As promised, today we’ll be discussing some of the possible meanings the number three had to Shakespeare. In an effort to understand the bard’s apparent fascination with the number, I turned to some historical resources to see what the Elizabethans thought of the number three. And just to keep in the spirit of things, I’m going to discuss three possible preoccupations Shakespeare could have had with the number three. Get your counting hats on, ladies and gentlemen, here we go.
The first reason Shakespeare could have been drawn to the use of the number three is its’ obvious ties to the church. The Holy Trinity has been an ecclesiastical symbol for a long time and, in Shakespeare’s day of strict religion; it would have been a very powerful one. Literally. Invoking three’s meant you were invoking a number that represented power – religious, and balanced. So Shakespeare’s witches become more powerful when there’s three of them. And his lovers from Love’s Labour’s Lost make a stronger point as a trio, because they are representing something more powerful still – the holy trinity.
The second reason Shakespeare may have doles out threes in excess is that we remember them. It is said it takes three repetitions of something to remember it; though before this saying was popular people still knew repetition was the key to remembering. Shakespeare’s Will the schoolboy in The Merry Wives of Windsor is repeating his Latin in one of the scenes. So maybe old Will is trying to make sure we remember all those things he put in threes. The witches are certainly important later on in Macbeth, as are the three friends in Hamlet, and the lovers in As You Like It. They come back to us – they are not only worth remembering but integral to the plot – necessary to remember.
The third one is superstition. Even if we go so far as to assume Shakespeare was above its’ lure; he would have certainly been aware his audience wasn’t. People in Elizabethan England believed that the events happening to higher powers on earth reflected what was happening above it. “On earth as it is in heaven” as it were. Shakespeare’s trinities are therefore not just echoing the holy one, but also the superstitions surrounding the unholy ones as well. The witches in Macbeth, the murderous friends in Hamlet, the three caskets in The merchant of Venice; all reflect this superstition that the good from above is either echoed or inverted below. And this adds to the mystery and magic of the plays; it brings the element of suspense into the stage drama – will all be righted? The trinity restored? Will superstitions prove true? The suspense to a crowd of superstitious Elizabethans would have been irresistible.
So, batting three for three, we’ll finish here. I won’t prolong the joke unnecessarily by adding on a third article on threes (though it is tempting). Instead I’ll close with this; try noticing how many groups of threes you yourself assemble in a given day – why do you do it? And remember:
“Thrice the brinded cat hath mewed.
Thrice and once the hedgepig whined.
Harpier cries “’Tis time, ‘tis time.”