"All's Well that Ends Well"

The supernova of 1604

Johannes Kepler studied a New Star first seen on October 9, 1604, in the right heel of Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer. The New Star is popularly known as "Kepler's Star" 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 heavenly perfection, and the 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.  An article in 2009 identified it as the star in All's Well that Helen in reference to Bertram aptly calls "bright" and "particular" as the outburst 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 sketch on the left is based on Kepler's original drawing. [Sketch copyright Morgan T. Hughes and Troy Rosenbaum, used by permission.]

Helen and Paroles

 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. Paroles is a soldier, and Helen calls him a notorious liar and a coward. Moreover, he is obsessed with Helen's virginity. They greet each other and right away Paroles asks her, "Are you meditating on virginity?" Something has occurred to make this a pressing topic. Helen compares her love for Bertram as love for a "bright particular star," which has puzzled critics, but since the play was written sometime in the years 1603-1605, the star in question could be 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 compliments, and prepares for a battle of wits with the ersatz warrior. "Paroles," she says, "you were born under a charitable star." Paroles takes this as a compliment, but it is bait, and Paroles swallows it. He explains that he was born "under Mars." This is self-aggrandizing, since in myth Mars is the god of War and Paroles fancies himself as a warrior. Helen closes in. "I especially think under Mars," she replies, and her emphasis on "under"  piques Paroles interest. "When [Mars] was predominant,"  he explains, whereupon Helen scores the equalizer. "When he was retrograde [because you] go so much backward when you fight." Retrograde motion of a planet occurs when it is opposite the Sun at midnight. It is "predominant" as it is then at its highest point above the horizon. 

Turning the clock back from October 9, 1604, we see from the chart above 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 Helen's virginity. The timing is right because the retrogradation antedates Kepler's Star, to which Helen is devoted, for Bertram is her bright and special star to whom she hopes to lose her virginity. 

All's Well may give a new early limit on the writing of the play of October 9, 1604. 

SN 1604


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 that are destabilized when accretion from a neighboring star causes their mass to exceed the Chandrasekhar limit.

The King's Fistula

 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 wants, but does not do so. If out of deference to His Majesty, this is at odds with her resoluteness and strength of character. Thus, the King presents four local courtiers for her to choose from. She considers and rejects each in turn, 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."  

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, thus avoiding any potential pursuit. However, she still maintains her guise as a pilgrim to the Spanish shrine, and her identity as French. 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 overlooked. An explanation may lie in the etymology of "Jacques," which is often converted in English to "Jack," which in turn 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. Possibly, Shakespeare lauds the mathematician who in Prague in 1600 became an assistant to Tycho Brahe. Prague is in Bohemia, which lies east of France and whose fictional wilderness is home to ferocious bears.

 Jove and his four brightest moons as they might appear through binoculars. 

 There is no reason why Helen should conflate the chief deity of Mount Olympus with the King of France unless to explain why the King as Jupiter has four courtly satellites. Helen turns them all down if only because she prefers the greater luminary Bertram, whom she equates with Kepler's supernova, SN 1604. 

 Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). 

From a portrait of 1610.

A Gentle Astringer

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 what of his sub-textual role?      

A Northern Goshawk, whose range includes southern France. "Astringer" means literally "a keeper of goshawks." 


Identification of Leonard Digges with raptors and their keepers suggest that the gentleman falconer 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 Shakespeare marks the occasion by referencing the first person to develop and deploy an astronomical telescope.