Astrology in Shakespeare’s Plays
Astrology played an important role in Elizabethan society. It was used as a tool for offering answers in medicine, biology, physics and philosophy. Astrologers were very influential in Elizabethan society. Most courts employed an astrologer to help with important decisions. The humanistic and hermetic approach towards astrology were popular at this time. In all of Shakespeare’s plays there are more than a hundred allusions to astrology. Elizabethan poetry contained a cosmic order that encompassed the stars, the planet, the sun and the earth. It is not clear whether Shakespeare himself was in favour of astrology but it is clear that he knew lots about the subject, from the frequent references he makes to it. Shakespeare reveals the status of astrology, on a political and intellectual level, through the speeches of his characters. Shakespeare’s character’s attitudes to astrology reflect those in Elizabethan England. Some believed that astrology offered a truth and wisdom that explained the mysteries of the universe, whereas others rejected astrology in favour of new scientific explanations and religious reformations that were suppressing astrology at the end of the Renaissance.
King Lear’s first speech relates to the Natural astrology of his time
For, by the sacred radiance of the sun,
The mysteries of Hecate and the night,
By all the operations of the orbs
From whom we do exist and cease to be.’(Act One, Scene One)
Lear believes in the effects of astrology on the cycles of nature on earth that create life and death
Lear is referring to the secret rites of the Greek goddess Hecate, of the underworld, who is the patroness of magic and witchcraft. In the Elizabethan age there was a great interest in the occult, magic and witchcraft. Astrology was very much interconnected with a Hellenistic understanding of the ancient gods and goddesses. Lear emphasises the importance of understanding the mysteries of life; something that was of great interest to Elizabethan society.
‘And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by th’moon.’
(Act Five, Scene Three)
God’s spies here could mean the angels who were here to observe men. In the cabalistic approach, angels existed in a realm between earth and man and were able to use free will and act as messengers to men. The nine hierarchies of angels were thought to inhabit the nine spheres: primum mobile, fixed stars and the moon through to Saturn. ( www.chartplanet.com/html/shakespeare.htlm
Frances Yates connects the old and broken man, King Lear, ill-rewarded for having devoted his life to the British monarchy with John Dee; his connection with the occult shown by Tom O’Bedlam’s supposed possession of the devil. The British Monarchy has given away his empire to ungrateful people and although they owe everything to him, they turn him into a destitude whose only friends are a fool and by a lunatic, possessed by devils. Dee claimed to have descended from British kings. During the period Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Dee was banished from court and society, suffered total neglect and poverty and would, like Lear have felt much ingratitude. Dee was accused of being a black magician and sorcerer, even though he defended himself as a Christian Cabalist. Yates sees the tragedy of Lear as ‘The tragedy of the imperial theme of the Elizabethan age, sung by Spenser as its epic poet, nourished by the work of Dee, but now broken and dispelled in this dark hour of disillusion and despair.’
John Dee, born of the son of an official at the court of Henry 8th was a Copernican, who was the court astrologer of Queen Elizabeth. Dee was interested in the cabala and the ability to connect with powers beyond the forces of the cosmos such as the super celestial world of the angels and of divine powers. He believed he was able to conjure angels and was protected from demonic entities in the process. For this reason he was shocked when accused of conjuring devils. Although Dee was a serious astrologer, his interest in alchemy and magic as well as his friendship with a fraudulent medium, Edward Kelley, caused much suspicion among the society. Dee claimed that he was only ever interested in the truth of God and that his studies were always holy. However, his career was damaged due to the suspicions of witchcraft around him and he ended his days as a poor, mistrusted man. The Renaissance ended in witch hunts and the Hermetic-Cabalist movement and the Neo-Platonism ended as a religious reform took its place. (Yates, pp92-110)
Elizabethans were sometimes superstitious about the stars causing natural disasters. In ‘King Lear’ Gloucester comments on how the recent Solar and lunar eclipses are bad omens that natural philosophy can offer explanations for at the same time. He believes, like many in Shakespeare’s age that eclipses cause the breakdown of society and disrupt the natural order of things.
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 scourg’d by the sequent effects.’ (Act One, Scene Two)
Gloucester is referring to a lunar and solar eclipse of 27th September and 2nd October 1605
The Elizabethans believed that the stars affected nature as supernatural agents and that the stars were powerful natural forces.
