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Did Shakespeare know about Copernicus?

Maybe. Toronto science journalist Dan Falk, author of the forthcoming The Science of Shakespeare, argues that playwright William Shakespeare (1564–1616) may have had a more “modern” concept of science than we suppose:

Shakespeare could have seen evidence of the “new astronomy” with his own eyes. In November of 1572, a bright new star appeared in the constellation of Cassiopeia. (We now know it was a supernova, the explosive death of a massive star.) Shakespeare was only eight at the time – but we know Digges made observations of it, as did astronomer Tycho Brahe in Denmark. Today we call it “Tycho’s star”.

Donald Olson of Texas State University has argued that the star observed by Prince Hamlet shining “westward from the pole” was inspired by Shakespeare’s boyhood memory of Tycho’s star – reinforced, perhaps, by a reference to it in Holinshed’s Chronicles 15 years later. (At the very least, Shakespeare would have seen the next supernova, “Kepler’s star”, in 1604.) One might note that Brahe observed the stars from the Danish island of Hven, a stone’s throw from the castle of Elsinore, Shakespeare’s setting for Hamlet.

Falk admits that some of the ideas he outlines are a bit “far-fetched” but

– yet even sceptics do a double-take when they look at Brahe’s coat of arms, noticing that two of Brahe’s relatives were named “Rosencrans” and “Guildensteren”.

It’s fun anyway, and a good incentive to see the plays again.

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2 Responses to Did Shakespeare know about Copernicus?

  1. Its a fun thing but why is Shakespeare so relevant?
    Even on wiki articles on the history of England they always mention if it came up in the barbs stories. As if the plays are as important as the history?
    I saw a good BBC thing on him about his faith.
    He was a minority in a very contentious protestant nation based on protestant identies.
    I speculate he avoided protestant ism because he wanted England to be either Catholic again or neutral. So he strssed common history events to unite and separate from the struggle between puritans and the rest.
    Just a educated suspicion.
    I don’t trust him or any entertainment people.
    When they can reach a audience they start propaganda.

  2. Hi News,

    Interesting question. This article from 50 years ago is still well worth reading: “The Astronomy of Shakespeare” by W. G. Guthrie in the Irish Astronomical Journal, vol. 6(6), pp. 201-211. The address is here:
    It argues that Shakespeare’s cosmology was fairly traditional (i.e. geocentric), although he was much more open-minded and scientifically well-versed than commonly realized.

    Here’s another paper by Peter Usher, titled, “Astrophysicist finds new meaning in Hamlet” at http://solar-center.stanford.edu/art/Hamlet.html
    The author contends that Shakespeare was influenced by the English scientist, who postulated a Sun-centered universe existing in infinite space. Another take on Usher’s paper can be found here: http://news.sciencemag.org/199.....copernicus

    Here’s a more recent follow-up paper by Usher: “Shakespeare and Elizabethan Telescopy” (JRASC, Celebrating the International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009), February 2009) at http://shakespearedigges.org/JRASC-U.pdf . A few excerpts:

    Shakespeare refers to the Diggesian model directly when he has Hamlet say, “0 God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space:’ Here, Shakespeare contrasts the idea of infinite space with the three bounded models. The conceit is particularly apt in the case of Tycho Brahe’s model since Tycho intended his design to be as compact as possible in order to conform to the pedantic dictum to minimize empty space. In this sense, the Tychonic model resembles a nut, which symbolizes something of trifling value and has a shell resembling the bounding sphere of stars…

    In Hamlet, the Bard describes with comparative clarity the phases of Venus, craters on the Moon, sunspots, the stellar makeup of the Milky Way, the number of naked-eye stars, and the existence of stars lying beyond the pale of human vision. These data could only derive from telescopic observations. According to Thomas Digges in Pantometria of 1571, his father Leonard followed up on the work of Roger Bacon in the 13th century and developed a so-called perspective glass by which to magnify the images of distant objects. Independent evidence indicates that the Bard knew Thomas Digges, which suggests that Thomas Digges’ essay of 1576 and Shakespeare’s two element optical magnifier.

    The difficulty is that no one has discovered direct physical evidence of a Diggesian telescope or any associated records, and consequently the existence of an Elizabethan telescope remains mired in uncertainty (Turner 1993, Ronan 1991, van Helden 1997). However, pursuant to an empirical approach to the history of astronomy that he espoused in 1981, Michael Gainer has opened up a new avenue of research into 16th century telescopy by demonstrating that a functioning two element telescope described by Thomas Digges was well within the capabilities of the Digges father and son (Gainer 1981, Gainer 2008)…

    It seems likely that Thomas Digges was an accomplished craftsman who continued to work after the death of his father in 1572 and up to the time of his own death in 1595, six years before the nominal time of writing of Hamlet. This, I suggest, is why Shakespeare characterizes Thomas Digges’ dramatic counterpart, Prince Hamlet, as “mad in craft.”

    And from another paper in the same issue, by Michael K. Gainer; Emeritus Professor of Physics, St. Vincent College, Latrobe, PA:

    The history of telescopic astronomy throughout the 17th century is well established. Reconstructions of telescopes from that period, for the purpose of evaluating their observations, have been documented (Gainer 1981). The history of observational astronomy in the 16th century however, apart from the monumental work of Tycho Brahe, is vague and unresolved. The possibility of pre-Galilean telescope observations has only recently been opened to conjecture through the study of the works ofLeonard Digges and his son, Thomas…

    Leonard Digges may have experimented with a variety of telescope designs using reflective and refractive optics.

    Food for thought.

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