The Will of the title is England’s most notorious playwright and poet, William Shakespeare, who was supposedly born 450 years ago today. The question is the central motivation for the new book by Canadian popular science writer, Dan Falk, The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe. Given that Shakespeare was born just twenty-one years after Copernicus’ De revolutionibus was published and lived through the period in which Kepler and Galileo, amongst others, made the heliocentric hypothesis the hottest item in the European scientific community it is not unreasonable to ask, as Falk does, in the more general sense, whether the cosmological and astronomical upheaval of the age left any traces in Will’s work. Traditional Shakespearean scholarship says no, Falk re-examines the evidence.
I must admit that when I first got offered this book to review I had a sinking feeling that somebody was going down the same garden path that Peter Usher had already trodden. For those readers who are not aware of Mr Usher’s endeavours, he is a retired astronomer who believes that he has found the secret message encoded in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and in all of the rest of his works. Usher believes that Hamlet describes the battle for supremacy between the Ptolemaic, Tychonic and Copernican system of astronomy in the Early Modern Period. What do I think of Mr Usher’s theories? Let’s put it this way, Mr Usher manages to make the Bible decoders look like rational human beings. My feelings about reading Falk’s book where not improved on discovering, upon receiving my review copy, that it was indeed an introduction to Mr Usher’s ideas that inspired Falk to research and write his book; I feared the worst. Fortunately, although I cannot totally endorse the book, Mr Falk did indeed do his research on the whole thoroughly and it turned out to be much better than I had feared. In fact on the whole I found it to be a well-written and entertaining read.
The introduction sets the scene for his book by presenting what are respectively the most expensive science and humanities rare books, Nicolas Copernicus’ De revolutionibus and The Shakespeare First Folio, given their proximity in time it is not an unreasonable question to ask if the one influenced the other and whilst acknowledging that the traditional answer is no, Falk already brings here one of the arguments used by more modern researchers, and not just Usher, to claim the opposite. I shall deal with this later along with the other supposed arguments in favour of a heliocentric Bard.
The first five chapters deal with the largely astronomical background giving a quick rundown on ancient cosmology, the emergence of Copernican theory and its reception in late sixteenth-century England. Falk has done his homework well and this part of the book is almost totally satisfying. I say almost because it does contain two serious errors.
Falk manages to walk into a trap that Copernicus laid for the unwary. Falk writes, “and it [the Copernican model] managed to bring the total number of circles down from eighty to thirty-four.” Falk is here paraphrasing a claim that Copernicus makes in the Commentariolus the pamphlet he wrote around 1514, first announcing his heliocentric system. The claim is an estimate and not a fact. Unfortunately for Falk by the time Copernicus had worked out his system in full, in De revolutionibus, he actually needed forty-eight circles, whereas Peuerbach, in his Theoricae Novae Planetarum, the most modern version of the geocentric model, which Copernicus used and consulted himself, only required forty circles. Not a victory for the new astronomy.
Whilst discussing the Copernican reception Falk quite rightly introduces William Gilbert. He goes on to explain that Gilbert, influenced by Copernicus, discusses diurnal rotation in his De magnete, explaining it as the natural motion of a spherical magnet, based on his erroneous view that a spherical magnet left to itself rotates. Unfortunately Falk then goes on to say, “He also believed that magnetic forces emanating from the sun, together with the sun’s rotation, caused the planets to move in their heliocentric orbits”. Gilbert of course believed nothing of the sort. In Book Six of De magnete, where this discussion takes place, he states quite explicitly, “ From these arguments, therefore, we infer, not with mere probability, but with certainty, the diurnal rotations of the earth; […] I pass by the earth’s other movements, for here we treat only of the diurnal rotation [my emphasis], whereby it turns to the sun and produces the natural day (of twenty-four hours) which we call nycthermeron”. Gilbert’s model is in fact not Copernican at all but a geocentric-geokinetic one. I’ve blogged about the history of such systems here. The magnetic force explanation for the movement of the planets in a heliocentric system was hypothesised by Johannes Kepler, first in his Astronomia nova and then again later in his Epitome astronomiae Copernicanae, inspired by Gilbert’s work but not taken from him. I have a sneaking suspicion that Falk got his research notes a little muddled up here.
I found it very positive that Falk does not shy away from some controversial topics concerning sixteenth century English astronomy but whilst discussing them retains a level head. For example he looks at the claims made chiefly by Colin Ronan, who strangely doesn’t get mentioned here at all, that the Digges, that’s father and son Leonard and Thomas, invented and constructed a functioning telescope forty plus years before Hans Lippershey in Holland. Whilst quoting all of the original sources that led to these speculations Falk also gives space to those experts who clearly reject Ronan’s hypothesis, as I also do.
