Shakespeare and Astrology

Most of what’s been written about Shakespeare’s use of astrology is so simplistic that it’s irrelevant, probably because it’s been written by persons who don’t know enough about astrology to know it when they see it.  The only references to it that strike them are obvious things like the belief, expressed so often by his characters, that the stars guide their lives (or conversely, that they don’t), or more specific references, such as the teasing of Sir Andrew by Sir Toby out to reveal his friend’s ignorance of what parts of the body are ruled by what sign.

As has been noted, these don’t go much beyond similar uses by other writers of his time.  References to being born under a dark or beneficent star, or to events being affected by the stars, if not quite as abundant in others as in Shakespeare, are frequent enough that the claim can be made that Shakespeare is no more versed in the subject than they are, so that they simply share a common tradition.

But that’s not how Shakespeare sounds to professional astrologers, who hear in him, not just the occasional obvious reference to planets, stars, or signs, but what might be called a pervasive and underlying world view that, if not derived from astrology, was then (and still is) central to a greater paradigm.  As one such professional wrote in 1903:

To the casual reader, . . . quotations shorn of the context and clubbed together in one collection may appear of little moment; but, even as they are, the deduction is unavoidable that devotion to a science is necessary before it can be handled with such genial freedom and at the same time never failing relevance and accuracy. (Wilson 10-11)

I like that quote” “genial freedom and . . . never failing relevance and accuracy,” because it’s true, not only of astrology, but of all the other subjects in which he was so amazingly well-versed, the Law, gardening and horticulture, bowling, hawking, not to mention Ovid and Homer.

When experts argue over what was the Bard’s own personal belief system, it’s largely the lack of knowledge of Renaissance astrology that inevitably leaves the argument where they found it.  Not that he “believed in” astrology, but that his primary belief system, the one on which all his thought rested, was the greater paradigm of which astrology was, and still is, the central study (that is, with mathematics at its very heart).

In Shakespeare’s day precepts of astrology were closely allied, not only with astronomy and cosmology, but also with alchemy, mathematics, horticulture, medicine, mythology, music, the playing deck, and a dozen other disciplines, for these were all still seen as branches of the great unified belief system of ancient times, what I like to call the Wisdom Tradition, of which astrology––as the highest science of all, that of the heavens––was its most central feature.

The Wisdom Tradition

These principles had been passed along through the centuries from ancient sources in the Far and Middle East to Greece, Rome, Southern Spain, and eventually to the nations of Renaissance Europe.  Some of this knowledge was transmitted openly through published works and college lectures.  Much however was forced underground by the enmity of the Church and so passed in secrecy from one individual to another through an underground network of elite thinkers sometimes termed The Illuminati.  (Today, rendered irrelevant by the apparent success of modern science and technology, they languish in paperback in the New Age sections of the mega-bookstores).

Astrology with all its sub-branches represents the effects of celestial forces on the lives of humans, on their health, weather, crops, marriages, voyages, projects, treaties, battles, in fact, just about everything under the Sun.  Whether true in a scientific sense or not, when western thinkers lost faith in astrology and alchemy, they lost the sense that all of Nature is unified under one great plan, something they’ve never regained, despite the efforts of the Church fathers to assign it all to God (moving in mysterious ways) or of theoreticians like Einstein, who spent his later years searching for what he called the “Unified Field.”

What did the Elizabethans mean by “astrology”?

This can be confusing since in Shakespeare’s day the words astronomy and astrology were interchangable; astronomy could mean horoscopes and predictions while astrology could mean what astronomy does today.  Although history prefers to hide the fact, most medieval and Renaissance astronomers were really astrologers who, however interested they might have been in why and how their science worked, earned their livings through horoscope readings for kings and magnates using techniques expounded by Ptolemy back in the second century.  It was, in fact, during Shakespeare’s time that––with the invention of telescopes that enabled viewers to see farther than the naked eye––the two disciplines began to separate.

