Astronomy in Shakespeare

Astronomy in Shakespeare: How Many of His Plays Were Influenced by the Stars

Read Time: 4 minutes

Signs of the stars abound in Shakespeare’s work. There are, of course, obvious points when he directly uses stars in a play, but there are also some subtle aspects of astrology in his work. Part of why Shakespeare was so heavily influenced by astrology had a great deal to do with the time period.

It’s important to remember that the Church was the main ruling body at this time. Astronomy was a science, of course, but not in the same way we think of science today, it resembled more to the astrology we have today. Science, religion, and astrology were all mixed together and used to predict daily life events.

Shakespeare lived from 1564 to 1616. It was an exciting time to be alive as there were several huge scientific discoveries during this time. This included the invention of the telescope, Kepler’s Laws of Motion, the Copernican Model of the solar system and Tycho Brahe’s first attempts at correcting the star charts. Clearly, astronomy was extremely important during this time period.

In other words, everyone was well-versed in astrology at the time. It was used to predict births, weddings and crop harvests among other things. All things considered, it’s not surprising to learn some of Shakespeare’s works reference the stars.

Of course, plenty of people argue that Shakespeare did not keep up with the scientific advancements at the time. There’s no real way to find out since everyone would’ve had a basic understanding of astrology. But there is growing speculation that Shakespeare’s knowledge went beyond the essentials.

Henry VI — 1592

Henry VI is chock full of astrology. This was one of Shakespeare’s first works, and it depicts the more common understanding of astrology at the time. The planets and heavens foretell death and war, and men base their battle plans on the arrangement of the stars. The death of kings is blamed on comets, which were thought to be harbingers of doom.

“Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!

Comets, importing change of times and states,

Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky,

And with them scourge the bad revolting stars

That have consented unto Henry’s death!” – Henry VI, Act 1, Scene 1

 

Romeo and Juliet — 1597

A few years after writing Henry VI, Shakespeare was still using the planetary bodies as a way to tell the future in his plays.

“I fear, too early: for my mind misgives;

Some consequence yet hanging in the stars;

Shall bitterly begin his fearful date;

With this night’s revels and expire the term;

Of a despised life closed in my breast;

By some vile forfeit of untimely death.”– Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 4

 

Julius Caesar — 1599

In this play, you can start to see Shakespeare’s interest in astronomical discoveries. Although he still uses the heavens to tell the future and comets to proclaim the death of princes, he does present another view of things, one where people are in control of their own fates, instead of having everything dictated by the stars. This is a major change from his earlier works, which mainly focus on people trying to make do with the fates the stars have written for them.

Shakespeare never gets completely away from the idea that people are somewhat dependent on the gods and planets, but you can see how the way he uses them changes. When considered from a perspective of continuity, you can see how the progression changes.

“Men at some time are masters of their fates:

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” – Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2

 

Hamlet — 1603

This tragedy, written later in Shakespeare’s life, is one that seems to point heavily towards Shakespeare’s investment in science. Tycho Brahe was one of the most famous astronomers at the time, while also one of the most eccentric. His death is thought to have been the inspiration for Hamlet. Brahe was the personal astrologer of King Fredrick II, and it’s theorized that he was even closer with the Queen. When the King died and his son, King Christian IV, took over, some speculate that he may have had Brahe poisoned. This dovetails nicely with the entire plot of the play.

However, Shakespeare makes several references to recent changes in how the heavens are viewed. He mentions doubting the movement of the Sun, which goes well with Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the solar system, where the Sun is at the center, not the Earth.

“Doubt thou the stars are fire;

Doubt that the sun doth move;

Doubt truth to be a liar;

But never doubt I love.” – Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2

 

King Lear — 1606

Shakespeare still views astronomy as a mix of religion, astrology and science. This is still typical of the time, especially since the Church is still in control, and placing the blame on the gods prevents it from being placed on those in power. He starts as someone with a basic understanding of astronomy and astrology, and gradually increases his knowledge base until he can use a wide range of astronomical terms and ideas easily within his plays.

In this play, he starts referencing specific formations, like Ursa Major and the Pleiades. The dragon’s tail would be a comet. Earlier in this quote, Shakespeare claims that it is not the fate of men to be governed by the stars, and the attributes given to Edmund are not at all true.

“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.” – King Lear, Act 1, Scene 2

While these are just some of his plays, they represent how Shakespeare’s knowledge of astronomy slowly increased throughout his life. This is one of the little understood ideas behind his work, but nonetheless fascinating.

Do you have a favorite Shakespearean quote referencing the early beliefs of astronomy/astrology? Comment in the section below!

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Article by: Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance science writer and science enthusiast. Her favorite subjects include astronomy and the environment. She encourages discussions in these fields. Megan is also a regular contributor to Datafloq, The Energy Collective, and David Renke's World of Space. When she isn't writing, Megan loves watching movies, hiking and stargazing. Love what you're reading on Schooled By Science? Don't forget to subscribe today!