The Science of Shakespeare

A New Look at the Playwright's Universe

Dan Falk

Thomas Dunne Books

1.     “Arise, fair sun…”
 

A BRIEF HISTORY OF COSMOLOGY
Shakespeare’s audience did not have to look far to see the stars: A wooden canopy projected out over the stage, and its underside—known as “the heavens”—was decorated with brightly painted stars and constellations. It served its purpose in Hamlet, for example, when the prince refers to “this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire” (2.2.283–5) or when Caesar declares that “the skies are painted with unnumbered sparks” (Julius Caesar 3.1.63).
The view of the universe engendered by this simple theatrical device wasn’t so far off from how our ancestors had envisioned the cosmos for thousands of years: We look up at night, and we see an uncountable number of stars, brilliant pinpoints of light, seemingly painted on the vast dark canvas of the night sky.* And back then, before the light pollution brought by electrical lighting, the sky really was black. In Antony and Cleopatra, when Lepidus says to Caesar, “Let all the number of the stars give light / To thy fair way!”, we might imagine that the stars truly shone brightly enough for the purpose (3.2.65–66). (In practice, a bit of moonlight would probably help.) The stars were intimately familiar, yet at the same time deeply mysterious. They were certainly far away—climbing the highest hills did not seem to bring them any closer—but how far away, one couldn’t say. Perhaps they lay just out of reach; a little farther, perhaps, than the great oceans or the highest mountain peaks.
The sun was more familiar, its presence more intimate: the brightest of lights; the giver of life. Everyone knew that it rose in the east and set in the west, but they also knew the subtle variation in that pattern over the course of a year: In the winter, the sun makes only a low arc across the southern sky, while summer brings longer days in which the sun takes a much higher path across the sky. The cycle repeats, with perfect dependability, year after year. A farmer had to know the sun’s movement—but so, too, did a playwright; for the action to be visible, one had to contend with the harsh sunlight of midsummer as well as the long shadows of autumn and the all-too-early darkness of the winter months. Sophisticated stagecraft and spectacular costumes mean nothing if audience members have to squint to see them. As Peter Ackroyd writes, Shakespeare was “aware of the passage of time and of daylight across the open stage, so that he wrote shadowy scenes for the hour when the shadows begin to deepen across London itself.” Stage directions calling for a character to enter “with a torch” or “with a light” tend to come in a play’s final act. (There is also some evidence that the Globe was constructed in alignment with the position of the rising sun on the summer solstice.) Of course, one might misread a signal: In Romeo and Juliet, the two lovers famously quibble over the signs of the coming dawn. A bird cries—but was it the lark, or the nightingale? “Night’s candles are burnt out,” Romeo declares, “and jocund day / Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.” Juliet has heard and seen the same signals, but her wishful thinking interprets them quite differently: “Yon light is not day-light, I know it, I: / It is some meteor that the sun exhales.” (The physics of meteors was not yet understood; a common guess was that they were vapors “exhaled” by the earth under the sun’s influence.) Eventually, Romeo gives in; if Juliet says it is night, so be it:
I’ll say yon grey is not the morning’s eye,
’Tis but the pale reflex of Cynthia’s brow.
Nor that is not the lark whose notes do beat
The vaulty heaven so high above our heads.
(3.5.19–22)
The only tricky part for a modern reader is perhaps the reference to “Cynthia”; in a good scholarly edition, a footnote will explain that Cynthia was a name for the moon goddess in Greek mythology. As Romeo notes, a cloud reflecting the light of the moon could indeed be mistaken for the coming dawn.
The rising sun intrudes on the young lovers in Romeo and Juliet; it intrudes, too, on the conspirators in Julius Caesar. They gather for a nighttime meeting in Brutus’s garden to plot their next move—but take time out of their scheming to argue about where, exactly, the sun will rise:
DECIUS
Here lies the east. Doth not the day break here?
CASKA
No.
CINNA
O pardon, sir, it doth, and yon grey lines
That fret the clouds are messengers of day.
CASKA
You shall confess that you are both deceived.
Here, as I point my sword, the sun arises,
Which is a great way growing on the south,
Weighing the youthful season of the year.
