Date of this Version
Published in South Central Review, Vol. 26, No. 1/2, Shakespeare & Science (Spring–Summer, 2009), pp. 24-41.
Some readers may ask what it means to use the term "science" in conjunction with Shakespeare. From a modern perspective, science may not seem to be able to tell us much about Shakespeare or Shakespeare about science. Looking backwards, it is fair to say that Aristotle would probably have agreed with such a perspective: what scholasticism came to call scientia has nothing to do with ars. In between Aristotle and Einstein, though, matters stood differently. The late sixteenth and early seventeenth century saw the historic transition from Aristotelian models of scientia to modern "science." Both classic and modern epistemologies of science exclude art, but the crucial transition from the first to second was itself largely achieved by art. Art unexpectedly became the mediating term that made it possible for early modern intellectual culture to abandon Aristotelian scholasticism and move toward experimentalism and fact-based knowledge models. For Aristotle, various forms of making, doing, and knowing were all means by which "the soul possesses truth," but only scientific knowledge was certain and, indeed, truly scientific. In the early modern period, though, those kinds of making and doing that Aristotle had distinguished from true knowledge came to have a new epistemological status. For a brief period in intellectual history, art was accepted as what I would like to call a knowledge practice. Aristotelian understandings of knowledge as eternal, unchanging, and "that which cannot be otherwise" involved a fundamental exclusion of the human from its categories;2 the historic shift in the early modern period away from that model of knowledge thus required the interjection of the human, the introduction of various forms of human invention and intervention, that is to say, art, into what counted as knowledge. In the mechanical arts (such as surveying, architecture, metallurgy, printing, alchemy, Paracelsian medicine, and drama), the act of creation was understood to both require and express knowledge. Through a new assessment of the possibilities of invention-artificial contrivances and human interventions of the kinds proposed by Francis Bacon and others—oddities that were once classified as the domain of the theologian and the natural historian became the basis for the new science of experimentalism.
Shakespeare's The Tempest both depicts and participates in this transition. Prospero's "Art" expresses the remarkable power of this model of art as a knowledge practice; yet, as we shall see, the play also suggests reasons why the Renaissance conception of art as knowledge was ultimately displaced by a modern science of facts. This essay offers a local reading of how art functions as a form of knowledge in The Tempest. From a larger theoretical perspective, the lesson I would draw from The Tempest is that in order to understand how poetry and drama shared in the emergent scientific cultures of early modern England we must recognize that art was not separate from the practices that became science but instrumental to them.