Book Review: The Science of Shakespeare, by Dan Falk

Science.jpgThere’s always room for books aimed at the general public examining some obscure element of Shakespeare’s life or thought. Since we don’t know much about his life, or his thought – other than through the plays – there’s plenty of speculation in books like this. Some succeed in being interesting and thought-provoking; and some don’t.

Dan Falk’s The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) looks at Shakespeare in the context of the “scientific revolution” that took place following the Renaissance. Born the same year as Galileo, Shakespeare lived at a time when a new understanding of the universe, and of certain types of what we now call science, was taking shape. Falk, a science writer and Shakespeare buff, sets out to juxtapose the two: the new science of the 16th and early 17th centuries, and the plays of Shakespeare. As often with books like this, there is a lot of trying to fit a not-quite-round peg into a square hole.

First, the title is misleading; the book is not really about “science” as such; it is mostly about astronomy, and the history of the changes from the geocentric model of the universe to the heliocentric model, ushered in by Copernicus. Falk discusses this at length, going through the genealogy of universe revolutionizers from Copernicus to some English astronomers that Shakespeare may have encountered, either in the flesh or through books. There are many tenuous suppositions, but that’s the nature of most books about Shakespeare. He “may have” met so-and-so; he “might have” read a certain book; “perhaps” he knew a specific person. There’s lots of circumstantial evidence bandied about, and a great deal of attention to one scholar, Peter Usher, who seems to have discovered that, by playing some of the plays backwards at 45 rpm, one can see that Shakespeare was writing about the Copernican view of the universe; that Hamlet, in fact, is about nothing other than this topic.

We don’t even hear much about Shakespeare until page 116. There are a few brief mentions of him, but Falk goes on tediously about each of the people who contributed to the new understanding of the universe; certainly an interesting subject, in a book dealing solely with that topic, but it gets a bit tired here.

After showing how there is a likelihood that Shakespeare may have known about such things, the book moves into more interesting territory. There is a discussion of magic and witchcraft, and how it was perceived in Shakespeare’s time, which is quite interesting, especially given the prominence of witches in Macbeth, and the ghost in Hamlet. A chapter on medicine also gives some insights into the way people thought of the human body 400 years ago. And a discussion of Lucretius, and atomism, also highlights some of the ways people thought of the world around them.

But with the majority of the book about astronomy, Falk spends way too much time trying to prove that Shakespeare was aware of the changes in the way the universe was being viewed. He is inconclusive, as many scholars don’t think the Copernican revolution was, in fact, a revolution, but something that was taken up slowly. More attention to other topics, and a briefer presentation of the evolution of thought about the universe, would have made for a more fulfilling book.

The final chapter is a bit of a red herring. Falk wonders whether Shakespeare was an atheist. He makes the mistake that many make, that of equating atheism with science. It’s not, and the concept of atheism at the time, which Falk does explain, was quite different from ours. But that would be the topic of another book, perhaps.

All in all, this is a disappointing read, unless you’re specifically interested in astronomy. It feels as though much of the first half is filler; the author could have dispensed with the historical overview in 50 pages instead of more than a hundred. While there are some interesting insights in this book, I would have liked to see more than a long discussion of how Shakespeare spoke of the heavens and the stars.