Some two months hence, up higher toward the north
He first presents his fire, and the high east
Stands as the Capitol, directly here.
(2.1.100–110)
There are murders to plan, ambitions to thwart, and nations to rebuild—but first, let’s argue about the position on the horizon where the sun will rise! Nothing will happen, it seems, until this point can be agreed upon. Interestingly, Shakespeare gets it almost right. We know that it’s mid-March (the “ides” and all that), which means it’s almost the equinox—and therefore the sun will rise almost due east, not “a great way growing on the south,” as Caska proclaims. But he is right that, as the weeks pass, the sun’s position as it rises will advance to the north. (But the time is a problem: Later in the scene we are told that it’s three o’clock—too soon for the sunrise, or even the dawn’s early light, at any time of year.)*
The moon’s appearance and movement is every bit as familiar as that of the sun: It, too, rises in the east and sets in the west, though its appearance changes dramatically as it goes through its familiar phases, waxing and waning in its monthly cycle. For a few days each month it disappears completely, only to reappear as a thin crescent in the western sky, where it shines for a short time after sunset. About a week later it reaches “first quarter,” shining like a capital “D” in the southern sky. Another week passes, and it becomes a majestic full moon, rising opposite the setting sun and shining all night long. The lunar cycle repeats as dependably as its solar counterpart.
And then there were the stars—“these blessed candles of the night,” as Bassanio poetically describes them in The Merchant of Venice (5.1.219). They move as well—not haphazardly, but in unison, also from east to west. If you face north, they appear to revolve in a counterclockwise direction, as if attached to a giant pinwheel. Only the north star, or “pole star,” seems to remain fixed at the center of this pinwheel. (Known as “Polaris” since the seventeenth century, the north star happens to lie close to the north celestial pole, the imaginary spot that the Earth’s axis points toward.) This basic astronomical fact was, of course, well known to Shakespeare. In Julius Caesar, the general compares himself to the pole star: “… I am constant as the northern star, / Of whose true-fixed and resting quality / There is no fellow in the firmament” (3.1.60–62). Because the other stars move around the north star in a smooth circle and at a steady rate, one can use the sky itself as a clock. Telling time by the stars is a straightforward task for Shakespeare’s characters, as it must have been for his audience. In Henry IV, Part 1, a farmer tracks the time by noting the position of the Big Dipper, known in Britain today as “the Plough” but in Elizabethan times as “Charles’s Wain,” that is, “Charles’s Wagon”: “Charles’s Wain is over the new chimney, and yet our horse not packed” (2.1.2–3).
Although the distance to the stars was unknown, it was convenient to imagine them lying at some fixed distance from the Earth, attached to the inner surface of a vast, transparent sphere. The sphere turned about the Earth, carrying the stars with it; one lived at the center of this arrangement, watching the heavens’ endless procession.
The stars also display a second kind of motion. Along with the daily rising and setting, the entire pinwheel seems to shift slightly from night to night. As the weeks pass, the shift becomes more noticeable. Consider Orion, the mighty hunter. In autumn, it rises about midnight. By Christmas, however, it rises much earlier, around the time of sunset. By the following autumn, Orion once again rises at midnight. This cycle, like that of the seasons, lasts one year. These motions are straightforward and predictable. A shepherd would have known which constellations were visible in which season, and in which direction one would have to gaze.
THE WANDERERS
But there were certain objects in the night sky whose behavior wasn’t quite so simple. From ancient times, skywatchers noticed that there were a handful of starlike objects that did not quite move in unison with the other stars; they changed their position against the constellations from night to night and from season to season. Today we call them planets; the word derives from the Greek term for “wanderer.” Five of these wandering stars were known in ancient times—Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.
Although the planets wandered, they did not run amok: One could always depend on finding them within a narrow band that circles the night sky, the belt defined by the twelve constellations of the zodiac. In this respect, they are like the sun and moon, which also keep within the zodiac, and so one sometimes spoke of seven (rather than five) wandering bodies. But there were some intriguing differences in the paths that these wandering stars seemed to take: Mercury, looking like a dim reddish star, moved swiftly—only the moon seemed to move faster—and yet it always appeared close to the sun. Brilliant white Venus moved a little slower, and strayed a little farther from the sun, but not too far (neither planet was ever seen opposite the sun). Mars, with its distinctive reddish color, moved more slowly than the sun; so, too, did Jupiter and Saturn, both creamy white in color. Their paths took them across the entire sky, so that sometimes they were near the sun, sometimes opposite the sun. Of these, Saturn was the slowest of all; it took weeks before its motion against the background stars was perceptible, and required almost thirty years to complete a full circle relative to the background stars.
