Just a quick test to run the blog through its paces and see what’s still working and what broke. I was hacked on New Year’s Day (thanks to Bardfilm for quickly spotting it) and in the ensuing flood of restorations and updates it looks like more than a handful of things has changed out from under me.
If you see stuff that looks weird, please let me know, either here or on Twitter!
Back in November, I had a bit of a reality distortion moment as I found evidence that a story I’d always told as having happened in 2008 actually happened in 2004. Specifically, we’re talking about a production of The Tempest that I took my kids to see. Their first one, in fact. The one I use as the foundation when I tell people about my kids’ relationship with Shakespeare. Only, if it happened in 2004, I only had one kid.
But I was right after all! Looking through old pictures this weekend I found more from that production, with my other two kids clearly included. I knew I wasn’t losing my mind. These pictures were, in fact, dated 2008. That gave me an idea I should have thought of in the first place. I used my own darned search function…
And look what I found. August 2008. I actually posted about it several times both before and after the show, it was quite a milestone event for me.
I have several different filters that collect Shakespeare references across various sites – Google, Reddit, etc… The signal/noise ratio is about what you’d expect, but I do find some good stuff often enough to keep doing it. Most of it lately is memes. Typically bad ones (hint – if you think your meme is funny, take two seconds to check your spelling rather than rushing to post it for karma? it’ll be that much funnier when you can include in your audience all the people that don’t think you’re an idiot.)
But lately it seems like the world has been taken over by two quotes in particular:
“You are a saucy boy” – Lord Capulet in Romeo and Juliet
“What, you egg!” – Murderer in Macbeth (stabbing optional)
No, seriously. Just looking at the front page of my Pocket queue today, here’s the links I found:
Using “egg” as an insult has always been one of those amusing things about Shakespeare that was a little off. But these days it’s become clear that saucy boy and egg have teamed up (usually with some stabbing at the end) and I’m just wondering where this came from? Was it a reference to a show I’m not watching? It’s getting pretty tiresome.
There’s no easy way to say that. There’s a starkness to it. A simplicity, and inevitability. There’s a reason why, when defending the universality and relevance of Shakespeare’s work, I typically start by saying, “Hamlet’s father died.” It is something we all have faced, or will face. Shakespeare faced it. His characters faced it. Now it’s my turn.
Though I talk a lot about my kids I rarely talk about my parents, and that’s not going to change today. They’re not Shakespearean characters, and it would be making this event all about myself to try and paint it as such. I know grandparents that are CEOs and sit on boards of directors. My mom’s purpose was much simpler. Drop her in the middle of a pile of grandchildren who would inundate her with “Look what I made!” and “Watch me dance!” and “I got a good grade on my report card!” and she would, forever and ever, tell each one how proud she was, and how much she loved them. And that was more than enough. I could say that we’re all going to miss that, and that will be true. But also … they know. People have faith in a variety of different things, but my children have never doubted their Nanta loves them and is oh so very proud of them.
So then let’s talk about Shakespeare. I’ve thought for a very long time about what I would do when this day finally came. I’m not going to dig through my archives but long time readers may remember that I have, in recent years, said goodbye to my own grandmother, and several aunts. So the question of how Shakespeare can bring some degree of comfort at a time such as this has come up from time to time. And here I am this week putting my own beliefs to the test. I believe that Shakespeare makes life better.
I’ve always known a quote here and snippet there that touch on this moment. There’s Cleopatra’s “Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have immortal longings in me.” Or Hamlet’s “I shall not look upon her like again,” if you’ll forgive my pronoun switcheroo. We could do this all day, grabbing a line here or there that catches a bit of the feeling that goes on. I hadn’t realized, until I found a link to that Bobby Kennedy speech, that “Cut her out in little stars and hers will make the face of heaven shine so bright,” could also work here.
Then there’s the longer pieces that allow you to pause for a moment and just kind of soak it in. That feeling that you want to just curl the pages up around you like a blanket. I found myself staring at Sonnet 60 the morning it happened:
Like as the waves make towards the pebbl’d shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown’d,
Crooked eclipses ‘gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth
And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow:
And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.
I spoke of this to a friend, who suggested that sonnet 71 is nice as well:
No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell;
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it; for I love you so,
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O, if (I say) you look upon this verse,
When I (perhaps) compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse,
But let your love even with my life decay,
Lest the wise world should look into your moan,
And mock you with me after I am gone.
