The science of shakespeare

William Shakespeare lived at a remarkable time—a period we now recognize as the first phase of the Scientific Revolution.

New ideas were transforming Western thought, the medieval was giving way to the modern, and the work of a few key figures hinted at the brave new world to come: The methodical and rational Galileo, the skeptical Montaigne, and—as Falk convincingly argues—Shakespeare, who observed human nature just as intently as the astronomers who studied the night sky.

In The Science of Shakespeare, we meet a colorful cast of Renaissance thinkers, including Thomas Digges, who published the first English account of the “new astronomy” and lived in the same neighborhood as Shakespeare; Thomas Harriot—“England’s Galileo”—who aimed a telescope at the night sky months ahead of his Italian counterpart; and Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, whose observatory-castle stood within sight of Elsinore, chosen by Shakespeare as the setting for Hamlet —and whose family crest happened to include the names “Rosencrans” and “Guildensteren.” And then there’s Galileo himself: As Falk shows, his telescopic observations may have influenced one of Shakespeare’s final works.

Dan Falk explores the connections between the famous playwright and the beginnings of the Scientific Revolution—and how, together, they changed the world forever. Readers of Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World, Dava Sobel’s Galileo’s Daughter, and Peter Galison’s Einstein’s Clocks, Poincare’s Maps will be drawn to this remarkable synthesis of history, science, art, and literature.

Dan Falk is a science journalist, author, and broadcaster. His books include In the Search of Time: Journeys along a Curious Dimension and Universe on a T-Shirt: The Quest for the Theory of Everything, winner of the 2002 Science in Society Journalism Award.

He has written for the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the Walrus, Astronomy, Sky & Telescope, and New Scientist; he has also been a regular contributor to CBC Radio’s Ideas.

Falk recently completed a prestigious Knight Journalism Fellowship at MIT, where he undertook much of the research for this book.

The Science of Shakespeare
The Science of Shakespeare

The science of Shakespeare: a new look at the playwright’s universe

  • Dan FalkThomas Dunne Books2014 | 364 pp | £17
  • ISBN 9781250008770

The Science of Shakespeare

In his latest book, The science of Shakespeare, award-winning science journalist Dan Falk turns his hand to the science, or rather natural philosophy, of the early modern period. His book outlines the scientific climate and developments of Shakespeare’s time, and demonstrates the influence of science on the Bard’s works.

There is no shortage of Shakespeare scholarship, and Falk is quick to acknowledge this. In this book, however, it is not the playwright who takes centre-stage. Rather, Shakespeare acts as a lens through which to explore the scientific context in which he lived and worked.

In assessing Shakespeare’s potential exposure to natural philosophy, Falk takes the reader on an eventful tour through science in the early modern era.

We are introduced to the cosmologies of the ancients, before encountering some of the most influential figures in early modern science, including Copernicus, Galileo, Thomas Digges and Tycho Brahe.

Several passages from Shakespeare’s plays are quoted, and the influence of particular scientific world-views upon them are analysed. For example, The science of Hamlet explores the role of Ptolemaic and Copernican cosmologies in Shakespeare’s most famous work.

Indeed the bulk of the book is devoted to astronomy, but Falk does acknowledge the multifarious nature of early modern science, making diversions into magic, alchemy, medicine and atomism.

Falk challenges Shakespeare scholars who refute the idea that Shakespeare was influenced by the science of his time. However, he does not claim Shakespeare was a natural philosopher.

Nor does he claim that science was imperative or central in Shakespeare’s folio.

Some of the conclusions are tentative, but Falk does successfully demonstrate that the playwright was aware of at least some of the myriad scientific developments of the early modern era, and that these were written into his plays.

The Science of Shakespeare | CBC Radio

William Shakespeare was born 450 years ago into a period when new ideas about the human body, the earth and the universe were threatening the old medieval worldview. Journalist and author Dan Falk examines the science of the Bard of Avon….

The Science of ShakespearePortrait of William Shakespeare engraved by Martin Droeshout.

Listen to the full episode54:00

William Shakespeare was born 450 years ago into a period when new ideas about the human body, the earth and the universe were threatening the old medieval worldview. Journalist and author Dan Falk examines the science of the Bard of Avon.

Dan Falk's latest book explores these issues further; it's called The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright's Universe (St. Martin's Press / Goose Lane, 2014).

