To understand The Winter's Tale it helps to know more of the career of the Danish astronomer and nobleman Tycho Brahe, since aspects other than those mentioned on other pages figure prominently in the subtext.
Tycho built an observatory on the island Ven off the coast of Denmark from which he made important contributions to astronomy, but in 1597 when he had a falling out with the new King of Denmark, he was forced to abandon his island. The altercation is not surprising because Tycho had an abrasive, abusive, and imperious personality, and mistreated serfs, employees, and those he thought were his social inferiors. Of particular interest is his reactivity to narcissistic injury, which manifested itself in vengeance against Paul Wittich whom he believed stole secrets related to his instrumentation, and against Duncan Liddell whom he felt did not credit him for his hybrid model. As mentioned, Tycho's model is one of three extant in the sixteenth century, and Shakespeare dealt with it at length in Hamlet.
The dispute of present interest is with Nicholai Reyers Baer, commonly called Ursus, which is Latin for "bear." Ursus was born into an impoverished family but struggled to better himself, becoming proficient in mathematics and surveying. He visited Ven in 1584, but Tycho disliked his uncouth ways and excluded him from meetings that dealt with his World model. Being idle, Ursus rummaged about and came across a sketch of Tycho's model, which one of Tycho's assistants discovered in his possession. Opinion is divided as to whether Ursus actually stole the idea of the model, but Tycho thought he did and expelled him from the island. In 1597, Ursus proceeded to publish his own version of the model, and Tycho's vendetta was on. Tycho sued Ursus, who died before the trial, but Tycho had expected him to be convicted and in accordance with Bohemian law executed by quartering or beheading. Ursus's model differed from Tycho's because rather than have the huge dome of stars rotate about the Earth, he accounted for that appearance by letting the Earth rotate. He speculated furthermore that the stars might extend to infinity. Shakespeare duly took note.
Portrait of Tycho Brahe.
In the play, Leontes, King of Sicily, hosts his lifelong friend Polixenes, King of northerly Bohemia. Leontes welcomes Polixenes with, "Happy star reign now!" The "happy star" is probably Polos (Polaris), the North Pole Star, whose first syllable begins Polixenes' name, and which labels him as from the north. Polos is the key celestial beacon for navigators in the northern hemisphere, and Polixenes will soon sail southward to Sicily. Polos lies in the constellation Ursa Minor, the Little Bear, and Ursus (Nicholai Reyers Baer) plays a minor role in the history of astronomy.
The two kings grew up together but later grew apart despite continuing to embrace one another "as it were" from "the ends of opposed winds." Winds signify directions and here too, as we shall discover and as was the case in Hamlet, they point to the two influences in contemporary cosmology -- geocentricism and heliocentricism. Recall also from Hamlet that these winds stand for the components in the hybrid model of Tycho Brahe, whom we encounter again in this play. It remains to associate each King with a "wind," either blowing from England via Wittenberg (from Digges via Copernicus) or from the island of Ven (from Denmark).
Hermione is Sicily's Queen, who is pregnant, but Leontes suspects that Polixenes is the father. Accord between her and Polixenes arouses Leontes' suspicions. He saw them touch hands, and although Leontes grants that his wife is merely being hospitable, he worries that Polixenes has brought a "disease" to Sicily. His worry is warranted.
Polixenes senses that his life is in danger and prepares to return home. He is assisted by a Sicilian Camillo who explains the King's concern that Polixenes touched his wife "forbiddenly" using an "instrument" or "tool" of "vice." The moment they touched, Polixenes as-it-were inseminated Hermione's fetus with the New Astronomy. Camillo's fealty to Polixenes is so great that he says it lies figuratively in the trunk in which Polixenes carries his belongings. As such, Camillo is a supporter of the New Astronomy, because "trunk" is another term for a Perspective Glass or telescope, which we now understand is the "instrument" that has provoked the ire of Leontes. Polixenes and he grew apart sub-textually because of their adherence to opposing cosmological models, and Leontes fears that empirical telescopic evidence will destroy his beliefs. The script confirms the suggestion in multiple ways.
Hermione gives birth prematurely and Leontes brings her to trial and threatens to kill the baby. Leontes calls the child a "female bastard" unfit therefore to accede to the throne of Sicily. He says that he acts out of "natural goodness," but to assuage critics, he dispatches couriers to the Oracle of Apollo to confirm his opinions. The Oracle pronounces Leontes the child's father, but Leontes is so sure that he is right that he plans to burn the baby to death. He relents and decides to let a nobleman Antigonus abandon the child in some remote and desolate place, where the babe could fend for itself and no doubt serve as a tasty morsel to a wild animal.
The sequence of events and reasonable assumptions on the speed of sailing through the Aegean archipelago and the Adriatic has led to the conclusion that Leontes' child is born nine months after Polixenes leaves Bohemia, and was conceived a few days after he arrives. Polixenes is not the father, but the child's birth after a normal gestation period of nine months corresponds sub-textually to Polixenes setting out to bring the New Astronomy to Sicily and inseminating it metaphorically when he touched the queen before delivery. But Shakespeare is not about to let the heir to the throne of Sicily -- and with her the New Astronomy -- die.
