Although Shakespeare and Galileo were born in the same year, 1564, Shakespeare never wrote a play about him or, for that matter, about any of his contemporaries. (He never wrote about anybody who was alive and could protest.) But he created one character who had much in common with Galileo, Falstaff, the man who sees through the game of honour and fidelity.
“Can honour set to a leg? No. Or an arm?
No. Or take away the grief of a wound?
No. Honour hath no skill in surgery then? No.
What is honour? A word. What is that word,
honour? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o’ Wednesday.” — Henry IV, Part 1
Faced with torture, Galileo caved in.
In a magnificent article in the current New Yorker (February 11 and 18), Adam Gopnik describes Galileo as a man of unique talents and courage who thought telling the truth as he saw it was more important than playing political games with those in power.
This is Gopnik’s concluding paragraph:
“So the scientist can shrug at the torturer and say, any way you want me to tell it, I will. You’ve got the waterboard. The stars are still there. It may be no accident that so many of the great scientists really have followed Galileo, in ducking and avoiding the consequences of what they discovered. In the roster of genius, evasion of worldly responsibility seems practically a fixed theme. Newton escaped the world through nuttiness, Darwin through elaborate evasive courtesies and by farming out the politics to Huxley. Heisenberg’s uncertainty was political – he did nuclear-fission research for Hitler – as well as quantum-mechanical. Science demands heroic minds, but not heroic morals. It’s one of the things that make it move.”