Guest Post! Shakespeare’s Scientific Revolution : The Bard’s Vision of Astronomy from Copernicus to Galileo

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.

Works Cited

 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.”

Rowan-Robinson, Michael. ”Shakespeare’s astronomy.”

Usher, Peter. “Shakespeare and the Dawn of Modern Science.”

Usher, Peter. “The Science of Shakespeare.”




Say Hello To My Little Friend

Before I went to Stratford Upon Avon earlier this year I was daydreaming on Facebook about what sort of new merchandise I might find in the gift shops and what I might want to bring home.  A follower suggested a “Pot Belly” Shakespeare which I’d never seen before!  I held off until I got back from my trip, but was recently looking through comments and reminded myself of that post.

Of course, my wife was sitting next to me at the time, saw my intent and said, “You don’t need any more Shakespeare toys.  He is cute, though.”  That’s as close to permission as I’m ever gonna get.

Check out what came today!

I love him!  He’s much more finely detailed than I expected.  Check out his face:

The weird thing is that his head comes off (on purpose).  Apparently he’s supposed to be some sort of “keepsake” holder, but I have no idea what of value would be small enough to put it there.

I was planning to bring him to work where the rest of my collection resides.  But my wife said, “Oh, I was assuming he’d stay here!”  He’s now sitting atop the microwave, and there he shall stay.  I’ve often talked of “decorating my life” with Shakespeare, so if I can have random Shakespeares around the house with my wife’s blessing?  Oh you know I’m not going to miss that opportunity!



Could A Slings & Arrows Prequel Be Coming?

I noticed some stories lately talking about Slings & Arrows, the undisputed “greatest show about Shakespeare” ever.  But this was the first one to drop the word “prequel” and now you have my attention.

I’d do some “If you’ve never seen Slings & Arrows” banter here, but seriously, if you’ve never seen Slings & Arrows, stop reading and go watch it. It’s just that good. To recap, each of the three seasons maps to one of Shakespeare’s plays – Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear (with some side plots thrown in, too). We’re introduced to the series via Geoffrey, our director, who once had a nervous breakdown after he played Hamlet (and yes, now he’s directing it). He’s haunted by the ghost of his own former director.  Meanwhile we get to see what makes a Shakespeare festival work, from how they rehearse to how they make money.

And now they’re pitching a prequel about the origins of the festival itself, back in post war America in the 1950s?  I’m not sure what play that’s going to map to, or how much of the original cast would still be relevant, but the original just has so much credibility that I’d get in line to see what the creators come up with next.  I hope somebody picks it up.



Kickstarter : Shakespeare Figurine!

Show of hands, does it annoy anybody else that you can walk into half a dozen stores in the mall these days and see a wall of “Funko Pop” characters from practically every television show that’s had even a hint of an audience, and yet, as far as I’ve been able to tell, not a single character from classic literature? I want my Shakespeare!  I have a growing army of Shakespeare figurines slowly taking over my desk, and I always want more.

So I was very excited when the folks at Jackiz Studio reached out to let me know about their Shakespeare Figurine Kickstarter!

Ain’t he precious? The artistic interpretation is a little unique, I’m not going to lie. But I’m looking at him like I’d look at a newborn baby.  Do you look at the baby and say, “Whoa, yikes, what’s up with that hair?”  Nope.  You love it.  It didn’t exist, and now it does, and the world is a little bit better because of it, and who cares about the hair.

This Kickstarter just started (they contacted me to help kick it off) so there’s plenty of time to get in on it while all the backer rewards are still available.  They’re hoping to reach their stretch goals and even make an accompanying card game and mobile app, but what I think is the best one is a golden figurine which I think looks even cooler than the original.  (I’ve got to get back in touch with them and ask for clarification on what exactly “golden” means, just so we’re clear that people don’t think they’re getting a solid gold Shakespeare!)

Let’s make this one happen, people.  Tell your family, tell your friends.  Every Shakespeare Geek needs more stuff like this on their desk.  One success brings about more.  I’ve already planted the idea with them of doing actual Shakespeare characters, so soon we might have our own (virtual) wall where we can pick from Romeo or Hamlet or Orsino or Rosalind…  just like I’ve always wanted 🙂




Shakespeare Geek in Stratford : What Dreams May Come

One of the biggest decisions to be made, when we started planning this vacation, was whether to see a show at the RSC or the Globe.  I know, I know, people are screaming “Both!” at the screen right now, but let’s just agree that real-world considerations (time, money, not wanting to push my luck dragging my family to *too* much Shakespeare…) won out, and there would be one show.

