The Austin airport is pretty darned cool, with some little touches that bored travelers who are walking around while waiting for their flights will appreciate–like this mock “Interimaginary Departures” board found at Gate 14. It changes just like your standard departures board, only the destinations are fictional locations from literature, film, TV, comic books, video games, and other elements of popular culture. The airlines are fictional too, of course, but very cleverly named. And all flights leave from Gate Infinity.
For example, you could catch a flight to Gotham City on DystopiAir, or head to Hogwarts on Spellbound Airlines, or visit the Hundred-Acre Wood on Wistful. I’d avoid the flight to Isla Nublar on GossAmerica, myself. On the other hand, I admit to being tempted by the chance to experience the most wretched hive of scum and villainy in the known universe, so I would probably grab a seat on the 11:07 to Tattoine in order to check out the Mos Eisley spaceport.
I’ve included photos of two of the many boards with this post. Somebody obviously had a lot of fun with this great idea.
The destinations on the “Interimaginary Departures” board are a kind of litmus test of your awareness of different elements of popular culture, and I am sad to say that I am not aware of many of them. How many of the references do you recognize? And, like me, if you see a destination you haven’t experienced through books or movies or comics, are you motivated to check them out?
Dr.. Martin Luther King is known to us as a teacher whose relentless advocacy and aspirational vision of a better, fairer America helped to power the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. What many do not know is that he was a teacher in fact–for one class. In 1962, Dr. King returned to his alma mater, Morehouse College, and taught a class called Seminar in Social Philosophy. The records of that class, and the recollections of the students who were fortunate to take it, provide a glimpse at another facet of this iconic historical figure and the ideas that motivated him and his work.
You can see Dr. King’s handwritten syllabus of readings for the course, and an exam that was given in the course, here. From looking at the reading list, it’s obvious that this was one of those college courses that would challenge a student to the limit: the readings encompassed a broad range of philosophical writings, from Plato and Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas, from Hobbes and Locke to Kant, from Rousseau and Hegel to John Stuart Mill–with a little Machiavelli thrown in for good measure. In the exam, students had to answer five of seven questions that required them to actually think about how the philosophical constructs they learned could be compared and applied. One of the seven questions, for example, asked students to “Appraise the Student Movement in its practice of law-breaking in light of Aquinas’ Doctrine of Law.”
Ten years ago CNN published a story about the eight men and women who took this class with Dr. King–one of whom was Julian Bond. You can read about them, and their interesting recollections about the course that met once weekly for that semester in 1962, here. Not surprisingly, the students were influenced and motivated by that class, One student, Barbara Adams, shared this recollection:
“It was a hard class in the sense that there was a lot of reading and understanding great thinkers. It was relaxed in that it was more like a conversation rather than a lecture. It was hard in that we had to come to grips with nonviolence as more than just a political tactic. He wanted us to understand it was a way of living and bringing about change.”
She added this point about how the students viewed Dr. King at that time:
“We didn’t really know we were in the midst of a man who in the future would be considered great. We knew he was a man with a vision, sure, but he seemed so ordinary and so down to earth and he was so easy to talk to, even more than some of my other professors. I mean we respected and admired him, but we never dreamed that he would become a Nobel Prize winner or that he would become a martyr. He was not a puffed-up man.”
Imagine having the opportunity to discuss philosophy with Dr. Martin Luther King and a few other highly motivated students who had done the heavy reading, had thought about the tough issues, and were passionate about the subject and its relevance to an ongoing social movement that would change America forever. Imagine being spurred to learn and think about how the developing philosophy of the Civil Rights movement fit into the grand sweep of different philosophies that had been articulated in the past. This must have been a college course for the ages.
The story of the Morehouse College Seminar in Social Philosophy also shows that Dr. King didn’t shy away from challenging others, whether it was in the pulpit, in the classroom, or on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. And it also shows why college students shouldn’t always try to take the easy route. Sometimes, the toughest classes have the greatest reward. It’s something worth thinking about as we commemorate Martin Luther King Day.
