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Below are my unedited (with one exception) reflections on the total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017.

Before:

It’s begun. Still over an hour until totality, so I wanted to capture some thoughts. Of course with no internet connection I won’t be able to post until tonight or even Tuesday, but these are my reflections just before I see my first total solar eclipse.

As I wrote before, there’s nothing particularly special about an eclipse. The Moon always makes a shadow (unless it is being eclipsed itself). It’s just that usually that shadow isn’t directly on me. Today I will see the diamond ring, the moment of totality, and the usually invisible solar corona. I don’t know if it will change me – will I be a different person when I come back to this reflection? Maybe.

So many people here to share this experience. I’ve talked with locals, but also from a guy who drove all the way from Oklahoma. I’ve seen Massachusetts and Illinois license plates, and every place in between. Also Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. It gives me hope that so many people, from so many different parts of the world, take enough interest in the world to come see something so rare and esoteric. What will we get from it? I’ll know in 72 minutes.

And after:

Wow. Wow. Totality is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Never have 2 minutes and 40 seconds flown by so quickly. I wish we could do it again and again and again.

A beautiful day. White, puffy clouds popping up out of nowhere. Clouds! No! Don’t you dare, cloud. A large one looked like it might be in exactly the wrong spot in exactly the wrong time. But no. As the eclipse progressed, the cloud dissipated, and a beautiful dome of blue sky surrounded the shrinking Sun on all sides. It was going to happen.

As totality approached, the light all around us took on a strange hue. It reminded me of the light near sunset after a big thunderstorm, when the sunlight is shining under the clouds. Darker and darker it grew, as the heat of the day subsided. The sliver of Sun in the sky got smaller and smaller. A sheet of white paper on the ground showed dark ripples, as you see at the bottom of a swimming pool. Bright planets or stars (not sure, but as they were on the ecliptic I suspect they were planets)  came out, one on each side. (EDIT: yes, they were planets; Jupiter to the left and Venus – Venus! – to the right. Venus is never visible high in the sky, well, except during an eclipse!)

And then the diamond ring, and then totality. Suddenly there was a dark hole in the sky where the Sun had been. The corona shown on all sides, looking hairy and white against a suddenly dark sky. The time ticked away so fast, oh, so fast. A dog howled. A hawk flew low on the horizon. People exclaimed, thrilled, delighted, amazed. And then it was over. So, so fast. So beautiful. So wish I could do it again.

As I sit here, I’m already a different person, not even sure if what I just saw was real or a dream. Did that really just happen? Yes, as I glance at the sky through my filtered glasses I see the reverse crescent of the Sun as the invisible Moon slowly slides away, blissfully unaware that she’d done anything special today.

This really happened. I’m hooked.

Later, I looked over the photos I’d taken, hoping for some glimmer of what I’d just seen. The photos were all terrible. Honestly, though, even the best photograph doesn’t do justice to this event. It requires an epic poem, or a painting.

Or a symphony.

Every human should see a total solar eclipse at least once. It is nothing – nothing! – like a partial solar eclipse, or any lunar eclipse. It is a different beast entirely. When I see a partial solar eclipse, I think, ok, that’s a cool science phenomenon. A total solar eclipse is beyond science, beyond words. It links us to long-forgotten ancestors, who looked up at the sky in awe and wonder. If they were anything like me (and I think they were), this phenomenon would have touched them deeply, so deeply that they’d want to understand.

I am an optimist. I believe that humans will one day break the shackles of this planet, this solar system, and move out into the stars. Wherever we go, whatever new planets and new star systems we make our own, I believe we will never, ever find the perfect set of coincidences that lead to these amazing total solar eclipses. Long after our planet is gone, I believe it will be remembered as the world on which, every so often, the Moon made a hole where the Sun once was.

The only decent picture I have from my life-changing trip came quite a bit later, as I had my post-eclipse celebratory meal at Sonny’s Barbecue. So I suppose I’ll share that.

20170821_193118

Notice that little drip of barbecue sauce on the left, with the “solar flare” coming off it? That’s kinda like the Sun, and . . . oh, never mind. Ribs are good.

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In preparation for my journey to the path of totality, this week I re-read one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Unlike the great tragedies and histories full of moral questions, or even the great comedies with witty lead characters who keep you always on your toes, Dream is light and airy, designed to make you laugh.

