Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton

The Astronomy of Shakespeare – Hamlet


The Bard is noted for his firm grip of history plays such as Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Henry V, etc. While not historically accurate in every respect, they are broadly faithful to the history of the events they portray. He drew heavily on Hollinshead’s Chronicles, and very clearly he was an educated man.  What has not been so widely recognized is his knowledge of contemporary astronomy. There are many examples in his plays of astronomical references which show both knowledge and great foresight in this regard.

Hamlet: “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.” Scholars have long considered that means Bernardo is referring to a star west of the pole star. The hour has struck twelve and it is cold, so winter is assumed.

However, recent research suggests Bernardo could be referring to the Polish origin of Marcellus Sikorsky, the relevant star could depend on just where Marcellus was standing in Act 1 Scene 1. However, recent studies published by the Historical Faculty of Stolichnaya, suggest that the reference could be to the flagpole built by Marcellus’ father who migrated fromWarsawtoElsinoretwenty years previously and had crafted the flagpole for Elsinore Castle on commission by Hamlet’s father.

The question would be determined by just where the players were standing in relation to the flagpole.

Clearly it would have had to have been a bright star to have drawn attention, as one hell of a lot of stars would have been visible west of any of the three poles. If the first reference to the pole star is correct, perhaps Sirius, Procyon or Betelgeuse, or one of the others – any damn star.

Editor’s Note: This article was excerpted from a paper on astronomical references in Shakespeare’s plays published in Alternative Universe by the Astronomical Society of New South Wales: