Shakespeare’s Astronomy

Portrait of William Shakespeare 1564-1616. Chromolithography after Hombres y Mujeres celebres 1877 / Barcelona Museum

Lecture by Dr. Michael Rowan-Robinson, Museum of London / 11.30.2016
Emeritus Professor of Astronomy
Gresham College

‘Shakespeare’s allusions to the planets are very often made

astrologically.  In but few instances are they made from a

purely astronomical point of view’

Orrin E.Harmon, 1898, The Astronomy of Shakespeare

‘My personal impression is that Shakespeare possessed

what one may call a knowledge of the heavenly

phenomena, carefully balanced in the treasure-chest of

a thousand different subjects’

L.McCormick-Goodhart, 1945, Shakespeare and the Stars

‘Nowhere is there to be found such an abundance of

astronomical allusions as occurs in the writings of Shakespeare’

W.G.Guthrie, 1964, The Astronomy of Shakespeare

There are two themes of this lecture.  The first theme is Shakespeare’s knowledge of the night sky and how important it was to him in his plays.

The second theme is whether Shakespeare shows us that he knew about the new world-system of Copernicus.  Discussion of Shakespeare’s astronomy goes back to the nineteenth century but there has been an upsurge in interest in the last ten years.

In the time of William Shakespeare, England was a hot-bed of Copernicanism.  Nicolas Copernicus had set out to reform Ptolemy’s earth-centred model of the solar system, but in the end he came up with a completely new picture, with the earth spinning on its axis once a day and orbiting the sun once a year.  This marked the beginning of the end for the whole Aristotelean world-view with the earth at the centre of the universe.   Copernicus published his results on his death-bed in 1543 in de Revolutionibus, On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres.  This came under fire from Catholic theologians soon after its publication and found few supporters amongst continental mathematicians and philosophers, though many were willing to use the planetary tables based on the new model, which were decidedly superior to Ptolemy’s.   de Revolutionibus was to end up on the Index of banned books in 1616.  Luther too despised Copernicus and all that he represented so the reception was no better in the continental Protestant world.

England was really the only safe place to discuss these new ideas and it was in the circle of the Elizabethan mathematician and magus John Dee that discussion of Copernicus’s ideas flourished.  John Dee (1527-1608) is a perplexing figure.  He was tutor and adviser to Queen Elizabeth and amassed one of the largest libraries in Europe.  In 1570 he published a Mathematicall Praeface to Euclid, which gives a survey of mathematics and its applications, and he trained a number of the navigators of his day.  He was interested in astronomy, but also in astrology, alchemy and the occult.   It has been suggested that John Dee was the model for Shakespeare’s Prospero.  It was in England and through Dee’s circle that the Italian maverick friar Giordano Bruno encountered the Copernican revolution and incorporated it into his radical philosophy, with disastrous results for him personally (he was burnt at the stake in Rome in 1600). As we will see, there is a direct link between Shakespeare and leading Copernicans.  Was Shakespeare influenced by this new world-view?


Left: Portrait of Nicolaus Copernicus in the Old Town City Hall, Toruń, 1580 / Regional Museum in Toruń
Center: Portrait of John Dee at the age of 67 / Ashmolean Museum
Right: Portrait of the Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, by Anthony van Dyck, 1641 / Petworth House and Park

A rival pro-Copernican group was centred on the Earl of Northumberland and the Earl of Southampton, and included Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Philip Sidney, the scientist Thomas Harriott, and John Florio.  They were known as the ‘School of Night’, because of their atheistic tendencies.  Shakespeare had links to the Earl of Southampton, to whom The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis were dedicated, and to John Florio, who was Southampton’s secretary.  It has been suggested that Shakespeare may be satirising the School of Night in Love’s Labour’s Lost.  Writers linked to both Dee and Northumberland include Spenser, Sidney, Marlowe and Donne.

The plays of Shakespeare are rich in astronomical references.  Of course that’s in the nature of Shakespeare, because his plays are also rich in allusions to falconry, agriculture, medicine or almost any other aspect of Elizabethan life.  But Shakespeare’s astronomy is quite deeply interesting.

