Five Surprisingly Modern Ideas in Shakespeare’s Writing

William Shakespeare
By Dan Falk

Science, as we think of it today, didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s England. And yet, a number of modern ideas were circulating, some gaining more traction than others. In fact, with the advantage of hindsight, we see that Shakespeare lived during a remarkable period of discovery—a period that we now look back on as the first phase of the Scientific Revolution.

To be sure, all sorts of magical thinking—from astrology and alchemy to witchcraft—were still prevalent. And yet, new ideas about the universe, and the place of human beings within it, were gaining attention. Did any of these new ways of thinking influence the playwright? Here are five surprisingly modern ideas that crop up in Shakespeare’s writing:

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Posted in Modern History

Seven Surprising Ways Hollywood Has Influenced Politics

Nixon and Kissinger meet with John Wayne
By Timothy Stanley

It is hard not to think about the relationship between Hollywood and politics and not chuckle. The idea of Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair at the 2012 Republican convention or Sean Penn giving acting classes in socialist Venezuela shrieks of self-delusion. But in reality, the movie business has seriously changed the way politics operates and how we think about it. Here are seven surprising things it’s accomplished (for better or worse):

1. Hollywood informed the Kennedy mystique. Jack Kennedy wasn’t born a presidential candidate, he was made one. Joe Kennedy, his terrifying father, had worked in Hollywood and understood the power of glamour—so he sent Jack out there in the 1940s to have dinner with Gary Cooper and learn how to look and behave like a star. JFK was unimpressed with Cooper’s personality—he quickly discovered that makeup, lighting and good publicity can turn the most mundane person into an idol. And so the JFK show was born.

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Posted in Contemporary History

Why Pilots Didn’t Wear Parachutes during World War 1

World War 1 plane crash
By John F. Ross

When brand new technology first appears it’s often striking in retrospect to see that so many seemingly commonsense safety measures frequently take years to develop. World War 1 ace and race driver Eddie Rickenbacker knew this all too well, first as a race car driver in the new world of auto racing, where many years passed before the racing community adopted many already existing safety features, including rear view mirrors, seat belts, and hard helmets. A mechanician sat next to the driver, much of his job to alert his companion to cars coming from behind. Both driver and mechanician frequently paid the ultimate price for lack of such safety gear when their cars hit another one or went into a barrier: the men were often launched like projectiles in the air.

But perhaps no technological oversight seems more outrageous than the official American policy on pilots wearing parachutes during World War 1.

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Posted in Military History, Modern History

The Truth about Lincoln’s Beard

By Daniel Stashower

My son’s history teacher thinks I’m spreading lies.

To be fair, he was wonderfully polite about it. “I read your book,” he told me, standing by the punch bowl at Back to School night. “That story about Lincoln’s beard . . . isn’t that apocryphal?”

Apocryphal. The mannerly way of saying: “you’re full of it.”

Here’s the story in a nutshell. In Springfield, Illinois, towards the end of 1860, Abraham Lincoln decided to grow a beard. He had just been elected president, and the change of appearance was intended to mold a new image as he entered the White House, putting the seal on his transformation from prairie rail-splitter to judicious statesman. A popular piece of lore tells of a letter Lincoln received from eleven-year-old Grace Bedell, a girl in upstate New York, who advised him during the campaign that growing out his whiskers would likely tip her family’s support in his direction: “[Y]ou would look a great deal better for your face is so thin,” Miss Bedell reasoned. “All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President.”

Lincoln without a beard
Abraham Lincoln without a beard, May 20, 1860. Photo is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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Posted in Modern History

A Brief Note about the Passing of Jeremiah Denton

By Alvin Townley

“I used to be a Senator,” Jeremiah Denton explained when I first met him. “I’ll always be an admiral. I’ll always be an aviator.”

Like so many other naval aviators, the brotherhood of combat and long deployments aboard aircraft carriers forged a uniquely strong character in Jeremiah Denton, the former prisoner of war, former U.S. Senator from Alabama, and Navy admiral who passed away today at age 89.

His sense of competitiveness and the character forged at the U.S. Naval Academy got him through flight training and through nearly eight years as a POW in North Vietnam. The fire that always drove him never dimmed, until this past month, and after my time with him, I’m left reminded of what one man with character and a driving mission (“to return with honor”) can accomplish.

As the POWs would tap to each other through cell walls in Hanoi, “GBU”—God Bless You—Jeremiah Denton.

Jeremiah Denton saluting
Courtesy of the Department of Defense, via Wikimedia Commons.


ALVIN TOWNLEY is the acclaimed author of Legacy of Honor: The Values and Influence of America’s Eagle Scouts, Spirit of Adventure: Eagle Scouts and the Making of America’s Future, and Fly Navy: Discovering the Extraordinary People and Enduring Spirit of Naval Aviation. His most recent book is Defiant: The POWs Who Endured Vietnam’s Most Infamous Prison, the Women Who Fought for Them, and the One Who Never Returned.

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Posted in Contemporary History, Military History

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