Edmund views astrology as:
This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars; as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance. Drunkards, liars, and adulters by an enforc’d obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on. An admirable evasion of a whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star.’ (Act one, Scene Two)
Edmund’s negative views on astrology as being devoid of any truth, was not uncommon among many in Shakespeare’s England. Much damage had been done to astrology because of astrologers like Forman and Llily, who took away the intellectual importance of astrology and transformed it into light hearted entertainment that only ignorant people would find appealing. Astrology at this time was becoming commercial and abused by charlatans who had little education and were practising astrology for financial gains. These men took advantage of their clients’ needs to know about their future. One such man was Simon Forman, a physician and astrologer, who spent much of his time in and out of prison for practising without a license. He was found to be totally ignorant in astronomy and physics. Forman claimed to use only an ephemeredes and aspects and constellations of planets in his diagnosis and to invoke angels and spirits in his healings. One of his clients had died after taking a compound water for a fever and he seduced many of his female clients. His diaries revealed that astrology to him was not a serious interest but one that provided him with wealth, pleasure and a high society. (Whitfield, p170-p171)
In 1608, the approximate date that Shakespeare wrote King Lear, the Elizabethan’s view of the universe was dramatically changing with an advancement in astronomical discoveries. Astronomers of the time, Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe saw that astronomical observation was essential in discovering more on an astronomical level. A New Star appeared in the sky in 1577 that destroyed the traditional view that only the spheres beneath the moon were subject to change; the spheres beyond the moon were believed to be eternal, changeless and pure. Tycho made predictions based on the star. He predicted that the new star’s destructive influence would not be felt until after 1592 and its effects would last until 1632. He predicted that a prince would be born in the north, who would conquer Germany and leave in 1632. When Tycho’s predictions came true, Elizabethan society realised the astrological truth and power in astronomical observations. The new star was seen as a destructive omen which filled people with gloom. (Campion, p65)
Francis Bacon was becoming influential in the astrological world, by creating a new type of astrology which was free of superstition and was concerned with nature and human history but not to the individual’s life and fortune. Bacon’s philosophy did not encompass the microcosm-macrocosm approach nor medical astrology.
Although medical astrology was still thriving until the end of the seventeenth century, it was essential for top physicians to have a knowledge of astrology. The physicians would treat the patient according to the phases of the moon. By looking at the position of the moon in relation to the natal chart, the physician could tell when the critical sickness days would occur. The doctors would bleed the patient in order to restore the balance and harmony of the humours, using herbs related to the planets that were weak in the patient natal chart. (Whitfield, p174-75)
In Twelfth Night, in a speech between Sir Toby and Sir Andy, there is a reference to zodiacal types and the parts of the body that each sign rules, which forms the basis of medical astrology.
‘Were we not born under Taurus?
Sir And. Taurus? That’s sides and heart.
Sir Toby. No sir, it’s legs and thighs.’(Wilson, p4)
Understanding the Sun signs, as well as knowledge of the other planetary influences was popular in Shakespeare’s days for gaining an understanding of the similarities and differences between people. Kent, in ‘King Lear looks at the stars to explain the differences between his daughters.
It is the stars,
The stars above us govern our conditions
Else one mate and make not beget.’ (Act four, Scene Three)
Kent sees the stars as being responsible for the differences in the personalities of his daughters.
The reading of horoscopes in almanacs was popular, and accessible to all, due to the fact that the production of almanacs had made astrology accessible to all of Elizabethan society, not solely royalty.
In ‘King Lear’ Edgar asks Edmund what he is thinking about so seriously. Edgar is told by Edmund, ‘I am thinking brother, of a prediction I read this other day, what should follow these eclipses.’ (Act One, Scene Two)
Shakespeare’s plays reflect the status of astrology in Elizabethan society on all levels both politically, intellectually and religiously. Astrology was used in so many different ways; to predict individual’s future, in medicine and science. Through his characters, Shakespeare shows the varying attitudes towards astrology, from superstition, belief, ridicule or mystery. What is clear is that the status of Astrology was extremely high during this time, influencing, politics, religion, art, medicine and every other part of Elizabethan society.
WORDS 1, 822
Whitfield, P. Astrology, a history (London, 2001)
Wilson, W, Shakespeare and Astrology: From a student’s point of view. (Boston, Occult publishing co 1903)
Rowse, A.L The Elizabethan Renaissance (USA, 1972)
Campion, N. An Introduction to the history of astrology (Kent, Jaybeck Printing
Yates, The Occult philosophy in the Elizabethan age (London: Routledge Classics 1979)
Shakespeare, W King Lear. (England, Penguin Classics, 1994)