Thomas Shadwell satirizes Robert Hooke in The Virtuoso, 1676, and the image sticks

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2024","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"700","style":"width: 233px; float: right; height: 349px; border-width: 5px; border-style: solid; margin: 10px;","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"467"}}]]At the center of this year’s EST/Sloan Mainstage Production, Isaac’s Eye, is the intense rivalry between Isaac Newton and the accomplished polymath Robert Hooke. Why Hooke is so much less known today than Newton remains a puzzle. As Stephen Inwood writes in The Forgotten Genius, his biography of Hooke:

The diversity of Hooke’s accomplishments was impressive even in his own time, and would be unthinkable today. As well as making an important contribution in almost every scientific field, Hooke was a notable scientific artist; a pugnacious controversialist; a brilliant designer of watches, telescopes, quadrants, and scientific instruments of all sorts; a surveyor and urban developer of the first rank; and one of the most important designers and builders of country mansions, town houses, churches, hospitals and monuments of his time.

In The Curious Life of Robert Hooke, Lisa Jardine laments that one of the most memorable images of Hooke is the buffoonish character created by Thomas Shadwell in The Virtuoso, the hit comedy of London’s summer season in 1676. The title refers to the character Sir Nicholas Gimcrack whom we first meet onstage lying on his stomach on a table, a piece of string in his teeth, the other end tied around the belly of a frog in a bowl of water. Attended by a “Swimming Master,” Sir Nicholas is learning how to swim by imitating the movements of the frog.   Encountering him for the first time, two young admirers inquire about his method:

Longvil: Have you ever tried in the water, sir?

Sir Nicholas: No, sir, but I swim most exquisitely on land.

Bruce: Do you intend to practice in the water, sir?

Sir Nicholas: Never, sir. I hate the water. I never come upon the water, sir.

Longvil: Then there will be no use of swimming.

Sir Nicholas: I content myself with the speculative part of swimming; I care not for the practice. I seldom bring anything to use; ‘tis not my way. Knowledge is my ultimate end.

Shadwell aimed his satire at the Royal Society, the learned body founded in 1660 to discuss science and run experiments. Some of the entries in its early proceedings bear a close and comical resemblance to what we find Sir Nicholas exploring. As Matthew L. Jones and Matthew Stanley explained in a recent talkback after a performance of Isaac’s Eye:

Jones: If you want to amuse yourself for an hour, look at the first few issues of their journal, the Philosophical Transactions, filled with deadly serious experiments and a whole lot of reports from various flaky gentlemanly figures who sent in all kinds of observations . . . Leibniz, the great mathematician, publishes an article about a sheep whose head looked like a wig.

Stanley: One of the things I love about the early Royal Society: There are these experiments that now we look back on as the first glimmerings of atomic truth right next to an entry about snakes with feet. The Royal Society did not particularly distinguish between these things in terms of their philosophic value. These were all things in which gentlemen should be interested.  

Much of the comedy in the play comes from Sir Nicholas’s detailed description of his experiments. One involves transfusing blood between a sheep and a man--and the result:

he bleated perpetually and chew’d the cud; he had wool growing on him in great quantities; and a Northamptonshire sheep’s tail did soon emerge or arise from his anus or human fundament. . . I shall shortly have a flock of ‘em. I’ll make all my own clothes of ‘em.

Shadwell takes pains in his prologue to claim that no one scientist served as his source:

Yet no one coxcomb in this play is shown;
No one man’s humour makes a  part alone;
But scatter’d follies gather’d into one.

That’s not, however, how Londoners or Hooke himself reacted. Many might have recognized direct quotes from Hooke’s Micrographia. Over the course of a month Hooke chronicled in his diary hearing about the play after its first performance – it was the talk of the town -- his response to seeing it, and then actually buying a copy of the script:

Thursday, May 25 [The date on which King Charles II reportedly saw the play]: At coffe house. Mr. Hill gave Sir J. Hoskins, Aubery and I an account of Virtuoso play.

Thursday, June 1: I was not at the Society. Morgan told me of play.

Friday, June 2: With Godfrey and Tompion at Play. Met Oliver there. Damned Doggs. Vindica me Deus [God grant me revenge]. People almost pointed.

Saturday, June 3: At Garaways, Sir J. More, Flamstead, Hill from Play Floutingly smiled.

Sunday, June 25: Walked to Sir J. Cutler. Whistler served me a dog trick. Lady Cutler askd about Virtuoso. Disturbd with drinking wine and walking.

Saturday, July 1: In Mr. Montacues coach to Sir Chr. Wrens. Noe company. Virtuoso play. Sick with drinking whey.

Monday, July 3: At Mr. Martins tooke virtuoso 1sh

Jardine closes her biography of Hooke by recounting the story of Margaret Godolphin, royal lady in waiting, who worried, after seeing The Virtuoso, whether she should retain Hooke as the architect to remodel her first married home. She expressed her concern to fellow Society member John Evelyn, who sent her a scorching reply, “I was amaz’d to see one of your Sex pleas’d with what the wretches said.” He hoped she would “rise above shallow and fatuous mockery of a great man like Hooke.” But Jardine’s final paragraph testifies to Shadwell’s lasting impact:

In spite of Evelyn’s rebuke, it is Shadwell’s unkind satirizing of Hooke which has continued to inform historians’ versions of his character and life. If we are to accord Hooke the respect and admiration he deserves we would do well to remember Evelyn’s indignation at the idea that Shadwell’s caricature had anything whatsoever to do with the brilliant man himself.  

You can read excerpts from Matthew L. Jones and Matthew Stanley’s discussion of Isaac’s Eye with playwright Lucas Hnath and physicist Gabriel Cwilich here and listen to a podcast of the entire discussion at Science Talk.

Learn more about Isaac’s Eye.