According to Open Source Shakespeare, Moon, moonlight, or moonshine appear in Dream (either the text or the stage directions) 52 times, in 37 passages. This is almost one quarter of all Shakespeare’s Moon passages in the entire canon. Moonshine even appears as a character in the Rude Mechanicals’ wonderfully inept performance of Pyramus and Thisbe in Act V. Since my quest this week is for the Moon, I thought it would be fun to explore the role of the Moon in Dream.

What I quickly discovered is that “role” isn’t appropriate at all, but rather I’d havd to discuss “roles.” The Moon is described in so many different ways in Dream that you begin to wonder how one heavenly body could mean so many different things. I decided to organize this reflection around those different views of the Moon in Dream.

1) The Dependable Moon

The first appearance of the Moon in Dream is when Theseus describes his impatience as he waits to marry Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons whom Theseus has conquered in war.

Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace; four happy days bring in
Another moon: but, O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes!

Oddly, the fairies talk very differently of the Moon, including the quote in my title. They describe the Moon as swift in her motions across the sky. Shakespeare is here, I think, pointing out how subjective our view of time can be.

In both cases, Theseus and the fairies are using the constant, dependable Moon as a standard of measure. This is the Moon’s most obvious trait, its dependable changeability.

Later, Hermia compares the dependable Moon, like Lysander’s love. She’d sooner believe that the Moon could pass through the Earth than that Lysander would leave her side in the night. Interestingly, the motion Hermia ascribes to the Moon sounds very much like an eclipse –  a rare but by no means unheard-of event.

would he have stolen away
From sleeping Hermia? I’ll believe as soon
This whole earth may be bored and that the moon
May through the centre creep and so displease
Her brother’s noontide with Antipodes.

Perhaps Hermia is not so confident in Lysander’s love as she pretends. Interestingly, in a play written at about the same time, Juliet asks that Romeo not swear his love by “the inconstant moon,” referring to the Moon’s changeable, if predictable, nature.

hermia dream

Hermia (Lilly Englert), Demetrius (Zach Appelman), and Lysander (Jake Horowitz) during their moonlit pillow fight in Julie Taymor’s excellent Dream

2) The Virgin Moon

Theseus is, in a sense, the anti-hero of this play – or at least the resident blowhard. Perhaps not surprising, then, that Theseus, a creature of the daytime, should have a very different view of the Moon than most characters. When he presents Hermia with the choice of death or lifelong chastity if she refuses to marry Demetrius, Theseus paints a grim picture:

For aye to be in shady cloister mew’d,
To live a barren sister all your life,
Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon.

The Moon is closely associated with Artemis or Diana, the most fiercely virginal of the ancient gods. Perhaps not surprising that Theseus, who has no problem converting his victory in battle over Hippolyta to love for her, would see the war-like virginal goddess in a negative (cold) light. It is interesting, though, that in a play so packed full with love, lust, and passion in the night that Theseus presents this much harsher view of the “fruitless moon.”

3) The Watery Moon

Titania, the fairy queen, presents a radically different view of the Moon. She describes it as “the governess of floods” and associates it with weather, sometimes violent weather, here on the Earth. Of course, in Shakespeare’s time and long before, humans understood that the Moon has a profound effect on tides. From there it’s not a great leap to associate the Moon with other watery events such as rain and snow, flooding, and drought.

Titania returns to this idea of a watery Moon when she is under Oberon’s spell that caused her to fall in love with the transformed mechanical Bottom, now given the head of an ass (a donkey in Shakespeare’s time, though I’m looking forward to the upcoming movie version when Bottom’s head is a true bottom!) Titania seems to suggest that the Moon wants us to love, and that she weeps when we do not.

Come, wait upon him; lead him to my bower.
The moon methinks looks with a watery eye;
And when she weeps, weeps every little flower,
Lamenting some enforced chastity.

A very different view from Theseus’ “cold fruitless moon”.

titania dream

Titania (Tina Benko) with the transformed Bottom (Max Casella)

4) The Illicit Moon

Finally, the Moon is described in Dream as the Sun’s counterpart, ruler of the night. The night, of course, is the place for illicit acts – unsanctioned love, unapproved play, and even suicide.

It starts with Hermia’s father Egeus, who accuses Lysander of stealing his daughter from him under cover of night.

