Literary Review

Much ado about science

Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in "Macbeth".   | Photo Credit: CENTRAL PRESS

“I believe the souls of 500 Sir Isaac Newtons would go to the making up of a Shakespeare.” - Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Science is a noble enterprise with discovery of the laws of nature being the primary goal. And these laws are discovered by experimental observation. Science also studies the basic forces that govern the properties of matter, and the interaction of fundamental particles. In both these pursuits there is no room for blind belief. On the other hand, human emotions, values, and behaviour are the favourite themes of poetry. It deals with those aspects of nature that are outside the purview of science, such as the beauty of the rainbow, the stars shining in the night, golden daffodils swaying in the breeze, the sound of falling waters and rolling waves, the hiss of the wind creeping from leaf to leaf, and “the murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves” that Keats spoke about. Thus science and poetry each has its own separate role in the scheme of things and it is neither desirable nor even possible for one to encroach upon the other.

Of late, thanks to the increased sophistication and specialisation of certain branches of science, there is a tendency on the part of some scientists to undertake patronisingly speculative exercises regarding the evolution of language in general; and that of Shakespeare in particular. But, there is evidence to show that, even about four centuries ago, Shakespeare had uttered scientific truths in some of his plays.

The famous astronomer Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, believed in astrology but Shakespeare, in no ambiguous manner, makes Cassius tell Brutus: “ The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in OUR stars but in OURSELVES that we are underlings.” In King Lear, Shakespeare makes Edmund say, “ This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,/when we are sick in fortune,— often the surfeit/of our own behaviour, — we make guilty of our/disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: ...” So here we have two people who lived around the same time — one the greatest dramatist of all time who condemned astrology and a famous astronomer who wrote treatises on astrology and held an official position as a Professional Astrologer.

Harvey discovered the circulation of blood in 1625 at the age of 37 years. In Julius Ceasar believed to have been written in 1599, Brutus says to Portia: “ You are my true and honourable wife/As dear to me as are the ruddy drops/That visit my sad heart.” Is this not truly incredible?

Elsewhere Julius Caesar observes: “ Of all the wonders that I yet have heard/It seems to me most strange that men should fear:/Seeing that death, a necessary end ,/Will come when it will come.” Modern biology supports this view that death is “necessary” for the survival of the species as a whole, and is not just the inevitable end of the life of a single individual. Shakespeare knew this scientific fact intuitively.

Duncan’s lines in Macbeth — “ There’s no art/To find the mind’s construction in the face;/He was a gentleman on whom I built/An absolute trust” — is in tune with modern psychology. Some Shakespearean scholars have conjectured that Shakespeare must have been a physician, for he shows knowledge of medicine, symptoms of diseases, and was familiar with insanity in all its forms. For example, Macbeth is full of passages reflecting the nightmares, hallucinations and fears in a murderer’s mind. Macbeth while pleading with the doctor to cure his wife’s mental sickness, says, “ Canst then not minister to a mind diseased,/Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,/Raze out the written troubles of the brain/And with some sweet oblivious antidote/Cleanse the bosom of the perilous stuff,/Which weighs upon the heart?” The doctor replies, “ Therein the patient must minister to himself.” This is pure modern psychoanalysis. Shakespeare had anticipated this form of treatment for guilt and acute anxiety more than three centuries before Freud. In Cymbeline, the following line — “ By medicine life may be prolong’d, yet death/Will seize the doctor too” — reveals Shakespeare’s views about medical science and treatment itself!

Richard III speaks about his own deformity — “ I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion/Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,/Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time/Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,/And that so lamely and unfashionable/That dogs bark at me as I halt by them” — thus revealing why he became wicked, as a compensation for his own inferiority complex. An indication of Shakespeare having anticipated Adler’s theories!

Some scholars have speculated that Shakespeare must have been a botanist because he named nearly all plants known during his period. Thus Shakespeare’s plays reveal his scientific temper and outlook. Do we need greater proof for Shakespeare’s enormous insight into science?

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | May 11, 2021 9:39:18 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/much-ado-about-science/article7164471.ece

Next Story