Archive for the 'Follow-Up' Category

Shakespeare Follow-Up: The Atom

Friday, December 6th, 2013

In As You Like It, Celia reveals to Rosalind that she knows the name of Rosalind’s secret admirer. It is Orlando, who has already captured her heart. Immediately, Rosalind begins to pepper Celia with an overwhelming litany of questions, which causes Celia to exclaim:

It is as easy to count atomies as to resolve the propositions of a lover

Wait, what? Isn’t this the same play that said that the world is six thousand years old? How could Celia possibly know about atomic theory? Fortunately, there’s no job too small for the Shakespeare Follow-Up.

According to my Folger edition of the play (Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, ed.), the word “atomies” as used here means “dust particles in sunlight.” Oh.


Never mind.

Later in the play, Phebe uses the word, and this is clearly the meaning she intends:

Thou tell’st me there is murder in mine eye:
’Tis pretty, sure, and very probable,
That eyes, that are the frail’st and softest things,
Who shut their coward gates on atomies,
Should be call’d tyrants, butchers, murderers!

So that would appear to be that. But, wait! According to my Arden edition (Juliet Dusinberre, ed.), there’s more to the story. “Atomies” does indeed mean “tiny particles,” but…

The word, which occurs twice in AYL (see 3.5.13) and in no other Shakespeare play, may suggest the territory of the research conducted by Ralegh’s navigator, Thomas Harriot, into the atom and into optics, with particular relation to the refraction of light and the nature of visions.

(We’ll get back to Harriot, but as a side note, you may remember that Mercutio also uses the word “atomies” in the Queen Mab speech. To be fair, I checked my Arden edition of Romeo and Juliet (Brian Gibbons, ed.), and found instead the word “atomi,” which is from Q1. The Folio has “atomies.” So it’s arguable whether the word appears in another play, but the Arden is at least consistent. Even if you say the word is unique to As You Like It, however, the concept does appear in at least one other play.)

Atomism, the theory that all matter is made up of smaller units that cannot be further divided, was an idea embraced by several Pre-Socratic philosophers, most notably Leucippus and Democratus. Aristotle rejected this theory, believing that the four elements (earth, water, air, and fire) were continuous and infinitely divisible. As with most of these kinds of arguments, Aristotle’s version won the day. Although there were some notable figures who did believe in atomism throughout the ages, Aristotle’s theory was still the prevailing concept even in Shakespeare’s day. So in Twelfth Night, Viola gets Olivia’s attention by telling her “you should not rest/ Between the elements of air and earth, But you should pity me!” as Sir Toby asks Sir Andrew “Does not our life consist of the four elements?” when trying to make a point.

However, even in Shakespeare’s early seventeenth century, atomism was making a comeback, boasting such impressive adherents as Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, and even Galileo. Thomas Harriot was an early contributor to the developing theory, though at a time when it was still dangerous to speak too openly about what was considered a heretical idea. It’s intriguing to think that the notion may have captured Shakespeare’s imagination as well, but this is merely speculation. I don’t think you can strongly infer this from his use of a particular word twice in a given play, especially when the second use of the word points fairly decisively in the other direction.

In 1808, John Dalton (building on the work of Lavoisier and Proust) demonstrated that when a substance (such as water) is broken down into its components (such as hydrogen and oxygen), the proportion can always be described with small integers, implying that there is a direct correspondence on some foundational level. His atomic theory of matter led to further inquiry and discovery throughout the 19th century. In the early 20th century, quantum mechanics allowed scientists such as Max Planck, Albert Einstein, and Nils Bohr to describe the unique properties of particles on the microscopic scale.

There’s a lot more to the story, but it will have to suffice to note that in the mid-20th century, science learned how to split the atom, unleashing the potential for a virtually unlimited power source, weapons of unthinkable destruction, and a series of ethical questions that have turned out to be much more difficult to resolve than even the propositions of a lover.

Shakespeare Follow-Up: Circumnavigation

Friday, November 29th, 2013

When, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon sends Puck to fetch the magic flower, he gives him a deadline:

Fetch me this herb; and be thou here again
Ere the leviathan can swim a league.

I don’t know how fast the Leviathan could swim, so let’s talk about whales.

