What if Shakespeare…were an ASTRONOMER?

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Shakespeare and Galileo were born in the same year – 1564.

The first telescopes were Netherlandish inventions and Galileo, inspired, created his own and improved the instrument.  In 1609, he observed the moon, drew its phases, and showed its irregular surface.  Later on, Galileo found that Venus had phases too.  In 1610, Galileo discovered 4 moons orbiting Jupiter, which showed another centre of motion in the universe.  Jupiter is now known to have 50 moons, Galileo’s being the largest.  They are called Galillean satellites and are named Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.  (As You Like It‘s “Ganymede” would have been inspired by Greek mythology, as Galileo’s discovery would not have been made at the time).  Galileo’s observations, and eventually Galileo himself, supported Copernicus’ controversial model of the universe – that placed the Sun, not the Earth, at its centre.

Shakespeare uses many similes and metaphors inspired by the celestial sphere, so to speak.  However, in Sonnet 59, the line “Even of five hundred courses of the sun” suggests that he was still living in a heliocentric world.

Inspiration goes both ways and astronomy has also looked to Shakespeare!  In fact, Uranus’ 27 moons are almost all named after Shakespeare’s characters:

  1. Cordelia – King Lear
  2. Ophelia – Hamlet
  3. Bianca – The Taming of the Shrew
  4. Cressida – Troilus and Cressida
  5. Desdemona – Othello
  6. Juliet – Romeo and Juliet
  7. Portia – The Merchant of Venice
  8. Rosalind – As You Like It (who disguises herself as Ganymede)
  9. Mab – Romeo and Juliet (also from Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock)
  10. Perdita – The Winter’s Tale
  11. Puck – A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  12. Miranda – The Tempest
  13. Francisco – The Tempest
  14. Ariel – The Tempest (also from Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock)
  15. Titania – A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  16. Oberon – A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  17. Caliban – The Tempest
  18. Stephano – The Tempest
  19. Trinculo – The Tempest
  20. Sycorax – The Tempest
  21. Margaret – Much Ado About Nothing
  22. Prospero – The Tempest
  23. Setebos – The Tempest
  24. Ferdinand – The Tempest

Not from the stars do I judgement pluck / And yet methinks I have astronomy (1).  The poring dark / Fills the wide vessel of the universe (2).  The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre / Observe degree, priority and place (3): The seasons alter…the spring, the summer / The childing autumn, angry winter, change / Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world (4), the little O, the earth (5), must follow, as the night the day (6).

Why day is day, night is night, and time is time (7).  To sit upon a hill, as I do now, / To carve out dials quaintly, point by point, / Thereby to see the minutes how they run, / How many makes the hour full complete; / How many hours bring about the day; / How many days will finish up the year; / How many years a mortal man may live (8):

Littered under Mercury (9) / In characters as red as Mars…heart / Inflamed with Venus (10) / Opening on Neptune with fair blessed beams (11).  (Saturn and Venus this year in conjunction!  What says almanac to that?) (12)  By Pluto (13), a stirring dwarf (14), O Jupiter!  there’s no comparison (15).

These late eclipses of the sun and moon (16) – the inconstant moon / That monthly changes in her circled orb (17) – portend no good to us (16). Comets, importing change of times and states, / Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky (18).  Yon light is not day-light, I know it, I: / It is some meteor that the sun exhales (19) – O sun, / Burn the great sphere thou movest in! (20)

By Laboni Islam

Image: ClipArt ETC – The World’s Book of Knowledge and Universal Educator.  Boston: J.R. Spaulding & Co., 1901.

1)  Sonnet 14

2)  Henry V, IV.0, 1789

3)  Troilus and Cressida, I.iii, 528-529

4)  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, II.i, 476 and 480-482

5)  Antony and Cleopatra, V.ii, 3488

6)  Hamlet, I.iii, 542

7)  Hamlet, II.ii, 1182

8)  Henry VI, Part III; II.v; 1113-1119

9)  The Winter’s Tale, IV.iii, 1726

10)  Troilus and Cressida, Vii, 3238-3239

11)  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, III.ii, 1449

12)  Henry IV, Part II; II.iv; 1553-1554

13)  Troilus and Cressida, V.ii, 3170

14)  Troilus and Cressida, II.iii, 1330

15)  Troilus and Cressida, I.ii, 216

16)  King Lear, I.ii, 429-430

17)  Romeo and Juliet, II.ii, 958-959

18)  Henry VI, Part I; I.i; 6-7

19)  Romeo and Juliet, III.v, 2109-2110

20)  Antony and Cleopatra, IV.xv, 3176-3177

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