Sunday, January 26, 2014

Richard Sherman is Not a "Thug" but Macbeth is One

What does it mean to be a thug?

I've contemplated that question in the wake of Richard Sherman's response to those labeling him a thug after a post game interview following the Seahawks' win over San Francisco last week. For those who missed it, here's the interview and Sherman's evocative remarks:
From the moment I saw the interview, I was a bit confused by the response. Now I know why. I grew up in the Ali-Frazier era, for one. For another, as Sherman himself has noted, football is a violent sport. Should we really be surprised when players react emotionally immediately following a big play. I'm not much of a fan of false humility, and Sherman seems to have the evidence to support his claims of "being the best." 

More importantly, one moment following an emotional play does not a thug make. To be sure, I looked up the word. The online OED defines thug thusly:

(Thug): a violent person, especially a criminal. 

The word's origin is in the 19th Century and is an extension of 

(Thug): historical a member of a religious organization of robbers and assassins in India. Devotees of the goddess Kali, the Thugs waylaid and strangled their victims, usually travelers, in a ritually prescribed manner. They were suppressed by the British in the 1830s.

No, Richard Sherman is not a thug, and as he has said, the word has evolved into a replacement for the N-word. Interestingly, the interview in which Sherman talks about his being accused of being a thug shows hime accurately defining the word. And why not. He's a Stanford graduate, and a civic-minded role-model who, according the an article in The New Yorker, not only graduated from Stanford but kept in touch with his teammates to ensure they also graduated. 

Richard Sherman is not a thug, but Macbeth is one. 

I thought about the contrasts in Macbeth and Sherman this past week as I prepared to teach The Tragedy of Macbeth. I began the unit with Macbeth's "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" soliloquy in Act V. I love Patrick Stewart's performance of the speech: 

Macbeth looks back on his life full of regret, regret that stems from a life of thuggery, a life of violence that began even before he meets the three weird sisters. Our first meeting with Macbeth is via a report in which we learn he has slit his enemy "from the nave to th'chops" (1.2.24 Folger edition). 

Realizing the anachronism, still, Macbeth is a thug. His criminal behavior leads him to kill Duncan, the king; it leads him to kill Banquo, his former friend. This murder echoes the historical definition of a thug as it occurs while Banquo is traveling. 

Throughout the tragedy, Macbeth continues killing and delving further into madness until finally his beloved wife, Lady Macbeth takes her own life, and he's left with only the regrets he speaks in the "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech. 

In contrast, Richard Sherman's life embodies wise choices, from his academic success in poverty-stricken Compton, California to his choice of Stanford over a school with a stronger football program, to his altruism off the field. Sherman's regrets, no doubt, pale in comparison to those of Macbeth and of others in the NFL. 

Consequently, when I think about the thugs among us in this moment in time, I find one in Macbeth but not in Richard Sherman. He seems to have more in common with the good and noble king Duncan and with Macbeth's loyal friend Banquo. 

That society seems incapable of recognizing the difference is the real tragedy.

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