According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the fastest whales can reach speeds of up to 40 mph. If you Google “40 miles per hour in leagues per minute” it will convert the speed for you; it’s about 0.193 leagues per minute. So it would take about 5.18 minutes for the world’s fastest whale to swim a league, and I doubt it would take the Leviathan any longer.

Puck’s not ready to promise that. He responds:

I’ll put a girdle round about the earth
In forty minutes.

He’s going to need more time than Oberon asked, but to be fair, he’s going to take the long route.

Is it possible to do a complete circumnavigation of the Earth in 40 minutes? Puck’s got some powerful magic behind him, but that seems like a pretty fast journey. The Earth is almost 25,000 miles around. This claim needs a Shakespeare Follow-Up.

The 16th century voyages of Magellan and Drake would have been known to Shakespeare when he wrote the play. But these expeditions took years, and Puck didn’t have that kind of time. Over the next few centuries, many would make the trip, but it was always measured in years.

In 1873, Jules Verne wrote a fantasy novel called Around the World in Eighty Days, which documents a fictional attempt by Phileas Fogg to achieve the title journey in order to win a bet. Fogg travels by railroad and steamship, which gives him an advantage over his purely nautical predecessors. While they have to navigate around landmasses, he gets to travel a more direct route. Also, he’s a fictional character, but so is Puck. In the real world, the current record for sailing around the world belongs to French yachtsman Loïck Peyron. He ended his journey in January 2012 after 45 days, 13 hours, 42 minutes and 53 seconds. His prize? The Jules Verne Trophy.

Impressive as that is, Puck’s not going to make his deadline in a sailboat. What about hitching a ride on the Moon, a naturally orbiting satellite with close ties to the play? Well, as you might guess, the Moon takes about a month (29.5 days) to show its phase to the Earth. That’s faster than Peyron, but not fast enough for our time-pressed friend.

Shakespeare’s England wouldn’t have known any more of modern flight than Puck’s Athens, but we need to cut down our time. In 2010, Riccardo Mortara, Gabriel Mortara, and Flavien Guderzo set the record for a jet airplaine circumnavigation in 57 hours and 54 minutes, beating the Moon by a significant margin but still falling short of our goal. Being a fairy, Puck might have some connections to Santa Claus, who reportedly can make the worldwide journey in a single night. But to really pick up some speed, Puck should look into a spacecraft.

In 1961, Yuri Gagarin completed the first orbit of the Earth in 108 minutes. Now, we’re talking! There have been numerous orbits since that historic trip. I haven’t been able to find the fastest orbit, which is strange since you’d think that would be a big deal. I did find someone on a space message board who claims that Apollo 17 holds the current record at 87.82 minutes. I haven’t been able to find a source confirming that, but I haven’t been able to find a source contradicting it either. So given our current state of technology, the fastest estimate of a non-magical human circumnavigation given by even Internet hearsay is more than twice as long as Puck’s 40-minute promise.

So what happens in the play? After Puck leaves, Demetrius and Helena enter, have a scene together, and exit. Then, Puck returns with the flower. The length of the scene can certainly vary between productions, so to get a reasonable estimate, I consulted the relevant scene in two audio recordings from my collection. In the Arkangel version, Puck departs at 11:40 and returns at 15:40. He is away exactly 4 minutes. In the Naxos version, Puck is even faster. He’s gone from 9:11 to 12:54, for a total of 3 minutes and 43 seconds. We don’t know if he fulfills his ambition to put a girdle round about the earth, but it seems that he does indeed return ere the leviathan can swim a league.

Even a freewheeling sprite like Puck understands the importance of working on the boss’s timetable.

Shakespeare Follow-Up: Biochemistry

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

In As You Like It, Le Beau gives some friendly advice to Orlando:

Good sir, I do in friendship counsel you
To leave this place. Albeit you have deserv’d
High commendation, true applause and love,
Yet such is now the duke’s condition
That he misconstrues all that you have done.
The duke is humorous: what he is indeed,
More suits you to conceive than I to speak of.

The duke is humorous? He doesn’t sound very humorous to me. Can we get a Shakespeare Follow-Up?