To the title character in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, such motions were elementary. The doctor distinguishes “the double motion of the planets”—referring to their daily rising and setting, and also to their more complicated motion against the stars of the zodiac. Saturn’s motion, he says, is completed “in thirty years, Jupiter in twelve, Mars in four, the sun, Venus, and Mercury in a year, the moon in twenty-eight days. Tush, these are freshmen’s suppositions” (7.51–56). Actually, the period for Mars is closer to two years than four, but close enough: For Marlowe, and for his learned doctor, this basic comprehension of the heavens—knowing which objects were visible, in which part of the sky, and for how long—was everyday knowledge.
The planets, however, were more than just points of light in the night sky: They were also associated with gods. Each had its own powers, its own domain of influence. For both the Greeks and the Romans, Venus was the goddess of love; Mars was the god of war. Saturn was a god of agriculture and of time, while Mercury was a kind of messenger, a god of travel—which makes sense, given Saturn’s plodding pace and Mercury’s swiftness. Jupiter, often the brightest of the planets, was the king of the gods.*
The movement of the planets showed many regularities—but also some downright peculiar behavior. From night to night, the planets usually edged a little bit to the east; as the weeks passed, this was easily observed. Eventually, they completed a full circle against the backdrop of the stars. But for several weeks or months each year they would reverse their direction, moving westward from night to night, before resuming their usual eastward motion. Astronomers refer to this backtracking as “retrograde” motion, in contrast to the more usual “direct” motion. Again, these were familiar terms in Elizabethan times—as much for their use in astrology as in astronomy. In All’s Well That Ends Well, Helena plays with this idea, poking fun at Parolles’s skills on the battlefield:
HELENA
Monsieur Parolles, you were born under a charitable star.
PAROLLES
Under Mars, I.
HELENA
I especially think under Mars.
PAROLLES
Why under Mars?
HELENA
The wars have so kept you under that you must needs be born under Mars.
PAROLLES
When he was predominant.
HELENA
When he was retrograde, I think rather.
PAROLLES
Why think you so?
HELENA
You go so much backward when you fight.
(1.1.190–200)
Mars, aside from being the god of war, was also the most perplexing of the planets. The magnitude of its retrograde movement was greater than that of the other planets, making it the most readily visible example of backward motion in the heavens and, at the same time, the object whose movement was most urgently in need of explanation. As the French king points out early in Henry VI, Part 1, “Mars his true moving, even as in the heavens / So in the earth, to this day is not known” (1.2.191–92). As familiar as retrograde motion was, it proved baffling to astronomers, who struggled to tweak their models of the heavens to explain this odd feature of planetary motion.
THE SPHERES ABOVE
Imagining the sun, moon, and planets affixed to a giant, transparent sphere was a promising start, but it was not quite enough: At the very least, each planet had to have its own sphere, so that it could move independently of the other wanderers; these nested spheres—think of the layers of an onion—could then rotate at different speeds, with the Earth at rest in the center. The innermost sphere carried the moon, which moved a significant distance from night to night; next was Mercury, then Venus. After that came the sun itself. Beyond the sun lay the spheres of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn; and finally the sphere containing the stars themselves, sometimes called the “firmament” (as Prince Hamlet referred to it in the passage quoted at the start of the chapter). And so one would not speak of a single giant sphere, but of a system of spheres—a system like that imagined in figure 1.1. Perhaps the spheres were composed of some kind of crystal; they needed to be rigid and yet perfectly transparent.
