2nd March 1717. The Answer Lies in the Stars.
From the time of the Renaissance the arts and literature became obsessed with reference to the Classical World and its mythology, so its not surprising that the first ballet to be performed in England in 1717, at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, should see a production of ‘Loves of Mars and Venus’ by John Webster.
Ovid in Metamorphoses writes how Vulcan was cuckolded by Mars in his affair with Venus.
Mythology was a central theme in much of Shakespeare, born 20 years after Copernicus, who laid out a case for a sun-centred Solar System, and had much to say on astrology and astronomy as understood then.
In Troilus and Cressida we read of the: ‘sun following other planets in circles round the earth and is the glorious planet Sol in noble eminence enthroned and sphered amidst the other’.
Then in Henry VI we have: ‘Mars his true moving in the heaven, So in the earth to this day is not not known’.
The earth-centred Solar System based on Ptolemaic doctrine had problems when predicting the path of planets and astronomers, for example, couldn’t figure out why Mars reversed in its path in the sky.
Shakespeare ostensibly adheres to this thinking which refers to a fixed earth as centre of the universe and he often used the word Centre as a synonym with Earth in his references to planets by ascribing each planet with peculiar qualities.
So Mercury is elusive and tricky; Venus is associated with love, as Mars is with war, whilst Saturn is evil, and with their irregular movements were supposed to influence human affairs and to account for vicissitudes of the human lot.
In ‘All That Ends well’: ‘The wars have so kept you under that you must needs to be born under Mars’.
Shakespeare was well versed in the astrological terminology, using words like Conjunctions and Opposition, referring to planets in Henry IV: ‘Saturn and Venus this year in conjunction what says the almanac to that’?
However then in the poem ‘Venus and Adonis’, we read that, ‘Sun is source of light by which planets shine and Venus salutes the sun with thou clear god and patron of light from whom each lamp doth shine and shining star doth borrow’.
Shakespeare shows that he had a familiar knowledge of the sun and moon motions, eclipses, planets, conjunctions, stars, meteors, comets, and then one must consider that his works go back to Classical Times, so they must reflect the thinking of ancient beliefs, ideas not necessarily his own.
Finally if there is any ambivalence about what Shakespeare understood vis a vis astronomy and astrology, in Julius Caesar we read: ‘The fault dear Brutus is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underling’. Which says it all.
Irish Astronomy Journal. v6. June 1964. Astronomy. W.G. Guthrie.
Mars and Venus in Shakespeare.