Mathematics and Late Elizabethan Drama, 1587-1603

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Jarrett, Joseph Christopher 

This dissertation considers the influence that sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century mathematical thinking exerted on popular drama in the final sixteen years of Elizabeth I’s reign. It concentrates upon six plays by five dramatists, and attempts to analyse how the terms, concepts, and implications of contemporary mathematics impacted upon their vocabularies, forms, and aesthetic and dramaturgical effects and affects. Chapter 1 is an introductory chapter, which sets out the scope of the whole project. It locates the dissertation in its critical and scholarly context, and provides a history of the technical and conceptual overlap between the mathematical and literary arts, before traversing the body of intellectual-historical information necessary to situate contextually the ensuing five chapters. This includes a survey of mathematical practice and pedagogy in Elizabethan England. Chapter 2, ‘Algebra and the Art of War’, considers the role of algebra in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine plays. It explores the function of algebraic concepts in early modern military theory, and argues that Marlowe utilised the overlap he found between the two disciplines to create a unique theatrical spectacle. Marlowe’s ‘algebraic stage’, I suggest, enabled its audiences to perceive the enormous scope and aesthetic beauty of warfare within the practical and spatial limitations of the Elizabethan playhouse. Chapter 3, ‘Magic, and the Mathematic Rules’, explores the distinction between magic and mathematics presented in Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. It considers early modern debates surrounding what magic is, and how it was often confused and/or conflated with mathematical skill. It argues that Greene utilised the set of difficult, ambiguous distinctions that arose from such debates for their dramatic potential, because they lay also at the heart of similar anxieties surrounding theatrical spectacles. Chapter 4, ‘Circular Geometries’, considers the circular poetics effected in Dekker’s Old Fortunatus. It contends that Dekker found an epistemological role for drama by having Old Fortunatus acknowledge a set of geometrical affiliations which it proceeds to inscribe itself into. The circular entities which permeate its form and content are as disparate as geometric points, the Ptolemaic cosmos, and the architecture of the Elizabethan playhouses, and yet, Old Fortunatus unifies these entities to praise God and the monarchy. Chapter 5, ‘Infinities and Infinitesimals’, considers how the infinitely large and infinitely small permeate the language and structure of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It argues that the play is embroiled with the mathematical implications of Copernican cosmography and its Brunian atomistic extension, and offers a linkage between the social circles of Shakespeare and Thomas Harriot. Hamlet, it suggests, courts such ideas at the cutting-edge of contemporary science in order to complicate the ontological context within which Hamlet’s revenge act must take place. Chapter 6, ‘Quantifying Death, Calculating Revenge’, proposes that the quantification of death, and the concomitant calculation of an appropriate revenge, are made an explicit component of Chettle’s Tragedy of Hoffman. It suggests that Chettle enters two distinctly mathematical models of revenge into productive counterpoint in the play in order to interrogate the ethics of revenge, and to dramatise attempts at quantifying the parameters of equality and excess, parity and profit.

Alexander, Gavin
mathematics, early modern drama, Marlowe, Greene, Dekker, Shakespeare, Chettle
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge