Gareth Boxall, Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences, Stellenbosch University;   I

Terry Boxall, former lecturer in the Department of English and senior scholar in construction law, University of Cape Town                                       T

Monday 15–Wednesday 17 January 9.15 am COURSE FEES R330; Staff and students R165

The playwright Tom Stoppard has more than an amateur interest in mathematics. Bridging the gap between CP Snow’s two cultures, the artistic and the scientific, he uses it among the materials of his craft. This can make unusual demands of a theatre audience, but sometimes the effects are simple and immediate.

In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the increasingly improbable sequence of coin tosses unmistakeably communicates a sense of alienation from normal life. In Albert’s Bridge, elementary arithmetic and logic symbolise a relentless order against which human frailty crashes with disastrous results.

In this course a former lecturer of English literature and a mathematician, father and son, join forces to explore the role of mathematics in several of Stoppard’s plays. Key themes are mathematics as a symbol for underlying order, subverted or maintained, and mathematics as a source of metaphor.


Lecture titles

  1. Mathematics and subverted order in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: ‘… considerably above the proper average that statistics have laid down for our guidance.’ (Lady Bracknell, The Importance of Being Earnest)
  2. Inescapable mathematics in Albert’s Bridge and Hapgood: ‘Ignorance of the law is no excuse’
  3. Mathematics as metaphor and material in Arcadia and Leopoldstadt: ‘… finding the music in the untuned totality of number.’ (Ludwig, Leopoldstadt)

Recommended reading

Stoppard, T. 1967. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. London: Faber & Faber. Stoppard, T. 1974. Albert’s Bridge. London: Faber & Faber.

Hapgood and Arcadia in Stoppard. T. 1999. Plays Five. London: Faber. Stoppard, T. 2020. Leopoldstadt. New York: Grove Press.


It is not essential to read these texts prior to the lectures.