Hamlet’s University

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 was here, Wittenberg

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).

Tycho Brahe from Wikimedia Commons

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 21st century 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

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.


9 responses to “Hamlet’s University

  1. Very interesting analysis for me as well…right now I’m studying the character of Hamlet as a student (which kind of education he received, how he was expected to behave according to the culture of the time…) Have you any suggestions for me?any websites?I am still a student at the University and I don’t have a lot of knowledge about the topic…thanks!!!

  2. Pingback: Potatoes and the foods of the poor | Historians are Past Caring

  3. Yes, I think Shakespeare was probably smart enough to get it right if he really wanted to. I think his universal appeal is partly related to his very likely deliberate muddling of geography, history and religion.

  4. That’s an interesting idea, Alan. I suspect that as far as religion goes, he was also shrewd enough to cover his tracks. It was a dangerous time to be alive!

  5. Steve Sailer

    As various scholars have pointed out, it seems likely that Shakespeare was fascinated by Tycho Brahe’s astronomical research. Tycho’s coat of arms includes the ancestors Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

    When the closest thing we have to a Shakespeare, Tom Stoppard, got around to directing a film version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead with Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, he portrayed Elsinore castle as a kind of observatory / laboratory. Stoppard was then in the middle of his mid-life Science Phase that culminated in his masterpiece “Arcadia” a few years later. So the idea that the 30-something Shakespeare had developed a fascination with astronomy at the time he wrote Hamlet seems not implausible.

    • Thanks Steve. That’s so interesting – I didn’t know about Tycho Brahe’s coat of arms. In a world where the fastest travel was water-borne, I think ideas crossed the North Sea more often than we sometimes realize.

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