I watched and watched and watched. And then I turned to my bookshelf. For better and for worse, this is often how I respond to the world spinning out before me.
Late in the evening of September 11, 2001, I turned off my television and opened an edition of the collected works of William Shakespeare. Even now I’m not sure what I was hoping to find. Solace? Distraction? A snippet of text that might have somehow begun to express my confusion, my numbness? I recall thumbing through the book without any specific aim. Shakespeare as secular scripture.
I was living in Vancouver, British Columbia; my second-floor apartment was just across the north arm of the Fraser River from the Vancouver Airport, and I remember very clearly an oppressive silence outside my windows. I had lived in the apartment for not quite a year, and the droning thunder of aircraft was something that I had been forced to become accustomed to. At that moment, with airspace over the city closed, it was the silence that struck me more than anything else. I remember the stillness as deeply disturbing. It was as if the unfathomable events that had been swirling within my television were somehow leaking out to smother the city beyond my walls. I don’t remember what I was looking for in the book. Maybe, impossibly, I thought it could begin to fill the quiet.
I read a few passages at random, skipping slabs of pages at a time. The words on each page structured in two columns. Two towers. Parallel stacks of words on words. Some of the columns seemed sturdy and dark with ink, sharply justified along their edges. Other columns were scattershot, all crumbling edges.
Eventually I came across lines that satisfied whatever need was motivating me. It’s the only passage I remember from that evening:
Then if you fight against God’s enemy,
God will, in justice, ward you as his soldiers;
If you do sweat to put a tyrant down,
You sleep in peace, the tyrant being slain;
If you do fight against your country’s foes,
Your country’s fat shall pay your pains the hire;
If you do fight in safeguard of your wives,
Your wives shall welcome home the conquerors;
If you do free your children from the sword,
Your children’s children quits it in your age.
Some context: the lines come from near the end of Richard III, just before the climactic battle that concludes the play. The lines, part of a much longer speech, are spoken by the leader of one side of the combatants, Richmond — his name in a stage direction on the opposite page had caught my eye, the municipality of “Richmond” being the location of the airport across the water, from which the eerie calm was emanating. Richmond has returned to England from exile with an army in tow, a claim to the throne, and supporters swelling his ranks. He means to defeat the king, Richard, the “tyrant” in question whose pernicious desires are terrorizing the country. The opposing forces are preparing to meet near Bosworth field, and on the eve of battle, Richmond is rallying his troops with a stirring speech that figures victory and peace as within their reach: give him some “sweat” and some “fight” and he can anticipate the successful results. Part of what makes the speech compelling is that Richmond mystifies the extent of the sacrifice that is required: he lays out the cause and effect — “If” you do ‘A’, then ‘B’ will result — but what he leaves unspoken is the messy stuff in the middle.
The lines seemed to momentarily distill everything that was fogging my mind at that moment: religion, fear, sacrifice, wealth and prosperity (a country’s “fat”), and the urge, even necessity, of perpetrating violence on one’s enemies. The word that struck me hardest, though, was “quit”: “If you do free your children from the sword, / Your children’s children quits it in your age.” “Quit” is almost always emended in modern editions to “quite,” meaning “reward,” which yields a reading that is something like, “If you are able to free your children from the threat of violence, their children will repay your sacrifice in your old age.” The ultimate reward for the soldiers, then, is figured as a tantalizing promise of peace that ensures the survival and prosperity of future generations; indeed, the very possibility of future generations is the reward.
But “quit” has an added edge: “quit” becomes “quite,” and “quite” is an abbreviated form of “requite,” which means more than just “repay” or “reward” — it also carries a splinter of “avenge” embedded within it. In Hamlet, for instance, when urging Laertes to kill the Danish prince, Claudius says to “Requite him for your father” (the murdered Polonius), which captures the richness of both “repay” and “take revenge”. Richmond’s speech promises bloodshed and fighting to bring about peace, but that peace is shadowed by the faint prophecy of future violence, future acts of vengeance. What at first glance appears like an endpoint can also be seen, through an interpretive squint, as an endless loop. You can free your children from the sword, but what if your children’s children want the swords back to settle some scores that everyone hoped were long forgotten?
When I read the lines now, they mostly confuse and sadden me. Richmond’s heroic speech inspires good to fight against evil, against “God’s enemy,” but it doesn’t take much to realize that Richmond sounds a lot like a terrorist. From a certain perspective he’s an invader trying to inspire organized, widespread violence. Shakespeare as extremist. But his words also speak to the inevitable, seemingly endless justifications of force as productive or generative. Violent means that can somehow produce peaceful ends, even if the finality of that peace can never be assured. Shakespeare as response to extremism. An endless loop.
Whose God? Whose enemy? Whose will? Whose justice? Whose tyrant? Whose country? Whose wives? Whose conquerors? Whose children? Whose sword? When disembodied and lifted from their context, the lines seem to speak to nothing in particular. When disembodied, the lines seem to speak to everything.
When I think about that day, I think about the towers. The ones that fell and changed the world. And the ones that still stand on my bookshelf, monuments to the immutability of a horrible, inescapable truth.