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Written in the stars: Prince Hal’s almanac

Prince Hal addresses Poins in the Boar’s Head Tavern in William Shakespeare’s 2 Henry IV, exclaiming “Saturn and Venus this year in conjunction! What says th’almanac to that?” This is a rare instance of Shakespeare using the word “almanac,” although he does reference calendars and gesture to almanacs as potential props for determining the date, time, lunar cycle, and weather in other plays. In this scene, Prince Hal is not simply checking the date, he is tracking the position of the planets. In Renaissance (and twenty-first century) astrology, a conjunction between planets is a powerful sideral event. In our own moment of revived interest in astrology, Prince Hal’s almanac shows the longer history of using the stars to understand the present and imagine the time to come.

Almanacs were widely used in Shakespeare’s England to consider astrological matters, recount past events, take note of the present position of heavenly bodies, and imagine future times, weather, and celestial movements. In addition to the essential monthly calendar that lists feast days and charts the movements of the stars, almanacs often include historical chronologies of biblical and national history, tide tables, latitude charts, lists of England’s kings since 1066, suggested timelines for planting and harvesting crops, distances between cities and ports, schedules of the university terms, medical and veterinary advice, and predictions concerning matters of weather, health, and politics. Almanac users would purchase a new copy each year for up-to-date calendars, predictions, and astronomical and astrological information. The day-to-day functions of marking time in an almanac are notably saturated with political meaning because they organize everyday time with respect to the nation’s past and present rulers.

Prince Hal’s call for an almanac is simultaneously mundane—almanacs were common Renaissance books—and extraordinary in that calendars did not take this specific material form during the actual Prince’s lifetime. On the Renaissance stage, this multi-temporal almanac could have been the issue for the current year, i.e. 1599. The printed booklet would contain information about the Prince’s future, including the dates for the reigns of Henry IV and Henry V. The Prince’s future is, of course, always a part of the past to the audience in the playhouse, but it would have also been part of the past in the pages of a printed almanac prop. Prince Hal calls for an almanac to determine the present position of the stars, but he would hold in his hand a printed book that documents his future and, in turn, encapsulates the tensions of representing past futures of the monarchy on the stage. 

A perplexing scene is unfolding in the tavern when the Prince seeks out an almanac to metaphorically help him decipher it. Doll Tearsheet sits on Falstaff’s lap while Prince Hal and Poins spy on them and provide color commentary on this unlikely coupling. The Prince wants to know if the astrological symbols of elderly Saturn (Falstaff) and lovely, perpetually beautiful Venus (Doll) are forecast to be both visible in the heavens at the same time in an almanac because it might explain the amorous tableaux he sees before him.

Today, astrology enthusiasts are more likely to turn to an app than an almanac to consult the position and influence the stars might have on their near or long-term future. Over the past decade, interest in astrology, and businesses providing astrological services, have both steadily grown. Traffic and profit peaked during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. As Hilary George-Parkin puts it in a 2021 BBC article, “Perhaps it’s no wonder that so many people who weren’t interested in astrology before are turning to the stars for guidance. For much of the world, the past year has been one of few earthly comforts – hugs have been scarce, jobs have been lost and every day brings news of more human suffering.” Writing in The Washington Post in 2023, Sydney Page reminds us that “Research has shown that people are more likely to be drawn to divinatory practices in times of tumult and uncertainty.” Uncertain times encourage us to imagine possible futures, guided by the stars and other means.

Shakespeare may also have been alluding to tumultuous times when he wrote Prince Hal’s jest: a notable conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in 1583 that was thought to have predicted the English victory at Tilbury in 1588. Margaret Aston argues that this historical conjunction underpins Shakespeare’s reference to almanac astrology because of how extensively the 1583 Saturn and Jupiter conjunction was discussed in print in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles—an important source text for the play—as well as other contemporary sources. According to prophetic interpretations, this conjunction predicted an annus mirabilis that would arrive in five-years time, and English astrologers and intellectuals alike argued that the events of 1588 fulfilled that prophecy. Shakespeare, moreover, was writing his chronicle plays about England’s medieval past during the Elizabethan succession crisis, a long-term, slow-moving panic about the future of the English throne during the reign of a virgin queen who refused to marry or publicly name her heir. Staging futures past and realized, aided by almanacs and astrology or other modes of speculation, provided a model for thinking ahead along lines of succession, however unstable. National futures, not only prospects of love and affection, might be foreseen in the movement of the stars.

Feature image: Prophetic almanac. 1832 edition. CC4.0, via Wellcome Collection gallery.

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