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  • Causes in Nature:Popular Astrology in King Lear
  • Phebe Jensen (bio)

These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us… … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … . … .



This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behavior, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars, as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves, and treacherers by spherical predominance, drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence, and all that we are evil in by a divine thrusting-on. An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition on the charge of a star!

King Lear, 1.2.94–95, 108–171

Scholars have often sided with Edmond in this mini-debate about astrology in the second scene of King Lear, usually by identifying Gloucester's belief in astrology with superstition, and Edmond's skepticism with emerging scientific rationalism.2 This association of astrology with magic [End Page 205] and medieval superstition and the related claim that the play (and sometimes its author) repudiates the art replicate—perhaps unwittingly—a position most influentially articulated for Renaissance studies by Jacob Burckhardt, for whom astrology was "ancient superstition," a fatalist "delusion" from which the "clear Italian spirit" of quattrocento thinkers sought to free humankind.3

But in fact astrology was a science of its time, and Edmond's position mis-represents the central tenets of the art as it was practiced, theorized, and debated in early seventeenth-century England.4 Those distortions could have [End Page 206] been obvious to the play's first spectators. Whether at the Globe, the court at Whitehall, or the theater at Blackfriars, many in the early audiences would have owned, and perhaps even had on their persons, the annual almanacs that encapsulated the popular astrological beliefs of the time: Ptolemaic astrology as it developed in the Latin West in the late Middle Ages and was reformed and reinvigorated in the sixteenth century.5 The compilers of these portable octavo pamphlets rejected astrological determinism, emphasizing in their prognostications that "The Starres do but inclyne," not compel.6 Early modern astrology was not deterministic in the way Edmond describes, nor was the claim that the stars operated by "necessity," "heavenly compulsion," or "enforced obedience" central to contemporary attacks or defenses of the art.7

This essay exposes Edmond's distortions by situating astrology in the context of its practice in early seventeenth-century England, and of long-standing debates that bubbled up in John Chamber's Treatise against Judicial Astrologie (London, 1601) and Sir Christopher Heydon's response, A Defence of Judiciall Astrologie (London, 1603), in the years just before Shakespeare wrote King Lear.8 While Edmond claims that adherents of astrology such as Gloucester [End Page 207] blame the stars for human depravity, in fact, the Christianized astrology of the almanacs offers a supple cosmology through which to interpret the relationship among fate, free will, and fortune. In this view, the stars are instruments that God uses to implement his divine plan in the material world, and "signes" (as established on the fourth day of creation and described in Genesis) through which God communicates displeasure, warns of impending calamities, or (less frequently) promises mercy.9 The influence of the stars on humans is especially powerful at conception and birth, but it is also never-ending, as the incessant movement of the spheres brings into being new astral configurations that exert their influence on material in the sublunary world, including the Galenic humoral body.10 Far from suggesting determinism, popular Ptolemaic judicial astrology—the area of this vast and complex field engaged in King Lear—viewed individual fortune as "contingent," a word with both broad philosophical meaning and a more specific astrological denotation.11 For early modern Christian astrologers, fortune was the result of a complex relationship between [End Page 208] God's providential plan as expressed by the stars, and the individual Christian will, which was free to mitigate or enhance whatever those stars inclined. The astrological language that runs throughout King Lear, then, introduces into Albion a providential...


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