Archive for the 'History' Category

Shakespeare Follow-Up: America

Friday, July 4th, 2014

In The Comedy of Errors, Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse, while visiting Ephesus, are quite surprised that two women have claimed them as husbands. In actuality, they are the wives of the Syracusians’ long-lost twins, but our travelers don’t know this. Dromio describes his new-found wife as spherical, like a globe. Antipholus asks where particular countries can be found, and Dromio makes bawdy wordplay based on various parts of her anatomy. At one point, Antipholus goes somewhere unexpected:

Where America, the Indies?

USA! USA! USA!

But, wait… Shakespeare wrote The Comedy of Errors in the late 16th century, over a hundred years before Thomas Jefferson was even a glimmer in his pappy’s eye. There was no USA. O, say can you see the need for a Shakespeare Follow-Up?

The 1492 expedition of Christopher Columbus introduced Europeans to what they would later refer to as “The New World.” But at the time, Columbus thought that he had circumnavigated the globe and found a new route to the Indies. Despite being in error about this, the islands he reached continue to be called the West Indies and the native people he encountered are still commonly referred to as Indians, though the latter title seems to be phasing out.




The earliest-known use of the word America was in a 1507 map by German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller. The Library of Congress has a digital version of it, and it’s really worth checking out. You can see how much and how little they knew about the “New World.” Most of what they had charted was what we today call South America, and very little of the North American landmass is depicted. At the top, apparently overseeing his discovery, is Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer credited for realizing that the landmass discovered by Columbus was not part of Asia, but rather an independent continent.

According to my Arden edition of the play (R.A. Foakes, ed.), Shakespeare wrote The Comedy of Errors around 1591-1592, give or take a couple of years. For our purposes here, it will suffice to note that the play was written after the first English colonists set up in the New World (the ill-fated Roanoke colonists, arriving July 4, 1584), but before the first permanent colony was established in Jamestown in 1607.

So what did Shakespeare mean by “America”? The Arden note is inconclusive: “the only specific reference to America in Shakespeare’s writings; here, like the ‘Indies’ named in reference to its proverbial wealth.” However, according the Folger’s Shakespeare in American Life website, Shakespeare’s characters would refer to the New World as “the Indies,” as it appears Antipholus is dong here. So my best inference would be that “America” also is referring to the New World in general, and not necessarily the middle section of the North American landmass.

Isaac Asimov, by the way, is silent on this issue. He does note that, during this section, Antipholus and Dromio have completely abandoned any pretense of being from ancient Greek city-states.

The Declaration of Independence was signed in Congress on this date, July 4, 1776, and today is commonly celebrated as the birthday of the United States of America. The word “America” is now most commonly used to refer to this nation.

So… Happy Birthday, America!

Conundrum: An Eventful 52

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

The following recap of 2013 has been redacted by overzealous Internet censors! Can you fill in the blanks to restore our memories of the year?

Here’s the catch: all of the missing words are in alphabetical order. Enjoy!

Was it only 52 weeks __(01)__ that we celebrated the arrival of 2013? A lot has happened since then. __(02)__ __(03)__ was __(04)__ from the same network as Mr. __(05)__ later would be. The __(06)__ story of the past 365 days might be that terrible __(07)__ in __(08)__. The __(09)__ of a mayoral __(10)__ ended when he was revealed to be using the name __(11)__ __(12)__. This may have been the most __(13)__ incident of 2013, unless you wish to give that __(14)__ honor to the family of __(15)__ __(16)__, whose __(17)__ member __(18)__ many by __(19)__ his more __(20)__ views, which many felt went too __(21)__. At the movies, the latest __(22)__ & __(23)__ film had a __(24)__ showing at the box office, though it did not __(25)__ as much __(26)__ as the latest __(27)__ __(28)__ film. In music, the artist born __(29)__ __(30)__ released a second LP with that name. Internationally, __(31)__ __(32)__ was removed from power, while domestically, we fought __(33)__ over __(34)__, the __(35)__ signature __(36)__. The __(37)__ __(38)__ it fiercely, and the __(39)__ itself certainly had some __(40)__ spots. In fact, the worst __(41)__ of 2013 may have been the __(42)__ it triggered, though just as __(43)__ was when Mr. __(44)__ __(45)__ out about the government’s __(46)__ on Americans as part of a secret __(47)__ program. In sports, we once again saw that nobody could __(48)__ from the __(49)__ like __(50)__ __(51)__. All in all, it was an eventful __(52)__.

