Article Title

Among Actions, Objects, and Ideas: The Telescope in Thomas Tomkis’s Albumazar


Vivian Appler


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Albumazar1 is a play filled with things, from mundane household goods to lists of ancient and contemporary alchemists and magi to the eponymous astrologer’s collection of astrolabes, horoscopes, and almanacs. It is also the first play in English to feature a scene with a telescope onstage.2 However, whether many of the things in Thomas Tomkis’s (c. 1580–after 1615) science farce physically appeared onstage for its March 9, 1614 premiere at Cambridge’s Trinity Hall is uncertain. The questionable material status of Tomkis’s stage properties becomes significant when Albumazar is examined in a context of the history of science as well as the history of theatre. The original college production demonstrates the playwright’s cultural awareness of the emergent disciplinary distinction of astronomy through the incorporation of its star technology: the telescope.3 King James I (1566–1625)—witch-hunter, author of Daemonology (1597), and royal guest at Albumazar’s premiere— likely held a derogatory opinion of the telescope because of its potential use as a tool in the occult craft of astrology. The space between the textual narrative and the telescope scene as it might have been embodied by actors in 1614 reveals the delicate balance that Tomkis achieved by referring to truthful elements of astronomy while poking fun at astrology. The manner in which the telescope was performed—as a physical prop or mimed as part of a dumb show—indicates the range of Tomkis’s engagement with the tools and concepts of the “new science” in the only performance of the play recorded during his lifetime.

1. Thomas Tomkis, Albumazar. A Comedy presented before the Kings Majestie at Cambridge, the ninth of March. 1614, By the Gentlemen of Trinitie Colledge (London: Nicholas Okes, 1615), RB 69695, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California, 1.3. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Albumazar are taken from this edition and are cited parenthetically by act and scene number in the text. (No line numbers are given in this edition.) [End Page 100]

2. Aaron Butler cites the first dramatic reference to the telescope in an English drama as appearing in John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi (1613). For more about glasses in early modern English theatre, see Aaron Butler, “Glass Perspectives: Optics and Virtue in English Renaissance Drama” (PhD diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2000), ProQuest (9968559).

3. Astronomy, the observation of the sky and its contents, existed for millennia before the telescope was patented in 1609.

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