Together we joked that you have to brace yourself for Cymbeline, it’ll bring you to your knees if you’re not prepared. I’m only copying part of it here:
Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
And lastly, because this post is getting a bit long, we have the Constance’s defense of grief in King John:
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
I don’t care who you’re mourning, you know exactly what Shakespeare’s talking about here. Knowing that passages like this exist makes me feel bad all over again for people that don’t “get” Shakespeare. Yeah you do, it just hasn’t clicked for you yet. When it does, he’s there for you.
I know this has been a bit of a ramble but it was always going to be. In my day to day life I don’t have much Shakespeare content. I decorate my life with Shakespeare, sure. People know me as the Shakespeare Geek, and they expect that I’ll have all the answers in Trivial Pursuit or Jeopardy. But do I expect any of my friends or relatives to quote Shakespeare at me at a time like this? Not really, no. Do I expect that I could use one of the above examples to try to explain how I’m feeling, and hope that they know what I’m talking about? Also not really, no.
So here I am, just kind of shouting into the universe where I know I’ll be heard. Thanks for listening, and for your years of support. Shakespeare makes life better because it’s Shakespeare that brought me right here, right now, to have this platform to express these words. Death is inevitable, and life going on equally so, but how it goes on is up to us.
If anybody has favorite quotes for times such as these, feel free to share in the comments. To be honest I’ve been thinking about maybe putting together a collection for exactly that purpose. Open book randomly, find comforting words from Shakespeare. I know I could have used that this week.
I’ve wished “flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” to many people over the years, but now I’ve seen it with my own eyes. My mom was big into angels in her final years. We could have called her Angel Geek. Her life was decorated with angels, from the jewelry she wore to the decorations on her walls, to the theme of any personalized stuff we got her for the holidays with the kids’ names on it. In her final days one of my cousins brought in a small Christmas tree decorated entirely with angels. As people would come to visit they were encouraged to take an angel home for their own tree (I have three on my tree right now). So the next time I say it I know that I know one personally, and that she loves her grandchildren very much and is oh so proud of them.
It’s been a long time since we had a guest post, so I’m very pleased with how this one came out! I’m sure I’ve mentioned that my oldest daughter is a budding astronomer so she’ll be quite fascinated by this topic. Thank you to the authors for reaching out!(They weren’t even selling anything! :))
Shakespeare’s Scientific Revolution:
The Bard’s Vision of Astronomy from Copernicus to Galileo
Meera Arora and Aparna Venkatesan
With the holidays and the end of the decade fast approaching, the time for nostalgia and romanticizing is upon us. The natural world seems to offer gifts for us to delight in; from the ordinary like fresh snowfall to the extraordinary, like the interstellar comet 21/Borisov, which made its nearest approach to the sun on December 7th this year. Heralded the “Christmas Comet,” it is hard to imagine a more poignant way to usher in the end of the 2010s than viewing a comet from another star system, only the second interstellar comet ever discovered.
However, we have not always lived in awe of the night sky. Prior to the Scientific Revolution, deviations in the night sky, like comets, were seen as portents of ill will or bad omens. For instance: “When beggars die there are no comets seen. / The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes” (Julius Caesar, 2.2.30). With the work of Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler, western thought moved away from the idea that human life mirrored celestial cycles, and into a more empirical scientific, as opposed to astrological, mindset. The metaphorical journey from astrology to astronomy is evident not only in scientific innovation and discovery, which can at times seem clinical, but in the more emotionally expressive world of theater and literature.
William Shakespeare has dominated much of his historical and literary era to the point where “Shakespeare’s time” is a phrase synonymous with the early modern period. Though his life ended in the seventeenth century, Shakespeare remains relevant to this day for his honoring of human curiosity and versatility. Although his prominence might overshadow the events of his time, Shakespeare’s plays pointedly reference the years during which he lived, namely in alluding to the concurrent Scientific Revolution and its breakthroughs in astronomy. Much like the themes of fate and coincidence that permeates Romeo and Juliet, coincidences seem to hold more than meets the eye, like the fact that Galileo and Shakespeare were born in the same year (1564). It seems impossible, or narrow-minded at the least, to try and separate the history of Shakespeare’s life from his work, however fantastic some of the elements of his plays and poems may be. Fiction draws from experience, and the era during which Shakespeare lived was rich in many fields beyond the theater. His interdisciplinary knowledge demonstrates a willingness to learn and adapt, and gives readers insight into not just Shakespeare’s work, but the events of his time and the Bard himself. Shakespeare’s lifespan makes him a contemporary of key figures in the Scientific Revolution in western science including Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and for a time Galileo Galilei. The recurring references to astronomy in Shakespeare’s plays, particularly Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and Cymbeline, coupled with his seeming familiarity with Tycho Brahe which we will explore further, makes a strong case for the idea that not only was Shakespeare knowledgeable about the scientific discoveries of his time, but that they influenced his work in ways that remain relevant to us today.
