Thursday, May 15, 2014

Playright or polymath?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, science, renaissance

The Amazon web site lists more than 104,000 books by and about William Shakespeare. One of the most recently published—issued in April 2014—is The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright's Universe by Dan Falk. The book is a fascinating ramble through the changing understanding of nature known as the "scientific revolution". We look back and see a revolution, but it took a couple of centuries to play itself out, and in some ways it is still going on: While we can safely discount a few folks who believe that Earth is either flat or hollow, and even those who continue to deny the solar system model of Copernicus and Kepler, millions of Americans and significant numbers throughout the West still believe creation better describes biology than evolution and that our planet, of not all the Universe, is no more than several thousand years old. It is also well to remember that more than half of humanity has yet to experience the fruits of the scientific revolution. Missionaries, religious and otherwise, may have visited nearly everywhere, but in many places the main effect has been to induce the people to wear more clothing.

I had not realized that there exists a subculture of those who worry themselves about hints of the new philosophies in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Bardolators at one end attribute to him magical powers and the energy of a village filled with brilliant savants. Others are perhaps more balanced, but still search diligently for statements, references, or at least allegorical allusions to Copernican cosmology or new medical knowledge. It is safe to say that almost anyone living prior to the introduction of gaslight street lights (about 1800 AD) would know the night sky much better than anyone in the West today except for amateur and professional astronomers. Secondly, because there was little a physician could do, general knowledge of medicinal herbs was widespread. I think it likely that most "modern folk" know at most 10% of what would be common knowledge to nearly anyone of Shakespeare's day.

William Shakespeare was a working playwright, and a businessman with a theater to run. Highly intelligent, he'd have been fascinated by hearing and reading of new developments in natural science. But such knowledge was not his top priority. Entertainment was. He needed to reach people by the thousands to pay his bills. His plays spoke to deep currents of the human condition, and set them in familiar terms. Even his less familiar settings, such as Prospero's island, were decked with familiar trappings, the source of many much-bemoaned anachronisms. Rule one for a playwright: Don't puzzle your audience unless you are going to solve the puzzle later on (with a nod to the exception, Waiting for Godot).

We know so little about Shakespeare's person, it is easy to take his life as a near-tabula rasa and read all kinds of attributes into it. I prefer to take a step back to see that he was one of several extraordinary guys; he rose to become the best known, partly merited and partly through the contingencies of history. Not only did he write a lot, but a lot was preserved. Dan Falk keeps us on an even keel while leading us on a tour through the science of the day, mainly astronomical and medical, and letting us observe the breadth of understanding among Shakespeare scholars. He relies a lot on Peter Usher, an "outsider" among those scholars, who attributes a great deal more understanding of the new science to Shakespeare, as compared to most scholars. But it could be said he has scooped them, because most of them weren't even looking. So caught up in word counting and other data-driven internal-evidence studies, most of them know very little about the world Shakespeare inhabited beyond a circle of playwrights and poets. Maybe this book and Usher's work will remedy that. Old Will may not have been the superman some think he was, but he was better rounded than most give him credit for.

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