To illustrate Shakespeare’s interest in the stars, the Penguin Dictionary of Quotations gives 99 references to ‘star’ or ‘stars’.  Of these 12 are from Shakespeare.  The next most prolific, at 5 each are Milton, Byron, Wordsworth and Shelley, with Keats on 4 and Coleridge and Tennyson on 3 each. The Shakespeare Concordance shows an astonishing 128 references to star or stars.  At first sight the Shakespeare quotations are simple metaphors: ‘one particular bright star’, ‘cut him out in little stars’, ‘you chaste stars’, ‘Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere’ or they are astrological references: ‘it is the stars, the stars above us’, ‘there was a star danced’, and ‘the yoke of the inauspicious stars’.  Similarly astrological is another famous quotation from Julius Ceasar ‘When beggars die there are no comets seen, The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes’, but that is more interesting because it connects to definite phenomena of the night sky, comets.  A more lurid version appears in Act 1 scene 1 of Hamlet, when Horatio says:

‘A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,

The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead

Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets;

As, stars with trains of fire, and dews of blood,

Disasters in the sun.’

In Henry VI, Part I, the Duke of Bedford says:

‘Comets, importing change of time and states,

Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky’

And in King John (V.2) Louis the Dauphin says:

But this effusion of such manly drops,

Startles mine eyes, and makes me more amazed

Than had I seen the vaulty top of heaven

Figured quite o’er with burning meteors.

Shakespeare even seems to know about meteorites.  In Richard II (II.iv)

Salisbury says:

‘I see thy glory like a shooting star

Fall to the base earth from the firmament’

And that is where Shakespeare shows the superiority of his observation and imagination over those later writers who like the stars.  He knows about comets, meteor showers, the constellations and the motion of the sky:

‘The wind-shak’d surge, with high and monstrous mane

Seemed to cast water on the burning Bear,

And quench the guards of th’ever fixed pole’

the violence of the storm encountered by Othello on his way to Cyprus indicated by the fact that the Great Bear (or Plough or Wain), which never goes below the horizon from UK latitudes, seems to disappear below the waves (amusingly, not quite such a good metaphor at the latitude of Cyprus).

‘Heigh-ho! An’t be not four by the day,

I’ll be hanged; Charles’ Wain is over the new chimney

And yet our horse not packed’

The porters in the inn-yard in Henry IV part 1 realizing they are running late from the position of the Wain, or Plough, in the sky.  In Julius Caesar, Brutus however fails to tell the time in this way (II.1):

‘I cannot by the progress of the stars

give guess how near to day.’

There is a lovely couplet in Two Nobel Kinsman, a joint work by Shakespeare and John Fletcher.  The Jailer’s Daughter says:

‘I am very cold, and all the stars are out too,

The little stars and all, that look like aglets’

The implication of the exceptionally cold night that the sky is especially clear so much fainter stars can be seen.

Portrait of Mary Arden, Shakespeare’s mother / Wikimedia Commons

Shakespeare seems to have a country boy’s knowledge of the sky and its phenomena.  Could this have come from his mother, Mary Arden, who lived and presumably worked on a farm until her marriage to John Shakespeare in 1557 ?  Interestingly the last lines of her epitaph in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford, possibly written by her daughter Susanna, translate as:

come quickly, Christ

That my mother, though shut in the tomb, may rise again and seek

the stars.

Is Shakespeare’s sister telling us that their mother loved to look at the stars?

In Timon of Athens (IV.3) Shakespeare shows that he is aware that the moon shines by reflected light:

The moon’s an arrant thief,

And her pale fire she snatches from the sun.

In Macbeth he shows that he knows that one half of the earth is illuminated by the sun at a time:

Now o’er the one-half world

Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse

The curtained sleep.

And in Henry IV, Part 1, Prince Hal shows that he knows the moon controls the tides:

For the fortune of us that are the moon’s men doth ebb and flow like the sea, being governed, as the sea is, by the moon.

