Shakespeare’s Juliet as the Sun

For this special post about energy transitions, I asked Chantal Bilodeau – playwright and founder of this blog – to join me in writing about another playwright: William Shakespeare, the prolific 16th century English Bard, poet and actor.

What does an artist like Shakespeare – born 100 years before the Industrial Revolution – have to do with energy transitions?

According to Shakespearean scholar Marianne Kimura, many of Shakespeare’s most famous plays – including Romeo and Juliet and King Lear – are filled with “hidden criticisms of fossil fuels” and should be considered climate fiction. For example, Romeo and Juliet, published 425 years ago during the early stages of England’s transition from solar energy (trees) to fossil fuels (coal), opens with a disparaging reference to coal in its very first line:

“Gregory, on my word, we’ll not carry coals.” (I.i.1)

By William Shakespeare, Isaac Jaggard, and Edward Blount (printers), Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Library

Later, in Act 2, Scene 2, when Romeo declares “Juliet is the Sun,” Kimura suggests that Shakespeare was disguising his preference for energy from the Sun (wood) compared to coal’s choking black smoke belching from thousands of unfiltered kilns and chimneys that literally blotted out the sunlight in Elizabethan London.

Kimura, who teaches at Kyoto Women’s University in Kyoto, Japan, chatted with us via Zoom in 2022. Her ongoing research suggests that Shakespeare “was completely opposed to coal.” Having grown up in a rural market town fueled by wood, Shakespeare would surely have been alarmed by London’s “unwholesome air” when he moved there in the 1580s. At that time, London’s notorious air pollution was described as “choking, foul-smelling smoke… leaving behind a heavy deposit of thick black soot on the clothing and faces of all attending”. (Kimura, citing Nef, 13). Even Queen Elizabeth I was reportedly “greatly grieved and annoyed with the taste and smoke of sea-colles”.

For historical context, it is important to remember that wood had been the world’s primary energy source from our earliest settlements right up to Shakespeare’s era. It was wood that fed the voracious appetites of the many fire-based industries invented throughout human history: salt works, Copper, Bronze and Iron Age smelters and foundries; kilns for pottery, glassblowing and brick-making, ovens for bread; and open stoves to render tallow for soap and candle making. And let’s not forget the ubiquitous breweries!

Try to imagine yourself in Elizabethan London at the end of the 16th century, with a population that doubled every 50 years and its surrounding forests stripped bare. Your only option, especially if you were a commoner (as was Shakespeare), was to heat your home and bake your bread with “sea-coles” – surface coal washed up onto the shore. The nobility initially snubbed their noses at coal’s noxious fumes and inky black smoke; only they could afford the skyrocketing price of wood, an increasingly scarce resource.

Kimura cites Barbara Freese, who described the early days of England’s transition from wood to coal:

The rich in London tried to avoid using coal, still despised for its smoke, as long as they could. It was said in 1630 that thirty years earlier ‘the nice dames of London would not come into any house or room where sea coals were burned, nor willingly ate of the meat that was either sod or roasted with sea coal fire’. Within a few years, though, the nice dames and nice gents had succumbed. By the second decade of the 1600s, coal was widely used in the homes of the rich as well as of the poor.

So, it’s easy to understand why an artist like Shakespeare would have included subtle references to coal in many of his plays written during the first decades of England’s energy transition from wood to coal. A partial list of these plays includes: Romeo and Juliet; Hamlet; King Lear; Macbeth; Twelfth Night; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and Othello. As much as he despised coal, Shakespeare found its dark, murky and malodorous traits to be useful metaphors for a variety of undesirable human emotions and conflicts such as “burning hatred, lust, enmity, wars and death.”  

What may be less clear is why Shakespeare felt obliged to hide “his own angry brow and disguise his social critique [of coal] with fascinating literary ruses”. This is where Kimura shines her light.

