from the Bright-Bards dept.
Dan Falk writes in Scientific American that in the last few years, scholars have begun to look more closely at William Shakespeare's interest in the scientific discoveries of his time-asking what he knew, when he knew it, and how that knowledge might be reflected in his work. Astronomer Peter Usher argues that examples of the playwright's scientific knowledge can be found in works spanning his entire career and has taken a particular interest in Hamlet, which he sees as an allegory about competing cosmological worldviews. "According to Usher, the play references not only Copernicus, but also Ptolemy, as well as Tycho Brahe (PDF), who pushed for a hybrid model of the solar system (a compromise that preserved elements of the ancient Ptolemaic system as well as the new Copernican model). Digges, too, is central to Usher's theory. When Hamlet envisions himself as "a king of infinite space," could he be alluding to the new, infinite universe described-for the first time-by his countryman Thomas Digges?" Usher's proposal may sound far-fetched-but even skeptics do a double take when they look at Tycho Brahe's coat of arms, noticing that two of Tycho's relatives were named "Rosencrans" and "Guildensteren."
According to Falk, Shakespeare's characters were connected to the cosmos in a way that seems quite foreign to the modern reader. Whether crying for joy or shedding tears of anguish, they look to the heavens for confirmation, calling out to "Jupiter" or "the gods" or "the heavens" as they struggle to make sense of their lives. "[Shakespeare] lived in an age of belief, yet a streak of skepticism runs through his work, especially toward the end of his career; in King Lear it reaches an almost euphoric nihilism. His characters often call upon the gods to help them, but their desperate pleas are rarely answered. Was Shakespeare a closet atheist, like his colleague Christopher Marlowe?