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Welcome to Episode #113 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

In 1572, when William Shakespeare was 8 years old, a large supernova streaked across the sky making a lifelong mark in the memory of not just a young William Shakespeare, but across the consciousness of all of England who saw it that night. At the height of Renaissance thought, and during the time Galileo was presenting his ideas in Italy, William Shakespeare was writing Hamlet, King Lear, and other plays which not only allude to the work of famous physicists and astronomers of the 16th century, but in some cases, including the stars they studied, and even some family relatives of these astronomers, by name. 

We do not often connect William Shakespeare and his work in theater with Euclidean Geometry, or the Copernican theory of the universe, but when we study the life of the bard, we discover that he was not only well educated in both, but contemporaries to the bard like Thomas Digges, and Tycho Brahe, were publishing works right alongside the plays of Shakespeare that captured the attention of England, and Europe, during the 16th century. Our guest this week, Dr. Michael Rowan Robinson has published extensively on the topics of mathematics, astronomy, and Shakespeare, and he is here today to explain the mathematical history of the bard, including the influence of Copernicus and Kepler on plays like Hamlet and King Lear.

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Michael Rowan-Robinson is Senior Research Investigator and Emeritus Professor of Astrophysics at Imperial College London.  He was Head of Astrophysics at Imperial from 1993-2007 and President of the Royal Astronomical Society from 2006-8. He works on infrared and submillimetre astronomy and observational cosmology.  He has worked on a series of infrared space astronomy missions, including IRAS, ISO, Spitzer, Herschel and Planck.  He was awarded the Hoyle Medal of the Institute of Physics in 2008 and has an asteroid named after him. He is author of several books, including ‘Cosmic Landscape’, ‘Our Universe’, ‘Ripples in the Cosmos’, ‘Nine Numbers of the Cosmos’, and ‘Night Vision’. Recent articles and essays include ‘Aristotle, the first physicist ?’, ‘Reflections on Kant and Herschel: the interaction of theory and observation ?’, and ’Shakespeare’s Astronomy’. He writes a monthly column ‘Stars’n Tides’ in the Southwold Organ and is President of the DASH astronomical society.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Michael Rowan Robinson about :

  • oday, we know the supernova that streaked across Europe when Shakespeare was 8 years old as the Tycho star. Remnants of this actual star Shakespeare saw over 400 years ago are actually still visible and available in photograph form on NASA’s website, which we will link to in the show notes for today’s episode so you can see these remnants for yourself so be sure to check that out at cassidycash.com/ep113 Michael, for Shakespeare, did he understand that he was witnessing a supernova? What was the cultural response to this even in 1572? 

  • Does Shakespeare’s inclusion of Copernican theory in his plays, and particularly how he represents it in Hamlet, demonstrate the popularity of this discussion in England culturally at this time in history?

  • How many eclipses had occurred during Shakespeare’s lifetime? 

  • … and more!

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Last night of all, When yond same star that’s westward from the pole
Had made his course to illume that part of heaven Where now it burns…

Barnardo

Hamlet (I.1)

Star map by Tycho Brahe of the constellation Cassiopeia showing the position (labelled I) of the supernova of 1572; from Tycho Brahe's De nova stella “Tycho Brahe | Brahe, Tychonis (1901) [A facsimile reprint of the original edition, 1573] Tychonis Brahe dani, die XXIV octobris A. D. MDCI defuncti, operum primitias De nova stella, Hauniae: [I. Ioergensen & soc. (M.A. Hannover)] Brahe, Tychonis (1573) Tychonis Brahe, Dani De noua et nullius aeui memoria prius visa stella, iam pridem anno à nato Christo 1572, Hafniae: Impressit Laurentius Benedictj Source

Supernova of 1572

It has been suggested that there is a reference to this supernova in the first scene of Hamlet, yon star, westward from the pole. At the time of night and the time of year, he’s referring to the constellation of Casseopia. Bright star for some months in 1572, Tycho Brahe, and also Thomas Digges. Who we think Shakespeare may well have known. 

This star is one supernova in our Milky Way Galaxy. There are only a small number that could have been seen with the naked eye. 

His mother was a farmer’s daughter, interested in the stars from the epitaph, “come quickly Christ, ….may rise again and see the stars.” Shakespeare's mother was interested in astronomy, and knew the sky because she was a farmer’s daughter. It is possible Shakespeare learned his astronomy from her.

