Shakespeare and Saturn

Accounting for Appearances

by Peter D. Usher (Author)
©2015 Monographs XXII, 243 Pages
Series: American University Studies , Volume 41


In the mid-sixteenth century, Copernicus asserted that the Earth was not the center of the universe as was generally believed, but that the sun lay there instead. The relegation of the Earth to the rank of an orbiting planet meant that humankind lost its privileged position as well, thus prompting re-evaluation of all facets of human existence. This transformation in worldview gathered momentum throughout Shakespeare’s writing career, yet his canon appears to lack reference to it. Peter D. Usher has studied Hamlet and other Shakespearean plays and has uncovered a consistent pattern of reference to phenomena that prove the correctness of the new worldview, including reference to the infinite universe of stars. These data could not have been known without telescopic aid, which indicates that systematic telescopic study of celestial objects began before the generally accepted date of 1610. In Shakespeare and Saturn, Usher summarizes earlier results and shows that in All’s Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare takes account of the last supernova eruption of 1604 known to have occurred in the Milky Way galaxy. He shows further that in Much Ado About Nothing and The Comedy of Errors Shakespeare makes observations concerning Saturn’s spectacular ring system that are remarkably accurate.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • List of Tables
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Prolegomenon
  • P.1. Pythagoreans
  • P.2. Plato
  • P.3. Aristotle
  • P.4. Claudius Ptolemy
  • P.5. Accounting for appearances
  • P.6. Copernicus and the New Philosophy
  • P.7. Tycho Brahe’s hybrid model
  • P.8. Digges, optics, and the infinite Universe
  • P.9. Shakespeare’s role
  • P.10. Extra-canonical evidence
  • P.11. Leonard Digges, the Younger
  • P.12. Anonymity
  • P.13. A dilemma of interpretation
  • P.14. Allegory
  • Chapter 1. Hamlet and Three Plays Involving Saturn
  • 1.1. Hamlet
  • 1.2. Cymbeline
  • 1.3. The Merchant of Venice
  • 1.4. Love’s Labour’s Lost
  • Chapter 2. All’s Well That Ends Well
  • 2.1. Roussillon
  • 2.2. Helen
  • 2.3. Remembrance
  • 2.4. Soliloquy
  • 2.5. Memory
  • 2.6. Bright star
  • 2.7. Ambition
  • 2.8. Features
  • 2.9. Perspective
  • 2.10. Heart and table
  • 2.11. Relics
  • 2.12. Words
  • 2.13. Bright particular star
  • 2.14. Kepler
  • 2.15. Confirmation bias
  • 2.16. Retrogression
  • 2.17. Mars
  • 2.18. Corroboration
  • 2.19. Jupiter
  • 2.20. Dates
  • 2.21. Free will
  • 2.22. Mightiest space
  • 2.23. Like likes
  • 2.24. Point to point
  • 2.25. Palace
  • 2.26. Alliance
  • 2.27. Impudence
  • 2.28. Ballad
  • 2.29. Urania
  • 2.30. Alliance
  • 2.31. Medication
  • 2.32. Campaign
  • 2.33. Promises
  • 2.34. Irrationality
  • 2.35. Le feu
  • 2.36. Payoff
  • 2.37. Moons
  • 2.38. Reward
  • 2.39. Vexation
  • 2.40. Umbrage
