The Science of Shakespeare

17934411Dan Falk

It seemed like such a good combination — science, my fascination in retirement; and Shakespeare, the focus of my teaching for more than 30 years.

Alas, The Science of Shakespeare is a disappointment.

Most of TSofS is a competent and standard summary of the beginnings of modern science in the 17th century, despite its tendency to treat some of the tenuous ways that the emerging sciences might have influenced Shakespeare with the same attention and respect as it gives to the well-established, foundational science of the day. And what there is of Shakespeare scholarship is too often admittedly and excessively speculative, with an inevitable loss of credibility.

Much space is devoted to the ideas of astronomer Peter Usher, whom Falk identifies as one of the inspirations for the book. Chief among Usher’s contentions is the claim that Hamlet is primarily an allegory for the clash between the Ptolemaic and the Copernican. Not that Hamlet contains references that could be seen to be related to that clash, mind, but that Hamlet was written as a five-act commentary on the contrary world views.

Many of the other claims for a connection between Shakespeare’s plays and the stirrings of the new science are even more tenuous. To be fair, Falk keeps reminding us that the connections are speculative, but how many times can you read this warning before you start to wonder what, then, justifies the book’s existence.

And the language of the “claims” themselves reminds you more of bad TV documentaries than of a scholarly exploration. “Could aliens have built the Great Pyramid? Perhaps, but we may never know for sure.” That kind of thing. We’re told about the mythical “Elizabethan telescope,” which might have existed, and which Shakespeare might have known about if it did. We learn that Giordano Bruno visited England in the 1580’s. Shakespeare was in England then, too. And Christopher Marlowe probably was an atheist, and he was a playwright, and Shakespeare was a playwright, and therefore maybe Shakespeare was an atheist, too. And atheists tend to be empiricists, and empiricists are scientists — you get the idea. There’s seldom any more “proof” than this in Falk’s book.

I’m sorry, but as much as I wanted to be engaged by this book, I wasn’t. A lot of history of science, a bit of Shakespeare, and far too much forcing the two together.

I’d skip this one, if I were you.


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