The "new star" a supernova that Tycho Brahe discovered 1572

WE ARE DENMARK is a play about great thinkers at the cusp of great change. About love and youth and the ideas that truly change the world. About life and death and the universe of data. About power and agency and the unstuckness of the heavens. 

The fictional world of Hamlet's Denmark, churn into the real world of Tycho and Sophie Brahe's Denmark. 

NOBLE - Tycho Brahe- a student, a nobleman, brilliant, kind of a jerk, kind of Steve Jobs

PRINCE - Hamlet - a student, a prince, heady, needy, hasn't yet found his power, needs a friend and a passion

SOPHIE - a very smart rebel, Tycho's younger sister, stands up for people and too them. Alone in this world of men.

University of Wittenberg
(or Stanford, or NYU, or Oxford)

(or now)


We Are Denmark combines my favorite things: science history, badass lady thinkers, the edge of world-changing ideas, true stories, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The tone of it is brash, urgent, sexy, dark, funny, omniscient and rowdy. This play will clash – now with then, fiction with science, the good and the very very bad. It will call out from the past and from our past’s best fiction, and reverberate against our modern western ways of iEverything. Technology, meet mythology.

Here’s the genesis of the idea:

Scholars think that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is based in part of the life and death of legendary 16th century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. The astronomy, the philosophical ideas, names, locations, personalities, and the finale in Hamlet all point to a surprising and thorough match of Shakespeare’s fiction and Brahe’s history. Most synchronously both Brahe and Hamlet went to The University of Wittenberg, which provides the home from this cracked mirror of a play. Though it is “set” in the 1500’s Denmark, the sound and feel of this play is more that of, say, Palo Alto right damn now. Hamlet was a student before he was a vengeful murderer. And Brahe is more Steve Jobs than a fussy King. Both men changed our view, both men battled for what they thought was right, both are legends. I think they should be roommates.

Structurally our play teeters on the edge of the play Hamlet, its shadow creeping into our play from time to time only to be cast out before it can take over. It becomes a bit of a battle between this play and Hamlet, between fiction and history. Fiction is much stronger.

Back to history: Brahe had a sister, Sophie, who helped him affect this great change through inventing technology to measure the sky. Hard data was their revolution. She’s a big part of this play – the survivor left to “tell their stories”. She is the female that Ophelia could never be. She is the conscience, the soul of these two men. She keeps the clocks running, and keeps them alive. She is in love with Hamlet. Hamlet loves her more.

The world of our play takes place right before Hamlet’s father is killed (we seem him get this news at Wittenberg). When Hamlet goes home to his father’s funeral, we stay with Brahe and Sophie as they work to build their technology that will change the world. Then they do change it. Sophie spots what appears to be a “new” star in the sky. But at this point in history there were no such thing as new stars – the heaven were fixed, perfect, immutable. A truly new star would mean… a new cosmology.


Tycho Brahe: The Drinking Man’s Thinking Man

Like most trust-fund party boys, astronomer Tycho Brahe came fully outfitted with a less-than-endearing arrogant side. Of course, that’s not to say his hubris was totally misplaced. More here


Tycho Brahe (December 1546 – 24 October 1601), born Tyge Ottesen Brahe,[1][2][3][4] was a Danish nobleman known for his accurate and comprehensive astronomical and planetary observations. Coming from Scania, then part of Denmark, now part of modern-day Sweden, Tycho was well known in his lifetime as an astronomer and alchemist.

In his De nova stella (On the new star) of 1573, he refuted the theory of the celestial spheres by showing the celestial heavens were not in an immutable or unchanging state of perfection as previously assumed by Aristotle and Ptolemy. His precise measurements indicated that "new stars" (novae or also now known as supernovae), in particular that of 1572, lacked the parallax expected in sub-lunar phenomena, and were therefore not "atmospheric" tail-lesscomets as previously believed, but occurred above the atmosphere and moon. Using similar measurements he showed that comets were also not atmospheric phenomena, as previously thought, and must pass through the supposed "immutable" celestial spheres.[5]

Tycho Brahe was granted an estate on the island of Hven and the funding to build the Uraniborg, an early research institute, where he built large astronomical instruments and took many careful measurements, and later Stjerneborg, underground, when he discovered that his instruments in the former were not sufficiently steady. Something of an autocrat on the island he nevertheless founded manufactories such as paper-making to provide material for printing his results. Something akin to a research institute was founded which John Napier attended.[citation needed] After disagreements with the new Danish king in 1597, he was invited by the Bohemian king and Holy Roman emperor Rudolph II to Prague, where he became the official imperial astronomer. He built the new observatory at Benátky nad Jizerou. Here, from 1600 until his death in 1601, he was assisted by Johannes Kepler. Kepler later used Tycho's astronomical results to develop his own theories of astronomy.

