Shakespeare's coat-of-arms

In 1599, the Garter King of Arms drew a proto-design for the Shakespeare coat-of-arms. He wrote above his draft, "Non, Sans Droict" (No, without right), which he crossed out and rewrote as "Non Sans Droict" (Not without right). The newly-created coat-of-arms features a falcon shaking a spear, or rather brandishing a pen, and a lance that resembles a pen.

Appearance and Reality

According to the Shakespearean scholar G.K. Hunter, the tension between appearance and reality is "the dilemma most persistent in Shakespeare." My website touches on recent advances in the understanding of the canon that show that Shakespeare's neglect of contemporary theories of cosmology is only an appearance. I start by discussing this tension in Hamlet and suggest that the play is an allegory for the competition of the three chief cosmological models current in 1604 and earlier. As in morality plays and religious drama where the real focus is not the tragic hero but the divine background is, Hamlet is in a relationship with good and evil. He dies when he has no further role to play, but his demise takes a back seat to the advancement of the New Astronomy, and more broadly, the New Philosophy. 

Digges family coat-of-arms

Ancestors of Leonard Digges served under Edward II and III, and Henry VIII. In 1537, Leonard graduated from the Lincoln Inn in London, and became expert in ballistics, botany, fortification, geology, law, and mathematics. His expertise in optics evolved from the 13th-century research of Roger Bacon. A leonard is a raptor akin to a hawk or falcon.

A certain difficulty

William Shakespeare wrote his plays around the turn of the 16th century when people were beginning to accept the idea that the Earth went around the Sun, and not vice versa. The bard is an expert in many fields, yet it appears that his works do not reflect the theory of heliocentricism. Moreover, he seems oblivious to the concept of a Solar System embedded in an infinite distribution of stars that Thomas Digges proposed in 1576. Apparently, the bard was aware only of commonplace astronomical phenomena like sunrises, sunsets, and eclipses of the Sun and Moon, but the fundamental transformations occurring in Astronomy in his lifetime seem to have passed him by. In 1942, the Shakespearean scholar John Dover Wilson mused that it "was not Shakepeare's way to keep silent about exciting topical events," and since then scholars have agreed virtually unanimously that the poet ignored advances in astronomy or was indifferent to them. Evidence argues otherwise.   

The "Hamlet" allegory

According to a proposal in 1996, Hamlet is an allegory for the three chief cosmological models that vied for acceptance at the turn of the sixteenth century. These are: (i) the Earth-centered (geocentric) model that the Greco-Roman mathematician Claudius Ptolemy refined  in the second century CE; (ii) the Sun-centered (heliocentric) planetary model of the Polish astronomer and mathematician Nicholas Copernicus that dates from 1543 and earlier, which when combined with the concept of the Solar System embedded in an infinite distribution of stars yields the model that Thomas Digges proposed in 1576; and (iii) a hybrid model published in 1588 by the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe who set the Sun in motion around the Earth but allowed the planets to orbit the Sun. The paper proposing the Hamlet allegory was read at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society held in Toronto, Canada in January 1997, in the same week that Branagh's Hamlet opened there. 

Subsequent advances

A great deal of evidence has amassed since the Hamlet allegory was first proposed, and ensuing pages will touch on a few highlights. I shall provide evidence for the pairing of the competing cosmological models with characters in Hamlet, and in the process other aspects of the play shall reveal Shakespeare's capacity for forward thinking. Even more remarkable is the evidence that he knew of facts about the Sun, Moon, planets and stars that he must have gathered with telescopic aid. This interpretation would place the advent of astronomical telescopy before the accepted dates of 1609 and 1610. A further observation is that Thomas Digges' father Leonard had developed a primitive telescope decades earlier, and Thomas's son, also named Leonard, wrote eulogies for the First and Second Folios of Shakespeare's collected plays. Oddities and coincidences abound, not only in Hamlet but in other plays. Shakespeare knew a lot about astronomy, and we can only wonder how.