Welcome to Episode #58 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

With all of the major advances that have taken place since the The Scientific Revolution, it can be easy to forget how impactful and, indeed, revolutionary the time period was for playwrights like William Shakespeare. The bard was being influenced by high level mathematics, and a very Renaissance minded way of thinking that spills off the page into his productions. Here to help us explore some of the places in Shakespeare’s plays where we can see the bard’s education in germ theory, atomism, and even algebra, is our very special guest, Dr. Natalie Elliot.

She joins us today from her sabbatical in beautiful Montana where she is working on her latest book, and she’s here now to be our exclusive tour guide into some of the research she recently completed for her work, Shakespeare’s Theater of the Universe, where she examines the intersection of math, science, literature, art, and theater that makes William Shakespeare a true Renaissance man.

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The Short History of Science in the 16th Century.

Natalie Elliot is a writer and college professor at St. John’s College, where she teaches cross-disciplinary courses in classics, history of science, mathematics, literature, philosophy, and music. She writes about the many ways that scientific theories, experiments, and technologies shape what it means to be human. Her writing has been published in The New Atlantis, Parallax, The Review of Politics, and Interpretation. From 2018-2020, she’ll be a candidate in the MFA program for fiction at the University of Montana.  In addition to her appointment at St. John’s, Elliot has held research and teaching positions at The Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions, Indiana University’s Hutton Honors College, and Southern Methodist University. She lives in Missoula, Montana and New York.


In this episode, I’ll be asking Natalie about :

  • What about atomism? We think of John Dalton, in the 1800s, as being the Father of the Atomic model, so it is very surprising to consider Shakespeare might have known about atoms. Where would he have learned about atoms and what evidence is in his plays to demonstrate he had studied this concept?


  • Where does algebra show up in Shakespeare’s plays?


  • Was Shakespeare a scientist in addition to being a poet?

    …. and more!

She is the fairies' midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate stone
On the forefinger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomi
Over men’s noses as they lie asleep.

Romeo and Juliet, I.4

1540 painting of Democritus by Dosso Dossi


Democritus was a popular icon of Renaissance thought throughout the 15-1600s. Rembrandt, who was a child when Shakespeare died, would paint a self portrait of himself in 1628, stylized as Democritus, “the laughing philosopher” and calling it “Rembrandt Laughing.” Known for seeing art as something one could master quantifiably, being able to be good at it through discipline, Democritus was an inspiration to many artists, including Shakespeare. His philosophies, like Aristotle saw the world as capable of being described through both art and science. Thus, his theories spanned across several disciplines to encompass subjects like atoms, space, motion, and how those attributes interacted with human behavior. He searched for truth in the world through observation and study. Democritus had a reputation for being the laughing poet, often amused at the ridiculousness of people. While I cannot prove it, it seems to me lines of Shakespeare like what Puck speaks in Act III Scene 2 of A Midsummer Night's Dream, where he declares  “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” could very well have been inspired by studying Democritus. 


Crying Heraclitus and laughing Democritus by Donato Bramante c. 1477

Model of the Atom & The Search for Truth

Democritus thought that all things were composed of atoms. He wrote that there was empty space in between atoms, that they always had to be moving, they were indestructible, and there were an infinite number of them, almost like snowflakes. 

As Democritus and other philosophers contemplated what atoms might look like, they reasoned that the shape of the atoms would vary based on the atom's purpose. For example, metal atoms must be hard and solid, while water atoms would be smooth, slippery, and lighter. Air atoms would fly about in the sky, and the atoms making up prickly things, such as salt, might be pointy ot have sharp edges.

He used analogies from our basic senses as human beings to paint a picture of the atom and how they might be distinct from one another. You can see where such theories would be attractive to an artist. 

One of the main theories of their thoughts on the atom contended that there much be a void in which the atoms were moving, if they are indeed in constant motion. This scientific idea on atomic motion would be refined by Issac Newton in his theory of absolute space, and then refined again by Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity, which would propose a specific space-time manifold. 

All of these thoughts on atomic motion, how that relates to the way every day items like water and salt will behave, and asking philosophical questions about it like “How much of these things can we control or manipulate, and what would happen if we acting on them intentionally?” Were the questions Democritus proposed, and then tried to answer in a chase for truth. He concluded, ultimately, that truth was difficult to know. He felt that understanding truth was like looking through a stained glass window, where your perspective of the truth was based on your eyesight and not necessarily what was actually on the other side of that window. Similarly, since each person has an individual vision, and responds to their own senses individually, it becomes impossible to sort out whose perspective is objectively correct.  Democritus felt that truth could only be determined through intellect and data, because to rely on your senses and what was observable only was too subjective. 

Democritus concluded that there were two kinds of things you could know: Legitimate things and Bastard things. As you might guess at this point, legitimate knowledge what was you could place hard data upon, while bastard knowing was truth discovered through the senses alone. Basically, bastard knowledge was the idea that appearances can be decieving. So, for example, can you trust an eye-witness to a crime? 

When you study Democritus' works, some of the themes in plays like Othello, where truth for Othello himself is entirely based on subjective information, resulting in a tragic and complicated response, seems to be an example of applying Democritus' bastard knowledge theory and exploring what would happen if someone relied solely on their senses for the truth.