Julius Caesar says ‘I am constant as the northern star’, so Shakespeare knew the night-sky rotates about Polaris, the Northern Star, although Caesar himself is unlikely to have said this because in his time, due to the precession of the equinoxes, the pole was not particularly near Polaris.

Shakespeare again refers to the Pole Star in Sonnet 116

O no, it is an ever fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wand’ring barque,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Shakespeare knows that mariners can use the elevation of the Pole Star to estimate their latitude.

The conspirators in Julius Caesar show that they are aware that the direction of sunrise varies with the season (II.1):

‘Decius:           Here lies the east.  Doth not the day break here ?

Casca:  No.

Cenna: O pardon, sir, it doth; and yon grey lines

That fret the clouds are messengers of day.

Casca:  You shall confess that you are both deceived.

(he points his sword)

Here, as I point my sword, the sun arises,

Which is a great way growing on the south,

Weighing the youthful season of the year.

Some two months hence up higher towards the north

He first presents his fire, and the high east

Stands, as the Capitol, directly here.

(he points his sword)’

In Midsummer Night’s Dream the mechanicals consult an almanac to determine whether there will be a moon on the night of their impending performance.


Doth the Moon shine that night we play our play?


A calendar, a calendar! Look in the almanac; find out moonshine, find out moonshine.


Yes, it doth shine that night.

Richard the Third checks a calendar for the time of sunrise, just before the Battle of Bosworth:

(Clock strikes)


Tell the clock there.  Give me a calendar.

Who saw the sun today? (a book is brought)


Not I, my lord.


Then he disdains to shine, for by the book

He should have braved the east an hour ago.

A black day will it be to somebody

And of course the play’s opening lines


Now is the winter of our discontent, Made glorious summer by this son of York

contains a pun on son/sun.  So Richard foresees his doom in the darkened sun and unconsciously refers back to his gleeful opening words.

Other intriguing or resonant astronomical quotes are Claudius’s remark to Hamlet    ‘That is most retrograde to our desires’, apparently referring to the occasional retrograde (or backwards) motion of the planets.  ‘Retrograde’ can have an ordinary meaning of ‘contrary’ but in All’s Well That Ends Well Shakespeare uses retrograde explicitly in the context of the motion of Mars.

Another technical astronomy term comes in Prospero’s

and by my prescience

I find my zenith doth depend upon

A most auspicious star.

The zenith is the highest point in the sky reached by a star during its nightly rotation.

A highly perplexing speech occurs in King John:

My lord, they say five moons were seen tonight:

Four fixed and the fifth did whirl about

The other four in wondrous motion

This was written in 1596, well before Galileo’s announcement of the four moons of Jupiter, so seems just to be fantastical.  But it could just possibly be an allusion to the upheaval in the planetary system being talked about by some of Shakespeare’s friends.  On the other hand in Cymbeline, written in 1610, the year of Galileo’s announcement, Shakespeare has four ghosts dance around the sleeping Postumus in Act V, Scene 5, until they are dispersed by Jupiter.  Some have taken this as an allusion to Galileo’s discovery of the four moons of Jupiter.  The context does not really support this but there is another curious fact about Cymbeline.  There are twelve references to Jupiter in Cymbeline, far more than in any other Shakespeare play.  The references are to the Roman god Jupiter, not to the planet, so you might say that this is natural in a Roman play.  Yet there are no references to Jupiter in Julius Ceasar and only three in Antony and Cleopatra.  Was Jupiter on Shakespeare’s mind as he wrote Cymbeline because he had heard or read about Galileo?

Milton, writing seventy years later, and having actually met Galileo in his youth, explicity mentions Galileo in Paradise Lost:

As when by night the glass

Of Galileo, less assured observes

Imagined lands and regions in the moon.

The Shakespeare Concordance shows over 500 references to Sun, Moon or stars.  To compare this with another rich source of imagery for Shakespeare, the theatre, there are just 106 references to theatre, stage, actors or players.

