Christian Numerology and Shakespeare's the Tragedy of King Richard the Second

By Hunt, Maurice | Christianity and Literature, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Christian Numerology and Shakespeare's the Tragedy of King Richard the Second


Hunt, Maurice, Christianity and Literature


Abstract: Number symbolism appears in the works of Renaissance authors such as Milton, Spenser, and George Herbert. Shakespeare in plays such as The Winter's Tale and The First Part of King Henry the Fourth is no exception to this tendency. In The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, Shakespeare uses a multiple of Christ's age at his death--thirty-three--to focus the question of whether King Richard, who was thirty-three at the time of his death, is a Christ figure. Richard and the Duke of York on several occasions have raised this possibility. But Shakespeare, in Richard's final soliloquy of sixty-six lines, shows that the former king's inability to reconcile certain biblical passages precludes his being a Christ figure. Of particular importance in this respect is the chiasmus framing verse thirty-three of the soliloquy.

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"Numerical composition can be defined as [English Renaissance authors'] structural use of pre-selected numbers whose symbolism accords with the contents" Maren-Sofie Rostvig asserts. "On its simplest level, this method of composition can be studied in George Herbert's and Henry Vaughan's poems on Trinity Sunday, where three is the structural unit; here the technique is so apparent that no proof is required" ("Renaissance Numerology" 6). Each poem consists of three three-verse stanzas totaling nine lines, the Trinity tripled. "There is a perfectly rational basis to the Renaissance tendency to explain the created world in terms of numerical formulae;' Rostvig explains. Renaissance men and women believed that they

lived in a rationally ordered world ... one made by symmetry and proportion, or--in the words of Solomon--in number, weight and measure. Abraham Cowley, in the Davideis, refers to the world as God's poem, no doubt taking it for granted that his readers would associate the "numbers" of poetry and the numbers used by God in the act of creation. ("Renaissance Numerology" 7)

Symbolic numerology in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature is widespread. (1) In Milton's Paradise Lost, the ascent of the Son in the paternal Deity's chariot, the event that will decide humankind's history for all time, occurs at the mathematical center of the poem (Rostvig, Hidden Sense 9). In the same poet's Comus, the tempter Comus begins his great libertine speech offering the Lady a narcotic drink with verse 666, the number of the antichrist in Rev. 13:18; in Paradise Lost, Milton's portrayal of the monstrous figure of Death in Book 2 likewise begins with line 666 (Rostvig, "Renaissance Numerology" 13). Edmund Spenser in his Epithalamion (1595) celebrates his marriage to Elizabeth Boyle through elaborate number symbolism keyed to months, days, even minutes of the year. Consisting of 365 long lines and twenty-four stanzas, the poem records Spenser's marriage on June 11, 1594, St. Barnabas' Day, the summer solstice according to the poet's Julian calendar (Hieatt 12-14, 20, 42-45). (2) Spenser writes, "Now night is come" after sixteen-and-a-quarter stanzas: precisely the number and fraction of hours of daylight on June 11th in southern Ireland appearing in contemporary almanacs (Hieatt 11). (3)

Eventually, I will be arguing that the numbers thirty-three and sixty-six are spiritually significant in Shakespeare's The Tragedy of King Richard the Second. Christ's age at the time of his death was (and still is) generally understood to be thirty-three. (Luke 3:23 asserts that Jesus was about thirty years of age when he began his ministry, and John describes this ministry extending through four Passovers, that is to say, over the course of three years). Noting that "the years of Jesus' life gave the number 33 a mystical meaning," Ernst Robert Curtius in European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages cites fifteen works in which the number symbolically alludes in one way or another to Christ's lifetime (503, 505). In George Herbert's "Sepulchre" Louis Martin remarks that the final stanza in this six-stanza poem is the only one to consist of thirty-three syllables. …

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