The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.343 Sunday, 10 August 2014
From: Gerald E. Downs <
Date: August 6, 2014 at 1:30:50 AM EDT
Subject: Shakespeare's Science
Steve Sohmer had some interesting remarks on the “Science Thread.”
> In the Folio, Hamlet’s poem to Ophelia reads: “Doubt thou
> the starres are fire, Doubt that the sun doth move.” Now
> this has never made sense to me. Because Hamlet has been
> schooled in Wittenberg and that’s where Rheticus published
> the first edition of De Revolutionibus . . . and Copernicanism
> was taught there from at least 1543. So Hamlet knew (a) the
> stars are fire, and (b) the Sun did not move (or so they thought
> back then). Ophelia may not have believed the stars were fire,
> but as a good Catholic she certainly believed the Sun moved
> around the Earth every day.
> On the other hand, in the cockamamie Q1 Hamlet the
> poem begins “Doubt that in earth is fire, Doubt that the
> starres doe moue” which, of course, makes no sense at all.
> But the appearance of Earth in the first line is intriguing.
> I don’t think the recorder would have thrown in the Earth
> if it weren’t somewhere in the Hamlet’s poem.
Steve may be right that Hamlet’s poem is sic. Though most comment assumes an undescribed meaning, a few question the lines. Before going into that I’ll add some thoughts on the general topic.
I tend to agree with Hugh Grady that Shakespeare shared the geocentric “philosophy.” It helps to recall that Copernicus “was not a Copernican.” It’s highly unlikely that Shakespeare was on the cutting edge of a science that stumbled through concepts of infinity (Bruno), distant force, magnetism (Gilbert), inertia (Galileo, Descartes), multiple forces, elliptical orbit (Kepler), angular velocity, and gravity (A. E. Neuman).
Perhaps a way to understand claims for Shakespeare is to avoid these truly fascinating (& geometrically bewildering) topics by reading up on William Harvey’s research on the circulation of blood, a grasp of which is attributed to Shakespeare. The commonsense knowledge that blood ebbs and flows is not to be compared to working out the how. Back to Steve:
> My hunch is Shakespeare wrote: “Doubt that the starres
> are fire, Doubt that the Earth does move.” This would
> make excellent sense coming from a post-Copernican
> Protestant boy from Wittenberg . . . writing to a Catholic
> girl (who’s ordered to a nunnery and imagines her dead
> father on a pilgrimage).
I think people misunderstand the nunnery business but that’s another subject. I’ve heard “Doubt thou” is usually misquoted yet I have a feeling ‘that’ is correct though ‘thou’ is indifferent. The passage is probably corrupt; so is the Q1 version (of course), which nevertheless may be partially right, as is often the case. I assume Shakespeare’s Hamlet makes sense, even in wordplay, when lack of sense signifies corruption. Here’s Q2 2.2.105–124:
I haue a daughter, haue while she is mine,
Who in her dutie and obedience, marke,
Hath giuen me this, now gather and surmise,
To the Celestiall and my soules Idoll, the most beau-
tified Ophelia, that’s an ill phrase, a vile phrase,
beautified is a vile phrase, but you shall heare: thus in
her excellent white bosome, these &c.
Quee. Came this from Hamlet to her?
Pol. Good Maddam stay awhile, I will be faithfull,
Doubt thou the starres are fire, Letter.
Doubt that the Sunne doth moue,
Doubt truth to be a lyer,
But neuer doubt I loue.
O deere Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers, I haue not art to recken
My grones, but that I loue thee best, ô most best belieue it, adew.
Thine euermore deere Lady, whilst this machine is to him.
Pol. This in obedience hath my daughter shown me, (Hamlet.
Clowns weren’t as serious in those days, so when I read that Shakespeare gave the word mostly to them I suppose sexual overtones in perpend, as in ‘perpendicular.’ I want to agree with Capell (a good judge) that Theobald’s ‘beatified’ works best metrically and meaningfully. It’s hard to see why the “phrase” is vile unless it insults Catholic usage; but th’OED doesn’t cite it early enough.
Often the phrase “&c.” indicates a stageritic bleep. That prompts Gertrad to ask a stupid question: ‘Did my putative son write “&c.” to your putative daughter?’ Such things are conveyed by signs augmenting the dialogue.
These notes emphasize that I could be wrong. The poem itself is of the same genre as “If I don’t love you, grits ain’t groceries” (where ‘Doubt truth to be a lyer’ sets the tone). The question is whether the first two Q2 lines are accurately rendered.
Shakespeare does assert elsewhere that stars are fiery and some ancient geeks supposed they were fire in substance—but there wasn’t much to go on besides meteors. What's undeniable beyond twinkles is that stars sensibly move. The sun burns. My guess is that the traits are transposed. Switch them back and the love letter is as ptolably tolemeic as the rest of the canon. Q1 reads:
. . . now to the Prince.
My Lord, but note this letter,
The which my daughter in obedience
Deliuer’d to my hands.
King Reade it my Lord.
Cor. Marke my Lord.
Doubt that in earth is fire,
Doubt that the starres doe moue,
Doubt trueth to be a liar,
But doe not doubt I loue.
To the beautifull Ofelia:
Thine euer the most vnhappy Prince Hamlet.
My Lord, what doe you thinke of me?
I, or what might you thinke when I sawe this?
. . .
Shee as my childe obediently obey’d me.
Some still believe Shakespeare wrote this travesty. In Q2, Polonius’s ‘mark’ calls attention to Ophelia’s obedience; in Q1 it is remembered only as a redundancy. Hamlet was not unhappy when writing the Q2 letter. In Q1 Corambis asks the King’s opinion of him before attempting an elucidation. And “obediently obeyed” is as far from Shakespeare as one might go. However, ‘Doubt that the stars do move’ may get it right. Replace ‘in earth’ with ‘the sun’ and we have something Ophelia would understand. But it doesn’t say much about Shakespeare’s science.
Gerald E. Downs