MAY 22, 2014 12:00 AM PDT

Science in the Time of Shakespeare

WRITTEN BY: Robert Woodard
People all over the world celebrated William Shakespeare's 450th birthday on April 23, 2014. As with many things having to do with the man, there is some controversy about his actual day of birth. Another area of controversy is the influence, if any, that the scientific discoveries and technological developments of the time had on Shakespeare and his writing.
So, what was going on in the laboratories of the world in Shakespeare's day?

Shakespeare was born in 1564 and died in 1616. By some estimates, his most productive years were between 1589 (Comedy of Errors) and 1613 (Henry VIII). This was also a very productive time in the world of science. Just 21 years before Shakespeare's birth (in 1543), Copernicus published On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, which proposed that the Earth revolved around the sun, and not the other way around. His theory, as well as the work of many others, set off a scientific revolution that changed the way people viewed the world. We can only assume Shakespeare was among them.


Here are just a few of the advances in scientific thinking that followed Copernicus' theory and could have provided Shakespeare's with much to write about-and write with (all dates are approximate):


• In 1545, Charles Estienne, an early exponent of the new science of anatomy, published illustrations showing the venous, arterial, and nervous systems.

• In 1564, the graphite pencil was invented when a huge black carbon) mine was discovered in Borrowdale, Cumbria, England.

• In 1572, a bright new star-a supernova-lit up the constellation of Cassiopeia that was so bright that it outshone Venus for several months.

• An English clergyman named William Lee invented the stocking frame knitting machine in 1589, and jumpstarted the textile industry.

• Invention of the optical microscope in 1590 is credited to Dutchman Zacharias Janssen, who was working to help people with poor eyesight see better.

• In 1595, Gerardus Mercator, for whom the Mercator projection is named, published his atlas.

• In 1600, William Gilbert, in De Magnete, held forth the theory that the earth behaves like a giant magnet with its poles near the geographic poles.

• Johannes Kepler and many of his colleagues witnessed another supernova in 1604 that appeared in the constellation Serpens. It was the last supernova seen in the Milky Way galaxy.

• In 1610, Galileo built a refracting telescope with which he discovered the mountains of the moon and viewed the stars of the Milky Way, the moons of Jupiter, the phases of Venus and sunspots.

• In 1614, John Napier created the first logarithmic tables and coined the word "logarithm."

What, if anything, did Shakespeare make of these discoveries?
In his new book, The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright's Universe, author Dan Falk he argues that Shakespeare knew about the scientific developments of his day and used them in his plays.

It is possible, for example, that the star in Hamlet may have been inspired by a supernova, and Hamlet's soliloquies may subtly question the old ideas about Earth's place in the universe.

With Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler, it certainly was a golden age of astronomy. Yet, as Falk points out, when Shakespeare does talk about astronomy, it's more along the lines of Julius Caesar comparing himself to the North Star, Romeo and Juliet analyzing the rising Sun, and characters in King Lear talking about eclipses of the Sun and Moon. It is not immediately clear that these references have anything to do with the scientific developments or new philosophies of the day. They could even be seen as run-of-the-mill medieval or pre-Copernican views.

That said, there is also a scene in Act V of Cymbeline when the god Jupiter descends from the heavens and four ghosts of the protagonists dead relatives appear, dancing around him. Approximately in the same year that Cymbeline was written (1610), Galileo had just published Sidereus Nuncius, describing Jupiter and the four previously unknown moons that move around it. Coincidence? Maybe not.

In the end, Shakespeare's interest in and relationship to science and technology is a matter of conjecture. But one thing is certain, Shakespeare did have the scientist's gift for observing the world around him that must have extended far beyond the human realm. For the literary among us, looking for scientific allusions in Shakespeare's plays adds a level of interest to reading his work that might otherwise be missed.
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