Astrology in Shakespeare’s England

Astrological Emblem in Shakespeare’s era

There are references to astrology in Edmund Spenser’s works probably influenced by “Zodiacos Vitae” of someone named Piero Angelo Manzolli of Stellata It seems that this was a pseudonym as his real name was Marcellus Palingenius. He lived near Ferrara of Italy and when he died his remains were exhumed by the Roman Catholic Church so that he could be ritually cremated and denounced as a heretic. The contentious Latin verse poem that aroused such an abomination by the Vatican Council described the attributes of Aquarius and was included in Elizabethan Grammar Schools as a sample for translation by boys in the third form.

One of the most notable aristocrats in Shakespeare’s esoteric circle was without doubt the poet Sir Phillip Sidney, and he openly defends the science of astrology in the following lines of romantic verse.

“Though dustie wits dare scorne Astrologie,
And fooles can thinke those Lamps of purest Light
Whose numbers, wayes, greatnesse, eternitie,
Promising wonders, wonders do invite,
To have for no cause birthright in the skie,
But for to spangle the black weeds of night;
Or for some brawle which in that chamber hie,
They should still daunce to please a gazer’s sight.
For me I do Nature unidle know,
And know great causes great effects procure,
And know those Bodies high raine on the low.
And if these rule did faile, proof makes me sure,
Who oft fore-judge my after-following race
By only those two starres in Stella’s face.”

There are astrological references also in John Milton‘s Paradise Lost;

“O earth, how like a heaven, if not preferred
More justly, seat worthier of gods, as built
With second thoughts, reforming what was old!
For what god after better worse would build?
Terrestrial heaven, danced around by other heavens
That shine, yet bear their bright officious lamps,
Light above light, for thee alone, as seems,
In thee concerning all their precious beams
Of sacred influence: as God in heaven
Is centre, yet extends to all, so thou
Centring receivest from all those orbs; in thee,
Not in themselves, all their known virtue appears
Productive in herb, plant, and nobler birth
Of creatures animate with gradual life
Of growth, sense, reason, all summed up in man.”

In these words John Milton appears to reinforce the heliocentric view with the Sun synonymous with “God” although other cosmologies defined the Sun as Christ. But the Sun also symbolised the monarchy and altering the traditional hierarchy would no doubt have offended the monarchs of Europe. An invisible or “Hidden God”, that must be uncovered through faith, charity and prayer was fundamental to Christian, Jewish and Muslim religions. When Galileo was imprisoned in Italy for publishing his “Dialogues” in 1632, the English scientist Thomas Hobbes and the poet John Milton went to visit him along with other luminaries of the time. Whether or not they hoped to persuade him to recant or simply console him is uncertain. Nevertheless, Galileo was able to produce his greatest contribution to the new science: Discourses on Two New Sciences. Hobbes suffered persecution and threats to burn him and his books in England and knew only too well how long the arm of Catholic Rome could extend.

There are several analogous references to planets such as Mars in Henry IVth Part 1 and Henry Vth. The planet could be invoked or even consulted in the charts of individual rulers or those who were to lead troops in battle.

Through all the kingdoms that acknowledge Christ:
Thrice hath this Hotspur, Mars in swathling clothes,
This infant warrior, in his enterprises
Discomfited great Douglas, ta’en him once,
Enlarged him and made a friend of him,
To fill the mouth of deep defiance up
And shake the peace and safety of our throne.
(Henry IVth Part 1)

O, for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention;
A Kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment.
(Henry Vth)

One might be inclined to argue of course that this does by no means represent an enlightened debate or subtle understanding of the science of astrology from that time. Many medieval treatises on the subject of astrology provided a schema based on the average life span and a series of corresponding life stages or Seven Ages of Man (9 x 7 = 63 an average life-span in those days);

  1. Infant (Moon)
  2. Child (Mercury)
  3. Youth (Venus)
  4. Adult (Mars)
  5. Maturity (Jupiter)
  6. Old Age (Saturn)
  7. Decrepitude (Fixed Stars)

But clearly some analogies were being constructed towards the fate and destiny of monarchs being compared to mythical gods of war. In contrast Shakespeare’s time was revelatory as the old Ptolemaic system (Earth-centred solar system) was superseded by the Copernican (Sun-centred solar system) and when the phenomenon of precession of the synodic vernal point also became an important issue. In the same year that Shakespeare’s canon was published in England (1623) Galileo Galilei published his own penultimate and successful work Il Saggiatore (The Assayer) which not only laid the foundations of the strict scientific method of deduction but attacked all the theories based on Aristotle‘s presumed authority and promoted the benefits of experimentation and the purely mathematical formulation of scientific ideas.

The Cosmology of the 16th Century

However, references to the scientific and accurate nature of planetary observations can be found specifically in Troilus & Cressida (1601-02):

The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans cheque to good and bad: but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure! O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick!