What historians now view as the “Bronze Age” was a period of about two thousands years of civilization and human cultural and social development among a number of long-established kingdoms in the Middle East. With Egypt as the wealthy and ancient anchor, kingdoms with names that are familiar to those who have read the Old Testament of the Bible or Homeric poems–the Hittites, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Trojans, the Philistines, the Canaanites, and a host of other “ites”–were thriving societies. Writing had been developed and was the accepted way to record events and send messages, cuneiform script was the lingua franca of the day, artisans plied their trades, commerce among different cultures spread different goods from different places across across the Fertile Crescent, and tin–along with copper, a key ingredient in smelting the bronze that was the principal metal used in making swords, chariots, and other key items–was a highly valued substance.
But at some point between 1200 B.C. and 1150 B.C., most of these ancient kingdoms that had existed for hundreds if not thousands of years suddenly crumbled, never to rise again. What happened?
I recently finished 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, by Eric H. Cline, an interesting volume that tries to answer that question. And the ultimate answer is: we just don’t know for sure. Archaeological finds and digs give us lots of information about some of the Bronze Age civilizations. Clay tablets with cuneiform script tell us that kings of different kingdoms communicated with each other, provide information about commerce and issues like famines, and present the victors’ views of conflicts and invasions. The discovery of sunken Bronze Age ships in the Mediterranean Sea shows that trade was occurring between different kingdoms, and diggings that have uncovered objects that must have been imported from faraway places show us how extensive that interaction must have been. Telltale signs, such as tilted walls that indicate earthquakes, or layers of ash that show that a city has been burned to the ground, also provide clues. But the reality is that no one knows for sure.
Cline’s ultimate conclusion is that prior scholarship that blames “the Sea Peoples” for the widespread series of collapses is too simplistic. The “Sea Peoples” were a group identified by hieroglyphics on Egyptian artifacts that boasted of Pharaoh Ramses III’s victory over them, after the “Sea Peoples” had purportedly toppled other ancient kingdoms. The “Sea Peoples” are part of the mystery surrounding the collapses; no one knows who the “Sea Peoples” were, or precisely where they came from. They clearly played a role in the fall of civilizations, but Cline’s conclusion is that they were likely one of a series of cascading factors–that also included earthquakes, changing climate conditions that produced drought and famine, weak kings leading weakening kingdoms, and internal rebellions–that simply produced too much pressure for the ancient civilizations to bear. So they collapsed, and the Hittites, and the Assyrians, and other kingdoms fell into the historical dustbin forever.
What’s interesting about a book like this one is that much of it is speculation. Archaeologists are like historical detectives, finding clues and trying to piece together a coherent narrative, but with only fragments to draw upon, absolute certainty is impossible, and educated guesswork necessarily has to fill in the gaps. We’ll likely never know for sure what happened to bring the Bronze Age to an abrupt and deadly close, unless and until time travel is invented–but it’s fascinating to speculate about it.
For many bookish kids, myself included, libraries were a fabulous place of discovery during our childhoods. I loved going to the local library and browsing among the bookshelves, looking for a Homer Price book or an Encyclopedia Brown book or a Hardy Boys book that I hadn’t read yet–being careful always to be quiet as a church mouse to avoid being shushed by the librarian. For me, and I think many others, public libraries were a gateway to a lifetime of reading and all of the pleasure and intellectual growth it has brought.
That’s why it is so sad to read about the problem at the main library in Boulder, Colorado. The library had to close before Christmas because there was a spike in people using the library bathrooms to smoke methamphetamine, exposing staff members to meth residue and fumes. Then, when the city conducted tests of the air ducts and ventilation system at the library, it found unacceptably high levels of methamphetamine, leading the city to keep the library closed to conduct further tests of surfaces in the library. You can read the City of Boulder press release about the unfortunate situation here. According to a more recent report from a Colorado TV station, testing showed some contamination in certain seating areas, causing library officials to remove the furniture in those areas and further delaying the reopening of the library.
