Under the Cover: Discovering Shakespeare in the 21st Century

A staple of ones formative high school years, Shakespeare often feels so familiar it’s hard to think there is anything we might NOT know about the well-beloved Bard and his work at this point. But science tells us something different. Author and science journalist Dan Falk takes us under the cover of his book, The Science of Shakespeare (Goose Lane Editions), to show us how French essayist Michel de Montaigne might hold the key to new discoveries about this classic playwright.


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One of the challenges in writing The Science of Shakespeare was coming up with something new to say about Shakespeare and his world.  It’s tricky, because Shakespeare scholars and other bard enthusiasts have analyzed Shakespeare’s writings up, down, and sideways.  So each time I came across a little nugget of information that was at least new-ish, I was thrilled. Take the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, for example.  Well, it turns out that the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe had relatives with those very names. Now, Shakespeare never met Tycho (there’s no reason to believe that Shakespeare ever left England) – but, as I explain in the book, Shakespeare had a number of indirect connections to Tycho through English scientists, especially Thomas Digges. Here’s another example:  If you’re a fan of Shakespeare, you’re probably familiar with the French essayist Michel de Montaigne.  Certainly Montaigne (who was born about 30 years before Shakespeare) was incredibly influential: His very personal writing style, and the diversity of subjects that he tacked, made his “Essays” a huge hit.  And we know that Shakespeare read Montaigne; there are several bits of text (especially in The Tempest) that are cribbed almost word for word from Montaigne’s “Essays.”  Now, what has that got to do with science?  The trick is to read Montaigne closely – which takes a while, by the way, since a typical unabridged English translation of the “Essays” runs to about 1200 pages!  Anyway, it turns out that Montaigne speculates about the structure of the universe.  He even mentions Copernicus by name.  (Even Montaigne scholars don’t talk about this very much – after all, Montaigne wrote so much about so many other topics – death, sex, his cat – that they have their hands full!)  But here’s the thing:  We know that Shakespeare read Montaigne.  We know that Montaigne wrote about Copernicus, and the (still pretty new) heliocentric (that is, sun-centered) model of the universe.  Thus, Shakespeare very likely knew about the Copernican theory. Of course, this doesn’t tell us what he thought about it, or even if he spent more than a moment pondering it – but it’s something.  At the very least, it’s a good comeback to anyone who claims that Shakespeare “couldn’t have known” about the Copernican theory.  (As I explain in the book, there are also other routes by which Shakespeare could have encountered the Copernican theory, including via the works of Digges, mentioned above.)  So:  Is it possible to find something new to say about Shakespeare in the 21st century? With effort, yes, I think so.* * *
Dan Falk is a science journalist, broadcaster, and author. He has written for The WalrusGlobe and MailToronto StarCottage LifeSkyNewsAstronomy, and New Scientist and contributed to the CBC Radio programs IdeasQuirks and QuarksTapestry, and Spark. ***Special thanks to Nathaniel at Goose Lane Editions and to Dan Falk for sharing more about The Science of Shakespeare.Get Under the Cover to discover more about other great reads on All Lit Up>>