Having presented the scientific background Falk now moves on to Shakespeare presenting the reader with an, albeit, brief but adequate biography of the Bard. A necessary section of his book for those who come to it from the history of science rather than from English philology.
We are now half way through and can at last turn our attention to the real subject of the book, Shakespeare and science and Falk dives right in with “The Science of Hamlet”, where a tortuous trail of speculation is constructed. We start with a quote from the opening scene, “When yound same star that’s westward from the pole, Had made its course to illume that part of heaven”. This is a reference to the time of night, it being common practice in the Middle Ages to measure time at night by the position of the circumpolar stars. With a lot of jiggery-pokery we are led to the conclusion that the referenced star must be the Nova from 1572. This is not completely improbable as this Nova was the most significant celestial event during Shakespeare’s lifetime. In a fantasy dialogue Falk has Shakespeare’s father taking the young Will out to view the Nova in a prologue to the book. We now get led on to the fact that this is Tycho Brahe’s Nova. This is a classic bit of presentism. Tycho did indeed observe and write about this Nova but so did every astronomer in Europe and everybody, astronomer or no, with two eyes almost certainly observed it. So why do we need to introduce Tycho?
We now come to the central argument for an astronomical Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Tycho Brahe produced an engraving of himself, he did lots of that sort of thing, in 1590, which lists sixteen of his close relatives including a Rosenkrans and a Guildensteren, Q.E.D: Shakespeare took the names from Tycho. It’s obvious isn’t it? But how? Tycho sent a copy of his astronomical letters, his Epistolae, containing said engraving to Thomas Saville, which includes Tycho’s well wishes for John Dee and Thomas Digges. What if Thomas Digges also received a copy? We then get a whole heap of arguments the Shakespeare could have (must have) known the Digges family and through them seen such a Tychonic portrait. Digges, we should not forget was a Copernican. Unfortunately none of these arguments contains a single concrete fact that Shakespeare knew the Digges family. The whole chapter is an untidy heap of unsubstantiated speculations with very little real substance.
Is it possible that Shakespeare came across the names Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by other means? To be fair to Falk he answers this question in the positive. There was a Danish diplomatic mission to England in 1592 including two delegates bearing the names Rosenkrans and Guildensteren and alone on Frederick II court in Copenhagen there were nine Rs and three Gs so a connection to Tycho is not really necessary.
Because Tycho as the Danish source of Hamletian science is so important both to Falk and Usher I will now point out something that the both either ignore or possibly deliberately sweep under the carpet. In the earlier chapters on Renaissance astronomy, when discussing Tycho, Falk points out that James VI & I actually visited Tycho’s observatory on Hven during a trip to Denmark. What he neglects to mention is why James was visiting Denmark in the first place. James went to Denmark in 1589 to fetch his bride, Anne of Denmark. This means that from 1590 onwards there would have been a strong political interest in Denmark, not only in Scotland but also in England where James was already seen as the most likely heir to the childless Elizabeth. Tycho Brahe was by no means the only reason for Shakespeare and his contemporaries to be interested in all things Danish.
Let us assume that having decided to write Hamlet Shakespeare, a good author, did some research on Denmark and the Danish court. He would discover that Denmark was ruled by an oligarchy of about twenty powerful families of, which the Brahes were one. If he chose at random two names from those twenty from his play then those chosen would have been relatives of Tycho because, as is the nature of oligarchies, the families maintained their hold on power by intermarrying. The fact that two courtiers in Hamlet bear the names of two of Tycho’s relatives thus has, in my opinion, very little significance.
Enter Usher stage right: According to Peter Usher the whole of Hamlet not only contains hidden references to Copernican astronomy but is in fact a dramatic presentation of the intellectual battle between the leading astronomical systems, Ptolemaic, Copernican and Tychonic. Hamlet is the Copernican astronomer embodied by Thomas Digges, Hamlet’s murdered father is Leonard Digges, his uncle Claudius is Ptolemaeus, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Tycho (apparently he has a split personality!), Laertes is Thomas Harriot and so on and so on. Only the women play no role in Usher grand scheme of things, a little strange given Ophelia’s central role in the drama! Apart from the Tycho connection sketched above Usher has discovered two smoking guns in the play that he thinks justify his interpretation. The first of these is Wittenberg. This German university town gets several name checks in the play. Usher sees this as references to Copernicanism because Rheticus, who persuaded Copernicus to publish, had studied and taught at Wittenberg. There are a couple of obvious flaws in this argument. Firstly Rheticus had left Wittenberg before the publication of De revolutionibus, in which he is incidentally never mentioned, to become professor of mathematics in Leipzig. Secondly Wittenberg was by no means a centre of Copernican scholarship, Luther and Melanchthon being both on record as opposing heliocentricity.
