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ENGL 3000 Shakespeare for Non-Majors, an Introduction to Shakespearean Works Held by Special Collections, Rare and Distinctive Collections: Science in the Time of Shakespeare

This guide highlights works Shakespearean and related early modern works held by Special Collections, Rare and Distinctive Collections.

The Nuremberg Chronicle

Shakespeare's life coincided with an acceleration of scientific discoveries, part of the so-called 'Scientific Revolution.'  Alongside a strengthening of scientific processes, one of the keys to understanding the 'Scientific Revolution" is the application of new technologies to scientific practice. The 1600s in Europe witnessed the first serious scientific usage of the telescope and the microscope, expanding understandings of both the very large and the very small. 

Some of these, including William Gilbert's work on magnetism (below) and Gerhard Mercator's atlas, had ties to the Elizabethan court.  

William Gilbert, De Magnete (1600)

Special Collections, Rare & Distinctive Collections

William Gilbert (1544?-1603) was a scientist and physician in Elizabethan England.  Though Gilbert practiced as a physician—even becoming the court physician of Queen Elizabeth in 1601—he is best known for his ideas on the natural sciences.  This legacy is due to Gilbert’s De Magnete, his only work published during his lifetime.    As both physician and scientist, Gilbert strongly rejected the ideas of both Aristotle and Galen, preferring instead to focus on experience and  experimentation (ODNB).

De Magnete remained the most important work on magnetism for centuries after Gilbert’s death.  He was the first to discover that the Earth was itself a dipole magnet as well as the first to correctly explain why a nautical compass worked as it did.  Most importantly, Gilbert explained how magnetism was a property of all matter.  He noted that the Earth itself may have planetary rotation, drawing fire from the more mainstream thinkers of his day.  Yet Gilbert’s ideas supported Copernicus and were picked up by Kepler and Galileo (ODNB)  Interestingly, the Catholic Church condemned De Magnete in 1633 during the trial of Galileo due to these revolutionary ideas. 

This is a first-edition copy of De Magnete, published in 1600.  This work, written in Latin, includes many well-placed diagrams of magnets and instruments.  The diagram on the right-hand page shows an instrument used to measure the magnetic declination of the earth.

Galileo, Dialogo dei massimi sistemi (1641)

D.K. Bailey Collection

Special Collections, Rare & Distinctive Collections

Galileo, Opere di Galileo Galilei (1656)

D.K. Bailey Collection

Special Collections, Rare & Distinctive Collections

Galileo was appointed chair of mathematics at Pisa in 1589, then taught at Padua beginning in 1591.  Over the course of his career, his writings focused on heliocentrism would prove increasingly controversial.  He was tried in 1633 by the Roman Inquisition and placed under house arrest, where he would spend the remainder of his life.

Galileo's roots in the Italian Renaissance ran deep. He studied disegno - referring to design and the fine arts - teaching at the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, Florence, in 1588.  His understanding of perspective and chiaroscuro would inform his astronomical observations and his understanding of the heliocentric solar system.

Gerhard Mercator, Gerardi Mercatoris atlas sive cosmographicae meditationes de fabrica mundi et fabricati figura (1630)

Special Collections, Rare and Distinctive Collections, CU Boulder Libraries

Elizabethan mathematician and astrologer John Dee communicated with cartographer Gerhard Mercator in his efforts to map the polar region.  In 1577, Mercator wrote to Dee of his interpretation of the North Pole, which he envisioned as a large magnetic rock surrounded by islands divided by four rivers:  

In the midst of the four countries is a Whirl-pool . . . into which there empty these four indrawing Seas which divide the North. And the water rushes round and descends into the earth just as if one were pouring it through a filter funnel. It is four degrees wide on every side of the Pole, that is to say eight degrees altogether. Except that right under the Pole there lies a bare rock in the midst of the Sea. Its circumference is almost 33 French miles, and it is all of magnetic stone. . . . This is word for word everything that I copied out of this author years ago. [E. G. R. Taylor, "A Letter Dated 1577 from Mercator to John Dee," in Imago Mundi 13 (1956), p. 60.]

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