The world’s most famous playwright had an ambiguous relationship with the art of astrology. Like many themes running through his work, William Shakespeare can be seen to at times affirm and deny the astrological worldview – often in the same play or sonnet.
Born in 1564, the influence of astrology would have been seen all over the world Shakespeare grew up in. Indeed, one of his most famous sonnets, Sonnet 14, heavily features astrology as a core motif.
“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;….”
Upon first reading, this may seem to be a rejection of the validity of astrological predictions. “Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck”, he writes. However, a closer reading with understanding of the historical context reveals that, despite his apparent misgivings, Shakespeare must have been well versed in astrology to produce such a passage.
Judgement and minutes are both fairly normal terms, but when put into astrological contexts they have very specific meanings. A judgement is a judicial prediction made from a star chart, and a heavenly minute is the smallest subdivision of the astrological sky. These double meanings, present only to those with the underlying knowledge to see them, are typical of Shakespearian ambiguity.
If that isn’t clear to you? Just wait until we touch on Shakespeare’s characters and their diverse opinions of astrology.
“My father compounded with my mother under the Dragon’s tail [the constellation Draco]
and my nativity was under Ursa Major, so that it follows, I am rough and lecherous.
Tut, I should have been that I am,
had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.”
King Lear, King Lear (Act 1, Scene 2)
Nowhere is this conflicted opinion more apparent than in one of The Bard’s most famous plays, King Lear. The titular character, Lear himself, is an avid proponent of the astrological canon. At various points in the play he bemoans the heavens that “portend no good to us.” (Act 1, scene 2). He blames astrological conditions for the unfortunate events that befall him and his daughters – even though we, as the viewer or reader, can see that it his own stubbornness and pride that is the cause of his misery.
It is left to the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester, and major antagonist in the story, Edgar, to espouse this view in the story. In one of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies he says ‘“This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behavior, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers, by spherical predominance”. Certainly, a conflicted opinion indeed – and one modern readers should be encouraged to make up their own mind about.