How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy: The bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe:
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead:
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself. Great Agamemnon,
This chaos, when degree is suffocate,
Follows the choking.
And this neglection of degree it is
That by a pace goes backward, with a purpose
It hath to climb. The general’s disdain’d
By him one step below, he by the next,
That next by him beneath; so every step,
Exampled by the first pace that is sick
Of his superior, grows to an envious fever
Of pale and bloodless emulation:
And ’tis this fever that keeps Troy on foot,
Not her own sinews. To end a tale of length,
Troy in our weakness stands, not in her strength.

In King Lear the Earl of Gloucester refers to the malefic influence of solar and lunar eclipses on the affairs of men;

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
scourged by the sequent effects: love cools,
friendship falls off, brothers divide: in
cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in
palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘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.

In Act 1, scene II again in a conversation between Edmund and Edgar reference is made to the astronomical portents, where Edmund insists that fallible humanity blames the planets for their own failings and disasters;

The 16th Century Zodiac

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,
when we are sick in fortune,–often the surfeit
of our own behavior,–we make guilty of our
disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by 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 to the charge of a star!
My father compounded with my mother under
The dragon’s tail; and my nativity was under Ursa
major; so that it follows, I am rough and
lecherous. Tut, I should have been that I am,
had the maidenliest star in the firmament
twinkled on my bastardizing.

At which point Edgar enters…..

And pat he comes like the catastrophe of the old
comedy: my cue is villanous melancholy, with a
sigh like Tom o’ Bedlam. O, these eclipses do
portend these divisions! fa, sol, la, mi.

How now, brother Edmund! what serious
contemplation are you in?

I am thinking, brother, of a prediction I read
this other day, what should follow these eclipses.

Do you busy yourself about that?
I promise you, the effects he writes of succeed
unhappily; as of unnaturalness between the child
and the parent; death, dearth, dissolutions of
ancient amities; divisions in state, menaces and
maledictions against king and nobles; needless
diffidences, banishment of friends, dissipation
of cohorts, nuptial breaches, and I know not what.

How long have you been a sectary astronomical?

In Julius Caesar, Brutus, in discussing strategy with Cassius remarks:

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…

However, there is also some suggestion that in this instance the Moon stands as a reference for the female monarch. The line “The mortal Moon hath her eclipse endured” (#107) refers specifically to the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603. Or in verse #35 the lines;

“Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.”

Also make reference to the portents of the luminaries. He forgot to mention omens of misfortune of course and the passage from Julius Caesar may instead refer to possible existence and influence of the electromagnetic currents of the Earth (“Tattvic tides”).

A Comet strikes the Earth

In 1572 a comet, a nova or new star appeared and astrologers and astronomers alike made all sorts of predictions. Following his observation of the comet or supernova in 1572, the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe made a prediction that a male child would be born in Scandinavia in 1592 who was destined for a great career but who would die as a result of religious strife. This forecast was inaccurate by some two years off but has been attributed to the birth of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, a fighter for Protestantism who died in the Battle of Lutzen in 1632. Coincidentally, it was also the year the Duke of Norfolk was brought to trial on the 16th of January, found guilty and then executed on the 2nd of June, while the English Parliament demanded bills against the possible succession of the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots and also her immediate execution. This was followed up on the 22nd of August with the execution of the Earl of Northumberland who led the Northern Rebellion. In France it was the death of Gaspard Colligny in the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre (23-24th August which was caused by the Guise family).
In Henry the VIth which was performed in 1592 to 1594, opens with the funeral of Henry V. The Duke of Bedford laments;

Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night! 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 unto Henry’s death!
However, there were also cynics and sceptics in Shakespeare’s time and like today not everyone was taken in by almanacs and totally believed in astrological influences. In Julius Caesar, Casca mentions in Act I Scene III;

Are not you moved, when all the sway of earth
Shakes like a thing unfirm? O Cicero,
I have seen tempests, when the scolding winds
Have rived the knotty oaks, and I have seen
The ambitious ocean swell and rage and foam,
To be exalted with the threatening clouds:
But never till to-night, never till now,
Did I go through a tempest dropping fire.
Either there is a civil strife in heaven,
Or else the world, too saucy with the gods,
Incenses them to send destruction.

Whether Shakespeare was ambivalent about the influence of the planets on human fate or destiny is unclear. Perhaps he was merely reflecting the prevailing thoughts of characters he had studied and not merely his own views. From these numerous references he clearly doubted their direct cause. In Julius Caesar for example in a discussion between Brutus and Cassius doubts the influence of astrology on people’s lives, how it is applied or misconceived as an actual cause where Cassius replies;

“Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

“Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to heaven: the fated sky
Gives us free scope, only doth backward pull
Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull.
What power is it which mounts my love so high,
That makes me see, and cannot feed mine eye?
The mightiest space in fortune nature brings
To join like likes and kiss like native things.
Impossible be strange attempts to those
That weigh their pains in sense and do suppose
What hath been cannot be: who ever strove
So show her merit, that did miss her love?
The king’s disease–my project may deceive me,
But my intents are fix’d and will not leave me.”

