Steve Mirsky: Hi. Steve Mirsky here, and welcome back for part 2 of Dan Falk talking about his book The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe.
There are a couple of people that you talk about in the book. One is Donald Olson, and I was fortunate enough to hear him give a talk on the night sky and some artworks, Munch’s The Scream and also actually the photography of Ansel Adams. But you talk about some work he did related to Shakespeare. And this is really solid stuff. So let’s talk about him a little bit and then we’ll talk about this other fellow, Usher, who’s more speculative.
Dan Falk: Sure. Yeah, I’m glad you got to see one of Donald Olson’s talks; they’re terrific. For listeners who aren’t familiar with him, he’s called a forensic astronomer, so his specialty is finding references to the stars, whether in art, like from a painting. You mentioned Edward Munch’s The Scream; he’s done it for some others too, for photography, like Ansel Adams, but also for works of literature. He’s tried to figure out, you know, what was going on in the sky when Julius Caesar invaded Britain and this sort of thing. And at a certain point, by now it’s about a decade ago, he turned his attention to Hamlet.
So here’s the deal with I think it’s Act 1 Scene 1 of Hamlet. So I think everybody knows what’s going on at the beginning of Hamlet, but the brief recap is this, that there’s a ghostly figure that has appeared on the ramparts or above the ramparts at Elsinore these last few days. The guards have seen it. Prince Hamlet hasn’t seen it yet, that’s about to happen, but along comes Horatio, and Horatio is chatting with the guards and they’re describing it to him and, you know, one of the guards says that “Horatio is skeptical, he’s not going to believe us,” blah blah blah. And at a certain point, this is very early in the play, at a certain point Horatio says, “Well, when did you say this ghost appears?” and the guard replies, “Well, it’s when yon’d same star that’s westward from the pole had made its course to that part of the heaven where it now shines.” So I paraphrased it, but that’s approximately the line, it’s “When yon’d same star that’s westward from the pole,” that part I’ve memorized.
And of course scholars have occasionally, not as often as you might think, but scholars have stopped to ask, “What star are we talking about? What star is positioned westward from the pole?” Now the pole means what we would call the North Star or Polaris, so that part is easy. And if you pick up – the way I like to put it is this, you know, you go to the bookstore or the library and you get an edition of Hamlet, well, that’s easy, ‘cause there’s hundreds of them. And if it’s a really thin one there are no footnotes; if it’s the middle-sized one there will be a little footnote or a little asterisk next to “pole star” and the footnote will say – sorry, next to the pole and the footnote will say “pole star.” Well, that’s very helpful knowing. Now we know that pole means pole star. But if you’ve got a really thick one like, you know, the Oxford or the Norton or something like that, it’ll have some speculation as to what the identity of the star is.
But it’s always been tricky. For one thing, we don’t actually know that it refers to – you know, it could just be invented, right? So it doesn’t actually have to refer to something. But if it does, for scholars who have thought this through, and I’ll get to Olson’s theory in just a second, but there are problems, right? Some of the scholars – and I checked actually, as you can imagine for researching this book, I checked what a lot of the scholarly editions say, and they have guesses like, well, maybe it’s the star of Capella or maybe it’s a planet, right? So I don’t know exactly where they got these guesses from. I mean they’re not horrible, but as it turns out, they’re pretty bad.
The star Capella – I have to backtrack for a second. The same line in the text where the guard is mentioning that the star appears west from the pole, he also says what time it happens, he says “the bell then beating one,” so we know it’s 1:00 in the morning. Now do we know what time of year it is? Because this is critical, to know what’s up in the sky you have to know the time of night and the time of year. Well, scholars point to November as being pretty likely and the evidence is that two months have elapsed since the death of old King Hamlet. Well, we now know that he was murdered, but he says he was napping out in the garden, right? He says, “As was my custom,” you know, it was a warm afternoon, so I had a nap out in the garden. So it has to have been warm-ish, right? And then two months later, remember, they’re talking about how bitterly cold it is on the ramparts in Elsinore, so it really feels like winter, so the timeline that’s been suggested is September for the murder, November for seeing the ghost.
Okay, so well, why not the star Capella? Because the star Capella is a little too high up in the sky. And yes, it is kind of near the pole, but if a star is really high up you say it’s overhead or you say it’s near the zenith if you want to get into astronomical jargon, but it’s not in the west; it just doesn’t work out, it’s not westward from the pole. And a planet, while astronomy, if we have any amateur astronomers listening or anyone who remembers their astronomy 101, a planet has to be on the ecliptic. A planet has to be on this – the planet’s orbit, the Sun as we now know in sort of a plane, like a Frisbee. So they all, as seen from the Earth, they all have to appear on a particular line.