Table: concordance statistics

sun       star/s   moon  total  date of                collaborator?


total                                                     252       128       130       510


Midsummer Night’s Dream                 2          2          23        27        1595

Hamlet                                                 8          10        5          23        1599-01

Romeo and Juliet                                 14        6          3          23        1595

Love’s Labour’s Lost                           6          5          10        21        1594-5

Sonnets                                                11        7          3          21        1609

Taming of the Shrew                           9          3          8          20        1590-91

Antony and Cleopatra                          5          6          7          18        1606

Winter’s Tale                                       7          6          4          17        1609-11

King Lear                                            5          5          6          16        1605-6

Henry IV, Part 1                                  7          4          5          16        1591-92

Venus and Adonis                               11        3          1          15        1593

Cymbeline                                            9          4          1          14        1610

Henry V                                              9          3          2          14        1599

Richard III                                           9          3          1          13        1592-3

Richard II                                            8          3          1          12        1595

Pericles                                                4          6          2          12        1607-8  Wilkins

Coriolanus                                           4          1          6          11        1608

All’s Well That Ends Well                   2          8          0          10        1604-5  Middleton

Tempest                                               4          1          5          10        1610-11

Titus Andronicus                                 7          1          2          10        1591-2  Marlowe

Othello                                                4          1          4          9          1603-4

Macbeth                                               4          2          3          9          1596-7  Middleton

King John                                            7          2          0          9          1596

Timon of Athens                                 7          0          2          9          1605-6  Middleton

Merchant of Venice                             3          0          4          7          1606

Julius Caesar                                        2          3          1          7          1599

Comparison between Shakespeare and his contemporaries:

References to sun/moon/stars

Shakespeare                 1564-1616                    510

Marlowe                      1564-1593                    57 (5 plays)

Jonson                         1572-1637                    42 (7 plays)

Donne                         1572-1631                    55

Milton                         1608-1674                    118 (86 from Paradise Lost)

Shakespeare is, however, not very complimentary about astronomers.

Biron in Love’s Labour Lost (I.1) says:

Study is like the heavens’ glorious sun,

That will not be deep searched with saucy looks.

Small have continual plodders ever won

Save base authority from others’ books.

These earthly godfathers of heaven’s lights,

That give a name to every fixed star,

Have no more profit of their shining nights

Than those that walk and wot not where they are.

Too much to know is to know naught but fame,

And every godfather can give a name.

To which the King wittily replies:

How well he’s read, to reason against reading.

Obviously there is almost always a strong astrological content and Shakespeare makes no distinction between astronomy and astrology.  In Cymbeline, Imogen says:

‘O, learn’d indeed were that astronomer,

That knew the stars as I his characters;

He’d lay the future open.’

And in Sonnet 14:

Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck,

And yet methinks I have astronomy;

But not to tell of good or evil luck,

Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons’ quality.

Ben Jonson is even more scathing about astronomers:

SORDIDO. Tut, these star-monger knaves, who would trust them? One says dark and rainy, when ’tis as clear as chrystal; another says, tempestuous blasts and storms, and ’twas as calm as a milk-bowl; here be sweet rascals for a man to credit his whole fortunes with! You sky-staring coxcombs you, you fat-brains, out upon you; you are good for nothing but to sweat night-caps, and make rug-gowns dear! you learned men, and have not a legion of devils ‘a votre service! a votre service!’ by heaven, I think I shall die a better scholar than they.

(Everyman Out of his Humour)

The astronomical universe that Shakespeare refers to is, naturally enough, a strictly Aristotelian one:

‘Doubt that the stars are fire,

Doubt that the sun doth move

Doubt truth to be a liar

But never doubt I love.’

So this letter from Hamlet to Ophelia assumes his contemporaries all know that the stars are made of fire and that the sun moves around the earth.  Any deviation from the motion of the spheres must be associated with magic:

‘And certain stars shot madly from their spheres

To hear the sea-maid sing’.

