Elizabethan wonder and the jaded silicon age

Technology and science rule our lives in ways Shakespeare could never have dreamed. But have we lost the wonder and the trust in the science that thinkers in the playwright’s day had?

“The Elizabethans were intensely curious about things, from clockwork to the universe,” says John Bell, founder of Sydney-based Bell Shakespeare theatre company. In those days a sound knowledge of the natural world was the norm for the well-educated person, who was expected to be as versed in the science of mathematics, astronomy and logic as the art of music, rhetoric and grammar.

Today’s body of scientific knowledge is so vast that no individual can come close to mastering it all, and science tends to get taken for granted, says Bell. “We turn on the light, start the car, use the computer – how they work, how it all happens, we don’t know.”

One thing that has remained since Elizabethan times is the tension between science and religion, as seen for example in conflicting views over evolution versus “intelligent design”. But even among the non-religious, scepticism about science and scientists abound, from those who dismiss climate change, to attitudes to stem cell research and a widespread hostility to genetically modified crops.

Laurie Zoloth, ethics professor at Northwestern University, Chicago, believes there has been a profound change. The view of science in Shakespeare’s time as “fluid, mysterious and infinitely interesting, part of the joyful knowledge of the whole world” has given way to a culture of mistrust, she says.

“Mind you, it’s not completely crazy to be mistrustful of modernity and its machines,” Zoloth adds. “Why would there not be mistrust in an age that has seen science reveal humankind not ‘noble in reason’ as Hamlet would have it, but capable of turning technology into the industrial killing machines of the Somme and Auschwitz.”

Just as significant for the public mistrust of science is well-intentioned science gone wrong. In Elizabethan times, as mankind set out on a great adventure of discovery, nothing horrible had happened as a result of the progressive methods. “There had been no Fukushima meltdown, no Three-Mile Island, no cane toad invasion, no Bhopal spill,” says Zoloth. People are now sceptical of the message that “this time the science will be safe”.

Mending the rift can be where art steps in.

“Science has always inspired artists,” says Bell. “It takes us out of the everyday world and opens up new worlds of questions.”

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