Seminar 2: Biology through Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s plays have influenced work not only in the arts but also in the sciences. Astronomers, most famously, have appropriated twenty-four of his characters to name most of the moons of Uranus. Shakespeare’s influence, curiously, has also extended to the genetics of the laboratory fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. Multiple biologists, in particular, have drawn from his plays in order to describe the development of the fly nervous system. The gene “Hamlet,” for instance, is named for the “To be or not to be…” soliloquy, because it drives an important decision in the IIB (“two B”) neural cell lineage. The gene “Prospero,” similarly, is named for a magician in The Tempest, based on the profound power that it exerts over neural cell fate. In the same vein, the genes “Miranda” and “Caliban,” which interact with Prospero in the cell, are named after two additional characters—daughter and monster—that interact with Prospero in the play. The gene “Malvolio,” finally, is named for a character in Twelfth Night, since its loss eliminates the flies’ preference for sugar, causing them to “taste with a distempered appetite.”

As he wrote, Shakespeare was himself influenced by a contemporary understanding of the natural world, and his work contains many intriguing descriptions of biological phenomena. In Coriolanus, Menenius delivers “a pretty tale,” comparing the Roman state to a biological organism. In it, the senators, like the stomach, “receive the general food at first,” before distributing it to the citizens/other organs “through the rivers of…blood.” In 2 Henry VI, similarly, Warwick delineates the action of a circulatory system, in which the blood, passing through the “laboring heart,” serves to “blush and beautify the cheek.” Many plays in addition feature memorable characterizations of animals and plants. In Act 2 of Antony and Cleopatra, Antony describes the crocodile (“It is shaped, sir, like itself…”) in a deliberately inadequate way; in Act 5, Cleopatra’s suicide relies upon the peculiar biology of the “pretty worm of Nilus.” In The Winter’s Tale, Polixenes and Perdita discuss the contents of Perdita’s garden (“hot lavender, mints, savoury, marjoram; the marigold”), while Perdita expresses an adamant distaste for the practice of plant grafting (“nature’s bastards”).

Both sets of examples—the appropriation of Shakespeare by practicing biologists and the appropriation of natural phenomena by Shakespeare—present their own opportunities for cross-disciplinary work. This seminar will explore a range of such opportunities, from a myriad of perspectives. It will explore ways in which Shakespeare may be used to complement the study of biology, whether through new applications of his language (e.g., employing Macbeth’s “the gift which bounteous nature hath in him closed” as a poetic description of the gene) or through the creative deployment of art-science metaphors. It will also explore ways in which the history of science may be used to complement a study of Shakespeare, as, for instance, through an understanding of the physiology of the four humors (“that surly spirit, melancholy, had baked thy blood,” King John) or through an understanding of contemporary ideas about offspring care in pelicans (“those pelican daughters,” King Lear). The seminar will in addition examine ways in which insights from modern biology—as, for instance, a modern understanding of diseases like gout and syphilis—may enable new interpretations of Shakespeare’s life and work.

Send your proposal title and 300-word abstract, along with your name, job title, affiliation and email to Rachel Rodman,, by October 1st, 2013.