As an astronomer, Tycho worked to combine what he saw as the geometrical benefits of the Copernican system with the philosophical benefits of thePtolemaic system into his own model of the universe, the Tychonic system. Furthermore, he was the last of the major naked eye astronomers, working without telescopes for his observations.

Tycho is credited with the most accurate astronomical observations of his time.



Brahe's great Mural Quadrant
Brahe's mural quadrant was one of the largest astronomical instruments of its time. Each degree could be finely divided and accurately read, giving Brahe's observations the greatest accuracy before the advent of telescopic astronomy. The portrait of Brahe is painted onto the wall pointing toward the slit in the wall through which heavenly bodies were viewed. He is portrayed beneath portraits of his liege-lord and in front of a cross-section of his castle Uraniborg. Notice the astronomical instruments mounted on the roof, meeting rooms on the main floor, and an alchemical laboratory in the basement. Notice too that an observer looks through the quadrant's sights as one assistant calls out the time from clocks and another records the data.


Shakespeare’s geography is occasionally rather dodgy. ‘The sea coast of Bohemia’ in A Winter’s Tale, for instance, provokes endless debate about whether he was deliberately describing a fanciful never never land – or just confused about where Bohemia actually was.

But when Shakespeare sent Hamlet to university at Wittenberg, he got it exactly right. Wittenberg lies on the Elbe River, which flows from east to west across north Germany, reaching the North Sea at Hamburg. In Shakespeare’s day, travel by water was the fastest and easiest form of travel, so no doubt Hamlet and his friend Horatio travelled by ship from Elsinore around the coast to Hamburg, then upstream to Wittenberg. Or if they rode, they would follow the river valley as the most convenient route.

For your intent
In going back to school in Wittenberg,
It is most retrograde to our desire,

says his uncle Claudius, and Gertrude adds,

I pray thee, stay with us; go not to Wittenberg.

That’s the trouble with universities, they make men dangerously independent in their thought. Wittenberg University was founded in 1502 by Frederick the Wise, Duke of Saxony – and chief protector of Martin Luther, the university’s most famous academic, who triggered the Protestant Reformation there in 1517.

Tycho Brahe in Wittenberg

Hamlet was not the only gloomy Dane to spend time in Wittenberg. Tycho Brahe was a rich Danish nobleman, keen astronomer and alchemist. There were no telescopes in his day, but with his vast wealth, he was able to build his own observatory, Uraniborg, and design his own instruments for observing the sky. On 11 November 1572, Brahe observed a new star in the sky in the constellation Cassiopeia, and published his observations in De nova stella (1573). The star, romantically named SN 1572, was a supernova. It caused an intellectual sensation at the time, because contemporary opinion viewed the heavens as unchanging.

In 1599, Tycho Brahe was invited to move to Prague by the Emperor, Rudolf II. The Emperor had shifted his capital to Prague, capital of Bohemia, retreating from Vienna, which had become too close to the Ottomans for comfort – they also used the river routes, gradually moving up the Danube towards Vienna.

Of course Brahe accepted the invitation, especially as he had meddled once too often in Danish politics. Like Hamlet, he followed the same route along the Elbe from the North Sea, stopping for about 6 months in Wittenberg before travelling on to Prague, which is on a tributary of the Elbe, the Vltava (German: Moldau).

Brahe built a new observatory near Prague, and took as his assistant the mathematician Johannes Kepler. In 1601, however, he died suddenly and unexpectedly, aged 55. He may have been murdered; various candidates have been put forward including Kepler (very unlikely) or an assassin from the Danish court (possibly). Tycho Brahe’s moustache remains in Prague – as his portrait shows, this was a magnificent object, though why it has survived into the 21stcentury escapes me. Recently it was analysed and showed that Brahe had been ingesting mercury – something of an occupational hazard for alchemists – but there’s a sudden suspicious spike in the level just before his death, confirmed by a later exhumation.

