The most memorable assignment during my undergrad studies was for the English Literature course. It was a group task where we had to rewrite a Shakespeare play of our choice and then performed it in front of our lecturer and our classmates. Our group's version of The Merchant of Venice required Antonio (a part that I had to play) to perform a soliloquy. I wrote a sonnet for him - just for fun.
For Each Passing Season
Shall I compare life to changing seasons
And man to the plants that conquer the earth?
For each passing season there are reasons
And the reasons define mere mortals worth.
In summer time, the reasons are budding
In spring they blossom, in autumn they fall
Then cold winter leads to reasons fading
Bitter snow buries the reasons and all.
Mere mortal I am, and my winter is
Fast approaching and fast coming to end
My reasons and my seasons and my bliss
My joy and my pain and the whole life I spend.
Final farewell my fellow friends for now
I'll bow to my vow, if you would allow.
Here's a recording on SoundCloud
Antonio recited this in prison when he learned that he was unable to pay moneylender Shylock the amount he had borrowed on behalf of his friend Bassanio because his merchant's ship was lost at sea. Shylock demanded to be compensated with "a pound of flesh," or in other words, he wanted to physically hurt Antonio - perhaps to kill him. So the sonnet was some sort of a farewell message. The way I interpreted it, Antonio was quite ready to die for the sake of his friend. He saw his imminent death as a "season," - it was sad, even tragic, but it was also certain and inevitable. Through his soliloquy, Antonio expressed a sincere desire to "bow to his vow," - to answer the call to honour life's natural precepts in the most respectable manner.
Writing the script and performing with my group members were fun, enjoyable times. English Lit was without a doubt one of my favourite courses. But not long after, something shocking and devastating happened which changed the way I wanted to look back at this memory. Just a few months before our graduation, we received news that JC Ng, the beloved lecturer whom we did the Shakespeare assignment for, had perished in a plane crash. She was 33. From being a piece created playfully to remind myself of the good old days, Antonio's sonnet suddenly transformed into something that reminds me of her tragic end, of the fragility of life, and of how brief our candles are - as Shakespeare himself would put it.
Flip sides of the same coin
The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult was the first fiction I read this year. The story's main theme is death, though it also deals with questions about life and what-ifs, about love and forgiveness, and about human desires and the pursuit of dreams told through the subjects of Egyptology, quantum physics, multiverse, Irish superstitions, and the job of a death doula. It starts with the main character's brush with death when the plane she was on crashed unexpectedly.
A plane crash. Of all things.
Reading the book brings me back to my memory of the late Ms JC, to my Antonio's soliloquy, to my fear of flying, and also perhaps to my thoughts about death and dying which I've been entertaining since last year. I don't think I'm alone in this, though. I guess pandemic-ridden 2020 had forced a lot of people to think about life and death in ways they never did before.
One of the questions I find myself asking is this: Am I afraid to die? Dawn, the book's main character, said that fear of death is a common thing - indeed all fear is a fear of death. Fear of flying is definitely a fear of dying in a plane crash. Fear of snakes is a fear of being bitten to death. Fear of height is a fear of falling to death.
Maybe I do fear my own death - but I guess I fear experiencing the death of my loved ones even more. I guess I'm not alone in this. A lot of married couples I know seem to prefer dying before their spouses do - it's easier to be the one who leaves than to be the one being left behind. I found an echo of this in the book, when it mentions how "every story is a love story," i.e. "love of a person, a country, a way of life." Hence, "all tragedies are about losing what you love" (p. 67). Picoult also writes: