Shakespeare and the Scientific Imagination

What fun it is to roll up the sleeves, make for the Forest of Arden, and join the dance this weekend in celebration of the life of England’s greatest writer, and the greatest writer of English.  All are welcome, and the marvellous universality and plasticity of Shakespeare’s thought and language mean that story, politics, dance, war, love, music – all life, all perspectives play out and discover themselves in the living plays and poems of the Bard.

So what about science? The Guardian’s weekly podcast has invited scholars to unpack the psychology of hallucinations in Macbeth, the meteorology of tempests in – well – of course, The Tempest and the rhetoric of crowd control in Julius Caesar.  But what of science itself?  Does the deepest drawer from the well of English language pour out for us any metaphor, any narrative that might help us grasp what this extraordinary empowering is – that we are able, with our eyes and minds, to comprehend nature inwardly as well as outwardly?

 

Sir_Joseph_Noel_Paton_-_The_Quarrel_of_Oberon_and_Titania_-_Google_Art_Project_2

Sir Joseph Noel Paton’s The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania; Scottish National Gallery

 

Of course he does; but we need to read carefully – not all writing about ‘science’, perhaps even the majority of it, owns the name.  For ‘science’ is a new term for a long human story that is far better referred to by its older name ‘natural philosophy’ – ‘the love of wisdom to do with nature’.  The long case for this long story is what Faith and Wisdom in Science is all about.  It tells a tale of purpose too, of a broken relationship with nature, characterised by ignorance and harm gradually, by a labour of love, receiving healing through knowledge and wisdom.  A ‘sheer inhuman otherness’ of nature, identified in the 20th century by thinkers like Steiner and Arendt is gently rendered ‘commensurable’, one might say ‘imaginable’.  Steiner writes that this is the role of art, but it answers perfectly the question of what science is for.

So let us hear Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream expand on the poet’s work, in his ostensible brush-off of lunatic, lover and poet in one apparently dismissive wave of the hand (Act V Scene I):

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

Shakespeare’s ‘poet’ gazes over the entire universe, and in the pattern of the natural science texts from antiquity and the early medieval centuries from the genre De Rerum Natura (Lucretius, Pliny, Isidore of Seville, Bede) starts with the heavens and encompasses all as it falls earthward.  The universe is full of ‘the forms of things unknown’, but the poet give them form – a form that allows their image to dwell with humans.  It is a sort of incarnation – the heavenly and unknown ‘dwells among us’ in its local habitation.  Above all, the nameless is given a name, so that we can know it, refer to it, describe its relations, powers and inner nature.  For Shakespeare, the poet’s task is identical to that of science.

Perhaps that is why Wordsworth (in his preface to Lyrical Ballards) juxtaposed the poet and the scientist, declaring both to be seekers of truth, and predicting that the poet would inspire and light up the new findings of the scientist in ways that would stir the human soul.  Here he is in transcendent mood on the statue of Newton:

… with his prism and silent face

The marble index of a mind for ever

Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.

‘Giving to airy nothing a local habitation and a name’ is a wonderfully rich description of what science does, why it is so deeply human, and why it can stir in us an aesthetic as rich as poetry or music.  Vitally, it also draws on the same aesthetic to power its difficult search for words, names, forms that represent, that re-create, the universe around us.  The Dirac field of electrons is a local (mathematical) habitation in our minds in which electrons can receive a name.  The LIGO experiment and its interpretation in terms of the gravitational waves emitted from merging black holes is our imagination bodying forth, and returning with a form of the wildest ‘thing unknown’ we have yet imagined.

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