Johannes Kepler studied a New Star first seen on October 9, 1604, in the right heel of Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer (see chart on the left, which is based on Kepler's original drawing). The New Star is popularly known as "Kepler's Star," named for the astronomer who made a thorough study of it. In 1572, the eruption of "Tycho's Star" had caused consternation among those who held to the old Worldview with its devotion to immutable heavenly perfection, and these two New Stars confirmed that something was awry with the old paradigm. Both phenomena occurred in Shakespeare's lifetime, and we should expect that after writing of Tycho's Star in Hamlet, that he would not fail to write about the second outburst. My article in a 2009 issue of The Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada identifies it as the star in All's Well that Helen in reference to Bertram aptly calls "bright" and "particular." The star was so "bright" that initially it was visible by day, and it was "particular" because it was the second such phenomenon in 32 years. [The chart on the left is copyright Morgan T. Hughes and Troy Rosenbaum, used by permission.]
Paroles is a Shakespearean embellishment to the old tale from which All's Well derives, which alerts auditors to the possibility that he has a sub-textual role to play. He is a soldier, and Helen calls him a notorious liar and a coward. They greet each other and right away Paroles asks her, "Are you meditating on virginity?" Helen explains by comparing her love for Bertram as love for a "bright particular star," which has puzzled critics, but the play was written sometime in 1603-1605, and the star in question is probably Kepler's Star of 1604. As Paroles prepares to leave, he insults Helen by saying, "Little Helen, farewell. If I can remember thee, I will think of thee in court." Helen correctly assesses Paroles' weakness for flattery and she prepares to respond. "Paroles," she says, "you were born under a charitable star." Paroles takes the bait and explains that he was born
"under Mars." Helen continues with, "I especially think under Mars," but Paroles does not see the trap. "Why under Mars?" he asks, and Helen explains because the wars have kept him "under." Paroles says he was born when Mars was predominant, but Helen corrects him and scores the equalizer. "When [Mars] was retrograde [because you] go so much backward when you fight." Turning the clock back from October 9, 1604, we see from the chart on the right that Mars was retrograde through the first half of the year as it passed through the constellation Virgo, the Virgin. This explains Paroles' obsession with virginity, and Helen's apt reposte. The retrogradation antedates Kepler's Star, to which Helen has become devoted, for as she explained, Bertram has become her bright and special star to whom she hopes to lose her virginity.
X-ray image of Kepler's supernova pictured by NASA's Chandra Observatory. Colors from red to blue signify low- to high-energy radiation. The stellar background is from the Sloan Digitized Sky Survey. The Chandra Observatory is named for Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, among whose accomplishments is the calculation of the limiting mass of a class of stars known as White Dwarfs. Supernovae like Kepler's are exploding White Dwarfs destabilized by accretion from a neighboring star, which causes their mass to exceed a natural limit called the Chandrasekhar Limit.
Helen loves Bertram, who is the son of a Count, but cannot wed him because of his socially superior standing. However, she had recently lost her father, a physician who had concocted a medication so efficacious that he had advised Helen to withhold to apply it "only in unusual need." Being fatherless, Helen becomes a ward of the King of France who suffers from an ailment called a fistula, which physicians cannot cure. Helen is determined to use her father's potion to cure him, and the monarch is so grateful that he bestows a title upon her and tells her that she can wed anyone that she fancies. Playgoers might expect Helen to tell the French King whom she chooses, but does not do so. If out of deference to His Majesty, this is at odds with her resoluteness and strength of character, which allows Shakespeare to present a scenario ad hoc. The King presents four local courtiers for her to choose from, which she considers and rejects before selecting Bertram. So, why the added palaver? Diana, who helps Helen get her man, suggests an answer. She invokes the deity Jupiter when she tells the King, "By Jove, if ever I knew man 'twas you." This contrived vignette points to the King's four satellite courtiers representing the four bright moons of Jupiter in a play written about 1604-05; i.e. before Galileo's Sidereus Nuncius of 1610 that announces his observations of them.
Bertram is displeased with his forced marriage and vows never to consummate it. He flees Paris to fight in a war in Florence Italy, and Helen returns home to southeast France. She dupes everyone there into believing that she has gone on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint James ("Saint Jacques") at Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain, but instead she goes in the opposite direction to Florence Italy. By this ploy, she avoids a potential pursuit. However, she still maintains her guise as a pilgrim to the Spanish shrine, and her identity as French. But why is a French pilgrim going to Spain via Italy? Why must she go east to go west? This oddity, like others in the cosmic genre of Shakespeare's plays, is unexplained. An explanation may lie in the etymology of "Jacques," which is often converted in English to "Jack," which since medieval times is a diminutive of "John." If so, it is not much of a stretch to "Johannes," which is Kepler's first name. I posit that Helen's eastern sojourn lauds the mathematician Johannes Kepler, the chief referent in this cosmic allegory.
Jove and his four brightest moons as they might appear through binoculars.
Johannes Kepler (1571-1630)
from a portrait of 1610.
Act 4 of All's Well ends with a reference to feathered hats, and the start of act 5 features the entrance of a gentle astringer -- a gentleman falconer. Critics assail the seeming superfluousness of this character, but editors Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine suggest that the character's meaning is yet to be revealed. The astringer moves the plot forward to its resolution by helping the rapprochement of Helen and Bertram, but I explain his identity sub-textually: "Astringer" means literally "a keeper of goshawks."
Identification of Leonard Digges with raptors and their keepers suggest that the gentleman falconer, Astringer, stands for Leonard Digges, but why does Shakespeare even bother to introduce Leonard into this particular play?
In 1604, the same year that SN 1604 burst forth, Kepler published a book that critics agree is the foundation of modern theoretical optics and that contains Kepler's new telescopic design. Shakespeare marks this auspicious occasion by referencing the first person to develop and deploy an astronomical telescope.
Peter D. Usher is Emeritus Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at The Pennsylvania State University. © Copyright 2018-19