Thou hast by moonlight at her window sung,
With feigning voice verses of feigning love,

This, by the way, is another example of Shakespeare’s genius for language, as “feign” means false, but “fain” (which sounds the same to an audience) means “eager”. Lovely!

Soon after, Peter Quince describes the secret assembly of the Rude Mechanicals

meet me in the palace wood, a mile without the
town, by moonlight; there will we rehearse, for if
we meet in the city, we shall be dogged with
company, and our devices known.

And then, of course, Pyramus and Thisbe, in the play within a play, take their own lives by moonlight, enacting a scene that is meant to be hilarious in its ridiculousness, but perhaps hits a little close to home for the four lovers who could easily have met a similar fate just the night before.

Puck, that merry wanderer of the night, fittingly gets the last word on the Moon, as he does in the play, emphasizing the Moon’s role as monarch of the night:

Now the hungry lion roars,
And the wolf behowls the moon;
Whilst the heavy ploughman snores,
All with weary task fordone.

As I write these final words on Shakespeare’s most Moon-filled play, the Moon herself, nighttime’s pale ruler, inconstant and watery, yet dependable and proudly virginal, inspiration of “lunatics, lovers, and poets”, slowly inches toward her rendezvous with the Sun, approaching her one opportunity to claim victory over the daytime, if only for 2 minutes and 40 seconds (give or take a tenth). I hope she doesn’t drive me mad.

puck dream

Kathryn Hunter as Puck

Lord, what fools these mortals be!

 


In his cosmic tragedy King Lear, Shakespeare gives us the Duke of Gloucester, who is convinced that our fates are controlled by the Sun, the Moon, and the gods who “kill us for their sport.” His quote about eclipses would likely have reminded the audience at the Globe in the early 1600s of a series of remarkable solar and lunar eclipses that had swept over England in the previous decade, and coincided with the death of Queen Elizabeth, the ascension of her cousin James (a relative unknown and an outsider from Scotland), and domestic turmoil such as the Gunpowder Plot – today remembered in England on Guy Fawkes Day.

Gloucester’s bastard son Edmund, the charismatic villain and plot driver of what I believe to be Shakespeare’s greatest play, in contrast provides a more modern view of events in the sky, a sentiment that instantly makes me his fan.

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 bastardising.

Unlike Gloucester, I am looking forward (with some trepidation, more on that below) to a once – maybe twice – in a lifetime event coming on August 21, 2017. Known as the Great American Eclipse, it is the best opportunity so far in my lifetime to experience that rare astronomical event, a total solar eclipse.

On that date, I’ll be driving from my house in Columbus, Ohio at 4 am and heading south, hoping against hope for light traffic and clear skies. I’ll have Carl Sagan and A Midsummer Night’s Dream to keep me company as I head toward the thin line of totality that passes through Western Kentucky and North-Central Tennessee. My current plan is to land just east of Nashville and nestle into a secluded and cloudless spot where I will lose my total eclipse virginity.

Way back in 1994, before marriage and children, I drove on a beautiful day in May to nearby Toledo for another eclipse. That one, however, was an annular eclipse, in which the Moon – slightly too far away at that point in its orbit – didn’t quite cover the entire solar disk, leaving a ring all the way around. It was a moving experience, but left me hungry for the real thing.

The crazy part, of course, is that there’s nothing (from a solar system perspective) particularly significant about an eclipse. In a sense, there’s (almost) always a solar eclipse somewhere, since the Moon always casts a shadow (unless the Moon itself is in the shadow of the Earth, creating a lunar eclipse). It’s just that usually the Moon’s shadow doesn’t hit anything, but merely stretches off into the blackness of space. Had we the Starship Enterprise and the inclination to do so, we could travel about in the Moon’s shadow whenever we wished. For now, though, only when the Earth happens to be in the way of the shadow, only when the Earth’s normal supply of sunlight is suddenly cut off by the Moon, do we here on the surface notice the lunar occultation.

Even so, the descriptions I’ve read from those who’ve experienced it (including particle physicist Frank Close in a book of his I just finished) and the memory of televised totality in 1979 make this an event I have to see for myself, in person. Or at least try.

