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Saluting Shakespeare’s scientific legacy

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Special To The Japan Times

On April 23, the literary world marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. It’s a good excuse for a lot of fuss: Britain’s Royal Mint has produced a new £2 coin, the postal service has prepared a set of commemorative stamps depicting portraits of the Bard and thousands of theaters worldwide are expected to celebrate the anniversary.

Japan is no exception. Shakespeare might have been born in Britain but he is truly a global citizen, loved in Japan as much as he is in Russia or Germany or the United States. In 2014, there were 180 theatrical performances inspired by Shakespeare in Tokyo alone. What’s more, Japan boasts not one but two reconstructions of the Globe — the 16th-century open-air theater where Shakespeare himself acted in many of his plays.

I hardly need to champion Shakespeare’s qualities or his global appeal. What I do need to do, however, is explain why I’m talking about them in a science column. The reason is simple: Recent work has shown that Shakespeare may have been influenced by science.

When Shakespeare was born in 1564, our view of the world was changing faster than at any point in history. Twenty years earlier, Copernicus had published his work showing that the Earth, far from being the center of the universe, revolved around the sun. Scholars have examined Shakespeare’s work, looking for signs that he might have incorporated this new understanding into his plays.

In “Cymbeline,” for example, there are hints that he’d heard of Galileo’s evidence of the discovery of the moons of Jupiter.

In “Hamlet,” which is set in Denmark, a star appears in the west before the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears. Astronomers looked into what would have been visible at the time and found it was more than likely a supernova that had been observed by Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. The discovery was profound because, at least until then, the heavens were considered to be immutable and unchanging.

In the play, Hamlet says he is a “king of infinite space,” which may also be a reference to the understanding of the universe at the time.

Hamlet has also been diagnosed as having bipolar disorder. He has incredible mood swings, and can be melancholic or violent one moment and elated the next.

I won’t go as far as to claim that Shakespeare was a proto-scientist — of course he wasn’t. He was curious, however, and understood human behavior a lot better than most.

I asked Erin Sullivan of the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, about the Bard’s understanding of how the brain works. Sullivan says it’s unlikely that Shakespeare intended his characters to represent actual descriptions of particular mental illnesses.

“But that doesn’t mean that we can’t still recognize in these characters elements of mental experience and disorder that still resonate with us today,” she says.

Back then, people who had diseases were said to have an imbalance of the four fluids that comprised the body: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood. What we now say is depression was characterized in Shakespeare’s time as an excess of black bile.

“Even if Shakespeare understood a mood disorder like melancholia to be the consequence of too much black bile, that doesn’t mean that actors working now can’t choose to understand it and portray it as depression,” Sullivan says. “We can definitely see in Shakespeare the idea that what happens to us in our unconscious life affects our conscious existence.”

In some ways, Shakespeare’s views on health remain influential.

“Mind, body and soul were highly linked in Shakespeare’s time,” says Sullivan. “It was a very holistic view of health, and people certainly believed that pain and disorder in the body led to trouble in the mind, and vice versa.”

Although scientists don’t believe that human bodies possess a soul anymore, we do know that the mind can influence the health of the body, as well as the other way round.

I’m planning to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in two ways. First, I’m going to see the restored version of Akira Kurosawa’s epic film, “Ran.” When “Ran” was released in 1985, it was the most expensive Japanese movie ever made. Kurosawa based “Ran” on a fusion of old samurai tales and “King Lear,” but set the action in feudal Japan.

Kurosawa replaced King Lear with Lord Hidetora (played by Tatsuya Nakadai), who played an elderly warlord with a history of violence.

I’ll be interested to see how Kurosawa shows Lord Hidetora descending into madness. By the same token, many believe King Lear’s decline is one of the first descriptions of what we now know as the dementia sometimes associated with Parkinson’s disease.

The other way I’m celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death will be to go to a church built in 1792 in East London. There, at the Church of St. John-at-Hackney, singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright will be performing his new album, “Take All My Loves,” on April 26. On the album, Wainwright has taken nine of Shakespeare’s sonnets and set them to music.

I love Kurosawa but I think the sonnets will be a more fitting way to celebrate the enduring appeal of the world’s greatest creative talent.

Rowan Hooper is the news editor of New Scientist magazine. The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha. The title is “Hito wa Ima mo Shinka Shiteru” (“The Evolving Human”). Follow Rowan on Twitter @rowhoop.