In another of my ongoing series of concordance entries, this particular day I want to take a look in ~ nothing in King Lear. I’m not shirking my duties and also going every Bartleby the Srivener on you, to ~ readers–I’m not going to fail come look in ~ anything. No, i’m going to look in ~ “nothing.”

A fast reminder for any type of first-time guest to this blog. A concordance is a reference product that counts and chronicles every usage of specific word within a repertoire of works. For use in this blog, I prefer to usage the one over at OpenSource Shakespeare.

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So, why “nothing”?

Well, the word crops up so regularly in the an initial act–18 times in 14 speeches–that it feels choose Shakespeare is slapping us in the face with it, especially when he offers the word in a pair of repeating or practically repeating phrases, too as in a pair that exchanges in which the word is provided in rapid succession. So it is the “why.”

The “how (many)” is a small tougher to pin down. “Nothing” is offered 34 time in the play, in 29 speeches, finishing very first in each category within the Canon (The Winter’s Tale likewise has 34 uses, yet in just 26 speeches ; Hamlet supplies the indigenous 30 times in 27 speeches). The first “nothing” exchanges is the play’s many famous, and also is what set the main plot right into motion. Once Lear asks to hear what Cordelia deserve to say to ideal what she sisters have said in your professions of love:

CORDELIANothing, mine lord.LEARNothing?CORDELIANothing.LEARNothing will certainly come of nothing. Speak again.

Without she statement the love, Lear is lost, eventually disinheriting she hand sending out her away. Later in the scene, as he pushes her further and also further away, you can practically hear Lear emphasizing, if not relishing, the following two offers of the word: “And naught more” (I.i.198) and also “Nothing. I have sworn” (I.i.244).

In a wonderful item of irony, Edmund’s very first words come his very own father, ~ his very own profession that villainy come us, echoes Cordelia’s an initial words to she father: “Nothing, mine lord” (I.ii.32). This creates the 2 offsprings’ oppositional functions for the remainder that the play. Gloucester’s response–which favor Lear’s recurring use the “nothing”–” The top quality of nothing hath not such have to hide itself. Stop see. Come, if the is nothing i shall not need spectacles” (I.ii.34-6), likewise sets right into motion the subplot the the beat (that the speech also contains one of the good motifs that the play–eyesight–is simply an included bonus).

The next significant use of the word comes within two dozen currently of the first appearance of the stupid in the play. After ~ the stupid recites a rhyming speech for the king,

KENTThis is nothing, Fool.FOOLThen ’tis choose the breath of one unfee’d lawyer. You offered me nothing for ’t.—Can you do no usage of nothing, nuncle?LEARWhy no, boy. Nothing have the right to be made out of nothing.

As that had previously with his daughter, Lear tells the Fool that “nothing” cannot create anything; only now, the certainty in Lear’s mental (“will”) has actually been diminished to theory, conjecture or expect (“can”).

Within 50 lines, the Fool will use the word three much more times. The very first is to tell Lear what continues to be of his kingdom after splitting it in between his two eldest daughters (I.iv.170). The second begins one kind of intake for words that is recurring throughout the play: equating a human being with nothing (“thou arts nothing” ). The 3rd is the start of an additional linguistic motif: the saying of naught (“though you to speak nothing” )–which, of course, hearkens ago to the word’s first usage in the play, the utterance of “Nothing, mine lord” through Cordelia.

The equation motif is checked out again in Kent’s insult of Oswald (“art nothing but…” ) and again in Edgar’s transformation into poor Tom (“Edgar i nothing am” ). Later, during Edgar’s slow appearance as himself, his father (the now-blind Gloucester) thinks he notices a readjust in poor Tom’s speech, Edgar, in bespeak to preserve his disguise, have to say, “In nothing am ns changed” (IV.v.9).

This negative of linguistic change and re-equation v nothing also deals the the motif that nothing/speech, which is also found in explanation by Edmund (“Have girlfriend nothing said?” ), Lear (“I will certainly say nothing” ), and also Gloucester (“Go to, speak you nothing” ). Interestingly, these usages all prompt because that the speak of nothing, yet it was the speak of the word “nothing” that collection all this into motion.

