Shakespeare, Newton and Beethoven – A talk by S. Chandrasekhar (Page 1/3)

First published on SAWF on February 19, 2001

Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3


Introduction By Rajan P. Parrikar


In April 1975 the legendary astrophysicist, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (1910-1995), delivered the Nora and Edward Ryerson Lecture entitled Shakespeare, Newton and Beethoven, or Patterns of Creativity at the University of Chicago. In this talk Chandra, as he was affectionately known to his colleagues, students and admirers, ranged over the oeuvres of three rara avises – Shri Shakespeare, Shri Beethoven and Shri Newton – each representing the ne plus ultra of human accomplishment in their respective domains.

In addition to his extraordinary scientific acumen and achievement, Chandra was a man of high culture. It should come as no surprise then that this bel esprit would strive to apprehend the deeper connections and meaning underlying the twin realms of Art and Science. Professor Chandrasekhar used to call himself an atheist when pressed for his belief system. A perusal of this lecture transcript, however, reveals him to be a deeply religious man, in the sense best described by Goethe:

He who has Art and Science also has religion
But those who do not have them better have religion.

Chandra was a gyana yogi is the true sense of the term. An estimation of his full measure is to be found in the biography Chandra by Kameshwar C. Wali (1991, University of Chicago Press). Wali’s second book S. Chandrasekhar – The Man Behind the Legend (1997, Imperial College Press) carries personal recollections by several of Chandra’s distinguished friends, family and associates; they furnish rare glimpses of human interest of this fiercely private man. In the essay “My Everlasting Flame” his wife, Lalitha, reminisces thus:

“…There is no question that one of the strongest of our memories of India was its music. Chandra loved to hear me sing. In those days when Chandra used to drive every week from Willams Bay to Chicago to give lectures and also attend to the Journal work, it used to be my habit to sing to him during our long drive back to Williams Bay. This very good habit of mine slackened somewhat after we moved permanently to Chicago. But the interest returned, fortunately, and I would say I sang to him very often during the many months before he died. A week before he died I sang a song to him about Krishna lifting the Gowardhana mountain to cut off the sunlight during the great war of the Mahabharata. “Won’t you sing it again?” he asked. “No, Chandra, I have another song I want to sing to you now; but I will sing it again later. But that “later” did not happen. The day before he died I had planned to sing still another song to him that I had heard years ago at a concert and had never learned to sing it before! Somehow it came back to me and it was beautiful. It was about Ganapati, son of Shiva.Everyone loved Ganapati, but he was also a scholar, and transcribed the Mahabharata when Vyasa dictated the epic. “Shall I sing it to you, Chandra?” “No, Lalitha, I am not feeling well. Some other time,” he replied. That “some other time” did not come around since Chandra died the next day…”

The period in the 1930s was not exactly kind to an Indian living in America. Lalitha recounts:

“…There is another thing that Chandra will be remembered at this [University of Chicago]. This was put in a nutshell by President Hutchins to me when Chandra and I went over to hear a lecture of his… Mr. Hutchins then held both my hands and said to me, “The best thing I did for the University of Chicago was to appoint your husband to the faculty”… A year later we were in Santa Barbara… Mr. Hutchins received us graciously and again as we were leaving, he took my hands and repeated, “The best thing I did for the University of Chicago was to appoint your husband to the faculty”…

Now why did Mr. Hutchins make this statement to me on two different occasions? There is no question he must have remembered how Dean Gale of the Physics Department had refused to allow Chandra to lecture at the campus. The refusal was blunt: he did not want this black scientist from India to lecture in his department. Hutchins had written a one-line reply to Mr. Struve, the Director of the Yerkes Observatory, who had been in a dilemma, and brought the matter to Hutchins’ attention. “Mr. Chandrasekhar shall give his lectures.” The lectures were given and many who had heard them have remarked about their mathematical elegance. The full impact of Hutchins’ remark to me was that Chandra had paved the way for other non-white members to be appointed to the faculty…”

His brother, P. Balakrishnan, divulges an excerpt of his moving letter to Chandra in the final years:

“…Another thing that I want to write to you is in regard to your “strange feeling”, as you put it, that all your books, all your hard work, when the books have been written and the work has been done, seem not to be yours, seem to be something extraneous, entities by themselves, separate and different from you. This is a mystic intimation, on the intellectual level, proclaimed by the Upanishads which in fact extends this sense of non-cognition even to one’s body, senses and mind. (Note that the mind is included in the list.) The Gita also teaches that once you have performed your work, you should have no further concern with it and that it belongs to God. I see that after all Hindu blood runs in you…”

The transcript of the Ryerson Lecture is taken from Chandra’s book Truth and Beauty (1987, University of Chicago Press) and is replayed here on SAWF with permission of the publisher. Perhaps someday someone will be inspired to ruminate likewise on “Kalidasa, Shankara, and Thyagaraja.

Warm regards,

Rajan P. Parrikar


Shakespeare, Newton, and Beethoven, or Patterns of Creativity


A Talk by S. Chandrasekhar

Prefacing a somewhat derogatory criticism of Milton, T. S. Eliot once stated that “the only jury of judgement” that he would accept on his views was that “of the ablest poetical practitioners of his time.” Ten years later, perhaps in a more mellow mood, he added: “the scholar and the practitioner, in the field of literary criticism, should supplement each others’ work. The criticism of the practitioner will be all the better, certainly, if he is not wholly destitute of scholarship; and the criticism of the scholar will be all the better if he has some experience of the difficulties of writing verse.” By the same criterion, any one who is emboldened to ask if there are discernible differences in the patterns of creativity among the practitioners in the arts and the practitioners in the sciences, must be a practitioner, as well as a scholar, in the arts as well as in the sciences. It will not suffice to be a practitioner in the arts only, or in the sciences only. Certainly, a wanderer, often lonely, in some of the by-lanes of the physical sciences, has simply not the circumference of comprehension to address himself to a question which encompasses the arts and the sciences. I, therefore, begin by asking your forbearance.

S. Chandrasekhar (1910-1995)

S. Chandrasekhar (1910-1995)

Allowing, as we must, for the innumerable individual differences in tastes, temperaments, and comprehension, we ask: Can we in fact discern any major differences in the patterns of creativity among the practitioners in the arts and the practitioners in the sciences? The way I propose to approach this question is to examine, first, the creative patterns of Shakespeare, Newton, and Beethoven, who, by common consent, have, each in his own way, scaled the very summits of human achievement. I shall then seek to determine whether, from the likenesses and the differences in the patterns at these rarified heights, we can draw any larger conclusions which may be valid at lower levels.



I begin with Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s education was simple, as Elizabethan education was. While it sufficed and stood him in good stead, Shakespeare was never persuaded by scholarship as such. He clearly expressed his attitude in

Small have continual plodders ever won
Save base authority from others’ books.


Oh, this learning, what a thing it is!

Even so, when Shakespeare arrived in London in 1587, at the age of twenty-three, he had none of the advantages of a London background that Lodge and Kyd had, or the advantages of years at Oxford or Cambridge that Peele, Lyly, Greene, Marlowe, and Nashe had. There can be little doubt that Shakespeare was acutely aware of his shortcomings and his handicaps. He overcame them by reading and absorbing whatever came his way. The publication of the revised second edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, was particularly timely: it provided Shakespeare with the inspiration for his chronicle plays yet to come.

By 1592, Shakespeare had written his three parts of Henry VI and his early comedies, The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and Two Gentlemen of Verona. His success with these plays produced Robert Greene’s vicious attack on him in that year. Greene was six years older than Shakespeare, and he was among the most prominent figures in the literary life of London at that time. As it happened, Greene’s attack was posthumous, as he had died somewhat earlier as the result of a fatal banquet, it is said, “of Rhenish wine and pickled herrings.” It was therefore “a time bomb which Greene left.” His attack in part read:

For there is an upstart crow, beautified by our feathers, that with his “Tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide,” supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you, and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake- scene in a country.