Anyone who has been in a library branch in an urban area recently has probably noticed that those library branches attract homeless people who are looking for a place to stay warm, particularly during the winter months. Library restrooms often end up being used by those patrons as personal hygiene centers. Some libraries are also dealing with issues of homeless people camping out on library grounds. The homeless issue is a tough one, and no one thinks people should freeze during periods of frigid temperatures. But surely everyone can agree that libraries shouldn’t have to put up with people smoking meth in their restrooms. Libraries aren’t de facto public shelters or drug treatment facilities, and librarians shouldn’t be put in the position of policing library grounds and bathrooms to identify drug use or roust out other people who are engaging in illicit activities.
Ultimately, the issue boils down to whether libraries will be permitted to serve their intended function–as places of learning and wonder that allow members of the community to enjoy reading different books for free–without having to shoulder additional responsibilities as a result of other societal issues. Meth use in library bathrooms interferes with that intended function, and will have regrettable consequences. How many parents in Boulder are going to allow their kids to go to the main library now, to browse through the shelves and find a book that looks interesting? That’s very sad.
The world of literature is filled with redemption tales. From ancient mythology to the stories of the Bible, from medieval narratives to modern novels, the basic contours of a redemption story plot have proven to be irresistible: the hero does something terrible, is tormented by his misdeed and seeks atonement, and must face some incredible challenge in order to redeem himself and wipe the slate clean. Sometimes the hero successfully meets the challenge, and sometimes he doesn’t.
In Greek mythology, perhaps the most famous redemption tale is that of Heracles (Hercules, in its Romanized form). Hera, the queen of the gods, hated Heracles because he was the son of her husband Zeus, kind of the gods, and Alcmene, a mortal princess who Zeus had tricked and seduced. Heracles’ presence therefore was a constant reminder to Hera of Zeus’ extraordinary and never-ending infidelity and philandering. To punish Heracles, Hera caused him to go mad–and in the throes of madness Heracles killed his wife and children.
When the madness lifted and Heracles realized with horror what he had done, he sought guidance from the famous oracle at Delphi, which advised that he must go into the service of King Eurystheus in order to atone for the murders. The King then required Heracles to complete a dozen seemingly impossible tasks requiring immense physical strength, stamina, extraordinary fortitude, and intelligence and guile, besides. The tasks included slaying the nine-headed Hydra, cleaning the colossal (and filthy) Augean cattle stables in a single day, and bringing the three-headed dog Cerberus, the guardian of the gates of hell, up from the underworld. Heracles completed all of the labors and was thereby redeemed.
Tonight we will see how another redemption story plays out. The Ohio State Buckeyes seek redemption in the College Football Playoff semifinal game after a disastrous second-half performance against Michigan a month ago. To start on the road to redemption, the Buckeyes don’t need to slay the Hydra, but they instead must defeat the mighty and top-ranked Georgia Bulldogs, a three-headed powerhouse on defense, offense, and special teams. Rather than 12 labors, the Buckeyes will need to play a complete game of four quarters of tough, disciplined, hardnosed football, block and tackle, avoid penalties, execute under great pressure, go toe-to-toe with a great and talented team, and perhaps bring some guile and misdirection into play as well.
It’s a plotline as old as time, and we’ll be rooting that the Buckeyes–like Heracles–meet the challenges before them so that redemption lies ahead. Go Bucks!
Lately I’ve been on a break from The Shakespeare Project. I am resolved to get back to it, after the first of the year, but after reading a series of the histories I needed to go in a different direction for a while. After much deliberation, I decided to try the Horatio Hornblower series, by C.S. Forester.
My decision to try the Hornblower series was motivated by two factors. First, I wanted to read a multi-book series, so that if I liked the characters and the setting I would have a good, long sojourn with them. And second, I very much liked the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey-Maturin Master and Commander series of seafaring novels, and the Hornblower series is often identified as a similar kind of read. I figured if I like one series of books set in the British Navy in the last 1700s and early 1800s, I’d probably like another.
