Hal's Education in Henry IV

January 20, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

In our recent film discussion on Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1, Gary Schoepfel, HMU Tutor and discussion leader, asked whether Hal (also known as Prince Harry) could have received his education in any setting – did Hal have to visit the tavern to learn as much? Originally, I answered no, believing that he could have received this information about people (commoners) anywhere. I thought that the tavern added color making it better for a drama (which it does). Upon reflection, however, I must change my answer. The tavern allows for a level of baseness that does not exist in day to day drudgery of job life. It offers place and sustenance to whet all appetites. This enables man to show his lowest, meanest self openly. Tavern life also allows for humor and emotion. It welcomes freedom which is the exact opposite of Prince Harry's true home among royalty.

In the play's opening scence, King Henry mentions his dissatisfaction with his son Prince Harry. The King wishes that his son resembled someone like Hotspur, fiery and ambitious, rather than the tavern-seeker and prankster known as Hal. He says, “In envy that my Lord Northumberland/ Should be the father to so blest a son,/ A son who is the theme of Honour's tongue;...Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,/ See riot and dishonour stain the brow/ Of my young Harry.” (Act I, Scene i, lines 79-86) This introduction allows the reader to expect the upcoming behavior of Prince Hal and his friends, which is riotous and bawdy. Juxtapose this introduction from his father to the actual scene which introduces Hal and Falstaff. In this environment, Hal is very much himself. He is free, witty, relaxed with all defenses down. The film accentuates their lack of propriety by having Hal wake Falstaff with a naked woman in the room. Falstaff then gets up and pees into the urinal, all the while demanding that his debts are an abuse against him. The two are hilarious, inappropriate and witty.

This relationship, between Falstaff and Hal, is irregular and out of the normal order. Being a prince, Hal's formal education took place among nobility, lords and kings. However, Falstaff, and the tavern life, has allowed Hal to connect with emotions and people in a way that is impossible to access through the crown. In fact, in Act III, King Henry confronts Hal about his behavior and even accuses him of treasonous thinking. The King gives Harry a history lesson, explaining how arduous and hard-fought was his path to the crown. In this lecture, he even asks why he has not seen more of his own son. But then, he accuses Harry of thinking to fight in Hotspur's army rather than the King's. He says to the prince, “Thou that art like enough, through vassal fear,/ Base inclination, and the start of a spleen,/ To fight against me under Percy's pay” (Act III, Scene ii, lines 124-6). This scene makes clear the fact that King Henry IV avoids emotions that could be perceived as weak. He does not allow for indulgences and, in his age, has become fearful of many people. This history leads him into trouble among his own friends and family. Prince Harry, though, responds that he will fight a duel with Hotspur in order to prove himself to the King. In other words, Hal's tavern education is complete and it is time for him to find a purpose.

Unlike the complex characters of Hal and Falstaff, Hotspur is blind to his own faults – pride, arrogance, passion. He sees these only as assets. Falstaff is clearly not blind to his own faults, but he just chooses not to see them as faults. Falstaff's character is complicated, whereas Hotspur is much more straightforward. Hal, who loves Falstaff partly because of his flaws, learns a great deal from watching a flawed character navigate through life. He sees the raw moments that no one else allows others to see. Falstaff weeps openly, laughs loudly and snores heavily. He indulges in his desires, allows others to see this and comforts himself that thieves are not evil, just needy. In all this fancy dialogue, however, Falstaff knows his baseness. He admits his folly while at the same time being incapable of change. Hal sees this too, and makes note of it as an essential ingredient in his education. Without Falstaff's example, Prince Harry would be like cardboard, a figure cut out of paper. But Falstaff adds depth, which is only achieved in the bawdy, open, free environment of the tavern life.

We will continue the discussion with Henry IV, Part 2 in March. If you are interested, email All are welcome and we would love to hear from you.

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King's Speech

January 13, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

U2 performing MLK

 Common, “A Dream”

Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most vocal and prolific proponents of a path to peace through nonviolence. He fought with words and love and forgiveness, instead of fear and anger. He responded to death threats, violence and hatred with patience and understanding. Though Martin Luther King, Jr. sought for equality during the civil rights movement, his words transcend any single movement. For example, he defines peace as “not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” For quotes such as this as well as his many other great words and actions, our government dedicates the third Monday of January in reverence of peace and justice.

The concept of justice is difficult, layered by changes with each government and culture. The Merriam-Webster dictionary lists justice as “the quality of being just, impartial or fair” or “conformity to truth, fact or reason”. Whether you believe in Plato's harmonious civil society, or John Locke's natural law, there is no denying the great impact that a contemporary understanding of justice has upon society. Justice is, in fact, a foundational feature of society, whether we notice it in our daily lives or not.

