Bruno, Faustus, Hamlet

First published in Sidney Newsletter & Journal 12.1 (1992): 55-56.

Review of Hilary Gatti, The Renaissance Drama of Knowledge: Giordano Bruno in England (London and New York: Routledge, 1989)


This book is ambitious on a scale befitting the philosopher and magus who is its protagonist. Re-tracing Giordano Bruno's career, and most particularly his years in England (1583-85) and at the University of Wittenberg (1586-88), Hilary Gatti wishes to show that there exist intimate links between the boldly heterodox speculations of this tragic figure, who fell victim to the repressive intellectual and social order which he challenged, and the two great speculative figures of Elizabethan tragedy: Dr. Faustus, the Wittenberg scholar, and Prince Hamlet, who studied at the same university. For Gatti, a phrase like “the drama of the new philosophy” applies equally well to Bruno's career and to what is here represented as its direct consequence, “the dark but unforgettable flowering of the first great English tragedies” (34), Doctor Faustus and Hamlet.

Any such argument must begin by confronting the frustrating near silence of English sources with respect to Bruno's English years. Apart from a warning about Bruno's religious opinions that was sent to Sir Francis Walsingham by the English ambassador in Paris, and an account (published two decades after the fact) of how this “Italian didapper” was received by the Oxford “pedants” whose scorn he so vividly reciprocated, there is nothing. Lo Spaccio della bestia trionfante (1584) and De gl'heroici furori (1585) were both dedicated to Sir Philip Sidney, but like Fulke Greville, whom the philosopher also cultivated as a member of that humanist aristocracy which he hoped would accept his ideas, Sidney makes no mention of Bruno in his surviving writings. One is left with the cryptic fact (noted long since by Frances Yates) that Bruno's disciple in the art of memory, Alexander Dicson, is mentioned in 1592 as having “attend[ed] on Mr. Philip Sidney, deceased” (The Art of Memory 275).

The two most original chapters of this book are those in which Gatti traces Bruno's influence on Henry Percy, Ninth Earl of Northumberland, and on the scholars and scientists in his circle, among them Thomas Harriot, Walter Warner, and Nicholas Hill. Having discovered, in what remains of the Ninth Earl's library at Petworth House and Alnwick Castle, a collection of seven works by Bruno printed between 1585 and 1591, Gatti uses Northumberland's annotations to De gl'heroici furori as the basis for a re-examination of his “Essay on Love”—and arrives at the perhaps disappointing conclusion that the annotations and the “Essay” both date from the years 1611-14.

Of greater relevance to Gatti's search for links between Bruno and the authors of Doctor Faustus and Hamlet is the evidence which emerges in the next chapter that Bruno's De triplici minimo, De immenso and other writings were being read by Hill, Harriot and Warner during the 1590s. The study of their scientific and philosophical papers from which this conclusion arises can not tell us to what extent Brunonian influences may have been current among writers of a more literary bent associated with Northumberland's circle (Sidney, Raleigh, Chapman, Royden, and Marlowe), but it does provide a helpful reminder of the rigour with which unorthodox opinions like those of Harriot and Warner, and of their friend Marlowe, were repressed during this decade.

However, the Brunonian readings of Doctor Faustus and Hamlet offered in the fourth and fifth chapters of this book, while stimulating in many of their details, remain unconvincing. These chapters are marked by a disturbing inattention both to certain nuances of the texts and also to the full breadth of their ideological contexts; Gatti, moreover, seems largely unacquainted with recent studies of these plays.

Certain errors of fact in this book deserve mention—among them, the consistent misspelling of “Wittenberg” as “Wittemberg,” the claim that Calvinists “were beginning to acquire a strong influence in England in the 1580s” (27, emphasis added), and the distinction (which a reading of one of Bruno's favourite authors, Cornelius Agrippa, would quickly dissolve) between Bruno's “search 'inwards' to penetrate the logical structure of the universe” and a “Neoplatonic or Hermetic gnosis” understood as a “religious ascent” (68). More damaging, perhaps, is the recurrent Fluellenism which results from Gatti's apparent desire to find parallels at all costs between Bruno's writings and Doctor Faustus and Hamlet. It need hardly be said that the presence of “salmons in both [rivers]” (Henry V, IV. vii. 28) does not prove a connection between the philosopher and those plays.

And yet some of the parallels adduced by Gatti—between, for example, Tansillo's urging in the Furori, “Fendi sicur le nubi,” and the aspiration of Marlowe's Faustus to “rend the clouds,” and between passages in Hamlet and in Bruno's Il Candelaio and Spaccio—are intriguing. Moreover, Gatti is surely right to argue that although “Elizabethan culture took some pains to forget such an uncomfortable visitor” (117), Bruno's concern in the Italian dialogues published in London between 1583 and 1585 with “a hoped-for renewal of a hopelessly compromised historical reality” (119) is of direct relevance to Hamlet. While few readers may assent to the view that the “core” of Hamlet is Brunonian (139), Gatti has performed an important service in pressing the case for Bruno's influence not just upon the most advanced philosophical minds of Elizabethan England, but also upon two of the country's greatest playwrights.