Select your language

Suggested languages for you:
Log In Start studying!
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads
Free
|
|

All-in-one learning app

  • Flashcards
  • NotesNotes
  • ExplanationsExplanations
  • Study Planner
  • Textbook solutions
Start studying

The Life of Galileo

Save Save
Print Print
Edit Edit
Sign up to use all features for free. Sign up now
English Literature

The Life of Galileo (also known as Life of Galileo or Galileo) is a play by Bertolt Brecht with music by Hans Eisler. The drama was written in 1938, and it premiered on 9th September 1943 at the Schauspielhaus Zürich in Switzerland.

AuthorBertolt Brecht
Original title in GermanLeben des Galilei
Written1937-1939
Published1943
First stage performance1943
GenreEpic theatre playHistorical dramaAgit-prop
Dramatic devicesIncidental music Projections Dramatic irony The V effect (the Alienation effect)
Literary devicesForeshadowing Allusion

The Life of Galileo: Summary

Set during Renaissance Italy, The Life of Galileo follows the famous astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei.

The play opens with Galileo talking to his housekeeper’s son, Andrea, about the solar system. Galileo shares with Andrea the ideas of Nikolaus Copernicus and explains how this changes what was believed about the Sun until this moment: Copernicus places the Sun at the centre of the solar system. Andrea’s mother, Mrs Sarti, enters and is concerned about what she sees. What Galileo is teaching Andrea goes against what the Roman Catholic Church approves, and she is worried that her son might get in trouble for sharing what Galileo has taught him.

Although he has a position as Professor of Mathematics at Padua University in Venice, Galileo has money troubles. That is why, when Ludovico arrives and asks Galileo to be his tutor, Mrs Sarti convinces him to accept. The astronomer unwillingly agrees to tutor Ludovico. Soon after, Galileo’s supervisor, the Procurator, lets Galileo know that his request for a raise has been denied. The Procurator reminds Galileo that he should feel lucky to be working at Padua University because, even if it doesn’t pay him as much, it is a place that grants freedom from the Church. Galileo, in turn, doesn’t see what the use of free thought is if one spends all his time working to make enough to survive.

Ludovico offers Galileo a solution to his problems, a Dutch device called a telescope. Galileo recreates it, and the Procurator is so impressed, thinking that Galileo invented it, that he gives him his raise. Soon after, a Dutch merchant arrives, bringing many telescopes, and Galileo’s deception is revealed. However, Galileo has already used the telescope to prove Copernicus’ theory that the Sun is at the centre of the solar system.

The knowledge that a man has been burned at the stake just because he was quoting Copernicus doesn’t stop Galileo from moving to Florence, a place under much stricter control by the Church. Galileo hopes that in Florence, he will have the time and money to pursue his research. When he gets there, he shows the workings of the telescope to a theologian, a mathematician, and a philosopher, all three of whom are sceptical and unsupportive. However, they do agree to show Galileo’s work to Clavius, the chief scientist of the Church. Not long after, Florence is overcome by a deadly plague. Galileo, his daughter Virginia, their housekeeper Mrs Sarti, and her son Andrea are given the opportunity to return to Venice. However, Galileo decides to stay so that he can continue his work, and Mrs Sarti stays with him. They send Virginia and Andrea away, but Andrea comes back because he feels the need to keep assisting Galileo.

The plague doesn’t affect the characters, and Galileo meets with Clavius and his party of Church scholars at the Vatican. Although Clavius admits that Galileo is correct, he and the other scholars are convinced that his findings are dangerous because they go against the age-old wisdom of the Church. The Church offers Galileo an ambiguous middle ground. Copernicus remains heretical, but Galileo can continue his research as long as he doesn’t publish it and share it with the outside world. Galileo is upset about this, but he is also conflicted because he is a devout Catholic and doesn’t want to do anything against the wishes of the Church. Galileo finds a loophole: he doesn’t publish his work but shares his knowledge with his students.

The Pope is dying, and it seems entirely possible that the next Pope could be Galileo’s fellow mathematician, Cardinal Barberini. Galileo is so hopeful that the Cardinal would be in favour of his work that he resumes the publication of his research. He quickly becomes very famous, which brings the Inquisition to his door. They take him to the Vatican, where he is imprisoned. It turns out that even though Cardinal Barberini, who has now officially become the Pope, agrees with Galileo’s ideas in theory, it is far too risky for him to support them. The Inquisition threatens Galileo with torture, and eventually, he gives in and renounces his work. His students are extremely disappointed by this and abandon the astronomer.

Almost a decade later, Galileo is still imprisoned in his home, where he will remain until the end of his life. He is under constant surveillance and is forced to write documents that approve of the Church’s opinion. However, when Andrea visits him, he reveals that he only renounced his work so that he could continue to pursue it in secret. He has finished his magnum opus, The Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences. Galileo and Andrea sneak the book out of the country and into the Netherlands, where it is published without censorship.

The Life of Galileo: Themes and quotes

We now explore some of the key themes of The Life of Galileo.

The social responsibility of scientists

Science has only one commandment: contribution. And you have contributed more than any man for a hundred years (Andrea, Scene 13).

When he finds out that Galileo has continued his work, Andrea apologises for speaking ill of him. He lifts Galileo’s spirit by pointing out that his contribution to science matters more than his weakness in the face of the Inquisition.

The play explores the extent to which Galileo takes responsibility for the impact of his discoveries. He is so involved with finishing his work that he doesn’t stop to consider what it might mean for the people in his life and how it can affect humanity as a whole. The play also discusses the sacrifices a scientist has to make in their personal life in order to bring progress to society. Although, at the end of the play, Galileo succeeds in finishing his work, he is imprisoned in his home and forced to do things against his will.

Brecht made a small revision in the second edition of the play that came out in 1947. After the consequences of the atomic bomb during World War II, the playwright poses the question of whether scientists are responsible for all the impact of their work on society, including those consequences that could not have been foreseen.

Progress vs tradition

The aim of science is not to open the door to infinite wisdom, but to set a limit to infinite error (Galileo, Scene 9).

Galileo teaches his students this lesson after explaining to them why ice floats on water.

The plot of the play revolves around Galileo’s struggle to bring progress to a country that is so rooted in tradition that it sees progress as its enemy. Although some of the authorities of the Church, such as Cardinal Barberini and the scholar Clavius, understand that Galileo’s findings are true and important, they refuse to make them known to the world because it would disrupt traditional beliefs. Tradition gives them power because it keeps the masses ignorant and, therefore, susceptible to the control of the Church. Scientific progress would lead to people questioning the traditional system, which is something the Church could not allow Galileo to achieve. However, the play shows that the power of human progress is so strong that it cannot be stopped. Sooner or later, it will find a way out of the boundaries of tradition.

Additionally, the story of Galileo’s scientific progress in the Renaissance is an allusion to the political changes in 1930s Europe. As a Marxist, Brecht used Galileo’s fight to refer to his own opposition to Capitalism. You might have come across Marx’s famous statement:

Religion is the opium of the people.1

For Brecht, reason was the ultimate weapon against any oppression, be it the Inquisition or capitalist society. He believed that once the masses see the possibility of progress in a rational way, their uproar against the confines of the old ways would be unstoppable.

Freedom of thought and speech

Someone who doesn’t know the truth is just thick-headed. But someone who does know it and calls it a lie is a crook (Galileo, Scene 9).

This is Galileo’s critique of the scholar Mucius, who wants to explain why he doesn’t agree with Copernicus’ theories about the rotation of the Earth. Galileo tells him that explaining why the truth isn’t true is pointless.

Freedom of thought and speech is a central theme in The Life of Galileo. Galileo’s speech is censored by the Church; he is not allowed to share his discoveries. Although he is technically allowed to think freely, he is repeatedly told that the work he’s doing is wrong and that he shouldn’t be doing it.

By exploring the censorship of free thought and speech imposed by the Inquisition, Brecht alludes to the censorship in his own time and country. He wrote The Life of Galileo right after he had fled Germany, being afraid of persecution. In the 1930s, Hitler was in power, and Brecht’s works were banned.

Note that this wasnt the only occasion when Brecht was faced with censorship. After he had written the play, from 1941 to 1947, when he was living in the United States, performances of Brechts works were censored by Senator McCarthys regime (known as McCarthyism). McCarthy introduced policies against people who were suspected of communist activities. Later, when Brecht went back to Germany, the political regime in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) also censored his works.

The Life of Galileo: Characters

The most important characters of The Life of Galileo are the following:

Galileo Galilei

The main character, Galileo Galilei, is based on a real historical figure, the astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei who lived from 1564 to 1642. Galileo, as presented in the drama, is a man torn between science and religion, between the desire and ambition to pursue his scientific discoveries and his loyalty and fear of the Roman Catholic Church.

Andrea Sarti

Andrea Sarti is the son of Galileos housekeeper, Mrs Sarti. At the beginning of the play, Andrea is a young boy who takes Galileo under his wing. Later on, Andrea becomes Galileos assistant. He is disappointed in Galileo when the latter renounces his work, and he leaves him. At the end of the play, Andrea goes back to Galileo and has the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to carry on his legacy.

Mrs Sarti

Mrs Sarti is Galileos housekeeper and Andreas mother. At first, she doesnt approve of Galileo teaching her son, but she does remain loyal to her master throughout the play. She doesnt leave him, even when the plague breaks out in Florence. Mrs Sarti is also a companion to Galileos daughter, Virginia.

