The Life of Galileo | Study Guide

Bertolt Brecht

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The Life of Galileo | Symbols

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Galileo's Telescope

Galileo's telescope represents the division between the research- and observation-based methods of science and the blind faith and obedience that adherence to a religious regime requires. The telescope first appears simply as an instrument that can be used to see things far away. However, in Scene 4, the telescope becomes the symbol of the conflict between Galileo's research and those who wish to deny it for any reason. Galileo presents his telescope and his related discoveries to the court of the Florentine prince, Cosimo II, but not one of the members of the court is willing to look through the telescope to see what Galileo and his assistants have seen. Galileo begs them simply to look: "All anybody has to do is look," but they refuse out of fear that this instrument will show them a truth that is incompatible with what they believe.

Pope Urban VIII's Vestments

In Scene 11, while Pope Urban VIII has a conversation with the Inquisitor, the pope's servants dress him in papal robes for a formal appearance. The stage directions indicate that he is plainly identifiable as the former Cardinal Barberini in the beginning of the scene and almost completely obscured beneath the garments by its end. This progressive transformation visually mirrors the narrative action, where the mathematician and pro-science pope, who happily debated theory with Galileo in Scene 6, is subsumed by his new role as pope and leader of the faithful. Under pressure in his new position, the pope reluctantly agrees to allow the Inquisitor to interrogate Galileo and threaten him with torture in order to convince him to recant his theories. The vestments symbolize the disappearance of the person into the role of the pope and the power of the office to subsume the person who occupies it.

The Old Woman/Witch

In Scene 14, while Andrea is smuggling Galileo's books out of Italy, he encounters a boy who is tormenting a woman he claims is a witch. When Andrea asks him what he is doing, the boy relates stories that "prove" she is a witch, and Andrea refutes each of them with a logical explanation. Finally, Andrea lifts the boy to the window, proving that the shadow that appears to prove she is stirring "hellbroth" is in fact simply a shadow of an old woman stirring soup with a big ladle (not a broomstick). The story is much the same as the "Allegory of the Cave" in Plato's The Republic, where belief in shadows may be shattered by research into the origin of the shadows. The witch symbolizes ignorance; the woman knowledge through research.

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