Shakespeare and the Dawn of Modern Science

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Some 40 years later, the great Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei, born the same year as Shakespeare, pointed the refractive telescope he had recently improved towards the stars. He saw four moons circling Jupiter and Venus growing and diminishing in phases like the Moon. They were clearly on orbits that were not Earth-centric. This placed the Earth as just another planet orbiting the Sun. All the evidence was steadily disabusing Elizabethans of the comforting notion they occupied the centre of the universe. She might well be talking of the Elizabethan age.

It was a time of intense curiosity about the physical world and great enthusiasm for all sorts of scientific discovery. As an actor and director, Bell is intimately acquainted with Shakespeare, his face etched with the myriad characters he has brought to life on stage. The rich timbre of his voice has neither aged nor diminished.

While Shakespeare never wrote a play about science Bell has no doubt the Bard was keenly watching the events unfolding around him. What about the rest of the certainties that religion promised? It is no surprise that heliocentric views were branded heretic, says Bell. Nowhere was the revolution in science felt more acutely than by the literate Elizabethans. During the 30 years reign of Elizabeth I, male literacy more than doubled from one in 10 to one in four, while the fraction of literate women exploded from the oddball one in to a more respectable one in Books in English appeared for the first time on subjects ranging from cookery to medicine, opening up a new world of knowledge for people.


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Education itself became more egalitarian. Elizabethan society was on the move — literally and figuratively — with sailors and explorers such as Sir Francis Drake setting off around the world in small ships. The great age of exploration that was to follow could not have taken place without him. Medical science was also taking great strides forward.

Shakespeare's Works Influenced by Science

The Flemish doctor Andreas Vesalius discovered the science of anatomy through grisly dissections of cadavers, and the meticulous animal experiments of William Harvey in England revealed the heart, veins and arteries for the plumbing system it was, putting to rest the view that the veins and arteries had no connection and that the role of the arteries was to fill with air and cool the heart. Bacon argued that only through a spirit of open inquiry and the scientific method could mankind become master of the physical world. Bacon was an unequivocally modern man, but other Elizabethans were yet to make a full transition from medieval thinking.

For all their advances in science, the Elizabethans could still be a superstitious lot: and for many, astrology lived happily beside astronomy, alchemy with chemistry.


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Comets and eclipses were auguries of great, often disastrous events. A high-profile example of medieval-modern duality was John Dee, a founding fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. Clearly Dee could not see the difference between science and magic. But astronomer Peter Usher believes the references are hiding in plain sight.

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The professor came to his theory over his 31 years of teaching astronomy, trying to enrich the subject matter with apt literary references. A man of that calibre could not fail to have taken notice of what was going on around him. Usher thinks that Shakespeare did more than take note; he actually championed the Copernican view of the cosmos.

It is just that he did it in heavily disguised form in Hamlet. If the first act begins at the time the supernova is putting on its show in Cassiopeia, then the whole five acts of the play must take place between and Hamlet has been a student at Wittenberg, a centre for Copernican learning. There is a double meaning there, Usher believes. He cites further clues such as the names of the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, named he says after Frederick Rosenkrantz and Knud Gyldenstierne, cousins of Tycho Brahe.

Usher does not think cosmological and scientific references are limited to Hamlet. Bell is sure Shakespeare was well aware of the cosmological debate but less convinced that Hamlet is an extended metaphor. That is not to say the playwright skirted round the scientific awakening and discoveries of all kinds. Art simply approaches questions of truth in a different way from science, Bell says. There is super-nature in his plays, of course, but he uses this for dramatic effect. He questions all sorts of things, including the medieval worldview, justice and social mores.

He's found out some startling things about insanity and Shakespeare in 19th century America. BEN REISS: From the mids through about the mids in the United States, during the first generation of American psychiatry, no figure was cited as an authority on insanity and mental functioning more frequently than William Shakespeare.

Crazy, right? Have a listen. Ben Reiss is interviewed by Rebecca Sheir. Tell us who these people were. REISS: The asylum superintendents were all medical doctors, but the profession of medicine was not nearly as highly regulated as it is today. Many of the superintendents hadn't been to medical school.

Often you could join the ranks of medicine by apprenticing with another medical doctor, and, of course, there was no specialized training in psychiatry. They were the first generation of psychiatrists, and they were sort of inventing it on the fly. There was also very little in the way of experimental science that would establish the kinds of scientific authority that they were trying to claim for themselves. So, what they had was authority over these institutions and a kind of void in terms of scientific authority, legitimacy in the public's eyes.

SHEIR: Well, you mentioned the word "authority," and I'm fascinated by your thoughts on how the authority of these superintendents really clashed with the anti-elitist philosophy of Jacksonian America.

Shakespeare and the dawn of modern science. - Free Online Library

Can you expand on that a little? From the reign of Andrew Jackson, through the s, the United States culture increasingly emphasized democracy as an ideal. Anybody who was presuming to claim authority for themselves that other people couldn't understand or didn't have access to was considered suspect. Of course, this was a period in which all white men were granted the vote for the first time in American history. Prior to the late s, early s, there were always property restrictions on the vote, and so, for the first time you had this kind of inclusive sense of American democracy.

Of course, all non-whites and women were still excluded from it, but the sense, the culture's sense of itself, was one of openness and inclusion. And so, the challenge that these asylum superintendents had was, how do you govern over an institution which explicitly takes away individual liberties from people, from white people, at a time when individual liberties, social mobility are the hallmarks of the culture's sense of itself. And, of course, the kind of authority that they have over people is the authority to take away individual liberties.