Two variables beyond my control could, of course, scotch my plan. First of all, initial estimates say that perhaps 100 million people will cram themselves into the path of totality, many of them claiming their spots by Saturday. Others will, like me, begin their quest early Monday morning, jamming the roads into possible impassibility. I may travel hundreds of miles only to be caught on a country road in Southern Kentucky, tantalizingly close but just beyond the totality path. Second, I could get into position only to have clouds or even rain ruin the view. But such is the nature of the quest. You makes your choices and you takes your chances.

You can find all the information you want and then some regarding the science of eclipses on line this week and beyond, so I won’t bore you with too much detail. Just a couple points of wonder, though.

We see our particular brand of eclipses here on Earth due to a remarkable cosmic coincidence. The disk of the Moon just happens to be 400 times smaller than the disk of the Sun. It also just happens to be 400 times closer to us. This results in two disks that, while wildly difference in appearance and properties, are essentially the same size in our sky.

Shakespeare used this cosmic coincidence when Romeo described Juliet as the Sun, the “mate” of the “envious Moon”

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief, 850
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:

There’s no particular reason that the Moon, created when a piece of a planet crashed into the early Earth over 4 billion years ago, knocking part of itself and a sizable chunk of the Earth’s mantle into space, and the Sun, containing itself over 99% of the mass of the Solar System, should appear so similar from Earth. In addition, the Moon is slowly spiraling away from the Earth. In another billion years, it will be far enough away that the coincidence will no longer seem so amazing, and the Moon will no longer cover the Sun.

The speed of the Moon’s shadow across the Earth’s surface is amazingly fast, yet not the practically instantaneous speed of a light beam, and this in-between speed has some cool mathematics behind it.

First, the Moon is in motion around the Earth. The speed of that motion is a cool 2300 miles per hour. That’s about twice as fast as an F-18 at top speed. However, the Earth itself is in motion, too. As it happens, the Moon’s revolution and the Earth’s rotation are in the same direction. The result is that the motion of the shadow as perceived on the Earth’s surface is slowed a bit. There’s another effect though – the Earth’s surface is curved. Because of this curvature, in the West the shadow will be much faster than in the East. When the shadow makes landfall in Oregon, it will be moving at 2400 miles per hour – even faster than the Moon in orbit. By the time the shadow reaches South Carolina, it will hit the Atlantic at about 1500 mph.

In his book linked above (Eclipse – Journeys to the Dark Side of the Moon), Frank Close describes watching that shadow as it approaches him just before totality. Not sure if I’ll be able to see this from my eclipse location, but it would be an amazing sight.

For now, though, in my pre-eclipse ignorance, the most amazing thing about the eclipse isn’t the event itself, but our ability to understand it so fully and predict it so completely.

Even in the middle ages, people had become fairly good at predicting eclipses by using rough rules of thumb and noticing patterns. But the work of Galileo, Kepler, and especially Isaac Newton turned eclipse prediction from a rough art to an exact science. Newton noticed the Moon as it moved across the sky and compared it to an apple as it fell to Earth from a tree, and realized that the same force could explain both motions. From there, Newton’s inverse square law

F = GMm/r^2

along with a little calculus, correctly predicted not just eclipses, but the motions of all the planets, moons, comets, and asteroids. Every time we launch a robotic emissary into deep space, it arrives at the exact moment Newton’s Laws says it will. It’s remarkable that so much could come from such a simple-looking formula.

Newton’s Laws were so exact, in fact, that it became big news when anything didn’t obey them precisely. When Albert Einstein was able to modify Newton with his General Theory of Relativity, he experienced palpitations of excitement when his theory, but not Newton’s, matched the precession of Mercury’s orbit. Later, Arthur Eddington observed starlight skimming past the Sun during another solar eclipse (this one in 1919), thereby confirming Einstein’s theory.

In 1974, Joseph Taylor and Russell Hulse observed a pair of neutron stars orbiting one another, losing energy and so drawing closer together (and revolving ever faster) in exact accordance with Einstein’s idea that gravitational radiation carries energy with it in the form of gravitational waves. And today, experiments like LIGO are for the first time actually detecting those gravitational waves, which bathe us always in an almost-indetectable sea of gravitational fluctuation.

These will be some of the thoughts swimming through my own brain as I do my best to rendezvous with that brief shadow of totality on Monday. Wherever you are, enjoy this once (or maybe twice) in a lifetime event. Happy eclipsing!