Astrologers at work in 16th century England

In All’s Well that End’s Well, the heroine of the play, Helena, the orphaned daughter of a physician, dialogues with Parolles, a follower of Bertram with whom she is in love. In this short exchange an amusing reference is made to the astrological phenomenon of planetary retrogradation.

Hel.: Monsieur Parolle, you were born under a charitable star.
Par.: Under Mars, I.
Hel.: I especially think, under Mars.
Par.: Why under Mars?
Hel.: The wars have so kept you under that you must needs be born under Mars. Par.: When he was predominant.
Hel.: When he was retrograde, I think, rather.
Par.: Why think you so?
Hel.: You go so much backward when you fight.
Par.: That’s for advantage.
Hel.: So is running away, when fear proposes the safety; but the composition that your valour and your fear makes in you is a virtue of a good wing and I like the wear well.

Parolles departs and Helena, contemplating her love and design to gain Parolles by curing the King, echoes eloquently by quoting directly from Shakespeare’s own play Julius Caesar:

Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, Which we ascribe to heaven; the fated sky Gives us free scope; only doth backward pull Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull.

In Twelfth Night, Sebastian warns Antonio to leave him in case his own destiny becomes a contagion to his own:

“My stars shine darkly over me; the malignancy of my fate might, perhaps, distemper yours;”

In the same play, the steward Mavolio, foolishly believing his mistress to be in love with him delights:
“I thank my stars, I am happy! and Jove, and my stars be praised!”

Again a bawdy reference to the pleasures of the flesh being attributed to the sign of Taurus, Sir Toby Belch says to Sir Andrew Aguecheek;

What shall we do else? were we not born under Taurus?
Sir Andrew:
Taurus! That’s sides and heart.
Sir Toby Belch:
No, sir; it is legs and thighs. Let me see the
caper; ha! higher: ha, ha! excellent!

According to traditional astrology, Aries is attributed to the head and eyes, Taurus is attributed to the neck and throat and Gemini to the wrists, arms and lungs and so forth through to Pisces for the feet. But Taurus, being an earth sign and ruled by Venus, denoting love and affection, is considered to bestow a sensual or avaricious disposition.

Shakespeare’s characters often struggle to understand the mechanics of fate and the role of man in forging his own destiny, despite their shortcomings. In the tragedy Hamlet for example, the young Danish Prince learns through the ghost of his recently departed father that the King died an untimely death, was then poisoned by his brother, Claudius who sought not only his throne but also to procure the pleasures and kingdom of his widowed wife, Queen Gertrude. It reads almost like a fairy tale. His father’s spirit commands:

“If thou didst ever thy father love, Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder!

Hamlet recognises that he is ultimately duty bound, that suicide would only deny his ultimate destiny, however loathsome but like Oedipus in Greek mythology, he laments his fate and peculiar destiny. The circumstances of his own lifetime, he begins to muse, seems somewhat out of kilter:-

“O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right!”

In a game of archery Titus Andronicus and Marcus Andronicus decide to solicit the gods and their destinies by aiming their arrows at the stars – he calls; “Now, masters, draw.” And when they shoot;

O, well said, Lucius!
Good boy, in Virgo’s lap; give it Pallas.
Marcus replies;
My lord, I aim a mile beyond the moon;
Your letter is with Jupiter by this. (shoots arrow)

Then Titus responds;
Ha, ha!
Publius, Publius, what hast thou done?
See, see, thou hast shot off one of Taurus’ horns.

This was the sport, my lord: when Publius shot,
The Bull, being gall’d, gave Aries such a knock
That down fell both the Ram’s horns in the court;
And who should find them but the empress’ villain?
She laugh’d, and told the Moor he should not choose
But give them to his master for a present.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets:

The sonnets also contain many references to astrology, gemstones, and numerology that are clearly influenced by occult symbolism. Traumatic events in Italy, such as the warring rivalries between lords, plagues and disasters mirrored similar events in Shakespeare’s time. Generally speaking many people often make reference to how Time is constantly referred to by Shakespeare but fail to remark how often specialised astrological terms are employed. By astrological terms of course I mean words such as apogee, zenith, nadir, house/mansion, place, judgement, etc.

No 14:
Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck;
And yet methinks I have Astronomy,
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons’ quality;
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well
By oft predict that I in heaven find:
But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And, constant stars, in them I read such art
As truth and beauty shall together thrive,
If from thyself, to store thou wouldst convert;
Or else of thee this I prognosticate:
Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date.

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


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