In Shakespeare’s day, ordinary folks tended to use terms like “the stars” to mean luck or fortune and the names of the planets for some quality that was thought specific to that planet, as Mars to anger or Venus to love.  Those who knew more about it it knew that these were only bits of a complex system based primarily on numbers.  And although elaborate calculations were required to create horoscopes, the core rationale of astrology was (and still is) based on an abstraction:  the nature––one might almost term it the personality––of the elementary numbers and how they act and interact on all levels of existence.  For instance:

The numbers Three and Four

The number Four, representing matter and the material world (as opposed to energy or force), is reflected on the levels of Time in the four great divisions of the year: the two solstices plus two equinoxes, or: spring, summer, fall, and winter.  On a closer, faster level it shows as the four peaks of the day: dawn, noon, evening, and midnight.  In the lives of humans and other living things it shows as youth (birth-21), sexual maturity (21-42), mid-life (42-63), and old age (63-84), and on the geographical  level as East, South, West, and North.  In medicine it represent the four humours: sanguine, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic.  In physics the four elements: fire, earth, air and water.  In events it shows as 1) beginnings, 2) fruition, 3) harvesting and distribution, and 4) endings.  In agriculture: planting, nurturing, harvesting, storage.  In intellectual matters: 1) ideas, 2) experiment or research, 3) success or failure, and 4) history (or oblivion).  In Christianity we have Jesus as representative of the human soul (“the Son of Man”) nailed to the four cornered-cross of Matter.  And so forth.

The number Three, representing force and energy (as opposed to matter) is reflected in our constant use of threes for everything that shows movement: beginning, middle and end; first, last, and always; right, left and center; past, present and future; today, tomorrow and yesterday; up, down and sideways, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, subject, verb and object;  north pole, south pole and equator; Ready, Set, Go!  Together Three and Four (4 threes or 3 fours) make twelve, the number of completion: 12 signs in the Zodiac, 12 hours in the day, 12 months in the year, 12 inches to a foot, 12 seats at Arthur’s Round Table, 12 biblical apostles.  And so forth with all primary numbers from One to Twelve.

In almost everything he writes, Shakespeare reveals that it’s largely this system, often attributed to the sixth-century BC philosopher Pythagoras––though he was only one of the early magi who brought it from East to West––that stands at the center of his thinking.  That Shakespeare believed in this grand scheme is reflected throughout his works, but most obviously in moments like Ulysses’s famous peroration on “the great chain of being” in Act III of Troilus and Cressida or Lorenzo’s paean on the nature of the heavens in the last act of Merchant of Venice.

Shakespeare was so comfortable with the tenets of this system (of which astrology, though central, is only a part), it was so basic to his thinking, that although he didn’t make a show of it, it’s simply there, like the saucepan and spatula in the hands of the cook, or the harness and bridle in the hands of the horse trainer.  Where scores of examples could be cited, one or two must suffice.

The Wheel of Fortune

Fortune personified as a fickle female is certainly not unique to Shakespeare, but he also shows his awareness of Fortune as an astrological concept .  In the old horoscopes there is usually a symbol that represents something called the Part of Fortune, one of several non-planetary “points” that ancient astrologers arrived at through geometry .  Passage of an important planet through this point in a natal chart was supposed to mean good luck for anything tried at that time.  The use of this point shows the emphasis placed upon Fortune by Renaissance astrologers, because, of course, they got their living from clients who wanted to know as much as possible about their prospects.  Most telling is Fortune’s glyph, a naked woman running along the top of a spoked wheel that looks a lot like the wheel of a horoscope.

Fortune is Shakespeare’s subject in Act I Scene 2 of The Tempest when Prospero says, “I find my zenith doth depend upon a most aupicious star, whose influence, if now I court not, but omit, my fortunes will ever after droop.”  This may well have been a bow to some new patron, some “auspicious star,” with deep pockets and/or influence at Court, but the one does not exclude the other.  (No arbitrary either-or was our pun-loving Poet, but an and-and sort of fellow.)

Brutus provides another take on Fortune in Act IV Scene 3 of Julius Caesar:

There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.  On such a full sea are we now afloat, and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.

Brutus of course is wrong; the tide is against him; perhaps he was getting bad advice or was himself a flawed reader of star charts.  But what’s most important here, he was displaying a belief in one of the basic tenets of astrology, which it’s clear his author understands, whether or not he believes in it, namely that there is a continual current of energy running through the planets from their orbits that affects everything on earth and that at a particular moment in time can carry us to a better place.  Unfortunately it can also dash us to destruction, as it did Brutus.  That the noble Brutus so misread his stars may reveal an important aspect of Shakespeare’s attitude towards astrology, namely that although there may be truth in it, it’s often dangerously misinterpreted.

That Shakespeare didn’t lose his interest in astrology as he matured is clear from how often it surfaces in what was probably his final play, King Lear.  In Act I Scene 2, Gloucester shows his eagerness to blame his good son’s seemingly treacherous behavior on the stars:

These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us: though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects: love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide . . .

After a rather long list of these ill effects, his wicked son responds:

This is the excellent  foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune––often the surfeit of our own behavior––we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars, as if we were villains by necessity; fools by heavenly  compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on, an admirable evasion of whore-master man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star!

