The works of William Shakespeare are full of rich imagery from many sources. Mythology, magic and science all find a place in his texts. One of the richest sources of imagery in his works is astrology. Shakespeare uses astrological events, forecasts and metaphors extensively in his plays and poetry. This article will examine these astrological references in Shakespeare’s work, focusing on the astrological components in two plays: “All’s Well That Ends Well,” and “King Lear.” Shakespeare was very knowledgeable about astrology and held its practice in high regard, which can be shown by using examples from these plays, and the methods and popularity of astrology in his time.Before we can attempt to decipher the astrological elements contained in these plays, we must have a basic understanding of the concepts of astrology. Astrology has a complex methodology that has developed over thousands of years. The roots of astrology as practiced in Shakespeare’s time go back thousands of years. As far as we can discern, astrology began as the reading of simple omens from the position, color and brightness of certain stars or planets at important times of the years. Astrology was refined and codified by the Greeks, most notably by Claudius Ptolemy in his Tetrabiblos, written in the 2nd Century A.D. It is from this work that Renaissance and modern western astrology derive most of their basic concepts.
Astrology is simply, the correlation between the apparent movement of the Sun, Moon and planets and life on Earth. Astrology is the study of cycles, for example the yearly cycle of the Earth around the Sun, the 28 day cycle of the Moon around the Earth, and the 24 hour cycle of the rotation of the Earth. Every planet has its own cycle in relation to the Earth. Being closer to the Sun, Mercury and Venus each have an approximate cycle of one year, while planets outside Earth’s orbit have longer cycles. Mars has a two year cycle, Jupiter twelve years and Saturn twenty-eight years. In Shakespeare’s time Uranus, Neptune and Pluto were unknown. For the conventions of this article, when planets are mentioned these will include the Sun and Moon.
Each planet has its own particular astrological qualities and correlates with different parts of the body, areas of life and even places or objects. The planet Venus, for example rules the throat, artistic endeavor, jewelers, gardens and copper. Each planet also has rulership over one or two signs of the Zodiac, a twelve-fold seasonal division of the sky. The planet Venus rules the signs Taurus and Libra. The signs of the Zodiac begin with Aries the Ram which begins the astrological year on the first day of Spring. Each sign is also correlated with a house of the horoscope a twelve-fold division based on the Earth’s rotation. Aries shares the nature of the First House, Taurus the Second House, and so on. Additionally, the cusp or beginning of the First House is called the Ascendant and the cusp of the Tenth House is called the Midheaven. Both are very important points in an individual Horoscope.
A Horoscope is an astrological chart drawn for a specific moment in time, whether for a person’s birth (natal chart), the beginning of a venture (electional chart), or even the asking of a question (horary chart). This stylized map of the heavens is constructed by the astrologer for a specific date, time and place, using trigonometric and logarithmic calculations for the positions of the planets and house cusps. After constructing the chart, the astrologer then measures for Aspects, or the angular relationships between planets. Each aspect between planets shows how well those planets will integrate with each other. The major aspects are the Conjunction, 0 degree angle; the Sextile, 60 degrees; the Square, 90 degrees; the Trine,120 degrees and the Opposition, 180 degrees. After gathering all this information, the astrologer can begin interpreting the chart (Lilly 51-103).
In Shakespeare’s time astrology was held in high regard. Both high-born and commoners employed astrologers and were familiar with astrological terms and concepts (Clark 37-43). The most famous astrologer of Elizabethan times was John Dee. Dee was a famous astrologer and had as his most famous client Queen Elizabeth I. His diary tells how Dee often met with the Queen and members of her court in his capacity as an astrologer and also chronicles the day-to-day life of a working astrologer at that time (Naylor 183-196). Given the wide-spread use of astrology in England at that time, it is not surprising that Shakespeare was so well versed in its concepts.
