Shakespeare and the stars


The bard was born in the same year as Galileo and witnessed a cosmic revolution. Some say it is there in his plays if you know how to look. Bill Condie searches for clues. 


Our journey is nothing compared to the experience of the Elizabethans at the close of the 16th century
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Missions to Mars; reading our genomes; Google: welcome to the modern age, where science repeatedly revolutionises our world, “one giant leap” after another.

But our journey is nothing compared to the experience of the Elizabethans at the close of the 16th century. They went from seeing themselves at centre stage of the universe to realising they were very much on the sidelines. All around them, innovations ranging from microscopes and telescopes to lead pencils were rewriting their lives and their understanding of the cosmos.

William Shakespeare, the most profound observer of the human condition the world has ever known, lived through these events. But while his works dazzle with observations on life and death, love and vengeance, you would be hard-pressed to quote Shakespeare on science.

So is there science in Shakespeare? Yes – but you have to look for it.

“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves,” proclaimed the Bard, revealing his disdain for astrology. Ironically, the stars proved him wrong, although it had nothing to do with the zodiac. In early November 1572, when the playwright was but an eight-year-old lad, a supernova exploded in the Cassiopeia constellation in the northern sky. The event upended the accepted view of the universe, ultimately sparking a scientific revolution that set the course for the way we live and think today.

When Shakespeare was born, the prevailing view of the cosmos was unchanged since the time of the ancient Greek astronomer Claudius Ptolemy. In his “geocentric” universe, the Earth was fixed in place at its centre, orbited by the Sun and the other planets. A little further out sat the stars, attached to a fixed “shell”. The universe was a compact and cosy place to be.

Figure of the heavenly bodies – a 1568 illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric conception of the universe.

With the Cassiopeia supernova, geocentricity began to unravel. By carefully measuring the supernova’s position relative to the Moon, Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe and others proved once and for all that the stars were not fixed at the same distance from Earth. Nor did all heavenly events occur in the space between Earth and the Moon.

Some 40 years later, the great Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei, born the same year as Shakespeare, pointed the refractive telescope he had recently improved towards the stars. He saw four moons circling Jupiter and Venus growing and diminishing in phases like the Moon. They were clearly on orbits that were not Earth-centric. Instead the observations bolstered the contentious “heliocentric” views of Copernicus, published almost three decades before the Cassiopeia supernova. This placed the Earth as just another planet orbiting the Sun. All the evidence was steadily disabusing Elizabethans of the comforting notion they occupied the centre of the universe.

If the Bible’s descriptions of Earth at the centre of the cosmos
were wrong, then what about God?

“Oh brave new world, that has such people in’t!” Miranda exclaims in The Tempest. She might well be talking of the Elizabethan age. It was a time of intense curiosity about the physical world and great enthusiasm for all sorts of scientific discovery.

“Shakespeare was living at an extraordinary time, when science was opening up all sorts of questions,” says John Bell, the Sydney-based founder of the 23-year-old Bell Shakespeare theatre company. As an actor and director, Bell is intimately acquainted with Shakespeare, his face etched with the myriad characters he has brought to life on stage. At 73, the youthful vacillating Hamlet may be behind him, but there is now more than a touch of The Tempest’s scientist-magician Prospero. The rich timbre of his voice has neither aged nor diminished.

While Shakespeare never wrote a play about science Bell has no doubt the Bard was keenly watching the events unfolding around him. A Pandora’s box was being prised open by science. If the Bible’s descriptions of Earth at the centre of the cosmos were wrong, then what about God? What about the rest of the certainties that religion promised? It is no surprise that heliocentric views were branded heretic, says Bell. “If you take one brick away then the whole thing begins to collapse.

Nowhere was the revolution in science felt more acutely than by the literate Elizabethans. During the 30 years reign of Elizabeth I, male literacy more than doubled from one in 10 to one in four, while the fraction of literate women exploded from the oddball one in 100 to a more respectable one in 10. Books in English appeared for the first time on subjects ranging from cookery to medicine, opening up a new world of knowledge for people. Education itself became more egalitarian. Shakespeare, the son of a tanner, had the privilege of a grammar school education, unthinkable to his father’s generation.

Elizabethan society was on the move – literally and figuratively – with sailors and explorers such as Sir Francis Drake setting off around the world in small ships. These voyages were only made possible by advances such as Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator’s map projection of 1569 which allowed sailors for the first time to plot a course in a straight line on their charts. The great age of exploration that was to follow could not have taken place without him.

Medical science was also taking great strides forward. The Flemish doctor Andreas Vesalius discovered the science of anatomy through grisly dissections of cadavers, and the meticulous animal experiments of William Harvey in England revealed the heart, veins and arteries for the plumbing system it was, putting to rest the view that the veins and arteries had no connection and that the role of the arteries was to fill with air and cool the heart.

