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Researchers say star in Hamlet may be supernova of 1572

Date of release: 09/28/98

SAN MARCOS, TEXAS — Did a supernova seen by William Shakespeare in his boyhood so fascinate the bard that he later referred to it in his most famous play?

That’s the theory proposed by researchers from Southwest Texas State University who say a star mentioned in Act 1, Scene 1, of Hamlet was a supernova, or exploding star, first sighted in Europe in 1572, and almost certainly seen by Shakespeare, then an 8-year-old schoolboy.

SWT faculty members Don Olson and Russell Doescher of the Physics Department and Marilynn Olson of the English Department published their research in the November issue of Sky and Telescope magazine.

Dialogue between soldiers in the first scene of the play -- believed to have been written in 1600 -- describes a bright star and its position in the sky on a bitterly cold night. Using climate and time references in the play, the trio of researchers determined that the scene at Denmark’s Elsinore Castle took place in November.

Following a character’s (Bernardo) description of the star’s position, they deduced that the star was probably in the constellation Cassiopeia. However, none of the stars in that constellation are particularly bright or noteworthy.

“But a remarkable star once did shine in Cassiopeia -- the supernova of 1572,” said Don Olson. “The brilliant star suddenly appeared in November, precisely the month during which its position would have matched Bernardo’s description.”

The supernova burned for 16 months before fading from sight. The so-called “new star” was the source of profound uneasiness among the general population, who saw it as a sign that the seemingly unchangeable heavens were, in fact, changing. That uneasiness and a preoccupation with things going wrong are recurring themes in Hamlet.

The star was widely discussed and written about by the most prominent astronomers and chroniclers of the time. For one young Danish scientist, Tycho Brahe, then 26, the supernova provided the inspiration for a life-long study of astronomy. In fact, modern astronomers refer to the object as Tycho’s supernova because he made the most detailed study of its properties. Although it is unknown if Shakespeare ever met Brahe, there is evidence in Hamlet that the playwright knew about him and his work. The most famous portrait of Brahe was engraved in 1590. It shows the prominent scientist surrounded by the coats of arms of his ancestors. Two of the family names pictured are Rosenkrans and Guldensteren, strikingly similar to the names of two characters in Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

When gathering background about Denmark for his play, Shakespeare may have consulted a lavishly illustrated atlas published in 1588 that includes an engraving of the strait known as the Sound of Denmark. Brahe’s castle observatory is on an island in the sound, just offshore from the castle Elsinore, the setting Shakespeare chose for Hamlet.

There is also evidence that Shakespeare was familiar with the works of English astronomers John Dee and Thomas Digges, both of whom studied and wrote about the supernova. In fact, Shakespeare lived near Digges, and biographers have traced connections between the playwright and the Digges family. A famous passage in Act 2, Scene 2, of Hamlet describes the stars and heavens using language that may be derived from an explanation of the Copernican cosmos in a book by Thomas Digges. It is also known that Digges and Brahe exchanged letters.

Shakespeare frequently used astronomical imagery in his plays, and the researchers said it is possible that he would use one of the more spectacular celestial events of his lifetime in a play.

Don Olson concluded, “The connections between Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the leading European authorities on the new star in Cassiopeia make it plausible that the supernova of 1572 may have been the inspiration for the celestial portent in the opening scene of the play.