Although this model had evolved significantly by the sixteenth century, the ancient picture just described was more or less how ordinary people imagined the universe in the time of Shakespeare’s youth. When Hamlet, after seeing his father’s ghost, says the vision threatens to make his eyes “like stars, start from their spheres” (1.5.22), his audience would have had no trouble catching the metaphor. Similar turns of phrase can be found throughout the canon. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon describes a mermaid’s song—music so lovely that “certain stars shot madly from their spheres” in order to hear it better (2.1.153). And if you’ve ever seen a Western in which one character says to another that “this town isn’t big enough for the both of us,” remember that Shakespeare was there first—though entire planets, rather than towns, were at issue. In Henry IV, Part 1, Prince Henry says to his archenemy, Harry Percy, “Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere, / Nor can one England brook a double reign / Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales” (5.4.64–66).
What we’ve described here is, roughly, how ancient civilizations across the Near East imagined the heavens for thousands of years: The cosmos was pictured as an intricate system of nested, transparent spheres, carrying the sun, moon, planets, and stars across the sky in their daily and yearly cycles. It was also the way the great thinker Aristotle imagined the universe in the fourth century B.C. By Aristotle’s time, it was accepted that the Earth itself was spherical; but it was thought to be immobile, fixed at the center of the universe, surrounded by this intricate array of translucent spheres, carrying the five planets—or seven, if we count the sun and moon among these “wanderers.”
Aristotle also noticed a profound difference between what happened down here on the Earth, and what transpired in the heavens. The terrestrial realm—the “sublunar” world—was marked by continuous change; it was subject to corruption and decay. This stood in stark contrast to the perfection of the sun, moon, and planets, whose movements were as predictable and regular as a well-oiled machine. (The metaphor is less of an anachronism if we think of the cosmic machine as a divine creation rather than something constructed in a blacksmith’s workshop, but either way we have an artifact bearing witness to the talent of its creator.) Here on Earth, everything was thought to be composed of the four elements—earth, air, fire, and water—described by the Greeks even before Aristotle. All that we see around us, from mice to mountains, can be thought of as a particular arrangement of these elements, as they move and combine in different forms. As Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine observes, “Nature that framed us of four elements, / Warring within our breasts for regiment…” (Tamburlaine the Great, Part 1 2.6.58–59). Even Sir Toby Belch, in Twelfth Night, asks: “Does not our life consist of the four elements?” (2.3.9).
In a world of hierarchies, it is not surprising that the elements themselves were ranked according to their presumed nobility. Fire was the most worthy; next was air. Water, being heavier, filled the oceans below. Earth, the basest of the elements, lay at the bottom. However quaint such a system may seem today, it basically worked: When flames were observed to rise, it could be seen as an attempt to reach the heavenly spheres, their natural home; the fall of rain to the sea, or a thrown rock to the ground, could be similarly accounted for.
These elements, confined to the sublunar world, were constantly in flux. But the “superlunar” world—the heavens—showed no such signs of change. To Aristotle, this heavenly realm, with its various spheres, was composed of a kind of quintessence—literally a “fifth element.” Sometimes an additional sphere was added beyond the sphere of the fixed stars; this was the primum mobile (“that which moves first”), which was believed to set the whole system in motion.
In considering the motion of the heavenly bodies, Aristotle was influenced by Plato, who had in turn been influenced by the followers of Pythagoras, an early Greek thinker who saw the universe as inherently mathematical, its creator a kind of divine geometer. Among the many shapes pondered by the geometers, one was seen as more perfect than any other. This was the circle (or, in three dimensions, the sphere). As a medieval astronomer named Sacrobosco noted, there were three reasons why the heavens must be spherical: First, a sphere has no beginning and no end, and is therefore “eternal.” Second, a sphere encloses a larger volume than any other shape having the same surface area. And third, any other shape would seem to leave “unused” space. The first of these reasons, in particular, permeated Greek mathematical thought. And so Aristotle imagined the planets as moving in perfect circles. This was a little bit tricky, since it was well known that the planets do, in fact, display irregularities in their motion, as seen from Earth. But surely, he reasoned, this was an illusion: Aristotle and his followers were confident that, from the correct perspective, all heavenly motion was indeed perfectly uniform and perfectly circular.
CIRCLES UPON CIRCLES
This system of nested crystalline spheres was immensely appealing—but anyone who followed the movements of the planets closely came to realize that it was not quite enough; the motion of the planets was too complex. For example, it was still unclear how the circular movement of those spheres could account for retrograde motion. The best guess was that each planet required two such spheres: a large one, to account for the basic eastward motion; and a smaller one, to account for the “loops” that the planet traces out when moving in retrograde. These smaller circles were known as epicycles (from a Greek term meaning “a cycle displaced from the center”).