Shakespeare Clickbait

Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

How far should we go to get people to read Shakespeare? I say we do whatever it takes.

You may also enjoy these stories:

The secret herb that will make women fall for you… INSTANTLY!
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Do these three women really have the secret for seeing into the FUTURE?

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Some senators challenged this interracial couple’s marriage, and THIS is what they said…
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A dying father called for his son, and what he said will blow you AWAY!
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Most people don’t know the one food you should NEVER eat…

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The 7 tell-tale signs of AGING that men can’t afford to ignore!
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Learn one weird trick for erasing ALL of your debt (without paying a penny)!
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This single act of forgiveness will restore your faith in HUMANITY!

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Click the images above to read more!

My teenage daughter and her friends think that posts like this can’t go viral. Please help me teach them an important lesson by sharing this on Facebook and Twitter.

Shakespeare Anagram: Julius Caesar

Saturday, December 7th, 2013

From Julius Caesar:

The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones;

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

Hint: Don’t believe the Twitter shot.

Mandela’s this freedom fighter.

I vote hero.

Shakespeare Follow-Up: The Atom

Friday, December 6th, 2013

In As You Like It, Celia reveals to Rosalind that she knows the name of Rosalind’s secret admirer. It is Orlando, who has already captured her heart. Immediately, Rosalind begins to pepper Celia with an overwhelming litany of questions, which causes Celia to exclaim:

It is as easy to count atomies as to resolve the propositions of a lover

Wait, what? Isn’t this the same play that said that the world is six thousand years old? How could Celia possibly know about atomic theory? Fortunately, there’s no job too small for the Shakespeare Follow-Up.

According to my Folger edition of the play (Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, ed.), the word “atomies” as used here means “dust particles in sunlight.” Oh.


Never mind.

Later in the play, Phebe uses the word, and this is clearly the meaning she intends:

Thou tell’st me there is murder in mine eye:
’Tis pretty, sure, and very probable,
That eyes, that are the frail’st and softest things,
Who shut their coward gates on atomies,
Should be call’d tyrants, butchers, murderers!

So that would appear to be that. But, wait! According to my Arden edition (Juliet Dusinberre, ed.), there’s more to the story. “Atomies” does indeed mean “tiny particles,” but…

The word, which occurs twice in AYL (see 3.5.13) and in no other Shakespeare play, may suggest the territory of the research conducted by Ralegh’s navigator, Thomas Harriot, into the atom and into optics, with particular relation to the refraction of light and the nature of visions.

(We’ll get back to Harriot, but as a side note, you may remember that Mercutio also uses the word “atomies” in the Queen Mab speech. To be fair, I checked my Arden edition of Romeo and Juliet (Brian Gibbons, ed.), and found instead the word “atomi,” which is from Q1. The Folio has “atomies.” So it’s arguable whether the word appears in another play, but the Arden is at least consistent. Even if you say the word is unique to As You Like It, however, the concept does appear in at least one other play.)

Atomism, the theory that all matter is made up of smaller units that cannot be further divided, was an idea embraced by several Pre-Socratic philosophers, most notably Leucippus and Democratus. Aristotle rejected this theory, believing that the four elements (earth, water, air, and fire) were continuous and infinitely divisible. As with most of these kinds of arguments, Aristotle’s version won the day. Although there were some notable figures who did believe in atomism throughout the ages, Aristotle’s theory was still the prevailing concept even in Shakespeare’s day. So in Twelfth Night, Viola gets Olivia’s attention by telling her “you should not rest/ Between the elements of air and earth, But you should pity me!” as Sir Toby asks Sir Andrew “Does not our life consist of the four elements?” when trying to make a point.

However, even in Shakespeare’s early seventeenth century, atomism was making a comeback, boasting such impressive adherents as Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, and even Galileo. Thomas Harriot was an early contributor to the developing theory, though at a time when it was still dangerous to speak too openly about what was considered a heretical idea. It’s intriguing to think that the notion may have captured Shakespeare’s imagination as well, but this is merely speculation. I don’t think you can strongly infer this from his use of a particular word twice in a given play, especially when the second use of the word points fairly decisively in the other direction.

In 1808, John Dalton (building on the work of Lavoisier and Proust) demonstrated that when a substance (such as water) is broken down into its components (such as hydrogen and oxygen), the proportion can always be described with small integers, implying that there is a direct correspondence on some foundational level. His atomic theory of matter led to further inquiry and discovery throughout the 19th century. In the early 20th century, quantum mechanics allowed scientists such as Max Planck, Albert Einstein, and Nils Bohr to describe the unique properties of particles on the microscopic scale.