. . . and so forth, then when good Edgar appears, bad Edmund ends with a vengeful snicker at his father’s notion that the foul treachery he has planned is all due to eclipses of the sun and moon.  In this particular, Gloucester may represent the older generation that still looked to the stars for answers, while Edmund represents the younger generation, who, knowing something more about the actual construction of the heavens, was more inclined to be cynical about their magical effects.

The Seven Ages of Man

In Act II Scene 7 of As You Like It, Shakespeare speaks, through Jaques, of the Seven Ages of Man.  Many have pondered its source, but few seem aware that of all the various breakdowns into ages: Three, Four, Seven, Ten, Twelve, the division into Seven is a purely astrological concept, wherein each age is allied with a particular planet, there being at that time seven known planets in the solar system: Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.  (The eighth, Uranus, wouldn’t be discovered until the 18th century.)

According to astrology: life from birth to age seven is ruled by the Moon, planet of instinct, emotion, and nurturing (“the infant, mewling and puking in his nurse’s arms”); from seven to 14 by Mercury, planet of learning by imitation and absorption (“the whining schoolboy creeping like snail to school”); and from 14 to 21 by Venus, planet of beauty and desire (“the lover, sighing like a furnace”).

From 21 to roughly 35, the Sun, planet of self-establishment, takes over.  Apparently this has slipped our Poet’s memory, for he skips the Sun (a little problem with identity here?), going on to Mars, the planet of force that takes over from roughly 35 to 65 (“the soldier, jealous in honor, quick in quarrel”).  Then from 65 to 75 or so, Jupiter, planet of benefactors and wisdom, takes over (“the justice, with fair round belly, full of wise saws”); and from 75 or so to Saturn, planet of limits, rules, and penalties.  Having missed the Sun, Shakespeare divides this final age into two: “the lean and slippered pantaloon” and “second childishness,” (both of which, by the time he added this scene to the great play, he must have been dreading).

However misremembered, this concept, based on the number seven, could only have come to Shakespeare from astrology.

The harmony of the spheres

One of the central tenets of the Wisdom Tradition is the importance of harmony or balance.  Shakespeare uses a great many metaphors for harmony based on music or musical instruments like the lute and recorder.  Music was another facet of the Wisdom Tradition, closely allied to the basic numbers through its scales and intervals, the harmonious third, fifth, sixth and octave,  the empty fourth and the dissonent second and seventh.  Shakespeare reveals his awareness of these as fundamental to the Pythagorean world view in Ulysses’s argument in Act III Scene 3 of Troilus and Cressida, that hierarchy provides a necessary balance: “take but degree away, untune that string, and hark what discord follows.”

While each planet’s motion relative to the others creates changing geometric relationships as they continue to move through their orbits, these relationships go from harmonious, to discordant and back again.  This is what is meant by the “music” or “harmony of the spheres,” bringing about events pleasant or difficult according to their natures.  In her discussion of music in Shakespeare, Caroline Spurgeon points out the Platonic idea of social harmony as related to music (74-6), something that Sir Thomas Elyot notes when he urges that a tutor train the noble child to some degree in music

declaring how necessary it is for the better attaining the knowlege of a public weal: which . . . is made of an order of estates and degrees, and, by reason thereof, containeth in it a perfect harmony: which he shall afterward more perfectly understand when he shall happen to read the books of Plato and Aristotle of public weals, wherein be written divers examples of music and geometry.  In this form may a wise and circumspect tutor adapt the pleasant science of music to a necessary and laudable purpose.

Shakepeare revealed a good deal of his personal feelings and philosophy in his Sonnets.  He treats of astrology in Sonnet 14, and although he simply uses it as a “conceit,” a clever way of complimenting the Fair Youth whose youth and beauty was “ever the same,” he uses it to reveal his superior understanding.

Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck;
And yet methinks I have astronomy,
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, or dearths or seasons quality.
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell
Pointing to each his thunder, rain, and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well,
By oft predict that I in heaven find; . . .

In other words:

He doesn’t use astrology to make decisions.
Even though he’s pretty good at it,
He doesn’t use it to tell fortunes
Or predict crop failures or the weather.
He doesn’t know it well enough to connect
Every point on the circle to each event,
Or tell whether the projects of princes will do well
From predictions found in horoscopes, . . .

. . . but by what he reads in the Youth’s eyes, he can prognosticate the death of truth and beauty if the lad doesn’t hurry up and get married and procreate––yadda yadda yadda.

