Shakespeare’s forgotten legacy: hyperbolic numbers

27th June, 2024

There is a theory that Shakespeare was an accountant. How else to explain the detailed use of bookkeeping metaphors in his writing? “We shall not spend a large expense of time/ Before we reckon with your several loves,” declares Malcolm in Macbeth, “And make us even with you.”

The jailer in Cymbeline compares the hangman’s noose with an accountant reckoning the credits and debits of the condemned man’s life. And The Comedy of Errors refers to a debt as a “thousand marks”, a unit only used by book-keepers in Elizabethan England.

Yet Shakespeare seems to have been rather loose with his economics. Rob Eastaway’s new Shakespearean mathematical miscellany, Much Ado About Numbers, tells us that Shakespeare put Dutch guilders in Anatolia in The Comedy of Errors, situated Italian chequins in Phoenicia in Pericles, described Portuguese crusadoes in Venice in Othello and had Julius Caesar’s will bequeathing Greek drachmas to every Roman. There is something to be learnt from Shakespeare’s attitude to numbers (besides that he’s a poor guide to foreign exchange markets).

As Eastaway explains, Shakespeare’s works are richly adorned with numbers. Hamlet’s “thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to” is just one of more than 300 instances of the word “thousand” in Shakespeare’s work. We are not meant to hear Hamlet’s words as a precise count, of course. By “thousand” he refers to the myriad of misfortunes a person can experience in a lifetime. And by “myriad” I mean “a lot”, rather than its original meaning in classical Greek, “ten thousand”. Large numbers have a way of blurring like that, especially as Shakespeare was writing for an audience who would rarely have any literal use for a thousand. Few people would earn a thousand pounds or travel a thousand miles, although the Globe Theatre might have held three thousand paying customers.

In Timon of Athens, Timon tries to borrow “fifty-five hundred talents” from his friend Lucilius. That’s 120 tonnes of silver, Eastaway tells us. No Elizabethan audience would have grasped what fifty-five hundred talents really meant. Nor, without Eastaway doing our homework for us, do we. (It’s more than $100mn.) But we all get the point: it’s a ludicrous request.

We still share Shakespeare’s love for hyperbolic numbers, but we also need to use big numbers accurately. I’m old enough to remember confusion as to the definition of the word “billion”. These days, it means a thousand million but, in various times and places, it has meant a million million. City of London traders used to use “yard”, short for the French milliard, to refer to a thousand million. That was useful. Both yard and milliard sound quite different from million on a crackly phone line. Billion does not.

Crackly phone line or not, it is common for millions and billions to be confused. Too often we lump them into the same mental category: big numbers. But there’s big, and there’s big. A million seconds is less than 12 days, while a billion seconds is nearly 32 years.

The confusion is regularly exploited by politicians. No UK Budget speech is complete without a loud boast that the government is spending a few million pounds on some worthy scheme, while the grinding progress of inflation will silently squash budgets by billions in real terms. The quiet billions are real money, while the noisy millions are a rounding error. To the unsuspecting voter, they sound much the same.

We can help ourselves to navigate the maze of numbers and language by making helpful comparisons. The most straightforward is to figure out what that multibillion-pound tax increase actually means per person. It’s always useful to compare spending this year with spending last year, or a decade ago, or with spending in a neighbouring country. Comparing the unfamiliar with the familiar draws meaning out of a bewildering landscape of billions and trillions.

When we merely wish to convey a poetic sense of scale, as Shakespeare often did, we have access to a linguistic technology the Bard did not possess: terms such as “squillion” or “jillion” or “zillion”. These, my friends, are the indefinite hyperbolic numerals. According to Helen Zaltzman’s The Allusionist podcast, such terms emerged in the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Jillion was common in Texas. Zillion was a staple of Harlem’s African-American literary magazines. In the late 1930s, the writer Damon Runyon brought both words to a wider audience. The joy of the jillion — or, if you really want to punch it up, the bajillion — is that while it may be imprecise, it is clear. The word means “a huge number, but let’s not fuss about exactly how huge”.

Whenever Shakespeare used large numbers, it was clear enough that he was speaking figuratively. Eastaway documents “twenty thousand kisses” in Henry VI, Part 2. Hamlet’s love for Ophelia is more than that of “forty thousand brothers”. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cupid’s arrow pierces “a hundred thousand hearts”. And Shakespeare’s biggest number of all? Friar Laurence assures Romeo that if he escapes to Mantua, when he returns he will be greeted with “twenty hundred thousand times more joy”. That’s two million.

Alas, that is not how the story ends – a reminder that numbers, no matter how hyperbolic or how precise, need not necessarily tell us the truth.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 31 May 2024.

Loyal readers might enjoy the book that started it all, The Undercover Economist.

I’ve set up a storefront on Bookshop in the United States and the United Kingdom. Links to Bookshop and Amazon may generate referral fees.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This