 

 

Shakespeare wrote four plays covering the reigns of three English kings – Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V. They are without doubt the greatest of his history plays, and some would argue that these four plays, known as the Henriad, are the greatest plays he ever wrote.

I do love these plays, though I wouldn’t put most of them at the very top of Shakespeare’w work. Richard II is lyrical and beautiful. It is essentially the portrait of a spoiled brat who, upon losing his kingdom, plumbs the depths of self-pitying poetry and melodrama. Sounds terrible, but it is a triumph of language and portraiture, again showing Shakespeare’s overriding theme – kings are just people, trying to do an impossible job.

Henry V is powerful stuff, with a hero king who leads his country into battle with words that still resonate in our culture today.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Henry IV part 2 contains the rejection of Falstaff. More on that below. All three are wonderful plays, among Shakespeare’s best – and that is saying something. But for me those three come short of what I feel to be Shakespeare’s very best history play, Henry IV part 1. This play is only number 7 on my list, but I honestly think of it as number 1(g). If we were somehow missing all the great tragedies and comedies, and Henry IV part 1 were immediately promoted to the best play Shakespeare ever wrote, I would still consider that one play to be a miraculous achievement and Shakespeare one of the world’s great artists.

The traditional analysis of Henry IV part 1 pairs Prince Hal (the future Henry V) with his rebellious rival Hotspur (Harry Percy), and King Henry IV (formerly Henry Bolingbroke, who deposed Richard II) with the fat knight Sir John Falstaff. It’s an obvious comparison: Hotspur is the son Bolingbroke wishes he’d had, and Falstaff tries his darnedest to be Hal’s surrogate father. But I want to go in another direction, thinking not about the influences that tug on Hal and his father, but rather those that tug on me, the reader and playgoer.

For that reason, I’d like to compare Falstaff not with the dour and depressed Henry IV, but with Harry Percy, Hotspur himself. The contrasts are obvious. Falstaff is a confirmed coward, while Hotspur is anything but. Falstaff famously rails against honor, while to Percy there’s not much else to live for. Most obviously, Falstaff is old and fat, while Hotspur is young and vital.

But for me these differences are overwhelmed by one inescapable similarity. Both Falstaff and Hotspur are fabulously, undeniably, gloriously alive.

Despite being myself a confirmed coward, and therefore of Falstaff’s persuasion, Hotspur may be my favorite character in the play. OK, not just Hotspur, but also his wife Lady Percy, whom Hotspur calls Kate even though (historically, at least) that’s not her real name.

Kate (that’s what I’ll call her, too) adores Hotspur and wants nothing more than for him to come back to their bed. Hotspur, on the other hand, is more interested (at least on the surface) in war and riding his horse. Based just on the text, the scene could be played to make Hotspur a bore and a heel. But in the recent series The Hollow Crown, Kate (Michelle Dockery) and Hotspur (Joe Armstrong) play it steaming hot, making it clear that Hotspur is just as into Kate as she is into him, but that he’s got this other passion, this other demon, that he can’t escape.

bedroom kate hotspur

Personally, I would’ve stayed with the lady, but let’s be honest, part of the reason Kate is so crazy for Hotspur is because he’s such a warrior.

The next scene with Kate and Hotspur is even hotter, as they tease and play until they rush out together, barely able to control themselves.

kate hotspur glendower

So Hotspur has plenty to live for, and yet he rushes off to this dangerous and hopeless rebellion. Pretty foolish. And yet . . .

As I said, I’m a coward at heart. Yet I’ve always had this sneaking admiration for the sort of courage and honor Hotspur displays. It doesn’t look to me much like the honor that Falstaff describes in his famous speech:

What is honor? A word. What is in that word “honor”? What is that “honor”? Air. A trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible, then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore, I’ll none of it. Honor is a mere scutcheon.

