The world of astrology proved fertile ground for literary writers of all persuasions for many hundreds of years. As we have previously mentioned on these pages, astrology has been an integral part of human culture for a long time too, so it is only right that many important figures of literary history featured it heavily in their stories. From parables of the middle ages to 18th century American short stories or modern-day crime novels, the portentous and mystical movements of the stars have been a key them in English literature throughout its development. Here are just a few key writers from these different eras.
“Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;”
The Merchant of Venice, Act 5, Scene 1
The most famous English writer of all time, William Shakespeare’s contemporary audience would have been very familiar with astrology and its basic concepts. Thus, astrological omens and signs occur with regularity throughout his plays.
However, as with much of The Bard’s work, ambiguity lies at the heart of these references. Some characters such as Edmund in King Lear, doubt that the Stars make us ‘villains on necessity’ and “fools by heavenly compulsion”. Even in his own sonnets, Shakespeare seems to doubt the validity of the astrological world view – “not from the stars, do I my judgement pluck” he writes in Sonnet 14.
Yet King Lear himself references the star sign of his birth, even though he is often the butt of jokes in the play, as does Richard III. Is this Shakespeare setting up astrology as a discipline for fools? Or is there a deeper message in his work? Such questions, and others, we will answer in our follow up article entirely on this topic. So, keep an eye out for that!
Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
Possibly another topic deserving of an entire article, Geoffrey Chaucer’s 24 tales are supposed to align with the 12 signs of the Zodiac – two for each one. Astrology references abound in The Squire’s Tale and others. Some critics have even speculated that the well-known Melothesia of the time, a sort of astro-medical dictionary linking star signs with physical body parts, informs the entire collection.
Washington Irving’s The Legend of the Arabian Astronomer
Best known for his creations Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, this 19th century American writer also wrote an enthralling short story about a Western princess who seduces an Eastern King – against the warnings of his court astrologer. Part of his classic collection Alhambra, Irving is considered somewhat of an under appreciated genius of the American canon and this work in particular is well worth a look for fans of astrology.
Starlight Detective Agency
Just a little footnote here for Mitchel Lewis’ modern crime novels, that heavily feature astrology as a core theme. While these may not have the literary credentials of the other stories on this list, these books (there are a long series of them) are popular among astrology and drama fans alike. With a lot of technical info, and some tense plot twists, even the most adept of astrologers should find interest here!