Sunday, May 01, 2011

Hamlet, Elsinore and an exploded world

Yesterday, NASA posted as its Astronomy Picture of the Day an x-ray image of something called "Tycho's Supernova Remnant." (Pictured here) What the copy didn't mention is this astronomical object is also arguably known as "yond same star that's westward from the pole" in Hamlet

Yet it's predictably opaque and inexplicable why Shakespeare of Stratford (if he were the author of the play) would make such a seemingly random association between an old exploded star and a Danish fable whose inspiration supposedly derived from some kind of nominal homage to his recently deceased son Hamnet. (The boy was named after a Stratford neighbor of Shakspere's, Hamnet Sadler.) 

On the other hand, the allusion fits comfortably within a broader framework that supposes Edward de Vere behind the "Shakespeare" pen. 

Here's the story. 

It's hard to imagine today, but in 1572 when the light from this stellar explosion first became visible on Earth, it was a world-shaking event. Here was a new star -- not on any previous charts -- so brilliant that it was visible even in the full brightness of day. 

There was, simply, no cosmic or scientific explanation for such an unprecedented heavenly phenomenon.  

In England, the mathematician Thomas Digges studied the "new star" and wrote a book about it. Digges dedicated his book to Edward de Vere's new father-in-law Lord Burghley. In Denmark, the legendary astronomer Tycho Brahe made the most precise observations of the object in the world. Thus the object's modern-day name. 

This new star, in effect, upended everything. It provided damning confirmation of an emerging scientific understanding of a dynamic universe. Under the prevailing Ptolemaic system -- which posited all heavenly bodies were unchanging and firmly fixed in place -- such nearly unimaginable notions were heresy. 

Hamlet's reference to Tycho's Supernova (as it's known today) at the beginning of the Danish tragedy, in fact, constitutes a perfect setup to a cosmological debate that takes place throughout the drama

Hamlet, in fact, enacts a specific astronomical dispute that Edward de Vere arguably witnessed first-hand in 1583. (Worst case scenario: De Vere did not witness the back-and-forth at Oxford University himself but was privy to courtly gossip about it at the time and enjoyed ample insider access to every detail after the fact.) 

The debate was about old worldviews colliding with new — a familiar and comforting geocentric universe colliding with Copernicus's revolutionary heliocentric one. Hamlet, however, goes into more specific detail concerning both the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (a geocentrist) and the obscure 1583 court appearance of a bombastic Italian scholar (a Copernican) named Giordano Bruno.

There is no explanation for how a 19-year-old Shakspere of Stratford would have witnessed, read about or even cared about this esoteric, egghead dispute, one that was certainly antithetical to crowd-pleasing entertainments at the Globe Theatre. (And that's what we're told a Stratfordian Shakespeare canon is all about.) 

After the jump, two excerpts from "Shakespeare" By Another Name that pick up the story where Tycho's Supernova Remnant leaves off.