Steve Mirsky: It’s like you’re hanging them from a clothesline if you spot a few of them at night. Lately I’ve been able to see Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars in the same night sky just from sitting on the front porch and they’re just in a straight line.
Dan Falk: Just strung out, exactly. Exactly right. And it’s a straight line, and it also wraps around the sky from east to west, so if you see a planet, the planet has to be on that line; it can’t just be in some arbitrary place. So a planet is actually a very unlikely candidate for a star westward from the pole.
So what does that leave you with? Well, I mean there is one somewhat prominent constellation there, and that would be Cassiopeia, but Cassiopeia doesn’t have any really bright stars. It has – now again, for astronomy enthusiasts, you know, we have so-called first magnitude stars, second magnitude, third magnitude, and the higher the number the fainter the star. So, you know, Vega, Arcturus, Sirius, these are first mag. I think actually Sirius is so bright I think it’s a zero magnitude. But any rate, those are the first magnitude stars. The stars in the Big Dipper are second magnitude and the stars in Cassiopeia are also second magnitude, so they’re bright, but they’re not amazingly bright. But more to the point, there’s five of them and they’re all approximately equally bright. So you just wouldn’t point to one star in Cassiopeia and then use it as your reference frame for telling the time; it just doesn’t make any sense. You could use the whole constellation if you wanted to, but yeah.
So Donald Olson, this forensic astronomer, comes into the picture and says, “Well, you know, that’s true, there aren’t any really bright stars in Cassiopeia today, but we were talking about the events of 1572. There was this new star, this supernova appeared in the constellation Cassiopeia.” Tycho Brahe even publishes this diagram in which it’s marked; you’ve got the traditional W or Ms, depending on which side you’re looking at it from. So you have this W or M of Cassiopeia and then there’s an extra star, and the extra star is the supernova.
Well, there you go, there’s a star that – now does that mean that the appearance of the ghost occurs in 1572? Well, we don’t have to get that literal about it. But the point is that Shakespeare may have been, you know, remembering this incident and just having a little fun with his audience, and some people would get it and some people wouldn’t, or maybe almost no one would get it. But this is Donald Olson’s theory, that maybe, you know, this star westward from the pole was inspired by a thing that happened when Shakespeare was a youngster.
And I will just add one last little item to that story, which I think actually sounds fairly plausible. I’ll tell you what, plausible or not, it’s a better guess than Capella and it’s a better guess than a planet, which are what some quite well-respected Shakespeare scholars have been guessing up to this point.
So another point is that, you know, you could say, “Well, Shakespeare was only eight years old. I mean is something he saw when he was eight years old really going to be relevant to him as an adult?” Well, the thing is people took notes, people stared at this object for the better part of a year and then when Hollingshead published his chronicles, this is the historian that Shakespeare relied on as a reference for all of the history plays basically, so we know Shakespeare read Hollingshead. Hollingshead mentions the supernova and says what a spectacular sight it was, so even if the memory – the actual memory of seeing it when he was eight years old in 1572 was fading, but, you know, as an adult he has a chance to be reminded of just how incredible that thing was.
So I think Donald Olson has, I mean, you know, it’s not proof; I can’t really prove anything along, you know, when you’re doing this kind of thing, but it’s pretty good; it’s not a bad argument.
Steve Mirsky: And now we have this other fellow, Peter Usher is it?
Dan Falk: Mm-hmm.
Steve Mirsky: Now he believes that the entire Hamlet play is an exploration of Ptolemaic versus Copernican interpretations of the solar system. That’s what Hamlet is actually about. Which strikes me as pushing it a little bit, but it’s an interesting place to examine the play from.
Dan Falk: Yeah, that’s exactly how I would’ve phrased it. Yeah, you know, most – yeah, so I would say it’s extravagant. I will mention that it’s one of the things that got me interested in this subject, because I was at a conference of the American Astronomical Society, this was way back; this was in the mid-1990s. But Peter Usher was invited to give a little talk about his idea. Now Usher is a retired astronomer, that’s what he did for a living for many years, but he took it upon himself to become a Shakespeare scholar; that’s how he spent all of his free time, and especially now that he’s retired, that’s what he continues to do. And he has this pretty radical interpretation of Hamlet that, as you say, the characters in Hamlet sort of stand in for famous astronomers or thinkers of either of Shakespeare’s time or from antiquity, and that the events of the play can be read as like a protracted argument about the competing cosmological world views.
