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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Shakespeare and Prophesy

Astrology, which came to medieval Europe by way of Arabian scholars, was divided into “natural” and “judicial” theories. Natural astrology had to do with the influence of the stars and planets on the physical world, like weather and the development of living things while judicial astrology related to “the influence of heavenly bodies on human destiny” (245). While this second theory of astrology complicated Christian teachings of free will and the possibility of redemption, the church allowed that the stars incline based on the will of God, even if they do not compel. It is unclear whether most people believed in the powers of the stars, sort of like people might believe in the power of hormones without really knowing how they work, or if the population was generally more skeptical. Either way, horoscopes and almanacs were an important part of medieval culture and used to tell everything from how a child’s personality might develop to when the Queen herself should be crowned. Like many elite who employed court-astrologers, Elizabeth I employed John Dee as her “philosopher.” Astrological events, such as “solar and lunar eclipses, comets and meteors were regarded as portents for rulers and nations,” explaining why the appearance of the three suns before Edward IV and his brothers was more than just a “wondrous-strange” phenomenon, but a miraculous and meaningful sign of glory (Henry VI, Part III 2.1.33).

An astrolabe.

Although other Shakespearean plays and sonnets, like sonnet XV, imply that he shared the contemporary belief in natural astrology and was familiar with its common rules and forms, there is no indication that Shakespeare ever studied astrology or believed in judicial astrology. In Richard III, one might attribute the mistaken astrology that allows Edward to condemn his brother Clarence instead of Richard as an example of Shakespeare’s skeptical cynicism about the value of astrological knowledge. Clarence appears to be no less gullible than Edward, who condemns his own brother to the Tower based on a prophesy. If both Richard and the audience know that the letter G really points to Richard himself, who ultimately does destroy Edward IV, does this suggest that our belief in fate and astrology is futile or that we should simply pay better attention? What does it mean that Richard’s villainy is emerging at the same moment that we see his omniscient rationality and ability to manipulate superstition? This might “modernize” Richard and separate him from his gullible contemporaries, but it also makes him even more frighteningly sly and familiar, since as modern audience such as ourselves can better identify with a skeptic and cynic when it comes to superstition and stars, even if he is a “divell.”

An astrological treatise.


Sondheim, Moriz. “Shakespeare and the Astrology of His Time.” Journal of the Warburg Institute. Vol. 2, No. 3. Jan., 1939. Pp243-259. JSTOR. Accessed 2-13-10.

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