Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Legacy Department


Committee Chair/Advisor

Rivlin, Elizabeth


In sixteenth century Europe, mathematics was undergoing a transformation. Prominently among these changes were the switch from roman numerals to arabic numerals and the implementation of the number zero. The number zero has two main functions: to stand on its own as a symbol of nothing and to function as a placeholder. Thus, zero can be a symbol of nothing as well as a number that dramatically increases the value of the others. The dual roles of zero led to much confusion in early modern people. Shakespeare uses the different roles of zero in his plays Richard III, Hamlet, and King Lear to illustrate women's paradoxical relation to power. Monarchal power is dependent upon having sons to pass the throne to. Thus, kings are dependent upon women for procreation. Similarly, young men who are in line for the throne are dependent upon their mothers to maintain their place in line. If a prince was born out of wedlock, then he stands to lose everything. Women have a surprising amount of power because the system depends on them to produce heirs. Conversely, women are also subjugated in a system of patriarchal inheritance. Women have virtually no say in political matters and have little rights to hold property. Early modern women in a patriarchal system fill both roles of being nothing: they simultaneously have no power on their own, while having the power to give value to others. On the other hand, men have a purely negative experience when they become nothing. The men of the play are the ones that are endowed with value by their mothers; therefore they are something, or anything but nothing. When a man becomes nothing, he loses all of his power. Furthermore, men do not have the reproductive capabilities of women, so they lack the ability to add to someone's value. When a man becomes nothing, he has less power than a woman because he does not have the ability to endow a child with value. Shakespeare uses the new language of mathematics to illustrate the relationship between gender, patriarchy and power.



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