us to do. We are to follow our hearts, which, too often, turns out to mean whatever impulse we are under at the moment. We are, in short, free to enslave ourselves however we want. But while wrong freedom means bondage, the right bondage means freedom.
Grandpa Gary recently found a newspaper article which he thought might interest me, an article about an essay contest sponsored by the Nevada County Bar Association. The annual contest is open to all Nevada County high school students. This year’s topic is the separation of powers as framework for freedom, with an emphasis on party affairs. They gave some questions to consider, and on Monday (that being the due date), I set to work on some brainstorming. The prompt page gave some questions to guide essay development, and I tried writing down a short answer to each. When I came back after doing math, there seemed to be most promise in the question about whether our political muddle would be assuaged by reallocating senators based on population.
Eliminating the electoral college or reallocating senators by population would decidedly not help. If we did this, the states wouldn’t all be as represented. The large states would be in control of all the government, leaving the small states with little say. Whatever parties were dominant in them would have the power—it wouldn’t really matter what parties were dominant in small states like Rhode Island.
During the Second Punic War, there was an African king called Masinissa. This king aided the Romans, and when Scipio Africanus had subdued Carthage he allowed Masinissa to add a large part of Africa to his kingdom, Numidia. Masinissa grew old and died, and his son, Micipsa, became king. Micipsa had two sons, Hiempsal and Adherbal, and a nephew, Jugurtha. Though Jugurtha was older than the princes, he was reared with them. Growing into manhood, Sallust writes, he was endowed “with physical strength, a handsome person, but above all with a vigorous intellect.” Racing with his fellows, “although he surpassed them all in renown, he nevertheless won the love of all.” In hunting, “he distinguished himself greatly, but spoke little of his own exploits.” Seeing how much the people loved Jugurtha, the king grew to fear for his own sons. As Numidia now needed to aid Rome with wars in Spain, Micipsa decided to send Jugurtha as the leader of the Numidian force. In Spain, Jugurtha would probably “fall a victim either to a desire to display his valor or to the ruthless foe.”
“Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire,” the gold casket says. “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves,” says the silver casket. “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he has,” says the lead casket. (II.VII, 5,7,9) The portrait of Portia, a beautiful and wealthy young noblewoman, lies in one of these caskets; if a suitor picks that casket, he weds her, but if he choose another, he must forswear marriage forever. Besides finding Portia’s husband, the caskets illustrate different ways – gilded but false, or true as a plumbed line – of looking at love.
Not all great men are good men: and as portrayed by Shakespeare in the play which bears his name, Richard III illustrates this excellently. In his first speech, laying out the setting of the play, Richard declares his intention “to prove a villain” and calls himself “subtle, false, and treacherous” (I.I, 30; 37). But this is only for the audience: when he interacts with the other characters, Richard wears a mask of plainness, gentleness, and honest loyalty—as he says, “I … seem a saint when most I play the devil.” (I.II, 337). He can lie, deceive, and murder his way into near-absolute power without blinking an eye except to shed hypocritical tears. He is skillfull and poised, walking, when he needs to, a knife’s edge such as that he dares when he bids Anne tell him to kill himself. By his own and the world’s standards, he is very successful; enough, I think, that he can be termed a great, if not a verily great, man.
After following Henry V with some of Shakespeare’s sonnets, we read King Lear in my class through Roman Roads Media. I was assigned a “reading response” to each of these—I’ve posted the one about Henry V. The guideline about length is to make our responses 400-500 words long, and I had a hard time bringing my piece about the sonnets up to that. Once I’d found my subject(s) about King Lear, though, I had the opposite problem… I had to keep pruning comments and quotes I wanted to include, and if you subtract the words counted for line citations and count words typed like “[S]erve” as one word, this comes to exactly 500 words!
Besides the Fool, whose task is providing pithy commentary, there are three types of significant characters in King Lear: the all-out good, such as Cordelia, Kent, and Edgar; the all-out evil, such as Edmund, Goneril, and Regan; and those who intend good but do not properly use authority and/or discernment – Lear, Albany, and Gloucester.
You cannot get rid of Cordelia, Kent, or Edgar, no matter how hard you try. Disown them. Dismiss them. Put bounties on their heads. They’re coming back. These characters are the Christ-figures in the play, people who come back to those whom they love, even after being rejected, as God keeps coming back to us. “[S]erve where thou dost stand condemn’d,” Kent tells himself, mentioning “thy master, whom thou lov’st.” (I.IV, 5,6)
Roman Roads Media offers several history/literature courses, and right now I’m enrolled in one focusing on Shakespeare, the metaphysical poets, and Milton. A recent assignment was to read Shakespeare’s Henry V and write a response to it. Here—somewhat edited—is what I came out with.
Henry V opens with English characters discussing whether or not to launch a campaign against France. The bishops at court have financial reasons for wanting the campaign pursued, while King Henry is more interested in whether he may “with right and conscience” (Act I, Scene II, line 96) claim the crown of France. I am not, however, going to only cover what they did discuss, but what, to my surprise, they did not discuss—whether it was morally acceptable for them to invade France!