Internet Shakespeare Editions


An orderly world?

The Renaissance inherited a system of explaining natural phenomena which was both logical and orderly, and which provided a subtle and varied frame of reference for the writer.

Induction and deduction

Inductive reasoning

The dominant modern method of explaining the world is derived not only from scientific discoveries made largely since the Renaissance, but from the scientific method itself , a method which was evolving towards its modern form during Shakespeare's life, especially under the influence of writers like Francis Bacon.

Today (scientists would argue), if we want to find out about something--a planet, an animal, a disease, or the flight of a stone that is thrown--we investigate it, designing experiments that will provide the answers we seek. We arrive at an answer by a process of induction, arguing from specific, particular evidence, to a general postulate.

Of course nothing is quite so simple: in order to arrive at the kinds of experiments that will give an effective answer, the scientist must arrive at a hypothesis (an informed guess), and set out to prove or disprove it. Thus the actual process of the accumulation of knowledge also involves deduction.

Deductive reasoning

The habit of thought we find in most medieval writers worked in an almost opposite manner. Starting with generally accepted beliefs, early thinkers, by a process of deduction, arrived at specific applications of those beliefs; thus medicines were prescribed because they were believed to be logically the right ones, not because they had been proven and tested.

During Shakespeare's life, the debate between the acceptance of the teachings of earlier writers, and an increasing desire to test them, became more intense. One early scientist, Robert Norman, who turned the magnetic needle on its side and discovered the dipping effect associated with longitude, wrote proudly -- but at the same time almost apologetically -- of his discovery:

Many and divers ancient authors, Philosophers and others, have written of the Magnes or Loadstone [magnet]... and thereupon setting down their opinions and judgements, have left the same as infallible truths for them that should succeed [follow]. And as I may not, nor mean not herin willingly to condemn the learned or ancient writers that have with great diligence laboured to discover the secrets of Nature in sundry things... yet I mean, God willing... to set down a late experimented truth found in this Stone, contrary to the opinions of all them that have heretofore written thereof.

Werein I mean not to use berely tedious conjectures or imaginations, but briefly as I may to pass it over, founding my arguments only upon experience, reason, and demonstration, which are the grounds of Arts.

A Shakespearean character preaches on the natural order*.*


  1. Shakespeare's Ulysses on Order

    There is a famous passage on the concept of order, and the consequences which follow when it is disrupted, in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. With inescapable Shakespearian irony, however, the statement is put into the mouth of the new politician, the crafty Ulysses who, while he is speaking of the ideal natural order, is planning stratagems based on the realities of power; what is more, the passage occurs in what is perhaps the darkest and most pessimistic of all Shakespeare's plays.

    The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre [earth]
    Observe degree, priority, and place,
    Insisture [constancy], course, proportion, season, form,
    Office, and custom, in all line of order.
    And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
    In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
    Amidst the other[s]; whose med'cinable eye
    Corrects the influence of evil planets,
    And posts, like the commandment of a king,
    Sans [without] check, to good and bad. But when the planets
    In evil mixture to disorder wander,
    What plagues, and what portents, what mutiny,
    What raging of the sea, shaking of earth,
    Commotion in the winds, frights, changes, horrors,
    Divert and crack, rend and deracinate [uproot]
    The unity and married calm of states
    Quite from their fixture? O, when degree is shaked,
    Which is the ladder of all high designs,
    The enterprise is sick. How could communities,
    Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,
    Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
    The primogenity [rights of inheritance of the first born] and due of birth,
    Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
    But by degree, stand in authentic place?
    Take but degree away, untune that string,
    And hark what discord follows. Each thing meets
    In mere oppugnancy. The bounded waters
    Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
    And make a sop of all this solid globe;
    Strength should be lord of imbecility [weakness],
    And the rude son should strike his father dead;
    Force should be right, or rather right and wrong--
    Between whose endless jar [battle] justice resides--
    Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
    Then everything include itself in power,
    Power into will, will into appetite,
    And appetite, an universal wolf,
    So doubly seconded with will and power,
    Must make perforce an universal prey,
    And last eat up himself.
    (Troilus and Cressida 1. 3. 85-124)