Yeah, I do think it’s a bit extravagant. Professional scholars also think it’s, well, I mean extravagant or, you know, a little beyond extravagant I would say. But Scott Maisano and John Pitcher and a few others say that Peter Usher has actually done something quite useful. I mean, yes, the idea is, again, maybe a little farfetched, but it’s gotten people asking, in some cases maybe for the first time, taking the time to look at Hamlet and say, “Well, hold on, yeah, is there something I missed? I mean is Hamlet – is there a bit more going on, like about the universe, than I thought there was in Hamlet?” So I think Peter Usher has done something very useful and I think it’s great that he, you know, he spent years sort of working on this theory, and I think it’s terrific that he’s done that even though, yeah, I’m not really willing to embrace this allegory theory.
But yeah, it is interesting. I mean he’s got, you know, the thing that set him off is that he couldn’t help noticing that the bad guy is Claudius, right, so it’s Hamlet’s uncle. It turns out that Claudius killed old King Hamlet. But of course Claudius is also the first name of Claudius Ptolemy, the ancient Greek astronomer who is thought of as the, you know, the great – well, when we think of the old geocentric worldview we think of Ptolemy, right? We think of Aristotle maybe and we think of Ptolemy. So that’s interesting. And he figured that, you know, Hamlet must stand in for what turned out to be the correct view, the Copernican view. And he knows about the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern thing, of course, because a few people have commented on that over the years, so naturally Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are going to be standing in for Tycho Brahe, the Danish astronomer. And he goes on from there; he’s built – I won’t try to go into any more details than that, but I mean he’s got this whole lengthy sort of allegory. And yeah, it’s-
Steve Mirsky: It sounds a little less crazy the more you go into the details. It’s still, as you say, it’s extravagant, but there are aspects to it that are intriguing enough to at least consider as a possible influence. I mean it’s a play and it’s very dramatic. It’s probably not devoted to this issue of Copernicus versus Ptolemy, but that might have played a role in informing some of the choices within the play.
Dan Falk: I agree. Yeah. Yeah. And he has some ideas about, you know, when the telescope was invented that are quite unconventional.
Steve Mirsky: Right.
Dan Falk: He has some ideas about Leonard – so there are two Leonard Digges, right, but the old Leonard Digges, Leonard Digges, the father of Thomas Digges, allegedly maybe had access to a telescope, depending. It’s all a bit nebulous. I mean we have an account from Thomas Digges sort of written much later saying, “Yeah, my dad, you know, back in the day” – I’m paraphrasing – “Back in the day my dad was doing these things with tubes and pieces of glass and, you know, he could see a coin that we placed out in the field and he could, you know, read the lettering on the entrance to the church on the other side of town.”
Well, but, you know, is that to be taken at face value or was he just trying to make it sound like he had an impressive dad or? You know, we just don’t know, and there aren’t any other independent accounts. So did Leonard – and if this had happened this would’ve been like the middle of the 1500s, so.
Steve Mirsky: Right. Well before Galileo.
Dan Falk: Well before Galileo and Hans Lippershey, the Dutch inventor [Inaudible Crosstalk].
Steve Mirsky: Although centuries after, Morgan Freeman invents the telescope in the horrible Kevin Costner Robin Hood movie.
Dan Falk: I don’t remember what happens in that movie, so I guess I can’t say.
Steve Mirsky: Anyway, so the Rise of the House of Usher in this case is an interesting subject to think about, especially – I mean have you ever seen a full version of Hamlet uncut?
Dan Falk: Mm-hmm.
Steve Mirsky: Yeah, you’ve sat there for the full four hours.
Dan Falk: At the very least – well, I mean certainly on video I have.
Steve Mirsky: Yeah.
Dan Falk: On stage, the versions I’ve seen on stage I suspect were cut, you know, because I don’t recall one being like 3.5 or 4 hours. But I mean it’s a great play. And yeah, I think the problem – well, one of the problems with these sort of radical interpretations is that, you know, we tend to forget that Shakespeare was a businessman and a writer, and he was trying to write plays that would hold peoples’ attention, that would get them coming back to the theater for a repeat viewing, that would get them to tell their friends what a great play it was. And so, you know, he wasn’t – you don’t want to get too far – too carried away with this. Like, you know, he wasn’t Neil deGrasse Tyson saying, “And now here are some things that you ought to understand about the universe.” You know, he wasn’t trying to do this sort of public service type of thing or-
Steve Mirsky: He was a showbiz guy.
Dan Falk: He was a showbiz guy, he was a shareholder in the company that was putting on the plays, he owned part of the Globe Theater. It was – he had a lot going on and he was sort of on a schedule too, like he was writing several plays per year to stay ahead of the competition. So, I mean none of that makes it impossible that he was also sort of invested in this debate about world views, I just, I think it’s more like what you said a moment ago, I think if he heard something, it doesn’t have to have been about astronomy or cosmology, if he was exposed to something really different or intriguing or fascinating he would incorporate little bits of it into what he was working on.
