Science blog

13 May 2016

Shakespeare: a King of Infinite Space?

To celebrate the opening of the British Library’s Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition, Richard Wakeford (information specialist in science, technology and medicine) looks at how Shakespeare wove contemporary science into his work.

William Shakespeare lived in a remarkable time, on the cusp of the medieval world view and the scientific revolution. But how far was he aware of this new thinking and how much did it appear in his writing? Certainly Shakespeare did not make any scientific ideas obvious, any more than he made his views on religion or politics obvious. The clues are scattered but have been explored in a recent book by Dan Falk.

The Starry Messenger

One striking resonance is that the play Cymbeline, written in 1610 and first performed in 1611, drew upon Galileo Galilei’s publication of Siderius Nuncius (The Starry Messenger) in 1610. Incidentally, Shakespeare and Galileo were exact contemporaries, born two months apart in 1564.

In Cymbeline, a tangled tale of death, rape and cross-dressing, the character Postumus is in prison awaiting execution. In a masque scene, four ghosts of his dead family appear in a dream to dance around the god Jupiter, pleading for his life. This chimes directly with Galileo’s observations in the Starry Messenger that Jupiter is orbited by four moons.

The Starry Messenger
Left: Frontispiece of The Starry Messenger (Sidereus Nuncius) 1610. Right: Inside page.  (Images: Wikipedia)

 Galileo recorded the movement of four new objects around Jupiter over several successive nights.

“I therefore concluded and decided unhesitatingly, that there are three stars in the heavens moving about Jupiter, as Venus and Mercury round the Sun; which at length was established as clear as daylight by numerous subsequent observations. These observations also established that there are not only three, but four, erratic sidereal bodies performing their revolutions round Jupiter...the revolutions are so swift that an observer may generally get differences of position every hour.”

He hath overthrown all astronomy

This discovery cracked Aristotelian cosmology apart and rang around Europe. It is known that the mathematician and astronomer Thomas Harriot had read the work in London during the summer of 1610, soon after its publication in March in Venice1 and the English ambassador in Venice, Sir Henry Wotton, had immediately sent a copy to Sir Robert Cecil, the Lord Chamberlain, for the attention of the King, writing that “he [Galileo] hath first overthrown all former astronomy”.

It is likely that a book with such a high profile was read, or even more likely, gossiped about, by the King's playwright. Shakespeare’s company had become the Kings Men on the accession of James the First with Shakespeare made a “groom extraordinary of the chamber”. Furthermore the King was a science and technology fan, an enthusiastic collector of clocks and mechanical devices, and an admirer of the German astronomer Kepler2.

What was Shakespeare attempting to do in the masque scene? Scholars have disagreed over his knowledge of science, seeing him either as a native of the medieval world of astrology, or a science nerd writing Hamlet as a detailed, coded exposition of Copernican astronomy. Or maybe it was neither of these two extremes but simply that he sprinkled fashionable new ideas over his play to catch the fancy of the King. It is not known if Cymbeline was performed at court but a masque, accompanied by music, dancing and spectacular staging, strongly suggests a court performance.

William Herschel and Hubble Space Telescope
Left: William Herschel, discover of Uranus' moons Titania and Oberon. Right: Hubble Space telescope used to identify the moons Mab and Cupid (Images: Wikipedia)

Shakespeare’s links to astronomy have continued down the centuries. Sir William Herschel, after discovering Uranus in 1781, went on to locate the first two of its many moons in 1787, naming them Titania and Oberon. In 2003 the moons Cupid (after a character in Timon of Athens) and Mab (after Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet), were discovered using the Hubble space telescope.

Richard Wakeford, Science Reference Specialist

To find out more about Shakespeare collections at the British Library join our reference team for a special tour where you can find out how to access and research Shakespeare-related collections that not on display in the exhibition. Tickets are available here

The British Library's current exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts is a landmark exhibition on the performances that made an icon, charting Shakespeare’s constant reinvention across the centuries and is open until Tuesday 6th September 2016.

An original copy of the Starry Messenger is displayed in the science case in the Treasures of the British Library gallery. It opens at one of the pages illustrating the surface features of the Moon, another of Galileo’s discoveries that broke with the traditional concept of celestial perfection. Galileo’s sunspot letters are also on display and can be seen here.

The title of this blog "A king of infinite space" is taken from a quote by Shakespeare's Hamlet: "O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams" (Act II, Scene 2)

 Read more about Shakespeare and Galileo here:

  1. Bloom T,F., Borrowed perceptions: Harriot’s maps of the moon. Journal for the History of Astronomy, 1978, 9: 117-122. An online version is here.
  2.  Feingold, M. The mathematicians' apprenticeship : science, universities and society in England 1560-1640.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.General Reference Collection X.800/38615
  3.  Galileo, G. The starry messenger or Galileo's O, edited by Horst Bredekamp. Berlin: AkademieVerlag, c2011. General Reference Collection YD.2012.b.2230
  4. 4Shakespeare W. Cymbeline; edited by John Pitcher London: Penguin, 2005 General Reference Collection YC.2005.a.2678 (John Pitcher’s introduction also explores the link between Shakespeare and Galileo.)
  5. Richard Wakeford: Science Reference Specialist