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What Shakespeare Knew about Science [Excerpt]

William Shakespeare may well have been more aware of his era’s science—including the Copernican view that the planets revolve around the sun—than has generally been thought

From The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe, by Dan Falk. Copyright © 2014, by the author. Reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books.

In the last few years, a handful of scholars have begun to look more closely at Shakespeare’s interest in the scientific discoveries of his time—asking what he knew, when he knew it, and how that knowledge might be reflected in his work. Scott Maisano at the University of Massachusetts–Boston, for example, has written extensively on the evidence for Shakespeare’s awareness of the science of his day, and for its influence on his plays, especially the late romances. Other scholars, like John Pitcher and Jonathan Bate, both at Oxford, have acknowledged Shakespeare’s interest in contemporary science, discussing it in popular biographies and in scholarly editions of the plays. One result of this reassessment is that it allows for a familiar passage to be read in a new light. Consider Ulysses’s speech in Troilus and Cressida, in which he refers to “the glorious planet Sol / In noble eminence enthroned and sphered . . .” (1.3.89–90). The reference to “spheres” sounds at first like straight-ahead medieval cosmology, including the reference to the sun as a “planet.” In the 1940s, this passage served as the backbone for E. M. W. Tillyard’s thesis that Shakespeare’s time ought to be seen as medieval rather than modern, a case he argued in his influential book The Elizabethan World Picture. Some current scholars continue to follow in Tillyard’s footsteps; in the Arden edition, David Bevington tags the line simply as “a Ptolemaic conception.” But as Bate points out, by emphasizing the role of the sun, the passage “may hint at the new heliocentric astronomy.” James Shapiro, meanwhile, concedes that Shakespeare knew that Ptolemaic science “was already discredited by the Copernican revolution.”

And Shakespeare wasn’t quite ready to retire in 1610; he had a few years to go, and would produce five more plays in that time (two on his own, including The Tempest, and three more in collaboration with colleagues). It is from this period that we find Cymbeline—and an even more tantalizing hint that the playwright may have been conscious of the new cosmology. This admittedly weird play, combining elements of ancient Britain and ancient Rome, seems to have been written in 1610—just late enough that Shakespeare could have read Galileo’s account of his telescopic discoveries, published in the spring of that year. Both Maisano and Pitcher have written in support of this hypothesis. “Jupiter” himself appears near the end of the play, while a stage direction calls for four ghosts to dance in a circle; could this be an allusion to the planet’s four newly discovered moons, described by Galileo?

Astronomer Peter Usher, recently retired from Pennsylvania State University, has more controversial views. Like Maisano and Pitcher, Usher sees the Jupiter scene in Cymbeline as a response to Galileo’s discovery—but he takes “Shakespearian science” much further, arguing that examples of the playwright’s scientific knowledge can be found in works spanning his entire career. Usher has taken a particular interest in Hamlet, which he sees as an allegory about competing cosmological worldviews. According to Usher, the play references not only Copernicus, but also Ptolemy, as well as Tycho Brahe, who pushed for a hybrid model of the solar system (a compromise that preserved elements of the ancient Ptolemaic system as well as the new Copernican model). Digges, too, is central to Usher’s theory. When Hamlet envisions himself as “a king of infinite space” (2.2.255), could he be alluding to the new, infinite universe described—for the first time—by his countryman Thomas Digges?

Usher’s proposal may sound far-fetched—but even skeptics do a double take when they look at Tycho Brahe’s coat of arms, noticing that two of Tycho’s relatives were named “Rosencrans” and “Guildensteren.” And Usher isn’t quite alone; several mainstream Shakespeare scholars are at least willing to admit that the playwright was influenced by Tycho’s astronomy.

Shakespeare’s characters were connected to the cosmos in a way that seems quite foreign to the modern reader. They have, to use Thomas McAlindon’s phrase, “cosmic imagination”: Whether crying for joy or shedding tears of anguish, they look to the heavens for confirmation, calling out to “Jupiter” or “the gods” or “the heavens” as they struggle to make sense of their lives.

And so we find, not surprisingly, a multitude of references to astrology. But some of Shakespeare’s characters also speak out against such superstitions, as when Cassius declares, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings” (Julius Caesar 1.2.139–40), or when Edmond, in King Lear, ridicules those who blame their misfortune on the heavens, dismissing such astrological conceit as “the excellent foppery of the world” (1.2.104). As for religion, though Shakespeare often alludes to biblical stories, he never once uses the word “bible.” Nor do his characters put much faith in life continuing beyond death. He lived in an age of belief, yet a streak of skepticism runs through his work, especially toward the end of his career; in King Lear it reaches an almost euphoric nihilism. His characters often call upon the gods to help them, but their desperate pleas are rarely answered. Was Shakespeare a closet atheist, like his colleague Christopher Marlowe?

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