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Shakespeare and Science

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.320  Tuesday, 15 July 2014


From:        Hardy M. Cook < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         July 14, 2014 at 5:33:23 PM EDT

Subject:    Was Shakespeare Aware of the Scientific Discoveries of His Time?


Was Shakespeare Aware of the Scientific Discoveries of His Time?

For his new book, Dan Falk followed a group of scholars who argue, unlike most, that the playwright was up to speed with the latest astronomy

By Megan Gambino 

April 23, 2014


You could read the line in Hamlet about shuffling off this “mortal coil” and think it has something to do with the helical structure of DNA, says Dan Falk. But, that would be crazy, right?


Perhaps equally wild, however, is this: Many Shakespearian scholars conclude that the playwright was not conscious of the Scientific Revolution that was happening around him.


In timing with the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth this month, Falk has released his new book, The Science of Shakespeare. In it, he argues that the Bard was mindful of the developments happening in astronomy during his day and, in fact, used them as fodder in his plays.


I recently had the chance to talk to Falk, a Shakespeare fan and amateur astronomer. He shared his ideas and those of a small sect of scholars who are rethinking the playwright’s grasp on science.


Shakespeare was born in 1564 and died in 1616. He wrote most of his works between 1589 and 1613. What was going on at this time scientifically?


Shakespeare lived and worked when some very interesting discoveries were happening. These are discoveries that we now think of as key developments in the Scientific Revolution. Of course, nobody called it the Scientific Revolution back then. That term wasn’t coined until maybe the 19th century. They didn’t even have the word science, at least not in the sense that we think of the term today. There was natural philosophy.


What was going on in science? We can remember that Copernicus published his groundbreaking book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. That was 1543—21 years before Shakespeare is born.


There is a supernova that lights up the night sky in 1572, observed by Tycho Brahe in Denmark but also observed in England. We call it the Tycho star. Thomas Digges in England publishes an almanac in support of the Copernican system in 1576. He is expanding on an almanac originally written by his father Leonard Digges but he includes a diagram that shows the stars extending outwards seemingly towards infinity. This is something Copernicus never talked about, but here is a suggestion that maybe the universe is infinite.


Gerardus Mercator, famous for the Mercator projection, publishes his atlas in 1595. This is also the age of exploration, so we have new ideas about just how large the world is. For example, how small is the tiny island of Britain compared to the vastness of the world?


You have people like William Gilbert writing his treatise on magnetism in 1600. Aside from the first supernova, there is the second supernova. The star that we think of as Kepler’s star exploded in 1604. He could not have missed that. There were eclipses of the Sun and Moon in the fall of 1605 that Shakespeare could very well have seen.


Francis Bacon writes his book, The Advancement of Learning, in 1605, a book that for the first time was laying out the rules for science and how science ought to be done. The telescope is invented in 1609 in Holland and Galileo gets his hands on one, starts looking at the night sky, makes all these now very famous discoveries and then publishes them in a little book called Sidereus Nuncius, the Starry Messenger, in the spring of 1610.


Even if there was nothing interesting to be said between the relationship between Shakespeare and these discoveries—and I don’t think that’s the case—I think the fact that he lived and worked while this was happening is still a great excuse to use whatever he did write as a probe or a side door to get into this remarkable period of history.


For the most part, scholars have thought that Shakespeare was largely unaware of the groundbreaking science of his day. What has been said? On what grounds do they make this conclusion?


Shakespeare doesn’t talk about the so-called “new philosophy,” or the new ideas of Copernicus and later Galileo. It is not mentioned overtly, like it is when you read John Donne or John Milton. John Donne has this poem, “An Anatomy of the World.” The line is “new philosophy calls all in doubt.” Milton is writing a half-century later, but still in Paradise Lost you have this very overt story about the differences between the two world systems and which is better.


When he does talk about astronomy, you have Julius Caesar comparing himself to the North Star. You have Romeo and Juliet analyzing the rising Sun. In King Lear, they talk about eclipses of the Sun and Moon. There are actually many references like that, but it is not immediately clear that they have anything to do with these developments in science, the new philosophy. So, you can just dismiss it as being fairly medieval or pre-Copernican.


There are several places where he’ll talk about the spheres, meaning the heavenly spheres or the crystalline spheres that go back to Aristotle and are presumed to hold up the stars and planets. If you leave it at that, it’s like, well, so this is all very poetic, but he clearly doesn’t seem to have been engaged in science.


