Reflections on the Solar Eclipse

By Philippa Kelly, Cal Shakes Resident Dramaturg

These late eclipses in the sun and moon
portend no good to us. Though the wisdom of
nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds
itself scourged by the sequent effects.

-Gloucester in King Lear

Very early in King Lear, the Earl of Gloucester shares his fears about the state of Britain’s court. In his “late eclipses” lines, he suggests that the downward emotional spiral that has begun in the families of royalty and noblemen is reflected in (perhaps presaged by) the “late eclipses” in the heavens. We can thus infer that there may have been an eclipse somewhere around 1605, as there had been seven years before in 1598. Eclipses were often seen as negative portents of “scourges” in human affairs – and in line with this, King Lear will progress to portray the whole world breaking down along with the interior of an old man’s mind.

About a decade before King Lear, Henry VI Part II mentions the “half-faced sun/Striving to shine;” The Rape of Lucrece personifies the eclipse to evoke the “bereave[ing] of sight; Sonnet 35 mentions “clouds and eclipses [that] stain both moon and sun;” and Sonnet 107 represents “the sad augurs” in eclipses that “mock their own presage.” These are just a few of Shakespeare’s eclipse images that evoke communal anxiety and uncertainty about disturbances in the heavens and what they might portend for humankind.

It’s useful to remember that this was a period freighted with evolutions and overturnings in accepted knowledge: as, for example, in the discovery that the universe is heliocentric; the exposure of the importance of the heart to the human body; developments in alchemy; and, in visual art, the evolution of chiaroscuro by which three-dimensionality could be represented on a flat surface. All of these breaks and developments in accepted knowledge were overshadowed by the instability of religious thought, as England teetered between Catholicism and Protestantism, each of which framed the very existence of humankind with distinct, deadly-serious, and very different forms of religious authority. No wonder Shakespeare conceives of the magnificence of Prospero’s power as celestial: since human powers were seen as insufficient to grapple successfully with the powers of the universe, he needed something superhuman to connote Prospero’s command.

Today the workings of an eclipse are elaborated via advances in science, so that rather than an event that inspires fear, an eclipse is now celebrated as a celestial marvel (and safely observable via special glasses). Mind you, love, hatred, desires, death and dreams still elude our powers to control them – which perhaps makes these references in Shakespeare’s works as visceral as ever.

Scroll to Top