Their patients can't write wills, they can't vote, they often can't hold property, and they're given no physical freedom of mobility. And so, they're looking for a kind of authority that would seem to say, yes, there are certain principles that allow us to make decisions to revoke liberties that people will not question, and this is part of what they turn to in Shakespeare.

There was a tremendous suspicion of anybody who tried to make claims to authority, to professional authority, in the 19th century. It was seen as anti-democratic. And so, in turning to Shakespeare, they turn to a figure who was assumed widely in the 19th century to have a kind of legitimacy. So, he was the world's leading genius, but can you talk about how the superintendents applied that then to psychiatry?

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I mean, what was it about Shakespeare that they felt fit in with their area of expertise? Shakespeare's power, his unrivaled power, was understood largely in the 19th century as his ability to portray human nature accurately in all of its manifestations. He was understood as a kind of a naturalist, and scientists, medical figures generally, were drawn to him in part because he didn't offer supernatural explanations for why people behaved the way they did. He offered naturalistic, almost empirical, kind of descriptions of human behavior and accounts for why people behaved as they did. He was presumed to be the one who understood, more fully than any person who had ever lived, why people act the way they do.

Do I have it right that there were people who saw this period as a time of rising insanity? The period in which the early American psychiatrists really turn to Shakespeare was a period in which they perceived a great increase in the amount of insanity. They saw it as a kind of epidemic. And part of the explanation for this epidemic was that modern democracy and early capitalism—they didn't often call it by those terms, they would say "modern civilization" or something like this—it created strains.

People had too many choices. They could choose jobs.

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They had ambitions to rise in the world. And they were often cast loose, as they moved into cities, where there were a great number of strangers, who they had to interact with on a daily level. And so, people made bad choices, and these produced strains, mental strains on them, which often led them to nervous breakdowns, in their view. And so, if part of the problem was that society had gone wrong, or that society was presenting these new mental strains for people, they tried to correct that in the institutions that they governed over.

Part of the correction was controlling the culture, creating a stable environment, both medically and socially, and that includes the cultural lives of patients, in which patients would not be exposed to things that would send them over the edge.

Are we speaking of, I don't know, the kind of plays they went to, and things like that? So, what do you mean when you say controlling their cultural lives? REISS: One of the problems of modern civilization, in the superintendents' view, was that it threw up new forms of entertainment that were often destabilizing or that over-excited the brain. So, there are cheap newspapers, cheap and tawdry novels, stage performances that are sometimes lewd or wild and rambunctious and led people into modes of thinking and modes of responding that were dangerous for them.

And so, in the asylum, they tried to regulate culture. They tried to present patients with opportunities to participate in a more orderly kind of cultural activity. And Shakespeare was not something that they exposed patients to, in terms of having them act in plays or watch stage performances, but they turned to Shakespeare as a guide for a sort of model of what correct cultural behavior is like.

SHEIR: Ben, one of the things you wrote that's so amazing to me, is that this theorizing about Shakespeare wasn't just limited to articles in medical journals. You gave some examples of these early psychiatrists invoking Shakespeare in court cases. REISS: In the 19th century, psychiatrists were often called to testify in legal cases and this could take several forms. One, they could be testifying to somebody's mental status, somebody who had been accused of committing a crime. Was this person truly competent to stand trial or was the person even culpable for his or her actions?

Another instance in which they would be called to trial would be if somebody had written a will, which was disputed on the grounds that the person was not in possession of his or her full faculties. Isaac Ray, who is the superintendent, first at a state-run asylum in Maine and then a private asylum in Rhode Island, was considered the foremost expert on psychiatric matters as they pertain to law, and he counseled other psychiatrists to turn frequently to great literature, and specifically to Shakespeare, to give examples of the kinds of problems that people who came before the law might face.

So, for instance, if they wanted to establish that somebody had only recently become fully insane, somebody, say, an older person, who had never manifested any signs of mental illness until the past year or two, at which point this person wrote a will that was contested, the psychiatrists were enjoined to explain to the jurors or to the judge that King Lear himself had shown no signs of insanity or shown very few signs of insanity until late in life, but that if you read the play very carefully, you could see in those early conversations he has with his daughters, that something was beginning to go amiss and it was only an environmental trigger Another famous case that they referred to was the case of Hamlet, and for generations, there had been debate within literary critical circles about whether Hamlet was really mad, or whether he was feigning madness in order to hide his plot against the king.

The asylum superintendents agreed almost unanimously that Hamlet really was mad.

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But the point they wanted to make, and it was a very important one for them, was that he had a partial madness, that it was possible to be completely sane in the majority of one's behaviors and dealings with others, and to have a mental illness that was isolated to either a certain part of the brain or to certain realms of experience and thought, and that this explained why so many people considered Hamlet not really to be mad, because he only acted crazy part of the time. What was the advantage of having that? What did it allow them to do?

So that, in other words, somebody might be able to get off on a charge of murder or some other serious crime, on cause of insanity or mental incompetence, and it wasn't just that the person had to act like a beast, or the previous test had been, you had to have the mental capacity of somebody younger than 14 years old, in order to get off on a crime for reason of mental incompetence. The psychiatrists were gradually widening this definition of insanity, so that it included all kinds of mental illness, which didn't appear to the public to be full-blown, and they turned to Hamlet to indicate this.