Eventually, we come to see these spheres as fictitious. If Shakespeare keeps talking about the spheres, does that peg him as old school? Who knows, right?


In Hamlet, one of the characters says “Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,” as in, I was so shocked at seeing the ghost that my eyes jumped out of my head, just like a star might be pushed out of its sphere. That alludes to the medieval cosmology, but that doesn’t mean that Shakespeare believed it. You see how tricky this is?


Plus, within one play, you might have a character who sees things one way and a character who sees things another way. Of course, you are left wondering, does either character represent Shakespeare?


You’ve found a small group of scholars who believe they’ve found ties in Shakespeare’s works to science. Peter Usher, an astronomer, for one, has an interesting interpretation of Hamlet.


Peter Usher has a very elaborate theory about Hamlet, in which the play is seen as an allegory about competing cosmological worldviews. There are actually three of them: the old Ptolemaic Earth-centered point of view, the new view of Copernicus and this kind of hybrid view put forth by Tycho Brahe.


Usher sees the characters in Hamlet as standing in for various astronomers or mathematicians. His starting point was the bad guy of the play, Claudius. Claudius is the uncle who has murdered Hamlet’s father, the old King Hamlet, and has married the queen and taken over the throne. So, Claudius happens to have the same name as Claudius Ptolemy, the ancient Greek mathematician and astronomer who we now associate most closely with the geo-centric Ptolemaic worldview.


Hamlet stands in for Thomas Digges and the new, correct Copernican worldview. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stand in for Tycho Brahe. He finds this one-to-one correspondence between the characters in Hamlet and various astronomers and philosophers either from ancient times or who were active in Shakespeare’s day.


Usher and others, including scholars Scott Maisano and John Pitcher, also make an argument about the play, Cymbeline, that you find to be strong evidence of Shakespeare’s scientific knowledge. Can you explain?


Scholars generally say that Shakespeare had nothing at all to say about Galileo. I think that’s too hasty. The obvious place to turn is this remarkable scene in Act V of Cymbeline.


I’ll give you the brief version: The god Jupiter descends from the heavens. He actually comes down to Earth and the four ghosts of the protagonist’s dead relatives—mother, father and two brothers—appear. The main character is British, but he was pretending to be Roman, so British soldiers capture him thinking that he is an enemy combatant. They put him in jail where he falls into a kind of a trance. He is having this dream and these four ghosts dance around him.


Does this prove anything? No. But it is very, very suggestive. We’ve got Jupiter and four ghosts moving in a circle. More or less in the same year that Cymbeline was written, Galileo has just published this book, Sidereus Nuncius, describing Jupiter and these four previously unknown moons that move around Jupiter. Maybe this scene in Cymbeline is Shakespeare’s way of at least alluding to it. Cymbeline is a complicated play, but that scene is bizarre compared to Shakespeare’s other plays. It is just a very strange thing, and at least the Galileo allusion is a kind of possible explanation for it.


How interested was he in [Galileo’s work?]? I don’t know. Maybe it was just one of a dozen things that he thought were topical and noteworthy at that time. This is not someone who was just sort of unaware of the news of the day. This suggests that he at least had some interest in this fascinating book written by an Italian scholar 1,000 miles away. Maybe this was his tip of the hat to that discovery.


I think discoveries like this one provided Shakespeare fodder for his plays. I think he was at least aware of some of these developments and thought, okay, that’s cool. What can I do with this? He didn’t obsess over it the way that John Donne and John Milton did, but that doesn’t mean he ignored it either.  

Is Titus deranged?

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.319  Monday, 14 July 2014


From:        Robert Appelbaum < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:        July 12, 2014 at 7:14:37 AM EDT

Subject:    Is Titus deranged?


Dear SHAKSPERians, 


I have just come back from one of the last performances this season of Titus Andronicus at the Globe in London. It was a successful performance, I thought, which kept the audience engaged throughout, struggling to maintain its balance. Farce or tragedy? Should we laugh or should we cry? There were people who fainted among the groundlings, but more I think from heat and exhaustion than from horror at the violence on stage, horrible though it sometimes was.


I was not entirely taken by William Houston’s performance as Titus, though. From the start of the play, Houston’s Titus was deranged, with a cracked voice, a harassed demeanour, a bent body, an uncontrollably agitated temperament. One reviewer compared Houston’s Titus to Lear, and the director, Lucy Bailey, has also made that connection: ‘Shakespeare’s imagery in Titus is very elemental’, she is quoted as saying in the program notes. ‘It is as if Titus, Lear-like, is adrift in this storm and doesn’t know if he is awake or sleeping; he is in the midst of a terrible nightmare’.  


