The Moon: Shakespeare, Harriot and Galileo


Shakespeare and Galileo were both born in the same year, 1564. During their lifetime, modern physics was firmly founded through the efforts of Galileo, and Shakespeare wrote some of the finest texts in English literature. These giants of science and poetry shared a genuine curiosity for the natural world. The Moon has always been a source of fascination for poets, but Shakespeare, who lived in a ‘modern’ world of scientific observations through telescopes, shows a remarkable knowledge of astronomical facts about our satellite, in addition to his appreciation of its poetic and dramatic effects.

In the 20th century Jorge Louis Borges considered the Moon as a device enhancing the literary reality and used it in one of his best-known short stories, with an unintended, and surprising result. An important topic of the course concerns the invention and perfection of telescopes such as those used by Galileo and Thomas Harriot for their revolutionary observations of the Moon, as well as the inspiration exerted by this instrument on English writers.

The course will include a visit to the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, housing a fine collection of astronomical instruments, among which telescopes similar to those used by Galileo and Harriot, as well as an armillary sphere that belonged to Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland (whose name is linked by some critics to the genesis of Shakespeare’s play Love Labours Lost).

Programme details

Session 1

Introduction: a multi-faceted approach to looking at the Moon

Session 2

The Moon: a physical portrait

Session 3

Observing the Moon through the ages

Session 4

Galileo and the telescope

Session 5

Astronomical instruments and observations (session held at the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford)

Session 6

Thomas Harriot and the first map of the Moon (with a visit to Trinity College)

Session 7

Galileo’s observations and the foundation of modern science

Session 8

The telescope as an instrument of imagination

Session 9

Shakespeare and the Moon

Session 10

Shakespeare and ‘The School of Night’ 

Session 11

The Moon and ‘the postulation of reality’ in literature

Session 12

The full Moon offers a clue in a detective story 


* Please note that the cost of any fieldtrips is included in the course fee.


Description Costs
Programme Fee (No Accommodation - inc. Tuition, Lunch & Dinner) £850.00
Programme Fee (Standard Single Room - inc. Tuition and Meals) £1485.00
Programme Fee (Standard Twin Room - inc. Tuition and Meals) £1245.00
Programme Fee (Superior Single Room - inc. Tuition and Meals) £1600.00
Programme Fee (Superior Twin Room - inc. Tuition and Meals) £1345.00


Dr Marina Debattista


Marina Debattista has a PhD in Physics specialising in quantum field theory and is currently interested in the popularisation of science, and in particular in the interconnections between art, literature, and physics.

Course aims

This course aims to provide a parallel between the scientific approach of understanding the Moon, through observation and measurement, and the literary attraction for our satellite.

Teaching methods

All summer school courses are taught through group seminars and individual tutorials. Students also conduct private study when not in class and there is a well stocked library at OUDCE to support individual research needs.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course, students will be expected to understand:

  • Why the actual observation of the Moon through the telescope constitutes a special moment in the history of astronomy and of science in general
  • How Shakespeare incorporated his knowledge about the Moon in some of his plays
  • Harriot’s role in the development of physics and mathematics
  • How reference to the full moon offers a very important temporal clue in Jorge Luis Borges’ short story The Garden of the Forking Paths

Assessment methods

Students are assessed during the summer school by either a 1500 word written assignment or a presentation supported by individual documentation. To successfully gain credit (10 CATS points) students should attend all classes and complete the on-course assignment. There is also a pre-course assignment of 1000 words set. Although this does not count towards credit, it is seen as an important way of developing a student's ideas and therefore its completion is mandatory.