Michael explains one source Shakespeare could also have learned of the supernova from is Thomas Digges, whom he met in London. Digges wrote about Tycho’s star, which had a big impact across Europe. 1572 was the first time a star like this had been seen for centuries. The only other supernova visible to the naked eye in the last 1000 years occurred in 1604—Kepler’s supernova. Michael notes it is pretty incredible that William Shakespeare saw not one, but two supernovas in his lifetime. Jonson refers to the 1604 supernova with his star in Volpone, written in 1605. 

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O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a
king of infinite space…

Hamlet

Hamlet (II.2)

Nicolai Copernicito Torinensis De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, Libri VI (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, in six books) (title page of 2nd edition, Basel, 1566) Source

England was a hot bed of Copernicanism

Copernicus publishes his model of a heliocentric universe in the 1590s and quickly comes under attack—and only in England was it safe to discuss these ideas. In other parts of Europe it was considered heresy and you could be imprisoned or worse for espousing these thoughts of the universe.

Two prominent pro-copernican circles in England (one centered on John Dee, the other the earl of northumberland—Spenser, Sydney, Marlowe and Donne were associated with these circles, and had connections with John Florio and Thomas Harriet (Shakespeare is connected to them). Shakespeare has connections to these men, so it is possible he could have heard of these ideas. As we examine his plays, however, the question comes up as to whether Shakespeare was intentionally espousing the new ideas of the universe in his works. According to Michael, the answer is yes.

In Hamlet, Shakespeare's language calls attentiont to the movement of celestial bodies, but instead of thinking the sun moves, he calls that into question directly: 

“Doubt not that the sun doth move” casts doubt on the idea that the sun moves. 

Later, as Michael shares, Hamlet uses the phrase “count myself a king of infinite space.” The idea of infinite space is a hugely radical idea for Elizabethan England. The first time anyone heard of it was in 1576 when Thomas Digges introduced this concept. True to form, Shakespeare seems to be included the very pulse of current events and modern discourse about the world right in the text of his plays and dialogue of his characters.

Michael explains:

When Hamlet jumps into Ophelia’s grave “….phrase of sorrow conjures the wandering stars and makes them stand still….” again suggests this new world order, not sun and stars that move, but the Earth, is on Hamlet's mind. 

“This goodly frame…canopy in the air…majestic…golden fire…appears…foul and pestilent…vapors”

Hamlet showing that the whole world order being overthrown. 

These references to the new way of thinking that Michael calls “the new world order” continues in several of Shakespeare's other plays as well. In Troilus and Cressida,
“And therefore is the glorious…sphered…medicine…ill aspects of planets evil”
Demonstrates at least a rudimentary understanding of the Sun controlling the orbits of the planets; a thought which heretofore had not been positted by contemporary thought. These ideas are the very cusp of scientific exploration for the 16th century.

Again, the Chorus of Henry V  says “Now entertain conjecture….creeping murmur…fiulls the wide vessel of the universe” As far as we know, this line in Shakespeare's plays represents the very first use of the word “Universe” in the whole of the English language.

Shakespeare's plays show that the entire society was grappling with new ideas about how the universe worked, or even that there was a universe. 

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What is he whose grief
Bears such an emphasis? whose phrase of sorrow
Conjures the wand'ring stars, and makes them stand
Like wonder-wounded hearers?

Hamlet

Hamlet (V.1)

Portrait of Brahe's heraldic shielf. Tycho Brahe is in the center surrounded by the coat of arms for each of his noble ancestors. His personal coat of arms is at the top of the arch, towards the left labeled “Brahe” Clockwise from bottom right, the
names read:  Gyldenstern (Gyldenstierne), Kahbiller (Kabel), Markeman (Markmand),
Axellsønner, Rosenkrans (Rosenkrantz), Longer (Lunge), Ruder (Rud), Braher (Brahe),
Biller (Bille), Ulfstander (Ulfstand), Ronnor (Rønnow), Troller (Trolle), Longer (Lunge),
Rosenspar, Storawase, and Axellsønner. Source

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern

Hamlet’s most famous traitorous friends in the play Hamlet are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Many scholarly researchers indicate Shakespeare very specifically named these two characters after the ancestors of Tycho Brahe.

In 1590, Tycho Brahe sent his heraldric seal to Thomas Digges, and the names of two ancestors are shown on the shielf as Eric Rosencrantz and Sophie Guildenstern. For the entirety of a play set in Denmark, these two people are the only characters with really Danish names.