It turns out that I was right: the Hornblower series is very good. It’s not as prolonged as the O’Brian series, which included 20 finished novels and one unfinished one, but the ten finished and one unfinished book in the Hornblower series allow you to really get to know the characters. I’m now on book eight the series, Flying Colours, and Hornblower is like a familiar friend. The prose is great, the plotting is very interesting, and the character development of Hornblower–outwardly heroic, decisive in a crisis, and deeply sensitive to proper behavior, but inwardly plagued with self-doubt and self-deprecation–is fascinating. I’ve ended up admiring Hornblower’s accomplishments, but also shaken my head at his flaws and his blind spots. I wonder if he would have been much fun to be around. And Ftying Colours is a good example of Forester’s willingness to deviate from the sea yarn norms in his plotting–the book focuses on Hornblower’s adventures after being captured by the French, as he faces the prospect of a firing squad on the orders of Napoleon.
C.S. Forester (that’s a pen name; his real name was Cecil Louis Troughton Smith) must have been an interesting person, too. Forester was a prolific author who also wrote The African Queen, among many other books, but he is best known for the Hornblower series. Curiously, he wrote the series out of order, with later books filling in the gaps in Hornblower’s Royal Navy career left by the earlier books. I can only imagine the plotting and continuity challenges posed by his decision to take that approach, but I haven’t noticed any glitches. Being able to carry that off indicates that he was meticulous plotter.
According to some, among the British people Horatio Hornblower is a favorite character, second in popularity only to Sherlock Holmes. That’s saying something. It’s also interesting, though, that both characters are odd in their habits, single-minded, and probably challenging to live with on a daily basis. The Brits must like characters who are intractable.
It’s spiderweb season in Stonington, and our decks–with their posts, and fencing, and many corners, and other nooks and crannies–are prime web-building grounds for our spidery friends. On damp mornings, like yesterday, the water molecules cling to the webs and create some outdoor art that has a delicate beauty and also the impressive tensile strength to bear many times its weight in water.
My attitude about spiderwebs has changed since my childhood. I used to take sticks and pull them down whenever I encountered one. Reading Charlotte’s Web helped to change that attitude, and I also realized that it didn’t make much sense for someone who, from time to time over the years, has been called “Webbie” by some friends. I’ve come to understand that spiders and their webs perform a valuable service for us, in ridding our neck of the world of the annoying, buzzing housefly. And you can’t help but admire the industriousness of spiders as they build and repair their elaborate webs and then wait patiently for their prey.
On misty mornings I’ll make the rounds, taking a look to see what the spiders have been up to and admire their handiwork, like the effort above on our upper deck. Care must be taken, however, to avoid inadvertently getting a face full of webbing.
Lately I’ve been taking a break from my Shakespeare Project–I’ve been on the road, and my Yale Collected Works of Shakespeare volume is massive and not exactly travel-friendly–so I’ve been reading other things. Most recently I picked up an old paperback edition of Frank Herbert’s Dune that was on one of our shelves and have read it for the first time since my college years.
I enjoy rereading favorite books, and Dune is a good example of why. When I read it as a youth, I was pulled in by the story and read it as fast as possible, wanting to find out what happened to Paul Atreides (aka Muad’Dib) and his mother Jessica and the evil, repulsive Baron Harkonnen. Reading it again, knowing how the story ends, allows for a much more leisurely journey, appreciating the really good writing and–especially–the monumental task of creating such a fully realized world, as Herbert did with the desert planet Arrakis, its melange, its sandworms, and its Fremen.
It’s an amazing accomplishment that, perhaps, isn’t as obvious to a young reader as it becomes to someone who has read a lot over the decades. There simply aren’t that many books out there that have captured an entire previously unknown civilization–its culture, its people, its ecology, its economy, its religion, its institutions, and its politics–so completely. Most fiction builds on the foundation of our existing world and its history and doesn’t have to create a civilization from the sand up, as Herbert did. George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books are another example of that kind of accomplishment that show just how rare such books are, and how difficult they are to create.
