Shakespeare's Divine Arithmetic: The Merchant of Venice by the Numbers

Dr. Todd H. J. Pettigrew
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In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare's Portia offers to repay the 3000 ducats Antonio owes to Shylock and more: "Pay him six thousand and deface the bond: Double six thousand, and treble that, Before a friend of this description Shall lose a hair through Bassanio's fault" (3.2.298-301). Thus Portia promises as much as thirty-six thousand ducats through an elaborate formula: 3000x2x2x3=36 0000. When Bassanio arrives in court offering to settle Antonio's debt, though, Shylock not only rejects the 6000 Bassanio actually offers, he rejects a larger sum: "If every ducat in six thousand ducats Were in six parts, and every part a ducat, I would not draw them, I would have my bond!" (4.1.85-87). The mathematics here produces the same total, 36 000 ducats, but through different arithmetic: 6000÷1/6=36 000. In short, Shylock unwittingly discounts the very sum Portia had promised in the earlier scene.

The numerical duplication is too precise to be coincidental, yet what dramatic importance could this detail have? To answer that, I consider the seemingly unrelated tract by Francis Meres on marriage called God's Arithmetic (1597). There Meres claims that arithmetical functions are not morally neutral. Some, such as multiplication and addition, "do multiply and increase: and these be God's numbers" while division and subtraction "subtract and divide, and these be the Devil's" (A). This conception suggests an explanation for the mathematical mirroring linking Shylock to Portia. Portia calculates in a godly way, while Shylock employs the Devil's mathematics.

This paper reads Merchant through its arithmetical rhetoric. Meres' model enriches our reading of the play and of Shakespeare's comedy in general showing the intricate connection among mathematics, marriage and salvation.

Keywords: William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, Francis Meres, Mathematics, Drama, Religion, Comedy
Stream: Knowledge
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.

Dr. Todd H. J. Pettigrew

Assistant Professor, Department of Languages and Letters, University College of Cape Breton

Todd Pettigrew earned his Ph.D. at the University of Waterloo in 1998. Since 2000 he has taught a wide variety of courses in English at the University College of Cape Breton in Sydney, Nova Scotia. His research explores connections among early modern plays and early modern science, particularly medicine and mathematics.

Ref: H05P0144