I mentioned Shakespeare’s references to the stars controlling our fates and these seem like the conventional astrological view of the period.  But there is one very dramatic counter to this, in Lear:

‘This is the excellent foppery of the world … we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon and the stars, as if we were villains by necessity, fools by heavenely compulsion, knaves, thieves and treachers by spherical predominance, drunkards, liars and adulterers by enforced obedience of planetary influence.   …

I should have been that I am had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.’

This is an amazing assault on the astrological fatalism that we hear from the mouths of so many of Shakespeare’s characters.  Of course it comes from the mouth of the villain of the play, Edmund, so does not necessarily represent Shakespeare’s own sceptical view.

Earlier in the scene, the Earl of Gloucester has piously remarked:

‘These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us.  Though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourg’d by the sequent effects.’

Edmund ridicules the idea that eclipses portend anything.  Gloucester knows very well that there is a natural explanation for eclipses, but still thinks they must mean something.

Othello invokes eclipses to express his anguish (V.2):

‘O insupportable, O heavy hour!

Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse

Of sun and moon, and that th’affrighted globe

Should yawn at alteration.’

Bit of an astronomical blunder here, because the sun and moon could not be simultaneously eclipsed (they can be eclipsed two weeks apart and this happened in 1598 and, less impressively, in 1605 when Lear was being written).

In Antony and Cleopatra III.13, Antony uses an eclipse metaphor to express his sense of impending doom:

‘Alack our terrene Moon is now eclipsed,

And it portends alone the fall of Antony.’

Cleopatra also uses an astronomical metaphor as she resolves to die (V.2):

‘now from head to foot

I am marble-constant: now the fleeting Moon

No planet is of mine.’

Time and again Shakespeare calls on astronomical phenomena to convey the emotional state of his characters.  One of the most famous is Juliet in the balcony scene

‘O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,

That monthly changes in her circled orb,

Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.’

This reliance on astronomical metaphor for emotional effect at key moments is surely unique to Shakespeare.

A more measured critique of astrological fortune-telling comes from Pandolf in King John (III.4):

‘No natural exhalation in the sky,

No scope of nature, no distempered day,

No common wind, no customed event,

But they will pluck away his natural cause,

And call them meteors, prodigies, and signs,

Abortives, presages, and tongues of heaven

Plainly denouncing vengeance upon John.’

And in All’s Well That Ends Well, Helen says (I.1):

‘Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie

Which we ascribe to heaven.  The fated sky

Gives us free scope, only doth backward pull

Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull.’

And of course Cassius says to Brutus in Julius Caesar (1.2)

‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars

But in ourselves, that we are underlings.’

Apart from these critical asides, Shakespeare seems at first sight unaware of the new astronomy that had burst into European consciousness with Copernicus in 1543.  And why should he, he was not a university man.

Even Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s exact contemporary, has Mephistopheles explain the Ptolemaic system when Faustus asks him about the structure of the heavens.  Writing two hundred years later, the romantic poets, incidentally, show little evidence of ever having much looked at the night sky and write about the stars in rather general terms.  Of course they inhabit a very different, post-Aristotelian universe.  In Byron’s great poem ‘Darkness’ we get a real feel of the evolution of stars and of the universe.  Tennyson and Hardy are the two writers who, after Shakespeare, demonstrate a real love, and deep knowledge of, the night sky.  Of his predecessors Dante and Chaucer both used astronomy extensively in their work.

The reason I comment on Shakespeare’s seeming lack of awareness of the new astronomy is that he does seem to have a link to the English Copernicans and it would be surprising if he had not heard their ideas.  The evidence for this link is also a key piece of evidence that the actor William Shakespeare of Stratford is truly the author of the plays of Shakespeare.   It seems hard to doubt this when we read the eulogy of Ben Jonson, but people do persist in doubting that Will S. could have written these great plays.  The evidence is in the names of those two treacherous friends of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  These are not random names, but are in fact the names of two of the ancestors of the great Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe, who was a contemporary of Shakespeare.  Tycho was in correspondence with the leading English Copernicans and in 1590 wrote to Thomas Savile enclosing his 1588 book describing his hybrid model of the solar system (in which the planets orbit the sun, but the sun orbits a stationary earth), along with four copies of his portrait, which is framed by a stone arch with heraldic shields bearing the names of his ancestors Sophie Gyldenstierne and Erik Rosenkrantz.  Tycho specifically asks Savile to remember him to John Dee and Thomas Digges. The astronomer Thomas Digges (1546-1595), a member of John Dee’s circle and whose guardian John Dee had become after the death of his father, had in his 1576 pamphlet A perfit description of the caelestiall orbes, taken the Copernican system to its logical conclusion and asserted that the stars extend to infinity.

