Panel 10- Shakespeare and Natural History at the 450 Shakespeare Anniversary Conference in Paris

April 21-27, 2014, Paris, FRANCE

As a part of the Shakespeare 450 conference in Paris from April 21 to 27, 2014, this panel seeks to extend our understanding of how Shakespeare’s time was teeming with the new practice that would come to be known as natural history. Today, 450 years after Shakespeare’s birth, we are the beneficiaries of more than just the poetry of the era. Shakespeare’s recognition of and interaction with the community of natural historians demonstrates the importance he and others of his time placed on this new field. At the same time we honor the legacy of his literary engagement, so too can we consider the impact that his generation had on the imminent scientific revolution and the interaction among science, literature and society that would follow.

This fomenting discipline of natural history was part of the environment into which Shakespeare was born and began his work. Some of the authorities consulted by Shakespeare are natural histories, like the catalogs of plant and animal life that became popular in his century. Some plays, like The Tempest, draw heavily upon the discourse about monsters in his lifetime; others are more subtly flavored with botanical knowledge. Astrology – a practice that led individuals to observe the heavens and became more mathematical in Shakespeare’s day – figures in the texts, and the communities of correspondents and travelers in which natural historians played a part are in evidence as well. A special double issue of South Central Review attempted to rectify the “relative neglect” of the works of Shakespeare in the history of science, even at the same time it noticed a long tradition of considering this intersection of themes. What is more, as suggested by Carla Mazzio, today more than in the Renaissance, the arts and science are even more “interanimated” (11). This panel will be an opportunity to build on this study of the characters, settings, and allusions in Shakespeare’s work to help us understand the echoes, controversies, and premonitions of the natural historian in his work.

As documented by Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park, a resulting change in discourse is seen in the classification of strange beings around the time of Shakespeare’s birth. Elizabeth Spiller has extended this phenomenon to her analysis of The Tempest, explaining the connection to the unique characters in the play. Before the modern period, curious beings were appreciated as rare events. Wonders in the medieval period were collected but not organized; they were, as Daston and Park characterize them, not museums but thesaurus. By the early sixteenth century, groups of naturalists engaged in a collective enterprise to distinguish the inhabitants of the natural world, which had recently become larger with the discovery of varieties of plants and animals in the new world. Thus, as described by Brian Ogilvie, an international community arose to ponder the legends, reports, and evidence of nature. The information that arose from a network of sailors, farmers, and merchants provided information to scholars, who then compared the reports with information from the ancients and published their own analyses. Starting shortly before Shakespeare’s birth in 1564, as described by Ogilvie, an international community arose to ponder the legends, reports, and evidence of the natural world as exact, historical facts.

This traffic in information about the natural world had a profound effect on the conduct of science. Ogilvie reports that by the 1540s a community of natural historians shared information by travel and correspondence. This community called for what Ogilvie calls a “long process of self-discipline” (140). The community, in conjunction with the proliferation of textual information, required a new habit from the natural historian in order to generate information that was acceptable to his or her peers. A natural historian would observe nature, certainly, but then compare this information from ancient sources as well as what his or her colleagues had observed. In order to more accurately observe and remember, they created garden technologies, collections of dried plants, and printed textbooks in order to augment what they saw with new information. By 1590, as noticed by Ogilvie, the descriptive techniques used by the naturalists in Shakespeare’s time depended upon “a system of differences” – having a goal of helping other naturalists find continuity in the natural world and distinguish types from each other, rather than recreating a plant or animal as unique objects for contemplation. In the plays, certainly, we see characters who display this ethic, which should contribute to our understanding of their character.


Posted: September 17, 2013