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There are more things in heaven and earth ...

by Bruno Van de Casteele

February 24, 2013

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There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Hamlet, to Horatio
Ah, Shakespeare. I'm not a native English speaker, so I probably missed out on some obligatory Bard-ness. Not that I dislike it but I'm just not that into theater. I do like the movie versions by Kenneth Brannagh, but to some that really proves my lack of culture.

Anyway, and luckily for this blogpost, Universe Today unearthed an interesting view on Shakespeare's plays, namely astronomy. Elizabeth Howell found a paper from 1964 written by a certain WG Guthrie (no other meaningful reference on Google), detailing astronomy references in his oeuvre. For instance in Troiles and Cressida, as uttered by Ulysses:
The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre,
Observe degree, priority and place.
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office, and custom, in all line of order:
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other ...
Notice something? Yes, the Sun as a mere planet between all the other planets, each on their own spheres. It is possible that Shakespeare was referencing the knowledge these ancient Greeks would have had. More likely however, and proposed by the paper is that Shakespeare (who lived from 1564 to 1616) was reflecting the common opinions of his day. Even though heliocentrism was slowly gaining ground following Copernicus' publication in 1543, it was far from an established commonly held opinion. Shakespeare also was probably commercial enough not to tread on possibly contentious issues, and it probably makes for better verse, too.

There is another nice little window into the opinions of his time in the reference to "Charles' Wain" in Henry IV:
Heigh-ho! an it be not four by the day, I'll be hanged:
Charles' wain is over the new chimney, and yet our horse not packed. A Carrier.
A wain is a wagon, and this refers to the Big Dipper in old English. The paper makes a lot about referencing time by referring to a constellation, but this seems very vague. Chimney most probably refers to a supposed chimney in the inn-yard where the scene takes place. In any case, it's one of those colorful names used for the well-known constellation of Ursa Major (the different etymologies probably merit a different post of their own).

A nicer one, and astronomically correct, can be found in Timon of Athens:
Alcibiades. How came the noble Timon to this change?
Timon. As the moon does, by wanting light to give: But then renew I could not, like the moon; There were no suns to borrow of.
Indeed, the moon reflects the light of the sun, as was already well known in that period. Shakespeare also is not shy of referring to commonly held opinions of his day, like folk beliefs or even astrology. For instance in Anthony and Cleopatra, as spoken by Antony:
Alack, our terrene moon
Is now eclipsed; and it portends alone
The fall of Antony!
This refers to the bad luck thought to be linked to eclipses, in this case of the moon. If the play was indeed written in 1606 (which is not entirely certain), then it could very well refer to a well-documented solar and moon eclipse seen that year in London.

Or look at this from Othello:
It is the very error of the moon,
She comes more nearer earth than she was wont
And makes men mad.
A nice reference indeed to the increasing and decreasing apparent size of the moon in the sky, explained by the elliptical orbit of the moon around Earth by Kepler, who published his work in 1609 (the play was written in 1603).

Or what comets, the real harbingers of ill omen before Halley in 1705 demystified their returning appearance. Henry VI:
BEDFORD. Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!
Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky,
And with them scourge the bad revolting stars
That have consented unto Henry's death!
King Henry the Fifth, too famous to live long!
England ne'er lost a king of so much worth.
But let's not lose ourselves too much in laughing with the opinions of that day. In King Lear, as said by Edmund, there is more nuanced remark on the validness of astrology - even to the point of parody:
This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune,--often the surfeit of our own behavior,--we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we were villains by necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star! My father compounded with my mother under the dragon's tail; and my nativity was under Ursa major; so that it follows, I am rough and lecherous. Tut, I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.
Coming back to Kepler, the following fragment is interesting. One of the problems of the heliocentric model is the apparent retrograde motion of Mars. Even with a multitude of epicycles, it could not be explained. But neither could the heliocentric model, until Kepler, after a year of calculations, hit in 1605 upon the ellipse as an explanation. In 1592, the presumed date of the Henry VI play, Charles, king of France could still utter:
Mars his true moving, even as in the heavens,
So in the earth, to this day is not known.

Guthrie, and also in the referring post by Universe Today, are a bit too triumphant on the "common" opinion that was surpassed by the modern science going on at the time. Shakespeare was an artist of hist time with a very poetic way of writing. We should therefore enjoy the view it gives us into that time, and not denigrate it.

To lighten up, I want to conclude with a very belated Valentine reference. (Bookmark it for next year to surprise your loved one!) The quote, from Hamlet, references the sun as being "on fire", which isn't quite correct. It was one of the mysteries how suns "burned" as a normal burning reaction would have depleted the sun in a couple of hundred thousand years. It was only in 1920, not that long ago, that Eddington suggested it could be based on nuclear fusion of hydrogen. But do enjoy:
Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.

by Bruno Van de Casteele

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