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Shakespeare and Astrology

Shakespeare, Astrology, and Alchemy: A Critical and Historical Perspective

As we move into the 21st Century, the plays of William Shakespeare continue to undergo rediscovery and transformation. In the past, much has been written about universal themes in Shakespeare’s plays, but what has received far less attention is the universal language of astrology–and its Renaissance complement, alchemy–that Shakespeare used to support his themes. Astrology and alchemy have rarely been used as springboards into literature, although both are symbolic languages and would thus seem naturally suited for unlocking the deeper meanings in Shakespeare’s plays. This is not to say that no one has tried to link literature with either of these two ancient sciences. Several writers, some of whom will be cited in this article, have successfully related one or the other to images from literature. However, if astrology works well in so many other areas, why not apply it to a close study of Shakespeare? Alchemy, at one time linked closely with the planets, also provides a wonderful language for deconstructing literature. Romeo and Juliet provides for a particularly rich inquiry because it is one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays; the author seems to have drawn heavily from both astrology and alchemy. As seen through our 21st Century glasses, we can apply multiple levels of astrology and alchemy–historical, psychological, and spiritual–to Shakespeare’s plays.

Shakespeare was adept at creating cosmic imagery in his writing, and the symbolic associations of astrology and alchemy with his plays’ contents helped to broaden some of his themes. Indeed, Shakespeare used astrology in profound ways that go well beyond oft-quoted references to “the stars.” John Addey has written that “Shakespeare constantly makes use of his astrological allusions…” as a way of showing that human behavior should mirror the ideal order and harmony of the universe.1 Martin Lings maintains that Shakespeare was familiar with many of the esoteric and occult doctrines that also fascinated contemporaneous writers (Philip Sydney and John Donne, to name but two).2

Romeo and Juliet

In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, written around 1596 and set in Verona, Italy, Juliet is about to turn fourteen–approaching her first Saturn opposition (imagine a ninth-grade girl today). She was born, says the Nurse in the play, on Lammas Eve, July 31, and was therefore a Leo. We don’t know Romeo’s age, but as we shall see, Romeo may be associated with a star that was considered at the time to be a “second Sun,” the fixed star Sirius, also known as the Prince. The metal associated with Leo, the Sun, and royalty is gold. At the end of the play, the fathers of the entombed Romeo and Juliet vow to build memorial statues of the symbolic metal, gold.

Lammas and Lughnasa

Lammas, celebrated on August 1, was a Christian adaptation of a Celtic pagan festival called Lughnasa. The god Lugh (whose named means “shining one”) was an Irish Sun deity. Astrologically, Lammas/Lughnasa was the midpoint between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox and was therefore vested with powerful symbolism. Astrologer Palden Jenkins writes that, at the time of this zodiacal power point,

Nature ripens, the young grow bigger, and each explores the maximum possibilities inherent in his or her reach. Green moves to gold, and summer matures. But we individuals collide and interfere with each other in our apparent freedome, and underneath all this, at Lammas, lies a hidden concern that perhaps it has all gone too far–yet, also, we must exhaust our need for individuality before we can do anything else.

The Christian Lammas means literally “loaf mass,” a feast day meant to consecrate the grain harvest baked into bread. Shakespeare lets us know that the action of the play develops approximately two weeks before Lammas. Therefore, Juliet–who, along with Romeo, is an only child–dies just shy of her fourteenth birthday, during her Saturn opposition. Beside Romeo and Juliet, several other young people are killed during the play: Romeo’s friend Mercutio (Mercury); Juliet’s suitor Paris; and Juliet’s cousin Tybalt (referred to in the play as a “Prince of cats”; Tybalt is related to our modern word “tabby”–thus reinforcing the Leo symbolism of the Capulet household). All are “harvested” in the midst of their youthful passions; at the end of the play, the older generation is left to sort through their grief and construct memorials. How often have we seen similar scenes, of youth extinguished as it flames the brightest, played out on the stages of our own local, national, and world communities!

Golden Statues

The golden statues of the slain lovers represent the final alchemical process in the play. According to Martin Lings, writing in The Sacred Art of Shakespeare, there is a likelihood that “…the symbolism of Romeo and Juliet…is alchemical, the more so in that the two lovers are as it were transmuted into gold after their deaths…”4 Shakespeare’s plays, however, were never one-dimensional. They were filled with paradox and irony: Romeo and Juliet is, after all, a tragedy, and golden statues will not bring the dead back to life; they are actually rather meaningless gestures from two such wealthy families as the Capulets and the Montagues.