So here is my question: is Titus really, from the beginning, like Lear in the throes of disappointment, dementia and rage? Is Titus really deranged? During one critical aside Titus assures us that he is not deranged at all: ‘I know them all, though they suppose me mad, / And will o’erreach them in their own devices.’ It has in the past seemed to me that what Titus and his audience go through is truly horrible precisely because Titus is not mad, and that Titus’s own tragedy-inviting violence is the violence of man in full position of his wits, his authority, his military values.Titus's horror is the horror of his rationality.


I wonder if SHAKSPER readers agree with me, or rather think that Bailey and Houston were right to create a Titus who ‘doesn’t know if he is awake or sleeping’?


Robert Appelbaum

Professor of English Literature

Engelska Institutionen

Uppsala Universitet

'The Spanish Tragedy' at The Mobtown Players

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.318  Monday, 14 July 2014


From:        Hardy M. Cook < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         July 13, 2014 at 9:53:14 AM EDT

Subject:    'The Spanish Tragedy' at The Mobtown Players


[Editor’s Note: This production might be of interest to people in the Maryland and DC area. –Hardy]


‘The Spanish Tragedy’ at The Mobtown Players

by Amanda Gunther on July 12, 2014


Revenge. A dark, twisted and sinister emotion run afoul from the depths of scorn and tragedy; a human emotion vocalized when things go wrong. And despite springtime flooding costing them their theatrical space, The Mobtown Players are surging forward with the powder keg of revenge tragedies. The first of its genre, TMP proudly presents the Baltimore area premier of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. Adapted by Joshua and Kat McKerrow, this deeply moving tragedy is the first of its kind to bring violence and gore to the stage from the Elizabethan/Jacobean Shakespearean era.


Simplicity is the friend of Director Joshua McKerrow in keeping to the basics as far as scenic design and effects of lighting and sound. It is Costume Designer Kat McKerrow that really hones the focus on the originating time period of the performance with her elaborate, highly detailed, and intrinsically textured outfits. McKerrow—and her army of nearly a dozen costume construction crew—build fascinatingly authentic period pieces for everyone in the cast. Between Don Andrea’s chainmail and worn banner flags of battle, to the stunning full hooped gown in scarlet and black, McKerrow leaves no detail unattended to in regards to outfitting the characters of the show. Even the simple costumes, like the nighttime dressing gowns saved for Isabella and Hieronimo are tailored to the style of the era. McKerrow’s work grounds this production in its time and makes it authentic for those watching.


Joshua and Kat McKerrow’s adaptation of the play is a unique one. Trimming the production down to the bones, it keeps the essence of revenge without the entanglement of side plots and excessive expository moments. This keeps the play running smoothly with a modest pacing scheme to the scenes. The play’s only major downfall is that the size of Saint Mary’s Great Hall is truly enormous and at times the voices of the performers are swallowed up in its magnitude. This happens mostly when characters turn from the audience and their mouths are not facing to project outward. These moments aside, the show is well guided to move swiftly and deliver the idea of revenge without hesitation.


The acting all around in this production is solid. Hieronimo (Frank Vince) who inherits the notion of this ‘inverse/reversed’ Hamlet of stories creates a shockingly grounded presence on stage. Captured inside the emotional turmoil of the character, Vince expounds upon the plight of Horatio at great lengths; a display of true Elizabethan acting. His moments of madness (justifying the lesser used title of Hieronimo is Mad Again) are create a palpable sense of distress in the air. His lamentations are articulated and executed with precision, easily landing the tricky canter of the time’s meandering meter.


Abused and thwarted by various and sundry is dear Pedringano (Jeffrey Gangwisch.) With the physical mannerisms of a servant, Gangwisch embodies this turncoat character with an unusually awkward gait, making the character’s end even more jarring than average. Played the fool to the very end, Gangwisch’s demise is as tragic as the title of the show implies. Other physical and vocal performances of note include the King of Spain (Daniel Douek) who is a pillar of determination and calm, bursting only into an emotional storm near the end of the production. Isabella (Jennifer Hasselbusch) has a similar moment, appearing briefly save for her tumultuous outcry over her son Horatio’s death. Hasselbusch and Douek both have reserved characterizations that allow their momentary eruptions of feeling to punctuate the plot with emotional fortitude.


