Date: November 29, 2009

Title: The Astronomy of Shakespeare


Podcaster: Dr. Leslie Peterson and Dr. Mel Blake

Organization: Dr. Leslie Peterson, Dept of English, Dr. Mel Blake Dept Physics
and Earth Science, University of North Alabama

Description: Astronomy was more a part of daily life during the time of Shakespeare than it is now. Shakespeare would have been able to see the night sky even from London, and such a view was used in the literature and poetry of the period. William Shakespeare also lived in a time of transition. The new views of the universe were mixing with the beliefs in astrology and use of the stars for navigation. We will discuss these influences and the various beliefs about the sky that would have influenced the Bard.

Bio: Dr. Lesley Peterson is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Alabama where she teaches courses in Renaissance literature including Shakespeare. Her research interests include the drama of Shakespeare, Margaret Cavendish, Elizabeth Cary, and Jane Austen.

Dr. Mel Blake is director of the University of North Alabama Planetarium and Observatory operated by the department of Physics and Earth Science. When not conducting planetarium programs for schools and the public he conducts research on binary and variable stars.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by Joseph Brimacombe.


Mel: The night sky has forever inspired mankind looking upon it. It has driven us to explore the solar system with robots and construct orbiting observatories to study the distant places in the universe. It has also inspired art, music and literature, including some of Shakespeare’s most famous poetry. We’ll discuss this today.

Here’s an example, taken from Shakespeare’s sonnet 16

Lesley Reading of Sonnet 16 (lines 1-8)

Sonnet 16

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
Oh no, it is an ever fixèd mark 5
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring barque,
Whose worth’s unknown although his height be taken.

Lesley: Wow, there’s a lot of astronomy there. What’s that “ever fixèd mark” he compares love to—is that the North Star?

Mel: Probably. [Insert explanation of how it helped sailors know where they were.]

Lesley: And Shakespeare also compares love to a “star” for “wand’ring barques” in the same poem. So love is like something that helps out when you’re lost?

Mel: Yes. A barque is a sailing ship. Astronomy has been used for navigation for many centuries especially during the age of sail.

Lesley: Shakespeare must have really appreciated how important the stars were to sailors. But Shakespeare also appreciated the simple beauty of the night sky.

Mel: Yes, this was before streetlights were common in cities. He would have had a great view of the sky even from London.

Lesley: Wow, that’s hard to imagine. A bright star on a dark night is a beautiful thing to behold, isn’t it?

Mel: Lots of romance!

Lesley: That’s what Romeo thinks of when he gazes up at Juliet on her balcony; he compares her eyes to “Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven” (2.1.57). And when the Elizabethan poet, Sir Philip Sidney, sat down to write a series of poems about his love for the beautiful Penelope, he called her by the code name “Stella,” the Latin word for “star.” Like a star, she was lovely, pure, and out of reach.

Mel: Why did the Elizabethans associate stars with heaven? After all, the Greeks, for instance, thought Mount Olympus was where the gods lived. And the Christian God was supposed to be omnipotent and everywhere at once.

Lesley: Great question. You see, although the Copernican model of the universe was starting to be known in Shakespeare’s day, the ancient Ptolemaic model still had a very powerful hold on the Elizabethan imagination: they still tended to think of the earth as being at the center of the universe with the moon, sun, planets, and stars all revolving around the earth. Combining this ancient Greek idea of the earth being at the centre of everything with the Biblical story of the fall of man, many Elizabethans believed that everything on earth that was inside the orbit of the moon was fallen and imperfect, but everything beyond the moon—like stars—was unfallen and perfect. This is why Shakespeare’s contemporary, the great John Donne, says in one of his love poems that people who only love each other physically are “dull, sublunary lovers.” He calls such love “sublunary,” because it is limited to the realm of fallen nature within the moon’s orbit; but his love, he claims, is superior, because his soul is joined spiritually on a higher plane with the soul of his beloved. (“A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”).

