Astrology is a complex practice of divination that had been developed thousands of years before Shakespeare’s time. At its beginning, people saw the celestial bodies as "exerting an influence upon the lives of individuals and the destinies of empires." The astrological system of beliefs developed became more refined by the Greeks near 2nd Century A.D. Over time, the teachings of astrology reached across the globe throughout the ancient Middle East, Asia, and Europe. However, the rise of Christianity brought an emphasis on divine intervention and free will which the Church enforced. Therefore, interest in astrology subsided, but people such as Shakespeare continued to still let it influence their lives and in particular, the arts.
Principles of Astrology
The study of astrology is a system of parallels between the movement and position of the stars, moon, and other planets and the daily life on Earth. Much of astrology’s theories are based on cycles such as the planet’s rotation around the Sun. Each planet in the Solar System has its “own particular astrological qualities and correlates with different parts of the body, areas of life and even places or objects.”
Each planetary body in the Solar System controls the fate of one or two signs of the Zodiac. The Zodiac is known as a twelve-part division of the sky based on seasons, which depend on the Earth's rotation. The Zodiac begins with Aries whose cycle starts the astrological year on the first day of Spring. The astrological signs are believed to represent different personality types.
|Aries||March 21 to April 20.|
|Taurus||April 21 to May 20.|
|Gemini||May 21 to June 20.|
|Cancer||June 21 to July 21.|
|Leo||July 22 to August 22.|
|Virgo||August 23 to September 22.|
|Libra||September 23 to October 22.|
|Scorpio||October 23 to November 21.|
|Sagittarius||November 22 to December 21.|
|Capricorn||December 22 to January 20.|
|Aquarius||January 21 to February 19.|
|Pisces||February 20 to March 20.|
History of Astrology in the Elizabethan Era
The astrology practiced during the Renaissance and in modern times is derived from the refined system the Greeks made. This is due to the rekindled interest that the Renaissance brought in the fields of science and astronomy, much of which was also established by the Greeks. During this time, there was a strong emergence of new ideas and curiosities with the unknown. Astrology, itself, was held in high regard during this time. Both nobility and commoners were familiar with the basic astrological concepts recognized at the time. However, during the 16th and 17th century with the rise of Christianity, theologists condemned astrology and similar "sciences" such as alchemy and magic. In addition, the astronomical steps made by men such as Copernicus and Galileo were undermining many of the aspects of astrology. With these conflicting schools of thought came a blend of beliefs.
During the Elizabethan Era, many people felt that there was an external force deciding their fate in the world. The position of the stars, moon, and other planets were constantly in control of people’s lives. Due to the influence of Christianity, many Elizabethans believed that the stars and planets were tools used by God to commanded the "baser" side of man, and that the stars held no power over the immortal self. In this sense, man still retained free will and could overcome the fate that the stars brought upon him by choosing good. This allowed for a balance of beliefs.
Influence in Shakespeare's Work
There are a large amount of allusions to astrology in Shakespeare’s works, with astrology being mentioned in almost every one of his plays. At times, it plays a significant part in the story and is critical to the plot when actions are said to be determined by the stars. Throughout his plays, he uses astrology to determine events and often foreshadows events in the play based on an astrological assumption. He often uses astrology to define his characters and it can be argued he makes a character more sympathetic and relatable or antagonistic using their belief and knowledge of astrology.
Romeo and Juliet
The play Romeo and Juliet is a work of Shakespeare's particularly associated with astrology for it tells the tale of "star-crossed" lovers, meaning that the fate determined by the movement of the stars controls them. This is established in the prologue of the play. This sense of fate continues to be a major theme throughout the story.
Later in the play, Romeo makes the proclamation that directly foreshadows much of the plot to follow.
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night's revels and expire the term
Of a despised life closed in my breast
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
But He, that hath the steerage of my course,
Direct my sail! On, lusty gentlemen."
