Shakespeare’s Cosmology:

Although the Greek philosopher Aristarchus Samius (310 BC), among several others hypothesised a heliocentric model for the known universe, the majority of Greek philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle still held to the false presumption of a geocentric model for several reasons. Astrological prediction necessitated an Earth-centred model because the Earth was the place where events occurred and where human beings lived. It need not imply that they believed in the cosmological theory that the Earth was actually at the centre of the entire cosmos. The earth-centred (geocentric) astrological chart was a fundamental device employed by seers and sages in horary astrology since Babylonian, Egyptian and Chaldean times. The Biblical story of creation (Genesis) was arranged sequentially and in accord with a geocentric universe and as the Bible was considered by Catholics to be the “word of God”; to accept any other theory or hypothesis was to deny God’s fundamental truth-the Seven Days of Creation. Thomas Aquinas, having read Plato was largely responsible for the Church’s maintaining a Ptolemaic viewpoint which ostensibly reinforced the “truth” of the scriptures. The Catholic Church had already “absorbed” the philosophical truths formulated by the proto-scientists of ancient Greece (Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato & Aristotle) into the Church’s teachings and were disinclined to alter or reverse their fundamental doctrinal truths. Astronomers and astrologers in the time of the Elizabethan era therefore held on to or believed in the same mathematical model formulated by Claudius Ptolemy around 140 AD, even though it was largely inaccurate and it was impossible to accurately predict the length of the orbital cycles of the seven known luminaries. These facts about cosmologies were interwoven with the science of number and calendrical time calculation often drawn from Jewish theology and magic. They also reinforced a model of the moral dimension with Heaven above, and Hell below in the bowels of the Earth. In the majority of geocentric models formulated by Agrippa and Trithemius it was presumed that nothing existed beyond the Empyrean dimension or sphere of the fixed stars (See Celestial Spheres).

More recently, after the publication of Dan Brown’s Book “The Da Vinci Code” it has been suggested that an organised group of people, whom Brown calls the “Illuminatti” were actively opposed to the Vatican Church’s view in matters of natural history and cosmology. If such a secret society existed then among its main adherents would have been Copernicus, Galileo, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler and Giordano Bruno, all of whom endorsed the heliocentric model as true even though they lacked the proof. Galileo did belong to a scientific group known as The Academy of the Lynx (the lynx having exceptionally good eyesight) and being modelled on the Society of Jesus, a Jesuit school rather than one supporting atheist or agnostic beliefs. The closest form of such a free-thinking group in England in fact was the School of Night, whose leaders or supporters were probably Christopher Marlowe, Sir Walter Raleigh and Henry Percy (The Wizard Earl).

This denial of a heliocentric model of the universe by the Roman Catholic Church during the Reformation, and for some time after set up a series of political tensions that reverberated throughout Christendom and beyond for several centuries. In 1543 the Catholic Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543) published his hypothetical book De Revolutionibus suggesting a heliocentric model. Although he had begun his researches as early as 1510 into heliocentric models, he was warned by the Pope to maintain this idea as merely a mathematical theory and not propose it as an actual reality because of the controversy it might cause.

Meanwhile, in England some extremely forward thinkers seized on the Pope’s obstinate stance against a heliocentric universe as an opportunity to undermine Catholic religious and political influence among the British Protestants and some Catholics and to confirm the teachings of the Gospels as spurious and ultimately fallacious when challenged by the “new science”. This in turn gave rise to the secret Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross or The Rosicrucians (1570-1625). The new enlightenment fostered by the Protestant Church in England would also prove itself to be superior to that in Rome, thereby justifying its original split or divergence from the time of Henry VIIIth. It is quite likely that Giordano Bruno, an exile or scientific immigrant from Rome, with his lectures was instrumental in fostering this new enlightenment viewpoint. Robert Recorde (1510-58) published the Castle of Knowledge (1586) reaffirming the Copernican theory. A year later the scientist and mathematician John Field (1525-1587), who was the father of the Elizabethan actor Nathan Field, was urged by Dr. John Dee to publish his own Almanac: Ephemeris Anni with the newly calculated cycles of the planets in accord with a Heliocentric Universe. Field was also a fervent Puritan who despised “Popish Perversions” and quite likely contributed to the Martin Marprelate controversy. Another student of the illustrious Dr. John Dee, Thomas Digges (1546-1595), who was the father of the poet Leonard Digges (1521 – c. 1574), edited a successful almanac entitled; “A Prognostication Everlasting” and also invented the theodolite. Leonard Digges contributed to the dedications in Shakespeare’s First Folio published in 1623.

The Magical Pantacle of Dr. John Dee

It is quite likely that like Copernicus and Galileo, Thomas Digges had constructed a type of proto-telescope which enabled him to view the craters on the Moon, the “eye” of Jupiter, as well as its moons and even to observe the Milky Way for what it was; namely a huge cluster of stars. His instructions and results with mirrored lenses were published in a work entitled Pantometria in 1571 two years before he died. Although these optic inventions or plano-lens devices were also mentioned by Leonardo da Vinci and possibly by Ptolemy himself, the British considered them extremely useful in naval warfare and for navigation of the seas so there were other reasons to keep their findings discreetly tucked away in the appendix of an obscure yearly almanac. Furthermore, ostensibly persona non grata during Mary’s reign, their predecessor and staunch Protestant, Leonard’s Digges’ had his property and estates seized because of his support for the Sir Thomas Wyatt rebellion (1553-4) which opposed her marriage to Phillip II of Spain.