But which?  The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), if you’re not familiar, is in Stratford-upon-Avon, while Shakespeare’s Globe is in London.  We planned to visit both cities, so we had a choice.  People may wish to discuss my broad strokes here, but the way I figure it my choice came down to:

  • The RSC is where you see the best Shakespeare in the world.  Depending on when we go we might even get to see some big-name Hollywood actors (and then maybe see them afterward at The Dirty Duck).  The downside to that is if you’re not a reasonably serious fan of Shakespeare, the difference between “this is an outstanding show” and “I don’t understand what’s going on” will probably become apparent quickly.
  • Shakespeare’s Globe is intended as a tourist attraction, an exact recreation of the Globe as it was in Shakespeare’s day.  You’ll sit where and how Shakespeare’s audience sat (right down to paying extra for a cushion), you’ll see his plays performed on his stage.  I do not expect this to be the greatest Shakespeare I’ve ever seen. I expect this to be more of a “package deal” where the “Wow, we’re actually here!” factor plays heavily.

We decide to see a show at the Globe.  Specifically, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  My family is reasonably familiar with that one, and it’s a raucous comedy, so worst case scenario we’re all laughing ourselves silly all night. There are worse things.

The whole area of the city around the Globe is apparently loaded with historical landmarks, and I would have loved to go visit them all, but time was not on our side.  We’d started the vacation with three days of nothing but Shakespeare, and now that we were in London and had a few Shakespeare free days, I didn’t think my family was in the mood to chase me around the streets of London just to see random “Here’s where a certain building stood 400 years ago!” signs.

I did, however, see something on the map that says “Shakespeare Mural.”  I had no idea what that was and wanted to find it.  I thought I had an idea?  Turns out it was much, much better than I was expecting…

I hate that the tuba guy is there (even though his instrument was a flamethrower).  But others have told me he adds character to the picture, so what can you do?

We get to the theatre early enough to sit around and have a drink, but not early enough to catch the last tour.  That was my fault, I was riding that “I will not ask my family to do more Shakespeare stuff” thing harder than I should have, and by the time I mentioned the tour and they said, “Let’s go on it!” we’d missed it.  Ah, well.

I take the opportunity while we’re sitting in the cafe to stuff a bunch of Shakespeare Geek stickers in with the napkins.  I wonder if anybody found them? 🙂

We get inside, and at last, we’re here (with cushions!)  There’s a pretty strict “no pictures while anyone is onstage” policy, which I saw enforced, so here’s the only picture I got:

That piñata hanging there tells the theme, which I’ll come back to in a moment.

We open as expected with Theseus and Hippolyta.  Hippolyta is portrayed as an animal, literally shipped here in a box, bound and gagged and barely able to speak the language.  The best way I can describe Theseus is … Eric Idle, from Monty Python.  Trust me.  If you’ve ever heard Eric Idle speak (and you no doubt have, he’s done a zillion voiceover things), this is our Theseus.  He’s afraid of Hippolyta, he’s here for comic effect. Which is not a stretch,  because as I soon learn, pretty much everything is here for comic effect.  Everything is over the top, play to the audience.

We meet our youths, we get our plot, we head for the forest.  Cue the fairies!  Remember that piñata theme?  In comes this New Orleans-style parade of monstrosities, like a cross between a walking pinata and that new show The Masked Singer.  Some have really long draggy arms, some have weird monster eyes.  Titania is not done up like that, she looks more like she’s straight out of Mardi Gras.

Our Puck is interesting. The costuming is nothing special, just a t-shirt and some deely-bopper antennae, but there’s a reason for that.  The entire cast plays Puck.  Huh?  It took me a while to realize that they weren’t just doubling.  As far as I could tell, at one point or another pretty much every member of the cast donned a Puck t-shirt for a scene or at least part of a scene.  For the scene where Puck is looking for the flower (“I go, I go; look how I go, Swifter than arrow from the Tartar’s bow.”) it worked well, like he’d cloned himself to go that many times faster.  But in a later scene, the various Pucks are actually competing with each other to finish his lines.  Definitely entertaining, but I’m not sure there was a bigger message or just a cool gimmick.