Rather, Hotspur’s sort of honor seems to have little to nothing to do with what other people think (merely air, or a scutcheon, a painted shield to display to the world). Hotspur’s honor is more internal. It reminds me of nothing so much as Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Lieutenant Worf’s sense of honor. If you’re not a ST:TNG fan, you’ll have to trust me on this. Yes, Worf is obsessed with honor. But for Worf, honor is not what you show the world, but what you know of yourself. Just like Hotspur, Worf would rather die than lose his honor. Even more than that, though, Worf would rather lose his reputation for honor than his own internal sense of honor. Again, if you’re not a fan, you’ll have to take my word for it, because this is about the Henriad, not TNG. (Did I mention that Patrick Stewart played Prince Hal’s grandfather John of Gaunt in Richard II? Patrick Stewart is the greatest. OK, enough of that.)

Worf

As the battle approaches, Hotspur has multiple opportunities to back down. Both the Welsh warlord Owen Glendower (more on him to come) and Hotspur’s own father back out of the fight, turning the odds very much against the rebels. Everyone else wants to end the expedition, but Hotspur won’t hear of it. You get the distinct feeling it’s not reputation he’s interested in protecting. Instead, he just wants to fight, for the sheer joy of the battle. If he were to back off, everyone else would forgive him, but he would never forgive himself.

Not exactly noble, maybe, as for Hotspur fighting is his crack, but also not someone who craves honor as a word or a scutcheon. There’s something beautiful (if dumb) about fighting the unwinnable fight.

Maybe the real reason I love Hotspur is his smackdown of the blowhard Welshman Glendower. When Glendower goes into his song and dance about the heavens being on fire and the Earth trembling at his birth, and how he “can call spirits from the vasty deep,” Hotspur responds:

Why, so can I, or so can any man,
But will they come when you do call for them?

For an atheist like me, this is meat and drink. I love any character in Shakespeare (like Edmund in King Lear) who rails against superstition and in favor of a rational view of the world. This fits Hotspur’s character, as he trusts himself, and only himself. More than that, though, he refuses to back down to anyone, even if (as is likely the case here) his arguing costs him the support of Glendower later.

So Hotspur pulls at me. But then there’s Falstaff. Yes, I do love and adore Falstaff, again because he is so indisputably alive. No, I wouldn’t want him in charge of the Mint, or even have him over as a house guest. He’s a pirate. Did you ever notice how pirates don’t steal useful things like ships or food? Instead, they steal gold. Why gold? Because they can use gold to buy things. But they’re pirates! Just like a pirate, Falstaff lives outside society’s rules, and yet depends on the very society he refuses to contribute to. Regardless of this, his fun, his aged youthfulness, his ability to turn every situation into a game, a play, a pun, or a romp, make him irresistible.

falstaff

Long ago when I was very young, I decided that, unlike all the adults around me, I would never lose my love of play. And I never have. Of course, play for me includes reading and analyzing Shakespeare and doing math problems. So I’m not typical. But, like Falstaff, I love to play. So when I first encountered him, I of course recognized a kindred spirit.

And so we have these two wildly different, fully living characters tugging at me. What sort of life do I want to live? What sort of person do I want to be? Do I follow Hotspur, with his commitment to the cause of self-affirming honor, courage, and action, or do I worship Falstaff, with his pragmatic cynicism regarding honor and courage, but his love of play, fun, wit, humor, food, and drink?

In the end, of course, Hal destroys them both, killing Hotspur at the end of part 1 (producing the quote in my title) and all but killing Falstaff at the end of part 2. In a sense, he is robbing the world of youth, both the youthful exuberance of Hotspur and the playful fun of Sir John.

Hal (being an early study of Hamlet and so containing multitudes) can see both the wisdom and the folly in Hotspur’s path as well as Falstaff’s. He seems to blend the two into something that works for him in Henry V. But what about me?

I’m no Hal (and certainly no Hamlet), but like Hal I feel the pull. I am a science teacher (who happens to also teach math). Many and many a day it feels like a hopeless battle, and yet I fight on, fighting the good fight because it simply is who I am. Teaching is my crack, I guess. When you’re in love, you want to tell the world. So there’s a little Hotspur in that seemingly hopeless battle.

But I also love play (and plays), I love eating and drinking and thinking and learning and wringing every bit of fun I can out of life. So there’s some Falstaff there, too.

In the end, there is of course no answer. As Joseph Campbell said (and I wonder if he was thinking of Shakespeare when he said it),

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. . .

Experiencing Shakespeare, and all the glorious personalities he gave us, is, I think, the sort of experience Campbell was talking about. And alive is the best word I can think of to describe these two characters, and these four amazing plays.

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.
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