The “humours” referred to four bodily fluids that were believed to affect one’s mood and personality: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. This was a theory that traced back as far as the ancient Greeks, and it was widely accepted in Shakespeare’s time. An imbalance of any one of these fluids in a person would have a particular effect. So, the duke is moody, not funny. And this use of the word is fairly consistent across the canon. So when Antipholus of Syracuse says he is not in a “sportive humour,” or Benedick says “a college of witcrackers cannot flout me out of my humour,” or Petruchio says “I’ll curb her mad and headstrong humour,” none of them are talking about the funny.

It’s clearly a retrochronism, but understanding a little bit about the humors can actually shed some light on quite a few lines in Shakespeare, so let’s review.

An excess of blood was thought to make you sanguine, and the cheerfully happy word actually comes from the Latin for bloody. So when Sir Toby Belch asks “Am not I consanguineous? am I not of her blood?,” he is using the term to describe a blood relationship.

Phlegm leads to quiet rationality. Kant actually thought it was the absence of temperament. Mistress Quickly therefore misapplies the term in The Merry Wives of Windsor when she beseeches Doctor Caius to “be not so phlegmatic.” She is trying to calm his anger down. She should have said “choleric.”

Choler stems from yellow bile (from the Greek “chole” for bile), and the word appears frequently in Shakespeare to describe anger or bellicosity. The black (”melan-”) variety of bile (”chole”) was also a frequently used theme. I’ve already written about melancholy in Shakespeare in an earlier post, so I don’t need to repeat it all here. The important thing to remember is that Shakespeare and his audience would have believed that these moods were caused by an imbalance of fluids. This is why bloodletting was such a popular medical practice; they believed they could remove the excess humours by drawing blood or applying leeches.

A poetic reference to bloodletting appears in King Richard II, as Richard attempts to sooth the conflict between Bolingbroke and Mowbray:

Wrath-kindled gentlemen, be rul’d by me;
Let’s purge this choler without letting blood:
This we prescribe, though no physician;
Deep malice makes too deep incision:
Forget, forgive; conclude and be agreed,
Our doctors say this is no month to bleed.

The complainants are seeking a duel, another way to purge choler by letting blood. Richard reframes their grievances as merely an imbalance of yellow bile, and uses the bloodletting metaphor to advocate a more peaceful solution. (It doesn’t work.)

In the 19th century, humours and bloodletting fell out of fashion as medical science developed a better understanding of human biochemistry. Apparently, though, the idea of the four humors survives today as a popular screenwriting technique.

On a somewhat-unrelated final note, do you know why the “funny bone” got its name? Because it’s the humerus! And I hope you find that humorous.

Shakespeare Follow-Up: Nature vs. Nurture

Friday, November 8th, 2013

The term “nature vs. nurture” is a poetic turn of phrase that refers to an ongoing reexamination of the roles that heredity and environment play in determining who we are as individuals. The expression was popularized in the 19th century by Francis Galton, though the debate and the phrase had been around much longer than his day. In fact, Shakespeare himself juxtaposed the two words in The Tempest, as Prospero describes Caliban thusly:

A devil, a born devil, on whose nature
Nurture can never stick;

Shakespeare was not the first to contrast these two words, but Galton is known to have been a Shakespeare fan, and it seems reasonable to imagine this was his source.

Shakespeare’s plays are filled with models of the intricate workings of human nature, depictions of how individuals are influenced by external factors, and the complicated interplay between the two. As we will soon see, Shakespeare was also an early voice in this conversation, and an often-quoted source by later thinkers as well. Therefore, our Shakespeare Follow-Up will focus on the development of the nature vs. nurture debate from Shakespeare’s time to ours today.

But please note that this is a very large topic, and I’m going to sweep through it rather quickly, so feel free to do your own follow up on any topic here that interests you.

Political philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau are often grouped together as “social contract theorists,” because they presented ideas about how and why humans form societies. But when considering their impact on the nature/nurture question, it’s more illustrative to focus on their differences.

In Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes argued that human beings, existing in a state of nature, are savage and brutal. Therefore, we willingly surrender our autonomy to a sovereign unconditionally in order to gain security from our murderous brethren. John Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), lays out the idea that we refer to today as tabula rasa, or “the blank slate.” Rather than seeing human beings as being innately evil, as Hobbes does, he sees us as being neither good nor evil naturally, but rather open to influence from our environments. Jean-Jacques Rousseau presents a different view of the natural state of the human in his book Émile (1762). For Rousseau, humans are born innately good, and it is society that corrupts.

