Quotation for the week: Shakespeare

Although it’s not clear that Shakespeare himself had much experience of mathematics or mathematicians, at least one of his characters had strong feelings about them. Here’s Iago, a hard-bitten professional soldier, complaining that his commanding officer has promoted somebody else over his head:

… And what was he?
Forsooth, a great arithmetician,
One Michael Cassio, a Florentine,
A fellow almost damn’d in a fair wife;
That never set a squadron in the field,
Nor the division of a battle knows
More than a spinster; unless the bookish theoric,
Wherein the toged consuls can propose
As masterly as he: mere prattle, without practice,
Is all his soldiership.

(Othello I, i)

What makes this particularly bitter for Iago is that Cassio really is the shape of the future. About this time, artillery was developing rapidly and it had become necessary to employ people (“arithmeticians”) who understood the new mathematical theory of ballistics. Indeed, for both mathematicians and artists during the Renaissance, advising the military was a common and profitable activity. Here’s an illustration from an edition of Nicolo Tartaglia’s treatise on ballistics, showing how to make a right mess of a perfectly good castle:

(The Latin tag means “knowledge has no enemy but the ignorant”. I’m not sure the people in the castle would agree.)

For those of you who don’t know the play, by the end of it Iago has proved that a knowledge of arithmetic is sometimes less useful than a knowledge of psychology, by taking his revenge on both Cassio and Othello. I rather hope there’s no moral to the story.


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