Hamlet’s Universe Part 3 of 9
For Professor Usher to show that there could be an allegory on the New Astronomy as a sub-text in Hamlet, one of the things he needed to do was to show that there is some serious understanding of the leading research in astronomy of that era both in Hamlet and in other plays. Findings of astronomical terminology or argot then in use is one goal. And then finding references to related ideas is another, though they may only be described or suggested by metaphor.
Here are some of these terms and ideas that he and others have found in the Shakespeare works:
INNOGEN: O, learned indeed were that astronomer
That knew the stars as I his characters;
ULYSSES: The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre
Observe degree, priority, and place…
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphere
Amidst the other..Troilus and Cressida, (1.3.85-91)
BEROWNE: Study is like the heaven’s glorious sun
That will not be deep search with saucy looks.
Small have continual plodders ever won
Save base authority from other’s books.
These earthly godfathers of heaven’s lights,
That give a name to every fixed star,
Have no more profit of their shining nights
Than those that walk and know not what they are.
Too much to know is to know naught but fame;
And every godfather can give a name.
Love’s Labours Lost (1.1.86-95)
Usher comments that Shakespeare is saying here that “There is little profit in merely seeing a star without seeking to know more about it.”
HOLOFERNES: This is a gift that I have, simple, simple—a foolish extravagant spirit, full of forms, figures, shapes, objects, ideas, apprehensions, motions, revolutions.
Love’s Labours Lost (4.2.66-68)
Usher comments” Holofernes speaks better than he knows because all eight of these could pertain to geocentric models of the Universe. In particular they could refer to Plato’s “forms” as representing “ideas” that include use of circles and spheres and the manner of their motions.
ROSALINE: My face is but a moon, and clouded too. Love’s Labours Lost 5.2.214
ROSALINE: Thus change I like the moon. LLL (5.2.224)
Usher comments: “meaning that Venus [that Rosaline represents] has phases like the Moon”
BARNARDO: Last night of all,
When yond same star that’s westward from the pole
Had made his course t’illume that part of heaven
Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself
The bell then beating one -- Hamlet (1.1.35-39)
Usher says that this would be a reference to the North Celestial Pole, and since a star westward of it is pointed out as of some importance in the play, we may be able to identify it. He mentions that Payne-Gasposchkin have identified this star as the “New Star” of November 1572 known as “Tycho’s supernova” after Tycho Brahe, who published his discovery in 1573.
HORATIO: As stars with trains of fire, and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun; and the moist star,
Upon whose influence Neptune’s empire stands,
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse. (1.1.117-120)
Usher comments: “The “moist star” is the Moon, and its eclipse is as ominous as comets with their “trains of fire”. Neptune refers to the seas and oceans that may be influenced by the moon.
Some more astronomical terms used:
GHOST: Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres
(1.5.17) A reference to shooting stars leaving their shell or spheres as imagined in early Geocentric models.
CLAUDIUS: Why should we in our peevish opposition
Take it to heart? Fie, it is a fault to heaven,
CLAUDIUS: It is most retrograde to our desire.
CLAUDIUS: She is so conjunctive to my life and soul
[Conjunction: An event that occurs when two or more celestial objects appear close together in the sky.]
CLAUDIUS: Something have you heard
Of Hamlet’s transformation..
(2.2.45) Usher comments that “the first scientific use of the word “transformation” was in the sixteenth century by none other than Thomas Digges”.
HAMLET: I could be bounded in a nutshell and
Count myself a king of infinite space.. (2.2.253-4)
Usher sees this as another clear reference to the “stellar spheres (nutshells)” of the geocentric model or particularly of Tycho’s model. But then it’s contrasted with the modern view of “infinite space” put forward by Thomas Digges.
HAMLET: This most excellent canopy,
The air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament,
This majestical roof fretted with golden fire..
An obvious reference to the Celestial Sphere with “golden fire” meaning those stars and planets shining by fire.
HAMLET: …his umbrage, nothing more. (5.2.119)
Umbrage is a reference to the Moon’s shadow.
HAMLET: …Hyperion’s curls, the front of Jove himself,
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command,
A station like the herald Mercury
New lighted on a heaven-kissing hill
Usher sees these references to telescopic observation of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot – since Mars is reddish.
POLONIUS: [Reading Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia:]
Doubt thou the stars are fire.
Doubt that the sun doth move.
Doubt truth to be a liar.
But never doubt I love.
Comment: Usher sees the first two lines here as a reference to the Old Astronomy.
The above references are just a sample found in the Shakespeare works. The point being that an expert (Usher) in the field of astronomy has asserted from evidence that Shakespeare, whoever he was, was learned in both the language of this field as well as of its concepts.
In the next post I quote from some of Bacon’s works.