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Astronomy and the Art of Verse: How Galileo Influenced Shakespeare

A stanzaic vision for Jupiter’s moons and Saturn’s rings.

William Shakespeare — to the extent that he existed at all — lived during a remarkable period in human history. Born the same year as Galileo, a founding father of the Scientific Revolution, and shortly before Montaigne, the Bard witnessed an unprecedented intersection of science and philosophy as humanity sought to make sense of its existence. One of the era’s most compelling sensemaking mechanisms was the burgeoning field of astronomy, which brought to the ancient quest to order the heavens a new spirit of scientific ambition.

In The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe (public library), science journalist Dan Falk explores the curious connection between the legendary playwright and the spirit of the Scientific Revolution, arguing that the Bard was significantly influenced by science, especially by observational astronomy.

‘A Comet Lands in Brooklyn,’ an installation designed by StudioKCA and David Delgado of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the 2014 World Science Festival

Of particular interest is what Falk calls “one of the most intriguing plays (and one of the most overlooked works) in the entire canon” — the romantic tragedy Cymbeline. Pointing to a strange and highly symbolic scene in the play’s final act, where the hero sees in a dream the ghosts of his four dead family members circling around him as he sleeps, Falk writes:

Shakespeare’s plays cover a lot of ground, and employ many theatrical tricks — but as for gods descending from the heavens, this episode is unique; there is nothing else like it in the entire canon. Martin Butler calls the Jupiter scene the play’s “spectacular high point,” as it surely is. But the scene is also bizarre, unexpected, and extravagant — so much so that some have wondered if it represents Shakespeare’s own work.


If anything in Shakespeare’s late plays points to Galileo, this is it: Jupiter, so often invoked by characters in so many of the plays, never actually makes a personal appearance — until this point in Cymbeline. And of course Jupiter is not alone in the scene: Just below him, we see four ghosts moving in a circle. . . . Could the four ghosts represent the four moons of Jupiter, newly discovered by Galileo?

The timeline, Falk points out, is right — Cymbeline is believed to have been written in the summer or fall of 1610, mere months after the publication of Galileo’s short but seminal treatise on his initial telescopic observations, Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger). Falk finds more evidence in an earlier scene, where Jachimo meets the married Imogen, having been introduced by her husband, Posthumus, who has dared Jachimo in a wager to try seducing Imogen — a feat Posthumus deems unattainable. Mesmerized by her beauty, Jachimo decides to win the wager by convincing Imogen that Posthumus had been unfaithful to her on his travels, implying that her best recourse of revenge would be to be unfaithful in turn — of course, by sleeping with Jachimo himself. Lo and behold, his ploy backfires — Imogen is infuriated. To salvage the situation, Jachimo makes a U-turn, claiming to have made everything up as a way of testing her and extolling Posthumus’s virtues. And yet, even though Imogen forgives him, Jachimo is struck by the sketchiness of his own story. Falk cites the following passage spoken by Jachimo:

Thanks, fairest lady.
What, are men mad? Hath Nature given them eyes
To see this vaulted arch and the rich crop
Of sea and land, which can distinguish ’twixt
The fiery orbs above and the twinned stones
Upon th’unnumbered beach, and can we not
Partition make with spectacles so precious
’Twixt fair and foul?

First atlas of the moon, 1647, from ‘Ordering the Heavens.’ Click image for more.

Falk writes:

The passage seems to allude, at least in part, to the sights one might see in the heavens; at the very least, it has something to do with distinguishing different kinds of objects (including, it would seem, stars) from one another. But the context is crucial: The first line is spoken to Imogen; the remaining lines are clearly an aside, spoken only to the audience. He seems to be saying, My story is unbelievable; why would Posthumus stoop so low, when his own wife is so beautiful? After all, he reasons, the eye gives one the power to tell the stars apart, and even to distinguish one stone on the beach from another; can’t Posthumus see the difference between his wife and a common whore? [Penn State University astronomer Peter] Usher passes over the sexual aspect of these lines, however, and focuses on the astronomical: The “vaulted arch” is surely the sky; the “fiery orbs above” must be the stars. Could the precious “spectacles” be a reference to a telescope-like device?

In the remainder of The Science of Shakespeare, a wonderfully dimensional read in its entirety, Falk goes on to explore a number of other allusions to astronomy throughout the play, from Imogen’s oblique wink at the English mathematician and astronomer Thomas Digges to Shakespeare’s potential reference to the structure of Saturn’s rings. At the heart of his argument is an ambitious effort to offer empirical assurance for what we all intuit — that art and science need each other, inform and inspire one another, and are branches from the same tree of the human longing in a universe that is more like a mirror of meaning than a window of understanding, beaming back at us whatever imagination we imbue it with.

How right pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell was when, two and a half centuries later, she marveled at the shared sensibility of science and poetry:

We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.

Published June 2, 2014




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