The Science of Shakespeare

By Dan Falk

Popular science journalist Dan Falk combines his love of science, and in particular the history of science, with his fondness for Shakespeare in this intriguing attempt to answer the question of what the bard knew, when he knew it, and how he may have expressed that knowledge in his plays.

A few caveats have to be entered right away. We don’t know a lot about Shakespeare’s life, and even less about what he “really” thought about anything. All we can do is make guesses about what was more or less likely based on the evidence of what he wrote.

Falk understands this, as well as the fact that what constituted “science” in Shakespeare’s day was sometimes fuzzy. And so he spends a lot of time laying the groundwork for his investigation by detailing the transformation of our understanding of the cosmos in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries (his focus is almost exclusively limited to the field of astronomy, with only brief reference to subjects like medicine, atomism, and atheism at the end). He proceeds primarily through a semi-biographical examination of the work of Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Bruno, Galileo, along with some less well-known English investigators.

There’s no question that some link between the discoveries these pioneers made and the Shakespearean canon exists. Indeed the connection has been made before. Still, the thesis that Shakespeare knew what was going on, and that this knowledge is reflected in his plays remains tenuous. Many of the scholars whose research Falk draws on are from the fringe of Shakespeare studies, and a few of their arguments are far-fetched.

This is fine because Falk admits the speculative nature of his inquiry. He isn’t hammering a thesis so much as entertaining possibilities. In the end such a book succeeds in informing us about Renaissance science while at the same time enriching our understanding of Shakespeare’s achievement by providing it with a deeper intellectual context.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, April 2014.