Artist’s engraving illustrating the Empyreal World, the 12 signs of the zodiac and the planetary attributes of the Tree of Life

In 1572 Thomas Digges tried to measure the distance to a supernova using the parallax method and achieved a result which confirmed that the supernova had to be way beyond the orbit of our Moon, thereby affirming the Copernican model to be superior to that of Ptolemy’s. He published his findings in a work entitled “New Star of 1572”, Alae seu Scalae Mathematicae, which reinforced the Copernican Model, even though it was still considered hypothetical by the majority of scientists in Europe. Digges even dedicated the work to Lord Burghley, the Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth Ist and the following year published his “Perfit Description”, a table of the calculations as an appendix to a new edition of the Almanac begun by his father “A Prognostication Everlasting”. In this way he succeeded in not drawing too much attention to his findings or invoking the wrath of Rome. Neither Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) or for that matter Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) had the same prudent approach. Many Renaissance philosophers began to think of an infinite universe, unbounded like the mind of God and these new discoveries necessitated a new doctrine, a new order and it appears a new Biblical text. By unravelling the laws of nature, philosophical science sought to confirm the “hand and mind of God” in creation as well as the “word of God” in the Gospels. For many rational people of the time the literal, allegorical and metaphysical meaning of Biblical texts became seriously confused and this led to further denials of Rome’s supremacy, at least in doctrinal matters if not in cosmologies. For others, these free-thinking  scientists were for the most part heretics if not lunatics when it came to questions of faith and religion and it would be better to eradicate or ignore them. The emergence of the play Hamlet in 1600, whose “uncle” is named Claudius after Ptolemy may suggest some parallels with the New Enlightenment especially when we examine the lines:

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

In 1608 the astronomer Johannes Kepler also observed a supernova which disproved the idea that the heavens, indeed the planets and moons as well as the Earth itself were eternally “fixed” by God. The Biblical references that the Vatican was so sensitive about were Psalm 93:1, 96:10, and 1 Chronicles 16:30 which include text stating that “the world is firmly established, it cannot be moved.” In the same manner, Psalm 104:5 says, “the Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.” Furthermore, Ecclesiastes 1:5 states that “And the sun rises and sets and returns to its place” which according to Galileo it did not! The first telescope to be commercially made in Europe was by Hans Lippershey of the Netherlands in 1608, a year before Shakespeare’s Sonnets were published. In my view there are many astrological references in both the Sonnets and plays attributed to William Shakespeare, so much so that they deserve greater attention from academic scholars. The problem is how many academic literary scholars have rigorously studied traditional astrology as practiced and understood in the Elizabethan period? However, although many people fail to see the importance of astrology today, in the Elizabethan era the science played a far more important and significant role in personal and state politics. The references usually took the form of allusions or symbolic perspectives influenced from the understanding of religion, creation, the practice of astrology and the known astronomical truths and hold little significance for the study of tropical astrology as it is understood by the masses today. Indeed, astrology as a science was so important to the Church and State that it seemed expedient to have one man, namely Dr. John Dee, to advise the Queen on determining her forthcoming coronation date. One should bear in mind that the Elizabethan Age was also known as The Golden Age so far as the British Isles were concerned and that Shakespeare’s influential and metaphysical circle was just one of many others. Can you imagine for example if today the reigning monarch had decided to write a treatise on Witchcraft, just as James Ist had done?

If the Church, the State and the Monarchy had total belief in the effect that even the date on which an important ceremonial moment was being held would determine their beneficent or malefic outcome, so why should not William Shakespeare have some belief or certainty in the science and art of astrological prognosis?

The painted ceiling of the Globe Theatre depicting the zodiacal constellations

The alchemical and magical brotherhoods of Shakespeare’s time were a product of the Reformation and the new Enlightenment which produced a watershed in the lives of many European citizens, politicians, rulers and priests. Among other intellectual reformers and great thinkers of that time were Sir Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Thomas Harriot. However, there were indeed many more free thinkers of this period, for example those filtering through the Italian Renaissance, in Spain, in Demark and the Netherlands, in Austria and Bohemia. The importance of Neo-Platonic symbolism, the secret work of Rosicrucians, Freemasons and literary cabals, and Shakespeare’s acceptance and creative expression of these ideas has been sadly neglected in many conventional academic circles. When we know that the theatres in which the theatrical dramas were performed were aligned and designed in accord with astro-geomantic principles, in which the iconic “Monad” devised by John Dee was architecturally expressed within that “wooden-O” does it not seem plausible that the plays themselves, the words contained in them, the metaphors, the number of acts and scenes follow a particular numerical structure, and that they mirror the models of the cosmos defined by Alchemical Symbolism? If an eminent scientist such as Isaac Newton had embraced such philosophical and astrological doctrines then it is not such a quantum leap into the ridiculous to assume that Shakespeare had been tutored or influenced by them also. For at that time there was no real art without some element of science and no real science without a deeper understanding of the occult arts. Fortunately, today a great deal more interest and genuine research has gone into the astrological and astronomical references in Shakespeare’s work-some professing he was a Freemason, some that he was an Alchemist and others to say that he was a literary Magus.

The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


“We all love Shakespeare, whoever he was…”

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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,