Kimura contends that Shakespeare’s thinking about the cosmos – and humanity’s place within it – was profoundly influenced by the unorthodox Italian philosopher and polymath Giordano Bruno. Bruno was accused of heresy by the Roman Inquisition and burned at the stake in 1600. In addition to denying the divinity of Christ, Bruno rejected the Church’s geocentric (earth-centered) doctrine and embraced Copernicus’ heliocentric (sun-centered) model of our solar system.

But Bruno’s brilliant mind traveled far beyond our own solar system (which was the focus of both Copernicus and Galileo). He correctly theorized that: 1) the universe is infinite, with no fixed center; and 2) all distant stars are suns, each of which provides light and heat to its respective orbiting planets.

Monument to Giordano Bruno by Alexander Polzin at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, Germany, referencing his burning at the stake while tied upside down. Downloaded from Wikipedia Commons.

In Bruno’s infinite and centerless universe, our lonely planet is therefore totally dependent upon one solitary star for all its light and energy – indeed, for all life on Earth. This fact seems to have both inspired and shaken Shakespeare to his core, as he witnessed the “gradual loss of and transition away from a sun-based economy” at the end of the 16th. But in order to incorporate some of Bruno’s controversial theories into his plays – theories which would be described today as eco-feminist – Shakespeare knew he would have to disguise them as characters, given the dominant conservative religio-politics of his era.

Hence, Romeo’s enigmatic “Juliet is the Sun.”

According to Kimura, these four simple words are Shakespearean code for his passionate plea to mankind (embodied by Romeo) to abandon coal and return to a sun-powered world (embodied by Juliet). Mirroring Bruno, Shakespeare seemed to be saying that what England needed was a spiritual transition rather than an energy transition: a return to the divine feminine.

In this light, Romeo and Juliet can be seen as an ingenious “play-within-a-play”: an allegory against coal disguised as a tragic love story between two teenagers from rival families. In Kimura’s analysis, Romeo and Juliet speaks to the universal struggle between good and evil, light and dark, nature and humans. And, by extension, renewable energy and fossil fuels. For those who wish to dig deeper into Kimura’s research about Shakespeare’s climate fiction, please visit her Academia page.

Clearly, Shakespeare was way ahead of his time: he presaged the Anthropocene 100 years before the official start of the Industrial Revolution. He recognized that England had “ta’en his last leave” – i.e., lost its way, lost its Sun – as the transition from wood to coal became unstoppable, inevitable. Kimura concludes that Shakespeare must have intuited “English society brutally put an end to the sun economy without quite understanding what it was doing.”

To Shakespeare, the real tragedy of Romeo and Juliet was not the senseless death of two young lovers. It was the existential story about human hubris laying waste to the planet.

ADDENDUM

We want to leave readers on a positive note: “The sun gives without ever receiving.” This is a quote by the French philosopher Georges Bataille, whom Joan referred to in a previous post. We are sure that Shakespeare would have agreed with Bataille. We’re also sure that Shakespeare would have supported – wholeheartedly! – the 21st century’s transition from fossil fuels back to renewables. If you think about it, the current energy transition is actually a homecoming story (and we all like homecoming stories): going back to our roots, back to the basics. It’s time to shift our gaze from looking down into the bowels of the earth and start looking up at our solitary star for guidance on our journey back to the Sun.

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.

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Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer and writer focused on the energy transition. She is a new member of Women Photograph. In her monthly column for Artists and Climate Change, Joan explores the intersection of art and the energy transition. She is currently experimenting with abstract photography as a new language to express her eco-anxiety about climate breakdown and our collective silence. You can find Joan on Twitter and Visura.

Chantal Bilodeau is a playwright whose work focuses on the intersection of science, policy, art, and climate change. She is the founder of Artists & Climate Change, and the Artistic Director of the Arts & Climate Initiative, an organization that uses theatre to foster dialogue about our global climate crisis, create an empowering vision of the future, and inspire people to take action.

4 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s Juliet as the Sun

  1. Thank you for your analysis and historical context. I did not know that coal was burned in Shakespeare’s lifetime. “Juliet is the sun.” Poetry that is both loving praise and a longing for our vanishing sky.

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