Rudolf recruited Brahe because he had a genuine interest in the new science – as well as a fascination with the occult. Part of the work of an astronomer was quasi-political, for they were expected to cast horoscopes – and the way horoscopes of important people were interpreted could have political implications.
Kepler's horoscope of General Wallenstein, from Wikimedia Commons

So scientists could be suspect, as Shakespeare suggested in his portrayal of Prospero in The Tempest. A different English playwright, Christopher Marlowe, tackled another Wittenberg scholar who was even more suspect, Dr. Faustus – though Marlowe’s magus who made a pact with the devil is a long way from Johann (or possible Georg) Faust of Wittenberg, about whom we know almost nothing.

Just as Shakespeare got the geography right in Hamlet, he also apparently got the astronomy right. In Act 1, Scene 1, just before the Ghost puts in an appearance, Bernardo sets the scene.

Last night of all,
When yond same star that’s westward from the pole
Had made his course to illume that part of heaven
Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself,
The bell then beating one…

According to researchers from Southwest Texas Statue University, ‘westward from the pole’ suggests that this star was in the constellation Cassiopeia, and likely to be Brahe’s supernova, SN 1572.

Shakespeare chose it because a new star in the heavens foretold disaster. The original meaning of ‘disaster’ was ‘an unfavourable aspect of a star or planet’. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the word from 1598, only a couple of years before Hamlet was written. So let’s give Shakespeare the last word here:

As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun; and the moist star
Upon whose influence Neptune’s empire stands
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse:
And even the like precurse of fierce events,
As harbingers preceding still the fates
And prologue to the omen coming on,
Have heaven and earth together demonstrated
Unto our climatures and countrymen. -
But soft, behold! lo, where it comes again!

Clearly Hamlet should have gone back to study at Wittenberg as quickly as possible. It might have been retrograde to Claudius’s desires – but retrograde is another astrological term: it means going backwards.



The turn of the seventeenth century was a time when heliocentricism was upsetting centuries of geocentric tradition, when the accustomed order of the heavens was turned topsy-turvy. Shakespeare noted that the new cosmic order might presage a new order in the affairs of the Earth as well. In the "degree" speech in Troilus and Cressida, Ulysses says that the heavens show humanity the merits of an harmonious geocentric order: "The Heavens themselves, the Planets, and this center [the Earth], observe degree, priority, and place." Ulysses goes on to warn that when the planets "in evil mixture to disorder wander" then the hierarchy on Earth is imperiled. Later in the play Troilus states that this has indeed occurred: "The bonds of heaven are slipped, dissolved, and loosed." Elsewhere I have suggested that the concerns that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern express to Claudius in Hamlet concerning the collapse of geocentricity may be seen in analogous human terms: "Most holy and religious fear it is, to keep those many many bodies safe that live and feed upon Your Majesty."

Stability in politics is a constant theme in the Shakesperean canon. In Hamlet it manifests itself through the plight of a King who, allegorically speaking, is falsely placed at the center of an hierarchy of planets, including the Sun, that stretches out to the stars, and whose position is threatened by Hamlet, the rightful heir to the throne and so, the rightful Sun and the rightful center.



All you need to make a telescope is two lenses held apart in the same plane - you don't even need barrel or body. This is what Sophie does at the end...


The earliest known working telescopes appeared in 1608 and are credited to Hans Lippershey, a spectacle maker.  Galileo turned it to the sky in 1611.

The University of Wittenberg today

“I pray thee, stay with us; go not to Wittenberg.”

Queen Gertrude, Hamlet




Last night of all,

When yond same star that's westward from the pole

Had made his course to illume that part of heaven

Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself,

The bell then beating one,--

The star to which Barnardo refers here is probably in fact Tycho's Supernova, which exploded in 1572, when Shakespeare would have been a lad of 8 -- or so claim three researchers from Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University). In this talk, I'll show you what the supernova would have looked like to the young Shakespeare, and why the star Barnardo is talking about is in fact the 1572 supernova. I'll also explain more about the supernova -- what happened, what sort of star was it that exploded, how the explosion happened, and what we see if we look there now.


