Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Hamlet's Universe - 2 - Allegory

Hamlet’s Universe   Part 2 of 9

Shakespeare, Bacon and the knowledge and use of Allegory

Prof. Usher, in his Preface to his second book “Shakespeare and the Dawn of Modern Science”, says that “The bard was knowledgeable in many different areas of learning and was oftentimes ahead of his contemporaries, yet his Canon appears to lack a coherent account of contemporary cosmological thinking. It is simply not credible that a poet of this stature could remain ignorant of the cultural impact that the New Astronomy was having during his lifetimeor that he would refrain from using the literary devices at his command to address the topic if he was not ignorant of its significance.”

In Hamlet’s Universe he shows how other leading poets of the time did write about the New Astronomy: John Donne, Fulke Greville, George Chapman, Christopher Marlow, Thomas Nashe, and John  Davies. However they make only passing references to it and show no deep knowledge of it or interest. Edmund Spencer goes further and describes the basic geocentric model in his An Hymne of Heavenly Beauty (1595-6), and Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, “devotes considerable commentary to the various world models of the time…”

Usher argues that Shakespeare used the technique of allegory to conceal his astronomical knowledge as a way to report and reveal discoveries that could not be openly written about. He writes “Critics deem a work allegorical when they sense that an author has a meaning in mind that is broader than the work appears to have. … This technique of expressing something in such a way as to convey nonliteral meaning is especially useful when it comes to dealing with sensitive issues like new worldviews, false cosmologies, and the overthrow of corrupt regimes.” He provides examples in the publications by Copernicus, Galileo and Thomas Digges as intentional efforts to circumvent government and religious censors of heretical views. He adds that “Understanding allegory with an astronomical component requires attention to science and a variety of other disciplines, among which are interpretation theory, history, and philosophy of science, as well as literature itself.”

Is there any precedent for a belief that Shakespeare sometimes used allegory in his other works? A quick search turned up this sample out of a large number of other Google hits:

Article title:
To Balk Logic and Practice Rhetoric: Allegories of Rhetoric and Dialectic in Shakespeare’s Plays

Sentence within article:
“Many scholars also view All’s Well as Shakespeare’s allegory for Christianity:”

Theater advertisement:
A Noise Within presents "Pericles," Shakespeare's allegory of regeneration and resurrection.

Sentence within article:
“…it’s (a film version of Macbeth) a haunting and claustrophobic film that offers a very 20th century take on Shakespeare’s allegory of war and the quest for power.”

Article title:
Shakespeare’s AllegoryThe Winter’s Tale, by J. A. Bryant, Jr. in The Sweanee Review

Chapter title: Cymbeline in The Meaning of Shakespeare Vol. II by Harold C. Goddard  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Clarke_Goddard
“This play is as much a moral as a political allegory.” (discussed at end of chapter).

Sentence within article:
Shakespeare’s allegory of empire Cymbeline (1610) where ‘Britain’, the designation for a long wished for but never achieved nation state, occurs no fewer than thirty-four times.” English Renaissance Literature and Culture, Introduction, p. 6.

Allegorical Impulses and Critical Ends: Shakespeare's and Spenser's Venus and Adonis
Journal article by Sayre N. Greenfield; Criticism, Vol. 36, 1994   “The interpretive histories of the two works considered here, Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis and Book Three of Spenser's The Faerie Queenedemonstrate how these poems, especially Shakespeare's, move in and out of "allegory."   http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2220/is_n4_v36/ai_15990315/


So, it should be agreed that Shakespeare likely used the technique of Allegory in his repertoire of literary devices. Then it is quite possible, if he had a knowledge of the astronomy of his time, that he also created a “cosmic allegory” in Hamlet.

If he did use allegories, not only in Hamlet, but in other of the Shakespeare plays, as many think he did, then one of the Shakespeare authorship candidates that is most capable for authoring these allegories would have to be Francis Bacon.

As evidence in support of this view there’s the analysis of fables or allegories that Bacon had authored Wisdom of the Ancients, and a few related comments or links to articles:

1.     A Handbook of Greek Mythology by H. J. Rose, Professor of Greek at St. Andrews, “begins with an admirable summary of the history of mythological study: the allegorical theory (as in Bacon’s Wisdom of the Ancients)…”

2.        “Francis Bacon, Allegory and the Uses of Myth", Review of English Studies 61 (2010), 360-89   http://res.oxfordjournals.org/content/61/250/360.full

3.     “Janus of Imagination: Francis Bacon’s Theory of Imagination and the Wisdom of the Ancients, by D. P. Hurley    http://www.english-renaissance.com/2010/08/janus-of-imagination-francis-bacons-theory-of-imagination-and-the-wisdom-of-the-ancients-by-d-p-hurley/    The writing of [Bacon’s] De Sapientia signified the resolution of an internal struggle concerning the status of ancient fable. I suggest that Bacon had come to accept the view that fables did indeed contain ancient wisdom, but that much of that wisdom remained closed to subsequent readers. He believed also that fables had a double function – to illuminate no less than to conceal – and he had decided that it was acceptable for him to employ those fables in order to convey his philosophy to a wider audience.”


  1. You realise that thinking that Shakespeare and Bacon are they same person because they both use allegory is a essentially like saying they are the same person because they both had legs. Allegory - especially in the vague sense in which it is so often used by us academics - is essentially omnipresent in literature.

    Also, in what insane version of Elizabethan and Jacobean England could one not write about astronomical discoveries?

    You should know, I'm ashamed of myself for engaging you in an argument here. I know it's pointless. Oh well.

  2. 1. I never said that because Shakespeare and Bacon both used allegory that therefore they are the same person. Strawmen arguments are not honest to begin with.
    2. Thomas Diggs wasn't straigtforward in his astronomical publcations. He alluded to his most controversial ideas. You should be ashamed of not being familiar with what you're arguing.