Thursday, 26 November 2015

Small acts of kindness

Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh, Miranda Raison in The Winter's Tale

Paulina in The Winter’s Tale

Last weekend I saw The Winter’s Tale at the Garrick Theatre in London (to be broadcast this evening in cinemas.) The character of Paulina is one of the most extraordinary in literature and I wanted to see the show live because one of my favourite actors, Judi Dench, is currently playing the role. Paulina behaves without regard to her own safety, life or convenience – and Judi Dench catches her sense of humour, her courage, her loyalty and, when needed, her blazing anger. It is hard to behave with absolute conviction the whole time. Most of us (me certainly) regularly compromise, regularly miss opportunities, regularly see both sides of an argument.


The end of The Winter’s Tale (like those other great Late Romances of Shakespeare, Pericles, Cymbeline, The Two Noble Kinsmen and The Tempest) is suffused with redemption and forgiveness. Hard-won lessons are learned, families learn to forgive and the future, though potentially painful, is a bit more hopeful. We are all in charge of our own reactions and responses to everything that happens. It astonishes me when suffering family members forgive terrorists and murderers who have slain their loved ones. In doing so, though, they are controlling their own futures, so I can appreciate why they choose forgiveness rather than revenge. I don’t know if I could.

Even as love crowns you, so shall he crucify you

Khalil Gibran’s quotation above is from a lengthier one on “Love.” The idea is well-known – if you love someone you open yourself to being hurt. Why does anyone do it? Victor Hugo in Les Miserables promoted “small acts of kindness” as one of the keys to happiness:
You can give without loving, but you can never love without giving. The great acts of love are done by those who are habitually performing small acts of kindness. We pardon to the extent that we love. Love is knowing that even when you are alone, you will never be lonely again. A great happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved. Loved for ourselves. And even loved in spite of ourselves.
Book illustrations, stage and film versions of Les Miserables

Unhistoric acts

In George Eliot’s Middlemarch Dorothea is the heroine that, like Paulina in Winter’s Tale, is a model for our time. Do one good thing. Then another. Then another.
Dorothea herself had no dreams of being praised above other women, feeling that there was always something better which she might have done, if she had only been better and known better….
But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
How many small acts of kindness have we had done for us in our lives? Who did them? How many small acts of kindness can we do tomorrow?
Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea in the BBC version of Middlemarch