That last post was so depressing, I have to write something more hopeful.

There’s a famous video clip from graduation day at Harvard at MIT, in which new graduates are handed a seed and a piece of a log and asked to explain from where the stuff of the log came to turn a seed into an enormous tree. They didn’t know the answer.

As a response to this video, I put together a demonstration at COSI in which we explored the origin of wood in trees. When I left COSI, I took this idea into my classroom at ACPA. Now, my wonderful child, studying to be a science teacher herself, is taking this same demonstration to Ohio University to show it for a science day presentation. When learners become teachers, the universe sings!

In the demonstration, we show just how much carbon dioxide from the air is needed to create one pound of wood. The answer is over 100 gallons of carbon dioxide gas, about 211 2-liter bottles filled with CO2. We have a graphic that shows what 211 2-liter bottles would look like. It’s a lot of bottles!

Next we ask how trees perform this amazing trick. The answer is photosynthesis. To show what’s at the heart of photosynthesis, we tear spinach leaves into little bits, spray them with acetone, then grind them up with a mortar and pestle (the mortar is the bowl and the pestle is the handle – I can never remember that and have to look it up every time!) After some good, hard grinding of the leaves, a green liquid can be separated out. Shining an ultraviolet flashlight on this green liquid turns it red! The red color is from the magic chemical of photosynthesis, chlorophyll. Chlorophyll takes the energy of sunlight and sends it along the reaction pathway in which the plant turns carbon dioxide and the hydrogen from water into glucose, C6H12O6. From that starting product, the plant makes everything it needs, including cellulose, the main ingredient in wood. Cellulose is just a whole lot of glucose molecules stuck together, with an odd oxygen atom here and there to form the bond. Trees are made mostly of air!

When I or my middle schoolers or my daughter present this demonstration, what am I hoping for? I’m hoping that the idea gets across – the idea I’ve splashed in the title of this entry – sure. That would be nice. But more than that, I’m hoping that the excitement, the wonder, the sheer exhilaration of exploring these strange and exciting facts spreads from teacher to learner and back again.

We do this demonstration, like all our demonstrations, in the most hands-on way possible. Our learners hold the seed and the log. They count the 2-liter bottles. They tear the spinach, spray the acetone, grind the mortar and pestle, and shine the black light. Why? Not so they’ll remember more facts. The facts aren’t the most important part. The excitement is! The wonder, the catch in the breath, the sense that the world is full of lovely mysteries, mysteries that we can explore and know using the tools of science.

If learners get nothing else, I want them to catch that enthusiasm. That’s the lesson that can light the fire. And once that fire catches, it can light many, many more. Learners become teachers, teachers become learners, we all learn and grow and become together.

There are starfish everywhere!

Chlorophyll in ordinary and ultraviolet light. From Wikipedia

“I don’t know, but I think it’s quite possible that the more science you teach kids in school the more it turns them off, so I don’t know. I mean you never can tell which way it will go.” – Freeman Dyson

I’ve loved science for as long as I can remember. The first books I remember reading included books about dinosaurs, about “burned-out stars”, about traveling to the Moon, and about simple science experiments you can try yourself.

When I started school, I had the idea that I’d get the chance to experience some of that great science from the books I’d read. I waited, and waited, and waited. Second grade came and went. Then third grade. Where was all the cool science from the books and on TV? In fifth or sixth grade we did these ridiculous exercises in describing the contents of a picture. This somehow counted as making scientific observations. Occasionally we’d do something sort of interesting, like feeding crickets to a frog, but mostly the tiny bit of science we did was rather boring.

In middle school, my seventh grade teacher was pretty good. We did a lot of chemistry and I got to try some cool things, like making hydrogen gas from zinc and hydrochloric acid and then lighting the hydrogen on fire. That was cool, but came nowhere near, not even close, to the amazing science I was experiencing in the books of Isaac Asimov and the incredible television series Cosmos with Carl Sagan. I longed for the wonder and excitement I found on my own in the classes that should in theory have been my favorites.

In ninth and tenth grade I reached the absolute depths. Not only were those the personally hardest years of my school career (I was a friendless nerd, bullied and miserable), but my science teachers were abysmal. Both hired mostly because they’d coach anything, they had no love and not much understanding of science. My tenth grade biology teacher was a creationist, and a nasty man who liked to hold kids’ chins in his hand as he scolded for such sins as letting a friend copy your notebook.

After the COSI meltdown, after I determined the way to make my bread in this world of woe was to enter the classroom, I decided my own science class would be different. Instead of the dull, soul-crushing science I’d been subjected to, I decided I’d teach the science I fell in love with myself, with the help of Carl Sagan and friends.

We’d be an active class. We’d do COSI-style science demonstrations, with my science learners replacing the teenage volunteers I’d tried to inspire at COSI.

We’d eschew all the usual stupid trappings of traditional school. No memorization. No vocabulary tests. No homework! We’d grade the way I “graded” volunteers at COSI, with one-on-one interviews to gauge my learners’ mastery of the material. Do they really understand the evidence for the Big Bang, or the notion of common descent, or the life cycles of the stars? Could they explain these concepts back to me, and answer follow-up questions with confidence?

I’ve instituted all these reforms. It’s an innovative classroom I operate. We’re active. We perform as the Science Buskers in school events. We build comets from dry ice. We watch Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s, too. We read articles and excerpts from the greatest of science writers. We also learn about how women and minorities have been marginalized in science through history, and how we can be part of the change.

And now the disappointing reality sets in. So many of my learners hate it, and hate me. I’m not going to say they all feel this way. I know some learners are enjoying this approach to science. I have the suspicion, though, that these are the compliant learners who always do well, who adjust their learning to any teaching style, and find a way to thrive. As far as the others, I’m not reaching them. They don’t see the point. They don’t like the loud noises. They don’t like writing things down. They’d rather be on their devices, playing shooting games or listening to music or sending messages to their friends about how bored they are and how mean their science teacher is for not letting them do what they want.

I’m starting to feel that maybe Freeman Dyson was right. In another quote Dyson said,

“I grew up in England and we spent most of the time on Latin and Greek and very little on science, and I think that was good because it meant we didn’t get turned off. It was… Science was something we did for fun and not because we had to.”

Could it be that school itself is so evil, so hopelessly infected with gloom and misery, that anything taught in that environment of authority and coercion will be hated? Might I have hated Carl Sagan and COSI-style explosive demonstrations if I’d been taught them in middle school? Have I made a terrible mistake?

I am not a climate extremist. However, with the recent news that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) is showing signs of instability, I’ve gotten worried. This enormous movement of water in the Atlantic Ocean which includes the Gulf Stream is among the most critical regulators of our global climate; understanding it is one of the most important jobs climate scientists have. What they are telling us is that continuing to raise the planet’s temperature by adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere risks disrupting this critical circulation, with devastating consequences for agriculture and human habitation all over the planet.

Let me then be clear: our climate is changing, and humans are the cause. Anyone who tells you different is selling something (probably oil). The debate should not be about the science, which is undeniable. The debate is and must be what we can do about it.

So what can we do about it? First, any effort to reduce greenhouse emissions deserves our support. Solar power? Absolutely. Wind? Yes, that too. But until these technologies can reach their full potential, we must support and even expand our use of less popular energy sources such as nuclear and natural gas.

Nuclear energy has shown itself to be ridiculously safe. A few high-profile events stick in everyone’s mind, but day after day, year after year, nuclear plants all over the world operate safely and produce essentially emissions-free power. New designs are safer than ever, and progress continues on the prospect of nuclear fusion, an even safer energy alternative with an essentially inexhaustible fuel supply (just sea water!)

