It’s been a long time since we had a guest post, so I’m very pleased with how this one came out! I’m sure I’ve mentioned that my oldest daughter is a budding astronomer so she’ll be quite fascinated by this topic. Thank you to the authors for reaching out! (They weren’t even selling anything! :))
Shakespeare’s Scientific Revolution:
The Bard’s Vision of Astronomy from Copernicus to Galileo
Meera Arora and Aparna Venkatesan
With the holidays and the end of the decade fast approaching, the time for nostalgia and romanticizing is upon us. The natural world seems to offer gifts for us to delight in; from the ordinary like fresh snowfall to the extraordinary, like the interstellar comet 21/Borisov, which made its nearest approach to the sun on December 7th this year. Heralded the “Christmas Comet,” it is hard to imagine a more poignant way to usher in the end of the 2010s than viewing a comet from another star system, only the second interstellar comet ever discovered.
However, we have not always lived in awe of the night sky. Prior to the Scientific Revolution, deviations in the night sky, like comets, were seen as portents of ill will or bad omens. For instance: “When beggars die there are no comets seen. / The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes” (Julius Caesar, 2.2.30). With the work of Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler, western thought moved away from the idea that human life mirrored celestial cycles, and into a more empirical scientific, as opposed to astrological, mindset. The metaphorical journey from astrology to astronomy is evident not only in scientific innovation and discovery, which can at times seem clinical, but in the more emotionally expressive world of theater and literature.
William Shakespeare has dominated much of his historical and literary era to the point where “Shakespeare’s time” is a phrase synonymous with the early modern period. Though his life ended in the seventeenth century, Shakespeare remains relevant to this day for his honoring of human curiosity and versatility. Although his prominence might overshadow the events of his time, Shakespeare’s plays pointedly reference the years during which he lived, namely in alluding to the concurrent Scientific Revolution and its breakthroughs in astronomy. Much like the themes of fate and coincidence that permeates Romeo and Juliet, coincidences seem to hold more than meets the eye, like the fact that Galileo and Shakespeare were born in the same year (1564). It seems impossible, or narrow-minded at the least, to try and separate the history of Shakespeare’s life from his work, however fantastic some of the elements of his plays and poems may be. Fiction draws from experience, and the era during which Shakespeare lived was rich in many fields beyond the theater. His interdisciplinary knowledge demonstrates a willingness to learn and adapt, and gives readers insight into not just Shakespeare’s work, but the events of his time and the Bard himself. Shakespeare’s lifespan makes him a contemporary of key figures in the Scientific Revolution in western science including Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and for a time Galileo Galilei. The recurring references to astronomy in Shakespeare’s plays, particularly Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and Cymbeline, coupled with his seeming familiarity with Tycho Brahe which we will explore further, makes a strong case for the idea that not only was Shakespeare knowledgeable about the scientific discoveries of his time, but that they influenced his work in ways that remain relevant to us today.
Hamlet is a particularly bountiful example to focus on; in this play, Shakespeare seems to move away from astrology and towards astronomy. This is not to say that Shakespeare shied away from metaphor or symbolism, but rather that there are lines in these plays that suggest Shakespeare understood astronomical breakthroughs during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Hamlet contains lines such as: “Doubt thou the stars are fire / Doubt that the sun doth move / Doubt truth to be a liar, / But never doubt I love” (Hamlet, Act II, Scene II). The second phrase, “Doubt that the sun doth move,” calls to mind the ideas of Copernicus’s Concerning the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres, in which the astronomer argued for the Heliocentric model, introducing the idea that the Earth orbits the Sun and not vice versa. It also recalls what Galileo allegedly said in 1633, “Eppur si Muove” (“and yet it moves”, referring to the Earth), when he was forced to recant his view that it was the Earth that moved around the Sun rather than the other way around.
Astronomer Peter Usher (Penn State University) goes so far as to argue that Hamlet is an allegory for the competition between two cosmological frameworks that were in rivalry during Shakespeare’s time: the Sun-centered or heliocentric Copernican construct, and the old Earth-centered or geocentric model retained by Tycho Brahe of Denmark. Thomas Diggs’ account of Copernicus’s heliocentric theory may make an appearance in Hamlet: “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space…” (Hamlet, Act II, Scene II). Usher contends that: “When Hamlet states: ‘I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space . . . ‘ he is contrasting the shell of fixed stars in the Ptolemaic, Copernican, and Tychonic models with the Infinite Universe of Digges” (Usher). The idea of an infinite universe, while familiar to us today, was new in Shakespeare’s time and directly opposed the more archaic idea of spherical shells of stars. Hamlet also suggestively refers to another astronomical event: Tycho Brahe’s Nova or “new star”, known today to be a class of supernova arising from a binary system involving a star and a white dwarf. SN 1572, or Cassiopeiae B, was a supernova in 1572 that was not only visible to the naked eye, but remained so for 1-2 years according to historical records, placing it between Jupiter and Venus in observed brightness. This would have been both clearly visible and highly memorable, and the lines “When yond same star that’s westward from the pole / Had made his course t’ illume that part of heaven Where now it burns…” (Hamlet, Act I, Scene I) might be a reference to Brahe’s 1572 Nova.
Shakespeare’s ties to Tycho Brahe are particularly strong in Hamlet and made much more evident via characters as opposed to specific lines. The most obvious connection is made in the naming of the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. While these names might seem traditionally Shakespearean, both happen to exist on Tycho Brahe’s family Coat of Arms. Both men were from Danish noble lines, and distantly related. Rosenkrantz seems to be a third cousin of Brahe’s, and his return to London after visiting Brahe in Prague (while traveling with Johannes Kepler) coincides with the time Hamlet was being written. Although Hamlet was published in 1603, Shakespeare was at work on it in 1601, the same year that Tycho Brahe died. Furthermore, Tycho Brahe’s brilliant assistant Kepler was the one to suggest (via Simon Marius) the name Ganymede as a title for one of the Galilean moons. This is notable as Ganymede is a character in Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
In examining even a single play, we see that Shakespeare’s nuanced writing style reflects many aspects of his time, including scientific advances. Although the Church in that period may have been reluctant to accept the “new” astronomical empirical findings, it appears that Shakespeare welcomed the Scientific Revolution and its discoveries. Shakespeare’s legacy of literary works is stunning in its prodigious volume, variety, and depth of observation. That he embraced the milestone achievements of his time in other disciplines through his characters and writing makes him beloved by, and not merely relevant to, scientists and writers several centuries later. As we near the end of 2019, with a special appearance of a Christmas Comet, and the 400th anniversary of Kepler’s Third Law, we honor and remember the interdisciplinary vision of Shakespeare.
Meera Arora recently graduated from the University of San Francisco with a BA in English and two minors in Physics and Astronomy. When not giving names to airy nothings, she spends the majority of her time writing, as well as admiring stars and her dog.
Aparna Venkatesan is a cosmologist at the University of San Francisco studying the first stars and supernovae in the universe, and is thankful to count atomies as she passes through nature to eternity.
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