"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Monday, June 9, 2014

Dramatizing 'The Science of Shakespeare'

The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright's UniverseThe Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright's Universe by Dan Falk
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Around the time of Shakespeare there were two views of the solar system: the older view was Earth-centered (Ptolemaic), and the newer view was Sun-centered (Copernican). In The Science of Shakespeare, Dan Falk provides a wonderfully accessible history lesson explaining these two astronomical systems--how the Ptolemaic view dominated for so long and then was overtaken by the Copernican theory (roughly around the time Shakespeare wrote Hamlet). If Mr. Falk’s book had been solely, or even mostly, about this crucial history lesson, I would probably be writing a four-star review. I am not.

At the heart of Falk’s book is a vein of wishful-thinking that borders on conspiracy theory. What begins as an informative interdisciplinary discussion--examining the intersection of Elizabethan drama and modern science—by Chapter 7 diverts in to a scholastic pipedream with Shakespeare being a closeted devotee of Copernican astronomy. Perhaps, the author and his chief source suggest, Hamlet is more than just a great play. Perhaps it is also a clever and elaborate allegory exploring the revolutionary discoveries of Galileo et al. What if the characters in Hamlet are actually symbolic stand-ins for the leading thinkers of Ptolemaic and Copernican astronomies?

As Falk grants by way of academic integrity, prevailing literary theory finds this hypothesis flimsy. Shakespeare’s plays have clear, unmistakable, and fully-developed themes. Science-flattering allegory is not one of them. It smacks of the same contrived, cherry-picking investigation that lies at the core of conspiracy theories--like the one about Shakespeare not being the author of any or all of those plays. This does not stop Falk from devoting a lot of ink and credulity to the idea. It is as if Falk wants to be the Copernicus of Shakespearean scholarship--establishing a new unifying truth of what the Bard's plays really mean, a revelation that has eluded centuries of previous thinkers.

To his credit, Falk makes clear the highly speculative nature of suggesting Shakespeare had his finger on the pulse of the Scientific Revolution. Furthermore, I am not offended that Falk addressed the notion of Hamlet as science allegory. I am annoyed at how hard he worked to make it look compelling. I come at this as a Shakespeare fan with a humanities degree. I feel like Falk might feel if he had to read multiple chapters of me saying, “The Academy may have dismissed Velikovsky’s ideas about the solar system, but clearly he was on to something. Scholars should revisit him.”

The truth is Hamlet does not want for a science tie-in to be one of the greatest achievements of human expression.

Late in The Science of Shakespeare, Falk makes a compelling exploration of King Lear. The author hits his stride juxtaposing the Bard with the fledgling modern science of his day. He also does justice to what makes King Lear great--its humanity. For this chapter above all others, I am glad I stuck this book out to the end. Falk even got me in the mood to reread King Lear. And that is great, because Shakespeare’s plays deserve to be read. They do for English literature what Copernicus and Galileo did for science--they give us a lasting foundation for worthy exploration.

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