Updated: Feb 3
"What is the matter? You've been acting strange these days, lost and dreamy." "Oh, come on, leave him be. He has been struck by the arrow of love."
In the conversation above, "struck by the arrow of love" is an allusion. Allusion is, often, a brief reference to something popular and/or familiar to a culture or people such as of a person, event, thing, region, literature, film and so on. Here "struck by the arrow of love" is a reference to the mythological God of love known as Kamadeva in Indian mythology, Eros in Greek mythology and Cupid in Roman mythology. The reader, listener or audience, to the exchange above, will only benefit if they understand that the reference here points to one or all of the three Gods of love, and it does not matter which or all the three. Writers or speakers often include allusions in their work to convey something in fewer words, by packing a lot in using an or many allusion/s.
Shakespeare's writing is imbued with scientific, historical, literary, political and other popular cultural references, also why — not to mention, the Elizabethan English — present-day readers/ audiences are often left clueless when met with allusions from days and events far back, even as they struggle to keep up with the drama itself.
Hard though it may seem to believe, there was a ban on zero in Europe in the thirteenth century! Perhaps, also why it would be amusing to entertain the possibility of Shakespeare mocking the objection to zero, in his play title Much Ado About Nothing.
The Arabic numerals, especially zero, were perceived as dark symbols. Zero in particular, was scrutinised because the symbol, 0, could easily be doctored to be read as ‘9’ or ‘6’, as well as the possibility that any number of zeroes could be added to the end of a sum to alter its value. Rejection of zero was perpetuated all over Europe until the late fifteenth century, when the Renaissance movement that began in Florence gained momentum, and also when the printing press was up and coming.
There, however, still existed a hesitation to fully admit the numerals into the system. Could Cade’s speech in 2Henry VI be a testimony of the resistance at the time, in Europe?
CADE Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school; and whereas, before, our forefathers had no other books but the score and the tally, thou hast caused printing to be used, and, contrary to the king, his crown and dignity, thou hast built a paper-mill. It will be proved to thy face that thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear. (IV.vii.29-38)
Could cipher be that abominable word unfit for a Christian ear? While printing press is, now, believed to have first arrived in England, only in 1476 — years after Henry VI — while, 1440 marks the advent of printing press in Europe by the German inventor and publisher Gutenberg. The influence of the rise of printing press in Europe, is believed to have been enormous on England, at the time, which gave impetus to the Renaissance movement. Additionally, England’s first three independent schools, devoid of the church, came about in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, before and during the time of Henry VI.
So, allusion, could be tricky to a reader or the audience if the references used over time end up as specialist knowledge. However, there is no denying that this literary device is extremely effective as long as the reader or audience is able to understand, make sense and contextualise the allusion and carry on, swiftly with the text or conversation.