“The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, 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; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans cheque 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
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure! O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive 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!”
— Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida, Act I, Scene 3, by William Shakespeare
Ulysses, the smartest of the Greek heroes, uses astrology to explain what is wrong in the Greek camp in the seventh year of the Trojan War. Achilles is sulking in his tent, the rest of the camp is restive and the siege of Troy looks like going on forever. This is because, according to Ulysses aka Odysseus, no one knows his right place. The soldiers are like wandering planets which need to be brought into line by the Sun.
In this worldview, which was widely held at the time, the king or queen is the embodiment of a nation. When that person is ill or mad or both, the whole nation suffers with famine or war or plague. Some scholars argue that in ancient times, the people would sacrifice the king in order to make things right with the gods. In modern times, we just crucify our leaders in the press and then vote them out of office. And if they’re anything like Tony Blair they become the undead haunting conferences and eating money. (That was a surprise digression. ed)
Back to Shakespeare. There are often references to astrology in the plays, because astrological metaphor and thinking was au courant in Shakespeare’s London. But interestingly, he usually puts knowledgable references to astrology in the mouths of the very cleverest characters — Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well, Gloucester in King Lear, and Ulysses, of course.
But this quotation from Troilus and Cressida, describing a world in which the rules have gone wobbly, could really describe some of the effects we’ve seen under this Pluto and Uranus square – due for another clash on December 16.
For more on Shakespeare and astrology, follow these links to other websites.
Shakespeare and Astrology
This site seeks to show that Shakespeare was really the Earl of Oxford. Along the way, the author has written a fine article on astrology in Shakespeare’s plays and astrology at the time.
William Shakespeare and Astrology