Thomas’s father Leonard was a well-known mathematician and has been credited with the invention of the telescope prior to Galileo.  Thomas published new editions of his father’s mathematical and scientific works and added material of his own.  He was also an MP from 1572-1586 and a friend of the poet Sir Philip Sidney.

One copy of Tycho’s portrait ended up in the possession of Thomas Digges’ younger son Leonard.  Now the Digges and Shakespeare families were connected.  Leonard Digges jnr praised Shakespeare in a rather touching poem in the Folio edition of 1623.  After Thomas Digges’s death, his widow Anne married Thomas Russell, whom Shakespeare appointed overseer of his will. It seems likely that Shakespeare got the names for these two characters in his Danish play from Thomas Digges.  They are in fact among the few characters in the play with Danish-sounding names.  This link would make the Stratford actor Will Shakespeare definitively the author of Hamlet.  However there is another route for Shakespeare to have encountered these names.  In 1592 two members of a Danish diplomatic mission to London were Frederick Rosenkrantz and Knud Gyldenstierne, two cousins of Tycho’s, and perhaps Shakespeare came across these names then.


Left: Portrait of Tycho Brahe, by Eduard Ender / Wikimedia Commons
Right: Portrait of Thomas Digges, by Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen / Canterbury City Council Museums and Galleries

The American academic Peter Usher in Hamlet’s Universe wants to take this connection a lot further and gives an allegorical interpretation of Hamlet, in which Claudius represents the Aristotelian, earth-centred world view encapsulated by Claudius Ptolemy, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern represent Tycho’s hybrid model in which the planets revolve around the sun and the sun revolves around the earth, and Hamlet himself represents the new universe of Copernicus and Thomas Digges.  Thus Hamlet has to kill off the competing but outdated world-views.  It doesn’t seem a very brilliant allegorical outcome when Hamlet dies shortly after Claudius.  He also suggests that the Tempest may be partly based on an account of a voyage to Norway by James I which ran into bad weather and included a visit to Tycho Brahe on his island observatory, ie we have to identify Tycho with Prospero.  However there is little reference to the stars in the Tempest. The Tempest is Shakespeare’s farewell to the theatre and it seems more plausible to identify Prospero as Shakespeare himself.

To see Hamlet as an allegory about world-systems seems to be missing the point about what is so great about the character of Hamlet, and the extraordinary psychological depth of his four great soliloquies.  But there are a couple of lines in Hamlet which give pause for thought.  On the very first page, Bernardo says:

‘Last night of all,

When yond same star that’s westward from the pole

Had made his course t’illume that part of heaven

Where now it burns …’

Once again Shakespeare showing that he is familiar with the rotation of the night-sky, but which star is Bernardo talking about ?  Prominent constellations near the pole are the Plough, which Shakespeare talks about elsewhere as the Bear or the Wain, and Cassiopeia, but these do not have any star that stands out.  Several of the characters complain about how cold it is, so we are talking about a time around midnight during the winter.  This would mean that Cassiopeia lies ‘westward of the pole’.  Now Tycho had discovered and studied a very bright new star, a supernova, in Cassiopeia in 1572.  John Dee and Thomas Digges also wrote about this new star and Digges, like Tycho, demonstrated that it lay beyond the zone of the planets, so was in conflict with Aristotle’s assertion that nothing could change in the celestial sphere.  This new star would for a few weeks have been very obvious above the well-known W of Cassiopeia.  Could Bernardo have been referring to Tycho’s star ?  The only problem is that Shakespeare was only eight years old in 1572.  Could someone, perhaps his mother, have pointed out Tycho’s astonishing new star to him and did this stick in his mind, or did Thomas Digges talk about it to Shakespeare when he was thinking about Hamlet?

