This post is a sort of footnote to my review of Dan Falk’s The Science of Shakespeare it doesn’t really contain anything that I haven’t already said in several earlier posts but it does say something that I think bears repeating at regular intervals for those contemplating historical studies, the dangers of presentism. This time my thoughts were provoked by a comment on Twitter on my review. Jeffrey Newman (@JeffreyNewman) tweeted the following:
Is it too simplistic to suggest that Shakespeare, whose awareness of religious controversy is acute though his own views are wisely not revealed – must have been equally fascinated by contemporary scientific discoveries and controversies, news of which must have been circulating in his circles?
I had of course said something similar in the opening paragraph of my review:
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.
What I wish to address here is to what extent Copernicus and heliocentricity really was actual and controversial during Shakespeare’s lifetime and how much of our perception that it must have been is actually the product of misapplied hindsight.
The common modern perception of the impact of Copernicus and his heliocentric cosmology finds its origins in the work of Immanuel Kant, one of the most influential of all European philosophers, in the late eighteenth century. Kant coined the term Die kopernikanischen Wende (The Copernican Turn) to describe what he saw as the biggest change of perception of humanities place in the cosmos that had ever taken place. In the course of the nineteenth century in English, Kant’s term mutated into the Copernican Revolution also called the Astronomical Revolution and often conflated with the Scientific Revolution, a concept also born in that century. For here on the advent of heliocentricity in the Early Modern Period was perceived as something stupendous, quite literally earth moving, a change in the intellectual climate that was almost without comparison in the history of human existence. But was it perceived as such in the second half of the sixteenth-century? The very simple answer is no, in fact rather the opposite, almost nobody took any notice of it at all.
Most astronomers and those who understood mathematical astronomy and cosmology found his book interesting but most of them remained largely unconvinced by his hypothesis and that’s all it was, an unsubstantiated hypothesis. Outside of this rather small circle of knowledgeable experts, Copernicus’ ideas received almost no attention at all. Put simply the majority of people living in Europe at that time had more important things to occupy their minds than the complex mathematical ideas of some German speaking cleric from the outskirts of civilization (Copernicus’ own estimate of his place of domicile). As I wrote in an earlier post on the same subject Copernicus’ hypothesis went off like a damp squib rather than the proverbial bombshell.
A more general discussion of the various competing systems of astronomy on offer at the beginning of the seventeenth-century first really took off in 1610 following the telescopic discoveries made by Galileo, Marius, Harriot, Lembo and others; the biggest impact being made by Galileo’s publication of his Sidereus Nuncius. I say various because there were more systems on offer than just Ptolemaic geocentricity and Copernican heliocentricity as I outlined in an earlier post. Kepler had thrown his hat into the ring one year earlier with his Astronomia nova, but his tendency to write long diatribes in convoluted Latin meant that not many people could be bothered to plough through his book. Heliocentricity, in the Keplerian version, first gained a foothold, as a viable alternative, after Kepler published his ideas in simple readable form in his Epitome Astronomiae Copernicanae, in three volumes between 1617 and 1621, and his Rudolphine Tables in 1623. Even here the acceptance, which was effectively completed by about 1660, was more gradual and low key than revolutionary.
On the negative side the common modern perception of the reception of the heliocentric hypothesis is almost totally shaped by the all too notorious dispute between Tuscany’s lamb to the slaughter, Galileo Galilei, and the big bad wolf of Early Modern history, the Catholic Church. Unfortunately here mythology rather than factual history looms large. The popular vision has the astronomers and cosmologist of Europe quaking in their shoes, only daring to discuss the new astronomy behind closed doors in fear of being used as fuel to fire the Vatican’s furnaces having first had their finger nails extracted with red hot pincers.
In reality there was almost no appreciable opposition to heliocentric astronomy before 1616. In 1616 the Catholic Church reacted to the attempts of Galileo and Foscarini to reinterpret Holy Scripture to remove the contradictions to heliocentric cosmology. This was done sotto voce and remained a purely local affair, causing hardly a ripple outside of Rome. Galileo’s trial in 1632 stirred up a lot more interest but its effect on the spread of heliocentric cosmology and astronomy in Europe was considerably less than most people imagine, in fact it was almost negligible outside of Italy, even in Catholic countries. Within Italy there was a short period of caution and then authors started producing heliocentric texts, which merely pointed out in the preface that the system whilst mathematically interesting was of course entirely hypothetical because the Holy Mother Church said so. A great battle between the Church and the astronomers never really took place and very few astronomers ever quaked in their shoes.
So what does this all mean for Dan Falk, Peter Usher and Will Shakespeare? As far as can be ascertained Shakespeare was active as a playwright from about 1590 to 1610, or possibly a couple of years longer. During this period heliocentric cosmology was not really a burning topic either scientifically or in any way socially, politically or religiously so there are no real grounds to think that Shakespeare would take up the topic in his plays, which were largely social or political commentaries. Usher argues that Shakespeare encoded the new astronomy in his plays, most notably Hamlet, rather than discussing it openly out of fear of repression. However nobody was being repressed for discussing Copernicus or Copernicanism during Shakespeare’s lifetime, he died in 1616 just as the Galileo affair was beginning, so this claim is based on a false assessment of the actual historical situation.
We now come to the crux of the matter. The arguments for a potential interest of Shakespeare in the evolving new astronomy in the closing decade of the sixteenth-century and the opening decade of the seventeenth-century and a necessity for secrecy on his part in taking an interest are based on hindsight and not on real historical research. The current view of the Copernican Revolution and its social, political and religious consequences consists largely of myths created in the late eighteenth-century and throughout the nineteenth-century. By projecting backwards from these myths, and that is committing the historical sin of presentism, rather than researching the actual historical facts Falk, Usher and Jeffrey Newman with his question on Twitter create a false scenario for Shakespeare and his potential interest in the then new but hardly present astronomy.