Towards the end of the play, when Romeo believes Juliet to be dead, he cries out
Here, it is shown that he refuses to mourn her death but instead fights his fate by deciding to kill himself. However, throughout the play, it is shown that this is, in fact, his fate. The central idea that the love between them is against the will of the stars is finalized in his act to take his life where he says he wil "shake the yoke of inauspicious stars", but he is unaware of the irony that fate has bested him.
In the tragedy King Lear, the effect of astrology is even greater. In Act I, Scene ii the character Gloucester is the first to mention astrology and how it affects human life.
"These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us. Though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourg'd by the sequent effects. Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide. In cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond crack'd 'twixt son and father. This villain of mine comes under the prediction; there's son against father: the King falls from bias of nature; there's father against child. We have seen the best of our time. Machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders follow us disquietly to our graves. Find out this villain, Edmund; it shall lose thee nothing; do it carefully. And the noble and true-hearted Kent banish'd! his offence, honesty! 'Tis strange."
Gloucester blames the recent eclipses for the troubles in the land. In astrology, eclipses are powerful deciders of fate and important events that cause great upheaval in the places where they can be seen. Eclipses are said bring on war, cause drastic change, and signify the fall of the mighty. The eclipse here represents trouble ahead and Gloucester recognizes this. In fact, the astrological predictions made by Gloucester are fulfilled by the end of the play.
All's Well That Ends Well
In the first scene of this play, the two characters Helena and Parolles discuss the significance of being born under a certain star.
Parolles: Under Mars, I.
Helena: I especially think, under Mars.
Parolles: Why under Mars?
Helena: The wars hath so kept you under that you must needs be born under Mars.
Parolles: When he was predominant.
Helena: When he was retrograde, I think, rather.
Parolles: Why think you so?
Helena: You go so much backward when you fight.
Parolles: That's for advantage.
Helena: So is running away, when fear proposes the safety: but the composition that your valour and fear makes in you is a virtue of a good wing, and I like the wear well
According to the study of astrology and in accordance with Roman mythology, to be born under Mars meant to inherit the great war and fighting capabilities of the Roman god Mars from which it takes its name. Both Helena and Parolles know this. Parolles lies and said he was born when Mars when predominant meaning he would inherit these traits according to astrology. However, Helena believes "he was retrograde" referring to the phenomenon of the apparent backward motion of Mars as seen from the Earth every two years. She knows him to be a liar and a coward and a retrograde Mars signifies a person who is deceptive, cowardly and unable to take direct action when called upon. It is shown here that Shakespeare not only has his characters believe in astrology but also uses astrology to define his characters' traits.
In the beginning of Henry VI, Part 1, the Duke of Bedford makes a reference to comets and their power over life.
Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky,
And with them scourge the bad revolting stars
That have consented to Henry's death."
It is suggested that a comet's significance marks the death of Henry. This holds true with the astrological meaning of comets which are said to represent the precursor to a historical event or the event itself.
- ↑ The Columbia Encyclopedia. "Astrology", Columbia University Press, 2008.
- ↑ Frank Piechoski. "Shakespeare's Astrology", Frank Piechoski, AstroConsultants of Santa Monica, 1998 <http://starcats.com/anima/shakespeare.html>.
"Astrology", The Columbia Encyclopedia, Columbia University Press, 2008.
William Shakespeare, "Romeo and Juliet",
William Shakespeare, "King Lear",
William Shakespeare, "All's Well That Ends Well",
William Shakespeare, "Henry VI, Part 1",
"Shakespeare's Astrology", Frank Piechoski, AstroConsultants of Santa Monica, 1998. <http://starcats.com/anima/shakespeare.html>
"Elizabethan Astrology", Elizabethan Era, Elizabethan Era Copyright, March 20, 2008. <http://www.elizabethan-era.org.uk/elizabethan-astrology.htm>
"Astrology in Shakespeare's Play", D. J. McAdam, D. J. McAdam Copyright, 2004. <http://www.djmcadam.com/astrology-shakespeare.html>
Site for image <http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/05/Astro_signs.svg>