There were humbler inventions, too, such as the “lead” pencil, thanks to the discovery of a graphite deposit in Cumbria in northwest England in 1565, not to mention the Gregorian calendar (1582), the knitting machine (1589) and a host of others.

Shakespearean actor and director John Bell

Perhaps more important than any of these inventions and discoveries was the way the Elizabethans formalised how we “do” science – generating hypotheses, and testing them by experiment. In other words, “empiricism”. Its founding father was Sir Francis Bacon, who in 1621 published Novum Organum Scientiarum – the “new instrument of science”. Bacon argued that only through a spirit of open inquiry and the scientific method could mankind become master of the physical world. “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”

Bacon was an unequivocally modern man, but other Elizabethans were yet to make a full transition from medieval thinking. For all their advances in science, the Elizabethans could still be a superstitious lot: and for many, astrology lived happily beside astronomy, alchemy with chemistry. Comets and eclipses were auguries of great, often disastrous events. When Calpurnia, wife of Julius Caesar, foresees her husband’s death in a dream, Shakespeare gives her these lines:

“When beggars die there are no comets seen,

The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”

A high-profile example of medieval-modern duality was John Dee, a founding fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. By day he lectured in advanced algebra but by night he and his colleague Edward Kelley held séances to consult with angels. He also spent years searching for the so-called “philosopher’s stone” that alchemists believed could be used to turn base metal to gold. Clearly Dee could not see the difference between science and magic.

Given the tumultuous scientific events taking place around him, there are oddly few direct references to science in Shakespeare’s plays. But astronomer Peter Usher believes the references are hiding in plain sight.

“Shakespeare was very strongly on the side of science, I believe,” says Usher, now retired from Pennsylvania State University and who argues his case in a book, Hamlet’s Universe. “My thesis is that he was a powerful supporter of the new world view. As early as 1601, Shakespeare anticipated the new universal order and humankind’s position in it.”

The professor came to his theory over his 31 years of teaching astronomy, trying to enrich the subject matter with apt literary references.

“It struck me as odd at the time that Shakespeare could be alive just as the Copernican revolution began to take hold and not to have mentioned it. A man of that calibre could not fail to have taken notice of what was going on around him.”

Usher thinks that Shakespeare did more than take note; he actually championed the Copernican view of the cosmos. It is just that he did it in heavily disguised form in Hamlet. Usher’s “ah-ha” moment came upon studying Hamlet, when he realised Hamlet’s great enemy Claudius bears the same name as Claudius Ptolemy. “So I developed the theory that this was an allegory of the competing views and that pretty much launched me and I just kept going.”

Another of the clues Usher points to is the star that, in Act I, is a portent for the appearance of Hamlet’s father’s ghost. Usher says this star is Tycho Brahe’s supernova and sets the whole chronology – and theme – of the play. If the first act begins at the time the supernova is putting on its show in Cassiopeia, then the whole five acts of the play must take place between 1572 and 1576. Hamlet has been a student at Wittenberg, a centre for Copernican learning. Some of the play’s language is also a give-away, says Usher. When Hamlet says he wants to return to study in Wittenberg, the king is displeased and says “it is most retrograde to our desire”. There is a double meaning there, Usher believes. The term retrograde refers not only to the heretical or “contrary” views held by the Wittenberg university but also to a common astronomical term that is used to describe, for instance, the apparent backward movement of Saturn when overtaken in its orbit by Earth. He cites further clues such as the names of the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, named he says after Frederick Rosenkrantz and Knud Gyldenstierne, cousins of Tycho Brahe.

Usher does not think cosmological and scientific references are limited to Hamlet. He has written a second volume, Shakespeare and the Dawn of Modern Science, expanding his theory to include Love’s Labour’s Lost, Cymbeline, The Merchant of Venice and The Winter’s Tale.“I think that cosmology was a major part of Shakespeare’s world view,” he says.

Bell is sure Shakespeare was well aware of the cosmological debate but less convinced that Hamlet is an extended metaphor. “You can read so many things into Shakespeare,” says Bell. “The view of the universe and the dispute between the heliocentric and geocentric view would have been in Shakespeare’s mind but I don’t think he set down to write a piece about it.”

That is not to say the playwright skirted round the scientific awakening and discoveries of all kinds. Art simply approaches questions of truth in a different way from science, Bell says.

“Shakespeare questioned all sorts of things. There is super-nature in his plays, of course, but he uses this for dramatic effect. There is also scepticism throughout Shakespeare’s work. He questions all sorts of things, including the medieval worldview, justice and social mores. Science is the key to it all.”

That questioning spirit, encapsulated in Shakespeare’s plays as much as Bacon’s empiricism and Galileo’s heliocentricism, was to lay the ground for the flourishing of science in the centuries to come. Of course, the Church and other conservative elements fought the new thinking, but the cat was out of the bag and mankind’s confidence in science and reason could not be stopped, as even Hamlet admits:

“What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god.”

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