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Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine, Astrological physiognomy


When articulating the relationship between man and the world around him (or her), George Peele imagines man as a canvas, a 'picture' of the universe, a microcosm whose makeup carries the 'face' or the viewable surface of the macrocosm. Peele's statement perfectly encapsulates the early modern belief in signatures and correspondences, in which 'Individual objects on earth...contain the signature of the heavenly bodies to which they supposedly correspond'. By envisioning man as a 'picture', Peele conceives of the universe as readily legible upon the human body. In his discussion of the history of signatures and correspondences in The Order of Things, Michel Foucault explains the ways in which this belief in signatures had implications for the early modern body. Foucault comments on one of the most familiar forms of the universe's legibility, the astrological 'type', the person influenced by Mars and therefore warlike, or melancholy due to Saturn's power. Yet Foucault likewise references a much less familiar way in which man served as the universe's picture. According to Foucault, Mars and Saturn do not simply affect one's humours. Rather, they leave a 'sign upon his body'-for example, quite visibly apparent in the wrinkles upon the face-that signals the astrological connection between the person and his or her planetary influences. Upon the human face, then, resides a legible sign that, if read properly, may make someone's disposition more immediately understandable than waiting for his or her behaviour, temperament, or other humoural indicators to become apparent.

According to Foucault, however, these signs do more than simply refer to a person's 'twinship' with the planets. Indeed, Foucault suggests that these astrological signs '[trace] on a man's body the tendencies, accidents, or obstacles present in the whole vast fabric of his life'. By claiming that astrological signs reveal 'the whole vast fabric', Foucault's remark implies that they make legible not only one's past, but also one's future. Such an interpretation is substantiated when he explains that for early moderns, a short line reflected a short life, a furrow an upcoming obstacle, or an upward-rising wrinkle a rise in success. In the midst of Foucault's discussion of signatures and correspondences, we thus find the discourse and tenets of astrological physiognomy.

Most broadly, physiognomy is the study of bodily parts in order to discern a person's nature. Astrological physiognomy (also at times referred to as planetary physiognomy) is a subset of physiognomy in which the physiognomer interprets astral characters on another's body, typically the hand (known as chiromancy) or the forehead (known as metoposcopy), in order to discern his or her fortune, and it is a practice that early modern literary scholars have leftlargely unexamined. In fact, historical overviews of physiognomy often overlook all physiognomic practice in the early modern period, jumping from the Greek codification of physiognomy to its popular resurgence in mid-to late eighteenth-century Europe due to Johann Lavater's famous physiognomic publications. Yet as I will demonstrate, physiognomic practice, and specifically astrological physiognomy, was one of several occult practices that could help guide a person's interpersonal relations.

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Early Modern Literary Studies




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