The most detailed account of such a system comes from the Greek mathematician and astronomer Claudius Ptolemy (ca. A.D. 90–168).* Ptolemy’s system was intricate and sophisticated, employing geometrical contrivances that today sound unfamiliar to anyone except for historians of astronomy. We will not wade into Ptolemaic astronomy any more than we have to, but it is worth looking at its main elements. As in Aristotle’s system, the Earth lies at the center of the universe. Each planet, as mentioned, has two motions: it moves in a small epicycle, with the center of the epicycle revolving around the Earth in a larger circle called a deferent. The deferent, meanwhile, is not centered precisely on the Earth, but on a nearby point called the eccentric. One more aspect of Ptolemy’s astronomy merits our attention: Ptolemy had imagined not only that the heavenly bodies moved in perfect circles, but that they did so at a constant speed. This was problematic, because, as measured from Earth, the speed would not be constant in the system as described. But the speed would be constant relative to an imaginary point on the “other side” of the eccentric, displaced from the center by the same amount as the Earth. That imaginary point was called an equant.
If you’re thinking that all of this is frighteningly complex, you’re not alone. In the thirteenth century, the king of León, Alfonso X, commissioned a new set of astronomical tables to be drawn up; the calculations were carried out using the Ptolemaic system, which still reigned supreme in celestial matters. When one of his aides explained the system to him, the king is said to have remarked, “If the Lord Almighty had consulted me before embarking upon the creation, I should have recommended something simpler.”
Three centuries later, this apparent complexity would trouble the poet John Milton. In Paradise Lost, Adam inquires about the structure of the heavens; the angel Raphael replies that God must surely be laughing at man’s desperate efforts to explain the cosmos:
… when they come to model heav’n
And calculate the stars, how they will wield
The mighty frame, how build, unbuild, contrive
To save appearances, how gird the Sphere
With centric and eccentric scibbled o’er,
Cycle and epicycle, Orb in Orb …
(8.79–84)
Remarkably, as complicated as the Ptolemaic system sounds, it worked: It allowed astronomers (and astrologers) to predict the positions of the planets with reasonable accuracy, allowing them to “save the appearances” of the wandering lights in the night sky. (That phrase, derived from a Greek expression, had long been in common use when Milton borrowed it for use in his poem.) And it worked in spite of a fairly serious glitch. It’s not just that Ptolemy had placed the Earth, rather than the sun, at the center; that, by itself, would not affect the predicted positions, as the two schemes are mathematically equivalent. But his estimates of the sizes of the spheres were all quite far off. They were based on the “best guess” at the distance between the Earth and the sun—which, it turns out, Ptolemy had underestimated by a factor of twenty; this, in turn, threw off all of the other estimates of distance.
Ptolemy’s vision was laid out in his hefty book, which, thankfully, is no longer known by its Greek title (translated roughly as “Mathematical Systematic Treatise”) but by the name it took on centuries later, the Almagest—derived from an Arabic phrase meaning “the majestic” or “the great.” The Almagest is divided into thirteen sections, or “books,” each crammed full of diagrams, charts, and equations. (And remember, for the first thirteen hundred years of its existence, it could be copied only by hand.) Far more thorough and authoritative than any previous astronomical text, it would dominate cosmological thinking and teaching for the next fourteen centuries.
In medieval Europe, Christian theology adopted some aspects (though not all) of the ancient Greek description of the cosmos. What endured, both in Catholic nations and in the newly Protestant lands, was a kind of “Christianized Aristotelianism.” It was a worldview that embraced the structure of the heavens and the Earth as described by Aristotle, and the basic elements of the various celestial movements as described by Ptolemy, with all of those deferents, eccentrics, and epicycles. It was an ingenious synthesis—and a remarkably cohesive picture of the world.
