Planets and predictions: Shakespeare and the Copernican revolution.

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Rogers, David
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Middle Tennessee State University
A reading of six of William Shakespeare's plays shows that Shakespeare used the astronomical and astrological ideas of his contemporaries to reveal his characters' understanding of themselves and the universe. The Copernican Revolution, the change from a geocentric view of the universe to a heliocentric view, began with the publication of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus in 1543 and continued throughout the life of Shakespeare (1564--1616). The plays seem most influenced by the Copernican Revolution's attempt to find an adequate language to describe the universe and by a desire to predict the motions of the planets. Charles Peirce's work on semiotics provides a valuable framework within which to discuss the goals of the thinkers involved in the controversy.
In The Tempest, Pericles, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Troilus and Cressida, and The First Part of Henry the Sixth, characters' comprehension of themselves and the world varies widely. In The Tempest, Prospero has developed the ability to understand, predict, and control nearly everything of importance to him. The emphasis on order and predictability in The Tempest suggests that the play takes place in a Copernican universe. Pericles' Cerimon also seems to have attained a wisdom similar to Prospero's. Conversely, in The First Part of Henry the Sixth, characters understand and can predict virtually nothing beyond the obvious. The other plays examined in this study involve a universe that is fundamentally orderly, but the characters misunderstand that order. King Lear's Gloucester misunderstands the astrological predictions, even though they are true; Julius Caesar does not heed the good advice of his soothsayer; and the Troilus and Cressida 's Troyans, to their detriment, ignore Cassandra's prophecies.
Thus, the evidence suggests that Shakespeare's attitude about the order and predictability of the universe progressed through a state of deep pessimism in the early play Henry the Sixth toward an optimistic attitude in the late play The Tempest. This evidence can reasonably be interpreted to suggest that Shakespeare's optimism about humanity's place in the universe grew in proportion to the optimism of Copernican astronomers.
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