Hamlet – A Battle For Science?

How to read Shakespeare? That’s a question that has been debated through the years by scholars, literary critics, actors – and secondary school students staring in horror at page after endless page of unintelligible gobbledygook that they’ve somehow got to interpret for their English coursework. The daunting legacy of the Bard can strike as much fear into the hapless schoolchild as quadratic equations and geometry. But unlike the fixed rules of mathematics, there are seemingly no end of ways in which to analyse a piece of literature, and Hamlet is no exception.

Tom Hiddlestone in the recent production of Hamlet at RADA

The most common themes are the obvious – love, power, jealousy, obsession, madness – all have their part to play in the tragic tale of the young prince. But one take on the play diverts the story from the path of human emotion and immorality and places it in the realm of science – or to be more specific, the clashing of two scientific worldviews – geocentrism and heliocentrism.

Before we get into the reasoning behind this analysis, some historical light may need to be shed. Until 1543, the prevailing cosmological theory of astronomers and other scientists was the geocentric model put forth by Claudius Ptolemy, one of the intellectual giants of the Greco-Roman world. Formulated during the second century AD, this model placed the Earth at the centre of the universe (as had other geocentric theories beforehand) and for more than a thousand years, Ptolemy’s work was accepted as the authoritative voice in the field of astronomy.

Claudius Ptolemy

But in the sixteenth century, all that changed. A newcomer had arrived on the astronomical scene, promoting the idea that the Sun, not the Earth, lay at the centre of the universe. That individual was Nicolaus Copernicus, described by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince in The Forbidden Universe as having “developed his radical new theory in the first decade of the sixteenth century, but refrained from going public for many years.” Copernicus, “reticent…because of the academic controversy his theory would generate” was encouraged by colleagues to share his discovery, which he finally did in 1543, when he published his seminal title On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres.

So began a decades-long dispute on the question of which theory of cosmology was the accurate one. Although much has been made of the Catholic Church’s eventual hostility to the findings, they were by no means alone in their disbelief and opposition. Copernicus’ discovery wholly upended the scientific knowledge of the day – Martin Luther was said to ridicule the theory not out of any religious objections but because he couldn’t believe that astronomers could have been so wrong. “Scholars”, write Picknett and Prince, “were disturbed for another reason…since it implied that human understanding of the order of the universe, and the way one part influenced another, was seriously lacking. If Copernicus was right, then everything changed. The uncertainty – some accepted Copernicus’ new order, others stuck to the old system of Ptolemy – meant that chaos reigned, and not merely in the academic discipline of astronomy, but in the world at large.”

Nicolaus Copernicus

Shakespeare, then, would have grown up in a culture in which these opposing cosmological models were locked in an ideological struggle. He would certainly have been aware of the debate and it is said that he was familiar with Hermeticism (a spiritual-philosophical system which favoured heliocentrism, as it attached great importance to the Sun.) He was also personally acquainted with Thomas Digges, one of the leading proponents of Copernicus’ theory at the time, and it is in part due to this connection that astrophysics professor Peter Usher has maintained that “Hamlet is an allegory for the competition between the cosmological models” – the heliocentrism that was by this point being expounded by Digges and a Ptolemy-influenced geocentric theory that was being advanced by Tycho Brahe.

Perhaps the most glaring reference to this clash of worldviews is in Hamlet’s words to Ophelia – “Doubt that the stars are fire; Doubt that the sun doth move.” Usher’s reading, however, finds more to support his theory. Claudius, he argues, is named for Ptolemy and therefore represents geocentrism, whilst rightful heir to the throne Hamlet represents the Sun (heliocentrism.) It is no coincidence, he believes, that “Hamlet is a student at Wittenberg, a centre for Copernican learning.” Furthermore, he suggests that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are named after two of Brahe’s relatives (Frederick Rosenkrantz and Knud Gyldenstierne) and that their deaths, as well as Claudius’s, are a metaphorical slaying of the old way of understanding the universe. Shakespeare, Usher continues, nailed his colours firmly to the mast as a supporter of Copernican theory:

“The climax of the play is not the death of any of the chief protagonists; it is Fortinbras’ triumphal return from Poland and his salute to the ambassadors from England. Here Shakespeare praises the merits of the Copernican model and its Diggesian extension. Thereby he defines poetically the new universal order and humankind’s position in it…While the last year of the sixteenth century saw the martyrdom of Bruno, the first year of the seventeenth century sees the Bard’s magnificent poetic affirmation of the infinite universe of stars.”

Sir Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

But perhaps Hamlet does more than simply showcase the battle between two scientific worldviews; perhaps, in its violent ending it is also lending a voice to the academic and cultural upheaval that comes whenever a ground-breaking discovery throws centuries of study and knowledge into doubt. To leave the final word on the matter with Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, we may follow them in wondering –

“What was Shakespeare trying to convey about the big heliocentric debate? After all, the play sees the demise of all of its leading characters…So although Shakespeare seems to be championing the new Copernican system, his major emphasis is really the uncertainty that was overturning the world and throwing everything into chaos.”

By Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson