"All the world's a stage"

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE IS THE PREEMINENT English playwright that history remembers. Scholars continue to dissect his posthumous Folio nearly 400 years after his death, reading the disciplines into his works. Shakespeare is illuminated by philologists, philosophers, historians. Like any great author, he synthesized his culture and its ideas into meaningful commentary that remains his legacy.

Shakespeare lived and authored at a median period of the Scientific Revolution. Birthed by fate between Copernicus and Newton, Shakespeare shares his birth year 1564 with Galileo Galilei. By coincidence, 1564 was also the death of Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, hierarch of the Italian Renaissance—only three days after Galileo’s birth. The end of Michelangelo and the Catholic Old World is fittingly replaced with the Great Spectator, Galileo. This is Shakespeare’s first year: conceived by Old Time into a sunset retrospect of the Renaissance while foreshadowing the empiricists’ Europe to the East.

"There is not a sentimental bone in his body. He has the curiosity of a scientist, the judgement of a philosopher, and the soul of a poet."
Colin McGinn.
Shakespeare's philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays

Scientific English

The Scientific Revolution may have imposed a direct and plain style of language accurate to the agenda of empirical reporting. Figurative English and rhythm that may have defied the blunt facts of research are unexpected in this scientific community. The Shakespearean images of fairies and apparitions would seem retrograde to the new Revolution; those were the false lore of the Middle Ages. Yet what we find in Shakespeare's scientific contemporaries is quite unlike the expected. Johannes Kepler is a closet poet. According to historian James Connor, Kepler was also familiar with theatre; his frail form well applied to playing the parts of girls. Sokol, in his treatise on Shakespeare's The Tempest, A Brave New World of Knowledge, asserts that Kepler and Newton were avid philologists. And Galileo's banned book, the 1616 Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, was Dantean in its literary merits.

Similarly, Shakespeare, in his understanding of Myth and traditions, was able to synthesize this knowledge into existential discourse into culture and the sciences. Philosopher Colin McGinn elaborates: "Intelligent people believed in witchcraft, ghosts, fairies, astrology, and all the rest. Eclipses were greeted with alarmed superstition. The conception of the world as a set of intelligible law-governed causes was at most a distant dream." Yet Shakespeare's genius was in his submission to nature. "He let reality impose itself" and used these observations and literary devices, and most likely collaborated with notable scientists of his time, to understand and convey the world as it was being learned.

This may explain his willingness to write about recent developments in Europe's understanding of weather in The Tempest, or of heliocentricity in the Tragedy of Hamlet--though he was presumably Catholic. Dr. Kerry Sanders at the University of Sydney suggests "The young Hamlet comes back from Wittenberg all fired up with this new humanist education, reason's everything... and he's told by a ghost, a very unrationalist ghost we might presume, that Claudius [has killed his father]." Hamlet cannot rationalize a ghost in Purgatory with his Lutheran, Wittenberg education, and so he surrenders his education. "OK, I'll just observe, I'll use my senses and see if I can work it out."

Often, Shakespeare offers no conclusion of which is the right science. Once again, he merely observes, but with a clear and cautious eye for the delicacies in Nature. His tragedy King Lear faces young Edmund, a model of new science, with Lear, a remnant. "By nature," Edmund says, "everything is just as it is." Edmund is a bastard by nature, and crafty, but Nature has elected King Lear to a noble and honorable, God-intended position in the old thought. Lear, however, the medieval ideal, is senile, enraged, and incompetent. Edmund drives the plot; he muses a new schema of science, since the old has failed Lear and Lear's kingdom.

Shakespeare's commentary in his works is philosophical in the same way the Greek greats asked questions, and compared. Perhaps Shakespeare's plays are no less scientific in their investigations of nature and man than that of his science contemporaries. He observes, compares, and presents his findings in scientific English for the masses. There is no reason he should dry his philological palette to talk geocentricity. Then he would have fumbled into direct competition with Tycho Brahe.

Hamlet in Space: A New Interpretation of Shakespeare's Prince of Denmark.

The universe is a tested theme in Shakespeare's Folio. Juliet, a Leo, is "star-cross'd" with her lover Romeo in a likely commentary of astrology (I.6). Shakespeare makes a hundred references to simple star-readings in his plays, manipulating their effects on his cast. But in his tragedy of Hamlet, Shakespeare may show his hand in the pressing heliocentric vs. geocentric debate of the universe. "Doubt thou the stars are fire,/ Doubt that the sun doth move" Hamlet writes to his complicated love interest, Ophelia (II.ii.116-117). "Doubt that the sun doth move."

Peter Usher, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State, proposes that Shakespeare carries his astrological tradition into the tragedy of Hamlet--and multiplies it. Hamlet, he argues, is the allegorical competition between two cosmological designs: the sun-centered Copernicus construct, and the old Earth model retained by Tycho Brahe of Denmark.

In Copernicus' last days, his pupil Georg Joachim pitched the heliocentric scheme at the University of Wittenberg, Germany. The model became the standard of the college, though Tycho Brahe, an active student, retained his staunch Catholic traditions. Brahe, during the construction of his observatory in Oresund Sound, predicted that poets may soon compose songs of praise in his honor. He commissioned portraits sent out in his likeness, posed under a stone arch with the relief of his great grandparents Erik Rosenkrantz and Sophie Gyldenstierne.

Usher argues that Shakespeare knew knowledge of these portraits through a Copernican friend, Thomas Digges. He adds Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Hamlet as allegorical figures of Tycho and geocentricism; "adders fang'd," feigned friends of Hamlet doomed to die by his hand (III.iv.203). They are all three students from Wittenberg without coincidence. King Claudius, Usher adds, may be an allusion to Claudius Ptolemy, meant to evoke the Greek astronomer's catalogue of constellations and geocentric ideas. Hamlet's Denmark kingdom is named Elsinore, a near homonym of the historical Denmark King's Helsingor castle observatory erected simultaneously with Brahe's own in Oresund Sound. Usher's arguments are convincing.

Here at Elsinore, Hamlet puns he is "too much in the sun," thus associating himself with the sun in its alignment. Following his outburst, the royal couple discourage Hamlet from returning to Wittenberg, Shakespeare's allusion to heliocentric thought. "It is most retrograde to our desire" (I.ii.114). "Retrograde" has its origins in Chaucer's time, the 14th century, when it most nearly meant "backtracking" and "returning to a previous course." Here, in Hamlet, "retrograde" is most certainly a term for "opposition," hinting at the process of retrograde motion in planets. Usher claims there is no doubt in the astronomical pun. "Why should we in our peevish opposition/ Take it to heart?" Claudius asks (I.ii.101). "Fie, 'tis a fault to heaven--" or geocentrists that deem retrograde motion a fault of Nature (I.ii.102). Shakespeare concludes the allusion in Claudius' lines about his Queen in Act IV: "She is so conjunctive to my life and soul,/ That as the star moves not but in his sphere,/ I could not but by her" (IV.vii.16-18).

One of Shakespeare's finest tragedies, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, if it is as Peter Usher convincingly suggests, an allegory of two competing cosmic worldviews, it may be the most poignant social commentary of Shakespeare's era, and well rivaling the 18th century satirists Swift and Pope whom Shakespeare would never meet. While Peter Usher's scheme for the Hamlet tragedy is mere postulation, it does represent an impressive insight into Shakespeare's possible involvement within the Scientific Revolution and its scientists. Imagine: while in the last year of the 16th century Giorgano Bruno is martyred as a Copernican convert, Shakespeare composes a magnificent, poetic affirmation of heliocentricity--and lives.