The funniest gimmick, speaking of, is the audience member they brought up on stage as one of the Mechanicals.  This poor chap (Simon) mostly stood there, uncomfortable, while the cast all played off him like an improv game.  And it was hysterical. At intermission my kids said to me, “Would you go up there if they grabbed you?” and I told them, “Yes, but I probably wouldn’t be as funny, because I’d be trying to play along with the play as I know it. The fact that this guy doesn’t know the play is half the fun.”  When Bottom is translated and everybody runs away screaming, Simon just stands there.  Even I’m in the audience yelling, “Run away, Simon! Run away!”  And then Bottom gave him the cue:  “Why do they run away? (run away, Simon!  run away!) this is a knavery of them to make me afeard….” and he ran away.

Now let’s talk about Bottom, because if there’s something I didn’t like about the play, this was it.  Not the actress’ performance, that was fine.  I mean, there was nothing at all deep going on, just 100% playing to the audience.  I’m talking about how obscene it got.

We talk about the dirty jokes in Shakespeare.  We know that he had to deliver what the audience wanted, and we know that this troupe is playing up to that angle.  But when you’ve got this many kids in the audience, I wonder about some of the decisions made…

Though it’s typically pointed out that Bottom is just given an ass’s head, he’s not completely transformed into a donkey, this time he’s done up head to toe in one of those piñata costumes so it’s hard to tell.  Doubly so when he (I’m going to keep saying he, although it’s an actress playing the role, for reasons that are about to become obvious) reaches down between his legs and pulls out this…well, this long thing that’s dangling.  I wonder whether that’s supposed to be a tail, then I remember that only his head is a donkey and think, “Oh, dear. Please don’t let the kids ask me about this.”  We then see that there is a flute at the end of it, upon which he plays a tune.  Then, just to drive the point fully home, he looks right at a member of the audience and says, “Whistle cock.”

(Sidebar – I thought, “Huh??? Why don’t I remember this?” and when I was able, I went back to the script:

I will walk up
and down here, and I will sing, that they shall hear
I am not afraid.
The ousel cock so black of hue,
With orange-tawny bill,
The throstle with his note so true,
The wren with little quill,–

*sigh*  I guess?  Maybe that’s a one-off joke?  Oh,  how mistaken I was about to be.

Let’s just jump to where Titania and Bottom meet, and she’s taken by the size of his … instrument.  She tries (?) to play her own tune on it, does so poorly, then announces, “It’s been a while” and moves on.  I’m wondering at that point whether she was as uncomfortable as the parents in the audience. Not to mention any music teachers, who were no doubt thinking “That’s not what you do with your tongue.”

Don’t worry, it gets worse.  You know that scene where Bottom is just fully into the whole “Ok, I guess these fairies are going to do everything I tell them” thing?  This whole scene has taken place in a big dumpster, by means of a prop. It’s where Titania originally fell asleep, it’s where she takes him for whatever it is they’re doing, and it’s where they are when the fairies are … waiting on him.  Except whatever they’re all doing to him is rather exciting.  Building to a climax, even.  Suddenly a jet of some unidentified liquid comes shooting forth!  Everybody gets uncomfortable (nay, grossed out) and the scene continues.

There’s more of that sort of humor, but that was the worst of it.  In the big scene at the end, when Wall comes out (played by a woman), you can make a guess where they decided to put the chink that Pyramus and Thisbe have to put their lips against.  Stuff like that. I don’t want to sound like a prude.  My kids are old enough now that they understood what was going on.  And it’s not like I saw many 10yr olds running around among the groundlings.  Shakespeare and people could do bawdy.  I just didn’t expect it to be quite so graphic.

Overall it was exactly what I expected (except for the obscene parts).  It was all about the audience, all about making sure they get the joke and laugh.  Nothing was subtle. My family enjoyed it, that’s the important part. We got to see the Globe. Quality of performance aside, I think that if I’d chosen RSC at the expense of not seeing the inside of the Globe, I would have regretted it.

One quick story before I go!  We had excellent seats, front row of the top section.  We filled the row except for one seat, taken by this young woman who was there by herself.  She told us that she’s a graduate student (though not in Shakespeare), and that her studies allow her to get to London regularly enough that she’s been to see a show at the Globe four times.  She apparently had some sort of social media presence of her own, because when I saw her trying to take a bunch of selfies and offered to get a picture for her, she told me that the selfie angle was part of her signature style.  But she did have me take a few. She then took a few of my family, which came out nice but of course I can’t post here. She said she’d never been to Stratford, so I pulled out some pictures we’d taken earlier in the week, and she was suitably jealous. 🙂

Before leaving I gave her one of my Shakespeare Geek stickers.  Never did catch her name, but if you ended up following me and you’re reading this, hello!