Fracking is the new boogeyman of the environmentalists, but burning natural gas (because it contains 4 atoms of hydrogen for every 1 atom of carbon), is better than burning oil (about 2 hydrogens for each 1 carbon) and far, far better than burning coal (about 1 hydrogen for every 2 carbons). One big problem with fracking is the leakage of natural gas into the atmosphere, because natural gas (methane) is itself an even more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. But like all technological problems, this is one that can be solved with the right knowledge and motivation (ie we need regulations!). But again, nuclear energy with zero emissions is far better even than natural gas.

Another promising avenue is carbon pricing. There is a cost to burning fossil fuels that goes beyond the expense of removing it from the ground and shipping it to its final destination. Currently, these costs are not borne by the producers and users, but by those suffering the effects of climate change. Anyone can see that this is unjust. Carbon pricing doesn’t cure the inequity by itself, but it reflects more fairly the true costs of these fuels and provides an economic incentive to find innovative solutions. In the short term, carbon pricing makes lower-carbon technologies like solar, wind, and nuclear economically competitive.

Even if we could stop all carbon emissions, the level of carbon dioxide currently in the atmosphere is already too high. We need ways to actively reduce the amount of CO2 in the air. The good news is we already know how to do this effectively: with plants! Plants are amazing biochemical machines that use the energy of sunlight to turn carbon dioxide gas into solid wood, leaves, roots, and other plant parts. And contrary to the usual narrative, the amount of land available for plants is actually increasing.

The information revolution reduces the amount of stuff we own. Think of all the products that your smartphone has or can replace, including land line telephones (and all the wiring they require), answering machines, phone books, cameras, camcorders, tape recorders, radios, alarm clocks, calculators, dictionaries, the Rolodex, calendars, street maps, flashlights, and fax machines (credit to Steven Pinker for this list). As agriculture becomes more efficient, we need less land to grow more food. As people move from rural to urban areas, they need not only less living space, but fewer cars, roads, and infrastructure.

Once we grow all these wonderful carbon-eating machines on this newly-available land, we need to sequester their products. A big part of our current climate crisis is the fact that the Earth once buried copious amounts of carbon in the form of dead trees and ocean creatures. Today we’re releasing that carbon back into the atmosphere far too quickly. Instead, we could sequester CO2 from plants by encouraging greater use of wood in construction, or cook biomass and bury it.

As should be clear from all these practical steps, we need to rethink the role of government in the climate crisis. Individuals can make small differences – by driving less, eating less meat, living in the city rather than the country, and so on – but the big changes required to mitigate worldwide climate change must be implemented on the national and global level. Libertarian ideals that put total faith in market forces should be finally put to rest. Common goods like the air we breathe and the ocean circulation we depend on are too precious to trust to the whims of the market. We need regulation. We need governments to drive our society toward better choices. The good news is, as the world becomes more democratic, government is us!

Politicians who deny the science of climate change need to be voted out. So, too, do those who spread fear and dystopian visions about nuclear energy or fracking. Worst of all are those who suggest a return to nature, a direction that would doom billions on our planet today to poverty, misery, and early death (the normal condition of human life before the Industrial Revolution). Instead, we need governments who come together to make practical changes (like the Paris climate accord of 2015, which thankfully the United States is now re-entering) and look for consensus-building solutions that consider both the global environment and the effects on people all over the world.

Finally, there is one proven climate mitigation technique that I think all with Enlightenment values can support. As people become better educated, they tend to make better choices about health, about family size, about how to live their lives. In another of those surprising statistics, as literacy rates have increased around the world, the rate of population increase has leveled off. The population bomb that I and so many others heard about in the 1970s has been defused, and it was done largely by increasing literacy rates all over the planet. As people (particularly women) see their opportunities increase, they make different choices, and we all prosper. If you want to save the world, teach a child to read.

The climate challenges we face are daunting, but they are not hopeless. Unlike the bubonic plague or smallpox epidemics of the middle ages, we know exactly what is causing our climate crisis, and we know what to do to fix it. All we’ve lacked, so far, is the will. Perhaps as news stories such as the AMOC instability filter into the public conscience, we can finally overcome this last hurdle.

We can do this!

I read and watched Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. My favorite lines are these:

HAMM: Scoundrel! Why did you engender me?
NAGG: I didn’t know.
HAMM: What? What didn’t you know?
NAGG: That it’d be you.

That’s the great question, isn’t it? Individuality and existence. Why do I exist as opposed to all the other possible humans who might occupy this space? Why did it turn out to be me? I know for a fact that it could easily have been someone else, because I learn through experience that the whole world is filled with “someone else”‘s from horizon to horizon. I have no experience of being these other people. Multitudinous human lives are lived entirely outside my sphere of individual contemplation. I’m not talking about the people I never know about. I’m talking about people right here, right now, whom I’ll never be. I’m only me, and that for only a short time.

With art, though, when I read Shakespeare, or look at a Monet, or listen to Mozart, or am taught by Carl Sagan, I get a little glimpse into another’s mind. This is what great art and great teaching can do; it can reveal that we’re all human.

I think Endgame is an example of the childishness so often found in art, particularly modern art. It’s the spoiled brat who doesn’t get the toy he wants, and so he pouts and sulks about his miserable lot in life. Art can be like that, if it begins from a place of privilege. We were told we were special, and when we find out it isn’t true, we throw a fit. Endgame is an extended fit.

Science, I believe, approaches the question of individuality from the other direction. It’s what makes me an optimist, though my definition of optimism will likely leave you scratching your head and wondering why I bother getting up each morning. Maybe by the end I’ll convince you. If not, that’s OK, too!

This summer I’ve spent much of my time reading, learning, and thinking about beginnings: the beginning of the universe, the beginning of life, the beginning of complexity. I’ve read Brian Greene’s Until the End of Time (and then re-read the sections of his book The Hidden Reality) which helped me think about this mystery of the low-entropy early universe. After that I read and listened to Nick Lane’s The Vital Question, all about the mystery of the beginning of life on Earth and even deeper mystery behind the rise of complexity in the form of eukaryotic cells. What one learns in these explorations is that life is an accident – a series of accidents, really – that rides on the current of this early low entropy. Life is like a paddle wheel in the path of a waterfall. The water is falling, anyway. The paddle wheel isn’t going to stop it, or even slow it significantly. Instead, the paddle wheel is going to do the only thing it can. It’s going to spin.

We’re a spinning paddle wheel in a waterfall that eventually will run dry. And that’s why I’m an optimist!

Here’s what I mean. If you come from a position of privilege, believing that we are specially created with a divine purpose, “endowed by our creator” and all that nonsense, you are naturally disappointed when you discover that this is all there is. You end up with extended fits like Endgame (which, sorry, I do not consider to be great art).

On the other hand, if you come from a position of contingency, where the very fact that we exist at all is a lucky happenstance (I almost said “miracle”; see how deep the brainwashing goes?!?), you realize we can only grab what happiness we find and suck the marrow from its bones.

Disney and the grownups lied to us. It isn’t the old and the sick that are taken down by predators. The overwhelming majority of death in nature happens to the young. One in a thousand baby sea turtles becomes an adult. What happens to the other 999? Down the gullet! Lions seek out pregnant antelopes and follow them around until they drop their calves. Why? Easy prey. Male gorillas, when they take over their troop, first kill all the infants. Why? This causes their mothers to go into estrus, making them available for mating. The babies, fathered by another male, are of no use to the new alpha gorilla, so they are eliminated. Nature is wasteful and cruel. As Schopenhauer said, “(L)ife must be some kind of mistake.”