One play that comes to mind when thinking about Shakespeare and astrology is “All’s Well That Ends Well.” Consider the following passage from the first scene of the play:
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 valour and fear makes in you is a virtue of a good wing, and I like the wear well. (I.i)
Helena obviously understands astrological concepts and uses them to her advantage. As the heroine of the play, she shows her intellectual skills by taking control of her own life. In this passage with Parolles, a retainer of her intended husband, she refers to him as being “born under a charitable star.” When he replies that he was born when Mars was predominant, she retorts “when he was retrograde, I think, rather.” By retrograde, Helena refers to the phenomenon of the apparent backward motion of Mars as seen from the Earth, which occurs approximately every two years. As someone who claims to be a great fighting man, Parolles would also claim to be born under a predominant Mars. But Helena, who knows him as a great liar and probably a coward, believes that he was born with Mars retrograde. A retrograde Mars could signify someone who is deceptive, cowardly and unable to take direct action when called upon. This fits Parolles like a glove. Here, Shakespeare is giving his heroine keen astrological insight. Helena is a knowledgeable healer and, as such, would have made use of astrology in diagnosing and treating illness. Physicians of Shakespeare’s time were also schooled in astrology. Shakespeare has Helena use her skill to cure the King and secure her future.
In the tragedy “King Lear,” astrology is used to even greater effect. In I,ii Gloucester first raises the issue of astrology:
Glou. 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. (I.i)
Gloucester, one of the more sympathetic characters in the play, equates the troubles in the land to the recent eclipses. Eclipses are one of the most powerful events in astrology, portending great upheaval in the places where they can be seen. Visible total solar eclipses are rare and, depending on their position in the charts of the King, country, and other entities, can destroy old structures and supplant them with new ones. Eclipses are harbingers of war and drastic change, and Gloucester recognizes this. Another possible result of eclipses is blindness, which Gloucester himself becomes intimately familiar with. Gloucester respects the efficacy of astrology.
Gloucester’s illegitimate son, Edmund, has a quite different view of astrology. He doesn’t believe in, understand or respect astrology, as shown in his soliloquy immediately following his father’s exit:
Edm. This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behaviour, 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 treachers by spherical pre-dominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforc’d obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on. An admirable evasion of whore-master 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. Fut! I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing. (I,i)
Edmund has no real understanding of astrology. He has many false assumptions and makes many mistakes in his denial of the effectiveness of astrology. When he mentions the Dragon’s Tail, he believes he is speaking of a constellation or sign. In fact, the Dragon’s Tail is one of the names for the South Node of the Moon, a point that is involved with when eclipses will occur. When there is a New Moon within 12 degrees of either the North or South Node of the Moon, there will be a Solar Eclipse. He says that “My father compounded with my mother under the Dragon’s Tail….” Astrology does not use the moment of conception to delineate character, only the time of birth. Edmund also states that he was born under Ursa Major, an impossibility because Ursa Major is not a Zodiacal constellation, but well off the path of the ecliptic, the apparent path of the Sun around the Earth. Ursa Major has no astrological meaning in the traditional sense. Edmund’s diatribe against astrology has more to with the fate versus free will debate rather than the true effectiveness of the astrological paradigm. Astrologers today are still engaged in the fate-versus-free-will debate. But some of the astrological knowledge of the day must have gotten through to Edmund by osmosis. Witness this discourse on eclipses to his half-brother, Edgar:
Edm. I am thinking, brother, of a prediction I read this other day, what should follow these eclipses.
Edg. Do you busy yourself with that?
Edm. 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. (I,i)
He is repeating much of what Gloucester told him, plus some embellishment, to lay the groundwork for his betrayal of Edgar. Edmund does not know that he plays astrology’s game when he acts against his brother, father and the King. In fact, the astrological predictions made at by Gloucester all come to pass by the end of the play.
These examples show us that Shakespeare knew his astrology very well indeed and used astrology to move along his plots and refine his characters. It is arguable that many times Shakespeare uses astrology to make the audience either comfortable or uncomfortable with his characters. We have seen how he put a great understanding of astrological principles in the mouth of Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well. He makes Helena more attractive to his astrologically knowledgeable audience by doing so. Conversely, he denigrates the character of Edmund by giving him an ill-informed diatribe against astrology early in King Lear.
Just looking at these two plays shows us that Shakespeare was well versed in astrological concepts. They also show us that he would put astrological knowledge and belief into one of his strongest and most capable heroines, and astrological ignorance and disdain into one of his most scheming and reviled villains. Shakespeare knew what he was doing. His astrological knowledge allowed him to reach his audience better and more effectively. His command of astrological principle helped him to become the foremost writer in the English language.