To be or not to be?

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I had to read Shakespeare at school. I could understand enough of it to vaguely track the plot and appreciate the occasional wordy insult or clever pun, but not much more.

But Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech kept running through my mind as I was preparing a talk on Philippians 1, and it was serendipitous to look it up and find that for the first time in my life, I could really appreciate Shakespeare on my own. And what’s more, it turned out to be both educationally and spiritually encouraging as I compared Hamlet’s speech with Paul’s writings in Philippians 1 – as both of them wrestle with a choice to live or die.

Both are famous passages. Both deal with life and death. But the differences are significant too. In Hamlet’s speech, he is debating whether or not he should commit suicide. On the one hand, he is tired of the pain of living: being subject to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and the “heartache and thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to“. And so he longs for death to end it all: he wants to “sleep“. But, on the other hand, he says if he were to die, there is:

the dread of something after death.
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others we know not of.

And so Hamlet chooses life because, he says, “conscience makes cowards of us all“. He longs to die but is afraid because he is not sure what comes afterwards. For Hamlet, to be or not to be is a lose-lose choice which he ultimately decides as a coward.

Paul, on the other hand, sees the choice between life and death as a win-win choice. In Philippians 1 he boldly writes: “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body…”

For Paul the choice is not, as it is for Hamlet, between painful life and uncertain death. For Paul, the choice is between a fruitful life knowing Jesus now, and eternal life with Jesus beyond death without any of the nastiness of this life. His choice of the latter is a no-brainer, but he chooses life because he still has work to do here.

But here’s the thing which got me excited about comparing these two speeches. The big difference between Hamlet and Paul’s outlook is their view of the afterlife. Hamlet talked of a hope of “sleep, perchance to dream“. Life after death was wishful thinking at best. He describes it as an “undiscovered country“, and laments that “no traveller returns” from there to assure him of what it is like.

Aye, there’s the rub.”

But the difference was that Paul had SEEN THE RISEN JESUS. He had met that one traveller who had travelled through death, who had not only discovered but conquered that “country”, rising again to proclaim that for those who know Him, death has lost its sting. Paul knew that beyond death there was resurrection life to be experienced with Jesus. And so for Paul (with apologies to Shakespeare),

There is no dread of something after death.
The eternal country from whose bourn
Jesus has returned, delights the will,
And makes us bear the ills we have today
’til we rest in bliss we know not yet of.

(reposted in honor of Kathi, who did not lose her battle against cancer so much as triumphantly gain eternal life. “For I am convinced that whether in life or in death… We are more than conquerors through him that loved us.”</em>