The Fault Is Not in Our Stars: Shakespeare and Astrology

By Richard Monaco

Set Up

Challenged, by my then wife in 1970, to live up to my principle: look into things for yourself as deeply as possible and don’t trust anybody’s secondhand say-so, I began studying astrology and related “occult” information systems and never stopped studying. Like anything worth doing, astrology can’t be mastered, as with art, science, and so on. I recalled Isaac Newton’s response to being criticized for such activities: “I have studied it, sir, and you have not.” What would a guy who helped perfect infinitesimal calculus know, anyway?  Him and his laws of motion.

Astrology was opposed by the Church and after the “Enlightenment” by what passed for Science. The Church’s main objection was that it got results; Dante condemns his friend Guido Bonatus, famous for his accurate predictions of notable events (and from whose works I learned much), to Hell in the INFERNO. Guido had his head facing backwards (along with others) in punishment for seeing too far ahead.

From the 18th century to date the “rationalists” (risible term) dismissed and still dismiss astrology because it operates outside the arbitrary “rules” of relatively narrow paradigms. These paradigms change, of course, from generation to generation unlike ours. Point: in astrology, the system methodology doesn’t change significantly over time, but the practitioners do as participatory observers. For example: in a rationalist experiment, you don’t need a human to observe the deflection of light in a gravitational field as was the case with Michaelson-Morley experiments in the 19th and early 20th Century; now a computer does far better. Looking at a chart in the 16th Century, except for the number of objects utilized in a reading then, is no different than today.

Clearly, one can always debate personality traits, psychology, even appearance as shown in a natal chart. A chart interpretation has to be harmonized according to the reader’s skill; otherwise the contradictory meanings of various significators create doubt as with: “a Taurus is supposed to be like this but I’m more like an Aries….” While you can show why there’s seeming contradictory overlap, it has to be done on a case-by-case basis which doesn’t fit standard scientific methodology. This sort of thing allows the scoffers to scoff on, unimpeded.

So, I concluded at once the key was prediction; Telling a total stranger that in 1987 your father fell down the stairs and broke his legs or the house burned down or when you got the big job and so forth, would be convincing. I always begin with the past first because if I get 1987 right then 2015 is in the crosshairs. The system operates from birth to death so at any point between you can look forward and back. Additionally, there are horary charts which use the exact time a question is asked, or when any event happens, as a birth moment subject to predictive process.

Prediction here results from observing or projecting the movements of the various relevant bodies, mathematic points, as well, relative to a fixed set of starting positions, like your birthday, for instance. Shakespeare seems to have used both horary and natal astrology in his works (which we’ll get to).

This sort of information system can’t be effectively computerized, that is, made subject to simplistic scientific methods like double blind testing, statistics, and so forth, because the accuracy depends on the skill of the chart-reader absorbing, defining, and perceiving the meanings in each unique case, through insight. The chart is mechanical, time-dependent while insight is not. Easy to see: you can’t teach, store, or invoke insight at will. It’s an art/science. A chart is a metaphor for life and events, causing nothing but describing the future’s form within what you might call the karmic limits of life, which is to say, what is most ingrained in you. The world is very predictable but insight, unconditional love, or comprehension cannot be foretold.

A practical example from horary astrology: when I first heard about Watergate, I wondered what might happen to Nixon and cast a chart. Result: I told everyone around he’d be gone in just under a year and, as they used to say, so it proved. As I was doing a lot of screenwriting at the time, here’s a natal example: did actor Gene Hackman’s chart while working on a film project with him and Robert Redford. He was unhappy with being a supporting actor and asked me if I could detect a change coming. I told him in ca. 9 months he’d have a hit which would make him a lead star and that he’d remain so for the rest of his long (to be) career. And so it proved. “The French Connection” did the job. Good for him. Horary allows very high-percentage insights into disease outcomes (not diagnosis) battle results, elections, will you be rich, poor or in-between and so on. This was why Guido and the rest of them came in for such severe condemnation.

As we’ll see, it’s clear from Lear, alone, that Shakespeare had more than a pedestrian understanding of our topic and used it as a structural element.


Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar and King Lear

“A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life….” The poetry is obvious but how does it apply to astrology? Let’s call all planets, points and fixed stars one thing: significators; one reason for this is that “star” can apply to planets, Sun, Moon and distant fixed stars. And comets can come into it, as well, and more. It’s a complicated business that insight is tasked to make clear and simple.

So, star-crossed simply means the ill result of a bad relationship between significators. Because of the subject any astrologer would assume Venus, Mars, and Saturn would be in the mix; not to say Shakespeare considered it in depth or so specifically as he wrote but, as we go along, it should become clear that he either had a technical advisor (pretty unlikely) or a fairly deep understanding of the subject. When an author has really absorbed something, it becomes part of his working memory-bank. When just added in for effect, ideas tend to ring false or shallow in creative work as when you’re just selling something, pushing propaganda for your pet whatever. However, the later references in the plays are consistent with this one.

