Was Shakespeare a Fan of Astrology?
By Edward Snow
In the final act of Shakespeare’s tragedy Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony describes Brutus, the man who came not to praise Caesar but to bury him, in these glowing terms:
“His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world, this was a man!”
This is rare praise indeed for an assassin. But Brutus had dispatched a megalomaniac (Caesar) whose ambitions threatened the cherished way citizens governed themselves in ancient Rome.
Unlike most modern theatre-goers, those sitting in the Globe Theatre audience when the play was first performed 450 years ago would have been much more likely to pick up on the fact that the “elements” Anthony refers to are the astrological elements medieval astrologers considered when making judgments about the temperamental qualities inherent in man’s nature. Most in the audience would have brought to the theatre at least a fundamental awareness of the concepts involved.
In her book, Temperament, Astrology’s Forgotten Key, astrologer and classical scholar Dorian Gieseler Greenbaum, PhD, describes the system medieval astrologers used to categorize fellow travelers. It is based on the placement of planets in an individual’s horoscope and identifies four basic temperament types: choleric, sanguine, melancholic and phlegmatic.
It’s a bit more complicated than this but, very generally speaking, the choleric type is fiery and energetic and the airy sanguine individual is the thinking, sociable and talkative type. The earthy melancholic is analytical, pragmatic and studious and the phlegmatic is contemplative, reserved and shy.
There are both positive and negative character traits identified with each of the temperament types. And they rarely take time off.
Dr. Greenbaum makes the point that temperament is not the same as personality, although personality can incorporate parts of someone’s temperament in its expression. Simply, personality is shaped by both internal and external factors whereas temperament is entirely innate.
“We are born with our temperaments, and while there may be overlays of one temperamental style or another during our lives, what we get is what we keep. A card-carrying phlegmatic does not suddenly become a raging choleric,” she writes.
Early in the twentieth century psychiatrist Carl Jung described astrology as “the 5,000-year-old psychology of antiquity and the Middle Ages,” elevating and placing the subject on a significantly higher level than his doubting Thomas professional contemporaries. Like Shakespeare before him, Jung was fascinated with how people managed and projected their uncompromising innate selves.
The ancient Greeks were first to write about the need to balance the elemental energies. Based on the cosmic alignments of planets at birth, one or more of the elements may dominate. Ideally, we get the sort of elemental balance the Greeks so admired – and Anthony believed Brutus typified.
Astrology in the hands of an artist like Shakespeare comes alive in characters at war with their own proclivities, or with the temperamental proclivities of others. The Bard was keenly aware of – and tended to exaggerate – how badly things might go. And he delighted in providing for his theatre audience glimpses of just how tricky – and sometimes outrageous – life’s adventures can be.
Astrologer Frank Piechoski has a degree in theatre from the University of Wisconsin and has performed in several of Shakespeare’s plays. He says the plays are full of rich imagery from many sources, including mythology, magic, astrology and science.
In Shakespeare’s day, both high-born and commoners employed astrologers but the practice was increasingly coming under attack from detractors on the science side. What Shakespeare thought about all this isn’t clear, but Piechoski thinks there are clues to be found in his plays.
In King Lear, Edmund, the bastard son of a nobleman, rails against astrology in this way: “This is 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 on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves and treacherers by spherical pre-dominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on. 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. Fut! I should have been that I am, had the maidenly star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.”
Piechoski says these bitter words are from the mouth of one of Shakespeare’s most scheming and reviled villains, whose intrigues not only destroyed his own family but brought a kingdom to its knees. There are technical errors in Edmund’s delivery astrologically hip theatre-goers would be expected to pick up on, he points out.
In contrast, from the comedy All’s Well That Ends Well, one of the Bard’s strongest and most capable heroines is a poster girl for astrology. Helena uses her mercurial wits and healing arts learned from her famous physician father to cure the King of France of an illness. In this era, healers used astrology to diagnose illness; her success in finding a cure earned from the grateful monarch a promise she could marry any eligible man in the kingdom she chose.
Shakespeare often called upon astrology to move along his plots and refine his characters. What follows is a conversation between Helena and the military officer who dragged her husband away to fight in the army of the Duke of Florence. That she had an exceptionally low opinion of Parolles, the officer, would be obvious to any astrologically astute theatre-goers witnessing this hilarious scene:
Helena: Monsieur Parolles, you were born under a charitable 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 valor and fear makes in you is a virtue of good wing, and I like the wear well.
By retrograde, Helena refers to the apparent backward motion of Mars as seen from Earth, which occurs approximately every two years. Shakespeare would expect his audience to pick up on the fact that retrograde Mars in the birth chart of a military man could prove to be a serious affliction. It might, for example, depict a warrior who is deceptive, cowardly or unable to take direct action when called upon, Piechoski explains.
As the play unfolds the full extent of Parolles’ treachery, disloyalty and cowardice is exposed for all to see.
Piechoski says the playwright’s command of astrological principles enhanced his understanding of the human condition and helped him to become the foremost writer in the English language. If you want to understand the plays the way his Elizabethan audiences did you’ll need to brush up on your astrology.
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Tags: All’s Well That Ends Well, astrology, Carl Jung, choleric, Dorian Greenbaum, Frank Piechoski, King Lear, melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine, Shakespeare, temperament