By the way there is also a reference to ‘a new star’ in Ben Jonson’s Volpone, written in 1605.  It comes in a long comic list of prodigies:


What prodigies be these? The fires at Berwick!

And the new star! these things concurring, strange,

And full of omen! Saw you those meteors?

PEREGRINE: I did, sir.

SIR P: Fearful! Pray you, sir, confirm me,

Were there three porpoises seen above the bridge,

As they give out?

PER: Six, and a sturgeon, sir.

This new star must be Kepler’s supernova of 1604.

The second quotation which suggests the influence of Thomas Digges is Hamlet’s famous remark:

‘I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space’.

To us this sounds like natural, if dramatic, imagery.  But the idea of infinite space, introduced by Thomas Digges in 1576, was extremely novel and revolutionary to times which were still drenched in centuries of Aristotle’s finite universe.  Infinite space would have been a mind-blowing idea in the late 16th and early 17th century.  Here perhaps we do have a reference to the new astronomy of Copernicus and Digges.  Is it a coincidence that Hamlet is a student at Wittenberg, where Georg Rheticus, who helped Copernicus finish and publish his great book, and Erasmus Rheinhold, who published the first Copernican planetary tables, both lectured ?

Another remarkably modern-sounding line is the Chorus’s prologue to the fourth Act of Henry V:

Now entertain conjecture of a time

When creeping murmur and the pouring dark

Fills the wide vessel of the universe.

There is a strong hint of Copernicanism in Ulysses’ famous speech on degree in Troilus and Cressida (I.3):

‘The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre

Observe degree, priority and place,

Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,

Office and custom, in all line of order;

And therefore is the glorious planet Sol

In noble eminence enthroned and sphered

Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye

Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,

And posts, like the commandment of a king,

Sans cheque to good and bad:’

Although he’s describing an Aristotelean order of the heavens, the sun seems to be enthroned in the centre and controlling the planets.

I’ve admitted that Edmund’s assault on astrology in Lear does not come from a reliable witness.  But perhaps we have to look again at Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia.  He writes:

‘Doubt that the sun doth move’

meaning that you can’t doubt that, therefore you can’t doubt my love.  However as Polonius and Claudius come to realize, and Hamlet makes pretty clear to Ophelia and the audience, he does not love Ophelia.  Is Shakespeare saying to us that perhaps we do have to question whether it is the sun that moves ?   That would be amazing, but it would only make sense if Shakespeare was confident his audience would know what he was talking about.  How far would Copernicanism have spread from the circles of enthusiasts like John Dee and the Earl of Northumberland?

When Hamlet jumps into Ophelia’s grave he says

‘What is he whose grief

Bears such an emphasis, whose phrase of sorrow

Conjures the wand’ring stars and makes them stand still

Like wonder-wounded hearers?  This is I,

Hamlet the Dane.’

again suggesting that the new world-order, in which it is not the sun and stars that move, is on his mind.  To Rosencrantz and Guildenstern he has earlier said:

‘and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory.  This most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire – why it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.’

Is not part of Hamlet’s angst the destruction of the old world-order?

And earlier, after meeting the ghost of his father, Hamlet uses an odd turn of phrase

‘Remember thee?

Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat

In this distracted globe.’

Footnotes in modern editions suggest that by globe Hamlet means his skull and that certainly makes perfect sense.  However on all the other occasions that Shakespeare uses the word globe he means the earth, apart from Prospero’s famous speech when he predicts that the great globe itself shall dissolve, where he is referring both to the earth and to the Globe Theatre.  Could the ‘globe’ be ‘distracted’ because it, the earth, is now forced into orbit around the sun?

Shakespeare’s astronomy is rich and diverse, rooted in knowledge of the night sky, permeated with what was still the majority Aristotelian world-view of the day.  If he knew of the ideas of Copernicus, as seems highly likely, he gave them at most a passing reference.

