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This paper begins with a phenomenological analysis of the sky as understood by early modern beholders via its synonyms: ‘sky’, ‘welkin’, ‘element’, ‘vault’, ‘heavens’, and ‘firmament’. These words fall into roughly two categories. The first group conveys the experiences of the sky through primary perceptions of seeing, sensing or breathing. To recall the distinction between ‘apprehension’ and ‘comprehension’ in Midsummer Night’s Dream, they apprehend the sky as an immense, mysterious, and unapproachable domain resistant to human incursion, rather than comprehending it as an object of knowledge. By contrast, the second group are comprehending words dependant on concepts originating in Aristotelian and Ptolemaic cosmology. While all six words might have functioned roughly as synonyms of each-other throughout the period, the gap between the two groups becomes progressively wider until the new Galilean philosophy of c.1610. The paper goes on to explore the response to this gap in Shakespeare even though he is not normally considered to have been (in Empson’s words) a ‘space man’ like his contemporary Donne. It concludes by suggesting that in Shakespeare (primarily Hamlet) the perception of the visible sky was negatively impacted by the skepticism and anxiety leeching down from what Marjorie Hope Nicholson once called ‘the breaking of the circle’.
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