Was Shakespeare a scientist?


A recent article by Dan Falk of The Telegraph puts forth this important question by highlighting that:

 The genius from Stratford-upon-Avon has worn many hats over the years, with imaginative scholars casting him as a closet Catholic, a mainstream Protestant, an ardent capitalist, a Marxist, a misogynist, a feminist, a homosexual, a legal clerk and a cannabis dealer – yet the words “Shakespeare” and “science” are rarely uttered in the same breath.

CC201 delves a little into this, and indeed, the science of Shakespeare’s texts is not obvious. The closest we get to science fiction is Milton’s Paradise Lost and Satan’s journey through space. Still, Dan Falk writes that Shakespeare’s plays are:

 Full of references to the Sun, Moon, stars, comets, eclipses and heavenly spheres – but these are usually dismissed as strictly old-school, reflecting the (largely incorrect) ideas of ancient Greek thinkers such as Aristotle and Ptolemy. Although Copernicus had lifted the Earth into the heavens with his revolutionary book in 1543 – 21 years before Shakespeare’s birth – it supposedly took decades for the new cosmology to reach England; and anyway, the idea of a sun-centred universe only became intellectually respectable with the news of Galileo’s telescopic discoveries in 1610. By then, Shakespeare was ready for retirement in Warwickshire.

 Giving examples from the plays themselves, the article proposes different readings:

 Donald Olson of Texas State University has argued that the star observed by Prince Hamlet shining “westward from the pole” was inspired by Shakespeare’s boyhood memory of Tycho’s star – reinforced, perhaps, by a reference to it in Holinshed’s Chronicles 15 years later. (At the very least, Shakespeare would have seen the next supernova, “Kepler’s star”, in 1604.) One might note that Brahe observed the stars from the Danish island of Hven, a stone’s throw from the castle of Elsinore, Shakespeare’s setting for Hamlet.

 Astronomer Peter Usher, recently retired from Penn State University, takes the story further, arguing that Hamlet can be read as an allegory of competing cosmological world views. The evil Claudius stands in for his namesake, the ancient astronomer Claudius Ptolemy, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern represent Brahe, and Prince Hamlet is Thomas Digges. When Hamlet envisions himself as “a king of infinite space”, could Shakespeare be alluding to the new, infinite universe described – for the first time – by his countryman, Digges?

 Are there Core texts whose scientific elements you think deserve more attention? Let us know!

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