Schopenhauer, however, was talking about human life. I think he was wrong. Here’s why. We humans have found a path out of this pattern of killing and dying. Yes, we still kill to live (even vegetarians kill – you think that broccoli wants to be picked and eaten?) And yes, we can be incredibly cruel to one another. (Endgame is a great example of that cruelty. Who makes their disabled parents live in ash cans until they die? Who says, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness”?) But we are also capable of unexpected kindness. Remember that Cordelia forgave Lear. “No cause, no cause.” This scene of beauty in Shakespeare’s bleakest play gives me reason for hope.

In a universe where things run down, we’ve created order, and amazing beauty. Think about Michelangelo’s David. Think about the library. Think about a well-tuned bicycle, a radio telescope, the twin Voyager spacecrafts. Think about Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. And think about all we could still accomplish, if we choose to.

Far too many humans die in childhood, yet far fewer die today than once did. Far too many people of all ages die in wars, in famines, or due to violence, yet once again we’ve made amazing strides in combatting all these evils. Far too many of us still live in poverty, in ignorance, in repression, yet wealth, education, and freedom have never been more widespread than they are today.

We have not yet reached a point where all human life is precious, where all human dreams are nurtured, where all human efforts are prized, but we can see what that world might look like. If we choose to, we can make that world a reality. And that’s worth living for.

No, we are not the special creation of a loving father, destined to live forever in bliss. That’s why life can be so nasty, brutish, and short, as artists like Samuel Beckett are so good at showing us. But we can make the world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers. Carl Sagan said that to me when I was twelve years old, and it has stuck with me ever since. And no amount of Samuel Beckett can change that. You think the world is crappy? Go live in an ash can. I’m going to go make it better!

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of dispriz’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovere’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.

What could anyone possibly say about Hamlet, and particularly Hamlet’s most famous speech in the play (heck, the most famous speech in any play) that hasn’t already been said a thousand times before?

One of the great things about being an unsophisticated consumer of art is that I don’t have to worry about such things. I haven’t read most of what has been written about this play, and about this speech, so I can naively consume and consider it any way that pleases me. And I do find this speech fascinating.

Notice that it is just about the opposite of how most people talk about life, yet maybe reflects accurately the way people often feel about life. Particularly those with a Christian worldview often talk about the wonders of the afterlife, when all troubles are set aside, when there is no pain, when we are reunited with all those who have passed away. Atheists like me sometimes wonder why Christians fight so hard to hold on to life down here, with its “whips and scorns,” its “heart-ache,” and its “thousand natural shocks,” when they have something so much better on deck.

By contrast, here Hamlet is saying the only reason to stay alive is because the afterlife is so terrifying! If Hamlet could know that death really is an end, he’d be fine just ending it now and relieving himself of all the worry.

The reality (my reality) of course, is neither of these, but simply the idea that because this life is all we get we cling to it, even when it’s not all that great. I happen to think life is pretty great, but then I’m an atheist schoolteacher on a beautiful summer afternoon. I would think so, wouldn’t I?

The context of this speech is the key to understanding it. What is Hamlet considering? Suicide? Not really, not directly, anyway. He’s trying to decide if he wants to do as the ghost instructed. Does he want to kill his uncle Claudius in revenge for his father’s murder? In doing so, Hamlet himself is almost certain to be killed – Shakespeare’s audience knew full well how revenge tragedies always end, and Hamlet, unique among Shakespeare’s characters, seems to know it, too. So Hamlet has a choice. Does he want to kill the king, and likely die in the process, sending himself along with his uncle (and probably lots of other people) headlong into this “undiscovered country”, or does he want to bear the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” living in his uncle’s kingdom in the knowledge of Claudius’ guilt? (And by the way, Hamlet has to know that he himself is next on Claudius’ hit list – why let the son of the king live to potentially take that revenge? Remember, Claudius knows what he’s done, knows he might be found out. Those “slings and arrows” coming Hamlet’s way are liable to, sooner or later, be more than metaphors.)

What we’re seeing here is Hamlet’s realization that he is a character in a play – a revenge tragedy, no less – and he doesn’t want to be. He doesn’t want this responsibility, he doesn’t want this decision, he doesn’t want this role! It reminds me a little bit of Prince Hal’s line in Henry IV part 1:

So, when this loose behaviour I throw off
And pay the debt I never promisèd,

Shakespeare loves to use kingship as a metaphor for life. In a certain sense, all our lives are paying the debt we never promised. None of us asked for this – how could we? We just suddenly were, and now that we are here, now that we’ve entered this “great stage of fools,” (as Lear calls it in my favorite Shakespeare play) all we can do is play it out. Or not. That is the question, isn’t it?

Finger painting is fun. I always loved it as a kid. Getting your hands into squishy, spreadable, colorful paint, applying that paint to a surface, watching the colors pop against a white background, or mix into something new, or line up side-by-side in wild contrast is an enjoyable way to spend a lazy afternoon.

Monet is beautiful. Looking at the same scene at different times of the day, or the year, or watching how sunlight plays off the surface of a pond, thrills the soul. I don’t know a lot about visual art, but when I look at a Monet I know I’m seeing something special.

Does the experience of finger painting help us appreciate Monet? I think it does. I think understanding a little about how colors mix and play and contrast helps us understand what the great artist was about when he set to this amazing work.

Right now I’m reading a book by another great artist, physicist Brian Greene. It is called Until the End of Time. In this book, Greene discusses how the universe came alive, from the Big Bang, to the formation of stars, to the seeding of planets by those stars with complex elements, to the beginning of life itself. It is the story I will tell to my middle school learners beginning this fall.

At the same time, I will be teaching my learners about finger painting. Not really, though that would be fun. Instead, I’ll be giving them experience with sources of light and diffraction gratings. We’ll explore invisible radio waves, and invisible electric and magnetic fields. We’ll watch as radioactive elements transform themselves into something new inside a cloud chamber. And we’ll experiment with momentum and inertia, discovering how stars explode and contract.

These experiences don’t teach my learners all there is to know about the universe. But they give my learners a new perspective, mental images to grab onto to make their learning more concrete. I feel uniquely blessed to be at a school where I can combine my two great passions, hands-on experiences and deep scientific exploration, to create a curriculum that at once engages my learners with real, felt (and fun!) experiences and at the same time transports them to the stars.

Introduction: Death is Irrelevant

When Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Federation starship Enterprise is captured by the Borg, they tell him in their collective voice,

The Borg:
“Captain Jean-Luc Picard, you lead the strongest ship of the Federation fleet. You speak for your people.”

Capt. Picard:
“I have nothing to say to you; and I will resist you with my last ounce of strength.”

The Borg:
“Strength is irrelevant. Resistance is futile. We wish to improve ourselves. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service ours.”

Capt. Picard:
“Impossible. My culture is based on freedom and self-determination.”

The Borg:
“Freedom is irrelevant. Self-determination is irrelevant. You must comply.”

Capt. Picard:
“We would rather die.”

Now, any other villain would have menacingly spat out, “Then you will DIE!” But not the Borg. Instead, they deliver the most chilling pronouncement I’ve encountered in fiction.

The Borg:
“Death is irrelevant.”

Patrick Stewart aboard the Borg Ship

For me, this statement makes the Borg the greatest villains ever created. They aren’t interested in negotiating with us. They aren’t interested in scaring us. They aren’t interested in us at all, at least not in the parts of us we think make us important. To the Borg, we are just a resource, a commodity to be sliced up and digested, assimilated into the Borg’s own structures and knowledge.

In this essay, I’ll consider the Borg in two different ways. First, in a straightforward way as a rival technological civilization. In that guise, I find the Borg unlikely to exist. Second, though, I’ll consider them as a metaphor for the universe itself – a universe that is not malicious toward us, but merely indifferent. In this sense, the Borg are very real, and represent, as far as I can tell, the universe in which we all find ourselves.

