Space and Time

Location, location, location. We hear it all the time, usually regarding real estate.

Shakespeare set his plays in a variety of oddball locales (from a modern point of view). As I read his works, I’ll pay special attention to the effect setting has on the meaning. But for now, I want to present a personal metaphor.

The picture above is from Saint Sophia Orthodox Church in Los Angeles, California. It’s modeled on one of the most amazing spaces in the world: the cathedral/mosque/museum known as Hagia Sophia, a building that once dominated the skyline of Constantinople (now Istanbul).

We’d like to think that our interior lives can be independent of our surroundings. I know I do, especially when I get caught up in the rat race or find myself becoming blue based on the behavior of institutions like CitiCorp or individuals such as Tiger Woods (You knew there’d be a Tiger Woods reference before too long, didn’t you?).

Secular society, by definition, does not place particular importance on the sacred, the mysterious, or the holy. These terms are abandoned to religion (unless you live in a theocracy), thus furthering the bifurcation in our perspectives regarding the sanctity of daily life.

A play, quite naturally, is centered around the plot: all the “stuff” that happens. Paradoxically, we care about these events only because of the characters who persevere through them — and occasionally even triumph over them. As the eminent theologian Martin Buber once pointed out, it’s how we respond to circumstances that ultimately defines our ethics, a sentiment Bono echoes with tongue firmly planted in cheek on the song “Stand Up Comedy” from U2’s recent album, No Line on the Horizon.

Noble souls like Gandhi and Mother Theresa elevate themselves above the herd by their selfless choices made under fire. Their actions testify to a sense of higher ideals so strong that they overcome the bruteness of the material conditions in the societies surrounding them.

Most people by and large are reactive, following the more immediate dictates of the biological imperative. The bulk of their lives is spent scratching the itch at hand, unaware of how the impulse for sex and status or comfort dominates their behavior. Wisdom is unwittingly sacrificed in the mindless pursuit of personal pleasure, reproduction or the acquisition of material goods.

How do these different human traits play out in Shakespeare? Why do we identify so readily with some characters and not with others? Why are some plays considered masterpieces, while others — even for Shakespeare — remain obscure and relatively unperformed?

What factors do location, plot and individual character play? What makes Hamlet so memorable? How did Shakespeare manage to create so many distinct, recognizable personas in his writing?

As one minor being on a vast planet, I know that where I am exercises a tremendous influence on how I feel about my self, my soul, my life, my integrity. I am reminded, especially at this time of year, why it’s necessary to set aside time for reflection in sanctuaries away from the hustle and bustle, how a respite in an atmosphere of sanctity restores a sense of balance and peace.

Costco and Saint Sophia exist for different purposes. Both are superior at what they do. We just can’t expect one of them to provide what was meant for the other to accomplish.

Buddha had to still himself beneath the Boddhi Tree to find illumination. And Jesus retreated to the desert to fast and pray and focus his inner calling.

If they required solitude to restore their sense of wholeness, how much more must I?

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