Tamburlaine's Malady: And Other Essays on Astrology in Elizabethan Drama

By Johnstone Parr | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER EIGHT
EDMUND'S BIRTH UNDER URSA MAJOR

THE ONLY natal horoscope in Shakespeare's plays which has any "technical" significance is Edmund's nativity in King Lear. Nonchalantly and scoffingly Edmund tells us:

My father compounded with my mother under the Dragon's Tail, and my nativity was under Ursa Major; so that it follows I am rough and lecherous. Fut! I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinckled on my bastardizing.1

We need not dwell upon that item in the horoscope known as the Dragon's Tail; many editors have noted its sinister influence.2 But Edmund's statement that his "nativity was under Ursa Major" and the conclusion that this configuration supposedly made him "rough and lecherous" has been ignored by all critics of the play.3

Ursa Major (known also as the Great Bear or the Big Dipper) is a group of fixed stars north of the zodiac whose astrological nature was reckoned as that of the planets Mars and Venus, with Mars predominating. Claudius Ptolemy, undoubtedly in the Renaissance the supreme authority in astrological matters, writes:

The constellations north of the zodiac have their respective influences,

____________________
1
I.ii.121-125.
2
We should observe, however, that Edmund does not say that the Dragon's Tail is in his horoscope, but simply that his father and mother "compounded" under the Dragon's Tail--or at a particularly evil time.
3
The one exception is E. B. Knobel, "Astrology and Astronomy," in Shakespeare's England ( Oxford, 1916, 1932), I, 459, who writes: "All the stars in Ursa Major were reckoned to be of the nature of Mars, who was 'choleric and fiery, a lover of slaughter and quarrels, murder, a traitor of turbulent spirit, perjured, and obscene.'" Although he cites no reference, Mr. Knobel is quoting from William Lilly Christian Astrology ( London, 1647; reprinted, 1939), pp. 40-41; and his statement that Ursa Major was governed by Mars alone is inaccurate.

-80-

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