David Deutsch, physicist and author of The Beginning of Infinity, has written about the human future in compelling terms. Deutsch writes that,

“Like an explosive awaiting a spark, unimaginably numerous environments in the universe are waiting out there, for aeons on end, doing nothing at all or blindly generating evidence and storing it up or pouring it out into space. Almost any of them would, if the right knowledge ever reached it, instantly and irrevocably burst into a radically different type of physical activity: intense knowledge-creation, displaying all the various kinds of complexity, universality and reach that are inherent in the laws of nature, and transforming that environment from what is typical today into what could become typical in the future. If we want to, we could be that spark.”

A little Borg-like, no? As Deutsch explains, humans (like any intelligent beings – what Deutsch calls “people”) are universal constructors, capable of transforming anything into anything else, constrained only by the laws of physics. He points out that such transformations are merely a matter of knowing how. For if any such transformation were impossible, that in itself would be a law of physics. Such transformations are exactly the sort of assimilation the Borg are so famous for.

And yet, whereas I find the Borg approach to the unverse both chilling and unlikely, I find Deutsch’s vision of our future to be the most optimistic I know. And it is a future that is well within our grasp – if we choose it.

Why the difference? Because the actual creation of knowledge is utterly different from the Borg approach of assimilating and cataloging what already exists. In the same book, Deutsch explains the origin of explanatory knowledge. He says we create knowledge by guessing.

Guesses aren’t enough, of course. Critically, we have to check our work. Error correction, which leads to a tradition of criticism, allows us to try out many ideas, reject those that don’t work, and keep the ideas that lead to progress. But it all starts with guesses – conjecture.

An encyclopedia is full of knowledge, but it isn’t intelligent. So far, even our best computer programs are unable to create knowledge, no matter how clever the program is at reading medical scans or breaking complex codes. As of now, the only source of explanatory knowledge we’ve ever encountered is ourselves. Why?

A good guess (see what I did there?) is that explanatory knowledge must begin with the ability to conjecture. What makes a good conjecture? Later in this essay, I’ll explore that question more deeply, after I talk a bit about my two favorite Shakespeare plays, Hamlet and King Lear.

I’ve written before that I see Hamlet and King Lear as polar opposites. That’s an overstatement. Both plays deal with questions of choice, of individuality, and of the whole point of being a person in this universe. The two plays come, I shall argue, to drastically different conclusions. That’s what makes great art. As Niels Bohr said, the opposite of a great truth is another great truth. Let’s start with the great truth to be found in Hamlet.

Part One: Hamlet and the Divinity That Shapes Our Ends

For the first four acts of Hamlet, the prince goes about questioning himself and all he encounters. When we first meet Hamlet, he is sad. He investigates that sadness, tries to seek out its cause and its remedy. Next, Hamlet is curious. Why has his father’s ghost returned to the castle? What does this ghost have to tell him? Hamlet is so eager to hear from the ghost that he threatens to skewer his best friend Horatio if Horatio tries to intervene.

The ghost’s news of murder and “incest” makes Hamlet angry. He expresses that anger by lashing out at his love-interest Ophelia, but in reality Hamlet is angry with his murdering Uncle Claudius and his (possibly complicit?) mother Gertrude. Hamlet knows that what the ghost has compelled him to do will lead to his own destruction, and he famously (in the “to be or not to be” speech), tries to talk his way through this “sea of troubles.” Even here, Hamlet is continually questioning, questioning Ophelia’s motives in talking to him, questioning his own motives in holding off his revenge, questioning the motives of his duplicitous friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

The middle part of the play is consumed with one ongoing question – did Claudius actually kill the king? – and Hamlet’s attempt to uncover the answer with his play, “The Mousetrap.” Hamlet is so focused on increasing his own knowledge about Claudius that he entirely ignores how his clever stunt will reveal to his uncle just how much Hamlet already knows. This puts Hamlet in immediate peril, long before Hamlet kills Ophelia’s father Polonius in his mother’s chamber. Even then, when he should be thinking about how he will protect himself from the king’s inevitable counterstrike, Hamlet continues to question, this time questioning his mother so forcefully that the ghost returns to prevent Hamlet causing his mother harm. Even as Hamlet is carted off to England to be executed, he can’t stop questioning, wondering why men are willing to go to their graves “for an eggshell” when Hamlet still can’t convince himself to take revenge for his own father’s murder.

Then in the fifth act, everything changes. There’s no more talk of revenge, ghosts, or “the undiscovered country” that so dominated Hamlet’s thoughts in the first four acts. In the graveyard scene, the questions are still there, but with a difference. Hamlet is resigned to death as a physical reality, and this resignation makes everything else seems pointless. Hamlet even finally realizes his own love for Ophelia only after learning that she is dead. Having Ophelia dead and in the ground certainly makes the relationship less fraught.

David Tennant as Hamlet and Peter De Jersey as Horatio (Yorick uncredited)

The most revealing passage in the play comes when Hamlet talks with Horatio after Ophelia’s disaster of a funeral. Any fool could see that Osric, the King’s messenger, is delivering Hamlet into an obvious trap. In fact, the plot Claudius and Laertes have set against Hamlet is so transparent that one has to believe Shakespeare is deliberately sabotaging his own play. Hamlet must realize the fencing match is a ruse; he just doesn’t care.

Prince Hamlet’s great truth is the truth of peace and acceptance in the face of forces beyond his, and our, control. He looks into the abyss and sees “a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will.” Hamlet’s not wrong here, by the way. There really is a divinity shaping Hamlet’s ends – it is Shakespeare himself! Hamlet is the closest I’ve ever encountered to a real person trapped in a play (a play he, by this time, doesn’t much like). It’s really a remarkable idea: a character so real that he realizes his own unreality. He looks out of the pages and sees Shakespeare there, quill in hand. This, I believe, is why Hamlet so willingly goes to his end. He doesn’t want to play anymore.

In the remarkable and maddening fifth act of this remarkable and maddening play, Hamlet finally surrenders to his fate. “Not a whit,” he says to Horatio when his friend suggests that maybe he shouldn’t so willingly walk into an obvious trap, “we defy augury.”

“There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is ’t to leave betimes? Let be.”

And that is what makes Hamlet Shakespeare’s second best play.

Part Two: King Lear and Nothing

In the world of King Lear, the special providence Hamlet refers to is gone. There is no divinity shaping our ends. There is no divinity at all.

In King Lear, the great truth is the truth of human forgiveness and love in the face of an uncaring universe. In the play’s most moving scene, the Princess Cordelia speaks her father Lear out of his madness.

CordeliaO, look upon me, sir,
And hold your hands in benediction o’er me.
No, sir, you must not kneel.

LearPray, do not mock me.
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less;
And, to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
Methinks I should know you, and know this man;
Yet I am doubtful; for I am mainly ignorant
What place this is; and all the skill I have
Remembers not these garments; nor I know not
Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me;
For (as I am a man) I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.

CordeliaAnd so I am! I am!

LearBe your tears wet? Yes, faith. I pray weep not.
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong.
You have some cause, they have not.

CordeliaNo cause, no cause.

Romola Garai as Cordelia and Ian McKellan as Lear

Cordelia’s “no cause” takes us back to the “nothing” of the first act. Nothing is the key word in Lear.

King Lear presents us with a stark choice. The events of the play are so horrific, from Edgar’s feigned madness, to Lear’s real madness in the storm, to Edmund’s treachery leading to Gloucester’s unbearable blinding, to the death of the good servant and Cornwall’s command to “(t)hrow this slave
Upon the dunghill”, on and on, right up to Cordelia’s pointless and devastating death, that we are left with a choice. Either, as Gloucester says, “As flies to wonton boys, so are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport” or, the only other option available, the gods are merely absent. They are, literally, nothing.