There’s a lot more to the story, but it will have to suffice to note that in the mid-20th century, science learned how to split the atom, unleashing the potential for a virtually unlimited power source, weapons of unthinkable destruction, and a series of ethical questions that have turned out to be much more difficult to resolve than even the propositions of a lover.

Theatre: Richard III at the Belasco

Sunday, December 1st, 2013

In a NYC Shakespeare season filled with a Macbeth here and a Midsummer there, with two productions of Romeo and Juliet running and another two Kings Lear on the horizon, it would be hard for a single production to stand out as the fairest of them all. Nevertheless, I was looking forward to seeing Mark Rylance play Richard III in the currently running production at the Belasco Theatre with a higher degree of anticipation than any of the others. Richard III is my favorite play, and I love Rylance as an actor. I first saw him about 20 years ago playing Henry V in New York and then Benedick in London shortly after. He and I may not agree on who wrote these words, but I’m always glad to hear him speak them.

My anticipation had some extra time to build, as the actors do their pre-show preparations in full view of the audience. Some audience members were seated on the stage, which evoked the feeling of the Globe. The actors changed into costumes from Shakespeare’s time (not Richard’s) and the musical entertainment seemed Elizabethan as well. So when the show began, and Richard’s opening monologue was given in a presentational style, it seemed to fit with the concept they were going for.

Once Rylance began his winter-of-our-discontenting, I was hit by a sense of deja vu, before realizing that I had seen Rylance give this speech before. He delivers the same monologue playing Burbage in Anonymous. But this was a very different delivery than the one he gave in the film. Here, Rylance delivers Richard’s speech in broadly comical tones and with full interaction of the audience. When we laughed at his lines, he’d stop and laugh along with us, appreciative that we found the humor. He chummed it up with the audience members in the on-stage rows. And he was having so much fun, that we almost forgot that he was about to set up his brother to be murdered.

Can you play Richard III as a comedy? Sure. Many of Richard’s antics, as written, are way over the top, and his chutzpah in several scenes is absolutely breathtaking. I think you have to laugh at some of the more outrageous moments. And the choice allowed Rylance to truly revel in the most delicious moments of Richard’s glory, which provides some of the fun of the play. Richard becomes a Puck figure, that trickster devil who tempts mortals to their doom for his own increase. The play does work on that level, and elements of it can be found in any production.

The problem is that if you only play it as a broad presentational comedy, then it becomes a different play, potentially a good play, but one vastly inferior to the one that Shakespeare wrote. Rylance plays a very jocular casual-sounding Richard, and it doesn’t work. It’s not like the natural-sounding language of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado, but rather a presentation of the play as a shared joke with the audience. So, Richard isn’t Richard, but an actor playing a role. In the beginning, he knows the plots he’s laid are going to work – it’s in the script – so he barely needs to put any effort into getting there. And so, the inductions are not so dangerous. Later in the play, when he knows he’s going to lose, the presentation of the lines is more serious, but the outcome is just as sure and there still are no stakes. We end up watching a pageant, and not a play. It is merely a shadow puppet production of Richard.

And this matters, because the fact that Shakespeare’s Richard finds his own cutthroat machinations so funny is part of the evil of his character. And when I watch a good production of this play, I have the experience of a charismatic villain seducing me with his charm by making me feel like I’m on the inside of a momentous historical moment. Shakespeare makes me root for the bad guy. Who do I get to root for in this production? An actor playing a role, mugging for the audience, and not really seeming to care about how the plot progresses? I end up rooting for intermission.

So we get a stammering, mumbling Richard, with his back to the audience half the time, throwing his lines away and uttering his best asides under his breath. Actors meander about the stage with no sense of purpose, and Richard himself seems like he’s barely paying attention.

It was an all-male cast, which put the actors playing women in a very tight spot. If they played up the humor too much, it would play as a drag show, but if they played their parts too seriously, they’d be mismatched with the lead. Instead, they all ended up playing a kind of introspective sadness that plays as feminine without being too Monty Python.

It was disappointing that so much effort went into the costumes, music, set, and marketing for the show, and so little attention was paid to the direction. But Tim Carroll’s flat production felt more like an amateur reading group or high school production than Shakespeare on Broadway. Put simply, the play was not well articulated, and that’s the worst thing I can say about a production.

