At the time of the Renaissance, Pythagorean and Neo-Platonic ideas became widespread in Europe. The works of men such as Pico della Mirandola, Marsilio Ficino and Leon Battista Alberti had a strong influence on the artists and architects of the time who were inspired to compose their works within the context of numerical and musical harmonies. The major poets were likewise influenced and the list of those in whose works a number-strucmre has been discerned later includes Dante, Spenser, Milton, Chapman and Donne. It also includes Shakespeare, whose early poem: ‘Venus and Adonis’ has been the subject of scholarly analysis by Professor Alistair Fowler.
However, the study of Shakespeare’s plays from the aspect of number structure seems to have been avoided, mainly on the basis that a Shakespeare play contains not only lines of verse but also sections of prose, which initially appear to be printed at convenience. Sylvia Eckersley’s deep study of the 1623 ‘First Folio of Shakespeare’s Plays’ shows, however, that number strucmre, even through the prose lines, is extremely important as was indeed claimed by the compilers of the First Folio who, in their ‘Address to the Great Variety of Readers’, offer to the reader plays which, although hitherto injured and corrupted are:
‘... now offer’d to your view cur’d, perfect in their limbes; and all the rest, absolute in their numbers, as he conceived the(m)’.
Sylvia Eckersley, through decades of research with the First Folio texts became aware that the printed plays in the original 1623 edition contain a definite number strucmre. From these beginnings she later went on to show that the number structure of a given play could also be rendered into a geometrical form, something like a geometric blueprint of the play. She called this geometrical form the play’s ‘Figure’.
The prelude to these discoveries came with an investigation into elements of scene symmetry within Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’. Sylvia was intreged by two lines in Act III Sc. 4. where the lords have just arrived and have been welcomed by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. As the Lords are assembled around the banqueting table, perhaps bowing and smiling towards the Queen; Macbeth says:
Macb. See they encounter thee with their harts thanks
Then he turns towards the table, where the Lords have just sat down, and continues:
Both sides are euen: heere Ile sit i'th' mid'st,
When it became apparent that these lines do not stand near the centre of a scene but rather somewhere near the centre of the play, reference was made to the text lineation of ‘Macbeth’ in the 1623 First Folio, whose contents, as described above, were:
perfect in their limbes; and all the rest, absolute in their numbers. ..”. These lines in ‘Macbeth’ were indeed found to be at the exact numeric centre of the play (lines 1166 and 1167). This discovery became the starting point of a life-time’s work with the First Folio and the eventual publication of the book, ‘Number and Geometry in Shakespeare’s Macbeth’, first published in 2007 by Floris Books.
That a Shakespeare play could contain a number strucmre and a geometric structure was in itself a major contribution to the world of Renaissance Scholarship yet Sylvia was also aware that knowledge of this underlying structure also opened up new and intriguing avenues of investigation with regard to the interpretation and presentation of Shakespeare’s Plays.