Steve Mirsky: And to Usher’s credit, he’s got a good attitude about this. In the book you quote him as saying something like, “People have been arguing about this for 400 years, they can argue about it for another couple of centuries. I’m not so invested in convincing the world of this this week.
Dan Falk: Yeah, you know, and he was very gracious. I mean I interviewed him – at the same time that I was working on the book I worked on a radio documentary; if people are interested I believe it can be accessed online at the CBC’s website, that’s the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and it had the same title as the book, The Science of Shakespeare. So he was very generous with his time, he was very accommodating, we had a long sit-down chat, like you and I are doing at the moment. And yeah, he was not – he didn’t do the hard sell. Like he wasn’t at all upset if I didn’t embrace the theory, and moreover, he was very accepting of the fact that most people are not going to embrace this – the Hamlet allegory. And it’s not just, you know, the Hamlet thing is one thing, but he finds little astronomical, you know, things throughout the Shakespeare canon and of course some of them – I mean some of them are plausible. But some of them are, you know, some of them are a little more, yeah, farfetched I would say.
But at any rate, I think it’s terrific that he’s doing what he’s doing and it’s certainly stimulating other people to look at some of these ideas more closely.
Steve Mirsky: I just want to say I think it’s the only full four-hour Shakespeare Hamlet that I’ve seen was more than 35 years ago, it was at Lincoln Center, and Sam Waterston played Hamlet, Sam Waterston, who everybody-
Dan Falk: Oh yeah, the district attorney.
Steve Mirsky: -the district attorney from Law & Order. And he was quite brilliant, so if Sam Waterston by any chance happens to hear this, I hope he knows that somebody out there remembers his Hamlet.
There’s a line in Hamlet, a very famous line, “There’s more than” – it’s so famous I can’t remember it, but it’s the line about there’s more than-
Dan Falk: Yeah, “more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Steve Mirsky: Exactly. And you point out in the book that if that line were being written today we would say “science,” rather than “philosophy,” philosophy being short for natural philosophy.
Dan Falk: Yeah. Well, you know, Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, of course the scholars do argue about that line. So I can’t say there’s a full consensus, but several scholars say yeah, philosophy – ‘cause we have to remember, science wasn’t called science until the 19th century, at least not commonly. So what today is science, you know, bits of it that were around in Shakespeare’s time were called “natural philosophy.” And they’re different synonyms. I mean when somebody calls somebody else a “scholar,” they also mean, you know, they were investigating different aspects of the world, right? So in Act 1 Scene 1 the guard says, “Thou art a scholar, speak to it, Horatio,” as in, you know, Horatio has been to university, so is very knowledgeable.
But yeah, “more things than are dreamt of in your philosophy” is presumably a reference to what science does and doesn’t understand. But again, like so many other lines, it’s a little bit ambiguous. Like is Hamlet saying that science is a failure because, you know, it has not explained everything? Like, “Hey, look, here’s a ghost, I bet your science can’t explain this.” You know, it’s a little, again, as with so many lines in Shakespeare, it can be read more than one way.
We were talking a little earlier about Thomas Digges, or I guess I went off on a long sort of thing about Thomas Digges, but I forgot to mention another kind of exciting line in Hamlet where he says, “I would consider myself a king of infinite space were it not that I have bad dreams.”
Steve Mirsky: Right. That’s really key; you should talk about that.
Dan Falk: It is. Yeah. Yeah. And this fits in, allegedly – I mean Peter Usher makes a big deal of it, but a few other people; it’s not just Peter Usher, a few other people have looked at that and said, “Well, you know, there is one English thinker who spoke about infinite space in Shakespeare’s time” and we’ve already met him, it was Thomas Digges. So when Thomas Digges published that updated version of his father’s almanac with this endorsement of the Copernican theory, he also includes a diagram, and it’s a very striking, it’s a very eye-catching diagram. It’s what you might call the traditional Copernican system in the middle, and then on the outer perimeter there are the stars, but the stars just sort of keep going and going, they don’t seem to have any sort of boundary and they’re not attached to a crystalline sphere.
So is it an infinite universe? Well, you know, we don’t know exactly what was in Digges’ mind, but it looks like maybe he’s suggesting that the universe is limitless or boundless. And so when Prince Hamlet says that “I could be a king of infinite space,” again, if that line just existed in isolation with nothing else I guess we might be a little bit stumped as to how to read it, but taking into account all that other business that I was saying before about, you know, the Elsinore or the castle at Elsinore being so close to Tycho Brahe’s castle and Shakespeare having some contacts with Thomas Digges’ family, and maybe seeing the engraving showing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as two of Tycho Brahe’s relatives. So maybe when you add it all up, you know, you get more – a stronger case perhaps for this connection between the play Hamlet and the new – this bold new vision of the universe, either from Tycho’s perspective or from Thomas Digges’ perspective.