Ludovico Marsili

Ludovico is a young man from a noble family. His mother has high hopes for him and wants him to broaden his scientific knowledge. That is why he hires Galileo as a tutor. Eventually, he gets engaged to Galileos daughter, Virginia. However, Ludovico doesnt approve of Galileos teachings because they go against the established norms of the Church. Ludovico breaks off the engagement with Virginia when he feels that his association with Galileo has become disadvantageous.

Virginia Galileo

Virginia is a young woman who is Galileos daughter. She remains loyal to her father throughout the play even though his actions have a negative effect on her happiness. She gets engaged to Ludovico and is looking forward to marrying him. Shes hurt when Ludovico breaks off the engagement. Nevertheless, she takes care of her father and supports him, despite the fact that she is also deeply religious and loyal to the Church.

Cardinal Barberini

Cardinal Barberini is based on the historical figure who lived from 1568 to 1644. As Pope Urban VIII, he was tasked to deliver the Popes decree against Copernican cosmology. At first, as a mathematician himself, Cardinal Barberini is supportive of Galileos research. However, when he becomes Pope, the Cardinal has to side with the Inquisition. He lets them force Galileo to renounce his discoveries.

How has The Life of Galileo influenced todays culture today?

The Life of Galileo is one of Bertolt Brechts most famous plays. After its premiere in Zürich in 1943, there was a second post-war edition in 1947. To translate it into English, Brecht collaborated with actor Charles Laughton who played the role of Galileo at the first performance at the Coronet Theater in Los Angeles.

Since the 1940s, The Life of Galileo has been staged many times in different countries and languages around the world. The theme of science and the allusion to social and political issues are what make the play relevant in todays society.

The Life of Galileo - Key takeaways

  • The Life of Galileo is a play by Bertolt Brecht with music by Hans Eisler. It was written in 1938 and premiered in 1943 at the Schauspielhaus Zürich in Switzerland.
  • The Life of Galileo is about the famous astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei. As he makes extraordinary scientific discoveries, Galileo is opposed by the Roman Catholic Church.
  • The story of Galileos scientific progress in the Renaissance is an allusion to the political changes in 1930s Europe.
  • The main themes in The Life of Galileo are the social responsibility of scientists, progress vs tradition, and freedom of thought and speech.
  • The main characters in the play are Galileo, Andrea, Mrs Sarti, Virginia, Ludovico, and Cardinal Barberini.

1 Karl Marx, A Contribution to a Critique of Hegels Philosophy of Right: Introduction, 1843.

The Life of Galileo

Set during Renaissance Italy, The Life of Galileo follows the famous astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei as he makes extraordinary scientific discoveries that are opposed by the Roman Catholic Church.

The main theme of the play is the social responsibility of scientists.

The Life of Galileo is an Epic theatre play and an agit-prop play. It is also a historical drama.

Brecht’s Galileo is a man torn between science and religion, between the desire and ambition to make his discoveries and his loyalty and fear of the Roman Catholic Church.

Brecht wrote The Life of Galileo to offer a critique of the political and social situation in 1930s Germany. By exploring the censorship of free thought and speech imposed on Galileo by the Inquisition, Brecht alludes to the censorship in his own time and country. Additionally, as a Marxist, Brecht used Galileo’s fight to refer to his own opposition to Capitalism. For Brecht, reason was the ultimate weapon against any oppression, be it the Inquisition or capitalist society.

Final The Life of Galileo Quiz

Question

When is The Life of Galileo set?

Show answer

Answer

Renaissance Italy

Show question

Question

What is one of the main themes in The Life of Galileo?

Show answer

Answer

Progress vs Tradition

Show question

Question

True or False: By exploring the censorship on free thought and speech imposed by the Inquisition, Brecht alludes to the censorship in his own time and country. 

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

True or False: The protagonsit of the play is based on a real historical figure.

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

True or False: Galileo's daughter, Virginia, carries on his legacy.

Show answer

Answer

False.

Show question

Question

True or False: Galileo's housekeeper, Mrs. Sarti, leaves him when the plague breaks out in Florence.

Show answer

Answer

False.

Show question

Question

True or False: Although he hires Galileo as a tutor, Ludovico doesn't approve of Galileo's teachings because they go against the established norms of the Church.

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

Which character becomes Pope Urban VIII?

Show answer

Answer

Cardinal Barberini

Show question

Question

When did the second edition of The Life of Galileo come out?

Show answer

Answer

1947

Show question

Question

True or False: Galileo is not religious at all.

Show answer

Answer

False.

Show question

Question

True or False: Galileo invents the telescope.

Show answer

Answer

False.

Show question

Question

True or False: Galileo's struggle against the Church is an allusion to Brecht's struggle against Capitalism.

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

Who composed the music for The Life of Galileo?

Show answer

Answer

Hans Eisler 

Show question

60%

of the users don't pass the The Life of Galileo quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.

Quizzes

Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.

Flashcards

Create and find flashcards in record time.

Notes

Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.

Documents

Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.

Rewards

Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.