Naturally, the choice of which of these three views to adopt will have a profound effect on how a culture views education and child rearing. We can’t control the nature, but we can structure the nurture to make the best use of our understanding of it. If we believe that human beings are born evil, we’ll want to make discipline the backbone of our educational system. If we believe that children are blank slates, we’ll seek to fill those slates with our best models for citizenship and morality. If we believe that our students are innately good, then maybe the best thing we could do would be to just get out of the way and let them explore the world they find themselves in. You can hear echoes of these debates in today’s conversations about education.

In the post-Darwinian era, psychologists began to codify the progression of human development into various stages. The progression was determined by nature, but profoundly impacted by environment. Sigmund Freud described five psycho-sexual stages of development in childhood. The eight psycho-social stages outlined by Erik Erikson were strongly influenced by Freud, but extended to adulthood.

But wait! A lifetime of human progression divided into stages? Why does that sound familiar? Oh right…

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel,
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

It seems that Jacques in As You Like It was on the right track, centuries ahead of his time. Freud famously wrote about Hamlet, and Erikson even cites Shakespeare’s “ages of man” in his 1962 article “Youth: Fidelity and Diversity,” which also provides an in-depth discussion of Hamlet.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) developed a set of four stages of cognitive development that have been profoundly influential in our understanding of human nature. Piaget believed that these stages developed naturally, and that new levels of learning become possible at each stage. Score one point for nature! Lev Vygotsky (1896 – 1934) built on these ideas, but demonstrated that learning could actually encourage cognitive development. There is a zone between what students are capable of doing on their own and what they can do in an environment that includes guidance and collaboration. Stretching into this zone can assist children in progressing developmentally. There’s one point for nurture, and it’s a tie game.

In fact, it will always be a tie game. Everyone agrees that both nature and nurture are significant, and we can argue about various degrees. Noam Chomsky (1928 – ) revolutionized the field of linguistics by describing, in Syntactic Structures (1957), the innate ability of the human brain to acquire language. This was a challenge to the behaviorist philosophy that was dominant at the time. In Frames of Mind (1983), Howard Gardner describes a system of multiple intelligences that different people seem to possess in different measures. The rise of theories such as Chomsky’s and Gardner’s would seem to move the needle towards nature, but the fact that they continue to influence our educational practices demonstrate the importance of nurture in the equation all the more powerfully.

Shakespeare, of course, didn’t know any of this. Nevertheless, his understanding of the complex interplay between nature and nurture was nuanced enough for him to create models that still have us debating the actions and motivations of fictional characters as though they were real people. Why, for example, does Macbeth kill Duncan? Is it because he’s ambitious? Or does he succumb to pressure from his wife? If it’s the former, would he have done so without prompting from the witches? And if it’s the latter, what elements of his nature make him susceptible to his wife’s influence?

I give up. What do you think, Lady Macbeth?

Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be
What thou art promis’d. Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way; thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it; what thou wouldst highly,
That thou wouldst holily; wouldst not play false,
And yet wouldst wrongly win; thou’dst have, great Glamis,
That which cries, ‘Thus thou must do, if thou have it;’
And that which rather thou dost fear to do
Than wishest should be undone. Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear,
And chastise with the valour of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round,
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crown’d withal.

A lot of these Follow-Ups are about how much Shakespeare didn’t know. This one is about how much he still has to teach us.

Shakespeare Follow-Up: Insanity Defense

Friday, October 18th, 2013

Towards the end of Hamlet, Hamlet meets Laertes for a sword-fight. It’s supposed to be just an exhibition, but Laertes secretly intends to kill Hamlet for real. Hamlet has killed Laertes’s father, an act which has also led to the death of Laertes’s sister. Wanting to clear the air before the friendly sporting match begins, Hamlet offers the following words of contrition:

Give me your pardon, sir; I’ve done you wrong;
But pardon ’t, as you are a gentleman.
This presence knows,
And you must needs have heard, how I am punish’d
With sore distraction. What I have done,
That might your nature, honour and exception
Roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness.
Was ’t Hamlet wrong’d Laertes? Never Hamlet:
If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away,
And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes,
Then Hamlet does it not; Hamlet denies it.
Who does it then? His madness. If ’t be so,
Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong’d;
His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy.
Sir, in this audience,
Let my disclaiming from a purpos’d evil
Free me so far in your most generous thoughts,
That I have shot mine arrow o’er the house,
And hurt my brother.

