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How Shakespeare helps us understand our lives and vocations

Shakespeare portrait by John Taylor

Public domain

Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 03/14/24

The lessons of wisdom in Shakespeare's stories make them such important reading for our young people, and really for all of us!

The Bard of Avon was the ultimate storyteller, with an unparalleled genius for hiding brilliant kernels of wisdom and truth in an entertaining plot. The wisdom in his stories makes them such important reading for our young people (and really for all of us!). I came across one example that really stuck with me while readingMerchant of Venice to my kids recently. 

Let me set the scene for you a bit. My kids are young; the oldest is nine years old. We are reading three Shakespeare plays out loud as part of his fourth-grade literature class this school year. Last fall we read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was a massive success.

(In case you are wondering who on earth assigns unabridged Shakespeare to a nine-year-old, it’s me, hi, I’m the problem; I homeschool him. Surprisingly, my kids cheer when I pull out our Shakespeare reading! They like to voice the different characters and use toys to act out the scenes. We make it fun.)

A marriage test

In Merchant of Venice, there is a wealthy heiress named Portia whose father has died. Before he died, he set up a challenge for any future suitors to face. He was worried that someone unworthy would want to marry her, so he designed the test to weed out any questionable characters. 

The test consists of a room containing three “caskets,” or chests, one made of gold, one of silver, and one of  lead. Each bears a message above it. Here is how one character describes the test:

This first, of gold, who this inscription bears,
“Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire”;
The second, silver, which this promise carries,
“Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves”;
This third, dull lead, with warning all as blunt,
“Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.”

(Act 2 Scene 7 lines 4-12)

The play shows three different suitors attempting to win Portia’s hand. The first two choose the gold and silver caskets and fail the challenge. The third suitor chooses the lead casket and wins Portia’s hand.

A production of William Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice"
A production of William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”

“Give and hazard all he hath”

I stopped reading right after we read that, eager to discuss it with my kids. “Why do you think the lead casket was the right one? It said whoever picks it has to be ready to give all that he has.”

This quote kicked off an impromptu lesson about what marriage requires. “If you want to get married, you have to be ready to lay down your life for the other person,” I explained. “You have to be ready to give all you have for your spouse and your family. Portia’s father knew she would not have a happy marriage unless the man who married her was ready to give everything for her. It’s really important to know that, if you ever get married, you have to be ready to lay down your life — not actually dying, but dying to selfishness, and loving the other person with everything you have.”

Hearing this, my nine-year-old — who is firmly in the “romance is gross” stage — replied about how you’d expect. “I’m never getting married!” he said, making a face. 

I cracked up laughing at his response. Of course he thought that sounded awful; he’s a little kid. 

But I know some day, when he’s older, he will be eager and ready to embrace his vocation. And he will be a lot better prepared if he goes into it knowing what it will require of him. 

It made me wonder how different our world would be if more people embraced their vocation wholeheartedly instead of staying stuck in the childish response of “That sounds hard, so I’m not going to do it.”

Embracing the hard in any vocation

Of course, it’s not just marriage that requires us to “give and hazard all we have.” We receive this calling in countless ways — in any Christian vocation, we will have moments when we must “take up our cross.” 

Anyone living their life for God can tell you their own variation of how they give their all for someone they love.

Crucially, this death to self is not a hopeless dead end. Christ promised that giving our all for a good cause would always be worth it: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt 16:25). Sure enough, in the play, when the suitor makes the choice to “give and hazard all he hath,” he is rewarded with marriage to the matchless Portia.

When we’re doing our vocation right, it’s not usually going to be easy. Life will require us to “give and hazard all” we have. But there is enormous satisfaction in doing hard things: Facing challenges with perseverance brings happiness and purpose. 

The easy life is not the path to happiness or greatness — or to sanctity.

Stories are the best way to learn, and this little vignette gives a glimpse into why I love reading Shakespeare and classic literature with my children. These stories help them know what life will ask of them, and what their Christian vocation will call out of them. 

I hope this story preparation will help them not to be surprised when the time comes, but to face the challenges of maturity with clear eyes and courage.

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