- Shaw by the Numbers
Every question may be conceived as capable of being reduced to a pure question of numbers.—Auguste Comte, Cours de Philosophie Positive
Numbers captivate our imagination because of their dual nature. They are the representation of the abstract concepts upon which a vast share of human knowledge rests. In addition, they are one of the most useful tools for the daily tasks of life ever since man’s relationship with nature necessitated calculation. Regardless of pragmatic necessity, numbers have transcended mere arithmetic, hence their use as symbolic representations of spiritual, artistic, and emotional concepts. In this respect, they began to be assimilated into ceremonial rituals early in history, as they became progressively detached from the natural or the stochastic. Why we do something in synchronization on the count of three, why a boxer loses a bout after a count of ten, or why our weeks last exactly seven days, are contemporary remnants of the formulaic usage of numbers.
This particular function of numerals and number words is nearly ubiquitous in all the cultures that have reached a certain stage in abstract thinking.1 What is more, there seems to be a handful of numbers that have been bestowed this symbolic function virtually in every period of history, virtually everywhere.2 Bernard Shaw was familiar with the underlying meaning of these numbers and did not hesitate to grant others a prominent place in his plays, either.
There exist several sources for Shaw’s acquaintance with the cultural centrality of numbers. For example, he was keenly interested in [End Page 176] economic science. For him, “Marx was a revelation. His abstract economics, I discovered later, were wrong, but he rent the veil.”3 Furthermore, he did not consider economics a merely auxiliary science, necessary for his socioeconomic criticism, as can be seen from his role in the founding of the London School of Economics and of the Fabian Society. All this cannot conceal the fact that—at least in theory—Sidney Webb played the role of the “the man of numbers,” whereas Shaw remained “the man of letters.”4 In truth, Shaw never mastered complex equations or differential calculus. His grasp of economics and its mathematical scaffolding had an inevitable tilt toward literature and history, which prevented economics from “succumbing to rigor mortis” for him.5 This scholarly bias helped him, nevertheless, to get acquainted with numbers and their key role in a variety of canonical texts.
On a more pragmatic scale, Shaw was “always scrupulous in financial affairs,”6 which allowed him to act as his own literary agent and, on occasion, editor. However, he would sport a disdainful attitude toward simple arithmetic, partially due to his alleged incapacity for calculation: “my own incapacity for numerical calculation is so marked that I reached my fourteenth year before I solved the problem of how many herrings one could buy for elevenpence in a market where a herring and a half fetched three halfpence.”7 It is thus surprising that some of his characters display brilliant argumentation based on mathematical calculation. Anastasia (in The Fascinating Foundling), for example, is in awe before the disparity between the earnings of the Lord Chancellor and his clerk, Mercer: “ANASTASIA. One-fifty into £10,000 goes about 66 times. Why does he get 66 times as much as you? Is he sixty-six times as good?” (IV, 772).8
Shaw’s unorthodox appeal for numbers was unquestionably influenced by his early readings of the Bible, especially the Old Testament and “the scores of ones, twos, threes, fours, sevens, and all the tens, forties, and even richer numbers in which the scriptures abound.”9 Although Shaw possessed a vast biblical scholarship—faulty as it was, at times10—it is no secret that he discarded the religious significance of Scripture to some extent. This religious flippancy stemmed, in part, from his peculiar upbringing,11 and also from his inborn critical attitude toward established institutions. The verbiage of religion, out of which numbers represent a major fraction, remained deeply embedded in his dramatic style—a natural consequence of his habit to display conventional wisdom in his canonical form...