Notes from Under Sky

Astronomy, Astrology, and the Prince of Denmark

Vive la difference—in iambic pentameter

Someone wrote:

You could make an analogy of the relationship of these three by looking at different ways to describe Shakespeare's Hamlet.
The physicist, corresponding to the astronomer, would tell you that it is composed of wood fibers that have been combined and compressed…
The professor of literature, corresponding to the astrologer, will tell you about the story and what it means…
Finally, the theater enthusiast corresponds to the amateur astronomer. He knows the various houses and companies and where the good seats are…

Utter hooey.

To make your analogy accurate (it's a good idea, incidentally), you shouldn't apply it to the physical book in one case, and the story in the other. You ought to apply it to the story in all cases.

The "professional" astronomer will investigate patterns in the play: deducing, through a careful examination of passages, Hamlet's mental state (or Ophelia's for that matter), or the nature of his relationship with his mother, or Laertes's relationship with his sister. Citations represent hard observational data, although their interpretation may be open to debate. Usually, there is some discussion on whether such and such a view of the play is "correct." Often, there develops a consensus (for example, that Hamlet is mostly in command of his faculties), and quite often there is a vocal and staunch minority opposition. Interestingly, just as in astronomy, you cannot conduct experiments in the usual sense; you are limited to making observations.

The astrologer, on the other hand, may attempt to draw symbolism out of the characters and actions in the play: that Hamlet represents the intellect in obsession, or that Ophelia represents worldliness, or that Polonius represents deception. Although such claims are based on some reading of the play, there is less emphasis on ensuring correctness than that the sum of the symbols constitute a coherent whole. The astrologer is more likely to provide "the complete solution" than the astronomer.

The amateur astronomer enjoys the play—whether reading it, seeing it performed, or listening to it on an audiotape in the car. Although, from sci.astro.amateur, you might get the impression that all they care about is how good the recording is or how much it cost, or who's in it, most amateurs simply appreciate the play on its own merits. They may have a favorite scene from the play, or a favorite soliloquy, or even a favorite couplet, and they may dabble in the more literary aspects of the play. They may even know the content of the play better than some astronomers—err, literature professors.

Ordinarily, I don't respond to these threads, but this looked like a good way to see these different activities from a new perspective, and it seemed such a shame to waste it. :)

Copyright (c) 2003 Brian Tung