Experts in Shakespearean literary interpretation ignore the evidence for all but the most superficial of astronomical phenomena (like sunrise, sunset, the heavens, etc.). On top of that, the vast majority of historians of astronomy deny that Shakespeare knew of phenomena that could only be accessed telescopically. Even to admit this topic into the dialectic of scholarly research would be to allow doubt concerning both Shakespeare's supposed ignorance of, or indifference toward, the revolution in cosmic worldview occurring in his lifetime, and the origin of astronomical telescopy that is supposed to have begun in 1609. Yet, in peer-reviewed articles and in the books Shakespeare and the Dawn of Modern Science and its sequel depicted on the left (SSAA for short), I have argued that these widespread denials are open to dispute.
Previous work has posited the means by which the bard acquired data on the Moon, Sun, and the other planets, and in SSAA, analysis of three plays -- All's Well that Ends Well, Much Ado about Nothing, and The Comedy of Errors -- uncovers further evidence that Shakespeare knew a great deal about planet Saturn. He knew of its two chief rings, shadows cast by the orb and rings, the gap between the rings, the ring tilt, and the narrowing and disappearance of the rings twice every cycle of nearly 30 years. This evidence puts the origin of sustained astronomical telescopy into the middle sixteenth century. Moreover, by the late 16th century, Shakespeare had the data, the mathematical skills, and the analytic ability to model the ring-tilt cycle with astonishing accuracy.
These arguments are based on interpretation of the scripts of the plays mentioned. For example, in the first two plays mentioned above, Helen and Hero personify Saturn and in the play or its immediate aftermath both end up with two rings. In The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare creates temporal anomalies (like time running backward!) and a tightly constrained timeline to allow with reasonable certainty the Egeon to personify Saturn's orb, rings, and their shadows. Through the medium of Comedy, temporal clues give the time of day and its associated Error of the Saturn ring-plane crossing of 29 December 1583, which is astonishingly accurate and is a measure of Shakespeare's mathematical and instrumental skills. But that is not all. On 28 December 1597, the eve of the anniversary of this transit, somebody (probably the dramaturge himself) foisted upon a troupe of players the task of staging The Comedy of Errors for the first time. The production occurred in Grays Inn, sister to Lincoln Inn from which the playwright graduated, and the event was so riotous that it was dubbed The Night of Errors. Notable among the players was the famous actor from Stratford-on-Avon.
Peter D. Usher is Emeritus Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at The Pennsylvania State University. © Copyright 2018-19