Two Houses of the Zodiac

The earliest known edition of Romeo and Juliet is called the First Quarto; it was published in 1597 and has generally been recognized as a corrupted form of the actual play, perhaps assembled from actors who performed the roles–although scholars now consider it possible that the “bad” First Quarto was actually Shakespeare’s first written draft of the play. The title page of the First Quarto states that Romeo and Juliet is a “conceited tragedy”, in which “conceit” means an elaborate metaphor. It is entirely possible that this elaborate metaphor was partly astrological and that Shakespeare introduced his “conceit” in the very first line of the Prologue: “Two households, both alike in dignity…” (Prologue, line 1). The commonly held meaning of this line is “Two families, equally ealthy and powerful…” However, we can just as easily ascribe astrological meaning to the line, as in “Two houses of the zodiac, both containing planets in their dignity…” If Juliet is the Sun, she would indeed be dignified in the house of Leo. However, the “second Sun,” Sirius, which we shall soon see is identified with Romeo, has strong associations with the lunar 4th house.

Mercutio and Hermetic Philosophy

One of the pivotal characters in Romeo and Juliet is Romeo’s friend Mercutio. Mercutio’s death in Act III leads to Romeo’s climactic slaying of Tybalt (Juliet’s cousin and–since by then Romeo is already secretly married to Juliet–perforce Romeo’s in-law). Mercury assumed great importance in the Renaissance, primarily through a text entitled Hermes Trismegistus (“Mercury Thrice-great”). Hermes was the Greek name for Mercury or Mercurius. Francis Yates asserts that Renaissance readers of this text believed Hermes Trismegistus to be the divinely inspired words of an ancient Egyuptian prophet, deified as the god Thoth, rather than what it was: a compilation of reworked Greek philosophy. This misunderstanding gave rise to the hugely influenctial Renaissance Hermetic philosophy, based on the writings in Hermes Trismegistus. The Hermetic texts presented astrology to the Western world as part of a broader philosophy, thus making it much easier for the common man and woman to accept. Some of this text had to do with astrology, astral magic, and “the secret virtues of plants and stones.”6 Shakespeare was undoubtedly familiar with Hermetic philosophy. For example, Friar Laurence, an important character in Romeo and Juliet, seems to reflect Hermetic philosophy when he remarks that there is “powerful grace that lies/ In herbs, plants, stones, and their true qualities” (Act 2, Scene 3, lines 15-16).

Mercutio and Alchemy

Mercury, besides being a god and a planet, is also a metal and the primary ingredient in the alchemical preparation. The character Mercutio embodies all the qualities of alchemical Mercury, transmuting the base lead of language into pure gold. Mercury’s “death,” like Mercutio’s, is a fundamental part of the alchemical transmutation. Liz Greene adds that alchemical Mercury represents not only the “gold which is our true essence,” but also “the base, smelly, devilish, and conflict-ridden animal in us all.”7 The character Mercutio personifies this dual nature: As well as scaling the lofty heights of quicksilver language, he also descends into the sordid depths of verbal bawdiness.

In alchemy, Mercury has both male and female aspects: Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet is androgynous–there are even suggestions in the play that he is gay (the word “hermaphrodite,” meaning both sexes in one body, is a fusion of Hermes and Aphrodite). In Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film, William Sheakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio is actually portrayed as a cross-dresser.

Sirius and Canis Major

Feminist scholar Philippa Berry suggests that understanding the importance of Sirius in Shakespeare’s time is a key to the deeper astrological meaning of the play. During the Renaissance, the heliacal rising of Sirius (heliacal means the first visible rising of a star after it has been invisible due to conjunction with the Sun) was coincident with the summer months, or “dog days” of the play. Sirius is in the “dog constellation,” Canis Major. Sirius was referred to as a “double (or second) Sun” because of its brightness and its association with hot summer days (it has since been discovered to be a binary star). The placement of the star Sirius in the mouth of the dog constellation created for classical astrologers an image “…like a fiery torch [or] a fiery devouring mouth…As the heat of the sun was doubled…[it] was the final conflagration…”8 This image recurs in Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo holds up a torch in order to light what he calls the “maw” (5.3.45: the mouth of a devouring beast)–a striking metaphor for the entrance to a tomb “gorged with the dearest morsel [Juliet]” (5.3.46). When Romeo unseals the tomb, he is taken aback by the “feasting presence full of light” (5.3.86). Near the end of the play, the Prince refers to the same entrance as “the mouth of outrage” (5.3.224). These passages, along with the time setting (the “dog days”) of the play, would appear to suggest that Shakespeare indeed used the fiery and devouring imagery associated with the dog star Sirius. This imagery not only heightened the play’s tragic outcome, but also invested Romeo (referred to in the play as “the dog’s name” and “a dog of the house of Montague”) with astrological and alchemical significance.

The greater coniunctio

In alchemy, the greater coniunctio occurs when two opposites have been subjected to repeated purifications and undergo a final, transcendent union, often personified in alchemy as a marriage. Romeo and Juliet are, of course, from “opposing” houses and undergo three unions in the play: first, a sacramental (though secret) marriage in church; second, a physical union; and third, a mystical marriage in death.