Steve Mirsky: Fun stuff to think about. I want to wrap up by just having a little fun. There’s something in the book, you attended a couple of Shakespeare – or at least one Shakespeare Scholar’s conference.
Dan Falk: Yeah, I do. I went twice. It was help-
Steve Mirsky: Twice.
Dan Falk: I was very lucky, the conference – it’s the world’s largest; it’s the Shakespeare Association of America, and it just happened to be held in Boston in 2012 and Toronto in 2013, so I got to see it two years in a row. And yeah.
Steve Mirsky: So there’s a lot of really esoteric stuff that goes on in academia in general. I mean we go to science conferences and things that we probably take for granted as being completely normal would look like very strange subjects to outsiders. And I just want to read, you have eight titles of talks from the last two Shakespeare conferences; I’m going to read the eight titles.
Number one: Diagnosing Hamlet: The Mad Prince and the Autism Spectrum.
Two: Dis-Eating Macbeth: Macbeth’s Indigestion and the Matter of Milk.
Three: The Ecology of The Tempest: Was Prospero’s Island Carbon-Neutral?
Four: Exultations Whizzing: Meteorology, Melancholy, and Moral Action in Julius Caesar.
Five: The Georgia Contract: Agrarian Bioregionalism and Ecocosmopolitanism in Henry IV Part Two.
Six: Head in the Clouds: Historicism, Hamlet, and Neurophenomenology.
Seven: Shakespeare’s Quantum Physics: The Merry Wives of Windsor as a Feminist Parallel Universe of Henry IV Part Two.
And finally title eight: The Unbearable Lightness of Being Ariel: Is Prospero’s Little Helper a Hologram?
Okay, only five of the eight are actual titles of talks. So I didn’t check the notes where you reveal which three you made up, but what-
Dan Falk: Ah, you’re still pondering the list then.
Steve Mirsky: Right. Why don’t I guess which three I think you made up and then you can tell me? I don’t think that the hologram, Is Prospero’s Little Helper a Hologram, I don’t think that’s real.
Dan Falk: Yeah, you’re right; that’s a fake one.
Steve Mirsky: Okay. I also don’t think that Was Prospero’s Island Carbon-Neutral; I don’t think that’s real.
Dan Falk: You’re good at this. That’s also one of the fake ones.
Steve Mirsky: Okay, now the third one. I’m going to go with Macbeth’s Indigestion and the Matter of Milk.
Dan Falk: No, that’s a real deal.
Steve Mirsky: That’s a real one, okay. Why don’t you tell-
Dan Falk: Yeah, I have to look at the list. I have to remind myself which was the third fake one.
Steve Mirsky: Tell me what the fake is.
Dan Falk: But you see, you know, I thought I would have some fun with this, but you can actually tell, the ones that are really wordy are actually too complicated to make up.
Steve Mirsky: Right.
Dan Falk: So anything about ecocosmo – I can’t make that stuff up, right?
Steve Mirsky: Right. Right.
Dan Falk: So the Agrarian Bioregional, I mean that’s real, ‘cause you can’t make that stuff up. Let me see, which is the fake?
Steve Mirsky: So Shakespeare’s Quantum Physics is real?
Dan Falk: Yeah, that’s real. You know what, I guess the autism spectrum one is fake, and I actually – you guess it, but I told you that you were wrong. I think you were actually-
Steve Mirsky: No, I didn’t guess that one.
Dan Falk: Oh, you didn’t guess it? Okay. Well, I guess-
Steve Mirsky: I guessed Macbeth: Matter of Milk.
Dan Falk: Okay. Yeah. Yeah. So Mad Prince and the Autism Spectrum is fake; I made that up.
But the reason I put those in there, you know, I’m not trying to be disrespectful to the many fine scholars who do Shakespeare, but I just wanted to point out that having sort of extravagant, fringy, you know, ideas that only you and your thesis found interesting – or you know what I mean, that sort of thing isn’t rare; that’s very common in the ____ _____.
Steve Mirsky: Right. So you’re putting Peter Usher’s efforts in a context.
Dan Falk: Yeah, in context. It doesn’t mean I believe what, you know, that Usher’s theory needs to be taken seriously, but I’m saying if you dismiss it just because it sounds farfetched then you’re basically dismissing something like two-thirds of the activity that goes on in Shakespeare scholarship today. So it’s just to give it a bit of perspective.
Steve Mirsky: Mm-hmm.
Dan Falk: And, you know, just before we go, because we didn’t talk about the Cymbeline thing. There’s this whole interesting thing-
Steve Mirsky: Oh yeah.
Dan Falk: Can I talk about this for just a minute?
Steve Mirsky: Yeah, please, go ahead.
