April 23 marks the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. How to celebrate the greatest writer in the English language? My alma mater, Hood College, hosts an annual library book sale, complete with a birthday cake for the Bard. Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon hosts a literary festival, where The Bookshop Band will premiere songs inspired by his plays, and European airline EasyJet is sponsoring a campaign to have April 23 officially recognized as “Shakespeare Day” (UK residents are invited to sign their petition). To that end, EasyJet is featuring Shakespeare’s likeness on an Airbus 319 and commissioning a live performance of Romeo and Juliet by the Reduced Shakespeare Company on a flight to Verona. (Tweets welcome: #shakesonaplane to @easyjet.)
Of course, the best way to honor Shakespeare is to read his work, or books about him. Luckily, I have two recommendations for Shakespeare Day 2014:
Shakespeare’s Restless World: A Portrait of an Era in Twenty Objects, by Neil MacGregor
Like Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, this 2012 book from the Director of the British Museum gives a sense of a beloved author’s historical context through material artifacts. Among the items that reveal Shakespeare’s life and times are: the Stratford Chalice, evidence of the Shakespeare family’s shift from Catholicism to Protestantism; a fork from the Rose Theater (food has long been part of the theatergoing experience); Sir Francis Drake’s Circumnavigation Medal (the 1590s plays, especially, have recurring themes of discovery and exploration); and copies of the plays from around the world—for instance, the first-ever South Sudanese production took place in 2012.
“Why is it so easy to read Shakespeare as a wholly prescientific figure?” Falk ponders in this brand-new book (published April 22nd by Thomas Dunne). In fact, sixteenth-century London was no rural backwater, but a modern technology hub, and general literacy was on the rise. The Bard would not have been ignorant about science. Nevertheless, he was on the cusp between a medieval worldview and the Scientific Revolution, a transitional state that the plays clearly reflect.
Shakespeare grew up under the Ptolemaic system, a fusion of Christianity and Greek philosophy that attributed sublime order to this (Earth-centered) universe “that was created by God but…could be understood through science.” But then came Nicolaus Copernicus’s shocking hypothesis that the Earth revolved around the sun.
Falk notes Shakespeare’s myriad references to the planets (or “spheres”), sun, moon, and stars, especially in Hamlet. One scholar, Peter Usher, has even theorized that Hamlet is an allegory of the triumph of Copernican science: Claudius, representing Ptolemy, is murdered, and the play ends with Fortinbras returning victorious from Poland, Copernicus’s homeland. This might seem far-fetched, but Falk makes a strong case for Shakespeare having met Dr. John Dee, Copernicus’s English proponent. Literature and cutting-edge science were not as separate as one might presume.
Yet, at the same time, astrology and magic were still rampant in Shakespeare’s world—as is especially evident in a play like Macbeth. Many Shakespearean characters believe in astrology, but others mock it; witness Edmund in King Lear: “we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars; as if we were…fools by heavenly compulsion.” Falk understands the appeal of astrology to average folk, then and now—“It gets you off the hook,” by making larger forces responsible. But, as Helena concludes in All’s Well That Ends Well, “Our remedies oft in / ourselves do lie, / Which we ascribe to heaven.”
Cosmology forms the largest section of Falk’s book, but he surveys medicine, too: Shakespeare’s son-in-law was a physician, and he exhibits a sophisticated understanding of anatomy—more advanced than the four humors and bloodletting, in any case. Falk also weighs the evidence for the increasingly popular theory that Shakespeare was an atheist. For a writer of his time, he mentions heaven and hell infrequently, and Lear, especially, seems nihilistic. However, Falk cautions against reading the plays autobiographically: “pick up any Shakespeare biography…and you will find a story laced with maybes.” It is difficult to make suppositions about this still-elusive figure.
Unless you have a particular interest in astronomy, you might find there is too much science and too little Shakespeare in this book. Falk, a Canadian science journalist with two previous physics books under his belt, is at his best when weaving in on-the-ground tales of library and museum visits, or anecdotes about tracking down Shakespeare sites in Stratford and London. Especially delightful is his “time traveler’s walk” through London, in which he imagines twenty-first century trappings dropping away to uncover what Shakespeare himself would have seen. Still, he gracefully achieves his aim of reconciling Shakespeare’s writings with the science of his day: “[T]here is no need to imagine art and science in competition…Science has given us a new world, and Shakespeare illuminates our place in it”—even 400-plus years on.
Cover Image: http://blog.aaa.si.edu/2013/04/shakespeare-in-santa-fe-observing-the-bards-birthday-with-the-art-of-dorothy-newkirk-stewart.html
Happy Birthday, William: http://whatsitallaboutshakespeare.blogspot.com/
Shakespeare Portrait: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William_Shakespeare_Chandos_Portrait.jpg