Murder! Intrigue! Astronomers?

Published: November 29, 2010

When Danish and Czech scientists exhumed the remains of the astronomer Tycho Brahe in Prague this month, they dug up much more than some bones and hairs. They found something that has eluded astronomers for thousands of years: a story with major box-office potential. (more)


Sophie Brahe, or Sophia, (24 August 1556 – 1643) was a Danish horticulturalist and student of astronomy, chemistry, and medicine, best known for assisting her brother Tycho Brahe with his astronomical observations.

Sophie Brahe was born in 1556 at Knutstorp. When she was 17 years old, she became Tycho’s assistant and helped him with observations during a lunar eclipse. In 1577, she married Otto Thott ofEriksholm, the present Trolleholm. After 11 years of marriage, Otto Thott died, and afterwards Sophie managed the estate and raised their son, Tage Ottesen Thott. She visited her brother on the island of Hven 5-6 times a year, and might stay at Uraniborg for several weeks at a time. Tycho regarded her as his colleague and called her his "learned sister". She provided him with someone to have an intelligent conversation with.

Sophie later devoted herself to genealogy, and her family book is now in the Lund University Library.In 1626 Sophie had completed a 900 page manuscript on the genealogies of 60 Danish nobilities. Her final years were spent in Elsinore/Helsingör, where she died in 1643, 87 years old. A few years later, her son took her remains and buried them in the family grave by the church of Torrlösa. The mausoleum was destroyed in 1862, but in 1914 a memorial stone was placed on the site where her coffin was buried.


The University of Wittenberg was founded in 1502 by Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony.[1] Under the influence of Philipp Melanchthon, building on the works of Martin Luther, the university became a centre of the Protestant Reformation. Notable attendees include George Müller, Georg Joachim Rheticus and – in fiction – William Shakespeare's Prince Hamlet and Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. (more)

A feisty man of science
            Perry Vlahos
            October 27, 2011
A model of the steel quadrant he devised to observe the sky, rebuilt at the observatory at the Tycho Brahe Museum in modern-day Sweden.

A model of the steel quadrant he devised to observe the sky, rebuilt at the observatory at the Tycho Brahe Museum in modern-day Sweden. Photo: Tycho Brahe Museum

  • A model of the steel quadrant he devised to observe the sky, rebuilt at the observatory at the Tycho Brahe Museum in modern-day Sweden.
  • A model of Braye's underground observatory equipment.
  • A modern interpretation of the astronomer. Image by artist Shardcore, 2007.
  • An illustration of
  • Portrait of the 15th century Danish astronomer.
  • The grounds of the Tycho Brahe Museum, in what is now southern Sweden.
  • The astronomer's right eye is larger than the left in this portrait, purportedly from a lifetime spent observing the night sky.
  • A portrait of Tycho Brahe with his nose plate. He lost the bridge of his nose in a heated sword duel, fought over claims of who was the better mathematician. He reportedly wore a gold cover to church.

Tycho Brahe observed the sky before the age of telescopes.

MANY think of Tycho Brahe as the most significant astronomical observer before the invention of the telescope and well worthy of the prominent crater on the moon named after him. Yet, in the hours before his death on October 24, 1601, lying in the grip of a fever rending him delirious, Brahe reportedly said, ''May I not have lived in vain.''

Born in 1546 in Scania, then part of Denmark, to one of the highest-ranking noble families, he was raised by his paternal uncle. At university in 1560 he saw a solar eclipse, which piqued his interest in astronomy.

Not lacking confidence, he challenged another student to a sword duel over claims of who was the better mathematician. In the ensuing contest, Brahe lost part of the bridge of his nose and would then on wear a silver plate to cover the offending area; he reportedly wore a gold one to church.

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Portrait of Tycho  Brahe.

A portrait of Tycho Brahe with the metal plate on his nose. Photo: NASA

His impressive scholarship reached the ears of King Frederick, who offered the island Ven on which to build an observatory and substantial funds to run such an institution. Estimates suggest 5 per cent of Denmark treasury funds were used in the venture - a staggering sum, underlying the ubiquitous faith placed in Brahe. He took possession of Ven in 1574 and built a castle and observatory he called ''Uraniborg'', or ''heavenly castle''. It was the last purpose-built astronomical observatory not to feature a telescope - its invention lying almost 30 years in the future.