The argument for Shakespeare having known about Brahe's ancestors comes from the fact that Shakespeare almost certainly new Thomas Digges. Digges died in 1595, and his widow married the man Russell who would work as the executor of Shakespeare's will. Russell's son, Leonard, wrote a message for the First Folio, indicating that they, and the Shakespeare family, were close family friends. On that basis, many conclude that Shakespeare could have most certainly have seen these documents of Brahe's ancestors as inspiration for this characters. 

Michael's research posits the Brahe theory for the basis behind Rosencrantz and Guidlenstern as only one option, however. Tempting as it is to conclude Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are no exactly common names, for the Danish, they may indeed be similar to the Smith and Jones of English names, in that there are several entirely separate families who claim this monicker, and additional ones to be found right in Shakespeare's circle of life. 

In 1592, there were two Danish ambassadors who came to London with the same surnames. Interestingly, they were also cousins of Brahe, and represented real life people who might have come into contact with Shakespeare and Michael's paper outlines his theory that it may be these ambassadors, and not the noted ancestors on Brahe's heraldic shiled, which inspired Shakespeare's characters. 

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O heavy hour!
Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse
Of sun and moon, and that the affrighted globe
Should yawn at alteration.

Othello

Othello (V.2)

Map from Moonblink's website showing the viewing area for the total eclipse which occured on December 30, 1591. Time shown is provided in UT. 3:59 UT is 4:59 BST.  Source

Shakespeare saw multiple celestial phenomenon

At approximately 5 am BST on December 30, 1591, much of the world's Northern Hemisphere experienced a total lunar eclipse. NASA's historical catalog of eclipses describes the event:

A total eclipse of the Moon occurred on Monday 30 December, 1591 UT (20 Dec, 1591 Old Style), with maximum eclipse at 03:58 UT [that is approximately 4:58 BST]The Moon was plunged into darkness for 1 hour and 34 minutes, in a deep total eclipse which saw the Moon 57% of its diameter inside the Earth's umbral shadow. The visual effect of this depends on the state of the Earth's atmosphere, but the Moon may have been stained a deep red colour. The partial eclipse lasted for 3 hours and 33 minutes in total.” Source

NASA explains that throughout history, “whenever four consecutive lunar eclipses are all total eclipses, the group is known as a tetrad.” (Source)

Of the 8 years in the entire 16th century where 4 total lunar eclipses occured consectively in a single year, 5 of those years were during the life of William Shakespeare. That means Shakespeare could have seen at least 32 total lunar eclipses.

The first major one (That is still visible on NASA's website today) was Tycho's Star which occured in 1572, when William Shakespeare was just a boy of 8 years old. The second is called Kepler's star, and it occured in 1604, when Shakespeare was 40 years old and writing many of the references to stars, eclipses, and celestial motion which we see in plays like Hamlet.

Hamlet is not the only play to belie Shakespeare's understanding of astronomy in 16th century England, as we find in King Lear a reference to eclipses. Michael shares that,

“Edmund ridicules the idea that eclipses portend anything. Gloucester knows very well that there is a natural explanation for eclipses, but still thinks they must mean something.” 

Partial eclipses occur every year and are quite common, but total eclipses are very rare. There was a total eclipse visible in London in 1605, around the same time Shakespeare was writing the seeming debate over eclipses in King Lear. Not only that, but there was not one but two total lunar eclipses in 1591–one in July, then another in December. (Only the one in December was likely visible to Shakespeare). Kepler's supernova of 1604 happened on October 9th of 1604, and remained visible for 18 months. (Source and Source) That means the supernova was likely still visible in the sky over the Globe theater as Edmund and Gloucester debate the significance of celestial occurrences–literally the same questions going through the minds of the audience there in the theater. 

When Shakespeare writes Antony and Cleopatra in 1606, he has an eclipse fore tell the downfall of Antony:

Alack, our terrene moon
Is now eclipsed; and it portends alone
The fall of Antony!
– Antony and Cleopatra, III.13

Not only is it a near certainty that the audience would have known what these phenomenon were, but likely they, and Shakespeare, had seen several (likely terrifying) total eclipses occur in person, even potentially while they were viewing the very plays which reference them. 

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Books & Resources Michael Rowan Robinson recommends:

 

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Download this Stratford Upon Avon Watercolor Print

Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

Subscribe now and grab your copy!

This illustration is part of our exclusive members library available when you subscribe to That Shakespeare Life. Subscription helps support the podcast and gives you access to the entire library PLUS you get our exclusive Experience Shakespeare digital history activity kits delivered once a month. Learn more and sign up here.


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