Hamlet, Threepio and Us

In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead , two hapless characters who occupy a few minutes of stage time in Hamlet wander around, trying to figure out why they are there and what the story they are in is all about. They engage in comic banter and wordplay and, periodically, react to the main characters of Hamlet when they occasionally wander into the scene. Eventually, as we know from Hamlet , Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wind up getting killed in place of Hamlet, who is the actual center of the story. Their lives are essentially secondary—adjuncts in the service of the plot of Hamlet .

That’s not the only time a device like that has been used to tell a tale. A Japanese film called The Hidden Fortress gives us a tale of adventure as seen from the perspective of a couple of slaves. It was the inspiration for a rather more famous film called Star Wars , which showed us the entire narrative of a vast galactic conflict from the perspective of a couple of slaves called C-3PO and R2D2.

We are in a similar position to these bit players, slaves, droids, and also-rans. We assume the story of the world is about the famous and powerful. So, for instance, right now the headlines are consumed with Obama, bailouts for giant corporations, and the comings and goings of the powerful. Yet while all the while this kerfuffle is going on we may be missing the real story.

To see that, all we have to do is look at the supposed Big Stories of 2000 years ago. All the major players of antiquity—Augustus Caesar, Herod the Great, Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas, Herod Antipas—they are all forgotten. The main reason anybody remembers them today, if they do, is because they happened to live in the time of an utterly obscure manual laborer and itinerant preacher who was born in some rathole village nobody ever heard of, who grew up to cause a small commotion in some jerkwater province on the edge of nowhere and, for his troubles, wound up horsewhipped and spiked to a cross as a lesson to the legion of other faceless riff-raff who periodically trouble the smooth running of the System.

Any decent citizen of the time would have known for certain whose story belonged on the front page and who deserved the two line death notice on page D10. And any decent citizen would have been wrong. Pilate, Caesar, Caiaphas and the rest were the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of their time: bit players in the Real Story featuring Jesus of Nazareth.

We can forget just as easily today that where Christ is, there the main story is. That is but one of the reasons that God warns Israel so sternly that he is the Defender of the stranger, the orphan and the widow. It’s just another way of saying, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:35-36; 40).

That’s not to say God doesn’t choose people for special roles in history. It’s to say we often don’t know where the spotlight really is being thrown. And we often don’t remember that the Chosen are always chosen for the sake of the Unchosen. If that sounds like boasting, just remember that Jesus was The Chosen One: all the rest of us are chosen in him. And to be chosen means something much more like being selected out of the lineup at Auschwitz to die in the place of another man (like St. Maximilien Kolbe) than being winner of the lottery. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

However, just as the story is not necessarily where we think it should be, so it is also not over when we think it is either. Just when you figure the credits are going to roll, Jesus is raised from the dead and all the bit players, also-rans, second fiddles, sidekicks, extras, doowop singers, droids, slaves, and chorus line members are revealed to be, with Jesus, what the whole thing was all about. For “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).

Mark Shea

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Mark P. Shea is a Catholic author, blogger, and speaker.

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  • Cooky642

    I think the reason it “seems to be a Mark Shea article” is because it really IS a Mark Shea article. Think about that for a moment. He has a unique relationship with words, a way of using them to point your head in a new direction, an ability to manipulate them to reveal something not previously seen. I think Mark could write without using a byline, and we’d all recognize the writing as his. Good job, Mark. Thanks.

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