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October 1, 2006

Puzzle #2

Posted by John Baez

The names of which pair of Shakespearean characters appear on the astronomer Tycho Brahe’s coat of arms - in the list of his ancestors?

For extra credit: why? (Nobody seems to know.)

Posted at October 1, 2006 6:30 AM UTC

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Re: Puzzle #2

Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern. By a bizarre coincidence, I was just talking about this on usenet with someone who’s looking into medieval and renaissance Scandinavia for a story she’s writing.

Shakespeare’s characters are assumed to have been based on Frederick Rosenkrantz and Knud Gyldenstierne, who were present on an embassy to England in 1592, and were respectively Tycho’s third cousin and some other sort of cousin.

The Rosenkrantz and Gyldenstierne families were major players in Denmark’s aristocracy over several generations, as were the Brahe family and the Bille family (Tycho’s mother’s family). And, in the words of my usenet interlocutor, “the nobility married amongst themselves a lot.”

She also pointed me to this genealogy. The astronomer is not the Tyge at the top but the one directly under him two generations later.

My other source was (Kitty Ferguson, Tycho and Kepler, Headline Book Publishing, 2002) which talks about Rosenkrantz and Gyldenstierne on pp 261-2.

Posted by: Tim Silverman on October 1, 2006 11:55 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Puzzle #2

The Swedish branch of the Brahe family has even given name to a city in Finland, Brahestad.

Posted by: Thomas Larsson on October 2, 2006 1:28 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Puzzle #2

Excellent, Tim! I can now improve the answer I had, which went like this:

Q: The names of which pair of Shakespearean characters appear on the astronomer Tycho Brahe’s coat of arms - in the list of his ancestors?

A: Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern. Tycho Brahe was the Danish astronomer whose precise astronomical measurements served as the basis of Kepler’s laws of physics. A portrait of Tycho Brahe contains the names “Rosenkrans” and “Guildensteren” among the ancestors on his coat of arms:



Eric Altschuler of U. C. San Diego has used this and other pieces of evidence to argue that Shakespeare was an astronomer. For example:

“Saturn and Venus in conjunction!” - Henry IV, Part Two.

Source: The Independent, November 5, 1998, p. 7. They cite an article by Altschuler in the online magazine PhysicsWeb, which in turn refers to the following paper:


Personally I found the idea of Shakespeare as an astronomer rather implausible. There’s something about him that drives people a little bit crazy. Instead, I suspect he was just extraordinarily able to pick up a bit of this and a bit of that. Your answer, Tim, helps explain how he could have done it in this case!

Posted by: John Baez on October 1, 2006 10:44 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Puzzle #2

The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges delivered an illuminating lecture on the “enigma of Shakespeare”, i.e., the question of whether William Shakespeare of Stratford actually wrote the plays now known under his name. Several anti-Stratfordians have claimed that Shakespeare’s plays reveal a learning too deep to have been acquired by a country bumpkin. Replying to this charge, Borges said, “[I]t is one thing to use terms from many disciplines and sciences and another thing altogether to have a profound or even superficial knowledge of those same disciplines and sciences.”

The whole lecture is entertaining and informative; Borges argues against the Baconian and Marlowian cases on psychological grounds, even working in a riff on Einsteinian versus Newtonian physics.

  • Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Enigma of Shakespeare” (1964), in Selected Non-Fictions (Penguin: 2000), trans. by Esther Allen. ISBN 0-140-29011-7.
Posted by: Blake Stacey on October 2, 2006 12:33 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Puzzle #2

I’ve also been pointed at this site, which not only discusses this issue and identifies the relevant ancestors, but also already points both to this discussion and the other one I’ve been involved in! And it also points to you pointing back to it for your picture!

Posted by: Tim Silverman on October 3, 2006 8:01 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Puzzle #2

Tim Silverman writes:

And it also points to you pointing back to it for your picture!

Thanks for linking to that site! Bored people surfing the web can now bounce endlessly back and forth!

Posted by: john baez on October 4, 2006 2:52 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Puzzle #2

And in bouncing back and forth, they can build up momentum and eventually propel their computer beyond the Technological Singularity.

Posted by: Blake Stacey on October 4, 2006 3:41 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Puzzle #2

I agree that the idea of Shakespeare as an astronomer is rather implausible, but Shakespeare with an interest in Astrology (if only as a comsumer of other’s output) is very possible, given the frequent references in his plays like the quote above.

Posted by: Mark Biggar on October 3, 2006 10:26 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Puzzle #2

If shakespeare was an anstronomer, he would have put in Kepler - he wore the data of TB the best

Posted by: Dr. Gene Oldfield on October 8, 2006 4:48 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Puzzle #2

by the way, the nose in this portrait seems retouched.

Posted by: A. Rivero on November 14, 2006 5:58 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

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