And writing Dune clearly took a lot of work. The back story of Herbert’s creation of Dune should encourage unappreciated writers to keep at it. According to the Dune Novels website, it took Herbert six years to research and write Dune, and the book was rejected by 23 publishers before being accepted for publication. You can imagine how dispiriting it must have been to get those rejection letters are so much time and effort. Yet, according to one ranking, at least, Dune went on to become the best-selling science fiction book of all time and continues to hold that spot, nearly 60 years after it was published. Herbert’s years of labor produced a sci-fi classic that people will be enjoying for decades to come. I wonder how the publishers who casually rejected it feel about their decisions now?
Reading is one of the most basic capabilities that humans can learn. It forms the foundation for virtually all forms of higher learning, provides a gateway into a range of knowledge as diverse as the thoughts of great minds of the past, modern technology, sports scores, and cooking recipes, and touches just about every facet of our lives. And yet, how much do we remember about how we learned this crucial skill? Learning the alphabet, associating letter combinations with different sounds until something clicked and the basic words became ingrained in brain synapses to the point where reading because easy–for me, at least, it all is lost in the mists of time that occurred before we got to the books about Dick, Jane, and their dog Spot, which I do dimly remember reading. (“See Spot run! ‘Run, Spot, run!’)
Those of us who are beyond the kids in school phase of our lives might be interested in learning that the educational community is struggling with the issue of teaching kids to read. Time magazine has an interesting article about the ongoing effort, which is precipitated by some truly dismal statistics. Even before the pandemic, in 2019, only 35 percent of fourth-graders met reading proficiency standards, and the numbers were even worse for low-income, Black, and Hispanic students. Of course, the pandemic didn’t help matters.
The current dispute is about whether reading should be taught with a focus on phonics–that is, by drilling kids on how to sound out words, with all of the weirdnesses and exceptions you find in the English language (like way/weigh)–or whether kids who are introduced to reading will eventually figure out those rules on their own. The latter school of thought considers phonics to be boring. If I could remember this phase in learning to read, I’d probably agree that it was boring–but it worked for me, and for generations of kids.
Now the troubling test scores are causing educators, and politicians, to again urge the old school, phonics approach to learning to read. It might be boring for both teacher and student, they concede, but it evidently works–and that should be the acid test. And educators really shouldn’t be worrying about whether the methods they are using are boring, in my view. Much of learning math, science, and history involves rote memorization and repetition. It’s not thrilling, but it becomes assimilated in the brain, and when you are talking about the basics, that is what you are aiming for.
It will be interesting to see how the reading debate progresses–but if our schools aren’t taking the best, most likely to succeed approach to teaching kids how to read, we are failing to achieve the most basic goal of education, and leaving those kids unprepared to succeed in the modern world. That is just not fair, or right.
After an enjoyable, travel-related respite, I am back at work on the Shakespeare Project. In part one of the Project, where I’m reading the history plays, I’ve reached Henry VI, Part I in the chronological sequence It’s a play that squarely raises one of the questions that scholars have quarreled about for centuries: which parts, if any, of that play (and, for that matter, which parts of Henry VI, Parts II and III) did Shakespeare write?
It’s weird to think that there is a dispute about what the greatest writer in the history of the English language actually wrote, but the sketchy, incomplete nature of the historical record during Elizabethan times leaves lots of room for argument. My copy of The Yale Shakespeare, which provides an introduction and scholarly notes for each play, carefully lays out the competing views. They range from the theory that Shakespeare had nothing to do with the play, to Shakespeare revising an existing play, to Shakespeare working with collaborators to come up with the play, to Shakespeare writing the entire play. That’s a ridiculously broad spectrum that covers just about every possible reality.
The authors of The Yale Shakespeare come down in favor of the theory that there was an existing play called Henry the Sixth that Shakespeare revised. Why do they reach that conclusion? They, and other Shakespearean scholars that hold a similar opinion, point to parts of the play that they deem to be “master-strokes . . . which incontestably betray the workmanship of Shakespeare” while there are other parts of the play that are of a more pedestrian style. The scholars identify several scenes that feature “bold use of transferred adjectives” and “fanciful metaphors and similes” that are considered to be a kind of Shakespearean trademark, and emphasize that such brilliant flourishes are notably absent in other scenes in the play.
