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Home :: Archive :: 1997 :: January ::
Astronomers' on Shakespeare
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, SHK 8.0054.  Tuesday, 14 January 1997.

From:           W. L. Godshalk <
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Date:           Monday, 13 Jan 1997 22:59:18 -0500
Subject:        The Times: Britain: Astronomer
                discovers cast of stars hidden in Hamlet

[Editor's Note: A friend sent me some abstracts that I have been holding on
to until now.  I will append then to the end of Bill Godshalk's submission
--HMC]


The Times: Britain: Astronomer discovers cast of stars hidden in Hamlet
January 14 1997 BRITAIN

Shakespeare was hailed yesterday for championing an English scientist's view of
the Universe against something rotten from the state of Denmark. Nigel Hawkes,
science editor, reports Astronomer discovers cast of stars hidden in
Hamlet.

THERE is more of heaven and earth in Hamlet than has been dreamt of in anyone's
philosophy, an American astronomer claimed yesterday. Shakespeare was not only
tackling human issues such as revenge, madness and the point of existence, but
he was also taking a wide look at the size of the Universe and whether the
planets orbit the Earth or the Sun.

The 1601 drama is full of references to rivalry between two theories of the
cosmos, Professor Peter Usher of Pennsylvania State University said. The Bard
championed the view that won.

Delegates at the American Astronomical Society's meeting in Toronto were told:
"Hamlet is an allegory for the competition between Thomas Digges of England and
Tycho Brahe of Denmark." In 1576, Digges, an English scientist and scholar,
published his Perfit Description, in which he took up the Sun-centred view of
Copernicus, and suggested that the stars we see are like the Sun, and
distributed through infinite space. At the end of the century, Giordano Bruno
was martyred for publishing similar ideas.

Shakespeare knew Digges, Professor Usher says, and through him knew also of the
Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, whose cosmology was Earth-centred and believed
the solar system was embedded in a spherical shell of stars. "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 and Tychonic
models with the Infinite Universe of Digges," Professor Usher said.

"Claudius is named for Claudius Ptolemy, who perfected the geocentric model.
Claudius personifies Ptolemaic geocentrism, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
personify Tychonic geocentrism. The latter are summoned by Claudius because the
position of the King is threatened by young Hamlet, who personifies the
Infinite Universe." Thus, when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are killed, so are
Tycho's ideas, and when Claudius is killed, it signals the end of geocentrism.
"The chief climax of the play is the return of Fortinbras from Poland and his
salute to the ambassadors of England. Here Shakespeare signifies the triumph of
the Copernican model and its Diggesian corollary." Copernicus was a Pole.

Prince Hamlet is a student at Wittenberg, a centre of Copernican learning, but
when he announces a desire to return to his studies there, the King demurs,
saying: "It is most retrograde to our desire." This, Professor Usher says, was
a play on the word retrograde, which is when the stars appear to move
backwards. Explaining it was a problem for Earth-centred cosmologies. Hamlet's
madness is linked to his support for Digges, the gravediggers asserting that in
England "the men are as mad as he". If that is right, Professor Usher says,
then Hamlet "evinces a scientific cosmology no less magnificent than its
literary and scientific counterparts".

*  Two groups of American astronomers reported the strongest evidence yet for
the existence of black holes, the final outcome of collapsed stars whose dense
cores suck in all nearby matter. A team from the University of Michigan used
data from the Hubble space telescope to identify three new black holes. They
believe a black hole exists at the centre of nearly every galaxy. A second
team, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, studied pairs of stars where one is pulling gas away from the
other, and found four where the energy simply disappears  a "strong indication"
of a black hole.

****************************************************************************
Abstracts:

[24.01] A New Reading of Shakespeare's Hamlet.

P. D. Usher (PSU)

I argue that Hamlet is an allegory for the competition between the cosmological
models of the contemporaries Thomas Digges (1546-1595) of England and Tycho
Brahe (1546-1601) of Denmark. Through his acquaintance with the Digges' family,
Shakespeare would have known of the essential elements of the revolutionary
model of Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543) as well as Digges' extension of it.
Prior to 1601 when the writing of Hamlet was completed, Shakespeare knew also
of Tycho and his relatives Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and would have seen
that Tycho's hybrid geocentric model was a substantial regression to the
well-known geocentricism of Ptolemy (fl. 140 A.D.). It has been suggested that
Polonius is named for a fictional character Pollinio, an Aristotelian pedant. I
suggest that Claudius is named for Claudius Ptolemy for whom Polonius would
have been a suitable attendant. I suggest further that the slaying of
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is the Bard's way of killing the Tychonic model.
The slaying of Claudius signals the demise of Ptolemaic geocentricism, both
ends being prolonged, the former dramatically, the latter as a matter of
historical fact. But the climax of the play is not the slaughter of the chief
protagonists; it is the triumphal arrival of Fortinbras from Poland and his
timely salute to the ambassadors from England. By means of this apparent
incongruity, Shakespeare celebrates the Copernican and Diggesian models and
states poetically the nature of the new universal order. I present literary and
historical evidence for the present reading which, if essentially correct,
suggests that Hamlet evinces a scientific cosmology no less significant than
its literary and philosophical counterparts. The last year of the sixteenth
century saw the martyrdom of Bruno, but the first year of the next century saw
the Bard affirm that there are more things in heaven than were dreamt of in
contemporary philosophy.