Is there another reason for Shakespeare to feature Wittenberg in a play about the Danish court? In fact there is. The court language in Denmark was not Danish but German and although Copenhagen had its own Lutheran university it was common practice for the Danish aristocracy to send its sons abroad for their education. See a bit of the world whilst getting your degree. Because Denmark was a strongly Lutheran country Wittenberg, home of Luther and the Reformation, was the most popular destination for young Danish aristocrats to acquire their foreign university experience. There is absolutely no need to evoke a bogus Copernican connection to justify Shakespeare’s choice of Wittenberg in his play.
Usher’s second smoking gun is the famous hawk and handsaw quote, “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw”. (For those not in the know handsaw is thought to be a typo for hernshaw a kind of heron). For Usher this rather enigmatic passage is interpreted to mean that for someone on Hven when the wind comes from north-north-west this means Elsinore the home of Claudius and Ptolemaic astronomy, so madness, whereas a wind from the south means Wittenberg the home of Copernicanism. Having already demolished the theory that Wittenberg is the home of Copernicanism I don’t really need to say more but I do have to ask why Hamlet should be positioned on Hven, Tycho’s realm, whilst making this speech? It really doesn’t make much sense to me Mr Usher.
There are a whole series of even less convincing finds by Usher not only in Hamlet but in all of Shakespeare’s plays to justify his fantasy constructions that I’m not going to go into here, but there is one further issue that I postponed from the introduction, an argument used by those not totally convinced by Usher’s bizarre arguments but willing to accept that Shakespeare’s work possible does contain some hidden references to heliocentricity. The quote in question comes from Troilus and Cressida, “the glorious planet Sol / In noble eminence enthroned and sphered…” We get told that, “by emphasizing the role of the sun, the passage may hint at the new heliocentric astronomy.” Talk about clutching at straws. Within traditional geocentric astronomy, astrology and alchemy the sun played a special role for very obvious reasons. The sun determines day and night, it defines the year, it brings light and warmth, it is by far and away the most prominent body in the sky do I really need to go one. I will add one astronomical note for those philologists who are apparently too lazy to read up on the history of the subject. In geocentric cosmology the sun was regarded as the ruler of the planets because, in the most commonly accepted order of the orbits, it occupies the central position in the heavens with three inner plants and three outer planets below and above it.
At the end of his chapter on Usher Falk tries a bait and switch. He presents a list of off the wall papers presented at a major Shakespearean conference that he attended whilst researching his book with an argument that Usher’s thesis is no crazier than these. Just because other people spout shit doesn’t make Usher’s shit anymore palatable. I will however give Falk credit, although he does present Usher’s garbage with considerably more sympathy than he deserves he also lets Usher’s critics speak for themselves leaving it to the reader to make up her or his mind on the subject.
What now follows in a chapter on Galileo and the telescopic discoveries made around 1610; in itself not a bad retelling of well-known material. This is included because we now have Usher and others trying to convince us that Shakespeare’s late play Cymbeline contain hidden references to Galileo’s (and Marius’ but he doesn’t get a mention) discovery of the four largest moons of Jupiter. I leave it to Falk’s readers to find if the arguments are convincing.
Because the book’s title is The Science of Shakespeare and not the astronomy or cosmology of Shakespeare Falk now turns to what are now commonly known as the occult sciences. Unfortunately he doesn’t seem to have done his homework here anywhere near as well as he did for the astronomy and cosmology in the main part of the book. We start with astrology and here he fall on his nose at the first hurdle. Falk tells us:
In England, astrology came to have two more or less distinct branches, known as “natural astrology” and “judicial astrology”. Natural astrology was, in fact, something like straight-ahead astronomy; it focused on tracking and predicting the motions of the sun, moon, and planets. Judicial astrology was closer to what we think of today as just plain “astrology – the attempt to link celestial happenings to earthly affairs, and to use astronomical knowledge to predict terrestrial happenings.
