Was Shakespeare a Scientist at Heart?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A rendering of Shakespeare's character Ariel from The Tempest. (Wikimedia Commons)

When most people think of William Shakespeare they think of his plays, not science. 

But Shakespeare often wrote about the stars, the moon, and the Sun. How much did the real science of astronomy influence Shakespeare's writing? 

According to Dan Falk, much of Shakespeare's writing questions the natural world and plays with those "new" scientific questions presented by the beginning of the scientific revolution. Were the Sun and the stars the Bard's greatest influence at Stratford-upon-Avon?

Falk is the author of a new book "The Science of Shakespeare," which examines Shakespeare's understanding of science, a field that was rapidly evolving as he wrote his plays and poetry. 

"What you cannot really avoid is a lot of talk about the Sun, the moon, stars and even eclipses and comets," says Falk. "These are things that actually keep coming up throughout Shakespeare's work."

Shakespeare was living during the early days in the scientific revolution—just 20 years before he was born, Copernicus had published his revolutionary idea that the planets revolved around the Sun and not the Earth. Falk says that at the time Shakespeare was working, the Copernican theory was being taught in some universities in England.

Were some of Shakespeare's most famous work actually cosmological allegories? Falk says that at least one astronomy professor—Peter Usher of Penn State—thinks so.

"[Usher] has this elaborate theory that all of the action in Hamlet is sort of an allegory for competing views of how one ought to interpret the cosmos," says Falk. "I'm a bit skeptical of the allegory. But the part where I think Peter Usher has done something very valuable is that he gets us looking at some of these connections—did Shakespeare know about this new star that burst into the sky when he was a young boy? When Shakespeare was talking about the star westward from the pole in Hamlet, could that be a reference to the supernova? That I think is quite plausible."

Falk says that Shakespeare lived in a world of transition. On the one hand, people practiced magic, astrology and some were even accused of being witches. That world, he says, also collided with the new era of science that was being birthed.

"We can look at a play like King Lear and see people appealing to the gods in vain, and we start to see some hint of a godless world where it's up to human beings to decide their own fate," says Falk.

When examining King Lear, Falk says there is an exchange between Gloucester and his illegitimate son Edmund. During that exchange, Gloucester says, "These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us." Edmund counters, saying, "This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behavior, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars."

"I just see this little hint of Carl Sagan there," says Falk. "I'm exaggerating a little bit, but I think you can actually get a little taste of that in Shakespeare's later plays."

 

 

Guests:

Dan Falk

Hosted by:

Todd Zwillich

Produced by:

Allie Ferguson

Editors:

T.J. Raphael

Comments [3]

Ed from Larchmont

Great to have at least one segment on Shakespeare around his birthday. As a universal genius, like Dante, he included the current scientific understanding in his plays. When we say science, we mean natural science, science of the physical world, but the more general use of science or 'scientific approach', is a discipline that has rules, including philosophy, etc., so Shakespeare's approach, to accurately depict human life, is 'scientific'.

Apr. 24 2014 08:23 AM
Harris Stein from Arizona

Three hundred years before Christ, Greek Astronomers predicted a heliocentric cosmos, spherical Earth, and calculated the distance of the Earth from the Sun and the diameter of the Earth and the Sun. In fact Copernicus had access to ancient Greek manuscripts that were recovered after the 14th Century epidemic of Bubonic Plague.

Apr. 23 2014 03:53 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

"Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck
And yet me thinks I have astronomy."
- Sonnet 14, William Shakespeare

Shakespeare understood that the Scientific revolution that had just begun, could not be avoided.

Can a great writer today ignore scientific discoveries without aspects of it creeping into the writing at least as some metaphor?

Even "Game Of Thrones" contains scientific modernity.

Apr. 23 2014 02:09 PM

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