Shakespeare: from zero to hero

Posted on February 13, 2015 by Connell Guides | 1 comment

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?
Cordelia: Nothing.
Lear: Nothing will come of nothing.
Speak again.…

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.

Daniel Tammet’s book, Thinking in Numbers: How Maths Illuminates Our Lives, was released in January by Hodder Paperback, 240 pp., $19.99. An excerpt from the book is available from Salon. 

A message from the lovely Joanna Lumley!

Posted on January 29, 2015 by Paul Woodward | 0 comments

We recently caught up with actress and literature-lover, Joanna Lumley to talk about her favourite poems and she had some lovely things to say about our guides!  Watch the video for more…


Harold Bloom #1: Did Shakespeare invent the human?

Posted on January 22, 2015 by Paul Woodward | 2 comments

The brilliant, but controversial, literary critic Harold BloomThe American critic Harold Bloom certainly thinks so. In his most controversial book,Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, he argues that Shakespeare is responsible for “the invention of the human, the inauguration of personality as we have come to understand it”. He is not merely claiming that Shakespeare was the first writer to write successfully abouthuman beings; he believes that Shakespeare created us – orrecreated us. “The dominant Shakespearean characters… are extraordinary instances not only of how meaning gets started, rather than repeated, but also of how new modes of consciousness come into being.” In other words, Shakespeare changed the way we think about ourselves, and others. Had he died young, before writing his great masterpieces, we “all of us might be gambolling about, but without mature Shakespeare we would be very different, because we would think and feel and speak differently.”
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