As the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth rolls round again, it’s salutary to recall just how long the hunt for science in the bard’s work has gone on. In 1917, for instance, Herbert Warren, reviewing Shakespeare’s England, mentions the bard’s “world-embracing interest” as encompassing zoology and medicine. And the playwright’s lifetime (1564-1616) certainly coincided with a panoply of key scientific events and figures.
There were celestial dramas, from the Stella Nova spotted by Tycho Brahe in 1572 to Kepler’s sighting of Halley’s comet in 1607. There were starry contemporaries such as Galileo, who shared Shakespeare’s birthday. Meanwhile, the mindblowing findings of Copernicus on astronomy (De revolutionibus) and Vesalius on human anatomy (De humani corporus fabrica), both published in 1543, were ticking away like scientific timebombs.
And while England came late to Europe’s scientific renaissance, English luminaries such as mathematician-astronomers John Dee, Thomas Digges and Thomas Harriot held their own, as historian Jennifer Rampling revealed in her masterful summation of Tudor science last year. (Harriot, for instance, made telescope-aided drawings of the Moon’s surface four months before Galileo.) London was also, Rampling showed, a hotbed for the invention of everything from prototype wetsuits to navigational aids.
So how are those tumultuous developments reflected in the plays? London’s bustling commercial reality is there. And as Philip Ball among others has shown, Dee — drenched in the occult as well as natural philosophy — is often held up as the model for Prospero, The Tempest’s island-dominating sorcerer. But does astronomy get a look-in?
In his excellent The Science of Shakespeare, science journalist Dan Falk rounds up the best research and speculation in this area. For instance: in Act 2 of Hamlet (1603), the Dane exclaims to Rosencranz and Guildenstern: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space”. The infinitude of space was then still a fringe speculation. Yet intriguingly Digges, whose family Shakespeare knew, had created a diagram showing just that for his 1576 translation of Book 1 of Copernicus’s magnum opus. Meanwhile, Tycho — the other Dane — had two relatives named Rosencranz and Guildenstern.
However, as Falk is at pains to show, these echoes and intimations have yet to hang together cohesively, not least because of the paucity of information about the man from Stratford. What is clear is that Shakespeare wrote at the cusp of the scientific revolution: the medieval worldview still swirls through the plays, but mingled with acute observations of flowering plants, the subjective passage of time and, perhaps, the celestial conundrums of his era.
That rich, strange mix pervades the exhortation that opens Henry VI Part I: “Comets, importing change of times and states,/Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky.” Perhaps this is what is most scientific in Shakespeare: the mirror he, as brilliant observer, holds up to nature and the human mind.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.