A few comments about William Shakespeare and his writings on Astrology and the Eclipse.


This article is written as an eclectic addendum to the previous essay quoting Ammachie and how eclipses are not only negative to expose oneself to but also can have longer term repercussions. Shakespeare is quoted to show in small part that this developed defensive respect for eclipses seems to have been forgotten in modern times.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) uses astrological imagery, events, predictions and metaphors over 100 times in his plays and poetry, demonstrating that he was exceptionally knowledgeable about astrology and held its practice in high regard. Given the widespread use of astrology in that period, it’s not surprising that Shakespeare was well versed in its concepts.

In Elizabethan England astrology was deeply respected. Both aristocracy and commoners employed astrologers and were deeply familiar with astrological terms and concepts. No doubt Shakespeare’s typical audience was familiar with these concepts and benefitted from the references. Consider the following passage from Act I, scene 1 of the play“All's Well That Ends Well” :

HELENA: Monsieur Parolles, you were born under a charitable star.

PAROLLES: Under Mars, I.

HELENA: I especially think, under Mars.

PAROLLE: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.

In this conversation with Parolles, the play’s heroine Helena coaxes him with the suggestion that he was "born under a charitable star."Parolles proudly replies that he was born while Mars was predominant, which would support his self-promoted reputation as a skilled fighting man. However, Helena reverses it into the insult"when He was retrograde, I think, rather."This refers to those occasions when the Earth passes by the slower moving Mars,making Mars appear to move backwards in our sky, a phenomenon that occurs approximately every two years. Knowing Parolles to be a coward and a liar, Helena suggests that he could only have been born with Mars in retrograde, a condition identified with someone who is cowardly, deceptive, and unable to act decisively in times of need. Parolles proves to be just such a person, which tells us that Shakespeare’s heroine possesses keen astrological aptitude. Here Shakespeare has used astrology to assist character development while at the same time using it to humorous effect.

Astrology makes an even more significant contribution to the tragedy of King Lear. In the second scene of the first act, the Earl of Gloucester broaches the subject of eclipses:

“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.”

Here the Earl of Gloucester demonstrates his understanding of and respect for astrology. An eclipse is a rare occurrence and one of the most powerful and ominous events in astrology. It portends conflict, upheaval, and drastic, usually painful change. Where a total solar eclipse can be seen, an entire establishment can be violently supplanted by a new order if conditions are right in the astrological charts of the ruling figures. Gloucester associates the troubles and intrigue in Lear’s realm to the recent eclipses there. This is in contrast to his illegitimate son, Edmund who later in the scene scoffs at his father’s astrological assessment:

 “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.”

Edmund ridicules astrology as a means to avoid taking responsibility for our shortcomings, blaming our misfortunes on influences outside our control. Furthermore, he betrays his ignorance of the discipline, referring to the “Dragon’s Tail” and Ursa Major as zodiacal constellations. In fact Ursa Major, commonly identified with the Big Dipper, is well off the Sun’s ecliptic and has no zodiacal relevance. The Dragon’s Tail is not a constellation, but a name of the south node of the Moon.

The nodes of the Moon figure into the calculation of when an eclipse will occur. Edmund rebels against the notion that his conception “under the Dragon’s Tail” (therefore related to an eclipse) has prescribed that he will we be a man of low character. Nevertheless he plays a large role in the fruition of the morbid predictions made by Gloucester. His treachery rivals nearly any Shakespearean evildoer. It’s not an accident that the sympathetic character, noble Gloucester, understands and believes in astrology while the skeptic is also the villain. Shakespeare’s contemporary audience surely would have appreciated this, and would have identified with Gloucester better and disdained Edmund more because of it.

While astrology uses the time of birth, not the time of conception, to delineate our astrological character, it’s interesting that Shakespeare gives Edmund the reference to an elcipse as the moment when “my father compounded with my mother” as an astrologically significant development. Some renowned astrologers in India have indicated that the moment of conception is actually the true moment of birth, the moment we begin to be, however astrology has developed over many thousands of years to reflect and expose the characteristics of the physical birth time for the purpose of calculating an astrological chart.Conception and its relevance astrologically is referenced by Paramahansa Yogananda in his Bhagavad Gita interpretation “The Royal Science Of God – Realization” page 354

“Further, one is actually “born” at the moment of conception , when the soul enters the first cell of its new body. One’s karmic pattern has already begun to unfold at that instant. …… 

In any case it is not the starts themselves that control the happenings in man’s life but rather his individual karma , that when ripe for fruition , is affected beneficially or adversely by the electromagnetic vibrations of the heavenly bodies. The relation the relation of the stars to the human body and mind are very subtle. The astral forces radiation to the earth from the heavens interact with those in the spinal centers that sustain man’s body. ……”

Though Shakespeare had refined knowledge about astrology, he did not feel compelled to a blind belief in it. A useful discipline still relies upon the deft manipulation of the practitioner, and not all astrologers are equal. Shakespeare must have observed this in Elizabethan England and perhaps meant to warn us of this, not in one of his plays but in Sonnet XIV:

Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck;

And yet methinks I have astronomy,

But not to tell of good or evil luck,

Of plagues, or dearth’s 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 desire,

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.

Another negative reference to an eclipse is in Henry the VI performed in 1592 to 1594, opens with funeral of Henry V.

Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!

laments the Duke of Bedford,

Comets, importing change of times and states

In Paradise Lost, John Milton wrote of an eclipse:

"The Sun in dim eclipse disastrous twilight sheds
On half the nations, and with fear of change perplexes monarchs"

The Elizabethan culture was far more bible read than in modern times. And hence with the biblical references to the heavenly bodies the study of Astrology was not considered heretical in Protestant England.

"And there shall be SIGNS in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the Earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; Men's hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the Earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken.." (Luke 21:25-27)

"And God said, 'Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as SIGNS to mark seasons and days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the sky to give light on the Earth.' And it was so." (Gen. 1:14-15)

 "Can you bring forth the Mazzaroth (the zodiac) in their seasons or lead out the Bear with its cubs? [an astrological constellation]" (Job 38:32)

copyrighted 2009 Nick Hodgson of www.astrogems.com



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Nick Hodgson
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