So as usual, Shakespeare’s only telling us what he doesn’t do and can’t do, not what he believes.  As for his use of the language: prognoticate is a flashy term used by astrologers and non-astrologers alike, but there are two others that he uses as only an astrologer could: judgement and minutes.  In Judicial Astrology, to judge a chart is to read it for the purpose of answering a particular question, while each of the 360 degrees in the zodiac is divided into sixty minutes, the smallest possible division of time/space.  These are terms known only to professionals.

Shakespeare used a lot of words that have particular meanings in astrology, like aspect, conjunction, constellation, eclipse, mean, meridian, mundane, orb, retrograde and zenith. Mostly he used them in the ordinary mundane way, but to some of them, as he does here with judgement and minutes, he can give meanings that only one who knows their astrological usage can.  There were no schools for astrologers, no courses, no lectures, and only one very expensive book.  So where did Shakespeare learn so much about this arcane science?

The Copernican Revolution

The title of Copernicus’s de Revolutionibus is one of those cosmic puns that sometimes simply happens, for although the title refers to the revolution of the planets around the sun, the book itself, published in 1543, would cause one of the most profound revolutions in the history of the West, one that was only beginning to rumble in the wings when Shakespeare began writing plays.  That it might be the Sun (not the earth) that stood at the center of the solar system was a profound shock to a society whose notion of celestial mechanics consisted chiefly of the earth as the center of a tight little solar system (they had no concept whatsoever about deep space or the galaxy) and Rome as the center of the earth.

Although the Reformation as a religion had no love for Copernicus or his theories, it had even less love for the idea that Rome was the center of the universe, so while ideologues condemned the great scientist as a heretic, those who understood its truth were relieved that at last someone had dared to publish it.

Scholars have puzzled over the apparent fact that Shakespeare, who knew so much about other aspects of science (he seemed to know about the circulation of the blood long before Harvey) adhered to the old nutshell view, showing no awareness of Copernicus.  But as astro-physicist and Shakespeare enthusiast Peter Usher reports, Shakespeare did know about this new view of the heavens, and wound his thoughts on the subject throughout Hamlet in soliloquies and asides between Hamlet and Horatio.   Almost every bit of incomprehensible jesting turns out to be a commentary on the Copernican theory.

So where did Shakespeare acquire such advanced knowledge?

Sir Thomas Smith and astrology

If Oxford was Shakespeare the answer is easy.  He was raised from age four to twelve by a practising astrologer.  That’s not how history sees Sir Thomas Smith, but Smith was in fact enough of an astrologer to be able to cast horoscopes, a task requiring a considerable grasp of both math and celestial dynamics.  The mathematics section of Smith’s library (#F mathematics)contains all the important books on astrology then available,  plus several volumes of ephemerides, books containing tables of daily planet locations necessary for creating charts.

Smith wrote to friends with so much interest that we can guess there were many more such letters, uncatalogued  or no longer extant.  One such friend was probably Leonard Digges, the mathematician-astronomer whose son rose to prominence after publishing his father’s work (and whose grandson would write a dedicatory poem to Shakespeare in the First Folio).  I know of no letters between Smith and Digges, but since the wives of both men were first cousins, with the Diggeses near Canterbury in Kent, a two-day trip to Ankerwycke (part of it possibly by barge on the Thames), that there was commerce between them during the five years of Queen Mary’s reign while both were living in judicious retirement, seems most likely.

That the other great astrologer-mathematician-magus of the time,  John Dee, whose mother’s home (later the location of his voluminous library) at Mortlake, also on the Thames, was so close to Smith, suggests the likelihood of conference among all three.  That Digges and Dee were close friends is an historical fact, for when Digges died in 1559, he left the tutoring of his son to Dee.  That Smith and Dee knew each other is also a certainty,  since both were located at Cambridge University in the early 1540s, and both were among the small handful in England at that time deeply versed in these arcane subjects.

As for de Vere, still a child, the question is how much would he have been involved in these discussions as a listener, or even one allowed to ask questions of his own?  I think Shakespeare gives us the answer.  And just as Shakespeare, despite his profound knowledge of astrology, questioned its uses, so Smith was similarly divided (Dewar Smith 182).  His biographer tells us that during his years at Cambridge he condemned it as a pack of lies, only turning to it later when it seemed his long streak of good luck had run out (65).  Dewar notes that in his diary for 1555-57, written when Edward was between five and seven, Smith noted “strange astrological events” (78).  Following Elizabeth’s accession he was a little busier, but there would still have been time for reading and discourse.