To hold opinion with Pythagoras
That souls of animals infuse themselves 
Into the trunks of men…


Merchant of Venice, IV.1

Do Not Eat Beans, [fol. 25 recto], pen and brown ink with watercolor on laid paper, overall: 16.3 x 10.7 cm (6 7/16 x 4 3/16 in.), Woodner Collection, Gift of Andrea Woodner, 2006.11.45, National Gallery of Art
This must be the 16th century equivalent of a meme.

Pythagoras and Portia

Portia is immersed in new venetian mathematics, including a specific reference to Pythagoras. Pythagoras is mentioned by name in Shakespeare's As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and Merchant of Venice. 

Portia describes herself as an equation to be solved and speaks of herself as a complexity of things. Uses math language. Antonio’s friends are trying to solve why he’s sad, like an equation. Emotions are often expressed as quantifiable units of measurement throughout the plays of Shakespeare. 

Science Labs for History

Digital history activity kits based on games, recipes, and crafts from Shakespeare's plays. Each one is full of tutorials, supply lists, and step by step instructions so you can cook, play, and create your way through the life of William Shakespeare.

Learn Shakespeare history the fun way--with hands on activities you can do at home or in your classroom. 

In poison there is physic; and these news,  
Having been well, that would have made me sick,  
Being sick, have in some measure made me well 

Henry IV Part II

Northumberland , I.1

Face of a man affected with tertiary syphilis. Credit: St Bartholomew's Hospital Archives & MuseumCC BY 4.0

Venereal Disease and Romeo + Juliet

Most of us remember the play, Romeo and Juliet as an example of romance, tragedy, or beauty. Perhaps all three, and then some. What we do not generally bring up in English class, however, is the role of venereal disease in the tale of our favorite star crossed lovers, and certainly not what the discussion of those diseases can tell us about the history of William Shakespeare. 

However, there are several places in Shakespeare's play, Romeo and Juliet where we can see Shakespeare's relationship to , and knowledge about,  infectious diseases, as well as the bard's application of the cultural reputation of those diseases to the plot and structure of his play. 

As Michael J. Cummings points out

The use of the word ‘searcher’ in this sense appeared in 1592 in Romeo and Juliet. Friar John, suspected of being in an infected house, was shut in by the ‘searchers,’ and was thus prevented from carrying the all-important message from Friar Lawrence to Romeo. No messenger could be found to return the letter to Friar Lawrence, so afraid were the citizens of Verona of the infection.

And the confusion and missed information leads to the play's ultimate tragic end. As Natalie points out, there are several instances of venereal disease in the play which can demonstrate the early modern understanding of germs, disease, bacteria, and how to control infectious outbreaks of plague, pox, and other sicknesses. 



…for maids, well 
summered and warm kept, are like flies at 
Bartholomew-tide, blind, though they have their 
eyes; and then they will endure handling, which 
before would not abide looking on.

Duke of Burgundy

Henry V, V.2

A woman with some flowers; representing the sense of smell. Engraving, 16–. Source

Germ Theory 

Germ theory is a modern understanding of microorganisms and the bacterial spread of disease, but for people like William Shakespeare, the concept of how disease and sickness were spread and explaining how some sicknesses seemed to be given person to person while others did not, was all very much still being explored. 

Up until Shakespeare's lifetime, the reigning theory about how disease was spread was through “Seeds” which were transmitted through the air. As theories developed, the most authoritative textbook on medicine through the 16th century stated that sicknesses could be spread through breath, as well as water and dirt. 

When the Black Death bubonic plague reached Al-Andalus in the 14th century, the Arab physicians Ibn Khatima (c. 1369) and Ibn al-Khatib (1313–1374) proposed that infectious diseases were caused by “minute bodies” which could be transmitted through garments, containers, and earrings. (source) It would be well after William Shakespeare's time when scientists like Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch would firm up these investigations into our current understanding of microorganisms and the spread of disease through germs and bacteria, but we can tell from looking at the science of Shakespeare's day that there was a rudimentary understanding of the fact that sicknesses were spread and there was an association between objects, people, the air, and spreading of illness. 

One way they thought disease was spread was through the sense of smell. Since they knew disease was spread through the air, they felt you ought to be able to smell the disease. You can likely relate to this assertion even today because if you go into a hospital, there is an association between sickness and the smell of an autoclave machine. Or perhaps you've noted that when something in your refrigerator “goes bad” there is a horrible odor to rotting materials. For the Elizabethans, the associated smell with things that rotted, or when something was “off”,  meant that sickness must have an odor as well. You see themes of smell and relation to sickness show up in Shakespeare's King Lear



Natalie's Article at The New Atlantis which offers details on Shakespeare and atomism, germ theory, and Copernican astronomy:


Mary Crane’s book that explores early modern physics and atomism in Shakespeare:


 Shankar Raman’s research (which appears in this collection) that makes the case for Shakespeare’s engagement with algebra:


A.D. Nuttall’s Shakespeare the Thinker, which paints a portrait of the Bard as philosophical poet:



Shakespeare's Place in History

A timeline showing Shakespeare's life, when he wrote his plays, and what was going on in England.

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If you like learning about science in Shakespeare's England, you can explore this topic further inside the interview with author of The Science of
, Dan Falk. Dan stops by the studio to help us unpack some of the realities about scientific thought in the 16th century, and what an understanding of that culture can help us learn about William Shakespeare.
Listen to Episode 29 of That Shakespeare Life here.

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