Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Liberal Studies


Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis

Subject Categories

Ancient History, Greek and Roman through Late Antiquity | Classical Literature and Philology | Cultural History | History of Gender | History of Religion | History of Religions of Western Origin | Intellectual History | Literature in English, British Isles | Other Classics | Other Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Renaissance Studies | Women's History | Women's Studies


Renaissance astrology, The Winter's Tale, sympathetic magic, women in the Renaissance, history of astrology, Shakespeare and gender


This thesis offers a new reading of William Shakespeare’s late play The Winter’s Tale (1623), positing that in order to understand this complex and eccentric work, we must read it with a complex and eccentric eye. In The Winter’s Tale, planets strike without warning, pulling at hearts, wombs, and blood, impacting the health and emotional experience of characters in the play. This work is renowned for its inconsistent formal structure; the first half is a tragedy set in winter, but abruptly shifts to a comedy set in spring/summer in its latter half. What’s more, is that planets, luminaries, and stars above constantly interfere with human life, due to their gravitational pull. I argue that in order to fully comprehend The Winter’s Tale and all its nuance, one must read it with an understanding of Renaissance astrology, a science that was fully embedded in Shakespeare’s cultural milieu. The astrological worldview accepts that the motion of planets in the heavens impact life on earth, and this is crystallized in the Renaissance belief of micro- and macrocosmic interplay. By tracing planetary language in The Winter’s Tale, we find a deeper reading of the play's gender dynamics than previous scholarship has offered. The Winter's Tale's central focus is Leontes, king of Sicilia, who believes his wife has committed adultery. This launches him into unwarranted fits of misogynistic destruction, inadvertently instigating the seeming death of his family and other tragic events. Shakespeare drew richly, in all of his works, from Greco-Roman myth, Greek drama, and history, and embedded in all of those disciplines is the biopolitics of the polis. Classical Athenian culture purposefully limited the rights of women, who were thought to lack emotional control, in comparison to men. The Renaissance was a moment of cultural rebirth, heavily influenced by classical Greek cultural materials, of which astrology was much a part. Astrology colored Renaissance ideas about the body and gender, and thus is instrumental in deepening our understanding of this eccentric play. Reading The Winter’s Tale with astrological awareness offers a new reading of the play’s gender dynamics, and shows that Shakespeare was lampooning the acts of tyrants who fear the regenerative power of feminine agency.