Lovers in a dangerous time does not being to describe Horatio (Rob Vary) and Bellimperia (Kat McKerrow.) Vary is only allowed a brief time in which to grow his character but the choices made make him a strong and suitable lovebird for the lovely Bellimperia. His violent skirmish in the garden sparks the pilot light for Bellimperia’s personally motivated revenge. McKerrow crafts an exceptionally striking presence upon the stage; at times horrifically creepy— particularly near the show’s conclusion as she stares with a lost burning in her eyes out over the audience, looking practically possessed. Her ability to manipulate the emotions of the character, fine-tuning them to the situation at hand and pulling them through a narrow needle-eye of a story arc creates for fine theatrical drama. Her ability to transition from magnetic chemistry with Vary’s character quite quickly into repulsion and disgust at Balthazar (Matthew Purpora) is also worthy of note.


Purpora, making up one half of the villainous knaves in this production, albeit the lesser though more arrogant half, delivers his princely intentions with something akin to charisma. Blended into the backward workings of Lorenzo’s (Bill Soucy) schemes, his attempts to woo Bellimperia are classically narcissistic and haughty. Soucy, as the rakish knave, serves as a master conductor to these proceedings. Laying the track work for villainy and loathsome practices, Soucy’s brand of evil is translated as a disgusting event and by the end of the performance it easy to be seething with distaste for his character. His sharp textual delivery and vocal intensity enhances the negative attributes of his character’s existence, creating the epitome of sadistic evil captured inside a human body.


The carefully laid framework of the production involves Don Andrea (Megan Farber) and Revenge (Shelby Monroe) as guiding narrative forces; a unique hybrid between a protagonist and an observer. Farber’s opening monologue is delivered from a hallowed place within her; a silence radiating through her figure that creates a vocal stillness in her woeful tale. This moment sets the tone for the play and invites the audience to the perilous journey of revenge that lies ahead. Monroe, a physical embodiment of an emotion called forth from the bowels of hell, takes a terrifying and yet titillating approach to the character. There is nothing more easily possessed by revenge than a teenage girl, and Monroe makes that evident in her presence, delighting as these wicked deeds unfold before her eyes. At first her cheerful delight seems curious, but the longer it exists the creepier it grows until it is thoroughly disturbing. Though speaking only a handful of lines, her character’s importance and effect are strongly felt throughout the entire production; the lingering remnants of maniacal bliss in the face of death and destruction far too revolting to ignore.


Quite the impressive performance, particularly with the all the blood to be shed, The Spanish Tragedy has a limited number of performances so be sure to grab your tickets quickly.


Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 35 minutes, with one intermission.


The Spanish Tragedy runs through July 26, 2014 at The Mobtown players playing in The Great Hall at Saint Mary’s of Baltimore—3900 Roland Avenue, in Baltimore, MD. Tickets may be purchased at the door or online.

Searching for Shakespeare Stateside

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.317  Monday, 14 July 2014


From:        Hardy M. Cook < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         July 13, 2014 at 9:51:44 AM EDT

Subject:    Searching for Shakespeare Stateside


[Editor’s Note: This article is from the Stratford Observer online. –Hardy]


SHAKESPEARE is hitting the road Stateside.


A Shakespeare on the Road team on July 4 - which also happens to be American Independence Day - started on an epic road trip all around North America in a unique project to discover and document the untold story of the Bard in the USA.


The project - a collaborative venture by The University of Warwick and The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust - aims to capture, for the first time, a comprehensive picture of Shakespeare’s place in contemporary American culture through the voices of artists and audiences across the continent.


And one thing they are guaranteed to find is a passion for the Bard.

The amount of Shakespearean theatre-making in America dwarves that of any other country, the UK included. Every summer from sea to shining sea – from spit-and-sawdust performances in local parks to slick professional productions in reconstructed Elizabethan playhouses – the Bard busts out all over the USA.


Nearly every state - including Hawaii and Alaska - has its own seasonal festival devoted to the playwright.


There are actually more dedicated Shakespeare companies in California alone than there are in the whole of the UK. Shakespeare may not have been born in the USA, but from the founding of the republic to the present day, he appears to be immensely at home there.


Project leaders Dr Paul Prescott, Associate Professor at the University of Warwick, and Rev Dr Paul Edmondson, Head of Research and Knowledge at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, explained their aim.


"We will be visiting 14 Shakespeare festivals across the length and breadth of North America starting on July 4 in Kansas City and ending in Washington DC in early September. Over 60 days, we’ll travel roughly 10,000 miles, see dozens of Shakespeare productions and meet hundreds of the people who – year in, year out – give fresh life to Shakespeare across the country.


