Sunday, April 15, 2007

Honour is a mere scutcheon

Shakespeare's history plays are all too timeless. Contenders and pretenders elbow each other for the crown, grasping and grappling for the patriarchal staff of authority. Somehow they manage to convince thousands of men to face each other on a field of battle and go at it with swords and pikes until enough blood has gushed away on one side or the other.

Sitting in the enveloping darkness of the theatre tonight watching Henry IV Part 1, the following speech brought all of my senses to attentiveness. The actor, alone in a pool of light, gave us the following words -- in a delivery so profoundly true to the moment that I felt a burning tear in the corner of my eye:
"Can honour set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery then? No. What is honour? A word. What is in that word honour? What is that honour? Air - a trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died a Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. 'Tis insensible then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I'll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon - and so ends my catechism."
A scutcheon is the shield that is painted on a coat of arms. It offers no real protection. Staying the course may sound honorable to some, but the warriors would prefer they have body armor.

The words the leaders use to send the young men off to war may have changed in form over the years, but the end result remains the same. Young people die for no good reason, while others bear wounds that will never heal.

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