Let’s Talk About Education Tuesday: Episode 2

“I’m very fond of boats myself. I like the way they’re–contained….One is free on a boat. For a time. Relatively.” (Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Act III)

I’m on a bus. It’s terribly hot and a little bit humid, and the feeble air conditioning is doing nothing to help. But I’ve just read this scene in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and am overcome with a sense of wonder. The two men have, at King Claudius’ command, boarded a ship bound for England. Little do they know that the only thing waiting for them at the end of the journey is a pair of nooses. So here Guildenstern is, yammering on about existential questions (as he so often does), when he presents a near-perfect metaphor for life. One is bound by the forward motion of time and the inevitability of death, but is free to a fair degree until then, just as one is on a ship. This revelation was a lot more exciting to me than I’m making it sound.

“Where we went wrong was getting on a boat. We can move, of course, change direction, rattle about, but our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us along as inexorably as the wind and current.”

I’m in a classroom. The lights are out, and my literature teacher is reading the very same scene. I know I’m not the only one who gets the ship metaphor here. There are others; we’ve discussed it. Yet the twenty-odd frozen fish around me seem resistant to the epiphanic passage. Eyes glazed, they delve no deeper into the symbolism than seeing the ship as a representation of the plot of Hamlet. Why isn’t the ingenuity smacking them in the face, the way it did with me?

“For those in peril on the sea…Give us this day our daily cue.”

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