King Lear: Nothing from nothing leaves nothing

In another of my ongoing series of concordance entries, today I want to take a look at nothing in King Lear. I’m not shirking my duties and going all Bartleby the Srivener on you, dear readers–I’m not going to fail to look at anything. No, I’m going to look at “nothing.”

A quick reminder for any first-time guests to this blog. A concordance is a reference material that counts and chronicles every use of particular word within a collection of works. For use in this blog, I like to use the one over at OpenSource Shakespeare.

So, why “nothing”?

Well, the word crops up so often in the first act–18 times in 14 speeches–that it feels like Shakespeare is slapping us in the face with it, especially when he uses the word in a pair of repeating or almost repeating phrases, as well as in a pair of exchanges in which the word is used in rapid succession. So that’s the “why.”

The “how (many)” is a little tougher to pin down. “Nothing” is used 34 times in the play, in 29 speeches, finishing first in each category within the Canon (The Winter’s Tale also has 34 uses, but in only 26 speeches [one speech uses the word a whopping eight times]; Hamlet uses the word 30 times in 27 speeches). The first “nothing” exchanges is the play’s most famous, and is what sets the main plot into motion. When Lear asks to hear what Cordelia can say to best what her sisters have said in their professions of love:

Nothing, my lord.
Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.
  • I.i.86-9

Without her statement of love, Lear is lost, ultimately disinheriting her hand sending her away. Later in the scene, as he pushes her further and further away, you can almost hear Lear emphasizing, if not relishing, the next two uses of the word: “And nothing more” (I.i.198) and “Nothing. I have sworn” (I.i.244).

In a wonderful piece of irony, Edmund’s first words to his own father, after his own profession of villainy to us, echoes Cordelia’s first words to her father: “Nothing, my lord” (I.ii.32). This creates the two offsprings’ oppositional roles for the remainder of the play. Gloucester’s response–which like Lear’s repeated use of “nothing”–” The quality of nothing hath not such need to hide itself. Let’s see. Come, if it is nothing I shall not need spectacles” (I.ii.34-6), also sets into motion the subplot of the play (that the speech also contains one of the great motifs of the play–eyesight–is just an added bonus).

The next major use of the word comes within two dozen lines of the first appearance of the Fool in the play. After the Fool recites a rhyming speech for the king,

This is nothing, Fool.
Then ’tis like the breath of an unfee’d lawyer. You gave me nothing for ’t.—Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?
Why no, boy. Nothing can be made out of nothing.
  • I.iv.127-132

As he had earlier with his daughter, Lear tells the Fool that “nothing” cannot create anything; only now, the certainty in Lear’s mind (“will”) has been reduced to theory, conjecture or hope (“can”).

Within 50 lines, the Fool will use the word three more times. The first is to tell Lear what remains of his kingdom after dividing it between his two eldest daughters (I.iv.170). The second begins one type of usage for the word that is repeated throughout the play: equating a person with nothing (“thou art nothing” [I.iv.177]). The third is the start of another linguistic motif: the saying of nothing (“though you say nothing” [I.iv.178])–which, of course, hearkens back to the word’s first usage in the play, the utterance of “Nothing, my lord” by Cordelia.

The equation motif is seen again in Kent’s insult of Oswald (“art nothing but…” [II.ii.19]) and again in Edgar’s transformation into Poor Tom (“Edgar I nothing am” [II.iii.21]). Later, during Edgar’s slow emergence as himself, his father (the now-blind Gloucester) thinks he notices a change in Poor Tom’s speech, Edgar, in order to maintain his disguise, must say, “In nothing am I changed” (IV.v.9).

This negation of linguistic change and re-equation with nothing also deals the the motif of nothing/speech, which is also found in statements by Edmund (“Have you nothing said?” [II.i.25]), Lear (“I will say nothing” [III.ii.38]), and Gloucester (“Go to, say you nothing” [III.iii.8]). Interestingly, these usages all prompt for the saying of nothing, but it was the saying of the word “nothing” that set all this into motion.

And “all this,” at least from Lear’s perspective, is about his daughters. Thus, it’s not surprising then that even the concept of nothing is centered on them and him. With Poor Tom in the hovel, Lear can only ask, “Couldst thou save nothing? Wouldst thou give [his daughters] all?” (III.iv.64). When Kent tries to tell the king that Poor Tom doesn’t have any daughters of his own, Lear cannot believe it: “Nothing could have subdued nature // To such a lowness but his unkind daughters” (III.iv.70-1). For Lear, everything–and thus, nothing, too–comes back to the daughters.

All of these “nothing” references may be too much for some reading the play, and maybe it is overkill, especially when the last usage is such a false step. When Albany challenges Edmund before the bastard’s duel with Edgar, the equation motif just feels clumsy: “Thou art in nothing less // Than I have here proclaimed thee” (V.iii.88-9). The inclusion of that “in” makes the meter scan, but it lessens the impact. And personally I find it a shame; I just wished Shakespeare hadn’t used “nothing” here.


The uses of “nothing” undergo an evolution here in the second half of the play. The penultimate use is found in Goneril’s captured letter to Edmund (IV.v.262). In the timeline of events within the play, however, it would have been composed and written earlier before the actions of the previous scene, in which the letter is referenced (IV.iv.16).

This is important because in Act Four, Scene Five of King Lear, a curious thing happens to the use of “nothing” to, for and about Lear the character. The last live-action, real-time use of the word is Edgar’s previously discussed denial of change to his father. In the remainder of this scene, however, for Lear, “nothing” disappears, replaced by anything but.

Lear laments how his daughters

flattered [him] like a dog … To say “ay” and “no” to everything that I said “ay” and “no” to … They are not men o’ their words; they told me I was everything. ’Tis a lie. I am not ague-proof.
  • IV.v.96-7, 98-99, 103-5

He may be nothing, but he’ll no longer say nothing. Even Gloucester seems to pick up on thing. He says of Lear, “O ruined piece of nature! This great world // Shall so wear out no naught” (IV.v.132-3). Again, Lear may have become nothing (“naught”), but Gloucester will no longer use the term. When Cordelia’s soldiers arrive to take Lear, they tell him, “You shall have anything” (IV.v.191, emphasis mine). Lear shall have anything; “nothing” is gone.

Except it’s not. That clumsy final “nothing” line by Albany ruins it.

Oh, and one more thing.

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

But that’s apropos of…well, nothing.

4 thoughts on “King Lear: Nothing from nothing leaves nothing”

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

    I wonder if the shift you noticed the play has hitherto been making from “nothing” to “anything” and “everything” doesn’t somehow serve to make that moment when Cordelia literally says nothing even more agonizing.

  2. I wonder how that could be done–I suppose with some kind of visual or aural echo of the sound or action that Lear had used in the first scene when he commands Cordelia to “speak again”?

    Another piece of direction I’d love to see in that final scene has to do with that moment when Lear comes onstage carrying Cordelia’s body. His first words are, “Howl, howl, howl,” and I can’t think of a production I’ve seen in which the actor isn’t somehow trying to howl those words if they are an expression Lear’s own grief. But it always strikes me as really stagy, awkward, and insincere. Instead, I think that Lear is exhorting everyone else onstage to howl because Cordelia is dead: “Howl, howl, howl,” he’s commanding them, and when they are all too dumb-struck to obey him, he calls them “men of stones.”

    But then, it’s easy to be an armchair quarterback….