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Session 27 - History and Teaching of Astronomy.
Oral session, Monday, June 10
Old Madison,

[27.03] Astronomy and Shakespeare's Hamlet.

P. D. Usher (Penn State)

Payne-Gaposchkin and others have suggested that Hamlet shows evidence of the Bard's awareness of the astronomical revolutions of the sixteenth century. I summarize major arguments and note that the play's themes recur in modern astronomy teaching and research: (1) The play amounts to a redefinition of universal order and humankind's position in it. (2) There is interplay between appearance and reality. Such a contrast is commonplace wherever superficial celestial appearances obscure underlying physical realities, the nature of which emerge as the tale unfolds. (3) The outermost sphere of the Ptolemaic and Copernican models seems to encase humanity, who are liberated by the reality of Digges' model and the implications advanced by Bruno. Similarly the oppressiveness of the castle interior is relieved by the observing platform which enables the heavens to be viewed in their true light. (4) Hamlet could be bounded in a nut-shell and count himself a king of infinite space, were it not that he has bad dreams. These concern the subversiveness of the new doctrine, for Hamlet refers to the infinite universe only hypothetically and in the presence of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are named for relatives of the Danish astronomer Brahe. (5) Hamlet, and Brahe and Bruno, have connections to the university at Wittenberg, as does the Copernican champion Rheticus. (6) Ways are needed to reveal both the truths of nature, and the true nature of Danish royalty. Those unaccustomed to science think that there is madness in Hamlet's method. In particular, `doubt' is advanced as a methodological principle of inquiry. (7) The impression of normalcy and propriety in the upper reaches of society is like the false impression of an encapsulating universe. In Hamlet this duality is dramatized tragically, whereas in King John (cf. BAAS 27, 1325, 1995) it is not; for by 1601 when the writing of Hamlet was probably completed, Shakespeare would have known of the martyrdom of Bruno the previous year, whereas in 1593-4 when King John was written, the picture was less clear. For these reasons, Hamlet's princely `philosophy' speaks to our day.

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