Discovering most records of previous observations were not exacting enough, Brahe designed, manufactured and calibrated new instruments allowing unprecedented accuracy. Ven became a revered centre of learning and had as many as 100 assistants sourced from European universities. International scholars visited and he trained the next generation of astronomers. It even boasted its own press.

In 1572, he observed the second-last supernova to be seen in the Milky Way and five years later the comet of 1577. The accepted Ptolemaic model at that time featured the Earth at the centre of the universe, encircled by glass spheres supporting each of the orbiting moon, sun and planets and, lastly, the stars. The sphere of stars was thought unchanging and comets an atmospheric phenomenon.

The fact a supernova appeared where no star resided before refuted the earlier claim. Furthermore, highly accurate parallax measurements of the comet also indicated irrefutably to Brahe that the comet was way out of the Earth's atmosphere and further than the sphere of the moon.

As such, this required a rethink on the held model of the universe. He came up with an original concept that sat between the Ptolemaic and Copernican models. Brahe did away with the glass spheres and continued to hold Earth at the centre, with moon and sun orbiting it, but the rest of the planets orbiting the sun.

In 1597, after falling out of favour with new king Christian following Frederick's death, he left Denmark, packing up books, instruments and observations, eventually ending up in Prague as the Imperial Mathematician. This was incredibly significant, for in this new location his main assistant was Johannes Kepler, a mathematical genius.

Following Brahe's death in 1601, Kepler used the superb detail and accuracy of Brahe's collected observations to formulate his laws of planetary motion; without this trove of painstakingly collected data, astronomy may have not burst forth to the new age till much later.


The Tychonic System 

Still geocentric but an improvement from Ptolomy...



Tycho never used a telescope, he died 8 years before Galileo first built one for astronomical use.

Galileo's most important contributions, however, came from his use of a telescope to observe the heavens. Even with a small aperture and poor optics, Galileo showed that the heavens were not perfect: the Sun had sunspots, the Moon had craters, and Saturn had rings(he called them ears). He also noticed that four moons revolved about Jupiter . This was proof that not everything revolved about the earth. Finally, Galileo observed that Venus showed phases, just like the Moon. This fit nicely into the heliocentric model of the Solar System. The church put Galileo under house arrest, tried him as a heretic, threatened him with death (a routine formality) and forced him to recant.

About the same time that Galileo was making his observations, two scientists in Denmark were working to uncover the mystery of planetary motions. The first was Tycho Brahe. Brahe was a rich nobleman, whose foster father once saved the life of the King of Denmark. In 1572, a very bright new star, a nova, appeared in the sky. By measuring its position precisely Brahe proved, through its lack of parallax, that it was really in the heavens, and not just in the upper atmosphere. This caused quite a stir, and to keep Brahe in the country, the King of Denmark granted Brahe his own island, complete with paper mills, printing press, castle, prison, and, of course, an extremely generous endowment (which made him one of the richest men in Denmark). For 20 years, Tycho Brahe resided as a feudal lord over his island, and with his observatory, Uraniburg, made extremely careful (eyeball) measurements of planetary positions. (His measurements were good to 2 arcminutes!)

After 20 years, Brahe hired a bright, extremely hard working young mathematician, Johannes Kepler to try and make sense of his data. Almost instantaneously, the two learned to hate each other. Brahe wanted Kepler to prove his own peculiar theory of the cosmos: that the Sun went around the earth, but that the planets went around the Sun. Kepler had his own ideas (which Brahe did his best to discourage), and to keep Kepler in line, Brahe only gave Kepler access to some of his observations. After a stormy three years (during which Kepler was fired and re-hired), Brahe died. Kepler grabbed Brahe's measurements, and, before Brahe's heirs could stop him, he was gone. For the next seven years, Kepler tried to fit the planetary motions with every law imaginable (circles, circles inscribed in polygons, egg-shaped orbits, etc). Finally, Kepler blundered in his calculations, made a wrong approximation, blundered again, and stumbled upon the solution


"Hamlet and Infinite Universe"
 by: Peter Usher (Research/Penn State, Vol. 18, no. 3 (September 1997))

Shakespeare (1564-1616) lived at a time of great ferment in the world. Both the Renaissance and the Reformation were well under way, transforming the intellectual landscape of Europe and inviting new discoveries and original thought. His productive career spanned the critical period between publication of De revolutionibus by Copernicus (1473-1543), whose model of the universe placed the Sun at the center instead of the Earth, and the telescopic observations of Galileo (1564-1642), which supported that model.

