מַּטּוֹת / מַסְעֵי
William Shakespeare has such as way with murder. With so many characters meeting violent death in his plays it would seem that he regarded murder as an essential part of good drama. Richard III is an excellent example. When my daughter studied the play in school, she and her fellow students kept a “body count” of the many characters who died over the course of Richard’s rise to power. Shakespeare’s preoccupation with murder may have been the product of the violent world in which he lived, and indeed England in the 16th century was a violent place, yet we need only look at the headlines of events in our own cities to realize that our world is no less violent than Shakespeare’s. If the Bard had no qualms about employing murder as a plot device, it was because his art imitated life. Richard III was a historical play based on events that shook the British Isles just one hundred years earlier. The play’s popularity derived in part from the horrendous nature of Richard’s quest for power, extending even to allegations that in 1483 he ordered the deaths of his two nephews, the 12-year-old King Edward V and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York. Their uncles’ guilt has never been proven, but it is plausible that he removed them so they would not stand in the way of his quest to seize the throne of their father, the late Edward IV.
Richard III is not the only Shakespearian villain to usurp a throne and seize the inheritance of a rightful heir. Two others that come to mind are MacBeth of Scotland and Claudius of Denmark. Although not historical plays, MacBeth and Hamlet have roots in actual events. The central action of MacBeth occurs when the warrior of that name murders King Duncan of Scotland. Duncan’s sons, fearing they will be blamed for the murder, flee the country, allowing Macbeth to take the throne. In Hamlet, we do not see the murder of Denmark’s king; when the play opens his brother Claudius has already seized the throne by killing him and marrying his queen. The plot follows Prince Hamlet as he learns the truth of his father’s death and his uncle’s guilt.
As was necessary for Richard III, MacBeth and Claudius must deal with the heirs to the murdered kings. MacBeth prepares to defend Scotland against the exiled princes Malcolm and Donalbain, and Claudius concocts a plot to have Hamlet killed in a duel by an opponent wielding a poisoned blade. In the end all three villains meet violent deaths. Richard and MacBeth fall in battle as their own countrymen rise in revolt against them, and Claudius is slain by Hamlet himself just before the young prince dies.
Shakespeare’s works have remained popular for over 400 years because they really do imitate life, even to a disturbing degree. In these plays we see that an inheritance is not secure even if there are sons ready to claim their fathers’ legacy. What worse things might the villains have done had there been no sons and heirs? Who would ensure that the bereaved family retained their place in the nation? That very question prompted the tribe of Manasseh to ask Moses for guarantees not only for their brethren who had no sons, but for the entire tribe’s legacy in the Promised Land.
Is it possible to be a hero without paying a price? A hero is one who does something worthy of esteem on behalf of someone else, and that requires sacrifice. Sometimes it requires the sacrifice of a life, and sometimes merely the sacrifice of time and attention. Sometimes heroes save nations, and sometimes they save little children from tears of embarrassment, pain, or grief. Every act of salvation, no matter how small, entails a sacrifice that someone offers willingly. And that is what makes a hero.
We learn about heroes in The Karate Kid, a 1984 film starring Ralph Macchio as Daniel Larusso, a fatherless teenager very much in need of a hero. Daniel suffers a vicious beating by boys from a local martial arts school. He is saved by a humble janitor, Mr. Miyagi (played by Noriyuki “Pat” Morita), who drives off the attackers with a masterful display of karate skills. Before long Mr. Miyagi agrees to teach karate to Daniel. The instruction begins when Miyagi assigns Daniel a number of hard tasks. First he must wash and wax Miyagi’s antique automobiles, using special hand motions to “wax on” and “wax off”. Then he must sand the walkway around Miyagi’s house, paint the fence around the property, and finally paint the house itself. Each task features a specific set of hand motions. After days of arduous labor, Daniel complains that he has learned nothing about karate while working like a slave. Miyagi responds by having Daniel perform the hand motions for each task. He then throws punches and kicks at Daniel, demonstrating that “wax on, wax off”, “sand the floor”, “paint the fence”, and “paint the house” have trained the boy to defend against attacks from many angles. As he blocks Miyagi’s attacks, Daniel realizes the truth: his faithfulness in seemingly unconnected menial tasks has made him ready for further instruction and greater responsibility in the art of karate.
In time Daniel becomes competent at karate and confident in himself as Miyagi’s training transforms him from a self-absorbed braggart into a self-controlled warrior. In the concluding scenes he enters a martial arts tournament where he faces the boys who first attacked him. Each is a formidable opponent, yet while Daniel learned karate as a means of disciplining himself in service of others, they had learned it as a means to exalt themselves over the weak. They do not realize that the humble attitude Miyagi cultivated in Daniel has made him stronger and better able to withstand pain and suffering. Their combined efforts at wounding and weakening Daniel only help him discover deeper wells of strength which in the end bring him victory.
This is a life lesson few are willing to learn. Either we walk humbly in the confidence of our King, or we get eaten by our adversary. As the Apostle Peter says:
You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you. Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (I Peter 5:5-8 NASB)
What would happen if the Vice President of the United States committed murder and got away with it? It is not a rhetorical question; such a thing happened long ago, in the early days of the American Republic. On July 11, 1804, Vice President Aaron Burr shot and killed fellow New Yorker Alexander Hamilton. The two had been adversaries for several years, and eventually their enmity resulted in a duel at a neutral site in Weehawken, New Jersey. It is unclear who fired first, but it is certain that Hamilton fell mortally wounded, dying the next day in New York City. Burr fled, facing charges of murder both in New York and New Jersey, but later returned to the city of Washington to complete his tenure as Vice President. In time the charges of murder were dropped, but Burr’s political career was over. Thoroughly disgraced and out of favor with President Thomas Jefferson, he moved to the West in search of new opportunities.
The American frontier in those days separated the United States from the Empire of Spain in Florida and along a continental-sized line from Louisiana to what would become the Oregon Territory. It did not take long for an enterprising man like Aaron Burr to create opportunities for himself, whether legal or not. It is said that he intrigued with Spanish and American officials on a scheme to separate Mexico from Spain and the western territories from the United States and establish a new empire with himself as its chief. Although the full extent of Burr’s plans will never be known, there was enough truth to the allegations of intrigue to result in his arrest and prosecution by the Jefferson Administration on charges of treason. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall, personally presided over the famous trial in August 1807. The Chief Justice had instructed the jury that conviction required testimony by two witnesses to a specific, overt act. When the prosecution could not meet that standard, the jury declared Burr not guilty.
In the election of 1800 Aaron Burr had come within a whisker of winning the presidency. By 1808 he was a political outsider living in exile. By 1812 he had returned to the United State, but he never returned to power. His family, his law practice, and his health deteriorated over the remaining years of his life as he watched his nation grow in size and power without him. Although endowed with considerable gifts and abilities to govern, his grasp for power ensured that his legacy would not be as one of America’s great men, but as a byword, a legal precedent, and a footnote in history. Yet from him, perhaps, we can learn something more about what Yeshua of Nazareth meant by His cryptic observation:
From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force. (Matthew 11:12 NASB)