Wrong! Astronomy focused on tracking and predicting the motions of the sun, moon, and planets. That’s the difference between astronomy and astrology, although in Shakespeare’s time the two words were still used interchangeably. In fact astrology has four major divisions that go back to antiquity and were not first developed in Renaissance England. These are judicial astrology, electional astrology, horary astrology and natural astrology. Judicial or natal astrology is more or less as Falk describes it. Electional astrology is the casting of horoscopes to determine the correct or propitious time or date to start an undertaking. When should one marry, when lay the foundation stone of a building or new town, when to undertake a journey or even when to start a military campaign. Horary astrology is the attempt to answer questions by astrologers casting horoscopes upon receipt of the question. This is the classic detective story astrology used to detect thieves or to discover the hiding place of stolen goods. Natural astrology is the branch of astrology that deals with the things of the natural world i.e. astro-medicine and astro-meteorology. Theses division are important in the history of astrology, as there were extensive debates and disputes as to the validity of each of them, each of the four having its own champions and opponents. Interestingly even the strongest opponents of astrology in general in the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance tended to accept the validity of natural astrology whilst simultaneously launching vitriolic invective against the widespread judicial astrology.
Although having got off to a bad start Falk’s discussion of judicial astrology in Shakespeare is reasonably good. He acknowledges that Shakespeare’s work is permeated by astrological references, whilst being a good mirror of his own society he also lets the opponents of astrology speak their piece. Unfortunately I got the feeling that Falk was trying to persuade the reader that Shakespeare was an opponent of astrology and that despite the fact that in his biographical chapter on the Bard he warns the reader against trying to determine Shakespeare’s character or personality from his works. I was particularly irritated by statements that Carl Sagen or Richard Dawkins would find favour with a particular anti-astrology speech or Neil deGrasse Tyson and Laurence Krauss would applaud a piece of scepticism. I found these comments out of place and quite frankly somewhat bizarre.
After astrology we turn to magic. This chapter slightly disturbs me, as it is largely about demonic magic, Macbeth’s witches and all that, which unlike natural magic was never considered scientia and thus not science. Towards the end of the chapter Falk does briefly discuss the difference between demonic and natural magic but his definition of natural magic is even more wrong than his definition of natural astrology. I’m not even going to go there, as an attempt to explain natural magic would probably end up as long as this already over long review. Even worse Falk talks about astrology as being magic. This is within the context of a book on Renaissance history a serious category mistake. Astrology is not a form of magic. Falk makes the same category mistake as he discusses alchemy in this chapter. Alchemy gets dismissed in a couple of short paragraphs somewhat of a disappointment as alchemy played a very central role in Elizabethan learned society, with even Elizabeth herself a practicing alchemist. Falk closes out the chapter by stating that “Astrology, witchcraft, alchemy, magic … and science. It was all part of a package; all were thoroughly intertwined in the sixteenth century, and even into the early years of the seventeenth.” This was indeed true although it went much further into the seventeenth century than the early years. However I find it slightly sad that Falk choses to illustrate this with a quick sketch of the live and work of Johannes Kepler. This sketch whilst basically correct doesn’t do Kepler’s scientific achievements justice. We also get the following old myth dished up, “We might note that Kepler was a practicing astrologer, and that he cast horoscopes for the German nobility. It’s not clear, however, how much faith he put in the power of the starts to influence our lives” [my emphasis]. Just for the record Kepler was a 100% convinced astrologer and any claims to the contrary are wishful thinking from those who would prefer their scientific heroes free of the taint of the occult.
Next up is Renaissance medicine a recurring theme in Shakespeare’s plays. An adequate treatment of the subject as far as it goes but neither here nor in his discussion of astrology does Falk even mention let alone discuss astro-medicine. This is a strange omission as astrological medicine was one of the dominant directions in medical practice in Shakespearean times. This chapter contains the strangest claim in the whole book. In his discussion of the differences between physicians, surgeons, apothecaries, and midwifes Falk produces the following gem, “Since the Middle Ages, the practice of medicine had been associated with the Catholic Church and so physicians were forbidden to shed blood”. Now I’m not a historian of medicine but I’ve read a lot of literature on the history of medicine and I’ve never come across anything of the sort in fact I will go as far as to say that this statement is a total myth of the same sort as the claim that the Church had banned dissection. I’m quite prepared to admit that I’m wrong should any of my highly educated readers show Falk to be in the right but somehow I don’t think I’m going to have to.
