Shakespeare on disasters

Posted: September 7, 2012 by Huub Nieuwstadt in Disaster, Etymology

As a student of disaster management, it has been repeated to me ad nauseam that there is no such thing as a natural disaster. Disasters are not unfortunate “acts of God”. In this context one is often reminded of the vote-loving, press-pleasing and responsibility-shifting politicians who claim that a disaster happening under their auspices is beyond their control. Disasters – I am told instead – find their root causes in more man-made circumstances.

I find it interesting to see that academia has accepted a definition of disasters that is pretty much the exact opposite of the actual historical and etymological meaning of the word.

The precise history of the word disaster is difficult to trace, but it is more than likely that the term first came into use in Italy of the 16th century: “disastro“. Astro is derived from the Latin and Greek words for star (Latin: aster and Greek:  ἀστήρ). Dis– is a pejorative prefix (Greek: δυσ-), meaning ill or bad. The literal meaning of disaster therefore, is “bad star” or “ill starred”.

So we find the roots of the word disaster in astrology: the manifestation of an unfortunate event because stars and planets just happen to be unfavourably aligned.  A far cry from the definition most academics subscribe to.

Ancient mythology attributing unfortunate events on the stars and planets

It did not take long for the word disastro to find its way into the English language. The word was introduced by an Englishman with Italian roots: John Florio. His Italian – English dictionary “A Worlde of Wordes”, contains the first ever recorded mentioning of the word disaster in the English language.  Born in London but with Italian parents, Florio was a language tutor at the court of King James and – interestingly – a personal friend of William Shakespeare. Some conspiracy theorists out there even claim Florio and Shakespeare were the same person.

I can only imagine Florio and Shakespeare together in some Elizabethan era pub, the former trying to impress the latter with all the new fancy words he recently came up with. Unsurprisingly, it did not take long for the word “disaster” to make its literary debut in a few of Shakespeare’s plays and poems, most notably in King Lear.

It is the second scene of the first act. Disgruntled about his status as illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, Edmund conjures up a devious caper to once and for all dispose of this older half-brother Edgar (who incidentally is a legitimate son of their father). Edmund forges a letter written by his brother Edgar, in which is revealed that Edgar is plotting to take over their father’s estate. When the Earl gets his hands on the letter Edmund (scoundrel that he is) actually defends his half-brother, but the damage has already been done. In a desperate state over his son’s betrayal, the Earl exclaims before storming off-stage:

“These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us. Though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects. Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide, in cities mutinies, in countries discord, in palaces treason, and the bond cracked ‘twixt son and father”

But Edmund is not so sure that unfortunate events find their cause in the movements of celestial bodies. When his father has left the stage he addresses the audience:

“This is the excellent foppery of the world that when we are sick in fortune – often the surfeit of our own behaviour – we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars, as if we were villains by necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance, drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence, and all that we are evil in by a divine thrusting-on”

Of course, the disaster the Earl is referring to is of a slightly different calibre than the earthquakes, floods and draughts that make the headlines today. But nonetheless, in King Lear we find a very early example of what is now a major difference of opinion between some politicians and academics.

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Comments
  1. Saffron says:

    The best blog post yet!!!! 😀

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