"Our ambition is to take the pulse of Shakespeare’s presence in American culture in the 450th anniversary of his birth.


"Along the way, we speak to actors, audience members, creatives, community organizers, philanthropists and hot-dog sellers about what Shakespeare means to them and their community.


"Why, in the face of patchy funding and an often indifferent mainstream culture, do they keep doing Shakespeare? What does the ubiquity of Shakespeare in the USA say about American attitudes to Britain and British culture?


"All too often, Americans are expected to make the pilgrimage to the UK – and especially Stratford-upon-Avon – to pay homage and to learn how Shakespeare ‘should be done’. We want to reverse the direction of pilgrimage and showcase how much the rest of the world has to learn from the rich and varied versions of Shakespeare produced annually in North America."


Visit to follow the unfolding journey. 

Globe Julius Caesar Review

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.316  Monday, 14 July 2014


From:        Hardy M. Cook < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         July 12, 2014 at 12:28:35 PM EDT

Subject:    Globe Julius Caesar Review: Blood on Their Hands


[Editor’s Note: This review is from the most recent TLS. If you do not have a subscription and would like a copy of the complete review, please email me. –Hardy]


Blood on their hands 

Lois Potter 


William Shakespeare 

Julius Caesar 

Shakespeare’s Globe, until October 11 


The scene in the foyer of the Globe might make one fear the worst. An actor tries to read a condensed version of The Rape of Lucrece (“by Bacon, or Oxford, or someone, I don’t know”) in competition with noisy actors celebrating the feast of Lupercal with football songs. Meanwhile, the audience inside the theatre sees workmen building a triumphal arch for Caesar’s entry (modelled, the programme says, on one for James I, who entered London on the Ides of March, 1604) and the Lupercalian mob carry their celebration into the theatre itself, shouting for “Caesar!” The tribunes confront them, succeed in shutting them up, and the play begins. 


Once it gets everyone’s attention, however, Dominic Dromgoole’s production turns out to be a thoughtful reading of one of Shakespeare’s most thoughtful plays, and one in which groundlings are not encouraged to emulate the bad behaviour of the Roman mob. The play’s basic (and unanswered) question – is it better to leave a strong man in power or to remove him and risk civil war? – has such obvious contemporary relevance that Dromgoole does not need to underline it. The costumes are Elizabethan, with white togas added only for the Senate. I was struck by how much these clothes helped the actors. Dressed like an Elizabethan malcontent rather than a philosopher, Christopher Logan’s waspish Casca could convincingly move from the cynicism of his first scene to the superstitious terror of his second. He was also helped by the production’s emphasis on Roman religion. At the start of the second scene, someone flings down a dead deer and the Lupercal runners dip into its blood, anticipating Antony’s later comparison of the dead Caesar to “a deer, stricken by many princes”. From the start, it is clear that Romans are used to getting blood on their hands. 


Dromgoole’s semi-memoir, Will and Me (2006), is absolutely clear about how to play Shakespeare, “keeping it light and fast, and not signposting intentions, just speaking”. This is what we get: the production moves rapidly, with overlapping entrances and exits, and the constant shift of sympathies that is built into the play. George Irving’s mesmerizing Caesar dominates all his scenes. As his procession moves through the yard, the great man presses a purse into the hand of a beggar and the whole crowd shares the recipient’s joy at the arbitrary generosity of the absolute ruler. In some productions Calpurnia is shown to be humiliated when Caesar publicly asks Antony to perform a ritual touching that will make her fertile; here, when Antony does it, she and Caesar embrace, excited about the prospect of a child. 


[ . . . ] 


The play is designed to let Antony take over at its halfway point. He is not played with hindsight about his future in the still unwritten Antony and Cleopatra – which, perhaps deliberately, opened at the Globe before its predecessor. And this seems right; the two Antonys are differently imagined and this production’s emphasis on living in the moment enables Luke Thompson brilliantly to be both the light-hearted figure of the opening scenes and the heartlessly casual triumvir in the second half of the play. In the Forum scene, his notorious claim, “I am no orator, as Brutus is”, made some spectators laugh, coming as it did after he had whipped up the Romans to a frenzy. Yet it was justified by the hesitant and emotional opening of his speech and by his apparent spontaneity throughout. Only in the few seconds in which he remained onstage alone was there the possibility that he realized what he had done, or even that he had planned it from the start. 


[ . . . ]

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