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The Life of Galileo

The Life of Galileo Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Bertolt Brecht's The Life of Galileo. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Bertolt Brecht

Bertolt Brecht is known for his work in the theater, both as a playwright and director, as well as a theoretician. He was also an accomplished poet. Like all Europeans coming of age in the early twentieth century, the course of his life was drastically altered by World War I (which began when Brecht was just 16 and ended four years later) and by World War II (which Germany started in 1939). Brecht avoided being drafted into WWI by registering as a medical student at Munich University, where he first began working in theater. In the two decades between the wars, Brecht wrote multiple plays (including his most famous, The Threepenny Opera), established a theater company, and became wildly influential. When Hitler came to power, signaling the beginning of the second World War, Brecht (a socialist) fled the country, fearing political persecution. He ultimately landed in America, where he had a short-lived career in Hollywood, prior to being questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee and subsequently blackballed in movies. He moved to East Berlin shortly after the war, where he worked on refining his theory of “epic theater.” Today these theories of Brecht’s are his strongest influence. Most serious theater directors must, in some way, respond to them in their productions, and his impact can even be seen in the works of movie directors such as Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke.
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Historical Context of The Life of Galileo

Life of Galileo can be said to take place at two times. The first is the time in which the play is set (Galileo’s Italy in the 1600s), and the second is the time in which the play was written (Brecht’s Europe in the 1930s). The two hold striking similarities. In Galileo’s time, new scientific ideas were emerging that challenged centuries of religious understanding of the world. In Brecht’s time, new political systems were coming to power in the form of fascism and communism. Like the scientific knowledge of Galileo’s day, the political changes in Brecht’s day were met with extreme resistance. Two facets of sixteenth-century Italy are important to understanding Life of Galileo. The first is the omnipresence of the Inquisition, a kind of religious police force first founded in medieval times to investigate charges of witchcraft and reestablished in Galileo’s day to protect against the rise of Protestantism. The Inquisition had extensive power in the Church and could bring people to trial (and punish them) at will. The second facet, not unrelated, is the importance of Aristotle to scientific knowledge at the time. Aristotle believed in a universe where the Sun and all other heavenly bodies revolved around the Earth. In turn, the Church accepted and promoted this belief. Others, most importantly Copernicus, had promoted the heliocentric model (of the Earth revolving around the Sun) with virtually no success, and sometimes at the risk of their own lives. Challenging Aristotle became a type of heresy: something the Inquisition would be very much involved in. Indeed, the trial of Galileo is likely the most famous of the Inquisition’s undertakings. The rise of fascism alluded to above specifically refers to the ascension of Hitler to the chancellorship of Germany just prior to World War II as well as the coming to power of fascist leaders in Italy and Japan. With Hitler’s rise the ability to speak out against the government became increasingly difficult, indeed illegal. At the same time, it became clear that a Europe already badly wearied by the events of World War I would soon be plunged into another global conflict. Some world leaders, such as Neville Chamberlain, attempted to stave this off by appeasing Hitler, but to no avail. It was a time of tumultuous change.

Other Books Related to The Life of Galileo

Using historical events to draw parallels with modern politics was a tool Brecht used in many of his plays, such as Mother Courage and her Children and The Threepenny Opera, Brecht’s most famous works. This has also been done by many other playwrights, including Arthur Miller with The Crucible and Jean Anouilh with Becket. Brecht’s ideas on “epic theater” (which can be seen in an early stage of development within Life of Galileo) were a direct response to Aristotle’s Poetics. They inspired multiple playwrights and stage directors, such as Dario Fo and Augusto Boal, as well as film directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Key Facts about The Life of Galileo
  • Full Title: Life of Galileo
  • When Written: 1938
  • Where Written: Denmark
  • When Published: 1940
  • Literary Period: Modernism
  • Genre: Play, Agitprop (Political Propaganda), Epic Theater
  • Setting: Venice, Florence, and Rome
  • Climax: Galileo (who appears to have abandoned his commitment to science) manages to secretly write a new scientific treatise and smuggle it out of Italy with the help of his former student.
  • Antagonist: The Roman Catholic Church
  • Point of View: (Play)

Extra Credit for The Life of Galileo

Constant Revision. Brecht wrote three separate editions of Life of Galileo, each of which he saw onstage in his lifetime. The first (the Danish version) is the original text. The second, the “American edition,” was produced during Brecht’s exile in the United States with the help of actor Charles Laughton. During the Cold War, Brecht again revised the play: the “Berlin version,” as it was called, incorporates elements of both the Danish and American texts.

True Story. Life of Galileo adheres closely to what is known about Galileo Galilei’s intellectual conflict with the Roman Catholic Church.