Participants in the program:

  • Colin McGinn, philosopher (University of Miami, retired)
  • Scott Maisano, Professor of English (University of Massachusetts – Boston)
  • Peter Usher, Professor of Astronomy (Pennsylvania State University, retired)
  • John Pitcher, Professor of English (Oxford University)
  • Eric Mallin, Professor of English (University of Texas – Austin)
  • Stephen Greenblatt, Professor of English (Harvard University)

Reading List:

  • Shakespeare's Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays, by Colin McGinn. Published by Harper Perennial, 2008.
  • Godless Shakespeare, by Eric Mallin. Published by Bloomsbury Academic, 2007.
  • Shakespeare and the Dawn of Modern Science, by Peter Usher. Published by Cambria Press, 2010.
  • Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare, by Stephen Greenblatt. Published by WW Norton, 2005.
  • Cymbeline / New Penguin Shakespeare, by John Pitcher.
See also:  Always, never, usually, often, most, and more

Audio excerpts featured in the program:

  • The Shakespeare excerpts heard in the program are from the Arkangel complete Shakespeare edition on CD, and from the BBC complete Shakespeare edition on DVD.

The Science of Shakespeare | Dan Falk

“Dan Falk is the finest science writer working today. This fabulous book will give equal joy to fans of the Bard and to history-of-science buffs. Note to Horatio: Read this — it'll bring you up to speed.” —Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo Award-winning author of Red Planet Blues

“There is science in everything, even the works of the immortal Bard. Dan Falk's rich and fascinating book brings to light the many ways in which Shakespeare and science influenced each other, from telescopes to blood-letting. A great read for anyone who enjoys words and ideas.” —Sean Carroll, physicist and author of The Particle at the End of the Universe

“Dan Falk's book provides perhaps the best guide to the scientific worldview prevailing in the Elizabethan Age.

We learn, for example, about what Giordano Bruno did while in England, about Thomas Harriot's telescopic view of the Moon's surface drawn some months before Galileo's, and of the appearance of atoms in several of Shakespeare's plays… Falk's narrative voice is smooth, reasonable, likable.” —Phillip F. Schewe, author of Maverick Genius

“Dan Falk has written another splendid book. After Universe on a T-shirt and In Search of Time, he moves back four centuries to the science of Shakespeare's day…. Falk sheds enormous light on the Elizabethan outlook and particular puzzles in the plays, all the while entertaining us in a most engaging way.” —James Robert Brown, author of The Laboratory of the Mind

“In this thought-provoki… More…

“Dan Falk is the finest science writer working today. This fabulous book will give equal joy to fans of the Bard and to history-of-science buffs. Note to Horatio: Read this — it'll bring you up to speed.” —Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo Award-winning author of Red Planet Blues

“There is science in everything, even the works of the immortal Bard. Dan Falk's rich and fascinating book brings to light the many ways in which Shakespeare and science influenced each other, from telescopes to blood-letting. A great read for anyone who enjoys words and ideas.” —Sean Carroll, physicist and author of The Particle at the End of the Universe

“Dan Falk's book provides perhaps the best guide to the scientific worldview prevailing in the Elizabethan Age.

We learn, for example, about what Giordano Bruno did while in England, about Thomas Harriot's telescopic view of the Moon's surface drawn some months before Galileo's, and of the appearance of atoms in several of Shakespeare's plays… Falk's narrative voice is smooth, reasonable, likable.” —Phillip F. Schewe, author of Maverick Genius

“Dan Falk has written another splendid book. After Universe on a T-shirt and In Search of Time, he moves back four centuries to the science of Shakespeare's day…. Falk sheds enormous light on the Elizabethan outlook and particular puzzles in the plays, all the while entertaining us in a most engaging way.” —James Robert Brown, author of The Laboratory of the Mind

“In this thought-provoking book, Dan Falk explores the intriguing connections between the Bard's writings and the dramatic scientific discoveries of the late Renaissance, introducing us to a fascinating cast of characters along the way. A great read.” —Ray Jayawardhana, astrophysicist and author of Strange New Worlds and Neutrino Hunters

“Readers will thank Falk for putting Shakespeare and Galileo on the same well-illuminated world stage.” —Booklist

“A highly entertaining and informative book… Falk has done his homework. He offers something learned but at the same time keeps it personal and unpretentious.” —Dennis Richard Danielson, Professor of English, University of British Columbia, and author of The Book of The Cosmos

  • “A lively but serious look at the Bard's relationship to his age, particularly what we now call the Scientific Revolution.” —Tampa Bay Times
  • “This eminently readable book should prove fascinating to both lovers of science and bardolators.” —Library Journal

Was Shakespeare Aware of the Scientific Discoveries of His Time?

You could read the line in Hamlet about shuffling off this “mortal coil” and think it has something to do with the helical structure of DNA, says Dan Falk. But, that would be crazy, right?

Perhaps equally wild, however, is this: Many Shakespearian scholars conclude that the playwright was not conscious of the Scientific Revolution that was happening around him.