Notice just how wrong Gloucester is in his pronouncement. He wants to blame the gods for his blinding, for Lear’s losses, for Edgar’s banishment, and all the rest. But, unlike Hamlet and Macbeth, there is not a hint, not a whiff, of the supernatural in King Lear. In fact, Edmund, one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains, explicitly denies any supernatural “heavenly compulsion”:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are
sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behaviour, we make
guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars; as if
we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion;
knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical pre-dominance;
drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforc’d obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine
thrusting on. An admirable evasion of whore-master man, to lay
his goatish disposition to the charge of a star! My father
compounded with my mother under the Dragon’s Tail, and my
nativity was under Ursa Major, so that it follows I am rough and
lecherous. Fut! I should have been that I am, had the
maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.

In Shakespeare’s time, atheism was dangerous, but it was also intellectually unsatisfying. While, as David Deutsch again points out in The Beginning of Infinity, supernatural explanations are always bad explanations, it is undeniable that before the discoveries of modern science it was hard to see how the complexity we observe around us could have arisen without some sort of “divine thrusting on.”

Today, we are in a much better position. To explore our modern view of “nothing,” I now turn to Lawrence Krauss.

Part Three: A Universe From Nothing

In A Universe from Nothing, Dr. Krauss describes the growing scientific consensus that what we always thought of as empty space is far from it. Instead, the closest thing we have ever observed to true nothingness is itself a roiling, energetic field of possibility. This is a direct result of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and it really is among the best-established ideas in science. It leads to the most accurate predictions in scientific history, those predictions of the masking effects of the space within atoms.

Consider a hydrogen atom, the simplest atom that exists. In its nucleus there is a single proton, with a positive electric charge. On the outside edge of the atom, flitting about hither and yon, is a single electron, with a negative electric charge. Is that all?

No, says quantum mechanics. In the space between the proton and the electron is a continually roiling cauldron of virtual particles which pop into and out of existence before we can even measure them. However, their presence is manifest, in the behavior of the hydrogen atom itself. Because the proton has a positive electric charge, the virtual electrons that pop into existence within the atom are attracted toward it, and so are more likely to be found between the proton and the “real” electron. The virtual positrons (just like virtual electrons, but with a positive electric charge) that pop into existence at the same moment are repelled from the positive charge of the proton, and so are more likely to be found beyond the “real” electron. The same is true for all the other particle-antiparticle pairs that might, from time to time, appear in the space near a hydrogen atom.

Hydrogen atom and virtual particles, from A Universe from Nothing by Lawrence Krauss

The result of all this is that the real electron feels the pull of the real proton a little less fully than it would otherwise. The virtual particles essentially shield the real electron from the real proton. This causes the real electron to behave slightly differently than it would otherwise, and we can measure this different behavior. As stated above, the predictions made by this virtual particle model provide the most accurate predictions in the history of science.

(By the way, it also leads to the worst prediction in the history of science, a prediction that, when applied to a different effect, gives an answer that is wrong by a factor of a 1 followed by 120 zeros. But that – an idea that shows just how far we are from understanding the universe – is a story for another time.)

But what does this result, which springs automatically from the uncertainty principle itself, say about nothing? Quite simply, empty space is anything but. Empty space is itself is always roiling, always changing, always producing and then annihilating particle and anti-particle pairs. This happens in our universe today, and it happened over thirteen billion years ago, in the “space” forever inaccessible to us, in which our tiny dot of a universe first began its period of rapid inflation that led, eventually, to us. In this instant, the space we know, the time we know, everything we know, came into being, from nothing.

This short summary skips over many important details, of course, including how the detailed geometry of our universe demonstrates that its total energy is exactly zero (positive mass and kinetic energy plus negative gravitational potential perfectly canceling out) and how a sort of “phase transition” (something like water freezing into ice) in our part of the universe caused inflation to finally stop, dumping its energy into the very particles that today make up you, me, and the pages of the first folio.

The point is this: the more we learn, the more we see that the universe itself appears very much to have sprung from exactly nothing. Modern science doesn’t require atheism (well . . .), but it does make atheism, and the idea that we ourselves emerge from nothing, intellectually satisfying. Something, it turns out, can come from nothing.

And so where King Lear (the play) asks, “where are the gods?”, we can finally give a coherent, satisfying answer, “they are nothing.” The gods don’t refuse to intervene because they are uncaring or malicious. They don’t intervene because they do not exist.

Part Four: Creativity

So where does this leave us?

Hamlet looks into the abyss and sees a divinity that shapes our ends. Why try to avoid the envenomed sword or the tainted goblet? What’s the point? Let be.

King Lear looks into the abyss and sees . . . the abyss. And that is terrifying. But the play tells us to deal with the terror, to make our own way, anyway. As Edgar tells the blinded Gloucester,

“Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither;
Ripeness is all.”

Carl Sagan said it best. “We make our world signficant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers.” We care. We ripen. And, as Cordelia shows us, we love. That’s what matters.

The Borg are right when they say that death is irrelevant – not because the universe wills it so, but because the Borg themselves have created a society where death isn’t to be feared. We could do that, too, but our great hope must be that we do so without stumbling into the same trap. The Borg have lost their individuality. In the process, they’ve lost their ability to strive, to question, and to love. They are bare intellect. For the Borg, the words of Macbeth are true.

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

And that’s why I don’t believe the Borg could exist.

If knowledge creation involves guessing and checking, it seems to me that a collective mind like the Borg would be particularly bad at guessing and checking. Conjecture of necessity involves incomplete knowledge. It is inductive rather than deductive. Creation requires a striving to know, a desire to fill in missing gaps in understanding, a leap from the known into the unknown. The collective thoughts of all the Borg don’t look very creative.

If it is true that knowledge is built by conjecture and testing (and I think it is), then what we need is an engine for generating creative guesses. This should be an engine that can take disparate ideas, perhaps from very different fields (like Shakespeare, Star Trek, and cosmology, for instance) and combine them in novel ways. Usually the combination will produce junk, and the mind that produces them must become good at throwing away the junk at the right time. As Murray Gell-Mann said, all he needed to do physics was a pencil, some paper, and a wastebasket. One of the most important keys on the keyboard is delete.

Sometimes the junk slips through, and then others, when reading the junk, will call it out. This is called peer review.

On occasion, novel combinations will produce something truly new and worthwhile. My thesis is that while the Borg may be able to create novelty in a sort of automatic way, they are unlikely to recognize it when they see it. Also, because they can’t allow individuality to thrive, they must stomp down novelty. Such a civilization would be unable to solve its ongoing problems. As David Deutsch said again, “Problems are inevitable.” Eventually a problem will occur which the Borg are unable to solve through assimilation of existing knowledge, and at that point, their civilization will fail.

But as I said at the beginning, I’m using the Borg in two different ways. In the other approach, the Borg are a metaphor for the void itself. When we tell the void that we’d rather die than lose our individuality, the void (if it could talk) says, “I don’t give a rat’s ass. Die, don’t die, become like the Borg, remain as you are, big whoop. I’m just gonna keep expanding until space rips apart, or whatever.” Since we can’t talk to the void, we use the Borg as a stand-in. The void itself? Just too terrifying.

So what do we do? How do we follow Carl Sagan’s call to make our world significant? How do we keep ourselves? Joseph Campbell said,

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

This is the best statement of art, of science, of existence I’ve ever encountered. It captures exactly why I love Shakespeare, why I love baseball, paintings, riding my bicycle, loving my wife and my children, and why I love teaching. All these things remind me that I am alive.

