"All the world's a stage"

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE IS THE PREEMINENT English playwright that history remembers. Scholars continue to dissect his posthumous Folio nearly 400 years after his death, reading the disciplines into his works. Shakespeare is illuminated by philologists, philosophers, historians. Like any great author, he synthesized his culture and its ideas into meaningful commentary that remains his legacy.

Shakespeare lived and authored at a median period of the Scientific Revolution. Birthed by fate between Copernicus and Newton, Shakespeare shares his birth year 1564 with Galileo Galilei. By coincidence, 1564 was also the death of Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, hierarch of the Italian Renaissance—only three days after Galileo’s birth. The end of Michelangelo and the Catholic Old World is fittingly replaced with the Great Spectator, Galileo. This is Shakespeare’s first year: conceived by Old Time into a sunset retrospect of the Renaissance while foreshadowing the empiricists’ Europe to the East.

"There is not a sentimental bone in his body. He has the curiosity of a scientist, the judgement of a philosopher, and the soul of a poet."
Colin McGinn.
Shakespeare's philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays

Scientific English

The Scientific Revolution may have imposed a direct and plain style of language accurate to the agenda of empirical reporting. Figurative English and rhythm that may have defied the blunt facts of research are unexpected in this scientific community. The Shakespearean images of fairies and apparitions would seem retrograde to the new Revolution; those were the false lore of the Middle Ages. Yet what we find in Shakespeare's scientific contemporaries is quite unlike the expected. Johannes Kepler is a closet poet. According to historian James Connor, Kepler was also familiar with theatre; his frail form well applied to playing the parts of girls. Sokol, in his treatise on Shakespeare's The Tempest, A Brave New World of Knowledge, asserts that Kepler and Newton were avid philologists. And Galileo's banned book, the 1616 Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, was Dantean in its literary merits.

Similarly, Shakespeare, in his understanding of Myth and traditions, was able to synthesize this knowledge into existential discourse into culture and the sciences. Philosopher Colin McGinn elaborates: "Intelligent people believed in witchcraft, ghosts, fairies, astrology, and all the rest. Eclipses were greeted with alarmed superstition. The conception of the world as a set of intelligible law-governed causes was at most a distant dream." Yet Shakespeare's genius was in his submission to nature. "He let reality impose itself" and used these observations and literary devices, and most likely collaborated with notable scientists of his time, to understand and convey the world as it was being learned.

This may explain his willingness to write about recent developments in Europe's understanding of weather in The Tempest, or of heliocentricity in the Tragedy of Hamlet--though he was presumably Catholic. Dr. Kerry Sanders at the University of Sydney suggests "The young Hamlet comes back from Wittenberg all fired up with this new humanist education, reason's everything... and he's told by a ghost, a very unrationalist ghost we might presume, that Claudius [has killed his father]." Hamlet cannot rationalize a ghost in Purgatory with his Lutheran, Wittenberg education, and so he surrenders his education. "OK, I'll just observe, I'll use my senses and see if I can work it out."

Often, Shakespeare offers no conclusion of which is the right science. Once again, he merely observes, but with a clear and cautious eye for the delicacies in Nature. His tragedy King Lear faces young Edmund, a model of new science, with Lear, a remnant. "By nature," Edmund says, "everything is just as it is." Edmund is a bastard by nature, and crafty, but Nature has elected King Lear to a noble and honorable, God-intended position in the old thought. Lear, however, the medieval ideal, is senile, enraged, and incompetent. Edmund drives the plot; he muses a new schema of science, since the old has failed Lear and Lear's kingdom.

Shakespeare's commentary in his works is philosophical in the same way the Greek greats asked questions, and compared. Perhaps Shakespeare's plays are no less scientific in their investigations of nature and man than that of his science contemporaries. He observes, compares, and presents his findings in scientific English for the masses. There is no reason he should dry his philological palette to talk geocentricity. Then he would have fumbled into direct competition with Tycho Brahe.


  1. Robert Redd, the best writer at Cal Poly--Perhaps the state of California, the United States or even the world.

  2. I really admire Shakespeare a lot. He is the greatest writer I've known.