References to astronomy in Shakespeare's works afford an appreciation of how such a thinker viewed that transformation in world view. I argue that as early as 1601 Shakespeare anticipated the new universal order and humankind's position in it. In my reading, Shakespeare's Hamlet contains an allegorical description of the competition between two cosmological models: the infinite Sun-centered universe of Thomas Digges (c.1546-1595) of England, and a hybrid Earth-centered model of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) of Denmark.

The old geocentric model of the universe had been perfected by the Greco-Roman astronomer Ptolemy (Claudius Ptolemaeus, circa 140 A.D.) in his Almagest, and was still accepted in Shakespeare's day. It seemed to be most reasonable since all celestial motion appeared, from Earth, to be centered on the Earth. Moreover, the model complemented Elizabethan society, for both were hierarchical; as Shakespeare's character Ulysses says in Troilus and Cressida: "The Heavens themselves, the Planets, and this centre [meaning Earth] /Observe degree, priority, and place." Unfortunately, there remained the vexing problem of retrograde motion.

Retrograde motion is the occasional reversal in the apparent direction of motion of the planets Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn relative to the sphere of the stars. It occurs whenever these planets lie in a direction opposite to that of the Sun. Such perversity was puzzling, for it contradicted the perfect simplicity of the geocentric model.

The Polish astronomer Copernicus solved the problem of retrograde motion in principle by proposing that the Sun was at the center of the universe, and the Earth and the other five known planets revolved around it. The Earth was the center only of the Moon's orbit and was otherwise not special. However this model required that the Earth be in motion. The idea of a rotating and revolving Earth was counterintuitive to most people and contrary to established religious and scientific doctrine, and so enjoyed little immediate success.

In 1541, shortly before the death of Copernicus, Georg Joachim (known as Rheticus) completed his studies under Copernicus and brought back to the university in Wittenberg, Germany, the essence of the new model. By 1551, Copernicanism had started to take root in England, too. Digges, a scientist and military scholar, was an early English champion of Copernicus's model. He published his own model of the universe, A perfit description of the caelestiall orbes, in 1576.

All models prior to that of Digges were contained in a spherical shell of stars beyond which lay Paradise and the realm of the Prime Mover. In his mind's eye, Digges saw an infinite universe of stars each like the Sun. His revolutionary leap shattered the appearance of an outermost sphere of stars and replaced it by space of limitless extent filled with stars. Although an early speculation by the philosopher and theologian Nicholas of Cusa had reserved the term "infinite" for the Deity, Digges was the first Renaissance writer to advance the idea of a physically infinite universe. Eight years after Digges' proposal, the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno published similar ideas; for this and other impieties Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600.

Although Tycho Brahe was a student at Wittenberg for a short time, his model was still geocentric, since he made both the Sun and the Moon revolve around the Earth. Tychonic geocentricism differed from Ptolemy's in that Tycho allowed the other planets to circle the Sun. In that respect, Tycho advanced a sort of hybrid geocentric model, but the details were never worked out and the model therefore never explained retrograde motion.

An account of Tycho's hybrid model appeared in 1588 in his book, Recent Appearances in the Celestial World, which was published in a limited edition and which he sent to select friends and colleagues. In 1590 the English scholar Thomas Savile received a letter from Tycho asking to be remembered to Digges. Tycho was then living on the island of Ven in the Oresund Sound, where he was constructing his observatory, Uraniborg. At the same time the King of Denmark was building Helsingør Castle a short distance away. In his letter, Tycho suggested that some excellent English poets might compose witty epigrams in praise of him and his work. He also sent four copies of a portrait of himself that showed him standing under a stone arch featuring the family shields of his great-great-grandparents Sophie Gyldenstierne and Erik Rosenkrantz.