In short, Shakespeare is very much given the benefit of the doubt here. The scholars can’t accept the possibility that Shakespeare may have had days where he was just doing some basic playwriting, untouched by genius, to meet a deadline, so he gets credit for the great scenes while the less compelling, unremarkable parts get attributed to some anonymous hack (and the scholars dispute who that might have been, too).
I guess if you are the greatest writer in the history of the English language, you’re entitled to some deference. I’ll be sensitive to the authorship issue as I wade into Henry VI, Part I.
Who was the greatest motivational speaker of all time? With all due respect to Knute Rockne and Matt Foley, it has to be Shakespeare’s Henry V in the play of the same name. For Henry V gives not one, but two, of the most rousing speeches in the history of the English language as he urges his men forward against the French. And Henry also shows that his eloquence can be employed in furtherance of less martial goals, too.
There is not much of a trace of the rascally, irresponsible, reckless Prince Hal of Henry IV, Parts i and II in the new king we see in Henry V. From the very first scenes, where he quizzes legal experts on Salic law and its impact on his claim to the French throne, Henry V is presented as a smart, careful, sober leader, capable of ferreting out traitors and calmly dealing with ambassadors and envoys, with nary a cup of sack about him. Indeed, his quiet and determined response to the goading and dismissive gift of tennis balls from the French Dauphin shows that he is embarrassed by his former antics and resolved to overcome them. Shakespeare further emphasizes the change in character by having Sir John Falstaff, the rogue who influenced Prince Hal when we first met him, die offstage.
Henry V is a martial play, with lots of action–more than could easily be shown on an Elizabethan stage. Shakespeare solves that dilemma by making liberal use of a narrator, who repeatedly urges the audience members to use their imaginations as the actors portray scenes in the faraway fields of France:
But his speech at the gates of Harfleur is only a hint of Harry’s full motivational gifts, shown as the English prepare for the battle of Agincourt. The English forces have taken Harfleur but are ravaged by illness and lack of food, and we see that the French forces, led by the hopelessly arrogant Dauphin, expect to inflict a crushing defeat. During the pre-dawn hours Henry disguises himself and goes among his men, to learn what his soldiers are thinking, and when they wonder at what the king might be doing, Henry responds: ““I think the king is but a man, as I am: the violet smells to him as it doth to me.” As he moves on, Henry again reflects on the weight of kingship, as his father did before him.
But when the battle nears, and his men wish they had more soldiers, Henry’s blood is up, and he rises to the occasion to deliver his greatest speech of all, which is worth reprinting in full:
Inspired by Henry’s speech, the English go on to inflict a crushing defeat on the French. The French sue for peace, and Henry must discard his martial aspect and woo the French princess, Katharine, who speaks only a little English while Henry speaks only a little French. She is suspicious–remarking that “the tongues of pen are full of deceits”–but a humble, self-deprecating, awkward Henry wins her over, steals a kiss that seals the courtship, and remarks:
As Henry and Kate prepare for marriage, he stands as the ultimate victor, knowing that their child will inherit the throne of both England and France. But when the chorus enters again, it is to let us know that the moment of triumph is fleeting indeed. When we turn next to Henry VI, hard times lay ahead for the English.
The U.S. Senate and Ohio gubernatorial races got most of the attention in Tuesday’s Ohio primary election. But the election also featured a series of levies, bond issues, and other decisions to be made by Ohio voters. And when you drill down into the results, you find something striking: libraries kicked butt.
In fact, library issues went a perfect 6-0 in the election, and all of them passed resoundingly — garnering, on average, approval votes from 71 percent of voters. In contrast, many school levies and bond issues went down to defeat.