  • 2.41. Non-event
  • 2.42. Dual state
  • 2.43. Good and evil
  • 2.44. Civility
  • 2.45. Parting
  • 2.46. Two days
  • 2.47. Troop arrival
  • 2.48. Melancholia
  • 2.49. Manor born
  • 2.50. Conditions
  • 2.51. Blame
  • 2.52. Love and Drum
  • 2.53. Departure
  • 2.54. Excuse
  • 2.55. Pilgrim
  • 2.56. Jacques
  • 2.57. Austria
  • 2.58. Guilt
  • 2.59. Proprietress
  • 2.60. Infusion
  • 2.61. Entrapment
  • 2.62. Deterrence
  • 2.63. Assay
  • 2.64. Capture
  • 2.65. Partner swap
  • 2.66. Two rings
  • 2.67. Information swap
  • 2.68. Pretext
  • 2.69. Libido
  • 2.70. A chronology
  • 2.71. Portotartarossa
  • 2.72. Lynx
  • 2.73. Humiliation
  • 2.74. Means and ends
  • 2.75. Velvet sky
  • 2.76. 2½
  • 2.77. Astringer
  • 2.78. Fortune
  • 2.79. Last scene
  • 2.80. Re-marriage
  • 2.81. Blamelessness
  • 2.82. Circuit
  • 2.83. Blameworthiness
  • 2.84. Plaintiffs
  • 2.85. Civilization
  • 2.86. Bail
  • 2.87. Riddle
  • 2.88. Bailment
  • 2.89. Two rings
  • 2.90. Onions
  • 2.91. So far so good
  • 2.92. Summation
  • Chapter 3. Much Ado About Nothing
  • 3.1. Messina
  • 3.2. Claudio’s uncle
  • 3.3. Beatrice’s dialogue
  • 3.4. Twins
  • 3.5. Disease
  • 3.6. Agenda
  • 3.7. Jade
  • 3.8. Hospitality
  • 3.9. Jewel
  • 3.10. Key
  • 3.11. Hypothesis
  • 3.12. Sixty
  • 3.13. Cuckoldry
  • 3.14. Allegiance
  • 3.15. Heretic
  • 3.16. Misogamy
  • 3.17. Earthquake
  • 3.18. Embassage
  • 3.19. July sixth
  • 3.20. Seismology
  • 3.21. Cosmos and conscience
  • 3.22. Story line
  • 3.23. Antonio’s son
  • 3.24. Francesco Maurolico
  • 3.25. Strange news
  • 3.26. A confusion of cousins
  • 3.27. Don John
  • 3.28. Information
  • 3.29. The dance
  • 3.30. Rounds
  • 3.31. Good faith, bad faith
  • 3.32. Orange and lemon
  • 3.33. Leonato’s business
  • 3.34. Monday
  • 3.35. Ten nights
  • 3.36. Veto
  • 3.37. Derailment
  • 3.38. Doublet
  • 3.39. Gulls
  • 3.40. Watchmen
  • 3.41. Crisis
  • 3.42. Friar Francis
  • 3.43. Invention
  • 3.44. Brush-offs
  • 3.45. Set up
  • 3.46. Sorrow and joy
  • 3.47. Double wedding
  • 3.48. February face
  • 3.49. Wednesday
  • 3.50. Ephemerides
  • 3.51. Tomorrow
  • 3.52. Ex post facto
  • Chapter 4. The Comedy of Errors
  • 4.1. Trespass
  • 4.2. Misfortunes
  • 4.3. Coincidences
  • 4.4. A near-coincidence
  • 4.5. Personifications
  • 4.6. Two difficulties
  • 4.7. Sunset
  • 4.8. Refund
  • 4.9. Noon
  • 4.10. Crux
  • 4.11. Computations
  • 4.12. Adaptation
  • 4.13. Father Time
  • 4.14. Two hours
  • 4.15. Inspiration
  • 4.16. Locked out
  • 4.17. Romance
  • 4.18. Windfall
  • 4.19. Junction
  • 4.20. Intervention
  • 4.21. Error range
  • 4.22. Theft
  • 4.23. Illusions
  • 4.24. Diamond
  • 4.25. Pinch
  • 4.26. Priory
  • 4.27. Epiphany
  • 4.28. Duplicates
  • 4.29. Modeling
  • Appendix A: Summary of Celestial Data
  • Appendix B: Properties of Saturn
  • Appendix C: Observable Features of Saturn
  • Appendix D: On Telescopy
  • Notes
  • Chapter 1
  • Chapter 2
  • Chapter 3
  • Chapter 4
  • Bibliography
  • Index