On the positive side, the lines played for comedy were actually funny. Kurt Egyiawan was a standout doubling as the Duchess of York and Richmond. I liked the final fight concept, and the dance at the end. And I always enjoy hearing Shakespeare’s words spoken out loud. But none of these are enough for me to recommend this show to you.

The same company is concurrently performing Twelfth Night, and I actually have much higher hopes for that production. Rylance will be playing Olivia. Stephen Fry, grievously underused in this production as an audience member sitting five rows ahead of me, will be playing Malvolio. Some of the elements that didn’t work for me in this production may be better suited to that play. In fact, I kind of got the sense that it was Twelfth Night where all of the attention was focused, and Richard III was merely slapped together as an afterthought.

May I live in hope? Watch this space.

Shakespeare Follow-Up: Circumnavigation

Friday, November 29th, 2013

When, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon sends Puck to fetch the magic flower, he gives him a deadline:

Fetch me this herb; and be thou here again
Ere the leviathan can swim a league.

I don’t know how fast the Leviathan could swim, so let’s talk about whales.

According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the fastest whales can reach speeds of up to 40 mph. If you Google “40 miles per hour in leagues per minute” it will convert the speed for you; it’s about 0.193 leagues per minute. So it would take about 5.18 minutes for the world’s fastest whale to swim a league, and I doubt it would take the Leviathan any longer.

Puck’s not ready to promise that. He responds:

I’ll put a girdle round about the earth
In forty minutes.

He’s going to need more time than Oberon asked, but to be fair, he’s going to take the long route.

Is it possible to do a complete circumnavigation of the Earth in 40 minutes? Puck’s got some powerful magic behind him, but that seems like a pretty fast journey. The Earth is almost 25,000 miles around. This claim needs a Shakespeare Follow-Up.

The 16th century voyages of Magellan and Drake would have been known to Shakespeare when he wrote the play. But these expeditions took years, and Puck didn’t have that kind of time. Over the next few centuries, many would make the trip, but it was always measured in years.

In 1873, Jules Verne wrote a fantasy novel called Around the World in Eighty Days, which documents a fictional attempt by Phileas Fogg to achieve the title journey in order to win a bet. Fogg travels by railroad and steamship, which gives him an advantage over his purely nautical predecessors. While they have to navigate around landmasses, he gets to travel a more direct route. Also, he’s a fictional character, but so is Puck. In the real world, the current record for sailing around the world belongs to French yachtsman Loïck Peyron. He ended his journey in January 2012 after 45 days, 13 hours, 42 minutes and 53 seconds. His prize? The Jules Verne Trophy.

Impressive as that is, Puck’s not going to make his deadline in a sailboat. What about hitching a ride on the Moon, a naturally orbiting satellite with close ties to the play? Well, as you might guess, the Moon takes about a month (29.5 days) to show its phase to the Earth. That’s faster than Peyron, but not fast enough for our time-pressed friend.

Shakespeare’s England wouldn’t have known any more of modern flight than Puck’s Athens, but we need to cut down our time. In 2010, Riccardo Mortara, Gabriel Mortara, and Flavien Guderzo set the record for a jet airplaine circumnavigation in 57 hours and 54 minutes, beating the Moon by a significant margin but still falling short of our goal. Being a fairy, Puck might have some connections to Santa Claus, who reportedly can make the worldwide journey in a single night. But to really pick up some speed, Puck should look into a spacecraft.

In 1961, Yuri Gagarin completed the first orbit of the Earth in 108 minutes. Now, we’re talking! There have been numerous orbits since that historic trip. I haven’t been able to find the fastest orbit, which is strange since you’d think that would be a big deal. I did find someone on a space message board who claims that Apollo 17 holds the current record at 87.82 minutes. I haven’t been able to find a source confirming that, but I haven’t been able to find a source contradicting it either. So given our current state of technology, the fastest estimate of a non-magical human circumnavigation given by even Internet hearsay is more than twice as long as Puck’s 40-minute promise.

So what happens in the play? After Puck leaves, Demetrius and Helena enter, have a scene together, and exit. Then, Puck returns with the flower. The length of the scene can certainly vary between productions, so to get a reasonable estimate, I consulted the relevant scene in two audio recordings from my collection. In the Arkangel version, Puck departs at 11:40 and returns at 15:40. He is away exactly 4 minutes. In the Naxos version, Puck is even faster. He’s gone from 9:11 to 12:54, for a total of 3 minutes and 43 seconds. We don’t know if he fulfills his ambition to put a girdle round about the earth, but it seems that he does indeed return ere the leviathan can swim a league.