Greene’s attack brings out very dearly that Shakespeare was considered an outsider and an intruder: he had no university background and he did not belong to the aristocratic court circles.

In spite his early successes, life for Shakespeare, as a player and a playwright was fraught with uncertainties with the recurring years of the plague and the periodic closing of the theaters in London. But in 1590, Shakespeare found a patron, a friend, and love.

Shakespeare’s patron was the young Earl of Southampton who came of age in 1591. The intensity of Shakespeare’s emotional experience in the four years that followed was decisive for the development of his art and for the opportunities that opened up for him. Shakespeare’s genius matured and flowered with an unexampled outburst of creative activity. Besides the plays already mentioned, he wrote The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew, and Richard III. The two splendid narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, belong to this same period.

During 1592-95, Shakespeare wrote his sonnets as a part of his services for Southampton’s patronage. The sonnets are the most autobiographical ever written. They throw a flood of light on Shakespeare’s attitude to himself and his art; and they also reveal the extent of his dependence on Southampton’s friendship and patronage.

Chandra receives the Nobel Prize in Physics from King Gustav of Sweden (1983)

Chandra receives the Nobel Prize in Physics
from King Gustav of Sweden (1983)

The course of the friendship between Southampton and Shakespeare was by no means smooth. There was the difference in their ages; there was the disparity in their stations, as the aristocratic patron and a player poet; and besides, there was the complication of Shakespeare’s mistress – the dark lady of the sonnets – turning her attention away from Shakespeare to the responsive Earl. Shakespeare poured his feelings with poignant sincerity into the sonnets:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate: (29)
Against that time, if ever that time come,
When I shall see thee frown on my defects,
When as thy love hath cast his utmost sum,
Called to that audit by advised respects;
Against that time when thou shalt strangely pass,
And scarcely greet me with that sun, thine eye,
When love, converted from the thing it was,
Shall reasons find for that settled gravity:
Against that time do I ensconce me here
Within the knowledge of mine own desert,
And this my hand against myself uprear,
To guard the lawful reasons on thy part:
To leave poor me thou hast the strength of laws,
Since why to love I can allege no cause. (49)]

Their relationship, at least as perceived by Shakespeare was so fragile that he even considers the possibility of death:

No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell. (71)

And Shakespeare feels that his fife cannot last longer than Southampton’s love and that it will come to an end with it.

But do thy worst to steal thyself away,
For term of life thou art assured mine;
And life no longer than thy love will stay,
For it depends upon that love of thine.
Then need I not to fear the worst of wrongs,
When in the least of them my life hath end;
I see a better state to me belongs
Than that which on thy humour doth depend.
Thou canst not vex me with inconstant mind,
Since that my life on thy revolt doth lie.
O, what a happy title do I find,
Happy to have thy love, happy to die!
But what’s so blessed-fair that fears no blot?
Thou mayst be false, and yet I know it not. (92)

In spite of the uncertainty which pervades the entire sonnet sequence, Shakespeare’s prophetic confidence in his own poetry occasionally erupts. Thus, in the famous sonnet 55, we have the outpouring:

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars’s sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn,
The living record of your memory.

Meantime, Marlowe appears as a dangerous rival to Southampton’s patronage. To offset Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, Marlowe began writing his Hero and Leander. Shakespeare expresses his uneasiness with this rivalry while conceding Marlowe’s superiority:

O, how I faint when I of you do write,
Knowing a better spirit doth use your name,
And in the praise thereof spends all his might,
To make me tongue-tied speaking of your fame!
But since your worth, wide as the ocean is,
The humble, as the proudest sail doth bear,
My saucy bark, inferior far to his,
On your broad main doth willfully appear.
Your shallowest help will hold me up afloat,
Whilst he upon your soundless depth doth ride;
Or, being wrecked, I am a worthless boat,
He of tall building and of goodly pride.
Then if he thrive and I be cast away
The worst was this: my love was my decay. (80)

Marlowe died in 1593 in an unhappy brawl which Shakespeare clearly had in mind when he made Touchstone, in As You Like It, say:

When a man’s verses cannot be understood, nor a man’s good wit seconded with the forward child Understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.

