Cited by many as the greatest writer who ever lived, William Shakespeare died in late April 1616.  When the four hundredth anniversary of his death passed by with nary a mention, it seemed somehow that something had gone wrong with the world.  The year 2016 has been difficult so far both for Shakespeare and for the many people who share his interest in the night sky.  Bright moonlight, for example, interferes with some of the meteor showers scheduled for this year, beginning with the Lyrids.  I actually tried to observe them on the night of their maximum in late April near the anniversary of the great writer’s death. The Moon was so bright that it was hard to see any stars in the sky; even the bright planets, Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn were not at their usual sublime brilliance. During the course of an hour outside, I spotted possibly one shooting star, but that meteor was so faint that it appeared like a flash in the night.

If the Lyrids are just one casualty of this year so far, William Shakespeare is another.  Whether you read him or not, the writer who brought us Hamlet and King Lear has inspired the world through his 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems, and other poetry.  He has inspired us with his unusually shrewd look into the ravages of old age; diseases like Alzheimer’s were unheard of in Shakespeare’s time, but their symptoms were well-known and 400 years later, King Lear can be read with deep empathy by anyone who is familiar with the devastating consequences of this illness.

I like to think that on a clear cold night in November, 1572, John Shakespeare led his precocious eight-year-old son William out the back door to look at the sky to the north where a brilliant new star, brighter than all the others, subjugated the sky. If that small event did take place, it would have left a deep impression on the young lad. More than two decades later, a more mature Shakespeare put that emotion into the opening lines of his most famous play.  The guard Bernardo utters these words at the opening of Hamlet:

Last night of all,

When yond same star that’s westward from the pole

Had made his course t’illumine that part of heaven

Where it now burns, Marcellus and myself,

The bell then beating one– (Ham.1.1.37-39).

Bernardo is talking about a star that does not make sense. There are no bright stars in the winter sky between the North Pole star and the western horizon.  But when Shakespeare was a boy of eight, there certainly was such a star. It was the great stella nova, or new star, that revolutionized humanity’s understanding of how stars lie and how they die.

It is very likely that William Shakespeare saw many bright meteors during his lifetime, certainly enough that at least one of them might have found its fiery way into Richard II, where, upon the death of Edward III, “Meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven.”  These explosions, and the pen of the person who wrote about them, might not be worthy of a few seconds on the evening news four centuries later, but if we look up at the sky in wonder when we witness one, they might mean something more as they enrich our lives.

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David Levy