And it gives the reason for causing that spark that David Deutsch talks about. Knowledge creation isn’t just something to do for the sake of transformation, for the sake of assimilation. We do it because it is fun! As Richard Feynman said, “I like to find out.” Sure, it helps us solve those inevitable problems, and that’s a very good thing to do. As Deutsch also said of problems, “Problems are soluble.” But the fun is in finding the problem, thinking through the problem, trying out different solutions, learning what doesn’t work, and trying again. Feynman again,

“The prize is in the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery.”

When Lear and Cordelia are captured and are headed off to prison, shortly to be executed on Edmund’s secret order, Lear speaks in somewhat hysterical tones about the wonderful life they will have together. At the end, though, he says, “Have I caught thee?” This always reminds me of another quote from Joseph Campbell, a quote that again signals to me what it is we’re trying to do together on this spinning globe.

When asked, “Why myths? What do they have to do with my life?” by Bill Moyers, Campbell answered with the following:

Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers

“My first answer would be, go on, live your life, it’s a good life, you don’t need this. I don’t believe in being interested in subjects because they’re said to be important and interesting. I believe in being caught by them somehow or other. But you may find that with a proper introduction, this subject will catch you.”

I think we could do a lot worse in this life than this as a commandment: get caught by something. The courage of our questions. The depth of our answers.

For Cordelia, death was not irrelevant. Her death was a tragedy because she made an individual choice, a good choice, the right choice, to forgive her father Lear. In that moment, she and Lear felt the rapture, the deep experience of being a living, breathing, thinking, loving being in a universe that doesn’t care. Cordelia’s choice led to her death, but while she and Lear lived her choice made all the difference. Death is not irrelevant. Resistance is not futile. Because we decided so.

Did I catch you?

I thought I was finished with my Shakespeare summer. After 24 plays, all watched and read in the midst of the 2020 coronavirus quarantine, and after memorizing and then performing (badly) Lady Macbeth’s Act 1 Scene 5 soliloquy just for myself, I was ready to take a short break from Shakespeare as I prepared for the coming, very different, school year.

In my last week of self-learning, I decided to re-watch Civilizations on PBS. A powerful eight-part program full of great insights, Civilizations was a conscious attempt to correct the Euro-centrism of Kenneth Clark’s 1969 13-part program Civilisation. The thing is, I really enjoyed Civilisation the first time I watched it, so I decided to do so again, Euro-centrism and all.

Kenneth Clark in Florence

One thing to know about Civilisation is that in style and tone it was the father of Jacob Bronowski’s work The Ascent of Man, which came out a few years later, and the grandfather of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos which appeared a few years after that. All three have had, and continue to have, a strong influence on my view of the world.

In Episode 6, Clark comes to Shakespeare, via the Reformation. The episode, titled “Protest and Communication,” is all about how the reformation freed the European mind to become skeptical about received religious truth. Clark’s shows that the Reformation made possible Michel de Montaigne, and the skeptic Montaigne made possible Shakespeare.

I think I can buy that. Clark quotes Montaigne as saying, “Sit we upon the highest thrown in the world, yet we sit only upon our own tail.” Compare this to the ruminations of Richard II, Henry IV, and of course King Lear himself, as they realize that being a king is a ridiculous task for a mere mortal – just as any other task we might take on is ridiculous in its own way. As Hamlet realizes,

Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay,

Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.

O, that that earth which kept the world in awe

Should patch a wall t’ expel the winter’s flaw!

Clark says something profound about Shakespeare, something I’ve been thinking but have been unable to quite put into words. Clark says that Shakespeare’s skepticism as exemplified in Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy was:

“unthinkable before the break-up of Christendom, the tragic split that followed the Reformation; and yet I feel that the human mind has gained a new greatness by outstaring this emptiness.”

“Outstaring the emptiness.” What a lovely phrase. This, of course, is the great tragedy and the great maturation that came with the realization that God was a myth. At first, our courage came in braving the world on our own, demonstrating to God that we could cross the street without help. Then, as we dodged the oncoming traffic (occasionally getting flattened), we looked back and realized that God wasn’t there. There was no deity to overcome. Instead, we found ourselves tasked with outstaring the emptiness. We were on our own.

Was Shakespeare really an atheist? Probably not, at least not in my sense of seeing a Universe with no place for the supernatural. Rather, Shakespeare’s later plays, from Hamlet on, reveal a writer that is a-theist, in other words an author not particularly interested in any god’s plans or desires for the world. Shakespeare was concerned – first, last, and always – with people, with human strivings and desires. He wants to know what happens to us when we stare into the emptiness. Can we find meaning, as Cordelia and Lear do in their beautiful scene of forgiveness? Or do we, indeed, collapse into meaninglessness as Macbeth does when he reads the tale told by an idiot? This is the drama Shakespeare wanted to explore, and it is what makes him still worth reading today. It’s a question we all must answer, once we give up our imaginary friends. When we stare into the emptiness, what do we see?

This was to be my summer of Lear. Finally, after waiting many years, my local acting troupe, Actor’s Theatre of Columbus, was planning to perform my favorite of all Shakespeare’s plays in Schiller Park, among the most lovely and cosmic of backgrounds for this horrific, cosmic masterpiece.

The stage at Schiller Park; still my favorite Shakespeare venue

And then coronavirus hit. All shows had to be cancelled. It was the right decision, of course. There will (we all hope) be other summers.

I’ve still made it a summer of Lear. I’ve watched several versions, including the Ian McKellan/Trevor Nunn rendition that is not only the best Lear I’ve seen, but among the best of all Shakespeare adaptations. I’ve re-read the play, once while listening along to an audio presentation (if you’ve never done that, I highly recommend it – it’s a beautiful blend of words on the page and live performance). And I’ve read and re-read what others have said about this much-written-about play.

I also listened, on my morning bike rides, to a lecture series about the idea of evil in Western thought. I realized early on that the lecturer wouldn’t spend much time – if any – on Shakespeare, yet I thought and hoped there might be an opportunity to use what I learned there to deepen my own understanding.

Well, it was something of a disappointment. Not without insights and great suggestions for further study, but the lecturer (a theologian) started, I believe, in the wrong place. The origin of evil is not to be found in how we view stories such as Adam and Eve or Gilgamesh, but rather in the true beginnings of our species, on the plains of Africa.

(Trust me, I’ll get back to King Lear. It’ll take a few steps.)

When a male lion or gorilla takes over a pride or band by defeating the previous alpha mail, its first action is often to kill all the infants. This makes evolutionary sense, as the females that were nursing young will now be available for mating. It’s easy to see how natural selection could lead to this behavior. However, if it happened among humans, we would surely label the action as evil. I will argue that such action among humans is evil, while this same action among non-human animals cannot be defined as such. Somewhere between lions or gorillas and humans, the definition changes. Why?

For thousands of years, the answer was God or gods. I don’t have that answer at my disposal, so I must look deeper. I will accept Sam Harris’ idea that morality has to do with the flourishing of conscious creatures, but for the purposes of this essay I will draw a distinct line between non-human animals and humans themselves. I might be wrong about this. Certainly, though, no one is suggesting (I don’t think) that the male gorilla or lion who commits this in-species infanticide be put on trial for murder.

OK, so something happened, deep in our past while we were still just an isolated band on the African plains, that changed us into creatures with rights, creatures capable of doing good, and of doing evil. Yuval Noah Harari, in Sapiens, suggests that this great leap forward was the ability to believe in fiction. I like that idea a lot. Let’s use it. Once we started believing in fiction, we became human, and for the first time became capable of doing evil.