“The fault, dear Brutus is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Correct:  the stars describe but can compel nothing. The stars define and describe karma: what you’ve done defines what you’ll do, thus the fault, if any, is yours.

“Either there is a civil strife in heaven/Or else the world, too saucy with the gods/Incenses them to send destruction.” For “gods” read planets as each have the obvious divine correlate and were always interchangeable in olden days.

“When beggars die there are no comets seen/The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.” Comets are used like eclipses: where and when they’re seen helps define earthly events. Obviously, anyone can be born or die while a comet courses the sky, there are rules specific to indicting greatness.

The soothsayer warning Julius Caesar about the “Ides of March” suggests astrology because of the focus on timing the event but there’s no way to show just how the soothsayer took the omen. In this play, set when it was, used the better-known ways of omen-taking although the Romans had a sophisticated (but not well-known) system of astrology.

This is all general. Nothing so far suggests Shakespeare had more than a passing knowledge of our topic. So I thought until I watched a “King Lear” performance sometime after I’d acquired some astrological chops. Pow. I went to the text to consider this at leisure, and there it was:  the really bad guy, the warped, obsessive bastard, Edmund, sets up one play level by introducing his own nature with basic qualities from his birth chart. The point is, the details he gives and the later predictions in the play prove correct. Other point, he’s the villain and hates what our art/science says about him.

First Gloucester, a decent man:

“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 scourg’d by the sequent effects: love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide; in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces treason; and the bond crack’d twixt son and father. This villain of mine comes under this prediction: there’s son against father.  The King falls from bias of nature: there’s father against child….”

This is pretty advanced application of astrological principles. Why? Because of the specificity linking events to heavenly significators. Brothers Edgar and Edmund divide. The twisted sisters, in palaces, commit treason and plot mutiny. The irony here is his misapprehension of which son is against the father. He supports the villain, being deceived much like Othello. So “the bond crack’d twixt son and father.” And, further, Lear, like Gloucester himself, has gone against his honest child to favor her false sisters.

Now, if Shakespeare wanted to mock astrology he’d not have the predictions work out as they ultimately do. And to quicken the point, Edmund specifies, with his mocking, the indictors involved in his own case:

Edmund (solis): …when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behavior, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars; as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion…by an enforced obedience of planetary influence and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on…My father compounded with my mother under the Dragon’s Tail and my nativity was under Ursa Major, so it follows I am rough and lecherous. Tut, I should have been that I am had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.”

As we and the diviners of the Bard’s day knew and expressed in their works, the idea of “heavenly compulsion” was never a serious precept in astrological history and practice being a superstition of second-rate practitioners. Shakespeare was remarkably well-informed on this subject either by reading, expert input, or both.

So we start the play with the arch villain basically declaring that his birth circumstances and nature were accurately depicted by his chart. The Dragon’s Tail (unlike the Head) shows nasty stuff and is a point, not a physical body in space. They are the points where the Moon’s path crosses the Sun’s and it moves constantly. It defines where and when eclipses occur and the Head tends to positive events and births; the Tail, the contrary. The idea of being compelled by a mathematical significator is humorous, in itself. What would be the compelling agent even with the Moon, beyond gravity and polarized light? Edmund is right, he would have been what he was because that is what he brought into the world, whether it was observed in the heavens or not.

Astrology is literally a theme in this play as in no other of his. Next:

Edmund: (to Edgar whom he means to bring to destruction) “I am thinking, brother, of a prediction I read the other day what should follow these eclipses…unnaturalness between the child and the parent, death, dearth, dissolutions of ancient amities; divisions in state, menaces and maledictions against King and nobles…banishment of friends…nuptial breaches, and I know not what.”

This lays out both plot effects and the astrology of it. Of course, the Bard always used portents and occult invocations to set up plays as in Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Hamlet, etc. Here, he is very specific as if he were a closet “sectary astronomical.” Note that with the “Ides of March” soothsayer the same ironies apply. The guy is right.

Near the end after Edmund is mortally wounded, Edgar remarks: “The Gods are just, and of our pleasant vices/Make instruments to plague us.” As stated above, the planets are all representations of the Gods, so this is quite consistent.

As things are grinding to a totally grim end on all fronts, the Duke of Albany learns his wife murdered her sister and both are dead. He says, to begin to close the opening theme: “This judgment of the heavens that makes us tremble/Touches us not with pity.” The deaths were caused by Edmund and, next, he has a flash of repentance and tries to save Lear and his daughter from his murder order.

This conscience, insight, call it whatever, is just what astrology cannot define or predict. If you follow your mechanical nature, conditioning, prediction is fairly easy; if you’re inspired, you may still be doomed by the weight of Karma but your mind and spirit are free. That’s redemption, Grace, what you will. The overall poetic, dramatic force and eloquence of the play makes our points small but not incidental or trivial. There’s truth in art and truth in stellar art.


Richard Monaco worked as an astrological consultant to a child psychiatrist, a sitting mayor of a major city and various producers, directors, agents, and stars in his Hollywood days among many other professionals and people from all walks of life.

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