Even a freewheeling sprite like Puck understands the importance of working on the boss’s timetable.

Shakespeare Anagram: Henry VI, Part One

Saturday, November 23rd, 2013

From Henry VI, Part One:

Stay, lords and gentlemen, and pluck no more,
Till you conclude that he, upon whose side
The fewest roses are cropp’d from the tree,
Shall yield the other in the right opinion.

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

Harry Reid’s Senate employed the nuclear option to lushly enlighten poll thresholds.

It’s hopeful to know the Democrats now steer the direction unimpeded for a change.

Shakespeare Follow-Up: Biochemistry

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

In As You Like It, Le Beau gives some friendly advice to Orlando:

Good sir, I do in friendship counsel you
To leave this place. Albeit you have deserv’d
High commendation, true applause and love,
Yet such is now the duke’s condition
That he misconstrues all that you have done.
The duke is humorous: what he is indeed,
More suits you to conceive than I to speak of.

The duke is humorous? He doesn’t sound very humorous to me. Can we get a Shakespeare Follow-Up?

The “humours” referred to four bodily fluids that were believed to affect one’s mood and personality: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. This was a theory that traced back as far as the ancient Greeks, and it was widely accepted in Shakespeare’s time. An imbalance of any one of these fluids in a person would have a particular effect. So, the duke is moody, not funny. And this use of the word is fairly consistent across the canon. So when Antipholus of Syracuse says he is not in a “sportive humour,” or Benedick says “a college of witcrackers cannot flout me out of my humour,” or Petruchio says “I’ll curb her mad and headstrong humour,” none of them are talking about the funny.

It’s clearly a retrochronism, but understanding a little bit about the humors can actually shed some light on quite a few lines in Shakespeare, so let’s review.

An excess of blood was thought to make you sanguine, and the cheerfully happy word actually comes from the Latin for bloody. So when Sir Toby Belch asks “Am not I consanguineous? am I not of her blood?,” he is using the term to describe a blood relationship.

Phlegm leads to quiet rationality. Kant actually thought it was the absence of temperament. Mistress Quickly therefore misapplies the term in The Merry Wives of Windsor when she beseeches Doctor Caius to “be not so phlegmatic.” She is trying to calm his anger down. She should have said “choleric.”

Choler stems from yellow bile (from the Greek “chole” for bile), and the word appears frequently in Shakespeare to describe anger or bellicosity. The black (”melan-”) variety of bile (”chole”) was also a frequently used theme. I’ve already written about melancholy in Shakespeare in an earlier post, so I don’t need to repeat it all here. The important thing to remember is that Shakespeare and his audience would have believed that these moods were caused by an imbalance of fluids. This is why bloodletting was such a popular medical practice; they believed they could remove the excess humours by drawing blood or applying leeches.

A poetic reference to bloodletting appears in King Richard II, as Richard attempts to sooth the conflict between Bolingbroke and Mowbray:

Wrath-kindled gentlemen, be rul’d by me;
Let’s purge this choler without letting blood:
This we prescribe, though no physician;
Deep malice makes too deep incision:
Forget, forgive; conclude and be agreed,
Our doctors say this is no month to bleed.

The complainants are seeking a duel, another way to purge choler by letting blood. Richard reframes their grievances as merely an imbalance of yellow bile, and uses the bloodletting metaphor to advocate a more peaceful solution. (It doesn’t work.)

In the 19th century, humours and bloodletting fell out of fashion as medical science developed a better understanding of human biochemistry. Apparently, though, the idea of the four humors survives today as a popular screenwriting technique.

On a somewhat-unrelated final note, do you know why the “funny bone” got its name? Because it’s the humerus! And I hope you find that humorous.

Shakespeare Follow-Up: Nature vs. Nurture

Friday, November 8th, 2013

The term “nature vs. nurture” is a poetic turn of phrase that refers to an ongoing reexamination of the roles that heredity and environment play in determining who we are as individuals. The expression was popularized in the 19th century by Francis Galton, though the debate and the phrase had been around much longer than his day. In fact, Shakespeare himself juxtaposed the two words in The Tempest, as Prospero describes Caliban thusly:

A devil, a born devil, on whose nature
Nurture can never stick;

Shakespeare was not the first to contrast these two words, but Galton is known to have been a Shakespeare fan, and it seems reasonable to imagine this was his source.

