The Science of Shakespeare

To celebrate the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth, Ask Science talks with Dan Falk, author of the fascinating new book The Science of Shakespeare. Did the Bard of Avon infuse his plays with the scientific discoveries of the day? Find out.

Lee Falin, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #98

When I was in high school, our drama club put on two plays a year. The first was a Shakespeare play, the second was a musical. As time went on, I became less interested in drama, and more interested in science. Little did I know that in the case of Shakespeare, there is considerable overlap between the two.

In his fun new book, The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright's Universe, author Dan Falk talks about the many scientific advances that were occurring during Shakespeare's lifetime, the influence of science on his plays, and the influence of the plays on science. Since this week we celebrate Shakespeare's 450th birthday, I thought it would be a great time to sit down and ask Dan a few questions about his book:.


Ask Science: What prompted you to start this project? Was it an interest in science, in Shakespeare, or both?

Dan Falk: Definitely both!  

I have a long-standing interest in science (especially astronomy - although my first degree was in physics). I'm also very interested in the history of science. But I'm at the same time, I've been an avid Shakespeare “fan” from an early age.  And of course I was conscious that the big 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth (and death) was coming up.

EE: Do you think Shakespeare was consciously injecting science into his writing, or were the advances in science so much of what was hot at the time, that it just occurred naturally?

DF: Mostly, I think, it happened naturally.  These developments were “in the air” (so to speak) in Shakespeare’s day, so they were likely to turn up naturally.  And yet, it is always organic in the plays. Shakespeare only uses what serves his plot (or his poetry); nothing is forced.  Nor is Shakespeare a polemicist: He is not telling us what we ought to think.  I prefer to think of Shakespeare as an explorer, that is, as someone who is exploring various ideas in his work; some traditional and some quite modern.

EE: I personally enjoyed the chapter you wrote concerning the astronomy in Hamlet. Can you tell us a little about that?

DF: There’s a lot in Hamlet for us to sink out teeth into – it was Shakespeare's longest play, by far!  

There is Peter Usher’s rather elaborate theory, of course, the one that posits Hamlet as an allegory about competing views of the cosmos, with each character standing in for a real-life astronomer or philosopher. But putting that aside, there is unquestionably a lot of astronomy in the play.  For example, what is the star “westward from the pole” mentioned in Act 1 Scene 1?  (This gets into Donald Olson’s “supernova” theory in which he argues that the star may be “Tycho’s star” of 1572 - which I find quite plausible.)  Another significant passage is Prince Hamlet’s reference to being a “king of infinite space” – an allusion, perhaps, to the infinite cosmos recently described by his countryman, the astronomer Thomas Digges. 

EE: What was one of the most surprising things you discovered in your research for this book?

DF: Shakespeare scholars always point out the playwright’s debt to Montaigne; but nobody ever seems to have noticed that Montaigne mentions the Copernican theory in his Essays.  Therefore – assuming Shakespeare read the Essays in detail (it's possible that he may have only skimmed them!) then Shakespeare must have come across the Copernican theory.  This doesn’t mean he endorsed it, or approved of it; but it does seem to suggest that he at least would have known about it, thanks to Montaigne.

The Copernican theory was the controversial idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun, rather than being the (literally) center of the universe.

EE: In your view, how can a high school English teacher, or perhaps a homeschooling parent, use your book to bring greater depth to the discussion when students are studying Shakespeare?

DF: Teachers often use an author’s “life and times” to add perspective to literary works.  With Shakespeare, that typically means looking at his biography (what we know of it, anyway!) and, more generally, “life in Elizabethan England” and “Elizabethan theatre.”  That’s fine, but I think we can add to it.  I would say that a basic understanding of the science of Shakespeare’s day can provide an additional perspective.  Especially if these scientific developments are actually reflected, on occasion, in Shakespeare’s writings – which I believe they are, as I’ve tried to show in the book.

EE: Great ideas Dan! Thanks so much for joining the Ask Science show today.

DF: Thanks Lee. It's been a pleasure.


So now you know more about Dan Falk's new book, The Science of Shakespeare. You can find out more about this fascinating overlap between science and prose by picking up your own copy at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell's, or anywhere books are sold. 

Got a science book you'd like reviewed by Ask Science? Send me a message on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein, or via email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

Please note that archive episodes of this podcast may include references to Ask Science. Rights of Albert Einstein are used with permission of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Represented exclusively by Greenlight.

About the Author

Lee Falin, PhD

Dr. Lee Falin earned a B.S. in Computer Science from the University of Illinois, then went on to obtain a Ph.D. in Genetics, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology from Virginia Tech.