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Astrology in the Works of William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is supposed to have lived during the Elizabethan era, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. (There is some dispute about this, and whether Shakespeare lived at all. But that's another discussion entirely.) This was the height of the English renaissance, coming at the heels of several significant events, including the Protestant Reformation which sharply curtailed the worldwide power of the Roman Catholic Church and facilitated the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Church. Also preceding the life of Shakespeare was the discovery by Nicholas Copernicus that the planets actually orbit around the sun rather than the earth. This revelation turned the world of astrology upside down and where previously astrology and astronomy had been taught together as the "science of the stars," a great schism now grew between the art and the science. Where magic, religion and science had long been intertwined, they now began to separate.

Shakespeare's plays have over 100 mentions of astrology and the signs of the zodiac. Several of his characters are said to be ruled by planets, such as Posthumous who was born under Jupiter's influence and enjoyed a favorable conclusion in the play. Clearly Shakespeare had at least a passing interest in astrology, and quite probably was a student of the art.

Shakespeare's works often frame the debate that was central to the study of the stars at the time. In fact, many believe that the character of Prospero was modeled on Queen Elizabeth's court astrologer, John Dee, who was one of the most renowned astrologers of all time. He was a respected mathematician and astronomer as well as a leading expert in navigation, as well as being an early "channeler" of some of the more remote angels.

Edmund in the Bastard, in King Lear, has this to say about astrology:

"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; drunkards, liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on. An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition on the charge of a star. "

(Shakespeare, King Lear, I, ii, 115-129.)

Although this quotation has often been used as evidence that Shakespeare was against astrology, it is actually a diatribe against the tendency of humans to blame their faults upon their planetary configurations, something that astrologers work against to this very day. "I'm a Scorpio, that's why I'm secretive." "I can't make decisions, I'm a Libra." "I can't help being critical, I'm a Virgo." The tools of astrology can help us to use the attributes of our planetary influences to greater growth and empowerment if we take the reins of our own lives.

Despite the discovery of the heliocentric universe and its threat to the geocentric astrological system, many of the scientists who succeeded Copernicus strengthened the appeal of astrology including Johannes Kepler, another contemporary of Shakespeare. Carl Sagan referred to Kepler as "the last scientific astrologer," which many would dispute but it does show the respect to which he is accorded. Kepler never lost his love for the mystery and magic of the study of the celestial spheres: he was quoted by Franz Hammer as saying, "May God free me from astronomy, so that I can devote myself to the effort of my work on the harmony of the world."

Shakespeare was undoubtedly influenced by the works of John Dee, Copernicus and Kepler, and his works reported faithfully on cultural trends and conflicts that resonate to this very day