5 Nov 1998
In a new entry to the enduring controversy over who exactly wrote Shakespeare's plays, a researcher has come up with circumstantial evidence--based on astronomical references in the plays--that favor the leading alternative candidate, Edward DeVere, 17th Earl of Oxford. The provocative analysis, however, is unlikely to quell a debate likely to continue to the last syllable of recorded time.
In a paper posted to the Los Alamos National Laboratory preprint site, Eric Altschuler, a physicist-turned-medical student at the University of California, San Diego, has tallied references to the stars and planets in the plays and compared them with contemporaneous astronomical events. He has found no reference to events after 1604, the year Oxford--a poet and patron of the arts--died at age 54. Shakespeare of Stratford, 14 years younger, died later in 1616.
There is abundant evidence in the plays that the author was au courant with astronomical theories. Examples cited include a description in Hamlet of a bright star on a November night that could refer to a "new" star (now called supernova SN1572A) that appeared in November 1572. The star was described by Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, in whose portrait a coat of arms bears the names 'Rosenkrans' and 'Guldensteren.' And in Troilus and Cressida, there are two passages indicating Shakespeare's awareness of geomagnetism, proposed in a 1600 book by William Gilbert.
In contrast, the plays contain no mention of major findings described by Galileo in a 1610 book with his new telescope--such as sunspots, features on the moon, and moons around Jupiter. There are 40 references to the sun, 15 to the moon, and 10 to Jupiter in the later plays, writes Altschuler, but none betrays awareness of these developments. "There are many possible explanations why Shakespeare did not write about any of these topics," he writes. "[H]owever, the most parsimonious is that the Bard was not alive" at the time and that later plays are incorrectly dated.
Another Shakespeare sleuth, political scientist Ward Elliott of Claremont McKenna College in California, is skeptical. "This evidence belongs in the category of 'could be [Oxford]' evidence." Elliott's own research on word usage, he says, shows the Bard "couldn't be" Oxford because the style of the Earl's known dated poetry is incompatible with the plays that, if he were "Shakespeare," would have to have been written around the same time.