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The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe

by Dan Falk

Journalist Dan Falk combines his love of science – particularly the history of science – with his fondness for Shakespeare in this intriguing attempt to answer questions about what the Bard knew, when he knew it, and how he may have expressed that knowledge in his work.

We don’t know a lot about Shakespeare’s life, and even less about what he “really” thought about anything. All we can do is make educated guesses based on evidence in the plays. Falk understands this, and understands that what constituted “science” in Shakespeare’s day was sometimes fuzzy. So he spends a lot of time laying the groundwork for his investigation by detailing the way our understanding of the cosmos evolved in the 16th and early 17th centuries. (The author’s focus is confined almost exclusively to astronomy, with only brief references to other fields.) He proceeds primarily through a semi-biographical examination of the work of Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Bruno, and Galileo, among other less renowned figures.

There’s no question that some link exists between the discoveries of these pioneers and the Shakespearean canon. Still, the thesis that Shakespeare was aware of contemporary scientific advances, and that this awareness is reflected in his plays, remains tenuous. Many of the scholars whose research Falk draws on are at the fringe of Shakespeare studies, and a few of their arguments are far-fetched. For example, one critic argues that when Hamlet describes his father as having “an eye like Mars to threaten and command,” he is not referring to the god of war, but making a reference to the Great Red Spot on Jupiter (a storm that Giovanni Cassini did not observe until some 60 years after Hamlet was written).

Falk freely admits the speculative nature of his inquiry; he isn’t interested in hammering out a thesis so much as entertaining possibilities. In the end, The Science of Shakespeare succeeds in informing us a bit about Renaissance science while enriching our appreciation of Shakespeare’s achievement.