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Sunday, August 19, 2018

Shakespeare On Blood-Flow


Not long ago, a member of a popular Facebook group queried his fellows as to the extent of Shakespeare’s scientific knowledge.  It is an interesting question and well worth investigation.

For all of the obvious examples, such as Hamlet’s mention of the supernova that held the attention of all the world, in 1572, and the description of St. Elmo’s Fire in The Tempest, however, the answer lies much more quietly woven into the text of the poems and plays as a whole.

Scholars have already created a literature of The Bard’s empirical knowledge of nature.  George Brandes, begins his commentary on the subject, in his William Shakespeare A Critical Study, by recognizing that the knowledge in the works goes beyond mere country-boy knowledge:

Shakespeare's knowledge of nature is not simply such as can be acquired by any one who passes his childhood and youth in the open air and in the country. But even of this sort of knowledge he has an astonishing store.[1] 110

The tendency to discover Stratford-upon-Avon as a locus for the plants, animals, and such, in the plays, has been proven to be unfounded again and again, but the temptation to announce such “new discoveries” has proven irresistible.  The knowledge is real, the localization imaginary.

The great 19th century flood of Shakespeare scholarship could only notice so obvious a fact as that the plays contain vast amounts of knowledge some of which the playwright got from works in other languages than English.

Shakespeare seems, in certain instances, to be not only abreast of the natural science of his time, but in advance of it. People have had recourse to the Baconian theory in order to explain the surprising fact that although Harvey, who is commonly represented as the discoverer of the circulation of the blood, did not announce his discovery until 1619, and published his book upon it so late as 1628, yet Shakespeare, who, as we know, died in 1616, in many passages of his plays alludes to the blood as circulating through the body.

It was only one of the many facts that seemed to argue against the work being written by a marginally educated (if that) yokel from a small provincial town.



Before the supporters of Bacon as author of the plays began to devolve into endless, ever more insupportable ciphers, it was becoming ever more popular to assert that only a man of elite education could have brought such knowledge to the work.  Sir Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam, seemed the man to fit the bill.

But the ciphers were ever more necessary because Bacon’s biography just didn’t match up without them.  Yes, the plays powerfully suggest a highly educated author, of wide experience, but, upon closer inspection, they don’t suggest Bacon.

Still, Shakespeare’s ease with astronomy, blood-flow and a great deal else remains:


Thus, for example, in Julius Caesar (ii. i), Brutus says to Portia—

You are my true and honourable wife ;
As dear to me as are the ruddy drops
That visit my sad heart.

Again, in Coriolanus (i. i) Menenius makes the belly say of its food—

I send it through the rivers of your blood,
Even to the court, the heart, to the seat o' the brain ;
And, through the cranks and offices of man,
The strongest nerves, and small inferior veins,
From me receive that natural competency
Whereby they live

But apart from the fact that the highly gifted and unhappy Servetus, whom Calvin burned, had, between 1530 and 1540, made the discovery and lectured upon it, all men of culture in England knew very well before Harvey's time that the blood flowed, even that it circulated, and, more particularly, that it was driven from the heart to the different limbs and organs; only, it was  generally conceived that the blood passed from the heart through the veins, and not, as is actually the case, through the arteries. And there is nothing in the seventy-odd places in Shakespeare where the circulation of the blood is mentioned to show that he possessed this ultimate insight, although his general understanding of these questions bears witness to his high culture.[2]

This seems a valid assessment.




[1] Brandes, George. William Shakespeare A Critical Study (1898), I. 110.
[2] Brandes, I. 112.

  • Stratford Shakespeare’s Undersized Grave.  July 22, 2018.  “Mr. Coll’s considers this evidence to support an old rumor that Shakspere’s head had been stolen in 1794.  But I submit that he is merely making his observation based upon a coincidence.”
  • Enter John Lyly.  October 18, 2016.  "From time to time, Shakespeare Authorship aficionados query after the name “John Lyly”.  This happens surprisingly little given the outsized role the place-seeker, novelist and playwright played in the lives of the playwright William Shakespeare and Edward de Vere."





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