Sunday, October 21, 2012

Restraint Can Set Us Free

[T]his rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.

William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V, sc. 1

Those who would be President have an extraordinary ability to resist throwing a punch or at least screaming bloody murder when they have been mischaracterized and misquoted ad naseum or seen their opponent reinvent him- or herself more than Madonna—all in hopes of appeasing an electorate with a memory shorter than a fruit fly. I am not a person who possesses such extraordinary abilities. Which is one of many reasons why I will never run for President (or any political office).

But I am a lawyer. And those who would be lawyers must manage disappointment, frustration, and exasperation on a routine basis. Part of dealing with these emotions means learning to resist the temptation to abuse the power inherent in a law license—even when you are on the receiving end of misconduct by those who forget that they, as lawyers, are officers of the court. After all, legitimate power is always tempered by a sense of responsibility.

Shakespeare’s The Tempest is about this difficult balancing act. Prospero, the central character, was the Duke of Milan before he and his little daughter Miranda became castaways on a desert island. Prospero got into this predicament by abdicating his political responsibilities to his brother, Sebastian. Prospero preferred lofty academic pursuits to the tedium of governance.  And because Duke Prospero felt powerful enough to forego taking an active role in governing, the treacherous Sebastian was able to conspire to have Prospero and Baby Miranda whisked away one night and deposited on a leaky barge, hoping that Prospero and his only heir would die at sea. Lucky for them, they managed to crash on an island somewhere in the Mediterranean instead. While stranded on this island for a dozen years, Prospero had nothing much to distract him from his academic pursuits and his interest in magic and the occult. So he amassed a very different kind of power—which, when the play begins, he wields to orchestrate a storm that causes a ship carrying those responsible for his plight to crash on the island. Prospero then seems poised to exact revenge.

Instead, as the play unfolds, Prospero gradually learns to exercise restraint. As a result, by play’s end, he prepares to return to the land of the living (Milan) where he will presumably exercise power more wisely this time: taking responsibility, as he had failed to do when he was the nominal Duke, but without trying to assume absolute control, as he had as godlike master of the island. While teaching his enemies a thing or two about despair and redemption, Prospero himself learns a valuable lesson about compromise.  Therefore, the play ends happily, with Prospero at last liberating the noble sprite, Ariel, who has assisted Prospero so dutifully during his tenure on the island. With his last words, Prospero uses a legal metaphor to ask the audience to release him as well:  “As you from crimes would pardon’d be,/ Let your indulgence set me free.” (Epilogue, lines 19-20).[1]

Seemingly, real freedom always involves letting go—even when you have been terribly wronged. Because, unless you plan to spend your life on a “bare island,” fighting every fight makes you passion’s slave.

[1] Because The Tempest is considered Shakespeare’s last play, Prospero’s last lines are often seen as Shakespeare’s own farewell to the theater and to the writer’s life.

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