(Note the implication: evil is fiction. So are rights. That doesn’t make them any less important to us, as we shall see in the course of this essay. It does, though, set a context. Human ideas matter because we decide they must matter.)

And this, then, brings me back to King Lear. Consider how Lear reacts to the disguised Edgar in the storm:

Is man no more than

this? Consider him well. Thou ow’st the worm no silk, the beast

no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! Here’s three

on’s are sophisticated! Thou art the thing itself;

unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked

animal as thou art.

Of course, Lear is out of his mind at this time. But as so often in Shakespeare, it is when characters lose the defense of their sanity that their deep truth comes out. Lear, who has lived his entire life immersed in the ultimate fiction of royalty (not just a person with rights, but a king with unlimited power), is now seeing through all the fictions, recognizing that under the layers of fiction lies a “bare, forked animal.”

This isn’t the first time Shakespeare has looked at the fiction of kingship. In Richard II, in Henry V, and certainly in Hamlet (“The body is with the King, but the King is not with the body. The King is a thing- Of nothing”) Shakespeare wrote of the impossibility of a mere man fulfilling the impossible task of being a king. But here Shakespeare goes further, investigating the impossible fiction of being not a king, but merely a human, when at base we’re all just animals.

The villain Edmund makes an analogous point when he shows that the ideas of bastardy and legitimacy are just as fictional as the idea of a king.

Wherefore should I

Stand in the plague of custom, and permit

The curiosity of nations to deprive me,

For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines

Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?

When my dimensions are as well compact,

My mind as generous, and my shape as true,

As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us

With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?

Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take

More composition and fierce quality

Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,

Go to th’ creating a whole tribe of fops

Got ‘tween asleep and wake?

Yet these fictions, for good and ill, are how we define society, and therefore how we define good and evil. Is it evil for Edmund to take the land that legally would pass from Gloucester to Edgar? What makes the land Gloucester’s in the first place? Is it evil for Lear to disinherit Cordelia? Why should Cordelia, or any of the sisters, expect to inherit anything? Is it evil, even, for Cornwall to put out Gloucester’s eyes? Only if we decide that Gloucester, as a person with rights, is entitled to bodily autonomy. So why should we decide that?

Lear gives us the answer, or at least one answer, to this question. Unaccommodated man is free, but also vulnerable. “I’m not ague-proof,” as Lear later states. The world is a dangerous place, and so we build structures, we make and wear clothing, we try to control our food supply. But all these things imply ownership – a fictional idea. And of course ownership can be taken away. To protect our fictions, we create more fictions – laws, political structures, and social norms.

As the play begins, Lear wants to keep the things he owns – the name of king, the respect a king is afforded, his 100 knights – but abandon the maintenance of these things. This isn’t impossible, but Lear makes it so by banishing the one person in his life – his daughter Cordelia – who would have loved him enough to keep him in comfort in his old age. Naturally love itself is yet another fiction, but what we see in the course of Lear’s journey is that without love, none of the relationships work. As a fiction, love can be faked – just as Goneril and Regan do in the play’s first scene. Cordelia, who refuses to have her love tested, shows in the reconciliation scene of Act 4 that her love for Lear (though just as much a fiction as her sisters’ fake love), is so much a part of her that it will always prevail over any anger.

Lear. Be your tears wet? Yes, faith. I pray weep not.
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong.
You have some cause, they have not.

Cordelia. No cause, no cause.

So much for love, a fiction without which we would all be so much the poorer. Fiction can be good.

What, though, of the profound evil present in this epic play? How can it be understood in the context of Harari’s view of fiction making us human? Two acts of evil stand out for me. First is the blinding of Gloucester by Cornwall. The other is the murder of Cordelia, ordered by Edmund at the play’s close.

Cornwall is ambitious, certainly. More, though, Cornwall is overly certain of his own control over every situation. He enjoys the power he exercises in putting the disguised Kent in the stocks, bragging to Lear that “I set him there, sir; but his own disorders Deserv’d much less advancement.”

While blinding Gloucester, Cornwall is outraged that his servant, a social inferior (yet another fiction), would dare intervene. Most tellingly, when Edmund, who utterly outclasses Cornwall as a villain, betrays his father Gloucester, Cornwall foolishly believes he can keep Edmund under his thumb:

I will lay trust upon thee, and thou shalt find a dearer

father in my love.

One regret I have about the powerful and telling moment when Cornwall’s servant takes up arms against his master is that Cornwall’s premature death prevents Edmund from taking the popinjay down. In short, Cornwall believes his own press. He is evil, not by compulsion, but because he believes he can get away with it. Like the pirates of the Spanish Main, Cornwall believes he can be evil because once he has the gold he can expect everyone else to respect his ill-gotten gains. He can’t imagine anyone being more evil than he.

One of my favorite choices in production is to have Regan, once she realizes that Cornwall is mortally hurt, abandon her husband to bleed to death on the floor. In that moment, Cornwall can realize just how much his over-reliance on fiction, on his own press, has cost him.

Edmund is a more complex evil-doer, not only because we know some of his backstory, but also because of his dying desire to do some good.

First consider the moment we meet Edmund. His father Gloucester is speaking of him to Kent as if Edmund is not standing right there, hearing the whole humiliating thing. Gloucester is crude and hurtful, and his words here will echo through the play.

Earl of Kent. Is not this your son, my lord?

Earl of Gloucester. His breeding, sir, hath been at my charge. I have so often
blush’d to acknowledge him that now I am braz’d to’t.

Earl of Kent. I cannot conceive you.

Earl of Gloucester. Sir, this young fellow’s mother could; whereupon she grew
round-womb’d, and had indeed, sir, a son for her cradle ere she
had a husband for her bed. Do you smell a fault?

Earl of Kent. I cannot wish the fault undone, the issue of it being so

Earl of Gloucester. But I have, sir, a son by order of law, some year elder than
this, who yet is no dearer in my account. Though this knave came
something saucily into the world before he was sent for, yet was
his mother fair, there was good sport at his making, and the
whoreson must be acknowledged.

Gee, thanks, Dad! After this, who can really blame Edmund for being a little salty toward his father and the “son by order of law”?

Edmund sees through these fictions of land and title, as pointed out above. Why should law and custom doom him to a life of servitude? After all, it’s not like he chose his mother or his father. Edmund is like the tree seed that falls between the cracks of a boulder. It might not be in the best place to grow, but what choice does the tree have? Edmund recognizes that his ambition and intellect are his alone, not the property of the gods, the stars, or his father:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are

sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behaviour, we make

guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars; as if

we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion;

knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical pre-dominance;

drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforc’d obedience of

planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine

thrusting on. An admirable evasion of whore-master man, to lay

his goatish disposition to the charge of a star! My father

compounded with my mother under the Dragon’s Tail, and my

nativity was under Ursa Major, so that it follows I am rough and

lecherous. Fut! I should have been that I am, had the

maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.

Edmund believes in the fiction of individuality – as do I, so I have to be careful with him. Edmund’s plan, then, is to prey on everyone else’s reliance on their own fictions – family love, marital fidelity, and romantic attachment – to cause others to bend toward his will. He disposes of Edgar with a clever trick, playing on his father’s belief in his own powers of detection. Edmund next disposes of his father and tricks Cornwall into making him, Edmund, the new Earl of Gloucester. He tricks both Goneril and Regan into believing he cares for them. In Edmund’s final soliloquy, we learn he’s using both to advance himself and eliminate the Duke of Albany:

To both these sisters have I sworn my love;

Each jealous of the other, as the stung

Are of the adder. Which of them shall I take?

