This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
—Hamlet, Act 1, Scene III, by William Shakespeare
What is true? What is beautiful? What finally lasts in this world?
The year is 1600 or so. A thirty-five-year-old playwright named William Shakespeare sits down at his desk in London and pens a new play titled, The Tragedy of Hamlet, The Prince of Denmark. Its first public performance was likely in 1602 at the Globe Theater in that very same city.
The year is 2015. Thirty high school youth stage Hamlet at a small town Massachusetts high school on a chilly October weekend. In attendance are enthusiastic family members, excited friends, and cheerleading neighbors. And me, too. Amelia, a young woman and member of the church I serve, plays the role of Horatio at an afternoon matinee. Wanting to support her, I go to the show with high hopes for her performance but somewhat temperate expectations for the play. This is high school drama after all.
And then the curtains open and I receive an unexpected blessing. This is Shakespeare after all, and so I hear the Bard’s ancient words eloquently spoken, and by actors born more than four centuries after the drama was first created. That’s a head spinner, if you think about it—a piece of literature that has survived for so long, and embodies so many human ideals and human flaws, and that still ring so true, somehow, thirty generations later.
Take for instance Polonius, who is a meddler and a world class windbag; nevertheless his comic-serious words spoken in Hamlet have enough weight to have taken on a life of their own: “To thine own self be true.” I’m somehow stunned to hear such venerable lines from a cast of young women and men, born at the turn of the second millennium when the internet was about to make all creation a village: they can still perform this work of art, first brought to life when the world was only as connected as the distance a ship could sail upon the seas.
Something about Hamlet is still so eternal that a fifteen-year-old teenager today can somehow embody the angst and struggle of a sixteenth-century prince. Maybe there are some truths about the human condition that live and stand above time, beyond time. A play like Hamlet reminds us of this hope. That even as we slog through the details and detritus of daily life, even as we struggle like our forebears to figure out the true meaning of human life, we can find glimpses of truth and beauty that lasts.
What is true? What is beautiful? What finally lasts in this world? Great art, great literature, and great faiths always ask these questions of ultimate meaning. My answers? Love. Freedom. Justice. Dignity. Faith. Mercy. Truth. Service. What ideals might you put on your list? What really lasts? In Saint Paul’s words, for Christians, this is what lasts: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable…worthy of praise….”(Philippians 4:8, NRSV)
What lasts? That is the question.
As humans and Christians we need to ask ourselves this question consistently, daily, faithfully. But that doesn’t mean finding deep and meaningful answers will be easy. We are buried under more information than ever before, more interconnected than ever before, and just a keystroke or mouse click away from more facts, opinions and data than we could ever hope to understand or digest. The challenge now is how to separate the wheat from the chaff, the disposable from the permanent, the lies from the truth, and the beautiful from the tawdry. As the character of Macbeth warns in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, “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.” Spend a few hours surfing the internet or scrolling through text messages or on Instagram or Pinterest or flipping through reality TV or watching a Presidential debate. Sound and fury….
So we ask again…what is true? What is beautiful? What finally lasts in this world? We have Shakespeare’s Hamlet to thank for those questions. Finding the answers? That’s up to us.