Driftless Dark Skies: Shakespeare’s Eclipse

July 25th, 2017 by John Heasley

Eclipses are an amazing coincidence. The Moon needs to orbit between Sun and Earth.  It can’t be too high or too low when it passes between. It needs to be the right distance so that it exactly covers the Sun. And we need to be on the right spot on Earth to stand under the shadow of the Moon and watch the Sun be covered up.

On August 21, the shadow of the Moon will cross the United States. If you travel to the 60-mile wide eclipse path that extends from Oregon to South Carolina, you will be awed by totality.  Closest places from our area are in Missouri and southern Illinois. Totality is something to be experienced at least once in a lifetime. If you can’t make it to totality, you can still experience a very cool partial eclipse right here in the Driftless Area. The Moon takes its first bite out of the Sun at 11:49. By 1:14, the Moon will have covered 88% of the Sun. The eclipse ends for us at 2:37.

Not only do we get a chance to say syzygy again, we also get to marvel at another amazing coincidence involving the two greatest Shakespearean playhouses. On October 2, 1605 (O.S.), a partial solar eclipse was visible over The Globe Theatre outside London from 11:32 until 2:03 (local time), almost the same time as the solar eclipse over American Players Theatre outside Spring Green. The Sun covered 88% of the Moon for Shakespeare’s Eclipse just as it will on August 21 for The Great American Eclipse.

Did Shakespeare see this eclipse? I hope so, just as he might have seen the lunar eclipse two weeks earlier on September 17. It’s challenging to establish biographical facts about Shakespeare, but he did refer to eclipses at least a dozen times in his poems and plays, most notably in his tragedies written around 1605. In King Lear, Gloucester sees a correspondence between heavenly events and the unraveling of the kingdom: “These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us.” As he confronts the horror of what he has done, Othello imagines a celestial event: “Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse/Of sun and moon, and that the affrighted globe/Should yawn at alteration.”

Whether you’re on the eclipse path or partying off the path, I hope you are awed by the coincidences of The Great American Eclipse next month.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.