Both? one? or neither? Neither can be enjoy’d,

If both remain alive. To take the widow

Exasperates, makes mad her sister Goneril;

And hardly shall I carry out my side,

Her husband being alive. Now then, we’ll use

His countenance for the battle, which being done,

Let her who would be rid of him devise

His speedy taking off. 

And then Edmund performs what must be his most evil act, commissioning the murder of Lear and Cordelia.

In the end, Edmund believes his own fictions too much. Being an individual who lifted himself up, he accepts the challenge of an unnamed knight, his brother Edgar, who slays him. But most interestingly, before he dies, Edmund tries to undo some of the damage his belief in his own fiction might cause:

I pant for life. Some good I mean to do,

Despite of mine own nature. Quickly send

(Be brief in’t) to the castle; for my writ

Is on the life of Lear and on Cordelia.

Nay, send in time.

So much to say about this change. Edmund seems to realize that for Goneril, at least, the game they’d been playing was very real. Goneril loved Edmund enough to kill for him, to die for him. Maybe, after the callous way Edmund had been treated by Gloucester in the play’s very first scene, this realization was enough for Edmund to see through his own fiction.

But of course it is too late. Cordelia is dead, soon to be followed by Lear, Kent, and Edmund himself. Evil can’t always be taken back. As actors in this world, sometimes our actions have consequences that neither we nor anyone else can change.

Perhaps, finally, this is the most important meaning of King Lear. We humans are far from powerless. Our ability to believe in fiction gives us great power. (In Grendel by John Gardner, the title creature calls humans “pattern-makers” and realizes this is what makes us so dangerous.) King Lear shows that neither the gods nor the stars will mitigate that power. Gloucester famously says:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods.

They kill us for their sport.

As we’ve seen here, this is exactly wrong. It’s not the gods who kill us; we do it to ourselves. The beast is here, within us. Gloucester lost his eyes not because of the gods, but because he denigrated and humiliated his bastard son. That son Edmund dies at the hands of his brother Edgar not because the gods are just (as Edgar incorrectly states), but because Edmund, like Cornwall, misreads the world’s response to his own evil.

The gods have not, in King Lear, performed a morality pageant for our benefit; Cordelia is dead, not for cause, but because Edmund’s conversion came too late. We must not depend on the gods to save us, because in the end they aren’t there.

(There I go again, believing my own fiction of individuality. Well, in the end we all have a petard on which we will be hoisted. I suppose I’ve found mine.)

In the Trevor Nunn/Ian McKellen version of Lear, of which I am so fond, Edgar is left alone in the last scene after Lear, Cordelia, and the others are dead. In a final, desperate attempt to find meaning, Edgar lifts his arms skyward, imploring as he had earlier the intervention of the gods. But then he thinks better of it, drops his arms in disgust, and takes in the universe as it is. Now king, he must go about that task he explained earlier to his father Gloucester. Edgar sees that he must endure his going hence, even as his coming hither.

Ripeness is all.

First a note about life. I am a middle school science teacher. Through the school year most of my time is devoted to my learners – building lessons, giving feedback, helping them explore this marvelous and magical Cosmos. My summers I devote to other pursuits – riding my bicycle, baseball, some science reading and writing, and lots and lots of Shakespeare.

This pandemic summer has been like no other. While live theater has been canceled by the coronavirus, I’m so thankful that The Globe in London and the Stratford Festival in Canada made available for free many of their past productions on line. They, along with my wonderful local public library, have made it possible for me to watch 24 different Shakespeare plays this summer, several of them in more than one version. Despite all the trouble and uncertainty this summer has brought, Shakespeare has served as a wonderful escape. I finish with King Lear (I’m still working on a piece about that, what I believe to be the greatest of all Shakespeare’s works) and The Taming of the Shrew.

Shrew is a difficult play for me. Honestly, it is the most difficult of all Shakespeare’s plays for me. There are difficult plays that I love, such as Measure for Measure, Othello, and certainly King Lear itself. There are difficult plays I think are worthy of close study, such as The Merchant of Venice and Henry V. There are plays that are just bad, such as Henry VIII and Timon of Athens. And then there is The Taming of the Shrew.

I don’t want to be clever about this play. I don’t want to ask those clever, literary questions, like “who is the shrew, really?” I don’t want to point out that Kate is rebelling against a system that is rotten to its core, in contrast to the simpering and shifty way her sister Bianca uses the system to her advantage. I don’t want to try to find excuses for Petruchio, such as seeing in him a rebel who teaches his wife not to care what others think. I don’t want to try to read into Kate’s final submission, to look between the lines for some redemption (hint: it’s not there).

I don’t want to do any of these things because it just feels gross. I watched Stratford’s 2016 production of the play and it sickened me. Not because the acting or directing was poor – I thought they did a fine job. Not because the writing is poor – this is Shakespeare, after all, just finding his power as a young playwright in the big city. I feel gross and sickened because what I saw on the stage was a tragedy, not a comedy. What I saw was a fiercely independent woman destroyed utterly. All I could think of was the end of 1984, when Winston Smith decides that maybe 2 + 2 can equal 5, after all.

Deborah Hay and Ben Carlson as Kate and Petruchio

The actors felt it, too. In that final speech, Deborah Hay so wanted to break out, to let Katharina out of the cage Petruchio has put her in. She came so close to doing so, and it was brilliant acting, beautifully controlled. Ben Carlson as Petruchio seemed for a moment utterly heartbroken by what Deborah had just done, by what Kate has become, just before he bellowed, “Why, there’s a wench!” Sickening line. The two actors then left the stage, apparently converting all that emotion into lust, as Kate could barely keep from ripping Petruchio’s clothes off as they headed to the bedroom. Gross.

So, did I like it? Maybe I’m still trying to figure it out. After all, I don’t like the ending of King Lear, or Othello, or Measure for Measure, though I consider them among the greatest achievements in art. I’m not happy that Cordelia has been murdered, that Othello has smothered his innocent wife, or that Isabella is forced into a marriage she clearly does not want, but I understand these endings to be the necessary tragic fruits of the dystopian societies Shakespeare is exposing to us.

But in Shrew (in some ways similar to Merchant of Venice), we have to go a long, long way to get to the realization of that dystopia. I think we can get there with Merchant; Shakespeare gave us just enough clues that he sees Shylock as a tragic character, and his forced conversion as a heinous crime. With The Taming of the Shrew, I just don’t know that I can get there. Kate is wrecked, destroyed, Stockholm Syndrome’d into submission, and it seems just fine and dandy to all involved.

My usual approach to these difficulties in Shakespeare is to conclude that Shakespeare was writing for us, for a time when the world would be better, when we would be better. Indeed, that’s why Shakespeare put into his plays clues about Shylock, about Isabella, and about Caliban in The Tempest. He knew that we would be better someday, that we would follow the meager breadcrumbs he left. But with The Taming of the Shrew, I don’t think I can get there. I don’t see any breadcrumbs. Kate is destroyed, and Petruchio is the hero for destroying her.

The play’s only saving grace is perhaps that Shakespeare wrote it early in his career. He needed to grow up. And that’s what he did. Thankfully, he didn’t die of the plague and leave us only this sadistic play to remember him by. Suppose he had, though? Would anyone who defends this play today do so if it were not the beginning of a long career but the end of a short one? I don’t think so.

Maybe all the wonderful and powerful women Shakespeare wrote after – Juliet, Beatrice, Rosalind, Cordelia, (dare I mention Lady Macbeth?), Imogen, and the lovely Perdita – are his answer to the tragedy of his willful, cruel, and, in the end I have to conclude, irredeemable destruction of Kate.

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
October 2022
A blog by Stephen Whitt

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