The Life of Galileo | Study Guide

Bertolt Brecht

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The Life of Galileo | Plot Summary

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Summary

The Life of Galileo relates the roughly thirty-year period in the famous astronomer's life, when he made his greatest discoveries, faced retribution from the Catholic church, recanted his life's work, and eventually, continued to research and write in secret. The playwright Bertolt Brecht dramatizes the historical people and events upon which the play is based, creating a narrative that makes historical events relevant to the contemporary world.

The play begins in the year 1609, when Galileo Galilei first learns of the idea of a telescope, recently invented in the Netherlands, from Ludovico Marsili. Ludovico is a young nobleman whose mother insists that he take tutoring in the sciences, even though he has little desire or aptitude for it.

The telescope is the foundational technology that enables all of Galileo's contributions to the field of science. In the play, it also acquires a symbolic value as an instrument that allows one to see the truth, if only one is willing to look.

Throughout the play, even in these early scenes, Brecht characterizes Galileo as the kind of man who is willing to do anything to maintain his personal comfort. The astronomer makes his telescope based on the description provided to him by Ludovico, claims to have invented it by himself, and sells the design to the Venetian Senate, all to obtain a generous salary.

It is this same motivation for personal gain that encourages Brecht's Galileo to dedicate his first post-telescope book to the young Florentine prince Cosimo II (Cosimo de' Medici) and to name the moons of Jupiter the "Medicean Stars." Galileo is fixated simultaneously on his search for truth and his need to make sure his next meal is a good one.

Galileo's search for truth, however, is a dangerous one. His discovery of the moons of Jupiter and the phases of the moon pose a challenge to the reigning Aristotelian conception of the cosmos. Galileo's assistants warn him that his theories' alignment with the Copernican concept of a universe with the sun at the center and no place left for God would earn him torture or death.

In Florence and in Rome, Galileo's teachings are largely met with skepticism, and sometimes outright anger, among the clergy. Brecht creates a scene at the Florentine court in which Galileo pleads with scholars and the prince to simply look through the telescope to see the truth. In Rome, monks and priests mock and argue with Galileo, but all are forced to reckon with his findings when the Chief Astronomer to the Papal College Christopher Clavius pronounces Galileo correct.

Although vindicated, Galileo soon finds himself in a worse position, as the papacy decrees in 1616 that Copernican heliocentrism is heretical and that he should refrain from teaching it and researching it or else be labeled a heretic.

Throughout the middle of the play, Brecht engages various characters in discussions with one another and with Galileo regarding what it is proper for man to know. In many cases, this discussion concerns what knowledge humans should possess and what knowledge humans should not seek, since it belongs to God alone. However, in other circumstances, Brecht has his characters speak from a broader perspective. Galileo's assistant, the Little Monk, comes from a peasant family, and while he has even observed the phenomena that Galileo describes, he believes the papal decree against teaching this new science is morally correct. Brecht's Galileo finds it difficult to defend against the Little Monk's argument that religion gives the common people a sense of purpose and happiness that they would lack if they lost their faith.

Brecht's play skips ahead eight years, passing over the time when Galileo continues to conduct research of a nature that is approved by the church. The play picks up in 1623, when Galileo learns that the current pope is dying and that Cardinal Barberini, a correspondent and fellow astronomer, will likely succeed him. Cardinal Barberini does, in fact, become Pope Urban VIII, and Galileo returns to his research on heavenly bodies, this time at the expense of his daughter's happiness.

Virginia Galilei had become engaged to Galileo's former pupil Ludovico Marsili in 1616, but Ludovico cautions Galileo that he cannot be associated with someone promoting heretical views and breaks his engagement with Virginia. Galileo seems wholly unconcerned and even taunts Ludovico with his plan to compose his findings in the common language instead of scholarly Latin. Ludovico has made it clear that he opposes Galileo's findings because they threaten the existing social order as much as they do the church.

Brecht's Galileo wishes his teachings to be known by all, regardless of the consequences, raising one of the central issues in this text: What are the moral and social responsibilities of the scientist? Should truth be sought above all else, or are there other priorities that should restrain the pursuit of knowledge?

The play again jumps ahead in time, to 1632, when the next major events of Galileo's life unfolds. A ballad singer and his wife appear and sing of the impact that Galileo's theories have had as they spread throughout Italy in the intervening years. The concerns of the Little Monk and Ludovico are echoed in their song, as the singers claim that the independence that people have gained from a decreasing obedience to the ecclesiastical worldview that Galileo challenged is causing moral disease.

After years of conducting his research with the protection of the new, pro-science Pope Urban VIII and the Florentine court, Galileo pushes them too far with his 1632 publication of a new book that more blatantly supports the Copernican model of the cosmos. Brecht depicts the mathematician and astronomer Pope Urban VIII succumbing to the demands of his office against his own wishes; the pope allows the papal inquisitor to interrogate Galileo in order to convince him to recant his teachings, although he mandates that Galileo not be tortured to achieve this end.

In 1633, Galileo formally and publicly recanted his teachings, saving his own life but imperiling the advance of science. In Brecht's telling, Galileo is a weak man who recants in order to prevent himself the discomfort of prison and the pain of torture or death. Brecht's Galileo, when questioned years later by his former assistant Andrea Sarti, claims he had no plan; he simply betrayed science to save himself.

In the end, however, this decision allows Galileo's research to continue. He lives as a prisoner under the careful watch of the Catholic church, but he writes his research in secret, and Andrea manages to smuggle Galileo's final book out of the country for publication in a more progressive country. In the final scene, Andrea appears at the Italian border and while waiting for the customs officers, engages a young boy in conversation. The boy is confident that a local woman is a witch, and Andrea attempts to prove him wrong by lifting him to the window to observe the woman instead of her shadow. Andrea's interaction with the boy is Brecht's final argument for the pursuit of truth through observation and the rejection of belief without independent verification.

The Life of Galileo Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 Galileo invents a telescope to study planetary motion.

Rising Action

2 Galileo's heliocentric theories challenge the church.

3 The Florentine court refuses to see Galileo's truth.

4 Galileo defends his work in Rome, but it is decreed heresy.

5 Cardinal Barberini becomes pope and Galileo rejoices.

6 Galileo's theories cause social disruptions across Italy.

Climax

7 The Catholic church forces Galileo to recant his theories.

Falling Action

8 Galileo secretly continues his research under house arrest.

Resolution

9 Galileo passes his research on to his student Andrea Sarti.

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