You may have heard Shakespeare’s famous lines from “As You Like It” (Act 2, Scene 7): “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Shakespeare works his way through the infant, the student, the lover, the ages of career and family, retirement, and finally old age. But what does this play of life mean? Listen to these lines from Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5), spoken by Macbeth himself:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time, and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
That speech of course comes from someone who knows his life is about to end. We can hope that the drama of the coming year will be more than a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.
What will happen this year? We each have a part to play, whether as one of the seven ages of a man—students and staff and faculty, we have most of these ages on the campus. But who writes our play? What does it mean?
You remember Robin Williams, who died recently (as someone put it) of complications resulting from mental illness. He was in many movies of many kinds. I don’t watch many movies if I can help it, but I did see one with Robin Williams starring, “Dead Poets Society”. Williams’ character, John Keating, seeks to lead his class of young men—being prepped for entrance into the elite universities of America—into the deeper meanings of poetry and of life.
We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life! … of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless … of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life? Answer: that you are here; that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.” [Pause.] That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?
You notice how he segues from speaking of poetry into describing life as a play—“a powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse”. That description implies an author who gives the play meaning. But neither Whitman (who wrote the poem being quoted) nor Hollywood dare name the author. We can!
C.S. Lewis has written an essay titled, “The World’s Last Night” (105-6). The title comes from a line from John Donne, “What if this present were the world’s last night?”
Writing about the Second Coming, he makes the explicit connection to the author of the play, whose work gives meaning to our small parts in the great play of life. Listen to how he puts it:
The doctrine of the Second Coming teaches us that we do not and cannot know when the world drama will end. The curtain may be rung down at any moment: say, before you have finished reading this paragraph. This seems to some people intolerably frustrating. So many things would be interrupted. … Not now, of all moments!
But we think thus because we keep on assuming that we know the play. We do not know the play. We do not even know whether we are in Act I or Act V. The Author knows. The audience, if there is an audience (if angels and archangels and all the company of Heaven fill the pit and the stalls), may have an inkling. But we, never seeing the play from outside, never meeting the characters except the tiny minority who are “on” in the same scenes as ourselves, wholly ignorant of the future and very imperfectly informed about the past, cannot tell at what moment the end ought to come. That it will come when it ought, we may be sure; but we waste our time in guessing when that will be. That it has a meaning we may be sure, but we cannot see it. When it is over, we may be told. We are led to expect that the Author will have something to say to each of us on the part that each of us has played. The playing it well is what matters infinitely.
Lewis illustrates this point with a minor character from Shakespeare’s King Lear, known only as “First Servant.” All of the characters around him—Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund—scheme and work for their own advantage, and their lives end badly. But the first servant, nameless and only on stage for eight lines, knows right and wrong. When his master is attacked, he draws his sword in defense. He is quickly stabbed to death. As Lewis says,
He has no notion how the play is going to go. But he understands the present scene. He sees an abomination … taking place. He will not stand it. His sword is out …: then Regan stabs him dead from behind. That is his whole part: eight lines all told. But if it were real life and not a play, that is the part it would be best to have acted.
We don’t know the meaning of so much that happens to us, but we usually know what we should do right now. We usually know what action this present moment calls for.
If you think that you are the author of your play this year, you will find when it’s over that the year really has been “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. The vision from Dead Poets Society is more cheering, calling you and me to write our own verse in the great play of life. But the Christian faith takes us a step further. God gives us the grace of freedom to participate, and even to write parts of some scenes; but in the end God is the author of the play. What gives our lives meaning, this semester and always, is God’s insertion of himself into the drama of our world, living and dying and rising to give us life and a reason to live.
Knowing that, we ask God what we wants us to do—and we do it. Play your part well. Play your part with the Spirit of God leading you and energizing in all that you do throughout the year.