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A NOTE ON SHAKESPEARE'S CATACLYSMIC IMAGERY
RICHARD J. JAARSMA
In two recent issues of KRONOS (V:4 and VI:1), I published articles (with Edward Odenwald) in which I explained Shakespeare's imagery of catastrophism in terms of a series of celestial, meteorological, and geological catastrophes that afflicted England and Europe from approximately 1550 to 1616. Actual catastrophes, afflicting Elizabethan life, we argued, gave impetus to and confirmed a fear already there that the world was coming to an end. It is not surprising, then, that Shakespeare's imagery should reflect a concern over catastrophism.
Irving Wolfe, independently of my work, has also argued the catastrophic nature of many of Shakespeare's plays (see his "The Catastrophic Substructure of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra," Pts. 1 and 2, KRONOS I:3, 4; "Catastrophism in Hamlet," KRONOS III:4 and IV:1; " 'The Seasons Alter': Catastrophism in A Midsummer Night's Dream," KRONOS VI: 1 and the present issue). In his essays, Wolfe has stressed: 1) the seemingly curious fact that the images are there at all, that 2) they provide an altogether different dimension of meaning to the plays than has heretofore been admitted, and that 3) the catastrophism of Shakespeare's plays is a "memory" of the events that shook the world in ancient times, whose records Immanuel Velikovsky has charted in Worlds in Collision, Ages in Chaos, et al.
Casual readers may be inclined to take the position that my findings about the catastrophic nature of Shakespeare's time may obscure and perhaps vitiate Professor Wolfe's argument. Why, one might be tempted to say, look for Velikovskian explanations for Shakespearean obsession with catastrophe when the facts Jaarsma has uncovered provide a perfectly reasonable raison d'être for it?
Such a view, however, is too facile an explanation for the catastrophism in the plays of Shakespeare and, indeed, in the writings of his contemporaries, be they playwrights, essayists, theologians, almanac writers, or poets. Though I nowhere mention the name of Dr. Velikovsky in my essays, it may be of interest to readers of KRONOS to know that I first came to my own thesis about Shakespeare's imagery through a reading of Velikovsky's work, particularly those sections of Worlds in Collision in which Velikovsky examines the imagery of the ancients, not as metaphor, but as representations of facts. Could such a commonsensical approach, I asked myself, be applied also to the imagery of Shakespeare and his contemporary writers? I found that it could. The results speak for themselves.
Yet I am well aware that the depth and power invested in images of catastrophism in Shakespeare and his contemporaries cannot be explained merely and solely by the many catastrophes which occurred during Shakespeare's time. The Elizabethans and Jacobeans thought catastrophically as a matter of course – Professor Wolfe's argument. The fact that celestial anomalies such as comets (13 in 145 years), earthquakes (18 in 65 years), a change in the climate toward colder conditions, massive resulting storms and floods, tornadoes, two supernovas within 32 years, and frequent eclipses of the Sun and Moon also occurred during the time provided the Elizabethans with contemporary evidence that their notions about the catastrophic nature of the universe were correct – for, see, did not events argue it? My work and that of Professor Wolfe are, then, clearly complementary, as Wolfe himself does me the kindness of acknowledging in his essay on catastrophism in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Nor can I stress enough how a priori was the Elizabethan catastrophic view of the nature of the universe. Clearly, they held a "memory" of natural events which had occurred in the past. In a powerful comparison between his own Elizabethan world and a particular series of catastrophic events of the past, Byron, in George Chapman's Tragedy of Byron, says:
Chapman here refers to a time when the revolution and rotation of the Earth were disturbed, affecting the precession of the equinoxes, a time when the Earth was swathed in heavy clouds, a time when the Sun rose and set at different points of the compass. Chapman, moreover, of all the Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights stands as the greatest scholar of them all, dedicating poems to Matthew Roydon, the mathematician, and Thomas Harriott, the astronomer. The passage from Byron clearly shows that Chapman believed his age was recapitulating the horrible events of the past – events, incidentally, that Velikovsky stresses in his reconstruction of ancient history.
Professor Wolfe has explored the meaning of such catastrophic imagery in certain of Shakespeare's plays, concentrating on the well documented Elizabethan memory of previous historical cataclysms. I have shown that that memory was reinforced by a series of actual catastrophes occurring in the Elizabethan era. Obviously, our views are complementary, not mutually exclusive.