AP Literature and Composition
15 December 2014
An Essay on how Religious, Scientific, and Cultural Influences of the Elizabethan Age Impact the Writing of Hamlet by William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare wrote and lived during the Elizabethan age, an age in which the changing aspects of English thought were in unrest due to both the Renaissance and the Reformation. It was a transformation of the intellectual landscape of Europe and invitation to new discoveries and original thoughts and ideas. Around 1600 to 1601 he wrote Hamlet, a tragic play. Hamlet was greatly influenced by the scientific, cultural, and religious beliefs of the Elizabethan age. Shakespeare’s inclusions of astronomy, astrology, and cosmology reflect the scientific beliefs of the ever changing Elizabethan age. Shakespeare is greatly influenced by scientific beliefs that he personifies the Tychonic geocentrism and Diggs infinite universe. In “Hamlet and the infinite Universe,” a paper published during 1997 in The Elizabethan Review a Penn State Professor in astronomy by the name of Peter Usher argues that Hamlet is an allegory of the opposing Copernican and Ptolemeic models. His argument is based by his great belief that “as early as 1601, Shakespeare anticipated the new universal order and humankind’s position in it” (Usher). Tycho Brahe holds responsibility for the Tychonic model of hybrid geocentrism. Tychos model is designed to show planets orbiting the Sun, and the Sun and Earth’s moon orbit Earth. The Tychonic hybrid model appears in his book, Recent Appearances in the Celestial World, published in 1588, when Shakespeare was 24 years old. Tycho wrote to Thomas Savile and asked that he give his regards to Diggs, “a man known to the Shakespeare family” (Alana M. Mahaffey). Tycho’s letter also contained a portrait of “Tycho standing under an arch that displayed the family shields of Gyldenstiernes and Rosenkrantz” (Alana M. Mahaffey). If Shakespeare had come into contact with the letter and was knowledgeable in the “conflicting cosmological theories of the day, then his argument that Hamlet is an allegory of scientific controversies of the time begin to congeal” (Alana M. Mahaffey). The two remaining supporting claims are that the King Claudius is named after Claudius Ptolemy, personifying the infinite universe of Diggs model. “Elsinore” is named for the King of Denmark’s castle “Helsingor” (Alana M. Mahaffey). It would also justify Shakespeare’s choice of names for Guildenstern and Rosencrantz in Hamlet. The two characters would be the personification of Tychonic geocentrism. Shakespeare pinpoints Tycho’s island of Ven when Hamlet speaks the line: “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw” (Hamlet). Madness is associated with Elsinore, where Claudius resides and which 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” (Usher). Instead of veiling an elaborate allegory Shakespeare uses the conflict of Tycho’s and Diggs and the idea of retrograde motion to improve his play, not to build it up around it. The impacts of scientific beliefs of the Elizabethan age on Shakespeare’s Hamlet are shown in other ways besides the naming of characters and places. When the prince Hamlet is questioned about why he is still so dejected about the death of his father he states that he “is too much in the sun” (Hamlet 1.2.71) which may be a reference to the alignment of the planets. When his mother and Claudius request that Hamlet not return to Wittenberg they state that it is “most retrograde to our desire” (Alana M. Mahaffey), they refer to Hamlet’s retrograde motion to the seat of Copernican cosmology. The astronomical meaning of retrograde is moving backward or returning upon a previous course and fall upon the term opposition. Opposition is...
References: to Astrology and Cosmology in the Plays of Shakespeare.” Henderson State University. 23 November 2014.
Usher, Peter. “Hamlet and the Infinite Universe.” Elizabethan Review. 20 June 2000.
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