Astrophysicist Finds New Scientific Meaning in Shakespeare's Hamlet

January 23, 1997

A paper read today at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Toronto, Canada, offers a new interpretation of Shakespeare's play Hamlet.

The paper, by Peter D. Usher, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State, presents evidence that Hamlet is "an allegory for the competition between the cosmological models of Thomas Digges of England and Tycho Brahe of Denmark." Usher says the paper is significant because Shakespeare favors the Diggesian model, which is the forerunner of modern cosmology. "As early as 1601, Shakespeare anticipated the new universal order and humankind's position in it," Usher states. "The play therefore manifests an astronomical cosmology that is no less magnificent than its literary and philosophical counterparts."

Claudius Ptolemy perfected a model of the universe in the second century A.D. that remained the standard model into the sixteenth century. In this model, the Earth was stationary at the center of the universe and everything else revolved around it. In 1543, Nicholas Copernicus of Poland published a revolutionary model (which is essentially the one in use today) in which the Earth rotates on its axis once a day and is merely one of several planets that revolve about the Sun. Though the Copernican model had been published before Shakespeare was born, it was not yet in vogue in his lifetime.

However, both the Ptolemaic and the Copernican systems were contained in a crystalline sphere, beyond which lay Paradise and the realm of the Prime Mover. By contrast, in 1576 when Shakespeare was 12 years old, the English scientist and military scholar Thomas Digges extended the Copernican model by suggesting that the stars were like the Sun and were distributed through infinite space. He was therefore the first Renaissance scholar to publish the idea of an infinite universe. Eight years later similar ideas were published in a book by the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno.

Shakespeare would have known of the existence of these competing cosmological models through his acquaintance with Digges. "Through Digges, Shakespeare knew also of the astronomer Tycho Brahe, and he named the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for Tycho's ancestors," the paper states. Tycho's model of the universe was similar to Ptolemy's in two major ways: it was Earth centered, and it too was imbedded in a spherical shell of stars.

This paper suggests that Hamlet dramatizes the struggle of Renaissance scholars to discover the real picture of the universe from the appearances in the sky. "When Hamlet states: 'I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space . . . ' he is contrasting the shell of fixed stars in the Ptolemaic, Copernican, and Tychonic models with the Infinite Universe of Digges," Usher says.

The paper notes that the play is set in Elsinore Castle, named for Helsingør Castle which was being built at the time that Tycho was constructing his observatory at Uraniborg. When Hamlet says: "By my fay, I cannot reason," he means that his freedom to reason is restricted at Elsinore," Usher claims.

Hamlet is a student at Wittenberg, a centre for Copernican learning. When Hamlet announces a desire to return to study in Wittenberg, the King demurs, saying: "It is most retrograde to our desire." "The double meaning refers to Hamlet's retrograde - or contrary - motion to the place of learning which is a seat of Copernican cosmology," Usher says. Retrograde motion occurs around the time of Opposition and is a perverse westward motion relative to the sphere of the stars. Such perversity was a puzzling feature of the heavens for it contradicted the perfect simplicity of geocentricity.

The term "retrograde" follows hard upon the use of the term "opposition" - which is the configuration when the planets Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, undergo retrograde motion in the sky whenever they lie in a direction opposite to that of the Sun.

"Claudius is named for Claudius Ptolemy who perfected the geocentric model," says Usher. " Claudius personifies Ptolemaic geocentricism while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern personify Tychonic geocentricism. The latter are summoned by Claudius because the position of the King is threatened by the young Hamlet, who personifies the Infinite Universe of Digges."

"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are contemporaries of Hamlet just as Tycho and Digges were contemporaries. Digges' model killed geocentricism just as Hamlet is responsible for the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and then of Claudius," Usher says. "The slaying of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is the Bard's way of favoring the Diggesian model over the Tychonic, while the death of Claudius signals the end of geocentricism. Shakespeare delays dispatching Claudius until the final act to simulate the protracted dominance of the Ptolemaic model over fourteen centuries."

The gravedigger identifies Hamlet as the one sent to England to recover from madness; though if he doesn't, he'll be at home in England because "there the men are as mad as he." But Hamlet makes it clear that he is merely "mad in craft." "Hamlet's 'madness' is associated both with the new cosmology and Digges' advocacy of the experimental method," according to Usher.

Digges was born about the year 1546 and his Perfit Description was first published in 1576. "Shakespeare may have given Hamlet the age of 30 years because Digges was about that old when he first proposed the infinite universe," Usher speculates.

"The chief climax of the play is the return of Fortinbras from Poland and his salute to the ambassadors from England," Usher says. "Here Shakespeare signifies the triumph of the Copernican model and its Diggesian corollary." "While the last year of the sixteenth century saw the martyrdom of Bruno, the first year of the seventeenth century sees the completion of Hamlet and the Bard's magnificent poetic affirmation of the infinite universe of stars," Usher concludes. "In the tragic story of this play, Shakespeare, Digges, and Bruno, speak to our day."

Penn State

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