Figure P.1. The bounded geocentric model according to Peter Apian. From Cosmographia (1539)

Figure P.2. The bounded heliocentric Universe of Copernicus. From De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (1543)

Figure P.3. Geometry of retrograde motion of a Superior Planet

Figure P.4. Planetary alignments

Figure P.5. Stellar parallax in a bounded Universe

Figure P.6. The bounded geo-heliocentric model of Tycho Brahe. From Liber Secundus (1588)

Figure P.7. The infinite heliocentric model of Thomas Digges. From A Perfit Description (1576)

Figure P.8. Stellar parallax for stars distributed in space

Figure 1.1. Engraving of Tycho Brahe at age 40 (1586). From Epistolarum astronomicarum (1588)

Figure 1.2. Saturn imaged on March 28, 2005 by David Tyler, Buckinghamshire, England using a Celestron C14 SCT with a Lumenera 075 mono CCD, focal ratio ≈ f/30, under conditions of excellent seeing. All rights reserved

Figure 2.1. Location of Kepler’s supernova SN1604 in the constellation Ophiucus, the Serpent Bearer. Sketch by Morgan T. Hughes and Troy Rosenbaum. All rights reserved

Figure 2.2. Retrograde motion of Mars in 1604 through the constellation Virgo. The period covered is from December 24, 1603, to July 30, 1604

Figure 2.3. Jupiter in January 2002 imaged by David Osborne, Wiltshire, England, using an 8-inch (20 cm) Meade telescope with a 2x Barlow lens and a 0.1-second exposure in excellent seeing. The oval blemish in the southern hemisphere is the Great Red Spot

Figure 2.4. Incidence of the word “love” and its cognates in All’s Well. Solid bars denote Helen’s usage, open bars all others’

Figure 3.1. The asterism in the constellation Gemini, the Twins, adapted from the depiction in Bayer’s star atlas of 1603 by Morgan T. Hughes. Pollux is the bright star near the head of the twin to the east (left) of the chart, and Castor is the fainter star on the forehead of the twin on the right. The musical instrument is a form of lyre. All rights reserved

Figure 4.1. Stereographic projection of the sky at sunset at Ephesus on December 29, 1583 (NS), showing Saturn in transit across the meridian and closely attended by Jupiter. The horizon is at the same height above sea level as the observer, and is refracted according to a standard model. Nena Pavlik. All rights reserved

Figure 4.2. In The Comedy of Errors, clocks leap backward and forward for a reason—to establish error ranges. The narrow arrows define the wider range and follow from temporal errors TE3 and TE4 (see text). The wider arrows follow from the overlap defined by the “hard” numbers given in the script. The center of the ranges is the predicted value of Saturn’s ring-plane crossing time on December 29, 1583

Figure D.1. The tilt of Saturn’s ring-plane relative to the line of sight for the 1596–7 ring-plane crossing season (see chapter 3)

Figure D.2. The tilt of Saturn’s ring-plane relative to the line of sight for the 1583 ring-plane crossing season (see chapter 4)


Table P.1. A sample of published years of death of Leonard Digges the Elder

Table 1.1. Model personifications and progenitors in Hamlet

Table 1.2. Character identifications in Hamlet

Table 1.3. Chronology of act 1 of Hamlet, November 1572

Table 1.4. Tabular properties of Yorick and Yaughan

Table 2.1. Approximate chronology of All’s Well

Table 3.1. Chronology of Much Ado About Nothing, July, 1597

Table 4.1. Long-term chronology of The Comedy of Errors

Table 4.2. Personifications of Saturnian features

Table 4.3. Short-term chronology for The Comedy of Errors, Ephesus, Dec. 29, 1583

Table A.1. Descriptions of celestial phenomena in the Shakespearean Canon

Table B.1. Saturn’s ring plane crossing times

Table C.1. Sub-solar latitude λ when rings are edge-on to Earth


In January 1997, I presented a paper to a meeting of the American Astronomical Society held in Toronto, Canada, in which I argued that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an allegory for the competition between the four chief cosmological World models extant in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. These four models are: a bounded geocentric model of the Greco-Roman astronomer Ptolemy dating to the second century AD, and, from the sixteenth century, the bounded heliocentric model of Nicholas Copernicus, a hybrid geo-heliocentric bounded model of Tycho Brahe, and the open or infinite model with a heliocentric planetary system proposed by Thomas Digges. Subsequent research has supported this theory of Hamlet and has revealed other plays that are celestial allegories, and has shown that the Shakespearean Canon contains facts and descriptions that must have been gleaned telescopically.

A previous book, Shakespeare and the Dawn of Modern Science (herein SDMS, see Bibliography) identifies four other allegories—Love’s Labour’s Lost, Cymbeline, The Merchant of Venice, and The Winter’s Tale—that refer to the four World models and which when taken as a whole advance an overarching theme of astronomical telescopic discovery. Far from ignoring the revolution in Worldview that was occurring in his lifetime, Shakespeare was not only aware of it, but was well ahead of his time—as he was in other fields. ← xv | xvi →

The present volume revisits the scientific aspects of these plays, and analyzes three more that turn out also to be cosmic allegories. These bring to eight the number of plays analyzed so far. They comprise one-third of the twenty-four non-history plays of Shakespeare’s sole composition, a sufficient number, perhaps, to warrant the label “celestial genre.” Based on the dictionary definition of “genre,” I take the term to refer to literary compositions characterized by content that deals with the discovery, announcement, description, and prediction of celestial phenomena.