Shakespeare’s plays are filled with models of the intricate workings of human nature, depictions of how individuals are influenced by external factors, and the complicated interplay between the two. As we will soon see, Shakespeare was also an early voice in this conversation, and an often-quoted source by later thinkers as well. Therefore, our Shakespeare Follow-Up will focus on the development of the nature vs. nurture debate from Shakespeare’s time to ours today.

But please note that this is a very large topic, and I’m going to sweep through it rather quickly, so feel free to do your own follow up on any topic here that interests you.

Political philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau are often grouped together as “social contract theorists,” because they presented ideas about how and why humans form societies. But when considering their impact on the nature/nurture question, it’s more illustrative to focus on their differences.

In Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes argued that human beings, existing in a state of nature, are savage and brutal. Therefore, we willingly surrender our autonomy to a sovereign unconditionally in order to gain security from our murderous brethren. John Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), lays out the idea that we refer to today as tabula rasa, or “the blank slate.” Rather than seeing human beings as being innately evil, as Hobbes does, he sees us as being neither good nor evil naturally, but rather open to influence from our environments. Jean-Jacques Rousseau presents a different view of the natural state of the human in his book Émile (1762). For Rousseau, humans are born innately good, and it is society that corrupts.

Naturally, the choice of which of these three views to adopt will have a profound effect on how a culture views education and child rearing. We can’t control the nature, but we can structure the nurture to make the best use of our understanding of it. If we believe that human beings are born evil, we’ll want to make discipline the backbone of our educational system. If we believe that children are blank slates, we’ll seek to fill those slates with our best models for citizenship and morality. If we believe that our students are innately good, then maybe the best thing we could do would be to just get out of the way and let them explore the world they find themselves in. You can hear echoes of these debates in today’s conversations about education.

In the post-Darwinian era, psychologists began to codify the progression of human development into various stages. The progression was determined by nature, but profoundly impacted by environment. Sigmund Freud described five psycho-sexual stages of development in childhood. The eight psycho-social stages outlined by Erik Erikson were strongly influenced by Freud, but extended to adulthood.

But wait! A lifetime of human progression divided into stages? Why does that sound familiar? Oh right…

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel,
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

It seems that Jacques in As You Like It was on the right track, centuries ahead of his time. Freud famously wrote about Hamlet, and Erikson even cites Shakespeare’s “ages of man” in his 1962 article “Youth: Fidelity and Diversity,” which also provides an in-depth discussion of Hamlet.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) developed a set of four stages of cognitive development that have been profoundly influential in our understanding of human nature. Piaget believed that these stages developed naturally, and that new levels of learning become possible at each stage. Score one point for nature! Lev Vygotsky (1896 – 1934) built on these ideas, but demonstrated that learning could actually encourage cognitive development. There is a zone between what students are capable of doing on their own and what they can do in an environment that includes guidance and collaboration. Stretching into this zone can assist children in progressing developmentally. There’s one point for nurture, and it’s a tie game.

In fact, it will always be a tie game. Everyone agrees that both nature and nurture are significant, and we can argue about various degrees. Noam Chomsky (1928 – ) revolutionized the field of linguistics by describing, in Syntactic Structures (1957), the innate ability of the human brain to acquire language. This was a challenge to the behaviorist philosophy that was dominant at the time. In Frames of Mind (1983), Howard Gardner describes a system of multiple intelligences that different people seem to possess in different measures. The rise of theories such as Chomsky’s and Gardner’s would seem to move the needle towards nature, but the fact that they continue to influence our educational practices demonstrate the importance of nurture in the equation all the more powerfully.

Shakespeare, of course, didn’t know any of this. Nevertheless, his understanding of the complex interplay between nature and nurture was nuanced enough for him to create models that still have us debating the actions and motivations of fictional characters as though they were real people. Why, for example, does Macbeth kill Duncan? Is it because he’s ambitious? Or does he succumb to pressure from his wife? If it’s the former, would he have done so without prompting from the witches? And if it’s the latter, what elements of his nature make him susceptible to his wife’s influence?

I give up. What do you think, Lady Macbeth?

Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be
What thou art promis’d. Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way; thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it; what thou wouldst highly,
That thou wouldst holily; wouldst not play false,
And yet wouldst wrongly win; thou’dst have, great Glamis,
That which cries, ‘Thus thou must do, if thou have it;’
And that which rather thou dost fear to do
Than wishest should be undone. Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear,
And chastise with the valour of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round,
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crown’d withal.

A lot of these Follow-Ups are about how much Shakespeare didn’t know. This one is about how much he still has to teach us.