Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Science of Shakespeare”

Science of Shakespeare, TheThe Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe. By Dan Falk. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’ Press, 2014.

I had never before considered the scientific worldview of William Shakespeare. Like almost every other American I had read the Bard’s great tragedies in high school and college—Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Hamlet—and only gained an appreciation of his comedies and historical works later in life. One of the things I learned early on, however, if one wanted to understand the real history of Julius Caesar or King Richard II or name the historical actor of your choice don’t rely on Shakespeare for knowledge. He was a playwright focused on producing engaging, successful theater aimed at the masses, not in recording accurate historical narrative.

Although this is an interesting and enlightening book with more to offer than I initially thought about Shakespeare and science. At no point in the past have I ever thought of his plays as exemplars of understanding about the Scientific Revolution then under way when he wrote them. True, in the early 1600s Galileo was turning his telescope on Jupiter and published The Starry Messenger; somewhat before that Copernicus was developing a new model of the solar system that replaced the Ptolemaic geocentric explanation. The ferment in science was palpable. Shakespeare may not have been educated at Cambridge or Oxford, but according to author Dan Falk he certainly took in the intellectual milieu around him.

Did the Scientific Revolution find expression in the writings of Shakespeare? That is the core question posed by Falk. He answers it in the affirmative. Some of the connections are well developed, and some are so much speculation, but the reality is that if one reads his plays seeking evidence of a reflection of the scientific ferment around him it is there in abundance. The lion’s share of the book teases out these connections.

The most reflection on science in Shakespeare’s plays concerns astronomy. There are constant references to the stars and other bodies, their place in the sky, and their portents and transits. Some of these references offer quite accurate depictions of movements of individual constellations, the Moon, and the like. None of them, or so it seems, were central to the plot of any play, instead they enrich the dialogue and sometimes offer humor in the story. Falk makes the case that Shakespeare had a connection to Thomas Digges, a proponent of the Copernican view of the solar system, and reflected that understanding in his plays. This looks to be a solid observation.

Less solid, in my estimation, is the argument presented about Hamlet as an allegory for the debate over the Ptolemaic/Copernican world views, with characters standing in for the various positions and protagonists in the debate. This is not Falk’s theory, to be sure, but he spends considerable effort in relating the thesis as developed by Penn State astronomy professor emeritus Peter Usher. Like a lot of literary theories about Shakespeare, this one has very thin evidence and a lot of wishful thinking. It’s interesting and fun to consider, but ultimately not particularly convincing. Falk seems to know this as well and constantly qualifies the argument.

Beyond astronomy, Falk includes chapters on astrology, magic, medicine, religion, and the material world as presented in Shakespeare. In every case we find an individual who generally reflected the current thinking of the Scientific Revolution but also had vestiges of earlier mediaeval perspectives on the world. That is pretty much what I would expect to be the case.

The unsurprising result does not mean that The Science of Shakespeare is not worth a go. It is an easy read, and an interesting and informative book. It helps explain a bit about how the public of the era thought about the scientific world then emerging. At the same time, this is far from a scholarly work that advances the historical discourse. There are sections that are blatantly fictional, and as a work of journalism there is more about the current actors discussing these issues than there is in terms of path-breaking historical investigation. That said, it is an enjoyable, easy to follow, and moderately useful book helping to bring together the literary world of Shakespeare and the scientific world of the early modern period.

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2 Responses to Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Science of Shakespeare”

  1. Roger, thanks for the pointer. I will look for this book. I might have an interesting thought or two on my own. I am a descendant of John Donne, a contemporary of Shakespeare who made his own rather interesting impact on the world. Some years ago I read The Cambridge Companion to John Donne and was stunned to see the similarities between him and me. I’m not in his class, but the similarities did surprise me. I also have read some of John Donne’s poetry and prose. Those writings speak powerfully to me.


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