Worst. Apology. Ever.

And the egregiousness of the non-apology is compounded by the fact that we, the audience, know that Hamlet was only faking his madness in the first place.

Still, the idea that a person might be absolved of responsibility for a crime due to insanity seems like an awfully enlightened concept to be showing up in an early 17th century play. Was Shakespeare playing around with some concepts that were ahead of his time, or was the insanity defense already part of contemporary jurisprudence? This looks like a job for the Shakespeare Follow-Up!

The idea of intent as a legal concept goes as far back as law itself, as it is described in some detail in The Code of Hammurabi. The Latin term for “not of sound mind” is non compos mentis, and the ancient Romans did indeed recognize it as a valid defense. The idea was also not foreign to Shakespeare’s England. According to Barbara Kirwan:

The concept that certain mental disorders might relieve a person of responsibility for criminal conduct was first recognized as a defense in 1275 by English common law. Starting in the reign of Edward II (1307-1327), a criminal could be found insane if his defenders could demonstrate that his mental abilities were no greater than those of a “wild beast.”

So Shakespeare certainly did not invent the concept. However, most of the evolution of the insanity defense has happened since the time of Shakespeare’s death.

In 1843, Daniel M’Naughton was acquitted of a murder charge by an English jury on the ground of insanity. During the process, the House of Lords had asked a panel of judges a series of questions, later known as the M’Naughton Rules, that would become a benchmark for making these kinds of judgements in the future.

Here in the United States, the standards for determining the validity of an insanity plea vary by state, and a few states don’t recognize it at all. Charles Guiteau pleaded insanity in his trial for assassinating President Garfield, but was found guilty and hanged. John Hinkley, however, was acquitted for shooting President Reagan by reason of insanity. This led to a public outcry, and the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984, which made it more difficult to mount such a defense.

Whether you agree with the insanity defense or not, it isn’t hard to understand the public’s reaction. Just imagine Hinckley using Hamlet’s words in his own defense:

Was ’t Hinkley wrong’d Reagan? Never Hinkley:
If Hinkley from himself be ta’en away,
And when he’s not himself does wrong Reagan,
Then Hinkley does it not; Hinkley denies it.
Who does it then? His madness. If ’t be so,
Hinkley is of the faction that is wrong’d;
His madness is poor Hinkley’s enemy.

Infuriating, right? And in our current era of school shootings and random bombings, we find ourselves facing a wide array of criminals who establish themselves as undeniably insane simply by doing the thing they are on trial for. But how can that possibly be a reasonable standard for acquittal?

So obviously, this is something we’re still struggling with. But going as far back as antiquity, the law has always recognized that there were legitimate times when a person should be absolved of a crime on the grounds of insanity. Shakespeare articulates the reasoning behind it with great clarity, but subsequent cases and conversations have muddied that clarity considerably.

Shakespeare Follow-Up: Age of the Earth

Friday, October 11th, 2013

When, in As You Like It, Orlando threatens to die of unrequited love, the disguised Rosalind has some words of wisdom for him:

The poor world is almost six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person, videlicet, in a love-cause.

Whether or not one could actually die from love will be beyond the scope of this Shakespeare Follow-Up. But we do want to examine how close is Rosalind’s estimate of the age of the planet to what we believe today.

Almost 6,000 years was a good guess for Shakespeare’s day. But today, scientists believe the Earth is over 4,500,000,000 years old, give or take. How can we account for such a breathtaking discrepancy?

Early estimates for the age of the planet were based on Biblical scripture. God created Earth “in the beginning” which puts its origin on the first day of creation. Adam was born on the 5th day, and then the begetting began. Genesis actually goes into quite a bit of detail about how old each begetter was when he begat, so a literal interpretation and little bit of arithmetic was all that was necessary to trace how much time passed since the first day of creation and pinpoint the age of the earth.

