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Author Discusses How Science Influenced Shakespeare’s Writings

Tablulae Rudolphi Astronomicae
(Photo by Sara Hammond - KUAZ)
"Tablulae Rudolphi Astronomicae" by Johannes Kepler, Ulm, 1627. At the University of Arizona Library's Special Collections "Shakespeare's Contemporaries and Elizabethan Culture" display through July 29, 2016.

Shakespeare’s dramatic works are filled with references to the sun, the stars and the moon. But as the 17th century dawned, was he aware of the many scientific discoveries being made across Europe? Author Dan Falk believes the bard likely knew about the science of the day.

“The dawn of modern science was just kind of beginning in Shakespeare’s time," said Falk.

Falk is author of “The Science of Shakespeare,” and he’ll be at the Tucson Festival of Books at the University of Arizonathis weekend to discuss his book.

He points out that Copernicus’ theory that the planets orbit the sun was published decades before Shakespeare was born, and thus there had to have been awareness.

“The world was changing and because Shakespeare is inhabiting that world, it’s just kind of in the air and some of these ideas have some kind of trickle down effect and so he is taking them into account as he is producing his works, in a way that perhaps we haven’t recognized in the past," he said.

Falk had already come up with the idea for his book when he was named a Knight science journalism fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology five years ago. As a fellow, he spent an academic year attending classes and science-focused seminars, master classes and workshops, to improve his science and technology storytelling skills. And he interviewed Shakespeare scholars during his time in Massachusetts.

Also while there, Falk got to see and touch a Shakespeare First Folio, the earliest printed record of his works.

“The first time I got to see a First Folio was at the Houghton Library, which is the rare books library at Harvard University. And I got to touch it and turn some of the pages. It was kind of my first time doing that so it was kind of exciting. You know I thought are they going to make me wear the white gloves actually they didn’t so you can touch these pages with your actual hands.”  

Did science influence Shakespeare’s writings? Falk says yes, and he disagrees with some experts’ dismissive attitude that there was no influence of the era’s discoveries on the bard’s writings because he didn’t live long enough to witness changes or he wasn’t interested.

“Shakespeare did live, as I mentioned earlier, at this time of transition when new ideas were just coming into being,” said Falk.

“I don’t want to make a claim that Shakespeare was the Carl Sagan of his age. Or if you have younger listeners who don’t know who Carl Sagan was, the Neil deGrasse Tyson. So I don’t want to paint a picture of Shakespeare as the Neil deGrasse Tyson of the Elizabethan age.”

“When we take a close look at Shakespeare’s plays, first of all we see an immense interest in the natural world, which manifests itself in many ways, for example his understanding of flowers, birds, plants, the weather. These things turn up in all of the dramatic works,” said Falk.  

A half of a millennium after Shakespeare’s death, science continues to influence art, Falk said. Consider the dance opera called "Symmetry," filmed inside the Large Hadron Collider. And author Arthur I. Miller wrote “Colliding Worlds,” featuring artists influenced by science and scientists influenced by art.

Dan Falk will make four appearances at the Tucson book festivalthis weekend.

Sara Hammond has an extensive background in journalism as well as corporate communication. A graduate of the University of Arizona’s (UA) School of Journalism, Hammond interned at the Tucson Citizen and, after graduation, spent 10 years reporting for the Portland Press Herald in Maine.