Why do Ohioans vote overwhelmingly for libraries? A representative of the Ohio Library Council says its because Ohioans like the services they offer, and she speculates that the free COVID test kits offered at Ohio libraries during the pandemic might have played a role. I don’t know about the test kits, but I do think that the pandemic helped to drive home how important it is to have a place where you can find books to read, videos to watch, and CDs to listen to while you are social distancing. More generally, I think people like the community element of libraries. In many parts of Ohio, libraries are a source of local pride, and also one of the connections that hold communities together and allow neighbors to see each other. And library issues typically aren’t breaking the bank in terms of what they are asking.
I’m a big library supporter, and we are big-time library users. I think libraries are an important part of the fabric of this country, and I’m glad to see that my fellow Ohioans agree with that sentiment.
The new season of Better Call Saul is out. We watched the first two episodes of the new season and realized that we had lost track of many of the plot threads in the two years since the last episode of season five of the show was aired. We’d completely forgotten, for example, that Mike put himself in harm’s way with neighborhood thugs, got beat up, and then was sent to Mexico to recuperate (and, being Mike, fix a window), and we hadn’t recalled all of the nuances of the Mesa Verde/Tucumcari call center plot line, either.
Obviously, we needed to brush up on the BCS characters, so we are going back and rewatching the fifth season to be primed with all of the information needed to enjoy the sixth (and apparently last) season. We briefly toyed with the decision of whether we needed to go back two seasons, or even longer, to fully appreciate what the heck is going on, but decided one season should be sufficient.
This is not a new phenomenon. Whether it is TV shows or books, rewatching or rereading a series has become an increasingly common requirement. It didn’t use to be that way, of course; you could watch a new season of Mission Impossible, or Seinfeld, without remembering all of the different episodes from the season before. But with the complex, continuing plotlines that we see in current TV drama and books, rewatching and rereading has become essential, and you wonder if the creators and authors plan it that way. And of course, the very act of rewatching or rereading, knowing what is coming later, gives a different perspective on the characters and their activities. (Rewatching Better Call Saul, for example, makes me continuously shake my head in wonderment at how the savvy, hyper-cautious Gus and Mike ever got taken in by “Heisenberg” in the first place–or, more accurately, in the post-Better Call Saul world to come.)
The Mother of all rereadings will come if George R.R. Martin ever finishes the final two books in the Game of Thrones series. If that happens, I’ll probably have to go back to the first book and reread the whole series, just to make sure I’m fully up to speed on everything that is happening in Dorne or the Iron Islands or with the reanimated Lady Stoneheart. But I’m guessing I will enjoy every minute.
I’m pretty sure that Henry IV, Part I is the first Shakespeare play I read from cover to cover. Mr. Will, the enthusiastic teacher who presided over our Shakespeare Seminar class at Upper Arlington High School, wisely picked it to be the first play we read in that course. I suspect he knew that the insult humor and abusive banter between Prince Hal and Sir John Falstaff would appeal to the simple minds of teenaged boys—and it did.
For a time the lads of Shakespeare Seminar reveled in calling each other “whoreson knaves” and “vile standing tucks” and “fat kidneyed rascals.” We loved Falstaff and Hal just as patrons of the Globe Theater did in Shakespeare’s time, and as did English audiences for years thereafter–which is why Falstaff is generally regarded as the single most popular character ever to emerge from the Bard of Avon’s prolific pen. Thus introduced to the humor and “bawdy” side of Shakespeare, we high schoolers were willing to put up with romance, and tragedy, and Hamlet’s angst as we went on to read other plays.
Of course, age brings a different perspective. As I read Henry IV, Part I now, I still enjoy the sallies between Hal and Falstaff at Eastcheap taverns (although I realize, given the changed eddies and currents of slang that have occurred in the centuries since, that I will never understand or appreciate the humor as an Elizabethan audience did)–but I see a lot more in Falstaff than I did nearly 50 years ago.
