Few things, to judge by his works, so fascinated William Shakespeare as the presence of absence: the lacuna where there ought to be abundance — of will, or judgment, or understanding. It looms large in the lives of many of his characters, so powerful in part because it is universal. Not even kings are exempt.
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. Speak again.
The scene is one of the tensest, most suspenseful moments in theater, a concentration of tremendous force within a single word. It is the ultimate negation, tossed between the old king and his beloved youngest daughter, compounded and multiplied through repetition. Nothing. Zero.
Of course, Shakespeare’s contemporaries were familiar with the idea of nothingness, but not with nothingness as a number, something that they could count and manipulate. In his arithmetic lessons, William became one of the first generation of English schoolboys to learn about the figure zero. It is interesting to wonder about the consequences of this early encounter. How might the new and paradoxical number have driven his thoughts along particular paths?