My idea to compare Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt to Shakespeare’s Puck began with a misremembered quote. Nevertheless, once I began pursuing the parallels, enjoyable insights emerged.
The line from Midsummer Night’s Dream, as I recalled it, was “faster than Cupid’s bolt.” The actual line has nothing about speed, however. Oberon, sending Puck to find the flower that has been infused with Cupid’s love potion, says, “Yet mark’d I where the bolt of Cupid fell.” There’s nothing of Bolt’s “lightning bolt” there.
That being said, however, Puck is indeed very fast. “I’ll put a girdle round about the earth/In forty minutes,” he tells Oberon and, later, “I go, I go; look how I go,/ Swifter than arrow from the Tartar’s bow.” This was probably the speeding arrow I had in mind.
Usain Bolt is not only about speed, however. According to ESPN’s Michael Wilbon, what makes Bolt the biggest story of this Olympics—bigger even than Michael Phelps or all those other remarkable athletes that we have been witnessing—is not that he beat the fastest group of runners ever assembled in the 100 meter dash (all but one ran the race faster than 10 seconds). He doesn’t stand out because he is the only the second runner to repeat Olympic gold in the 100 and then do it again in the 200. He is big because of how he toys with his opponents.
Bolt is so good that he will look around the see how he’s beating the other runners, even though this slows him down. In yesterday’s 200, once he knew the race was his, he put his finger to his lips (thereby sacrificing a chance at a world record) to silence critics. He knows how to milk drama out of his races, both before he goes into them and when he’s actually there. Here’s Wilbon after Bolt won the 100:
It’s the greatest show on Earth now, wherever he goes. There’s nothing else like it in sports, the rumors, the entourage, the celebrating, the foolishness, the drama and, above all of it, the athletic brilliance. There’s nothing and no one like the irresistible Usain Bolt, not now and maybe not ever. Bolt turned the London Olympics upside down Sunday night, sent otherwise reserved folks skipping deliriously from the Olympic Stadium into the streets. At the center of the greatest footrace the world has ever seen was Bolt, still the fastest man on Earth, who ran the 100-meter final in an Olympic-record 9.63.
And further one:
The [100 meter dash] had everything except a world record, and that’s something Bolt simply doesn’t seem interested in at the moment. He still didn’t explode through the finish tape. He looked right, then left, to see who was on him. When the answer was “no one,” Bolt pulled up for a step. One step, when you consider his stride at 6-foot-5, is the difference between 9.63 and 9.53, which would have been a world record.
What seems to please him more than a world record is the drama he can create.
Perhaps even more amazing is that if Bolt hadn’t run exactly as he did, if he had clowned a step earlier or stumbled ever-so-slightly on this particular night while being chased by this group of champions and former record-holders, Mr. Bolt would have been caught and passed.
But he wasn’t, and the show moves on, all of us in total awe.
And this is where the parallels with Puck, that “merry wanderer of the night,” come in.
Puck too loves to mess with others. Here he is describing the wild goose chase he has planned for the Athenian lovers:
Up and down, up and down,
I will lead them up and down:
I am fear’d in field and town:
Goblin, lead them up and down.
Puck baits his opponents as he runs before them, causing Demetrius to cry out in frustration,
Thou runn’st before me, shifting every place,
And darest not stand, nor look me in the face.
Just as Bolt varies who he is–he regularly clowns before the cameras, he claimed yesterday that he could play soccer for Manchester United, he revels in fast cars–so does Puck:
I’ll follow you. I’ll lead you about a round
Through bog, through bush, through brake, through brier.
Sometime a horse I’ll be, sometime a hound,
A hog, a headless bear, sometime a fire.
And neigh, and bark, and grunt, and roar, and burn,
Like horse, hound, hog, bear, fire, at every turn.
As Wilbon says, we look on in awe. Though Bolt frustrates his competitors as Puck frustrates his victims, ultimately he is a gift to us all. As Puck says about the effect of his antics,
A merrier hour was never wasted there.
So don’t be put off by his antics. It’s all in a spirit of fun. To quote Shakespeare’s “knavish sprite” one last time,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue [hisses],
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.