MICROCOSM AND MACROCOSM
What this discussion of the motion of the heavenly spheres leaves out is just how intimate the medieval universe was—at least, the version of the universe that emerged once Christianity and Greek philosophy had completed their merger. It was not a complete unification, however. Some of the key ideas of Greek thought—those seen to be compatible with the Christian faith—were embraced by the early Church; others were discarded. (For example, the idea of the primum mobile was absorbed rather easily; for Christians, this realm could simply be associated with God himself, who could act as a “first cause,” giving the spheres their initial motion.)
The picture that emerged was one of profound unity: A sublime order was seen to underlie the arrangement of the natural world, from the lowest rocks to the loftiest stars—with man occupying a unique position in the middle, noble in reason but frail in body. Everything, and every person, had its place in this grand cosmic hierarchy, sometimes called the “Great Chain of Being.” Kings ruled over men; men ruled over their households. It was an interconnected web, with a just and omnipotent God supervising from above. With this hierarchy in mind, we can see why cosmology had a political dimension—or, if you prefer, why politics had a cosmic dimension. The king was next to God, and God ruled the heavens.
It was a small step to imagine a connection between the monarch and the heavens themselves—an idea illustrated rather vividly on the frontispiece of Sphaera Civitatis (The Sphere of State), a commentary on Aristotle’s Politics by the writer John Case, published in 1588 (see figure 1.2). As a queen without an heir, Elizabeth could be forgiven for fearing disorder above all. But the engraving goes beyond simply equating the sovereign with divine order; it places her in the realm of the heavens themselves. The diagram is solidly Ptolemaic, with the Earth lying as the center. But as Jonathan Bate points out, it wouldn’t be all that disruptive had it been presented as Copernican, with the sun, symbolizing the monarch, placed at the center; either way, the queen “presides over the whole scheme [with] implacable authority.” (Much later, in the second half of the seventeenth century, Louis XIV of France would push the metaphor as far as one might reasonably expect to, declaring himself the “sun king.”) Royalty need not be compared to the sun; a star might suffice. In one of Ben Jonson’s masques, a prince declares,
I, thy Arthur, am
Translated to a star; and of that frame
Or constellation that was called of me
So long before, as showing what I should be,
Arcturus, once thy king, and now thy star.
Elizabeth couldn’t be compared to Arcturus, since she was a woman; instead, as Alastair Fowler points out, she was often compared to Astraea, the “star maiden” of Greek mythology. Astraea was associated with justice as well as innocence and purity. Born a human, she was repulsed by the wickedness of mankind and ascended to the sky to become the constellation Virgo (the Virgin)—rather appropriate for the Virgin Queen.
With great power, of course, comes great responsibility, and so kings and princes must be held to a higher moral standard than the common man. As Imogen notes in Cymbeline, “… falsehood / Is worse in kings than beggars” (3.6.13–14). Few would have doubted a profound connection between social and celestial order, the inherent unity of microcosm and macrocosm—a way of thinking encapsulated in Calpurnia’s famous warning: “When beggars die, there are no comets seen; / The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes” (Julius Caesar 2.2.30–31).* In Troilus and Cressida, Ulysses takes the analogy much further. In a remarkable speech, he describes an intricate parallel between social order and cosmic order:
The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all the line of order.
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other …
(1.3.85–91)
As we’ve seen, this passage can be taken as either Ptolemaic or Copernican, depending on one’s interpretation.† Either way, everything and everyone had their place and their purpose. Not surprisingly, there was little hope for improving one’s lot in life; to attempt to do so was like putting a wrench in the divine machinery of the cosmos, and was likely to bring divine retribution. It was, above all, an interconnected world; its every corner, as historian Lawrence Principe says, was “filled with purpose and rich with meaning.”
The ancient writings were taken seriously. By Shakespeare’s time, Plato and Aristotle had been dead for nineteen centuries, yet were deemed more authoritative than any living thinker. For the natural sciences in particular, Aristotle was the authority. But it was Plato who spoke of the link between man and the cosmos—between microcosm and macrocosm (“little ordered world” and “large ordered world”). As we struggled to understand our lives here on Earth, we could look to the heavens for guidance: Their orderly structure was a model, a blueprint, for living a rational, meaningful life. Every branch of learning, from astrology to medicine, flowed from this simple assertion. We can see why natural philosophy, though roughly equivalent to what we now call “science,” was broader in scope: It encompassed not only the observational sciences, but also theology and metaphysics. And we can understand why as late a figure as Sir Isaac Newton, in the latter part of the seventeenth century, was able to carry out scientific experiments one day, dabble in alchemy the next, and study obscure biblical passages the day after that.
