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The replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theater in London where his famous plays were performed.

'The Science of Shakespeare' celebrates Bard's 450th birthday

by Elle Metz
Apr 23, 2014

Science of Shakespeare

Courtesy of Elle Metz/MEDILL

"The Science of Shakespeare" explores the playwright's inspiration from great scientific thinkers of his time.

To celebrate or not to celebrate. That is the question. Today is William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday.

Centuries after the Bard was born, actors and scholars are still conceiving new stages on which to interpret his myriad works and new lenses through which to analyze it.

The latest lens is scientific. Dan Falk’s book “The Science of Shakespeare,” officially released on April 22, explores how the famous playwright could have been influenced by the great scientific thinkers of his time – men like Galileo, Tycho Brahe and Thomas Digges.

“I thought alright well here’s a story to be told that for some reason hasn’t been told up to this point,” said Falk, a self-proclaimed science nerd who lives in Toronto . “How did the fact that Shakespeare lived during this period affect his work?”

Falk is a science-focused freelance writer and broadcaster and the author of two previous books, “In Search of Time” and “Universe on a T-Shirt.”

“The Science of Shakespeare” doesn’t purport a radical new theory of Shakespeare as scientist, but rather explores how living at the beginning of the Scientific Revolution affected the playwright.

It focuses mainly on the period’s emerging astronomy theories, such as the then-controversial idea that the Earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around.

“We don’t want to make it sounds like his plays are all about science,” Falk said. This is simply “another facet or angle from which we can look at Shakespeare’s work.”

Gail Kern Paster, the former director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and former president of the Shakespeare Association of America, said that the Bard did have other interests but doesn’t think they were astronomy-related.

“Shakespeare is absolutely fascinated with fractions and numbers and concepts like infinity,” she said. During his time, “math was far more important in a day-to-day way than astronomy was.”

William West, a Shakespeare scholar and associate professor of English and comparative literary studies at Northwestern, said Shakespeare’s playfulness with numbers or his commenting on the cosmos were a way to make his work more effective as drama.

“It seems to me that Shakespeare is not all that interested in the natural world as an object of study,” West said. “He uses that as a way to tell stories.”

Falk said he generally agrees with this.

“Shakespeare used everything, anything that would suit his needs to advance his story, that he could make into a joke,” he said. Including science.

As an example, Falk cited a scene in Shakespeare’s play “All’s Well That Ends Well” in which the character Parolles brags to Helena that he was born under the “charitable star” Mars. Helena jokes that Mars must have been in retrograde – meaning the planet was moving backward.

“You can accidentally learn something about how Mars moves in the sky,” Falk said.

Shakespeare’s real gift – the reason people are celebrating his 450th birthday – may be more social than scientific though. He was a master of observing and recording human behavior.

“We look to Shakespeare and have looked to Shakespeare for thoughts about the things that matter to us most,” such as love, gratitude, and other fundamental human emotions, Paster said.

“Shakespeare is food for our imagine,” she said, “and food for our souls.”


As for Falk, he plans to celebrate the Bard's birthday with friends at a combined restaurant and book store where they can toast Shakespeare's works.