In timing with the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth this month, Falk has released his new book, The Science of Shakespeare. In it, he argues that the Bard was mindful of the developments happening in astronomy during his day and, in fact, used them as fodder in his plays.

I recently had the chance to talk to Falk, a Shakespeare fan and amateur astronomer. He shared his ideas and those of a small sect of scholars who are rethinking the playwright’s grasp on science.

Shakespeare was born in 1564 and died in 1616. He wrote most of his works between 1589 and 1613. What was going on at this time scientifically?

Shakespeare lived and worked when some very interesting discoveries were happening. These are discoveries that we now think of as key developments in the Scientific Revolution.

See also:  Appositives

Of course, nobody called it the Scientific Revolution back then. That term wasn’t coined until maybe the 19th century.

They didn’t even have the word science, at least not in the sense that we think of the term today. There was natural philosophy.

What was going on in science? We can remember that Copernicus published his groundbreaking book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. That was 1543—21 years before Shakespeare is born.

There is a supernova that lights up the night sky in 1572, observed by Tycho Brahe in Denmark but also observed in England. We call it the Tycho star. Thomas Digges in England publishes an almanac in support of the Copernican system in 1576.

He is expanding on an almanac originally written by his father Leonard Digges but he includes a diagram that shows the stars extending outwards seemingly towards infinity.

This is something Copernicus never talked about, but here is a suggestion that maybe the universe is infinite.

Gerardus Mercator, famous for the Mercator projection, publishes his atlas in 1595. This is also the age of exploration, so we have new ideas about just how large the world is. For example, how small is the tiny island of Britain compared to the vastness of the world?

The science in Shakespeare

Robyn Williams: The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright's Universe is by Canadian Dan Falk, who makes programs for CBC radio.

I've seen the book listed in the top 10 science books of the year, coming in at number six.

So what really did Shakespeare include in his plays? Was it allusional, metaphorical even? Or fairly solid reference to what was known in his day? Dan Falk:

Dan Falk: One of the first things you notice when you read Shakespeare's plays is how often he refers to things you can see in the night sky. He talks about stars and planets and comets and meteors, and even eclipses.

In fact once you start looking for these sorts of astronomical references in Shakespeare you find them just about everywhere. And they often seem to serve more than a poetic function. When Shakespeare talks about where things are in the sky or how they move, he usually gets it right.

For example, when Shakespeare was writing Julius Caesar he needed a metaphor for Caesar's steadfast nature.

Julius Caesar: What is now amiss, that Caesar and his senate must redress?

Metellus Cimber: Most high, most mighty, and most puissant Caesar, Metellus Cimber throws before thy seat an humble heart…

Dan Falk: In a critical scene just before the assassins make their move, Caesar is listening to petitions from a number of Roman citizens. One of them makes an impassioned plea for Caesar to show mercy on his brother by rescinding an order of banishment. But Caesar doesn't give in, and Shakespeare finds the perfect metaphor in the stars of the night sky.

Cassius: As low as to thy foot doth Cassius fall to beg enfranchisement for Publius Cimber.

Julius Caesar: I could be well moved if I were as you. If I could pray to move, then prayers would move me. But I am constant as the northern star, of whose true-fixed and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament. The skies are painted with unnumbered sparks. They are all fire and every one doth shine, but one in all doth hold his place.

Dan Falk:

The Science of Shakespeare, by Dan Falk: Review

W. H. Auden once classified types of literary critics, the jolliest of which was the maniac. His favourite maniac, Auden wrote, was one John Belledon Kerr, “who set out to prove that English nursery rhymes were originally written in a form of Old Dutch invented by himself.” The study of Shakespeare attracts a good many maniacs, including the anti-Stratfordians who insist Shakespeare’s works were written by somebody other than Shakespeare. Peter Usher, an astronomer from Penn State University quoted by Dan Falk in his book The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe, is not a maniac. But his insistence that Hamlet is really about the conflict between the Ptolemaic view of the solar system (the sun revolves around the Earth) and the Copernican view (the Earth revolves around the sun) has a suggestion of the maniacal about it.

For years, Usher was frustrated because there seemed to be no reference to this conflict — supposed to be of the utmost importance to Shakespeare and his contemporaries — in Shakespeare’s greatest play.

Usher poured over Hamlet in an obsessive search for clues to the missing references until one day the light dawned, and he realized that the murderer Claudius was a stand-in for Claudius Ptolemy, premier Ptolemaist. Then everything fit.

Usher saw that Hamlet, in Falk’s words, “represents the true nature of the universe — the heliocentric model proposed by Copernicus.” Even minor details accorded with this allegorical interpretation of the play.