Shakespeare’s construction of the play may be a sly exercise in misdirection. He explicitly raises the contrast between the wastrel Prince Hal and the rebellious Harry Hotspur in the very first scene, as Henry IV laments how his ne’er-do-well, tavern-haunting son measures up against the victorious warrior Hotspur:
But this contrast proves to be a bit of a false lead. To be sure, we see the irresponsible Hal at the outset, but ultimately Hal is not so different from Hotspur. Hal rallies to his father’s side, fights to defeat the rebellion, and ultimately kills Hotspur in the climactic battle that brings the play to a close. No, the real contrast is between Hotspur and Falstaff–and not simply because Hotspur is a hothead and Falstaff is perfectly content in playing the clown. Hotspur is unable to curb his own vanity and sense of honor, and it ends up costing him dearly, both in causing him to rebuff the King and bring on the conflict and in needlessly insulting Owen Glendower and losing a much-needed ally. Hotspur’s pride and self-regard prevent him from looking out for his own best interests. Falstaff, on the other hand, is able to swallow jibes and ridicule in the service of his ultimate goal of wine, women, and survival–which means maintaining his relationship with Prince Hal at all costs.
Falstaff’s character leaves a lot of room for interpretation by a skilled actor. He could be played as a buffoon, to be sure, but there is a certain genius in him, and a conniving nature, with ugliness and deviousness lurking just below the surface. He’s not harmless. For all of his surface jolliness, Falstaff is not above robbing innocent travelers, or trying to cheat an honest hostess out of what he owes–but he does it with a roguish charm and shrewdness. A classic example of Falstaff’s quick wit comes when he learns that Prince Hal and Poins set him up to take the money Falstaff had stolen from travelers and are well aware that he has been lying about facing an ever-growing number of brigands. Falstaff abruptly pivots to a different approach, claiming that he was well aware that it was Hal who pilfered the booty:
Falstaff and Prince Hal then act out a scene where Hal returns to talk to his father the king, with Falstaff initially playing Henry IV before he and the prince switch roles, so that Falstaff plays Hal and Hal the king. After Hal, as the king, describes Falstaff as the devil who has led Hal astray, Falstaff, as Hal, rises to his own defense:
Prince Hal’s chilling response–“I do, I will”–presages the coming pivot in their relationship.
What did Shakespeare think of Falstaff? For all of the Bard’s ability to portray the heights of British pride and patriotism, his treatment of Falstaff shows he well understood the underside of war and the cost of valor. Falstaff recruits a ragged band of soldiers, most of whom don’t survive the final battle. After presenting Hotspur as relentlessly driven by pursuit of “honor,” Shakespeare has Falstaff, in the king’s camp before the battle, give his jaded view of the concept of “honor”:
Is cowardice defensible? Of course, Shakespeare doesn’t say so–but Hotspur dies while Falstaff lives, and indeed goes on to claim that it was he, and not Prince Hal, who finally killed Hotspur, in hopes of gaining a rich reward. But while Falstaff lives on, his special relationship with Hal has not survived. The prince has become a prince and, as the play ends, he looks forward to a further, final battle that will help to quash the rebellion.
Today Kish and I celebrate our 40th anniversary. On April 3, 1982, amidst a brisk wind and snow flurries on a wintry spring day in Vermilion, Ohio, we were married, and we have enjoyed 40 happy and wonderful years together since then.
40 is an interesting number. It’s one of digits mentioned most frequently in the Bible–more than 100 times, in fact, and often in connection with highly significant events and Biblical figures. Moses lived in the desert for 40 years, and was on Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. The great flood that floated Noah’s ark occurred because it rained for 40 days and 40 nights. Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. In all of these Biblical references, 40 seems to be a handy number to capture the concept of a long period of time to deal with a trial or test. I’m happy to report that our 40 years together haven’t had that evident Biblical connotation.
40 is noteworthy for other reasons. “Forty” is said to be the only number in the English language whose letters are in alphabetical order. The standard human pregnancy is 40 weeks long, and the standard nap supposedly gives you “40 winks.” There are 40 spaces on a Monopoly board. And U.S. 40, a highway that runs through Columbus, is right up there with Route 66 as a legendary American roadway and is known as “America’s Main Street.”
All in all, you’d have to conclude that 40 is a pretty good number as numbers go, and one well worth celebrating as our journey continues to number 41 and beyond.