In the same play, Shakespeare also paid Marlowe the unusual tribute of addressing him as “Dead shepherd” and quoting his line:

Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?

And before long, the unhappy episode with the “dark lady” also ended:

I am perjured most
For all my vows are oaths to misuse thee,
And all my honest faith in thee is lost. (152)

With the last sonnet of the Southampton sequence, Shakespeare emerges triumphant:

No, let me be obsequious in thy heart,
And take thou my oblation, poor but free,
Which is not mixed with seconds, knows no art
But mutual render, only me for thee. (125)

Yes! “Poor but free,” “not mixed with seconds,” and “only me for thee.”

In 1594, the Earl of Southampton gave Shakespeare some such amount as 100 pounds to acquire a share in Lord Chamberlain’s company when it was formed. With the future thus assured, Shakespeare’s natural spirits rose and his genius matured. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which he wrote in that year, was the first of his great masterpieces. Soon Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, and Much Ado About Nothing followed. Then Shakespeare turned again to his chronicle plays: King John, the two parts of Henry IV, and Henry V. The one hero in all these chronicle plays is England; and in them Shakespeare gives lasting expression to “the very age and body of the time.”

Many consider the two parts of Henry IV as the twin summits of Shakespeare’s achievement in his chronicle plays. They are certainly superlative plays made more memorable by the character of Falstaff. It has been said that “in a totally different way, Falstaff is to English literature what his contemporary Don Quixote has been to the Spanish.”

The great “middle period” of Shakespeare begins with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and ends with Hamlet (1600-1601).

In Hamlet Shakespeare gives expression to his thoughts on the theater and also his reaction to the rising rivalry with Ben Jonson and the Blackfriar’s theater with their appeal to wit and fashion. Thus, in his instruction to the players (in the play within the play), we find Hamlet saying:

For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.

Shakespeare is here asserting that “the very age and body of the time” can be expressed in drama – as, indeed, he had expressed his own age in his chronicle plays.

There is perhaps a hint of admonition to Ben Jonson and the “reformers” in

O it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part, are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise:

O there be players that I have seen play and heard others praise … have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of nature’s journey men had made men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably.

O reform it altogether.

The plays that followed HamletAll’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure – provide indications that, at this time, Shakespeare’s “nerves were on edge”: he appears disillusioned with men and things – perhaps, a proper frame of mind to embark on his great tragedies. As A. L. Rowse, the distinguished Elizabethan and Shakespearian scholar, has written, the great tragedies “show evidences of strain and exhaustion”; he continues:

As in all significant work, we have a convergence of factors, on the one side literary, on the other personal … If Shakespeare were to compare with his rival Ben Jonson he must do so now in tragedy. With the trage dies he was to make the grandest efforts, extend his powers to his fullest capacity and thus fulfill his destiny as a writer … There is cumulative evidence that so far from not caring about his fame and achievement as a writer, his ambition was the highest. The argument has come full circle: here is a personal consideration.

When Shakespeare’s work was complete, Ben Jonson was able to compare him only with the great tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

The years 1604-08 saw in succession the plays Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. It staggers one’s imagination to realize that these great plays, so utterly different from one another, could have been written, in succession, with such unfiltering inspiration.

Here is Hazlitt’s summing up of the tragedies:

Macbeth and Lear, Othello and Hamlet, are usually reckoned Shakespeare’s four principal tragedies. Lear stands first for the profound intensity of the passion; Macbeth for the wildness of the imagination and the rapidity of action; Othello for the progressive interest and powerful alternations of feeling; Hamlet for the refined development of thought and sentiment. If the force of genius shown in each of these works is astonishing, their variety is not less so. They are like different creations of the same mind, not one of which has the slightest reference to the rest. This distinctness and originality is indeed the necessary consequences of truth and nature.

