Listen: Dan Falk in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty.
What did Shakespeare know about the astronomical thought of his own time – a time when science as we know it today was only just coming into existence?
Cosmology and the ‘Bard of Avon’
Did he directly, or indirectly, bring the new ideas of science into his works? Yes, according to Dan Falk, a Canadian science journalist and author and current Journalist-in-Residence at UNSW. He spoke on Open House about the influence of Copernicus and Galileo on the ‘Bard of Avon’.
Dan Falk became interested in Shakespeare and science in the lead up to the 450th birthday of the celebrated playwright on April 23, 2014. In fact, he published a whole book about the subject, The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe.
Ideas were about
The science in Shakespeare’s work seems to be a natural result of the developments and ideas circulating at the time argues Dan Falk. He and a number of others believes Shakespeare only uses what serves his plot (or his poetry); nothing is forced. Shakespeare is exploring various ideas in his work; some traditional and some quite modern.
Hamlet and astronomy
So what is Falk’s evidence? In Hamlet Shakespeare refers a lot to astronomy. For example, what is the star “westward from the pole” mentioned in Act 1 Scene 1? Another significant passage is Prince Hamlet’s reference to being a “king of infinite space” – an allusion, perhaps, to the infinite cosmos recently described by his countryman, the astronomer Thomas Digges.
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Earth not the centre of universe
The Copernican theory, the controversial idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun, rather than Earth being the center of the universe was published 21 years before Shakespeare was born. It seems reasonable to think that it must have been known to a man as intelligent and well connected as Shakespeare. This doesn’t mean he endorsed it, or approved of it; but it does seem that he at least would have known about it.
Science and superstition
In The Science of Shakespeare’ Falk writes,”And so we find, not surprisingly, a multitude of references to astrology. But some of Shakespeare’s characters also speak out against such superstitions, as when Cassius declares, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings” (Julius Caesar 1.2.139–40), or when Edmond, in King Lear, ridicules those who blame their misfortune on the heavens, dismissing such astrological conceit as “the excellent foppery of the world” (1.2.104). ”
Dan Falk is giving a free illustrated talk in Sydney, presented by the UNSW Engineering faculty. Dan will give the “Ingenuity Fellowship Lecture on “The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe”.
Can’t get enough of Shakespeare’s’ science quotes? There were a lot of advances in scientific thinking that followed Copernicus’ theory and they could have provided Shakespeare with much to write about and to write with.
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