The storm begins; poor wretch,
That for thy mother’s fault art thus exposed
To loss and what may follow! Weep I cannot,
But my heart bleeds; and most accursed am I
To be by oath enjoin’d to this.
Antigonus, Act III Scene 3 of The Winter’s Tale, William Shakespeare
Ordered by Leontes, King of Sicilia, to dispose of his own daughter, the elderly lord Antigonus abandons the King’s newborn infant on the wild and savage coast of Bohemia. He feels a sense of dread for the act, and the scene is concluded with the famous stage direction, “Exeunt, pursued by a bear.”
Antigonus is attacked by a bear. While it is often referred to as a comic incongruity, I think of it as a fury unleashed by the brutality of Antigonus’ act. In my imagination, the bear appears like a spector during the course of his speech and as Antigonus realizes the import of his abandonment of Perdita, the beast is unleashed as Nemesis, a goddess of retribution. Antigonus understands this as his last lines are “This is the chase: I am gone for ever.”
Shakespeare is telling us that our evil acts create the monsters that pursue us. In a sense, we create the Nemesis that seeks us out. This was a theme well-explored by medieval sculptors and perhaps Shakespeare was using their visions, placing them on the stage in his modern context.
In today’s modern context, the daughters we abandon on the wild shores of Bohemia are the poor that we rob, imprison, and disenfranchise in the name of commerce. They are the earth that we deface in the name of progress. They are the children that we addict to drugs, alcohol, and rampant consumerism. Our abandoned daughters are those we let starve – or force to starve – so that we can enjoy our plenty.
I am not ashamed to say that I sometimes wish for Nemesis today. The violence and greed that dominate the world fills me with loathing. To see the principles of religion turned into instruments of oppression and death is like watching a beloved family pet foam at the mouth and turn rabid. Perhaps a sense of dread would have some influence on the behaviors of the most vile among us. Perhaps. But that dread would need to be enormous, I am sure.
I can only hope that Nemesis takes on a form monstrous and implacable. It must be as great and unforgiving as the nature of the acts that it seeks to redress. In my mind I try to re-enter the imagination of those medieval sculptors, seeing and feeling as they did. I try to see the monsters from their churches as real and feel their fury. I imagine them rending the flesh of the transgressors. For the greedy, I imagine them forcing a silver coin into each gaping wound. For the murderers, I imagine them tearing the bodies but leaving the victims to die with excruciating slowness. But in doing so, in these inhuman imaginings, I can only see a human face. No animal would think like this.
Nemesis is a double-edged sword. Timothy McVey saw himself as Nemesis when he detonated a truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing his hundreds. Certainly anti-abortionists who bomb clinics and kill doctors see themselves as Nemesis. I am positive that ISIS sees itself as Nemesis, punishing the wicked of the world. They kidnap 150 people from Assyrian Christian villages and will probably execute them as brutally as they killed the Egyptian Copts. But they are murderers all. And one thing is clear – we humans are pathetically incapable of righting our own wrongs. And just as incapable at preventing those wrongs in the first place.