Shakespeare knew the Digges family and had probably seen Tycho's letter and portrait, choosing the names for the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern inHamlet this way. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern personify Tychonic geocentricism, I argue, while the false king Claudius is named for Claudius Ptolemy. Hamletpersonifies the infinite universe of Digges' model. "Elsinore" in Hamlet is named for the King of Denmark's Helsingør, while the castle platform in the play is like an observatory which affords an unobstructed view of the sky. Shakespeare pinpoints Tycho's island of Ven when he has Hamlet speak the line: "I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw." Thus madness is associated with Elsinore, where Claudius resides and which lies almost exactly north-north-west of Ven, while Wittenberg lies in a southerly direction from Ven. It is from Wittenberg that appearances are correctly interpreted.

When Claudius asks the Prince why he is still so dejected at the death of his father, Hamlet puns, "I am too much in the sun," thus associating himself with the reference point for planetary alignments. The royal couple express their desire that Hamlet not return to Wittenberg by saying that such a course "is most retrograde to our desire." Here they refer to Hamlet's retrograde—or contrary—motion to the seat of Copernican cosmology. The astronomical meaning of "retrograde" dates to Chaucer in the 14th century, while the senses of "moving backward" or "returning upon a previous course" were in use at least by about 1530 and 1564, respectively. But here the term "retrograde" follows hard upon the term "opposition," which is the very time when planets undergo retrograde motion, leaving the astronomical metaphor in no doubt. "Why should we in our peevish opposition / Take it to heart?" says Claudius. "Fie, 'tis a fault to heaven." To geocentrists, retrograde motion was indeed a "fault to nature" or a "fault to heaven," for clearly Nature is going against common sense here. Conjunction is the remaining alignment, and Claudius completes the metaphor when he says of his new wife: "She is so conjunctive to my life and soul, / That as the star moves not but in his sphere, / I could not but by her."

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are contemporaries of Hamlet just as Tycho and Digges were contemporaries. (Shakespeare's unfavorable portrayal of these two courtiers as "adders fanged" could signify his opinion both of Tycho's cosmology as well as of his vanity.) Claudius summons the two courtiers to help him since a new geocentric model should be helpful to the old. No sooner have they arrived than they enter into an argument with Hamlet, whereupon Hamlet makes his eloquent Diggesian statement: "I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king / of infinite space . . ." The "nutshell" could refer both to the shell of fixed stars supposedly encasing all of creation in all previous models, or to the portrait of Tycho, his image bounded by an arch of stone. 

Eventually Claudius dispatches Hamlet to England with the two courtiers as guards, urging in a letter "the present death of Hamlet. Do it, England . . ." But Shakespeare remains true to the ancient Danish legend, as told in the 12th century by Saxo Grammaticus. The two Danish courtiers are killed instead, because Hamlet has altered the content of the letter they carry.

Hamlet accomplishes first the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and then of Claudius. To recognize the fact that Digges' model is a corollary of the Copernican, Shakespeare in the waning moments of the play departs from the Danish legend and brings in Fortinbras fresh from conquest in Poland. Fortinbras salutes the English ambassador, and so unifies the models whose originators hailed from Poland and England.

The quest for truth and exposure of falsity is a theme that runs through Shakespeare's play. The castle platform is the interface between the castle interior and the sky, a contrast that parallels the contrast of reality and appearance, as when Hamlet says: "Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not seems." The passage from geocentricism to Digges' vision of an infinite universe is a passage from appearances to reality.

This reading suggests that Hamlet evinces a scientific cosmology no less magnificent than its literary and philosophical counterparts. While the last year of the 16th century saw the martyrdom of Giordano Bruno, the first year of the 17th century sees the Bard's magnificent poetic affirmation of the infinite universe of stars.

Peter Usher, Ph.D., is professor of astronomy and astrophysics in the Eberly College of Science; 507 Davey Lab, University Park PA, 16802; 814-865-3509; usher@astro.psu.edu. This essay was taken from a paper (Bulletin of the American Astronomical SocietyVol. 28, page 1305, 1996) read at the January 13, 1997, meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Toronto and from "Shakespeare's Cosmic World View, " published in Mercury, Vol. 26, no. 1, 20-23 (January-February 1997).