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What The Word On The Street is Reading: The Science of Shakespeare

March 6, 2015

The Science of Shakespeare cover

This week Cailin read The Science of Shakespeare by Dan Falk, published in 2014 by Goose Lane.

About the book:

William Shakespeare lived at a time when the medieval world?—?a world of magic, astrology, witchcraft, and superstition of all kinds?—?was just beginning to give way to more modern ways of thinking. The methodical Galileo, the skeptical Montaigne, the daring Copernicus: these and other bold thinkers were putting forth new ideas about the human body, the earth, and the universe at large?—?ideas that would soon transform Western thought. Shakespeare was not a scientist?—?the word did not even exist?at the time?—?but a handful of scholars are now examining Shakespeare’s interest in the scientific discoveries of his time: what he knew, when he knew it, and how he incorporated that knowledge into his work.

Fascinated by science and intrigued by history, Dan Falk explores the connections between Shakespeare’s plays and the beginnings of the Scientific Revolution and how, together, they changed the world. While Shakespeare was not the Carl Sagan of the Elizabethan Age, his plays reveal that he was conscious of the changing conception of the cosmos and that his observations of human nature were as revolutionary as those of the astronomers who studied the night sky.

Q&A with Cailin

What drew you to this book?

“This book caught my eye while browsing the Toronto Public Library’s shelves. While I’m far from a Shakespearean scholar, I’ve never really thought of his works as being particularly scientific, so I was interested to see what connections Falk would make. Long after his death, scientists honoured Shakespeare by naming 24 of the moons of Uranus after characters from his plays. Did Shakespeare give science any shout outs in his writing?

Did you enjoy the book?

The Science of Shakespeare was an interesting read, and it definitely added to my understanding of society during Shakespeare’s career. This book is accessible for someone approaching it with little scientific/historical background, as Falk takes his time establishing the context of the discoveries and the leading ‘natural philosophy’ figures of the time.

There were some big changes happening in the conception of the universe and humanity’s place in it during Shakespeare’s lifetime. He was born in the same year as Galileo (1564), Copernicus’ theory of a heliocentric solar system was beginning to sway minds away from the long-established geocentric model, and London was an increasingly literate and thriving centre of new inventions and ideas. At the same time, though, a medical doctor might tell you to put a split pigeon on your feet to cure the vapours.

Falk points out that most Shakespeareans think of the Bard as having a late-medieval worldview, but he examines the work of scholars that find the influence of the ‘new philosophy’ in the plays. Not all of their theories are entirely convincing, but they make for interesting approach to the work, and there are plenty of fun facts to enjoy. For instance, did you know that Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe had relatives named Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? Did Shakespeare know that?”

Would you recommend it?

“I’d recommend it to those who would like to know more about the developing natural philosophy and technology during Shakespeare’s lifetime. The book assumes a familiarity with Shakespeare’s works though, so it may be a bit frustrating if you don’t go into it knowing your Horatios from your Hamlets.”