Cassiopeia the queen stands high in the northeast at nightfall. Some of her stars form a giant letter M or W. 450 years ago this week, a brilliant new star appeared near the center point of that letter.
Today, it’s known as Tycho’s Supernova, for Tycho Brahe, who published an extensive study of it. But it might also be called Hamlet’s Supernova. A study a few years ago suggested the star might have inspired William Shakespeare to write the famous play.
The star appeared in 1572, when Shakespeare was eight years old. It became as bright as Venus. It flared into view when a “dead” star stole gas from a companion star, causing the dead star to explode.
At the time, the heavens were considered unchanging. A bright “new” star popping into view shook up that concept. The idea that Earth was the center of the universe also was changing, creating a time of uncertainty. And change and uncertainty are a theme in Hamlet, which was written around 1600.
A few years ago, a team led by Don Olson at Texas State University suggested the play was inspired by the supernova. Dialogue suggests it was set in November, and references a star that “burns” near the spot of the supernova. The play is set near Tycho’s observatory. And astronomy played a role in other Shakespeare plays.
There’s no “smoking gun” to confirm the idea. But it suggests that one of history’s great works of art could have been inspired by a great work of nature.
Script by Damond Benningfield