In the Proclamation of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Ronald Reagan said, “He [King] wanted 'to transform the jangling discords of our Nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.'” And so, in a seemingly literal response, Martin Luther King's words have been incorporated into many styles of music, fiction and art. Yet, his most quoted speech (“I Have a dream”), only grants the barest essence of his life's work. His words have traveled the world, through all genres and arts.

Society depends upon and changes with the way we understand “justice”. King's Nobel Prize acceptance speech offers a fantastic opportunity to listen to the accumulation of his teachings, presented in his own words and style. No matter what medium delivers his words to us, there is no doubt that Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words have affected our cultural understanding of justice. To set aside a day for the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., therefore, is also a proclamation for peace. I encourage you to spend five minutes of your day understanding Martin Luther King, Jr.'s version of peace and justice. Compare it to what you know of Plato's or Locke's or Mill's or the concepts defined in the songs by U2 or Common. (Note that there are many songs which incorporate King's words, these are only two examples).

As a start, this excerpt comes from Martin Luther King's Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

“Yet, in spite of these spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come, something basic is missing. There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.


“Every man lives in two realms, the internal and the external. The internal is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals, and religion. The external is that complex of devices, techniques, mechanisms, and instrumentalities by means of which we live. Our problem today is that we have allowed the internal to become lost in the external. We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live. So much of modern life can be summarized in that arresting dictum of the poet Thoreau: 'Improved means to an unimproved end'. This is the serious predicament, the deep and haunting problem confronting modern man. If we are to survive today, our moral and spiritual 'lag' must be eliminated. Enlarged material powers spell enlarged peril if there is not proportionate growth of the soul. When the 'without' of man's nature subjugates the 'within', dark storm clouds begin to form in the world.”

For the transcript or audio of the full speech, please visit the archive at

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January 6, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

The translation of Plutarch's Parallel Lives contains some extremely long and complicated sentences. It comes as no surprise that the Dryden translations of Plutarch suffer from a lack of punctuation since the original Greek did not contain any punctuation either. In fact, scholars today cannot completely agree upon when to use a comma versus parentheses. Sometimes punctuation is a matter of personal taste and sometimes it is clear cut. Michael Palmer, a scholar on ancient Greek texts, discusses the importance of understanding punctuation. He writes,

“For a competent reader of Ancient Greek to fail to question the punctuation in our printed editions of the Ancient Greek texts is an abdication of a significant part of our responsibility. If we don’t struggle with the punctuation, we are simply handing that responsibility off to the editors of those texts. While that is a reasonable thing for students early in the study of the language to do, it is not a reasonable thing for accomplished readers to do. Question the punctuation. Struggle with it. Ask how the text would change if we punctuated it differently. What options are reasonable? Which ones are not? This is a part of what it means to read seriously.”


Thinking about his quest to wrestle with punctuation, I began to wonder about the use and invention of parentheses. Parenthesis (a single bracket) comes from the Greek roots par-, -en and thesis. Literally, it means “to put beside”. Parentheses behave like commas, but are somehow more of a deviation than a parenthetical phrase set aside by commas. Even Strunk and White list this as a difficult rule. Rule number three from the Elements of Style says, “Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas”. And then, they go on to explain that, “This rule is difficult to apply; it is frequently hard to decide whether a single word, such as however, or a brief phrase is or is not parenthetic. If the interruption to the flow of the sentence is but slight, the commas may be safely omitted. But whether the interruption is slight or considerable, never omit one comma and leave the other”. One assumes that the same would be true for parentheses. One main difference may be that parentheses only work in pairs, whereas commas can stand alone. Strunk and White never directly address when to use commas versus when to use parentheses, though they do explain how to incorporate punctuation within the parenthetical phrase itself (see Chapter Three). (Of course, contemporary social media texts now enable one to use a single parenthesis in place of an emoticon. Emoticons and languages like computer codes offer an entirely new style of communication that requires discussion some other time.)

In this article, Neil Gaiman admits that parenthetical phrases allow a bit of the author to come forward. Shakespeare used asides to give the audience privileged knowledge, whereas someone like C.S. Lewis uses them to inform the reader of a personal opinion. It remains unclear as to how much weight should be placed on the text in parentheses, however. For example, the same article then goes on to claim that the parenthetical phrases carry less meaning than the rest of the text. It says, “In her book Quoting Speech in Early English (2011), Colette Moore notes that parentheses, like other marks of punctuation, originally had both 'elocutionary and grammatical functions. . . . . [W]e see that whether through vocal or syntactic means, the parentheses are taken as a means to downplay the significance of the material enclosed within.'” This brings back the point to Plutarch's use of parenthetical phrases. The original Greek form did not allow for parentheses, but I wonder if parenthetic phrases existed in the original, without visible indicators.