Dan Falk: All right. So I save it for I think it’s chapter nine in the book and it actually also comes quite late in Shakespeare’s career. Some of your listeners might not even be very familiar with the play Cymbeline. When I give talks since the book has come out I ask people, you know, by show of hands if they’ve seen or read Cymbeline. Usually almost nobody puts their hand up, and if I ask them about King Lear or Hamlet of course all the hands go up.
But it’s very interesting and it has perhaps an even more likely – I would actually say quite likely astronomical connection, maybe a stronger case than the Hamlet Tycho Brahe thing. And it comes late in the play. Now for people to make sense of this can I give just a little plot summary of Cymbeline?
Steve Mirsky: Please go ahead.
Dan Falk: Okay. If it’s too much you can always-
Steve Mirsky: Yeah. No, you need to do it for me, because I’m really not familiar with that work.
Dan Falk: Happy to do it. You know, if I got nothing else out of writing this book, it’s that-
Steve Mirsky: You read everything.
Dan Falk: Well, I read – I pretty much read all the plays and I mean I haven’t – I do get confused sometimes with the comedies and everybody’s dressed as the other person’s long-lost brother-
Steve Mirsky: Right. Right.
Dan Falk: -and different genders and so on; it can be a little bit complicated. But at least now I can go around summarizing Cymbeline.
Okay, so Cymbeline is set in ancient Britain, it’s around the time of the birth of Christ. The Roman armies are threatening to invade; they want King Cymbeline. Now there actually was a King Cymbeline – well, I don’t know how his name would have been pronounced, but there actually was an ancient king, but there’s basically no resemblance between the real king, what little we know about him, and the king that Shakespeare has made up for the purposes of this play. At any rate, the Romans want him to pay a tribute, basically like a bribe or something like that, so that they won’t invade.
The king has a daughter named Imogen, and she has gone off and married a commoner named Posthumus Leonatus. The king disapproves of their marriage, so she runs away and he goes into exile, he goes to Italy. Now some complicated shenanigans happen, in Italy Posthumus meets up with his friend Iachimo and they immediately get into an argument about – well, it’s not quite whose wife is the most faithful, because I think Iachimo is still a bachelor, but it’s basically Posthumus says, “Well, the women of my country are the most faithful” and Iachimo says, “No, the women of my country, Italy, are the most faithful.” Anyway, times have changed, so this isn’t necessarily the kinds of arguments that Britains and Italians have today, I don’t think.
But at any rate, this is in – the characters in Shakespeare’s play decide this is a big deal to argue about. And Iachimo says, “Well you know what, I bet that if I traveled to England I can seduce your wife.” And Posthumus says, “I bet you can’t,” and Iachimo says, “I bet I can.” Well anyways, so he actually does go to England and sneaks, by hiding in a trunk – okay, I’m not going to reveal what happens so your listeners will still be in some suspense as to whether or not he’s able to seduce the wife of-
Steve Mirsky: You’re not going to – there’s no spoiler alert necessary. The play’s 400 years old, you can spoil it.
Dan Falk: All right. Well, yeah, no, he doesn’t have sex with her, but he does some other politically incorrect things. He emerges from the trunk that he was hiding in and what he does is he gets out his notepad and starts writing down a detailed description of her body – I told you it was politically incorrect – so that when he goes back to Italy Posthumus will believe that he slept with her and thus will win the bet, right? Yeah, so he actually – in other words he actually has some qualms about actually sleeping with her, but figures that he’ll take notes about her appearance. As the whole thing is kind of – I’ve got to say, it’s a little bit icky, yeah, from today’s standards.
But at any rate, that’s only one of several intertwined plots; there’s also the king’s long-lost sons that are living in the forest where they’re being raised by a former lord who is now an outlaw, and then the king’s wife, well, I guess she is the queen, but she has a son by a previous marriage and he’s kind of an idiot, named Cloten – I hope I’ve got the name right – and the queen is plotting to get him put on the throne. So anyway, all these things are happening all at once, but the plot that is relevant to us is the relationship between Imogen and Posthumus.
So Posthumus, believing that his wife has been unfaithful, sends an order for her to be killed. Now the order – you said no spoiler alert, so all right – so the order isn’t carried out; Imogen is not killed, but Posthumus believes she has been killed, so he is – but then finding out that in fact that was the wrong thing to do, she hadn’t been unfaithful, so he’s now beside himself; he wishes that his wife had not been killed. And so now he wants to die and he figures the easiest way to do this is to pretend to be a Roman. So he goes back to England, he figures he’ll pretend to be a Roman and that way he’ll be killed by British troops. Terrific plan, right?