To study nature was to study God’s creation. That sentiment was commonplace in Renaissance Europe, but its most compact and eloquent expression is found in Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.” (On this point, Protestants and Catholics were in full agreement. As Calvin writes, “The skillful ordering of the universe is for us a sort of mirror in which we can contemplate God, who is otherwise invisible.”) To see God’s handiwork is one thing; to comprehend it is another. The Creator worked in mysterious ways, and no mere mortal could grasp his plan for humankind in its entirety—but one could glimpse a small part of it, perhaps, by studying God’s creation. One could come to know God through either of the “two books”—the book of nature or the book of scripture. His Word or his Work.
By Shakespeare’s day, the metaphor was ubiquitous: Nature was seen as a book that could be read by someone with the right training. We have some idea of the texts that the playwright perused, and he almost certainly had access to an encyclopedia written by a Frenchman named Pierre de la Primaudaye, who declares that we must consult both “books” in order to know God: “We must lay before our eyes two bookes which God hath given unto us to instruct us by, and lead us to the knowledge of himselfe, namely the booke of nature, and the booke of his world.” Mind you, Shakespeare wasn’t shy about projecting the metaphor back to ancient Rome. In Antony and Cleopatra, the soothsayer says of his abilities: “In nature’s infinite book of secrecy / A little I can read” (1.2.10–11).
Two books, but a common purpose: to know the mind of God, and through God to understand the meaning and purpose of life. As a new era dawned, Lawrence Principe writes, the greatest of thinkers “looked out on a world of connections and a world full of purpose and meaning as well as of mystery, wonder, and promise.”
FROM MEDIEVAL TO MODERN
A profound change in this way of seeing the world was on the horizon—though of course no one at the time would have recognized its first stirrings. The period that we now think of as the Scientific Revolution—roughly 1500 to 1700—was seen as nothing of the sort at that time. Moreover, the discoveries that we celebrate in science museums today probably had little impact on ordinary men and women at the time. As Peter Dear observes, it is “unclear how much difference the classic ‘Scientific Revolution’ of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries made to ordinary people.” The innovations that it brought “left most features of their everyday lives unchanged.” As Steven Shapin points out, the term “Scientific Revolution” saw widespread use beginning only in the late 1930s.* (It has been fashionable in recent years to quote the first sentence of Shapin’s book The Scientific Revolution: “There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution. And this is a book about it.”) And yet it was, undeniably, a time of unprecedented inquiry, investigation, and discovery.
Whatever we may call this period, something rather important happened, even if it was more gradual, and constituted less of a break with past traditions, than the name “revolution” might suggest. But it did not come out of the blue; rather, it was built on a foundation established in the latter part of the Middle Ages. And it did not happen everywhere at the same time; what we would now recognize as “modern” developments in medicine, engineering, and commerce, as well as in the visual arts and literature, could be seen in Italy many decades before they reached more remote parts of the Continent. It was, as Principe puts it, “a rich tapestry of interwoven ideas and currents, a noisy marketplace of competing systems and concepts, a busy laboratory of experimentation in all areas of thought and practice.” The printing press, a fifteenth-century invention, fostered the spread of ideas at a new, accelerated pace, while voyages of discovery were opening up new worlds for colonization and exploitation. And the rediscovery of classical texts, via Arabic translations, triggered a new wave of learning across Europe. Those works included the writings of Aristotle and Ptolemy, which we’ve touched on, as well as the geometry of Euclid, the medical writings of Galen, and much more.
This wave of learning was closely linked to the activities of the Roman Catholic Church. The best medieval schools had been those associated with the monasteries and the great cathedrals. By the late Middle Ages these had also become centers of what we would now call science (as mentioned, at that time such pursuits would have fallen under the umbrella of natural philosophy). There were also the universities, the earliest having been founded around 1200; these, too, functioned largely as religious institutions. The highest degree offered was in theology—though to obtain it, the student also had to master mathematics, logic, and natural philosophy.