Dating creation at 4000 BC was a popular estimate during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Shortly after Shakespeare’s death, Bishop James Ussher published a chronology that placed the creation of the universe on Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC. Hey, someone has a birthday coming up!


But how many candles?

Still, nature was rife with clues that were ready for us when we were ready for them. As early as the 17th century, Nicolas Steno noticed the questions raised by fossil evidence and rock stratification, and other naturalist scientists would find reason to revise the Earth’s age gradually upwards.

In 1862, Lord Kelvin (before he was Lord Kelvin) used the cooling rate of the Earth to place its age at around 98 million years. That’s not quite there yet, but Lord Kelvin was getting warmer!

In the 20th century, scientists began measuring the decay of radioactive isotopes for dating objects that are very old. This is called “radiometric dating” or “radioactive dating,” but I’m only going to call it radiometric dating because I already have something that I call radioactive dating. Radiometric dating puts a rock native to Quebec, the Acasta Gneiss, at over 4 billion years old, and certain zircons found in Western Australia turn out to be over 4.4 billion years old. Based on non-terrestrial evidence, scientists put the age of the solar system at around 4.567 billion years, meaning the Earth can’t be any older than that. This gives us a window between 4.4 and 4.567 billion years to place our best guess.

Although science is long past the time of an Earth whose age could be measured in the thousands, the general public is not as unified. According to a 2012 Gallup poll, 46% of Americans believe that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.” Now, there is a difference between the age of the Earth and the age of the human being, but there is a lot of scientific evidence that humans have been around a lot longer than 10,000 years. Suffice it to say that the first homo sapiens are believed to have evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago.

But whether, in all this time, there was any man who died in a love-cause, I leave as a question for the reader.

Shakespeare Follow-Up: Cosmology

Friday, October 4th, 2013

The inaugural Shakespeare Follow-Up is dedicated to Rebecca.

As she can tell you, when Puck is first introduced in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he meets a fairy who tells him:

I do wander every where,
Swifter than the moone’s sphere;

But what is the moon’s “sphere” and why should we believe it is particularly swift? To fully appreciate this line, and many like it across the canon, it’s important to know a little bit about how Shakespeare and his contemporaries viewed the cosmos.

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle described a system of concentric spheres, based on the works of pre-Socratic philosphers. Each observable planetary body, including the Moon, was embedded in one of these spheres. The spheres were made of transparent matter, in contact with one another, and able to rotate independently. (Positing a thin layer of WD-40 between spheres would have been beyond the technological capabilities of the ancient Greeks.) The Moon’s sphere was the closest to the Earth, and therefore, could move the fastest. This was followed by Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the sphere of the stars. Outside the spheres was the Prime Mover, which is the original source of all motion. God, if you like.

Claudius Ptolemy was an astronomer living in Alexandria in the 2nd century AD, while Egypt was part of the Roman Empire. Ptolemy noticed that some of the data, particularly retrograde motions of the planets, could not be explained by the existing model. He added the idea of epicycles, spheres rotating within spheres, which allowed for irregular movement of the planets, and the concept remained the dominant cosmological model for centuries.

Around the 12th century, Aristotelian concepts (including Ptolemaic cosmology) became intertwined with Christian theology. By the time Copernicus developed his heliocentric model in the early 16th century, it was not only a challenge to Aristotle and Ptolemy, but also to Church teachings that God put man in the center of the universe.

This is the world that Shakespeare and Galileo were born into in 1564. The theories of Copernicus were known, but not commonly accepted as true. It should be noted, however, that even Copernicus accepted the idea of celestial spheres; he just put the Sun in the center instead of the Earth. Shakespeare makes reference to the spheres all throughout his plays, often metonymously for the cosmos as it affects our fates, or simply as a shared cultural reference.

So the Bastard in King John can ask “Now, now, you stars, that move in your right spheres,/ Where be your powers?” as Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream observes “Yet you, the murderer, look as bright, as clear,/ As yonder Venus in her glimmering sphere.”

