03/15/2011 02:19 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Readiness: Shakespeare Speaks to Japan and Us All

"We are all fine, though the earthquake itself was a kind of nightmare," a usually stoical Japanese colleague wrote to me. "I've never experienced this kind of huge energy of earthquake in my life."

The devastation brought by March's earthquake and tsunami in Japan is so enormous it's surreal to those who haven't lived through an end-of-the world type cataclysm -- and that means most of us.

In earlier generations, death was a daily companion: small children watched their siblings and parents die, knowing that they could be next. In our society of high life-expectancy, death usually comes unseen behind the closed doors of nursing homes, or the curtains of a hospital room. We have gained, therefore, the luxury of deluding ourselves that we are here forever.

Death and responses of the living to it feature prominently in William Shakespeare's history and tragedy plays. Faced with numerous death scenes to write, there was no way around it: Shakespeare had to ponder death and then find a way to express his sentiments in spoken words which would touch ears and move hearts.

"The Topkapi Secret" has a character that clings to Shakespeare's words like scripture during personal tragedy. In the aftermath of Japan 's disaster, some may want to read these excerpts, perhaps even aloud:

All that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity. To die, to sleep -- and by that sleep to say we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to."

In that sleep of death what dreams may come must give us pause. For who would bear the whips and scorns of time but that the dread of something after death makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others we know not of. In this life lie hid more thousand deaths; yet death we fear. The weariest and most loathed worldly life that age, ache, penury, and imprisonment, can lay on nature is a paradise to what we fear of death.

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances.

Shakespeare's a preacher - over and over again he shows us the fragility of life - but he's no theologian. He leaves it to us to answer the big questions: Why am I here? Where am I going? How should I travel on this journey? Shakespeare is just the realist. He reminds us that we must be ready.

Hamlet is Shakespeare's premier death-ponderer. Just before his final swordfight, he expresses this attitude toward death: "If it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all."

Doesn't this sound like advice from Jamie Lee Curtis or the American Red Cross? Yes, let's prepare our homes and families for disaster. Who knows, within months the next big shake on the Ring of Fire may circle the top and come down on the West Coast of North America. But Shakespeare's advice is primarily for our personal final moments: whether they be in peaceful sleep or a dramatic disaster, "the readiness is all."

Shakespeare quotes arranged by the author from "Hamlet," "Macbeth," "As You Like It," and "Measure for Measure."

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