Hazlitt does not include Antony and Cleopatra among the great tragedies. But nowadays it is considered by many as equally great. As T. S. Eliot in a remarkably sensitive analysis of Antony and Cleopatra has said:

This is a play for mature actors and for a mature audience, for neither on the stage nor in the audience can immature people enter into the feelings of these middle-aged lovers… The peculiar triumph of Antony and Cleopatra is in the fusion of the heroic and the sordid, in the same characters in one vision of life. Marlowe could have made them seem equally majestic. Dryden in his later play on the subject almost does so. But only Shakespeare could have made them at once majestic and human in their weakness; and without the human weaknesses we should not have the greatness and the terror of tragedy. And the reason is that Shakespeare had learned to say things in poetry which no one else could have said in prose.

It has sometimes been suggested that the plays which followed the great tragedies – Timon of Athens, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, and Cymbeline – all show signs of nervous fatigue. As A. L. Rowse has remarked: “there seems to be a hiatus here, a pause, if not something more, during these years.” But a contrary view has been expressed by T. S. Eliot:

The last plays are more difficult. Our astonishment in reading and hearing Antony and Cleopatra might often in many places be expressed by the words, “I should never have thought that that would be said in poetry.” Our moments of astonishment in the later plays could better be expressed by the words, “I should never have thought that that could be said at all.” For in the last plays, and I mean especially Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, Pericles, and The Tempest, Shakespeare has abandoned the realism of ordinary existence in order to reveal to us a further world of emotion…

In any event, Shakespeare’s last three plays – The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and Henry VIII – are more accessible – at least, Shakespeare’s natural poise is more evident. Thus, Winter’s Tale is a most beautiful and moving play. Hazlitt describes it as “one of the best acting of our author’s plays,” while the well-known Shakespearian scholar Q. writes: “Winter’s Tale is beyond criticism and even beyond praise.”

In his penultimate play, Shakespeare, ever searching for something new, deals with a profound theme which continues to be vexatious down to this day: in his creation of Caliban, he concretely states for us a central issue of the present age. But the mood of The Tempest is one of farewell:

Our revels are now ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.

And finally, in his last play, Shakespeare returns to his chronicle of the English story, which he began with Henry VI and Richard III, and completes the cycle with Henry VIII and the birth of Elizabeth. The concluding speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury opening with the incantation:

This royal infant – Heaven still move about her –
Though in her cradle, yet now promises
Upon this land a thousand thousand blessings,

is a form of prophesy of what the Elizabethan age was to be. It gave Shakespeare the splendid opportunity to pay his tribute to the Queen, he had not eulogized at her death in 1603, and to sum up the Elizabethan age now only an imprint on time. As A. L. Rowse concludes his biography of Shakespeare:

And this too was Shakespeare’s end. But like a splendid coiled snake, glittering and richly iridescent – emblem alike of wisdom and immortality – his work lay about him rounded and complete.

Ben Jonson’s tribute, included with the first folio, has been prophetic:

He was not of an age, but of all time!

Let me conclude by quoting two contemporary writers.

Virginia Woolf, after a vain effort imagining how Shakespeare “coined his words,” writes in her diary:

Indeed, I could say that Shakespeare surpasses literature altogether, if I knew what it meant.

And T. S. Eliot sums up Shakespeare as follows:

The standard set by Shakespeare is that of continuous development from first to last, a development in which the choice both of theme and of dramatic and verse technique in each play seems to be determined increasingly by Shakespeare’s state of feeling by the particular stage of his emotional maturity at the time… We may say confidently that the full meaning of any one of his plays is not in itself alone, but in that play in the order in which it was written, in its relation to all of Shakespeare’s other plays, earlier and later: we must know all of Shakespeare’s work in order to know any of it. No other dramatist of the time approaches anywhere near to this perfection of pattern … It seems to me to correspond to some law of nature that the work of a man like Shakespeare, whose development in the course of his career was so amazing, that it should reach, as in Hamlet, the point at which it can touch the imagination and feeling of the maximum number of people to the greatest possible depth and that, thereafter, like a comet which has approached the earth and then continued away on its course, he should gradually recede from view until he tends to disappear into his private mystery.


Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3