So he goes back to England, he is captured and he’s thrown in jail. Now as it turns out, I mean, again, you said no spoilers, so incredibly all these threads are, to Shakespeare’s credit, everything works out okay a few scenes later and there’s actually a happy ending, at least by the standards of – I mean it’s actually lumped in with the tragedies. It’s not really a tragedy like King Lear or Hamlet because it doesn’t have this high body count most – not everyone, most people do survive this play.
Okay, but here’s what happens in Act 5. Posthumus has been captured by the British, he’s thrown in jail, he falls into kind of a trance or a dreamlike state and four ghosts appear. And the ghosts are ghosts of his father and mother and two brothers; they’re actually people that he never knew in life. He’s named Posthumus because he never knew his dad and I think his mother died in childbirth or something, and I forget how the brothers died; doesn’t really matter, the point is these people are now ghosts. And they come and according to the stage direction they “circle Posthumus round, as he lies sleeping,” so more or less the ghosts are moving in a circle around Posthumus. And they are very upset; they share his pain that everything has gone so terribly wrong, and they call on Jupiter, the god Jupiter, to help.
Now that by it – so what I’ve said up to this point isn’t so shocking because in Shakespeare’s plays you often have characters who are in some sort of a pickle and they call on the gods to do something. But here’s what’s different; normally the gods don’t really intervene, you don’t get a lot of deus ex machina – if I’m pronouncing it right – to help out. But in Act 5 in Cymbeline, sure enough, Jupiter descends from the heavens – I don’t have the stage direction in front of me, but it’s something like “Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, riding a” – oh, “riding an eagle,” that’s it. Yeah, riding an eagle and yes, he throws a thunderbolt, that’s it.
So Jupiter comes down from the heavens, starts talking to the ghosts, he tells them to “quit your whining” basically. So what is going on here? It’s a very unusual scene. And this play was published in – or not published, but first performed, we believe, in 1610, maybe the summer, maybe the fall of 1610. So within a few months, maybe a half a year of the publication of Galileo’s remarkable little book The Starry Messenger, Sidereus Nuncius. This is the book where Galileo is describing what he’s seen through the telescope, including, among other things, the fact that Jupiter has four moons. Well now we know they’re moons revolving around Jupiter. In the geocentric view everything has to revolve around the Earth, but once you adopt the Copernican view it’s okay for the universe to have more than one center, so we go around the Sun, the other planets go around the Sun, but these little moons around Jupiter. So it’s already kind of a shocking development.
So that’s been published earlier in the year and now Shakespeare has a play with Jupiter now – okay, it’s not the planet Jupiter, it’s the god Jupiter, but still. And then four ghosts come and move in a circle, it’s kind of – it’s a little bit too much to be a coincidence, at least according to the small handful of scholars that have written about it.
When I first came across these papers that talk about this I thought, “Oh my goodness, that’s the most interesting thing.” You know, I thought that was the most interesting thing I’d ever read about, you know, Shakespeare and his sources and what inspired him. I thought there would be a whole literature on this; there isn’t. There’s a handful, a small – actually it’s three people, and I’ve mentioned them already. It’s Scott Maisano at UMass Boston; John Pitcher at Oxford in England, who has – in he’s written the most about it, or at least the most widely read probably, because he wrote the introduction to the recent Penguin edition of the play, where he talks about this alleged possible relationship between The Starry Messenger and Cymbeline in some detail. So if people want to check that out it’s there, but it’s also Chapter 9 of The Science of Shakespeare. And then the third person is Peter Usher, who we talked about, who had this rather extravagant theory of Hamlet as an allegory.
So there you go. So here’s, you know, it’s just one scene in the play Cymbeline, although of course Peter Usher finds other things. Well, you know, even Scott Maisano finds a few other little nuggets in there. Towards the end of the play, as all the threads come together, King Cymbeline says, “Does the world go around?” Now he could just be talking about, “I’m feeling dizzy” right? We’ve all had this experience where you spin around, you stop and oh my goodness, the world is going around. But on the other hand, you know, as Scott Maisano writes in one of his papers, this question, “Does the Earth move? Does the Earth spin? Does it move around the Sun?” these are exactly the questions that are being argued about by the deepest thinkers of the day. These are in certain corners; this is not necessarily people in the tavern were talking about it, but in certain corners these were like the most pressing issues of the day. So it’s very interesting that there’s this possible connection.
Steve Mirsky: Great stuff. This is a fun book. I mean obviously if you’re listening to Scientific American podcasts you’re probably a science-interested person. If you’re also a theater fan, a Shakespeare fan, you know, you really sort of have to read this book.
Dan Falk: Well thank you so much, Steve. I really – I’m very thrilled to be talking about it here and, you know, it’s Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. Yeah, read a book about Shakespeare, and then it’s summertime, before summer ends go see Shakespeare in the park or read one of the plays again, absolutely.