From Aristotle he derived much more than just an astronomical world-view.  Aristotle’s ethics, perhaps imbibed via the French 16th century essaist Michel de Montaigne.  In his ‘ Shakespeare – the invention of the human’, the American literary critic Harold Bloom sees a strong link between Shakespeare and Montaigne.   Of Hamlet Bloom writes:

‘This most extraordinary of all the Shakespearean characters … is, amidst much else, a despairing philosopher whose particular subject is the vexed relationship between purpose and memory.  And his chosen mode for pursuing that relationship is the theatre, of which he will display a professional’s knowledge and an active playwright’s strong opinions.  His Wittenberg is pragmatically London, and his university must certainly be the London stage.  We are allowed to see his art in action, and in the service of his philosophy, which transcends the scepticism of Montaigne and, by doing so, invents Western nihilism.’

Thus Bloom links Shakespeare with Aristotle, via Montaigne, and makes Hamlet the originator of the existential terror of Pascal and Sartre.  The issue of whether Shakespeare was strongly influenced by Montaigne is much debated.  There is little dispute that Shakespeare’s late play The Tempest was influenced by Montaigne’s essay ‘On Cannibals’.  Gonzalo’s description in Act II Scene I of an ideal commonwealth is almost a direct quotation from Montaigne.   Montaigne’s essays were first translated into English in 1603 by John Florio, who was secretary to Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southampton.  For Hamlet, written in 1600-1, to have been influenced by Montaigne, as argued by Bloom and others, requires Shakespeare to have seen an earlier draft of Florio’s translation.  As Bloom writes:

‘Presumably, Shakespeare had read Montaigne in Florio’s manuscript version.  Nothing seems more Shakespearean than the great, culminating essay, ‘Of Experience’, composed by Montaigne in 1588, when I suspect Shakespeare was finishing his first Hamlet.’

In 1925 George Coffin Taylor examined Shakespeare’s plays and matched passages in them to Montaigne’s essays.  In his Shakespeare’s Debt to Montaigne Taylor found fifty-one passages in Hamlet and twenty-three in Lear that matched.  He assembled a list of hundreds of words and phrases, many obscure, that appear in Florio’s 1603 translation of Montaigne and that are used by Shakespeare in plays written after 1603, but which never appear in plays prior to that date.  To a scientist this looks likes good evidence that Shakespeare had read Montaigne.

There are two direct references to Aristotle in Shakespeare’s plays.  In The Taming of the Shrew Lucentio’s man Tranio says (Ii):

‘Let’s be no Stoics nor no stocks, I pray,

Or so devote to Aristotle’s checks

As Ovid be an outcast quite abjur’d.

Balk logic with aquaintance that you have,

And practise rhetoric in your common talk;

Music and poesy use to quicken you;

The mathematics and the metaphysics,

Fall to them as your stomach serves you.’

Tranio is advising against excessive study but he is aware that Aristotle has written books on Logic, Rhetoric, Poetics and Metaphysics.

Even more interesting is the reference in Troilus and Cressida, where Hector says (IIii):

‘Paris and Troilus, you have both said well;

And on the cause and question now in hand

Have gloz’d but superficially; not much

Unlike young men, whom Aristotle thought

Unfit to hear moral philosophy.’

Now this is a direct quote from Aristotle’s Ethics, a work that was freely available in English translation in Shakespeare’s lifetime.  Perhaps we have been misled by Ben Jonson’s famous line in his dedicatory poem to the First Folio:

‘And though thou hadst small Latine, and less Greeke’

to assume that Shakespeare was uneducated and unread.  When Friar Lawrence eulogizes the benefits of plants and herbs in Romeo and Juliet (IIiii) he is expounding an Aristotelian harmony and balance.   At the same time in the character of Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost he parodies the pedantry of the schoolmen.

So Shakespeare encapsulates the intellectual world of Aristotle, but seems to give strong hints at the arrival of the Copernican system.  As he was writing his exact contemporary Galileo was plotting the overthrow of Aristotle’s physics.


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