Infinite minds: Shakespeare and Giordano Bruno

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Photo: Nancy Aiello

On 17 February 1600 the philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Campo de’ Fiori, today one of the most colourful squares in Rome. A former Dominican friar born near Naples, this wandering intellectual disseminated his revolutionary ideas throughout Europe. He studied in Geneva and Toulouse, taught at Wittenberg (Hamlet’s alma mater, remember?), lectured at Oxford, where he was scorned for his lèse majesté of Aristotle. Remarkably, his best known Italian works were published in England by John Charlewood. He tutored in Venice, where he was denounced to the inquisition and extradited to Rome, where he met his bitter end. Bruno has been hailed as a champion of free thinking, and his monument in Campo de’ Fiori (Photo Nancy Aiello) has been since 1889 a testament against the obscurantism of the Church.

While it is documented that he knew Sir Philip Sidney and that Elizabeth I owned a copy of his Dialogues, Bruno’s relationship with Shakespeare has been a more vexed issue. Frances Yates launched the influential figure of Bruno as interpretor of the ancient doctrine of the legendary Hermes Trismegistus and detected traces of it in The Merchant of Venice and The Tempest. But she was very selective in her reading of Bruno, fashioning a ‘new age’ Shakespeare, which she fathomed in the “trance-like expression”of his Straford-upon-Avon funerary bust. This invited dismissive responses such as that of William Empson, who read Shakespeare’s gaping face rather as the aftermath of a “city banquet, with a series of grand courses and a round of wines”, and the poet “wondering whether he will keep it down”.

In recent years, scholars have suggested a new, refreshing perspective, where Bruno is less the restorer of ancient cults than a very modern thinker who intervenes in the political arena and veils his dangerous ideas in a highly metaphorical and arcane language both to explore new concepts and to elude the censors. Bruno theorized the astonishingly modern and subversive notion of an infinite universe, where man is radically decentralized and yet capable of overcoming his limits to become wise and “heroic”. According to Gilberto Sacerdoti, the “new heaven, new earth” of Antony and Cleopatra is a distinct Shakespearean echo of Bruno’s cosmology, and Love’s Labour’s Lost‘s Berowne is likely to be a tribute to Bruno’s project of political and religious reform relentlessly pursued in different European countries, by advocating a policy of alliance between the moderate monarchs of France and England against the religious extremism of Spain and Rome.

Photo: Umberto Lucidi

On the façade of Palazzo Mocenigo in Venice (photo Umberto Lucidi), where Bruno was arrested in 1592 (next to where Lord Byron would reside two centuries later), one can still make out the void left by the mysterious disappearance of a memorial plaque installed in 2000, on the quatercentenary of Bruno’s execution. That spectral absence reminds us that Bruno is still a troubling thinker, and that his connections with the other Renaissance infinite mind, Shakespeare, deserve further explorations.

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Author:Shaul Bassi

".... speaks an infinite deal of nothing, more than any man in all Venice" (The Merchant of Venice, 1.1.121-22)
  • Nora Byrd

    This is a bit of a tangent, but I took a class in college on Finnegans Wake and we talked a lot about Giordano Bruno’s and Shakespeare’s influence on Joyce and presence in the novel. I wish I could remember if Joyce links the two figures together at all (it’s been a while…). But I think you could definitely include Joyce in the ‘infinite minds’ category, and Finnegans Wake as a sort of ‘infinite book’ (both in the seemingly endless amounts of meaning you can pull from the text, and in how the the end of the book begins the sentence that the beginning of the book finishes, creating an endless cycle).

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