“We have the return of Fortinbras from Poland, and his salute to the English ambassadors — symbolizing the final triumph of Copernicus, the Polish astronomer,” Falk writes.

If not a maniac, then Usher fits into another Auden category of critic — the Romantic Novelist. This particular critic’s “happy hunting ground is the field of unanswerable questions, particularly if they concern the private lives of authors,” Auden writes. “Since the questions to which he devotes his life can never be answered he is free to indulge his fancies without misgivings.”

See also:  Further versus farther

Falk himself is a bit of a Romantic Novelist, because, or despite the fact that, he knows what every serious reader of Shakespeare knows — namely that Shakespeare’s opinions and beliefs are “wholly inaccessible,” in the words of Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt, quoted by Falk. Shakespeare never tips his hand — Catholic or Protestant, Christian or un-believer, conservative authoritarian or left-wing subversive, the bard remains elusive. Falk, as I say, knows this but nonetheless happily roams the field of “unanswerable questions.” Did Shakespeare know the prominent English astronomer Thomas Harriot? It is “certainly possible,” according to Falk. Did Shakespeare encounter the radical philosopher and Copernican Giordano Bruno? That, too, is a possibility, Falk writes, but “a long shot.”

In this field of unanswerable questions, the author’s particular fancy is that Shakespeare was deeply influenced by the Copernican revolution. He may not have allegorized it in Hamlet, but the revolution implanted a negation of belief in his mind that found ultimate expression in the nihilism of King Lear.

So what if we can’t demonstrate this convincingly from the text? We can still beaver away at extracting nuggets of certainty from poetic details. If nothing else, the mental energy expanded in such a quest can be very impressive.

In the first scene of Hamlet, for example, a sentinel refers to the “star that’s westward from the Pole.” In the 1990s astronomer Donald Olson of Southwest Texas State University and his students, equipped with sky-simulation software, attempted to identify this star. They did not succeed.

We still do not know even if Shakespeare had a particular star in mind.

Illustration by Chloe Cushman/National Post

Should we care? More importantly, did Shakespeare care? Or is all this a missing of the point? A reader approaching the play from a fresh perspective might well consider the play to be about the sacraments rather than Hamlet’s psychology, for example, or about the new science.

Certainly the reader wouldn’t have the faintest idea that Ptolemy and Copernicus were lurking in the wings. But the play invites critics to stick their necks out, and even the circumspect Falk occasionally takes up the invite.

Hamlet offers a number of hints of a godless Shakespeare, Falk writes, including “Hamlet’s obsessive contemplation of death and decay, with no mention of an after-life.”

No mention of an afterlife? Hamlet decides not to kill Claudius on the spur of the moment because he wants to make sure Claudius, upon dying, goes straight to Hell. In his most famous soliloquy, Hamlet rules out suicide because of his fear of the afterlife — and of course there’s the murdered King, who’s spending a long stretch in Purgatory.

The main interest of Falk’s book is not his concluding argument — “Science has given us a new world, and Shakespeare illuminates our place within it” — but rather his lucid history of early Renaissance science, led by scientists who were also men of faith.

The astronomers, in particular, had one foot firmly planted in astronomy and the other in astrology. (Some of the greatest of the astronomers, including Galileo, cast horoscopes for powerful clients, although they may have been under pressure to do so.

)

Falk gives the dates of the scientific revolution as 1500 to 1700, which is misleading in the sense that it doesn’t sufficiently emphasize how deeply reactionary the 16th century was.

In all the great movements of the 16th century — theology, the arts — the aim was to return to the past and its neoclassical glories, to demolish the edifice of reason and faith erected by the medieval schoolmen. Even in science, the tendency could be reactionary. The spirit of Copernicus was the spirit of Plato and not of empirical research.

It is also worth remembering — Falk introduces the subject in his discussion of Macbeth — that obsession with witchcraft was not a medieval but a Renaissance phenomenon.

It really wasn’t until the 17th century that science came into its own. Coincidentally or not, the dawn of the 17th century saw the emergence of Shakespeare’s great tragedies. Falk’s book climaxes with his discussion of King Lear in particular. There is no happy hunting ground here.

We do know for a certainty that Shakespeare in this phase of his career was influenced by the deeply skeptical spirit of Montaigne, a spirit that might have left him vulnerable to the terrible nihilistic visions expressed in King Lear.

I don’t think, and I don’t believe that Falk has demonstrated, that these visions of cosmic injustice were particularly due to Copernicus or the Scientific Revolution. But Falk is right to remind us of how unsettling King Lear is and how much modernity has been infected from the start by a kind of despair.

There is a reason that there are so many mad people in Shakespeare’s plays. It can’t be just a dramaturgical fad. Locating that reason will remain a Shakespeare project for another day, however.

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