In the penultimate chapter Falk takes a sharp left turn. The chapter opens with a brief discussion of Lucretius’ De rerum natura and a free advert for Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve. As Falk correctly says De rerum natura was a highly popular and influential book in Shakespeare’s time so one might well expect to find this popularity reflected in Shakespeare’s writings. All that Falk can deliver is one instance of the word atomi in Romeo and Juliet. This doesn’t stop him discussing Lucretius and recommending Greenblatt’s book. Greenblatt is one of the experts on Shakespeare that Falk consulted for his book, as he tells us on numerous occasions in the text and he gives an enthusiastic endorsement to Greenblatt’s work on the rediscovery of Lucretius’ poem in the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, this high opinion of The Swerve is not shared by many historians of medieval philosophy including one guest author here at The Renaissance Mathematicus.
Falk now introduces us to the sixteenth-century French essayist Montaigne trying to conceive him as a modern scientific skeptic, again gratuitously name dropping some actual ones, this time Laurence Krauss and Stephen Hawking. He does however admit that the attempt is at best dubious. He lets us know that Montaigne briefly refers to Copernicus, noting that there are now two possible cosmologies however reflecting that maybe in a thousand years a third model will come along and overthrow both of them. For this insight Falk credits Montaigne with being a sixteenth-century Karl Popper. There is however method in all this. We now get shown that Shakespeare was a diligent reader of the English translation of Montaigne’s essays traces of them turning up all over his own writings. This leads Falk to the categorical claim that at least here Shakespeare must have [my emphasis] come across Copernicus and Copernicanism. I always react allergically when somebody writing a historical text having failed to produce a direct link between two things sets up a plausible but speculative link and then says, “must”. There is no must about it. We simply do not know if Shakespeare read all of Montaigne’s voluminous output or only selected essays or if reading the essay in question skipped over the brief lines referring to Copernicus or even reading them gave them no significance and promptly forgot them again. What makes Falk’s last ditch attempt to link Shakespeare and Copernicus all the more questionable, having failed earlier in his book to produce a genuine smoking gun, is that he has spent a lot of words trying to convince the reader that Hamlet is the Bard’s Copernican work, whereas the English translation of the Montaigne essay first appeared in 1603 after Hamlet was written.
The final chapter of the book goes off on another tangent, this time in the direction of atheism. We get a potted history of atheism in the Early Modern Period and parallel to it a synopsis of how lacking in hope King Lear is. Combining this with the fact the Will’s friend Kit Marlowe was accused of atheism Falk ventures the hypothesis that Shakespeare had abandoned a belief in god. At the latest here, it becomes clear that Falk wishes to recreate Shakespeare as a sort of sixteenth-century Richard Dawkins. Enthusiastically embracing, albeit secretly, the new mode of scientific thinking and rejecting humanities dependency on god. However having come this far Falk baulks at the final hurdle hurriedly qualifying his own hypothesis, “We can’t definitely label Shakespeare an atheist, just as we can’t call him a scientist – even if we suspect we are seeing hints of such a world view.” In my opinion Falk has made a valiant effort to find facts to support his thesis but for me his argument is far too full of gaping holes to be really convincing.
Although this is not a an academic book its subject matter is of an academic nature so I think it is fair to ask about the academic apparatus, foot- or endnotes, bibliography and index. The book is equipped with, what I’m told, are hanging endnotes. That is endnotes giving sources for direct quotes in the text but without indications (quote numbers) in the text that they exist. This is possibly the worst solution to the notes problem that exists and I abhor it. I also found several direct quotes in the text for which no endnote exists. What makes this choice even stranger is that the text also has spasmodic footnotes referring to quotes in the text. Why some quotes earn footnotes and others hanging endnotes is not at all clear to me. The bibliography is quite extensive and gives ample evidence of the work that Falk has obviously invested in his book. There is no index! I find the omission of an index in this age of advance word processors, which make the compilation of an index child’s play, unforgivable.
I realise that if anybody has stayed with me up to here that they might think that having made so many negative comments I would not recommend Falk’s book, they would be wrong. On the whole I found the book well written, entertaining and informative. It is not free of errors but very few popular books on the history of science ever are. One of the very positive aspects of the book is that when even Falk presents a speculative theory concerning some aspect of science and a Shakespearean play he makes very clear that it is speculative and also presents alternative explanations for the text in question leaving it up to the readers to decide for themselves whether to accept the proffered hypothesis or not. On the whole I enjoyed reading this book and would recommend it as a stimulating read for anybody interested in the subject matter, although they should be on their toes whilst reading.
 Dan Falk, The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe, Thomas Dunne Press, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2014.