Strict adherence to the symbolic formulae of alchemy would indicate that Juliet is the Moon and Romeo the Sun: True opposites could then unite in an alchemical marriage. Although convenient, this symbolism is not borne out by the actual text of the play. Romeo even says, in the famous balcony scene where Juliet is symbolically ascendant on her balcony, “Juliet is the sun” (2.2.3). Juliet’s entire character is solar. She is radiant, ardent, and inspiring. Martin Lings notes the seeming awkwardness of an alclhemcial union of two similar, rather than opposite, bodies. He sees both Romeo and Juliet as the Sun, explaining that the symbol of an alchemical marriage “cannot be limited to one level only.”9 That is, marriage is, by its very nature, “a symbol of all the complementary pairs that lie above it.”

The solutio

In alchemy, the solutio is a very Neptunian state in which, psychologically, “…one’s individual identity is eroded.”10 Liz Green equates the solutio with the womb, a primal liquid world in which one rests peacefully, blissfully, in the amniotic fluid. It seems part of Shakespeare’s design, therefore, that Romeo refers to the tomb where he and Juliet are both about to take their lives as a “womb.”

Heremetic Philosophy in Romeo and Juliet

Early Egyptians believed that the dead experienced a form of transformation: They were transformed and elevated into eternity by becoming stars. The Hermetic teachings imbued the Renaissance with a deep interest in ancient Egyptian religion, so it is entirely possible that Shakespeare used this ancient religious imagery in Romeo and Juliet. As Juliet waits alone in her bedroom for Romeo, she foreshadows a sublime cosmic transformation after her death: “Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die,/ Take him and cut him out in little stars,/ And he will make the face of heaven so fine/ That all the world will be in love with night” (3.2.23-26). These lines of Juliet are paralleled earlier by Romeo when he wonders what would happen if two stars were to trade places with Juliet’s eyes: “…her eye in heaven/ Would through the airy region stream so bright/ That birds would sing and think it were not night” (2.2.21-23). Perhaps Shakespeare wanted us to believe not only that the golden statues represent a transformation of the meaning of Romeo and Juliet’s deaths, but that the two lovers themselves foresaw ultimate meaning, identity, and sublime beauty in the stars upon “the face of heaven.”

Although Romeo and Juliet lends itself naturally to analysis using astrology and alchemy, this youthful tragedy is but one part of a whole Shakespearean canon with themes similar to those presented in this article. Many of the Bard’s plays resonate deeply with the ideal of a cosmic, universal pattern, reaching from the stars and planets down to the smallest human action. The tragic violation of cosmic order lies at the heart of Romeo and Juliet: “Two households, both alike in dignity” have strewn bloody, violent death over the streets of an Italian community. Shakespeare used the symbolism of alchemy and the language of the planets and stars to finally bring a “glooming peace” to a small town in a foreign land where golden statues glitter under a starry sky.

References and Notes

¹ John M. Addey, “Shakespeare’s Attitude to Astrology,” in An Astrological Anthology: Essays and Excerpts from the Journal of the Astrological Association, Volume I, 1959-1970, ed. Zach Matthews, The Astrological Association, 1995, p. 31.

² Martin Lings, The Sacred Art of Shakespeare: To Take Upon Us the Mystery of Things, Inner Traditions, 1998, p. 4.

³ Palden Jenkins, Living in Time and How Time Passes, The Glastonbury Archive, 2000. Released in full, with this citation located online at http://www.isleofavalon.co.uk/GlastonburyArchive/time/lit03.html

4. Lings, The Sacred Art of Shakespeare, p. 134.

5. From Mather Walker, “An Alchemical Viewpoint of Romeo and Juliet,” published online as part of a larger website called “Sir Francis Bacon’s New Advancement of Learning” and one of a series of online essays intended largely to show that Francis Bacon was the author of works attributed to Shakespeare, at http://www.sirbacon.org/mrandJ2.htm. Mather Walker makes several interesting points, including this one about the title page of the First Quarto.

6. Francis A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, The University of Chicago Press, 1964, p. 2.

7. Liz Greene and Howard Sasportas, Dynamics of the Unconscious: Seminars in Psychological Astrology, Volume 2, Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1988, p. 260.

8. Philippa Berry, “Between Idolatry and Astrology: Modes of Temporal Repetition in Romeo and Juliet,” in A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare, ed. Dympna Callaghan, Blackwell Publishers, 2000, p. 365.

9. Lings, The Sacred Art of Shakespeare, p. 135.

10. Greene and Sasportas, Dynamics of the Unconscious, p. 289.

By Philip Brown  (originally published in The Mountain Astrologer, Feb./Mar. 2004)

Last updated on November 17, 2016 at 11:55 pm. Word Count: 2573