Fixed and unchangeable, the spheres also serve as a convenient metaphor for the rightfulness of hierarchies here on Earth. Shakespeare draws this comparison often, most notably in this speech from Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida:

The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre
Observe degree, priority, and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office, and custom, in all line of order:
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthron’d and spher’d
Amidst the other; whose med’cinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans check, to good and bad: but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues, and what portents, what mutiny,
What raging of the sea, shaking of earth.
Commotion in the winds, frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure!

When we see the Sun referred to as “the glorious planet Sol,” it has the power to remind us just how much distance is between the scientific understanding of Shakespeare’s time and our own. And reading this in 21st century America, we also feel the gap in worldview as we see hierarchic culture defended so fiercely. Both celestial spheres and geocentrism will likewise fade in the century following Shakespeare’s death, but the ideas remain forever embedded in Shakespeare like the planets in their spheres. Thus, we understand that when, in 1 Henry IV, Hal tells Hotspur that “Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere,” it’s Elizabethan for “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.”

Astronomers during Shakespeare’s lifetime, most notably Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, already began using observational data to cast doubts about both geocentrism and the celestial spheres. The observation of comets was making the sphere model difficult to maintain. Galileo also took up the idea of heliocentrism and, after a long battle with the Church, was pressured into recanting. But the theories of Isaac Newton and the Scientific Revolution later in the 17th century gave heliocentrism a much stronger grounding in modern science which led to a wider acceptance as the culture became more open to the reexamination of our scientific understandings.

It wasn’t until the 20th century, however, that science learned that none of these models was the center of the universe, but rather one solar system among billons across a vast sprawling cosmos.

One can only wonder what Shakespeare might have done with such a revelation.

Shakespeare Follow-Up

Friday, September 27th, 2013

I am pleased to announce a new regular feature to the blog: the Shakespeare Follow-Up!

Shakespeare lived and wrote during a time we call the Early Modern Period. And yet, there is much about his time that doesn’t seem very modern at all. It’s common for students to mistakenly refer to Shakespeare’s language as “Old English” because it seems so far removed from the way we speak today. But once you get past the vocabulary and sentence structure, you realize that the language is just the tip of an iceberg representing a 400-year-old gap of knowledge, culture, and worldview.

Shakespeare was born in the same year as Galileo, but pre-deceased him by over 25 years, well before the Italian’s famous grapple with Pope Urban over the question of heliocentrism. Dying as he did in 1616, Shakespeare just barely missed the beginnings of what we consider to be modern science. Bacon’s Novum Organum, published in 1620, contained the early stirrings of the scientific method. And as the Scientific Revolution started picking up some serious steam later in the 17th century, the ideas of the world Shakespeare inhabited were already starting to seem antiquated.

A lot can happen in 400 years. Empires rise and fall, as historians rethink their judgements. Breakthroughs are made. Values shift. We still love Shakespeare because he tapped into the universal truth of human existence, sure, but that doesn’t mean we understand him fully, nor he us. Shylock’s conversion, Dromio’s beating, Katherine’s taming… they can seem harsh to us, living in a different culture and a different time. New discoveries, like the recent unearthing of the remains of Richard III, give us insight on historic people and events that Shakespeare never would have had. Just because Shakespeare’s always on our main stage, doesn’t mean we’re always on the same page.

And thus is born the Shakespeare Follow-Up. Each week (or whenever the mood strikes me), I’ll identify a passage from Shakespeare that highlights a particular gap between Shakespeare’s time and our own. Perhaps it’s a scientific statement of fact, believed to be true in Shakespeare’s time, but ridiculously outdated in ours. Maybe it’s an idea that wasn’t accepted in Shakespeare’s time, but it turned out to be remarkably prophetic. Or maybe it’s an instance where Shakespeare shows us that something we think of as wholly modern has been around longer than we think. I’ll quote the passage, and then provide a “Follow-Up” of where we are today.

This feature will probably end up to be more about cultural, historical, and scientific shifts than it is about Shakespeare. But this blog has always been approached with the philosophy that a love of Shakespeare is only the beginning of a life of examination and discovery. This feature will be another step in that journey. And I think understanding the gaps between us and Shakespeare helps us understand his works better as well. Hamlet tells Horatio that there “are more things in heaven and earth” than are dreamt of in his philosophy. And so, let it be with Shakespeare.

Sound like fun? The Shakespeare Follow-Up will appear on Fridays.