Think of King Lear, who sinned knowingly and scoffed at the stars. Or Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest, who defied the stars and then used them to his benefit. The "star-cross'd" Romeo believed the poison from the apothecary was the only thing that would "shake the yoke of inauspicious stars" from his "world-wearied flesh." And Anthony, in Julius Caesar, attributed his first defeat to the fact that the stars had forsaken him, blaming the moon's eclipse for his ultimate fall.
In all of Shakespeare's 37 plays there are more than a hundred allusions to astrology, and many of his characters' actions are said to be favored or hindered by the stars. The signs of the zodiac are mentioned in six of Shakespeare's plays, and the planets may even be blamed for disasters, especially as they wander from their spheres. Several of Shakespeare's characters were governed by particular stars, as Posthumous was born under the benevolent planet Jupiter, and thus had a favorable destiny at the end of the play. Another character, Monsieur Parolles, was born under Mars and became known fittingly as a soldier. The moon--known for its influence on emotions and self-image--was said to govern Elizabeth, who wept throughout the play Richard III. These examples and many other astrological passages scattered throughout his dramatic works show that Shakespeare was at least interested in astrology and used the art abundantly in the creation of some of his most striking passages. He probably did this because it would have an appeal to the Elizabethan audience at the time. Whether he had a sincere interest in astrology is unknown.
Elizabethan poetry contained a cosmic order that included stars, the planets, the sun and the earth. There was a general fear of chaos and upsetting the order of things. There was also a chain of being, and everything was related to that chain. Despite Copernicus, most Elizabethans believed the earth was flat and the heavens constituted fire and the highest perfection--light. There was a sharp division between everything beneath the sphere of the moon, and all the rest of the universe. The heavens were eternal and made of ether, while everything under the moon--such as man--was subject to decay.
Angels were the intermediary between earth and man, were purely intellectual, and thought to possess free will. However, this never conflicted with God's will. Angels could make the connection with God immediately as messengers and guardians of men. The nine hierarchies of angels were thought to inhabit the nine spheres: primum mobile, fixed stars, Saturn, Jupiter Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury, and the Moon. The stars and planets were thought to sing to the angels, which were made of brightness and assumed a body of ether when they appeared to human sight. The planets, like other parts of nature, were merely tools for God's will, and their orbit and natural rhythms were kept according to God's order.
Many times a soul was compared to a planet or sphere, with an angel
revolving it. John Donne's poetry reveals this, and poets such as
Shakespeare wrote about how the motions of the spheres made music,
although we as humans were not supposed to be able to hear it. An example
is in The Merchant of Venice, when Lorenzo says to
"Such harmony is in immortal souls; But whilst this muddy vesture of decay Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it."
The planets thus were communicating agents from eternity to mankind, and the stars were said to dictate how everything under the moon changes. The stars were the medium between God and man, yet sometimes an Elizabethan audience may live in terror of them. This terror was mostly superstitious, as many believed the stars could actually cause bad things to happen, especially natural disasters. God's Providence, however, dictated that superstition was man inflicting beliefs upon himself, and that the stars were not harmful but beneficent, and that they were created to do good.
Most Elizabethans believed the stars and planets held some kind of power over the 'baser side' of man, and were to be used as tools of God, but they did not believe the stars held power over the supreme side of man--the immortal part. Thus man had free will and could overcome his fate by choosing good; the stars couldn't force him to do anything. Religious education or art could overcome any fate written in the stars. The Elizabethans were still afraid, however, and searched for some answer to overwrite any destiny they saw shining for them in the heavens.
For many in Shakespeare's time, planets and stars were people personified. The heavenly spheres had eternal souls. The fall of mankind hurt man, but the stars completed him, as long as he realized his two highest faculties--understanding and free will.