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Shakespeare Defended Copernicus?

Kenneth Branagh may have missed the connection entirely, but an astronomer at Pennsylvania State University contends that Shakespeare's Hamlet is an allegory in support of a sun-centered solar system and an infinite universe.

Peter Usher, who studies quasars and the history of astronomy, presented his theory earlier today at the American Astronomical Society's annual meeting in Toronto. He says Hamlet's character represents the theories of English scientist Thomas Digges, who in the 16th century extended Copernicus's idea of a sun-centered solar system to suggest that stars did not rest on crystal spheres but extend into infinite space. Meanwhile, Hamlet's friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Usher says, are named after ancestors of the astronomer Tycho Brahe of Denmark and symbolize his Earth-centered cosmology. Hamlet's uncle, King Claudius, represents Claudius Ptolemy, who developed a long-accepted model of a universe that revolved around the Earth.

And the cosmological connection isn't in name only. When Hamlet says: "I could be bounded by a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space," Usher believes he is contrasting the shell of fixed stars in the old models with the infinite universe of Digges. And when Hamlet tells the king he wants to return to his studies at Wittenberg--a center of Copernican learning during Shakespeare's time--the king says, "It is most retrograde to our desire." Usher suggests the Bard was referring to the retrograde motion of planets, the occasional westward motion of planets across the sky. When Hamlet arranges for the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and kills Claudius, Usher's conclusion is that Shakespeare was dramatizing the triumph of the new cosmology over the old.

Not everybody buys it. Physicist and playwright Phillip Schewe of the American Institute of Physics says that while Usher's research makes some interesting associations, the interpretation goes too far. "Shakespeare is like an expanding universe," Schewe says. "The more you look, the more meanings you can discover." That is, a play by any other cosmology is still a play.