Five Surprisingly Modern Ideas in Shakespeare’s Writing

Posted on April 23, 2014
By Dan Falk

Science, as we think of it today, didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s England. And yet, a number of modern ideas were circulating, some gaining more traction than others. In fact, with the advantage of hindsight, we see that Shakespeare lived during a remarkable period of discovery—a period that we now look back on as the first phase of the Scientific Revolution.

To be sure, all sorts of magical thinking—from astrology and alchemy to witchcraft—were still prevalent. And yet, new ideas about the universe, and the place of human beings within it, were gaining attention. Did any of these new ways of thinking influence the playwright? Here are five surprisingly modern ideas that crop up in Shakespeare’s writing:

1. Atoms

More than sixteen centuries before Shakespeare put pen to paper, the Roman philosopher Lucretius wrote an epic poem called On The Nature of Things, touting the virtues of the atomic theory—the idea that everything in the universe, from mice to men to mountains, was made up of millions upon millions of tiny particles, each far too small to see with the naked eye. Confirmation of this bold idea would come only in the nineteenth century, long after Shakespeare’s time; and yet, the Greek idea was experiencing a bit of a revival in Elizabethan England. As Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard has noted, Lucretius’s poem went through some thirty Latin editions between 1473 and 1600 (and Ben Jonson’s copy can be seen to this day in Harvard’s Houghton Library). Did Shakespeare know about atoms? Yes—at least, he knew enough about them to refer to them poetically on several occasions. In Romeo and Juliet, for example, Mercutio suggests that his friend has been visited by Queen Mab, a fairy-like creature that enters her victims’ brains via their noses, interfering with their dreams. How small is Queen Mab? She comes “in shape no bigger than an agate stone,” Mercutio says, sitting in a coach “Drawn with a team of little atomi / Over men’s noses as they lie asleep.” Was this a nod to a compelling scientific idea, experiencing a resurgence of interest in Shakespeare’s day? Or was it simply a vivid poetic metaphor? Perhaps it is both.

2. Medical diagnoses and treatments

It’s surprising how often Shakespeare’s characters are either complaining about medical ailments or proposing various treatments. Much of this medical-talk accurately reflects the learning of his time, such as it was (although apothecaries and witches’ potions also receive their due). How did Shakespeare come by his medical knowledge? In the latter part of his career, there would have been a doctor in the family: John Hall, a prominent Stratford physician, married the playwright’s oldest daughter, Susanna, in 1607. This may explain why doctors are, in general, shown in a positive light, especially in Shakespeare’s later works. Luckily for historians, some of Dr. Hall’s medical notebook’s have survived; we even have a record of a treatment he once administered to his wife—“Mrs Hall of Stratford.” The unfortunate Susanna had been “miserably tormented with the Colic,” but was cured, Hall writes, by means of an enema and various libations.

William Shakespeare
Image is in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

3. Copernicanism

Copernicus had published his groundbreaking book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, in 1543—twenty-one years before Shakespeare’s birth. Two decades later, an astronomer named Thomas Digges published the first detailed account of the theory by an Englishman. Digges’s vision was even more radical than that of Copernicus: In one of his books he included a diagram of the cosmos in which the stars are seen to extend outward without limit—a remarkable vision of a possibly infinite cosmos. What did Shakespeare make of Digges’s idea? We find a clue, perhaps, in a remarkable passage in Hamlet: In Act 2, Scene 2, the prince envisions himself as “a king of infinite space” (or at least, he says he could be such a fellow, were it not for “bad dreams”). Could Shakespeare, via the prince, be alluding to the new, infinite universe described—for the first time—by his countryman Thomas Digges? It is also possible that one of the later plays, Cymbeline, contains allusions to Galileo’s telescopic discoveries, which lent even stronger support to the Copernican model of the heavens.

4. It’s not “all in the stars.”

Astrology and astronomy were very much intertwined in Shakespeare’s time, and the idea that the stars control one’s fate was very popular, perhaps almost ubiquitous. (One reason or this, incidentally, is surely that it was easier to see the stars back then, before the dawn of urban sprawl and light pollution.) And yet, several of Shakespeare’s characters speak out against the folly of blaming our misfortune on the heavens. In Julius Caesar, for example, Cassius declares, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” In King Lear, Shakespeare explicitly contrasts the superstitious views of Gloucester—who believes that the recent eclipses of the sun and moon “portend no good to us”—with those of his illegitimate son, Edmond, who mocks such beliefs as “the excellent foppery of the world.” Edmond goes on (in Act 1, Scene 2) to ridicule the idea that the circumstances of his birth are responsible for shaping his character: “My father compounded with my mother under the Dragon’s tail, and my nativity was under Ursa major, so that it follows, I am rough and lecherous. Tut! I should have been that I am had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.”

5. Atheism (maybe!)

Just as “science” didn’t quite exist in Shakespeare’s day, atheism, too, was absent in its modern, Richard-Dawkins-like form. There had been millennia of debate on the extent of the involvement of God (or the gods) in human affairs—but the idea of the complete non-existence of God was probably not fully conceived in Shakespeare’s time. In the case of Shakespeare, we have less direct evidence, as there are no letters or documents to suggest that anyone fired any accusations his way (as they did, repeatedly, in the case of Shakespeare’s colleague, Christopher Marlowe). And so we turn—cautiously—to the published works. Consider, for example, Titus Andronicus, in which we find the only self-avowed non-believer in the canon, the Moorish villain Aaron. When Aaron is taken prisoner, he tries to bargain with his captor, Lucius. But Lucius asks, “What good is a vow from a non-believer?” Aaron, however, has a snappy comeback: “Those who do believe,” he says, “are often fools and liars; yet we imagine their oaths to be worth something.” (Note how quick-witted Shakespeare’s villains are!)

What led Shakespeare in this direction? One possibility is that he was following Marlowe’s lead—or perhaps trying to one-up his colleague. Consider the plot of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus: The doctor makes a pact with the devil, and God doesn’t seem to care—a theme echoed in many of Shakespeare’s plays, especially the later tragedies such as King Lear. In the latter play, as Stephen Greenblatt has noted, the gods “are conspicuously, devastatingly silent.” In their absence, justice cannot be guaranteed; indeed, it becomes fragile in the extreme. Lear, in desperation, hopes that events will “show the heavens more just” (Act 3, Scene 4), but it is a lost cause. In one of the play’s most famous—and darkest—lines, Gloucester laments: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods / They kill us for their sport” (Act 4, Scene 1). We might also examine Prince Hamlet’s obsessive contemplation of death and decay, with no mention of an afterlife; Helena’s assertion in All’s Well that Ends Well that “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie / Which we ascribe to heaven” (in Act 1, Scene 1); or Macbeth’s assertion that life is “a tale, told by an idiot, signifying nothing” (Act 5 Scene 5). None of this proves that Shakespeare was an atheist—but it suggests that he could at least imagine a godless world.

DAN FALK has written for Smithsonian, New Scientist, Astronomy, Sky & Telescope, The Walrus, and many other publications, and is the author of In Search of Time and Universe on a T-Shirt. Falk was a 2011-2012 Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT. His latest book is The Science of Shakespeare.

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