                                 Abstract

Payne-Gaposchkin and others have suggested that Hamlet shows evidence of the
Bard's awareness of the astronomical revolutions of the sixteenth century. I
summarize major arguments and note that the play's themes recur in modern
astronomy teaching and research: (1) The play amounts to a redefinition of
universal order and humankind's position in it. (2) There is interplay between
appearance and reality. Such a contrast is commonplace wherever superficial
celestial appearances obscure underlying physical realities, the nature of
which emerge as the tale unfolds. (3) The outermost sphere of the Ptolemaic and
Copernican models seems to encase humanity, who are liberated by the reality of
Digges' model and the implications advanced by Bruno. Similarly the
oppressiveness of the castle interior is relieved by the observing platform
which enables the heavens to be viewed in their true light. (4) Hamlet could be
bounded in a nut-shell and count himself a king of infinite space, were it not
that he has bad dreams. These concern the subversiveness of the new doctrine,
for Hamlet refers to the infinite universe only hypothetically and in the
presence of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are named for relatives of the
Danish astronomer Brahe. (5) Hamlet, and Brahe and Bruno, have connections to
the university at Wittenberg, as does the Copernican champion Rheticus. (6)
Ways are needed to reveal both the truths of nature, and the true nature of
Danish royalty. Those unaccustomed to science think that there is madness in
Hamlet's method. In particular, `doubt' is advanced as a methodological
principle of inquiry. (7) The impression of normalcy and propriety in the upper
reaches of society is like the false impression of an encapsulating universe.
In Hamlet this duality is dramatized tragically, whereas in King John (cf. BAAS
27, 1325, 1995) it is not; for by 1601 when the writing of Hamlet was probably
completed, Shakespeare would have known of the martyrdom of Bruno the previous
year, whereas in 1593-4 when King John was written, the picture was less clear.
For these reasons, Hamlet's princely `philosophy' speaks to our day.


                                 Abstract

Shakespeare wrote King John c.1594, six years after the defeat of the Spanish
Armada, and ~ 50 years after publication of the Copernican heliocentric
hypothesis. It is said to be the most unhistorical of the History Plays,
``anomalous'', ``puzzling'', and ``odd'', and as such it has engendered far
more than the customary range of interpretive opinion. I suggest that the play
alerts Elizabethans not just to military and political threats, but to a
changing cosmic world view, all especially threatening as they arise in
Catholic countries.

(a) Personification characterizes the play. John personifies the old order,
while Arthur and the Dauphin's armies personify the new. I suggest that
Shakespeare decenters King John just as Copernicus decentered the world.

(b) Hubert menaces Arthur's eyes for a whole scene (4.1), but the need for such
cruelty is not explained and is especially odd as Arthur is already under
sentence of death (3.3.65-66). This hitherto unexplained anomaly suggests that
the old order fears what the new might see.

(c) Eleanor's confession is made only to Heaven and to her son the King
(1.1.42-43), yet by echoing and word play the Messenger from France later
reveals to John that he is privy to it (4.2.119-124). This circumstance has not
been questioned heretofore. I suggest that the Messenger is like the wily
Hermes (Mercury), chief communicator of the gods and patron of the sciences; by
revealing that he moves in the highest circles, he tells John that he speaks
with an authority that transcends even that of a king. The message from on high
presages more than political change; it warns of a new cosmic and religious
world order

(d) Most agree that John is a weak king, so Shakespeare must have suspected
flaws in the old ways.  He would have known that Tycho Brahe's new star of
1572, the comet of 1577, and the 1576 model of his compatriot Thomas Digges,
were shattering old ideas.

(e) The tensions of the play are not resolved because in 1594 the new order was
not yet generally accepted. Instead, the new world view is announced subtly,
and thereby perhaps prudently, for the onset of persecution of its advocates is
only a few years away.
 

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