Steve Mirsky: Or see a Shakespeare film.
Dan Falk: Yeah.
Steve Mirsky: I think the best Shakespeare film that I’ve ever seen is Julie Taymor’s Titus Andronicus. It is – I mean-
Dan Falk: It’s visually – it’s visually very, very striking.
Steve Mirsky: Yeah.
Dan Falk: Yeah, it is.
Steve Mirsky: And the performance by Anthony Hopkins is great, to me.
Dan Falk: Yeah. Yeah. It’s – you know, I mean I guess my own favorites, but if – and you know what, if people have forgotten how gory Titus Andronicus is, you know, just give that a read.
Steve Mirsky: Oh yeah.
Dan Falk: I mean you don’t want to know what’s in that pie, but it is, you know, thank goodness times have changed, because these were bloody times. I mean Shakespeare is obviously exaggerating things for dramatic effect, but oh my goodness, quite a body count. You know, this was before Dirty Harry and Rambo and the rest of it, but Shakespeare knew how to write a bloodbath if he wanted to.
Steve Mirsky: What’s your favorite Shakespeare movie?
Dan Falk: Let me think. See, it’s tough because I don’t always remember the movie adaptations. I think my favorite play just in terms of – even though it’s one of the simpler of the tragedies, I think Macbeth really works for me. I just like the way it unfolds,-
Steve Mirsky: Yeah. Yeah, me too.
Dan Falk: -there’s a certain logic to it. It doesn’t have the best reputation ‘cause it is considered to be a bit simple, that is, you know, we teach it to either, you know, advanced high school students or, you know, if you take it in first year university it would be near the beginning of the semester, because it really is not meant to be a very difficult play compared to Hamlet or certainly King Lear.
Oh, you know, we didn’t talk about King Lear anyway. King Lear gives you so much to think about and so much to ponder; I’m hoping to see it in Stratford, Ontario later this summer.
Movie versions, gosh, I don’t know. I mean, you know, it’s funny seeing Mel Gibson as Hamlet. It’s actually not a bad movie.
Steve Mirsky: It’s not a bad movie. I remember thinking, well, it’s Hamlet as a middle linebacker instead of a rather esthetic contemplative person, but still, it’s much better than I expected it to be.
Dan Falk: And you know, you always got the Kenneth Branagh Hamlet, if you want to go down that route; it’s much longer and it’s – oh gosh, it’s a bit, you know, oh my goodness. The Mel Gibson one, whatever you may think of Mr. Gibson, the setting does have that sort of early Renaissance feel, you know, it’s kind of gritty and the stone walls really do look cold and barren, whereas the Kenneth Branagh one is set in a much – it’s like a much later Renaissance, even maybe 150 years later in its look. And so it’s all just a question of taste. Of course, Kenneth Branagh is a terrific actor, no question about that.
Steve Mirsky: I know that there’s a new version of The Tempest, relatively new, with Helen Mirren as the Prospero character, and I haven’t had the chance to see that yet. There’s also – you can go back to the trio of Laurence Olivier directed and starred in Hamlet, Richard III, and Henry V.
Dan Falk: Well, I’ll just tell you, you know, in researching this book, I mean, you know, what a terrific excuse it was to go out and see as many of the plays as I could. I had the privilege of seeing Henry V at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. And Henry V is a fun play anyway, right? It’s kind of – I mean it’s got all that military stuff, but it also has some very quotable lines of dialogue and, you know, “once more unto the breach” and all that. And just seeing it in that setting was quite an experience.
But, you know, and of course – well, I went as a – I paid for the groundling ticket, so I had to stand through the whole thing, not a big deal. And I think it was 5 pounds, which is certainly more than I think the one penny that people paid in Shakespeare’s day, but still a good deal. But of course I am a big fan of the free ones, and, you know, I’ve seen free Shakespeare productions in I think New York, Boston, Toronto, Halifax, and some other cities that I can’t think of at the moment. And there’s no excuse for anyone not to go out and enjoy some Shakespeare, everyone should do it. And if people want to take a few moments to think about science just coming into existence and what connections there might have been between Shakespeare’s writing and the burst in science, that’s just fine with me.
Steve Mirsky: That’s it for this episode. Remember, you can read a free excerpt from Dan Falk’s book The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe on the Scientific American website. The excerpt is called “What Shakespeare Knew About Science,” just google “Scientific American” and “Dan Falk” to find it.
And get all your science news at our website, where you can read Matthew Schneps new article on some of the heretofore unrecognized possible advantages of being dyslexic. And follow us on Twitter, where you’ll get a new tweet whenever a new item hits the website; our Twitter name is @sciam. For Scientific American Science Talk, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.