The following example (from Plutarch's "Camillus") is just one of many that has sparked my interest in the use of punctuation in ancient texts. After the Gauls invaded Rome and burned much of it, Plutarch notes that the vestal virgins fled the city. Yet, in this passage, he divulges a lot more information than the fact that they fled. Instead, he offers cultural and historical insights into the meaning of fire. While interesting and informative, it seems out of place in the midst of the siege of Rome. It seems to me that, besides the first sentence, the rest of this paragraph is actually a parenthetic phrase.

“But the consecrated fire the vestal virgins took, and fled with it, as likewise their other sacred things. Some write that they have nothing in their charge but the ever-living fire which Numa had ordained to be worshipped as the principle of all things; for fire is the most active thing in nature, and all production is either motion, or attended with motion; all the other parts of matter, so long as they are without warmth, lie sluggish and dead, and require the accession of a sort of soul or vitality in the principle of heat; and upon that accession, in whatever way, immediately receive a capacity either of acting or being acted upon. And thus Numa, a man curious in such things, and whose wisdom made it thought that he conversed with the Muses, consecrated fire, and ordained it to be kept ever burning, as an image of that eternal power which orders and actuates all things.”

Little is known about the first use of parentheses. Erasmus was the first to label the marks, which he called lunula because they appeared like half-moons. Since then, they continued in use, though sparingly, until present day. Currently, dashes, commas or parentheses can be used with almost equal function. Now we even use footnotes and endnotes. Clearly there is a need for this tool, but what is the best, most direct, clearest form of communicating information that pertains, but only slightly, to the main text? As a reader, how do we receive parenthetic information? What are your thoughts on punctuation?

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What Makes Great Nonfiction

December 30, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“The best nonfiction books add up to a biography of our culture.” - Robert McCrum

It is difficult to determine what falls within the bounds of the nonfiction genre. Can we include cookbooks or dictionaries? Reading the dictionary is certainly a different type of reading than a chapter book or a textbook. And yet, all of these are meant to give us a better understanding of factual information. Dictionaries define words. Cookbooks instruct, but also, more and more, they offer vital information regarding a new tool, technique or ingredient. Philosophy texts offer perspective. All of these text provide an enriching experience, and clearly they are not fiction. So, what exactly is nonfiction?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines nonfiction as “literature or cinema that is not fictional”. That definition leaves the door wide open, especially in a world of evolving texts, like Twitter. Searching the internet for a list of favorite nonfiction takes one in a gigantic maze. Often lists are comprised by year, as in the case of this one compiled by the Washington Post.

But a list that records yearly bests, is not a very good indicator of the genre itself. Instead, this reveals more about the year or the internet search itself. For example, Amazon's list of best nonfiction is tailored to the likes based upon past purchases or searches. In other words, it will likely limit the results in an unfortunate way because it is often the unexpected that brings the most gratification and excitement. Also, lists that contain only recent books often do not address the historical discussion of an argument. While a contemporary book may be important, it should also be noted that an attempt to understand the previous decades or centuries of discussion on a particular topic will be helpful too. For example, I have recently been reading Plutarch's Parallel Lives. I am absolutely astounded at Plutarch's ability to create this important text, which is unlike any other. In comparing Greek and Roman leaders, he created a very valuable resource about virtue itself. He allows the reader to come to their own conclusions, but also offers his insights which allow the reader to understand cultural context, societal constraints and ways of viewing the world outside the self. The idea of virtue pertains to any human society, past, present or future. Plutarch's idea of virtue would complement a number of other nonfiction texts (or fiction, for that matter) in a discussion of virtue. While Plutarch is still discussed in various circles (including the Great Books) it has fallen out of mainstream education.

In truth, the Great Books canon includes some vital nonfiction texts. It is pleasing to see a handful of these nonfiction texts included in 2016 lists of great nonfiction. For example, this list includes George Frazer and Rachel Carson. The Guardian proposed this list, which contains Rachel Carson, C.S. Lewis, and others. It is unfortunate, however, that voices like Plutarch's have fallen out of the mainstream, when they clearly add depth to many important conversations. I invite you to pick up a book that may be out of date, but still pertains to an argument that interests you: education, virtue, love, etc.

As there are limitless examples of great nonfiction, this short list is based upon a number of the HMU faculty favorites. There are many texts that deserve discussion, but here is a variety that has pleased us throughout the years.

Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things by George Lakoff

The Ethics of Truth by Alain Badiou

Parallel Lives by Plutarch

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollen

The Art of Eating by MFK Fisher


Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

René Descartes

How to Hug A Porcupine by Julie Ross

The Dancing Wuli Masters by Gary Zukav

Digging Dinosaurs by John R. Horner

The Great Dinosaur Hunters and Their Discoveries by Edwin H. Colbert

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

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