Burned-out After Reading

Last weekend I went with friends to see Seven Pounds, which critics seem to agree is Will Smith’s latest triumphant disaster. Although the film is most often attacked for what may be perceived as unbearable sentimentality or implausibility, I, for once, was able to take Coleridge’s advice to “suspend all disbelief” and enjoyed the film immensely. In fact, unlike many films, this one haunted me. Over the next couple of days I dwelled on this or that aspect of the film until, finally, I was inspired to re-read Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. The connection between Smith’s film and Shakespeare’s play seems abundantly clear to me, though I’ve yet to see a review which mentions it (so if you know of one, point it out to me). Of course, where Shakespeare’s Shylock was hell-bent on taking a pound of flesh for wrongs done to him, Smith’s Ben/Tim Thomas is hell-bent on giving away a pound of flesh for wrongs he’s done to others. I’m a Burkeian at heart, so the idea of deeply-rooted guilt resonates with me. The film and play have much more in common, but that’s not what I wanted to write about today. Perhaps that will be another post.

In any case, as I re-read Shakespeare I was taken aback by how prescient and valuable his work remains. I know I should not have been be surprised, but I was – especially with the following monologue, which I felt compelled to highlight:

“So may the outward shows be least themselves:
The world is still deceived with ornament.
In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt,
But, being seasoned with a gracious voice,
Obscures the show of evil? In religion,
What damned error, but some sober brow
Will bless it and approve it with a text,
Hiding the grossness with fair ornament?
There is no vice so simple but assumes
Some mark of virtue on his outward parts:
How many cowards, whose hearts are all as false
As stairs of sand, wear yet upon their chins
The beards of Hercules and frowning Mars;
Who, inward search’d, have livers white as milk;
And these assume but valour’s excrement
To render them redoubted! Look on beauty,
And you shall see ’tis purchased by the weight;
Which therein works a miracle in nature,
Making them lightest that wear most of it:
So are those crisped snaky golden locks
Which make such wanton gambols with the wind,
Upon supposed fairness, often known
To be the dowry of a second head,
The skull that bred them in the sepulchre.
Thus ornament is but the guiled shore
To a most dangerous sea; the beauteous scarf
Veiling an Indian beauty; in a word,
The seeming truth which cunning times put on
To entrap the wisest. ”

(Merchant of Venice, 3.2.73)

On a personal note, it struck me as hugely ironic that directly after finishing the play I picked up my notes from the International Leadership Conference in LA a couple of weeks ago and found this quip by Jean Lipman-Blumen: “We concentrate so much on charisma…I’ve had it up to here with charisma. I think that people will sometimes polish and burnish their charisma and will fail to work on character.”

I’m not the only one who sees the echo of Shakespeare in that, am I?

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