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Throughout his works, Shakespeare references math terminology that goes well beyond the artithmetic education we expect him to have received at grammar school. There’s history behind the references that shares not only where Shakespeare would have learned about higher mathematics, but Shakespeare’s choices for specific math terms reflect major changes in England for the numerals that were being used to record data, as well as official acts of parliament that were being passed to define and standardize lengths and measures for the very first time. Here today to share with us some of the history behind a few of Shakespeare’s mathematical terms is our guest and author of the book Much Ado About Numbers, Rob Eastaway. 

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Please note the transcript is auto-generated during our live recording session and will contain some errors of both spelling and content. Additionally, the transcript includes filler words like “um” or other pauses, which are removed from the audio version.

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Rob Eastaway

 Rob Eastaway is an author and presenter who specialises in the mathematics of everyday life.  In 2017 he was awarded the prestigious Zeeman Medal for his work in communicating maths to the general public.  His many books about everyday maths include the bestselling ‘Why Do Buses Come In Threes?’, ‘Maths on the back of an Envelope’ and ‘How Many Socks Make a Pair?’  He regularly appears on BBC Radio, and has given talks on maths to audiences of all ages across the world.

I’ll be asking Rob Eastaway about:

  • In his book, Much Ado About Numbers, Rob writes that Robert Greene, who is famous for calling Shakespeare an “upstart crow” also called him a “Johannes factotum” Rob, explain for us what this phrase means, and how is that a commentary on Shakespeare’s knowledge of math?  
  • In his plays, Shakespeare uses the word “score” several times including in Othello when Bianca uses the phrase “eight score eight” to tell us how many hours are in a week. Rob, share with us exactly how many hours ARE in a week, and what is the history behind the idea of a “score”?  
  • The math we learn today in school, specifically Algebra, is based on Arabic numerals. In his book, Rob writes that “The use of Arabic numerals in continental Europe was decades ahead of England.” Rob, what number system were Shakespeare and his contemporaries using?
  • …and more!

Books and Resources Rob Eastaway recommends:

Much Ado About Numbers by Rob Eastaway

Open Source Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s Money by Bob Bearman

The Ground of Arts by Robert Recorde – Robert Recorde’s Arithmetic: or, The Ground of Arts was one of the first printed English textbooks on arithmetic and the most popular of its time. The Ground of Arts appeared in London in 1543, reprinted dozens of times thereafter.


Here’s what’s available for this episode:

  • Quotes from Shakespeare’s plays about miles, math, and measurements
  • Woodcut from the first arithmetic book published in England
  • Video demonstration of marking a “score”
  • 16th century Mercator map
  • Diagram of English measurements demonstrating how to arrive at the length of a mile in yards
  • Links to related episodes of TSL on maps, science, and astrology.
  • 16th century diagram of how to use Arabic Numerals
  • 16th century diagram of how to use zero, known as “cipher”
  • Video demonstration for how to play the dice game Hazard
  • 16th century portrait showing a globe in the background
  • Copy of the Act of Parliament in the 1590s when they were discussing how to determine a mile’s defined length
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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening! I’m Cassidy Cash and I hope you learn something new about the bard.

I’ll see you next time!