Life of Galileo

This article refers to Life of Galileo (play) written by Bertolt Brecht. It focuses specifically on the relationship between the text and the context Encountering Conflict.



This is essentially a story about what happens when societal authority and individual conscience clash. Throughout the play, Brecht explores the complexities of the relationship between an individual and a society, along with the struggles an individual must endure in choosing between their ideology and their personal safety.

It is important to keep in mind that while much of this text is an accurate depiction of Galileo’s life and conflict with the Church, the play is a creative work and takes great liberty with the scientist’s personal life. Be careful in your writing- if you are writing about Galileo as a man; as opposed to a character in Brecht’s play, make sure you distinguish between the two clearly.

Brecht’s style

  • Biblical references. The story is both centred around the conflict between Galileo and the Church, and uses this conflict as an allegory for the wider conflict between scientific discovery and authority. Throughout the play, many characters reference verses from the Bible in their speech, and perhaps most significantly, in the final scene, Galileo’s speech contains many biblical references, representing the ways he has changed (or acts changed) during his imprisonment by the Church.
  • Dramatic irony. This is when the audience understands what is happening more than the characters. Because of the audience’s uniquely powerful position in this text, they are often able to find dramatic irony in comments representatives of the Church make to Galileo or Virginia. For example, when representatives of the Church attempt to make fun of Galileo’s theory, they end up looking foolish to the audience who know much of what he hypothesises is correct.
  • Unseen events. Some of the critical events of the play occur beyond the audience’s view, for example, Galileo’s decision to recant.
  • Setting and stage direction. Brecht gives precise stage directions and instructs they are to be followed exactly with no movements being unnecessary. He also describes how the scenes should be set up, in particular, that they should realistically depict the time period of the play.
  • Simile. Brecht uses a range of similes throughout the play, but one significant one while reoccurs is that of Galileo spreading ideas and the dangerous spread of plague. The Ballad Singer comments: “for independent spirit spreads like foul diseases.”

More importantly though, let’s look at the big ideas of Encountering Conflict which emerge from Life of Galileo.

Types of conflict

Internal conflict

The central conflict of the play is that between Galileo and his discovery, and the Church and their oppression, but this clash gives rise to another; one within Galileo. The scientist is forced to choose between his greatest love; his logic and discovery, or his own personal safety. Throughout most of the play Galileo is too stubborn to recognise the imminent threat from the Church, and his recantation takes place out of sight of the audience, but his internal conflict is reflected upon in the final scene of the play between the protagonist and idealistic Andrea. Despite not seeing the threat of torture that motivates Galileo to recant, the audience has an understanding of how difficult this decision is for the protagonist because of the passion with which he speaks of his discoveries throughout the play. While Andrea comes to see Galileo’s decision to recant as having a higher purpose; to allow for further scientific discovery, Galileo confesses it was purely from fear of physical harm. Thus the internal conflict for Galileo is apparent; he knew he should remain true to his convictions and refuse to recant, but this knowledge is pitted against his fear. This is a great example of different types of conflicts bleeding into each other: Galileo fears physical conflict and so a number of other conflicts spin off of his decision to recant including that within himself and between himself and his disciples.

Galileo’s findings create a further internal conflict in some of the characters around him. Many of the characters who Galileo shares his findings with are caught in the intellectual and emotional crossroads of their faith and their logic. These characters see the proof, but have held their faith for a long time, and the two beliefs cannot coexist simultaneously in the eyes of the Church. Characters fall on both sides of this decision; some choosing to embrace Galileo’s teachings while others reject them in lieu of the Church’s position on the solar system, including his own daughter.

Societal conflict

The Church argues that Galileo’s findings (and his choice to publish them in Italian rather than Latin) are tantamount to causing a societal conflict. For the Church, Galileo’s theories are blasphemous because they do not fit within religious doctrine which states that the Earth is the centre of the Universe and that everything in the solar system is attached to glass spheres. Furthermore, by publishing in Italian so that even uneducated people can gain access to his theories, Galileo challenges the status quo that the Church imposes. Representatives of the Church voice the threat of such a social upheaval throughout the play; that his teachings would encourage the slave to revolt against his owner and the dog against his master.

Galileo: I might write in the language of the people, for the many, rather than in Latin for the few. Our new thoughts call for people who work with their hands. Who else cares about knowing the causes of things? People who only see bread on their table don’t want to know how it got baked; that lot would sooner thank God than thank the baker. But the people who make the bread will understand that nothing moves unless it has been made to move.

