Shakespeare's identity `is in the stars'

Click to follow
SHAKESPEARE WAS not just a playwright - he was an astronomer, according to a new theory that raises questions about the exact identity of the most famous name in British literature.

According to a fresh scientific analysis of his works, Shakespeare may actually have been Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who lived from 1550 to 1604, rather than the younger actor W. Shakspere, who lived from 1564 to 1616.

A paper published in the online magazine PhysicsWeb by Eric Altschuler, of the University of California at San Diego, points out that the Bard's plays contain numerous references to astronomical events.

Besides the "star-cross'd lovers" of Romeo and Juliet, there are descriptions in plays such as Hamlet, Henry IV Part One and Part Two, A Midsummer Night's Dream and All's Well That Ends Well of comets, bright stars, the peculiar orbit of Mars as seen from Earth, and the brightness of the planet Venus as an "evening star".

Yet many of the astronomical discoveries made after 1604 and before 1616 - such as sunspots, the imperfect surface of the moon, and the moons of Jupiter - are not referred to in Shakespeare's plays, whose given date is after the Earl of Oxford's death, notes Dr Altschuler. These include The Tempest, Henry VIII and The Winter's Tale.

The dating for Shakespeare's plays is complicated by the fact that many were not published until 1623, but were performed many years earlier.

Summing up the peculiar lack of references in those later plays, Dr Altschuler writes: "There are many possible explanations ... however, the most parsimonious is that the Bard was not alive to know of these new developments in astronomy."

But Professor Peter Holland, director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, dismissed the suggestion. "We can learn something from astronomical references, but the idea that the presence or absence of references tells us anything about this seems like purest fantasy. I only saw a comet for the first time two years ago, but I've talked about them for years."

Dr Altschuler's paper notes that in Hamlet, for example, which is set around November in Denmark, a character describes "yond star that's westward from the pole/ Had made his course to illume that part of heaven".

This, he suggests, actually refers to a supernova (now categorised as SN1572A) that appeared as an extra bright star in November 1572, and was described by the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. But at that time the Earl of Oxford would have been 22 - while Shakspere would have been just eight years old. "Perhaps the memory of the new star was etched into the memory of eight-year-old Shakspere, but more likely into that of 22-year-old Oxford, especially as in England it was Lord Burghley, Oxford's father- in-law, whom Queen Elizabeth asked to investigate the new heavenly development," he writes.

However, Professor Holland noted yesterday that to focus on one set of references tends to miss the point about Shakespeare's works. "What about references to events around the dates when the plays did appear?" he said yesterday. "For this argument to work, you would have to show that those don't mean anything, while these somehow do."

He remains certain, as the institute has determined over its 48-year history, that "there is abundant evidence in the plays and from the period that it was Shakspere who wrote them".


Is it really conceivable that this son of a provincial wool dealer was single-handedly responsible for 37 plays and 154 sonnets, among the most sublime works of the English literary canon? Scholars have been squabbling about it for the past century.

Despite all the competing claims, most critics still believe that the works attributed to William Shakespeare were indeed penned by an actor/playwright born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564.


Bacon, the Elizabethan courtier and philosopher, is the man most widely touted by sceptics as the true Bard. The Shakespeare versus Bacon debate reached a height in the late 19th century. One member of the Bacon camp, a Detroit physician named Dr Owen, asserted that if all his writings were pasted on to a 1,000-ft strip of canvas and rotated around wooden spools at high speed, they would reveal a coded message stating that he was Queen Elizabeth's love-child.


There is one problem with the theory that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare's plays as well as his own: he died in 1593, well before much of the Bard's oeuvre was published.

That isn't a problem, say the "Marlovians", who are almost as numerous as the Baconians. Marlowe faked his own death at Deptford, east London, they say, then went into hiding and continued writing and issuing plays under the alias of William Shakespeare.


De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, is a favourite of modern anti-Stratfordians.

The initial enthusiasm of some De Vere fans cools when they learn that the original proponent of his authorship was an Edwardian schoolmaster named Thomas Looney. Some claim, straight-faced, that the Earl bribed Shakespeare to act as a front man because it was beneath his dignity to admit that he wrote the plays.

Astronomical or Coincidence?

Do these quotes suggest that Shakespeare was an astronomer?

Hamlet: Bernardo says, "Last night of all/When yond star that's westward from the pole/Had made his course to illume that part of heaven/..."

This could refer to the supernova SN1572A, which occurred in 1572.

Hamlet: A portrait of the noted Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe contains the names "Rosenkrans" and "Guldensteren" among his ancestors on a coat of arms.

Henry IV, Part One - Act II, scene 1: Characters use the position of the Ursa Major constellation to tell the time at night.

Henry IV, Part Two: A character exclaims "Saturn and Venus in conjunction!" - an unusual event.

Yet a similar event in October 1604 - after the Earl of Oxford's death - does not feature in a play.

Henry IV, Part Three: A reference to "false suns" caused by ice crystals near the Sun: "Dazzle mine eyes, or do I see three Suns?" "Three glorious suns, each one a perfect sun... /In this the heaven figures some event."

The Italian astronomer Galileo perfected the refracting telescope, which led to his descriptions of sunspots, the Moon's cratered surface, and Jupiter's moons. However, none of these discoveries is mentioned in later plays, even though the news of his work spread rapidly. But Galileo perfected the Dutch-invented instrument in 1609 - after the Earl of Oxford's death.