Hamlet is a particularly bountiful example to focus on; in this play, Shakespeare seems to move away from astrology and towards astronomy. This is not to say that Shakespeare shied away from metaphor or symbolism, but rather that there are lines in these plays that suggest Shakespeare understood astronomical breakthroughs during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Hamlet contains lines such as: “Doubt thou the stars are fire / Doubt that the sun doth move / Doubt truth to be a liar, / But never doubt I love” (Hamlet, Act II, Scene II). The second phrase, “Doubt that the sun doth move,” calls to mind the ideas of Copernicus’s Concerning the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres, in which the astronomer argued for the Heliocentric model, introducing the idea that the Earth orbits the Sun and not vice versa. It also recalls what Galileo allegedly said in 1633, “Eppur si Muove” (“and yet it moves”, referring to the Earth), when he was forced to recant his view that it was the Earth that moved around the Sun rather than the other way around.
Astronomer Peter Usher (Penn State University) goes so far as to argue that Hamlet is an allegory for the competition between two cosmological frameworks that were in rivalry during Shakespeare’s time: the Sun-centered or heliocentric Copernican construct, and the old Earth-centered or geocentric model retained by Tycho Brahe of Denmark. Thomas Diggs’ account of Copernicus’s heliocentric theory may make an appearance in Hamlet: “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space…” (Hamlet, Act II, Scene II). Usher contends that: “When Hamlet states: ‘I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space . . . ‘ he is contrasting the shell of fixed stars in the Ptolemaic, Copernican, and Tychonic models with the Infinite Universe of Digges” (Usher). The idea of an infinite universe, while familiar to us today, was new in Shakespeare’s time and directly opposed the more archaic idea of spherical shells of stars. Hamlet also suggestively refers to another astronomical event: Tycho Brahe’s Nova or “new star”, known today to be a class of supernova arising from a binary system involving a star and a white dwarf. SN 1572, or Cassiopeiae B, was a supernova in 1572 that was not only visible to the naked eye, but remained so for 1-2 years according to historical records, placing it between Jupiter and Venus in observed brightness. This would have been both clearly visible and highly memorable, and the lines “When yond same star that’s westward from the pole / Had made his course t’ illume that part of heaven Where now it burns…” (Hamlet, Act I, Scene I) might be a reference to Brahe’s 1572 Nova.
Shakespeare’s ties to Tycho Brahe are particularly strong in Hamlet and made much more evident via characters as opposed to specific lines. The most obvious connection is made in the naming of the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. While these names might seem traditionally Shakespearean, both happen to exist on Tycho Brahe’s family Coat of Arms. Both men were from Danish noble lines, and distantly related. Rosenkrantz seems to be a third cousin of Brahe’s, and his return to London after visiting Brahe in Prague (while traveling with Johannes Kepler) coincides with the time Hamlet was being written. Although Hamlet was published in 1603, Shakespeare was at work on it in 1601, the same year that Tycho Brahe died. Furthermore, Tycho Brahe’s brilliant assistant Kepler was the one to suggest (via Simon Marius) the name Ganymede as a title for one of the Galilean moons. This is notable as Ganymede is a character in Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
In examining even a single play, we see that Shakespeare’s nuanced writing style reflects many aspects of his time, including scientific advances. Although the Church in that period may have been reluctant to accept the “new” astronomical empirical findings, it appears that Shakespeare welcomed the Scientific Revolution and its discoveries. Shakespeare’s legacy of literary works is stunning in its prodigious volume, variety, and depth of observation. That he embraced the milestone achievements of his time in other disciplines through his characters and writing makes him beloved by, and not merely relevant to, scientists and writers several centuries later. As we near the end of 2019, with a special appearance of a Christmas Comet, and the 400th anniversary of Kepler’s Third Law, we honor and remember the interdisciplinary vision of Shakespeare.
Meera Arora recently graduated from the University of San Francisco with a BA in English and two minors in Physics and Astronomy. When not giving names to airy nothings, she spends the majority of her time writing, as well as admiring stars and her dog.
Aparna Venkatesan is a cosmologist at the University of San Francisco studying the first stars and supernovae in the universe, and is thankful to count atomies as she passes through nature to eternity.
Falk, Dan. “Shakespeare at 450: How science may have influenced his work.”
Falk, Dan. “What Shakespeare Knew About Science.”
Gambino, Megan. “Was Shakespeare Aware of the Scientific Discoveries of His Time?”
Popova, Maria. “Astronomy and the Art of Verse: How Galileo Influenced Shakespeare.”
Redd, Robert. “William Shakespeare in the Scientific Revolution.”