Brecht positions the Church as an evil force here in that it opposes change- even when that change could be for the good of scientific discovery and, further, mankind. Through this allegory Brecht is able to critique authority which uses power and threats to quash scientific discovery and any questioning of the status quo. Importantly, he’s making a comment here not just on the example of Galileo and the Church- but on all attempts to quash scientific advancement and broader understanding throughout history. Think broadly about all of the other things this play could relate to, such as climate change, and that Brecht implicitly comments on, such as the ethics of human experimentation during the Holocaust.

Interpersonal conflict

Galileo is not positioned as an infallible character and is depicted as having a rather abrasive and, at times, condescending manner of dealing with others. He has repeated verbal and intellectual conflicts with other characters throughout the play. Nonetheless, the aggressive way in which he purports his views communicate his humanity to the audience, making it easier to sympathise with his decision to recant, and are part of the way he is successfully able to convince others of his theories, even when they are reluctant to hear them. This determination in his speech and desire to share his theory eventuates in his downfall with the protagonist unable to see the danger the Church poses to him as clearly as other characters because he has grown accustomed to experiencing conflict when he shares his views.

One of the more substantial interpersonal conflicts displayed is that between Galileo and Andrea. The latter’s utter devastation at Galileo’s decision to recant plays itself out on stage and becomes a source of resentment towards the former mentor. It is only at the conclusion of the play when Galileo gifts Andrea his work that the conflict begins to resolve itself.

Andrea: Like the man in the street we said ‘He’ll die, but he’ll never recant.’ You came back: ‘I’ve recanted, but I’m going to live.’—‘Your hands are stained’, we said. You’re saying: ‘Better stained than empty.’

Causes of conflict

Significantly, while Galileo can be seen to cause a conflict through spouting untraditional theories, it is the Church that is positioned as the aggressor within the play. Brecht suggests that, while Galileo’s words and decisions spark the conflict, this is a conflict that must take place because it is against an oppressive authority. In this way, Galileo and his followers are positioned as victims against the much larger and more powerful Church. Galileo tells them: “truth is born of the times, not of authority.”

It is worth considering Galileo’s decision to publish in Italian rather than Latin in relation to the causes of conflict. This decision is a large part of why the Church reacts to the scientist so aggressively- because they see it as challenging the social structure that enables them to be powerful. This raises interesting questions about freedom of information and the decision between what is safe and what is right.

Responses to conflict

The Church responds to the conflict they see Galileo as having sparked with aggression and threats, leading to fear and submission from Galileo and Virginia. In contrast, Galileo’s pupils think he should (and believe he has before the bell tolls) respond with stoicism and bravery in the face of such threats. It is not until Galileo presents Andrea with his hidden manuscript that the younger man is able to forgive his former teacher for what he sees as allowing the Church to oppress crucial scientific discoveries. Andrea’s criticism is untested as he is not threatened by the Church in the same way as Galileo, but his stinging words still raise an interesting comparison between different characters’ responses to conflict.

Another interesting comparison is between Virginia and Galileo. While Virginia has entirely resigned herself to the limitations set by the Church during her father’s captivity, Galileo continues to produce his secret manuscript and publish it through Andrea despite his external appearance of submission; as seen through him constantly referencing the Bible throughout the last scene.

Aftermath of conflict

The impact of the conflicts throughout the play is explored in the final scene between Andrea and Galileo. Clearly affected by his captivity by the Church, Galileo’s speech and demeanour are altered. Andrea has hardened and initially treats his former teacher with some disdain. The bitter exchange between the two men is intended as a small scale personal and interpersonal representation of the aftermath of the conflict, while Andrea’s words, and the background knowledge of the audience, show an awareness of the wider consequences for humankind as a result of religious oppression of scientific discovery throughout Galileo’s lifetime and beyond. In this way, Brecht depicts both small scale and large scale implications of the oppression of ideas; the personal emotional crises it generates and the wider social and intellectual problems it breeds.

Roles within conflict

Brecht depicts the Church as the aggressors that create conflict in this play, despite Galileo’s active role in disrupting the social structure at the beginning of the play. The Church is represented as capable of oppression because of their well-established and wide reaching power. Galileo is complexly portrayed as a victim, but not an innocent one; after all his failings are evident throughout the play and he steals the idea for the telescope for personal gain. Furthermore, through the allegory that the play forms, society is also portrayed as a victim because of the loss they experience at the hands of religious oppression. Some characters can be seen to be bystanders because of their lack of action, but equally their lack of action can be seen to position them as enablers of the Church’s oppression, and thereby involved in the conflict.