The period during which Oxford was in Smith’s care was one of the few times in Smith’s life when he was free to do more than a little reading and thinking on subjects dear to his heart.  He admitted to Cecil in a letter from France that during those years when he was out of work he had passed his time with hunting, hawking, and “now and then looking on a book” (78).  That he shared his interest in astrology with his only student, goes without question.  A man does not have a world view that he can’t or won’t share with his student, particularly someone like Smith, who was not known for keeping his thoughts and opinions to himself, particularly a world view that as all the ancient pedagogues proclaimed, led to wisdom and the very traits most desired in a nobleman.

Oxford’s horoscope

By the time he was in his late teens and twenties, Oxford would certainly have known his own horoscope and what it predicted.  With his tutor so steeped in astrology, it would be absurd to think that Smith never did his student’s chart.  In any case, someone would certainly have done Edward’s chart shortly after his birth, that being one of the first things a peer did following the birth of an heir.

Shakespeare didn’t like the idea that the stars dictated a person’s fate.  Of the few direct references to astrological beliefs, the one he repeats throughout is: “the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves.”  This suggests that the author knew his own horoscope, and didn’t want to feel bound by what it predicted.  And in fact, it’s the modern planets that round out Oxford’s chart and show its power.  Since all he could know back in the 16th century were the planets from Moon to Saturn, he could not know that he had Uranus, the planet of genius, at the midheaven, or the artistic and mystical Neptune conjunct his Sun.  Without them, an interpretation would have been mostly negative.

That Smith’s interests conform so closely with those of Shakespeare is one of the major reasons for believing that his student of eight years, the Earl of Oxford, must be Shakespeare.  As Smith’s student during the years of quiet study, then he must have known a great deal about the new model of the heavens, which he could easily have read about in Copernicus’s book, and even if he didn’t read it himself, he would certainly have heard about it from his tutor, whose thoughts were dwelling on the subject during the years that Edward was with him, and that Leonard Digges was experimenting with telescopes and publishing his ideas.

Learning about Copernicus before he knew anything about the old worldview, there would be no reason why Oxford would ignore it.  But if he was Shakespeare, then he had an audience to please who––with Copernicus threatening to hurl their comfy little world view into deep space––were clinging to the old worldview with all their emotional might.

It can sometimes be forgotten that Shakespeare was first, last, and always, an entertainer.  He grabbed his audience by the heart and throat with his powerful stories, largely so he could administer the medicine he promised in As You Like It, where Jaques (Oxford?) asks the Duke (King James?) to give him license to “cleanse the foul body of the infected world” by “investing” him in “motley.”  If he didn’t use the world-shaking medicine brewed by Copernicus it’s because his audience simply wasn’t ready for it.  He reserved that caviar for the generals in his audience.

As Jesus put it, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.”

4 responses to “Shakespeare and Astrology

  1. Thank you for this article. The importance of the wisdom tradition is paramount in Shakespeare/De Vere, and there is enough of it present in the works to suggest the author’s profound knowledge. Astrology, of course, links closely to Greek mythology because the planets carry the name and qualities of the gods and goddesses. This was profoundly understood by the author, the myths themselves carrying the wisdom tradition in the form of allegory. He also understood Plato and his followers and those ‘mysteries of love’ expounded by the Neoplatonists. One who was truly an initiate of the mysteries of Greek philosophy and mythology and of the Platonist teachings would be required to remain anonymous, or to use a pseudonym. The works of Shakespeare carry the wisdom teaching, often and appropriately ‘under a veil’ or ‘shadow’. It is what makes those works sublime. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy…”

  2. You’re most welcome. The Wisdom Tradition lies at the heart of all true philosophies, whether the philosopher knows it or not. All the great religions begin as an outgrowth of it, though all too soon, as they acquire political power, they begin denying some of the basic tenets, those that give power to everyone, not just priests. What Oxford and his poet friends called being “in the vein” may have been what occultists call channelling. To get there it was necessary to be in an exalted state of some kind, for Oxford I believe it was intense emotion, for plays like Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra it was passion, for plays like Timon and Richard III it was fury.

  3. I think I am setting myself up for a beating, but I really enjoyed your article on Shakespeare and astrology. I wrote on a similar theme, that Hamlet may actually have been written from a chart, but I wrote it in a far less erudite way. I just wonder if it may nonetheless interest you: I will continue to check in on your blog. Best wishes to you.

  4. No beating, certainly not for a fellow traveller on the path to wisdom. I do think it unlikely that astrology had anything directly to do with the writing of Hamlet, but Shakespeare may have had inspiration from sources he was not conscious of.

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