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This close connection between science and faith may seem strange to the modern reader, living at a time when Western society, and Western science in particular, has become a secular endeavor—and with best-selling authors declaring religion to be antithetical to science and an obstacle to progress. The evolving relationship between science and religion is a large and complex subject, but one thing is clear: Whatever that relationship may be like today, it was very different four hundred years ago. There was no “conflict” between science and religion for the simple reason that no such division between the two pursuits existed. For one thing, religion was simply part of the fabric of society; all of the key figures of the Scientific Revolution were men of faith of one kind or another. (These days Francis Bacon is hailed as one of the founders of modern science—but a first-time reader of his Advancement of Learning [1605] might be surprised to find that he expounds at some length on God and the Bible.) Moreover, the very thing being investigated—the heavens—was seen as indisputable evidence of God’s craftsmanship. Robert Recorde, writing in the middle of the sixteenth century, is typical in his enthusiasm. His Castle of Knowledge is at once a textbook on astronomy and an expression of religious devotion. He begins:
Oh worthy temple of Gods magnificence. Oh throne of glory and seate of the Lord: thy substance most pure what tongue can describe? Thy beauty with stares so garnished and glittering … Oh marvellous Maker, oh God of good governance: thy works are all wonderous, thy cunning unknowen: yet seeds of all knowledge in that booke are sowen.…
To study astronomy was to study “the book of nature”; it could not fail to lead one to a greater understanding of God. As Recorde assured his readers, “there was never any good astronomer that denied the majestie and providence of God.” As historian Paul Kocher puts it, early modern science “was more often cited as proving God’s existence than disproving it, under the staple argument that study of the marvellous structure of the universe led man’s mind to see that it must have had a Creator.” And as Principe writes, the study of nature was seen as “an inherently religious activity.” The twenty-first-century notion that scientific investigation requires checking one’s faith at the door is a much more modern idea, one that would have been incomprehensible to the great thinkers of this time.
But the link between science and faith, as Principe stresses, is deeper than this. For the thinkers of early modern Europe, he writes, “the doctrines of Christianity were not personal choices. They had the status of natural or historical facts”:
Never was theology demoted to the status of “personal belief”; it constituted, like science today, both a body of agreed-upon facts and a continuing search for truths about existence.… Thus theological ideas played a major part in scientific study and speculation—not as external “influences,” but rather as serious and integral parts of the world the natural philosopher was studying.
This is a useful reminder, because it is commonplace today to pick up a weekly newsmagazine and read of religious thinkers being “influenced” by science or, less frequently, of a scientific idea having been influenced by religious thought (the big-bang-model theory of modern cosmology comes to mind). The presumption is that science is a kind of monolithic, ever-expanding pool of wisdom, with religion (and philosophy) merely coming along for the ride. Whatever we think of this view today, it would have been meaningless in early modern Europe. The so-called war between science and religion was largely an invention of the late nineteenth century, and, while it may have some relevance today, Principe is correct to remind us that it “does not portray the historical situation.”*
Perhaps the clearest example of the interdependence of science and faith during the late Middle Ages, and into the Renaissance, comes from the field we have been discussing: astronomy. Religious leaders relied on the work of astronomers to determine the date of Easter, the holiest day in the Christian calendar. The date of Easter was calculated by means of a complex algorithm that depended on the date of the vernal equinox—the day when the hours of daylight exactly equal the hours of darkness, marking the first day of spring. But determining the date of the equinox is itself a difficult problem, and can only be worked out through careful observations of the heavens. To aid in this work, dozens of churches and cathedrals across Christian Europe also served as observatories; many were equipped with strategically placed apertures in walls or ceilings that allowed a beam of sunlight to strike a north-south “meridian line” on the floor. The resulting measurements helped establish the dates of the solstices and equinoxes, on which the Easter calculations depended. And so the Roman Catholic Church was, for many centuries, the largest sponsor of astronomical research in Europe.†
It is hardly a surprise, then, that many of the natural philosophers of the early modern era were also churchmen of one kind or another. That is certainly the case with the pious Catholic cleric from the remote eastern edge of Europe who, early in the sixteenth century, decided that studying the heavens might be just as rewarding as studying the intricacies of ecclesiastical law. He would soon turn the universe on its head.

 
Copyright © 2014 by Dan Falk