Mapping the Celestial in Shakespeare’s
Tempest and the Writings of John Donne
Now more than fifty years ago, in “Donne the Space Man,” William Empson excavated evidence from a range of John Donne’s poems to suggest a preordination interest on the writer’s part in space travel and the inhabitation of other planets. In this essay, Empson goes to great lengths to argue that Donne’s apparent fascination with other worlds is evidence that the (somewhat) young poet “believed that every planet could have its Incarnation, and believed this with delight, because it automatically liberated an independent conscience from any earthly religious authority.”1 As a result of such an interest, according to Empson, Donne betrays hesitancy about “being a Christian” in the first place (79).
More recent work on the question of how early moderns conceived of the idea of a multitude of inhabited planets and space travel itself places enormous stress on Empson’s claims. As David Cressy points out in his illuminating study of what he terms “England’s lunar moment,” a moment that runs—in his argument—from the publication of Nicholas Hill’s Phi losophia Epicurea, Democritiana, Theophrastica in 1601 through Aphra Behn’s 1687 play The Emperor of the Moon, a wide range of English and continental authors entertained the question of whether the moon in particular might be inhabited and whether—often with voyages to the new world cited as precedent—Europeans might soon begin to journey to the moon themselves. These writers, it turns out, were very often ministers, and collectively they went out of their way to assure their readers that—in Cressy’s words—“[b]elief in the plurality of worlds did not go against faith.”2 Such assurance seemed to have meant something, for while some authors interested in other worlds published their work anonymously, others did not, and none of these figures appear to have suffered persecution for their