Numbers: Getting to the Heart of the Matter

Before July started, I talked a little about a truly great Shakespeare professor at UCLA, David Rodes (and I still need to get around to writing more fully about him).

One of his many interesting insights concerned a little simple math.

It was his contention that if you counted all the lines in the play, divided it by two, found the exact midpoint of the work, you could find (within twenty lines either way) a speech that perfectly summed up the major theme of the play. [I believe the 20-line leeway was to help remove the differences in prose line lengths between individual editions.]

Being a math guy (so I scored better on the math part of the SAT than the verbal… so sue me), the theory has always fascinated me.

So let’s take a look at where that takes us in The Comedy of Errors… 1766 total lines.  The mid-point is at line 883, which occurs in Act Three, Scene Two, at line 163.  The line itself is:

I'll stop mine ears against the mermaid's song.

but it comes at the end of a speech by Antipholus of Syracuse:

There's none but witches do inhabit here;
And therefore 'tis high time that I were hence.
She that doth call me husband, even my soul
Doth for a wife abhor. But her fair sister,
Possess'd with such a gentle sovereign grace,
Of such enchanting presence and discourse,
Hath almost made me traitor to myself:
But, lest myself be guilty to self-wrong,
I'll stop mine ears against the mermaid's song.

— III.ii.155-163

OK, so it’s not that deep a speech.  No great universal truth stated.  But quite frankly, there’s not one to be had in this trifle, this farce called The Comedy of Errors.  But that speech does most definitely sum up the central situation of the play, and it does contain the play’s turning point: Antipholus of Syracuse’s decision to leave Ephesus… a decision that accelerates the comic misunderstandings…

As we go through the rest of the Canon, we’ll see how this theory works throughout the works.