Shakespeare’s Knowledge of Astronomy and the Birth of Modern Cosmology

by Peter D. Usher (Author)
Monographs XX, 186 Pages


In a novel reading of Shakespeare’s plays, this book addresses an observation first made many decades ago, that Shakespeare appears to neglect the intellectual upheavals that astronomy brought about in his lifetime. The author examines temporal, situational, and verbal anomalies in Hamlet and other plays using hermeneutic-dialectic methodology, and finds a consistent pattern of interpretation that is compatible with the history of astronomy and with the development of modern cosmology. He also demonstrates how Shakespeare takes into account beliefs about the nature of the heavens from the time of Pythagoras up to and including discoveries and theories in the first decade of the seventeenth century. The book makes the case that, as in many other fields, Shakespeare’s celestial knowledge is far beyond what was commonly known at the time.
Students and teachers interested in Shakespeare’s alleged indifference towards, or ignorance of, the celestial sciences will find this book illuminating, as will historians of science and scholars whose work focuses on epistemology and its relationship to the canon, and on how Shakespeare acquired the data that his plays deliver.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • List of Tables
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgements
  • Chapter 1. Introduction
  • Chapter 2. Modern Views
  • Chapter 3. Hamlet and the Phantom Falcon
  • Chapter 4. Hamlet and the Winds of Change
  • Chapter 5. Hamlet and the New Astronomy
  • Chapter 6. Hamlet and the Resolution Revolution
  • Chapter 7. The Winter’s Tale
  • Chapter 8. Cymbeline
  • Chapter 9. The Merchant of Venice
  • Chapter 10. The Birth of Modern Cosmology
  • Appendix A. Saturn’s Orbit and Ring Cycle
  • Appendix B. Integers in The Winter’s Tale
  • Appendix C. Location of Belmont
  • Appendix D. Extremum Diurnal Parallaxes and Angular Sizes of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn
  • Appendix E. Celestial data in Shakespeare’s plays
  • Glossary
  • Index

←xii | xiii→


In 1942, the Shakespearean scholar John Dover Wilson was struck by the lack of mention in the works of Shakespeare of theories of the Universe that were current in the poet’s lifetime. It seemed that the bard had no knowledge of celestial phenomena that were deeper than superficial, nor that he acknowledged any possibility other than the standard view that the Earth was the center of everything.

Shakespeare did not write unambiguously of the so-called “Copernican Revolution” that in the latter part of the sixteenth century was slowly seeping into human consciousness. Nicholas Copernicus brought forth this theory of the planets in its final form in 1543 when he proposed that the Sun rather than the Earth is the center of the planetary orbits, but nowhere in Shakespeare’s canon is there any clear mention or affirmation of this theory. The idea that such a great poet ignored or was ignorant of such an upheaval in contemporary cosmology is odd. Recent work has accumulated evidence that Shakespeare was indeed aware of competing cosmological theories, and this book presents new research results in order to introduce them to the marketplace of ideas.

In science as in everyday life, phenomena that are anomalous arouse curiosity and prompt investigation. The Caltech astronomer Jesse Greenstein ←xiii | xiv→thought of this as a sort of monkey curiosity that drives us to make sense of the world. Shakespeare’s plays abound in anomalies and to understand them is to engage the scripts critically and dialectically. Dialectic is essential to the method of interpretation known as hermeneutics. The hermeneutic-dialectic method of the humanities resembles scientific hypothetico-deductive reasoning by which postulates are tested and refined or discarded. As in my previous works, and having generated a theory based on interpretive evidence that astronomy and cosmology are important ingredients in some of Shakespeare’s plays, I assemble and weigh evidence to test the theory that Shakespeare knew a great deal about astronomy and cosmology.

In attempts to understand literary works by dead authors, a primary guide is the words that comprise a work or a canon of works. It is a commonplace that the interpretation of the parts of a work potentiate understanding of the whole and vice versa, and progress occurs because human effort leads to fresh insights and new ideas both in the main and in the details, each of which builds on the other. This back-and-forth characterizes the so-called Hermeneutic Circle by which interpretation proceeds iteratively, each round leading to better understanding. If a theory is demonstrably flawed or false, revision or abandonment of the theory ensues or should ensue. Another guide to interpretation is the environment and context in which literature is created.

Methodology is as important in astronomy as in literary exegesis because objects in the Cosmos are intangible just as deceased authors are silent. Astronomers are passive observers that must settle for experiments and phenomena that nature provides, just as exegetes can only attend to literature that past writers have provided. The science of cosmology has a further limitation, that owing to the finite speed of light things are not now as they were when they emitted the light. Similarly in literature, words and circumstances may not be the same as at the time of writing and readers must be ever alert to the pitfall of presentism—seeing past events through the lens of the present.

In cosmology, the only way to know the state of an entity now is to infer it by observing its past state and then with the help of theory to derive its present state. It is as if the text of the Cosmos cannot be read except in historical context. When the data that are available are incorporated and interpreted, when a sufficient number of cycles of the Circle of Understanding have occurred, when a state is achieved in which major facets hang together, only then can cosmologists claim to have a viable approximation to the nature of the Universe. Knowledge in cosmology is acquired by the interaction of theory and observation, and astronomers “read” the sky as exegetes read texts. ←xiv | xv→Cosmologists acquire understanding step by step, and this present book aspires to be such a step in literary exegesis of some of Shakespeare’s plays.

I have endeavored to understand Shakespeare’s canon of plays to see whether celestial allusions hang together in support of the basic proposition that the bard was mindful of theories of the Universe extant during his lifetime. In the body of interpretations assembled so far, some passages may well have other meanings as would be expected from the multiplicity of Shakespeare’s minds, but my goal is limited to seeing whether evidence is self-consistent and sufficient to advance the thesis that astronomy and cosmology played a significant role in Shakespeare’s life and work.

It is incumbent upon inquirers to follow leads wherever they may lead, and in the field of Shakespeare and the celestial arts they have led me to these chief conclusions: Shakespeare does not neglect the revolution in cosmology occurring in his lifetime; some plays are allegories with a celestial subtext; he writes of properties of the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars that are knowable only telescopically; telescopes were used for astronomy in the sixteenth century, possibly as early as the 1540s; contrary to popular opinion, Shakespeare pays close attention to the passage of time; the celestial allegory in Hamlet published in the First Folio shows signs of censorship; Leonard Digges and his son Thomas are most likely the telescopists; and later in life, Leonard wrote of his discoveries allegorically in his plays. Of course, these conclusions are subject to examination and further testing.

The ten chapters of this book fall naturally into four groups. The first group comprises two chapters, the first of which is introductory and presents in brief the course of events leading up to the medieval view of the cosmic World. This Worldview was based on appearances, comprising a stationary Earth lying at the center of everything and bounded by a shell of stars. Only in the sixteenth century did momentum build toward a model of the Universe that forsook appearances for the reality of the so-called New Astronomy. Chapter Two presents evidence that virtually everyone believes that when Shakespeare does venture into cosmology, he adheres to the geocentric theory of the Universe and ignores alternative models extant in his lifetime.

The second group comprises four chapters on Hamlet, which add to the evidence presented in my earlier books that the play is a cosmic allegory dramatizing the competition among cosmological models in the sixteenth century. Barnardo utters the first words of the play, “Who’s there?” which establishes a theme that permeates Hamlet and persists throughout the present work.


XX, 186
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (November)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2022. XX, 186 pp., 12 b/w ill., 12 tables.

Biographical notes

Peter D. Usher (Author)

Peter D. Usher is Emeritus Professor at the Pennsylvania State University. He holds a PhD in astronomy from Harvard and an MSc in applied mathematics from the University of the Free State in South Africa. He is the author of three books on Shakespeare and astronomy, and his other research includes perturbation theory, active galaxies, faint blue stars, and quasars.


Title: Shakespeare’s Knowledge of Astronomy and the Birth of Modern Cosmology