Mel. We always teach in astronomy that when Copernicus published his work, he presented it as a mathematical shortcut so as not to offend the entrenched church and the Inquisition. You had to tread carefully in those days! But Galileo certainly thought it was the correct model of the Universe. This despite the fact that Copernicus’s model was not as accurate at predicting positions as Ptolemy’s model.

Lesley: That’s interesting. Sounds like Copernicus and Galileo figured it out, and then mathematics had to catch up. One thing that’s surprising about the Elizabethans is that even though they were very religious, many of them thought astrology was science, not superstition or black magic. They understood that the moon controls the tides, and so they thought the stars controlled human destinies in a similar way. They took astrology very seriously.

Mel. I can see why. The stars and planets are always moving, too, so different configurations in the sky could be used by astronomers to predict events.

Lesley: Oh yes. And since stars are supposedly closer to heaven and more divine than anything on the earth, people thought the stars helped to express and carry out divine will. That’s why Shakespeare calls Romeo and Juliet “star-crossed lovers.”

Mel. Of course. The stars were against them; they had no chance of a happy ending. But to the Elizabethan mind, the most scary and powerful things that appeared in the sky were the unusual things, like comets and shooting stars and eclipses. They used to call comets “hairy stars.”

Lesley: What a great metaphor. That must explain why The Duke of Bedford talks about stars with “crystal tresses” in 1 Henry VI (1.1.3). And is Horatio also talking about comets in the play Hamlet when he reminds his friends about how, when Julius Caesar was assassinated, the sky was troubled with “stars with trains of fire” (

Mel: Almost certainly. And here, where Horatio talks about “the moist star” being “sick almost to doomsday with eclipse,” that’s describing an eclipse of the moon (

Lesley: I see. You know, the Elizabethans thought that comets and eclipses bring bad things to a country and to its king, because their fates were supposed to be entwined. That’s why Julius Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia is especially worried about her husband: “ When beggars die there are no comets seen,” she tells him; “The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes” (2.2.30-31).

Mel: I think Calpurnia and Horatio might both be referring to the famous Halley’s Comet.

Lesley: Really? Did that appear when Julius Caesar was assassinated?

Mel: It actually did appear around the time of Caesar, yes. Halley’s Comet has shown up throughout history and sometimes puts on quite a show. It has an orbit of about 76 years, and is mentioned repeatedly in historical records. Mark Twain is famously associated with Halley’s Comet; he was born when the comet was in the sky and died when it reappeared. He even commented upon it: “I came in with the comet and I’ll go out with it.” And you know, it appears on the Bayeaux tapestry that was made to commemorate the Norman invasion of England in 1066.

Lesley: Wow, 1066 sure would have been a bad year for the Anglo-Saxon king whom the Normans defeated! I can see where these superstitions come from. But what about Shakespeare? Would he himself ever have seen any really impressive comets? Did Halley’s Comet appear during his lifetime, by any chance?

Mel: Absolutely! It appeared in 1598.

Lesley: That’s just before he wrote Hamlet. It’s amazing to think what an influence it may have had on Shakespeare’s writing. I wonder if he was scared of comets himself, or if he just wrote about people who were?

Mel: Of all the things in the sky that Shakespeare’s contemporaries were afraid of, the comets are probably the most justified, although not for the reasons they thought. A comet is now one of the suspects for helping the demise of the dinosaurs.

Lesley: Gee, I wonder what Shakespeare would have thought of that? Science has found out so much about the stars now that Shakespeare couldn’t have known.

Mel: And far fewer people believe in astrology now than before, so that’s progress too.

Lesley: But stars will never lose that magic power they have to inspire people.

Mel: We’ll see. With all the lighting at night it is harder and harder to see the true sky. But of course we can always enjoy the great literature!

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
The 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast is produced by the New Media Working Group of the International Year of Astronomy 2009. Audio post-production by Preston Gibson. Bandwidth donated by and wizzard media. Web design by Clockwork Active Media Systems. You may reproduce and distribute this audio for non-commercial purposes. Please consider supporting the podcast with a few dollars (or Euros!). Visit us on the web at or email us at Until tomorrow…goodbye.