Shakespeare, the Underrated Biologist
Biology is life. From the flesh on bodies to the dirt on the earth, from the full moon to the crawling lady bug, from the Redwoods in California to the bobcats in Arizona, biological forces are at work. Many figures from all walks of history have recognized biology as a predominating force in day to day life. Notably Charles Darwin, Alexander Flemming, and Aristotle have studied life and organisms to discover the nature of life and the environment. Each of these great men were either a scientists or philosopher so merit is natural; but one of the one of the greatest pursuers of the study of biology is often overshadowed because of the glory of his literary accomplishments. Who is this underrated biologist one may ask? It is none other then William Shakespeare, a man considered to be the greatest literary geniuses of the 16th century and possibly of all time. His repetitive use of biological elements in his works literally give life to his literary purpose: to define the idea that Biology “is life”.
Shakespeare depicts how biology is life though his reference to nature, nature being the literal flora and fauna of the earth. As presented in the comedy “As You Like It” Shakespeare contrast the sterilness and haughtiness of the court with the edenic qualities of the Forest of Arden. The forest is described as a lush forest filled with trees and streams. There is plenty of wildlife to eat and places for livestock to be kept. The land is fertile and good for growing crops. These biological elements help sustain yet another biological element, humans. The residents of the country not only live off of the land but are morally restored by the land. In the plot Duke Senior is a man of court but is banished into the Forest of Arden. There he realizes the importance of acknowledging and giving head to nature in ones life as a way to find peace within. He describes the court in a way that the “icy fang” and “winter’s wind” are not as harsh as the court. He moves to the forest and finds what really makes him content:
“Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we not the penalty of Adam…”
He realizes life lived in court is incomplete because they cut themselves off from the earth. The court in this story can be compared to places in present time where people cut themselves off from nature either from circumstance or choice. It is like a student ignoring the directions at the top of test and then wondering why they did so poor. People ignore this undeniable biological force and their lives and wonder why they aren’t content. This shows how biology “is life” by the way nature sustains, supplying food and shelter, and restores, accepting nature as a dominating force, human life.
In “Romeo and Juliet” Shakespere uses the allusions to the heavens and plants and herbs to also show how Biology is life. One dominant reference to biology throughout the play is the sky. One example is found in Friar Lawrence’s speech as he describes morning as “The gray-eyed morn smiles on the frowning night, Checkering the eastern clouds with streaks of light, And fleckled darkness like a drunkard reels From forth day’s path and Titan’s fiery wheels.” The fact the sun rises everyday and sets every night is a concept definitely taken for granted. The days are divided by this, the months are marked by this, our lives revolve around this. Reading Shakespeare’s beautiful description of this rising sun is his way of slapping everyone in the face and saying “don’t take this biological force for granted!” Friar Lawrence also refers to “...herbs, plants, stones, and their true qualities.” He describes the these as nutrients in a mother’s womb that “children of divers kind, We sucking on her natural bosom find, Many for many virtues excellent.” This can literally be translated as the powers of herbal medicine. Since prehistoric times the earth has been giving cures and remedies for many health problems. It was more prominent in Shakespeare’s time, as noted by “Romeo and Juliet,” but it is still practiced today as well as being the precursor to modern medicine. Both of these are elements of biology that help show the how Biology “life is”.
The idea of decay presented in Shakespeare’s 15th sonnet also conveys how biology “is life.” He states that “ every thing that grow holds in perfection but a little moment” and then it starts to decay. Shakespeare is ultimately referring to love but to understand what he is really trying to portray one has to understand decay. “Plants increase” to a peak of growth and then decay into the earth. Animals reach the height of life and then decay to death. Days peak at the height of the sun and then decay to night. Humans reach a peak in life and then it could be described as decaying into old age and then dying. Decay is biological circle and encompasses every aspect in the human perspective from emotions such love to the decay of actual lives. Social customs and holidays revolve around the cylce of decay with the celebration of birthdays and deaths and the changing of the seasons. Men try to fight this biological impact with procedures such as plastic surgery just as plants and animals try to fight it with adaption and evolution. But despite all the efforts this biological phenomena still occurs and still shows how biology defines life, or more bluntly stated, “is life.”
Shakespeare understood what a preeminent influence biology is and uses this to articulate that biology is life. Biology is the nature of the earth that provides and restores for the human body and soul. Biology is the reassurance that the sun will rise everyday and that the herbs of the earth can heal. Biology is the cycle of decay that defines the cycle of life.