What did Elizabethans think about astrology and people’s behavior? How does this relate to The Winter’s Tale?

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During the Elizabethan period, people in England believed wholeheartedly in black magic, witches, superstitions, alchemy, and astrology. Those who could afford it consulted astrologers, and those who could read kept copies of astrological almanacs in their homes, and consulted them on a daily basis.

The first almanacs published in England...

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During the Elizabethan period, people in England believed wholeheartedly in black magic, witches, superstitions, alchemy, and astrology. Those who could afford it consulted astrologers, and those who could read kept copies of astrological almanacs in their homes, and consulted them on a daily basis.

The first almanacs published in England in the early 1500s were translations from Italian and German almanacs. By 1545, almanacs written by English astrologers were widely available and became very popular throughout the country.

Physicians consulted astrologers and astrological almanacs to aid in their diagnoses, to determine the best time to give medicines and administer medical treatments—such as leeches and bloodletting—and to perform surgeries.

Queen Elizabeth I had her own astrologer, John Dee (1527–1609), who cast her horoscopes and advised her on a wide range of subjects, including the most favorable day for her coronation.

Dee was also an astrologer to Elizabeth's most influential advisors, including Francis Walsingham (known as Elizabeth's "spymaster'), and William Cecil, Elizabeth's most trusted advisor for most of her long reign. Some Shakespeare scholars believe that Prospero, the learned sorcerer in Shakespeare's The Tempest, is modeled after John Dee.

Dee lived a long and prosperous life, which apparently was not the fate of one of his predecessors, William Parron, the astrologer to Elizabeth's grandfather, King Henry VII. Parron predicted that Henry VII's wife, Elizabeth, would live a long life, but she died shortly thereafter, and Parron mysteriously disappeared from Henry's court.

Another widely known but somewhat more notorious astrologer, Simon Forman (1552–1611), is remembered primarily for being a womanizer—whose marriage to his seventeen-year-old wife when he was forty-two was said to have no effect whatsoever on his errant way of life—and for correctly foretelling the date of his own death in September of 1611.

Eyewitness accounts of performances of Shakespeare's plays are extremely rare, but a few months before his death, Simon Forman wrote The Book of Plays and Notes thereof, per Forman's, for Common Policy, which contained descriptions of four plays that he attended at the Globe Theatre in April and May, 1611, including performances of Shakespeare's Macbeth, The Winter's Tale, and Cymbeline.

Although Forman was an astrologer and lifelong student of the occult, he made no mention in his Book of Plays of the witches in Macbeth or the astrological elements of The Winter's Tale, but simply recorded the basic elements of the plot of the plays he observed and offered a moral for each play. The moral that Forman proposed for The Winter's Tale was "Beware of trusting feigned beggars or fawning felons."

It's interesting to note that Forman referred to the witches in Macbeth as "3 women fairies or nymphs." This gives Shakespeare scholars, as well as actors and directors, an important insight into how the witches were portrayed during Shakespeare's time—not as the clichéd cackling, deformed, hand-wringing Halloween witches of many productions of Macbeth.

Shakespeare's plays quite naturally reflect the influence of astrology on his characters. In The Winter's Tale, Leontes compares the suspected adultery of his wife, Hermione, to a wayward planet.

LEONTES. It is a bawdy planet, that will strike
Where ’tis predominant; and ’tis powerful, think it,
From east, west, north, and south. (1.2.250–252)

Hermione later blames her situation on the stars but decides to endure rather than despair her fate.

HERMIONE. There’s some ill planet reigns.
I must be patient till the heavens look
With an aspect more favorable. (2.1.129–131)

Near the end of the play, Perdita blames Leontes for the death of her husband, Antigonus—last seen exiting the stage shouting, "I am gone forever!" and being "pursued by a bear" (3.3.64)—for disrupting the order of the universe.

PERDITA. ...’Tis your counsel
My lord should to the heavens be contrary,
Oppose against their wills. (5.1.52–54)

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