Though it is now one of the most basic elements of Western thought, there was a time when the idea of the number zero was an Arabic import. In Thinking in Numbers: How Maths Illuminates our Lives, Daniel Tammet illustrates how affecting it would have been to be like William Shakespeare – part of the first generation of English schoolboys to learn about the figure zero.
The mathematical textbook that Shakespeare would have studied as a boy is The Ground of Artesby Robert Recorde. In that book, the new Arabic numerals are contrasted to the zero-free Roman numerals previously used by the British: “there are but tenne figures that are used in Arithmetick; and of those tenne, one doth signifie nothing, which is made like an O, and is privately called a Cypher.” The move to Arabic arithmetic was a drastic change from traditional notation, which combined the seven symbols ‘I, V, X, L, C, D and M’ to make up all numbers. Shakespeare’s generation was the first that could register differences in kind with the addition or removal of an 0.
What does this mean for Shakespeare as a poet and playwright? Tammet shows that, once you start looking for it, the concept of zero occurs again and again in Shakespeare’s work. From the prologues of Henry V…
O, pardon! Since a crooked figure may /
Attest in little place a million, /
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt, /
On your imaginary forces work
…to the famous opening of King Lear…
Lear: What can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.
Cordelia: Nothing, my lord.
Lear: Nothing will come of nothing.
nothing is everywhere in Shakespeare.
In King Lear, Cordelia’s “nothing” is often taken as a sign of stubbornness, or a refusal to dissemble. But there is something more metaphysical in Shakespeare’s treatment of the figure – in this short sequence the bard layers Socrates’ famous dictum “Nothing can come from nothing,” over a pun on zero as a measure of size. If Cordelia’s sisters offer their father any number of things, and Cordelia adds a zero to it, her offering will, in fact, be ten times the size of theirs.