And “all this,” at least from Lear’s perspective, is about his daughters. Thus, it’s no surprising then that even the ide of nothing is centered on them and also him. With bad Tom in the hovel, Lear deserve to only ask, “Couldst thou save nothing? Wouldst thou offer all?” (III.iv.64). As soon as Kent tries to tell the king that negative Tom doesn’t have any type of daughters the his own, Lear cannot think it: “Nothing can have subdued nature // To together a lowness but his unfriendly daughters” (III.iv.70-1). Because that Lear, everything–and thus, nothing, too–comes back to the daughters.

All of this “nothing” references may be too much for some analysis the play, and also maybe it is overkill, especially when the last consumption is together a false step. Once Albany challenges Edmund before the bastard’s duel v Edgar, the equation motif just feels clumsy: “Thou art in nothing less // than I have actually here proclaimed thee” (V.iii.88-9). The consists of the “in” provides the meter scan, yet it lessens the impact. And also personally I discover it a shame; I just wished Shakespeare hadn’t supplied “nothing” here.


The uses of “nothing” experience an advancement here in the second half of the play. The penultimate use is uncovered in Goneril’s recorded letter come Edmund (IV.v.262). In the timeline of occasions within the play, however, it would have been composed and written earlier prior to the plot of the previous scene, in which the letter is referenced (IV.iv.16).

This is important due to the fact that in plot Four, Scene 5 of King Lear, a curious point happens come the use of “nothing” to, because that and around Lear the character. The last live-action, real-time usage of the word is Edgar’s previously disputed denial of readjust to his father. In the remainder the this scene, however, for Lear, “nothing” disappears, replaced by something but.

Lear laments exactly how his daughters

flattered prefer a dog … to say “ay” and “no” to every little thing that I said “ay” and “no” to … They space not guys o’ your words; they told me i was everything. ’Tis a lie. I am no ague-proof.
IV.v.96-7, 98-99, 103-5

He may be nothing, however he’ll no much longer say nothing. Even Gloucester appears to choose up on thing. He says of Lear, “O damaged piece that nature! This good world // Shall therefore wear out no naught” (IV.v.132-3). Again, Lear may have end up being nothing (“naught”), yet Gloucester will no longer use the term. As soon as Cordelia’s soldiers arrive to take it Lear, they call him, “You shall have anything” (IV.v.191, emphasis mine). Lear shall have actually anything; “nothing” is gone.

Except that not. The clumsy last “nothing” line by Albany damages it.

Oh, and one more thing.

Only three plays in the whole Canon–King Lear, As You choose It, and also Hamlet–use “nothing,” “naught,” “everything,” and “anything.” the course, this play leads the pack in usages of each of the four, and thus that all 4 in total.

But it is apropos of…well, nothing.

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Jean Hegland

This is a really exciting tracking that “nothing!” I’m especially fascinated through your observation that words all but disappears in the critical act of the play. Of food it could be claimed there is a final time that nothing is spoken, and that’s once Lear begs the dead Cordelia to “speak again” by questioning her corpse “What is’t thou sayest?” In the instant, the difference between her saying,”Nothing,” and also saying nothing becomes excruciatingly clear.

I wonder if the transition you i found it the play has hitherto to be making indigenous “nothing” come “anything” and also “everything” doesn’t somehow serve to do that moment when Cordelia literally says nothing even much more agonizing.

Jean Hegland says:

I wonder just how that might be done–I intend with some type of intuitive or aural echo that the sound or activity that Lear had actually used in the very first scene as soon as he regulates Cordelia come “speak again”?

Another item of direction I’d love to check out in that last scene needs to do with that minute when Lear comes onstage transporting Cordelia’s body. His an initial words are, “Howl, howl, howl,” and also I can’t think the a production I’ve seen in i beg your pardon the actor isn’t in which method trying to howl those native if they are an expression Lear’s own grief. However it always strikes me together really stagy, awkward, and also insincere. Instead, i think that Lear is exhorting anyone else onstage to howl due to the fact that Cordelia is dead: “Howl, howl, howl,” he’s commanding them, and when they are all as well dumb-struck to obey him, he calls castle “men that stones.”