Antigonus sets sail for Bohemia (whose seacoast is imagined to be in Bohemia at the northern end of the Adriatic), to dispose of the child. Bohemia is where Tycho fled in self-imposed exile, and the script makes clear that Antigonus has Tychonic attributes. Antigonus refers out of context to his three daughters, but nowhere is there evidence that he has children. In fact, "Antigonus" and Sophocles' "Antigone" mean "against generation, against child-bearing." His wife never mentions any children other than the one she devotes her time and passion to care for, viz. Hermione's newborn, but the three girls can be identified thanks to Antigonus stating their ages. These three data might seem superfluous, but they are the very same ages as the King of Denmark's three sons in the year 1588, and the connection to Tycho is that he cast elaborate horoscopes for the boys in the years of their birth. It is as if Antigonus's children stand for Tycho's brainchildren, which being gender-free, could be boys or girls. The script shall support this interpretation via the marker that the year on stage is 1588.
Before Antigonus can abandon the babe in the wilds of Bohemia, claps of thunder signify the ire of Jupiter, chief god of Olympus. Yet Antigonus presses on for fear of consequences should he fail to execute his assignment. As he lays down the baby, a bear roars and Antigonus thinks he had better return to the ship that brought him. However, the bear enters but it ignores the wee bairn. In the most famous stage direction in all of drama, Shakespeare describes Antigonus's next move:
Exit, pursued by a bear.
Antigonus flees, muttering, "I am gone forever!"
The hawk-eyed shepherd spies the neonate. "This had been some stair-work, some trunk-work, some behind-door work," he says, "they were warmer that got this than the poor thing is here." By "trunk-work," Shakespeare means telescopic observing. By "behind-door work," he means the secretiveness with which the first astronomical telescopists went about their work, both in R&D and while observing. In his book of 1572 on Tycho's Star, Thomas Digges alludes to stairs in the title "Mathematical Wings and Ladders." And somehow the shepherd knows that the babe came from warmer climes.
The shepherd's son arrives and reports seeing a ship sink in the bad weather that had been threatening. Down with the ship went "the instruments which aided to expose the child." In 1599, Tycho brought some of his prized instruments to Prague, which was then part of Bohemia and where he had attempted to resume his career, but Shakespeare makes clear that Tycho's low-resolution instruments are passe.
The shepherd's son also reports seeing a bear tear out a man's shoulder. The prey had called to him for help and identified himself as a nobleman. His death is a condign if fanciful end for a predator who had wanted Ursus drawn and quartered.
Time flies, and in The Winter's Tale, the Chorus announces that time has advanced by 16 years. Evidence already encountered puts the year on stage at 1588, so adding 16 more gives 1604. In act 4 scene 4, the shepherd states that he is 83, so within the accuracy of truncated ages, the shepherd was born in about 1521. Remarkably, so was the elder Leonard Digges, promoter of Apollonian qualities and the one who developed the first telescope. With hawk-like vision, the shepherd a.k.a. Leonard spotted Hermione's baby. His keen vision matches his first name, and lest there be doubt that Shakespeare intends Polixenes to introduce the Diggesian World view to Sicily, consider that when the shepherd and his son make contact from afar, they "hallooed" with cries of falconers: "Whoa-ho-hoa...Hilloa, loa."
After the advance in time, the play takes on a dream-like quality that is in keeping with the fact that in 1604, Thomas Digges had been dead for 9 years. The play ends with Leontes' conversion to heliocentricism and the survival of all principals except Antigonus. But does the shepherd's age of 83 in 1604 translate in fact to Leonard Digges' age in that year? Consultation of biographies, encyclopedias, and other resources reveals the following distribution of years of Leonard's death:
1558 1559 1560 ..... 1569 1570 1571 1572 1573 1574
1 7 0 0 0 1 5 0 4 2
In the Early Modern age, dates of birth and death were often uncertain, but the result above is unusual for its 17-year duration. Events in Leonard's life may explain it. In 1554, he participated in an armed revolt against the rule of Queen Mary, which failed, and someone -- probably Lord Clinton -- saved him from the scaffold. Nevertheless, his lands were confiscated subject to payment of fines, which were discharged in 1558. In 1559, Leonard must have disappeared from view and judging from the entries above, for a decade must have been thought to have died. Instead, he was a recluse, but not an idle one. In 1571 he co-authored a book with his son Thomas in which, however, Thomas announced his father's untimely death. This second attempt to go underground like the Ghost in Hamlet failed too, because reputable biographers state that he died in 1572, 1573, and 1574. Inquiries in 1884 confirmed that no records of his death exist, and no-one knew when he died. The odd lack of data, the peculiarities of available data, and the present reading of The Winter's Tale, suggest plausibly that Leonard was alive in 1604.