The three plays analyzed in this volume are All’s Well That Ends Well, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Comedy of Errors. A wholly unexpected outcome of this latest research, when combined with previous analyses, has been the realization that plays of the celestial genre share an emphasis on the planet Saturn and its ring system. That Saturn and its rings figure prominently in the celestial genre should not be surprising, given that the planet is an astoundingly beautiful sight when viewed through a telescope of even modest aperture. In the sixteenth century, this would qualify it eminently to be a chief topic of literary reference. In an age when superstition and fear of the occult were rife, news of such import was not to be bandied about, and Shakespeare was wise to write allegorically of this and other discoveries anathema to common sensibilities.

Conventional wisdom has it that Shakespeare is careless about chronology and the passage of time. However, in common with previous analyses, we find that the three plays analyzed in this volume have chronologies and that they are set by astronomical events.

Chapter 1 establishes the historical and scientific context obtaining in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries by which we are to understand plays of the celestial genre. It explains the issues at stake concerning age-old views of the heavens, and their maintenance in contemporary belief structures. The chapter touches upon a consequence of the discovery of multiple descriptions of astronomical telescopic results, and other multifarious clues and anomalies that point to the inventor of the world’s first two-element optical device, a telescope, being one and the same as the author of the Shakespearean Canon. The chapter closes with a brief description of the grounds leading to that proposal and interpretations that so far comprise the celestial genre.

Chapter 2 deals with All’s Well That Ends Well. Shakespeare was fortunate to have witnessed in his lifetime two bright supernova explosions, known as “New Stars,” which were the last two known to have occurred in the Milky ← xvi | xvii → Way galaxy. The first of these occurred in 1572 and it plays a key role in dating the action in Hamlet. In All’s Well, Shakespeare weaves a tale around the second outburst, first seen on October 9, 1604. He begins by associating it with the retrograde motion of Mars, which had occurred a few months before. Thus, neither New Star occurs without a larger context, and astronomical dating sheds new light on the date of composition of the play. By the end of the first scene of All’s Well, the New Star of 1604 and the retrograde motion of Mars have been personified, and the rest of the play concerns the personifications of Jupiter and Saturn. Resolution of the sub-plot depends on understanding why the play’s most pompous ass is heroic, and on understanding the nature of the play’s chief puzzle, Helen. Two matrimonial rings serve as tokens of love and romance, and their final disposition leads us to believe that they represent the two rings of Saturn.

Chapter 3 analyzes Much Ado About Nothing, which is characterized by two unusual romantic relationships. Beatrice and Benedick are continually sniping at one another, yet as the plot nears its resolution, their bickering suddenly ceases as they come to some sort of an understanding. The esteemed warrior Claudio turns out to be an opportunist who settles for a clone of his chosen bride, the heroine Hero. In the sub-plot, Benedick is prepared to sing Hero’s praises, but in the carnal world, he does not like her. Understanding the cosmic allegory involves sorting out these affinities to Hero, whom we posit personifies Saturn, whereas her two subtextual associates personify the planet’s rings, and each of whom has his own peculiar relationship to Hero. Shakespeare is wont to cast schoolmen in a bad light, as evident from his characterization of the fanatical anti-Copernican Francesco Maurolico. The action is presided over by Leonato, the Governor of Messina, Sicily, who has a subtextual cosmic agenda whose satisfaction requires that the couples be married, but who delays the weddings for two days in order to get answers. The corresponding questions are never specified, but they are implied when the marriages occur on a Tuesday-going-on-Wednesday, which covers the time late in the evening of July 22, 1597, when the Earth passes through the imaginary extension of the geometrical plane of Saturn’s rings. That is, the two times are the same to within a small yet seemingly reasonable probable error. These linkages supply the answer that Leonato wants—to produce a Saturnian system fledged by contemporary science and entering a new phase of its impressive existence. Such timing demands accurate predictions, which fits the goal of accounting for appearances semi-empirically through mathematics and data collection. ← xvii | xviii →


XXII, 243
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (July)
Renaissance worldview Copernicus
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. XIX, 241 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Peter D. Usher (Author)

Peter D. Usher is Emeritus Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at The Pennsylvania State University. He received his MSc from the University of the Free State in South Africa and his PhD from Harvard. He is the author of Hamlet’s Universe and Shakespeare and the Dawn of Modern Science and has published more than one hundred papers in peer-reviewed journals. His research accomplishments include the analytic derivation of the equations of invariant imbedding, the discovery of the renormalized Poincaré-Lighthill perturbation expansion, a generalization of the method of shoot and fit, and a survey of medium-bright quasars. His papers on Shakespeare and science have appeared in The Elizabethan Review, The Oxfordian, and The Shakespeare Newsletter.


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