The 'Nothing' Element in 'King Lear'

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“Nothing, my lord” (1.1.87).

At the core of Shakespeare’s King Lear lies a void and silence that sparks the end of a kingdom as well as the beginning of a thunderous storm and a poetic and cathartic outburst. Although Cordelia’s “Nothing” has been used as an evidence to suggest that the play is a study of nihilism, the concept of “nothing” with its different meanings throughout the play was never treated as a subject by itself. In fact, a nihilistic reading only will underestimate the most important factor that drives the characters to their end: blindness to the concept of “nothing,” blindness to the truth. Shakespeare does not just mention nothingness and its paradoxes but also gives them a central and complex role in the movement of the plot. In the structure of the play nothingness emerges as an omnipresent metaphysical threat and flawed conception of “nothingness” blinds King Lear and Gloucester to the reality of the world they live in and eventually brings about their tragic end.

The dramatic value of King Lear’s philosophical flaw about the concept of nothingness is evident in the first scene of the play where Lear begins to diminish himself by taking off his crown. Goneril and Regan take on a rhetoric contest, as they must try to express the greatest possible love for their father in order to receive the largest part of the kingdom. They respond by presenting their love with paradoxes of non-being -- saying what their love is not, rather than what it is -- to suggest the illusion of unbounded love for Lear, exploiting his blindness to the fact that their hyperbolic language full of comparisons and superlatives (“Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty” 1.1.62) actually mean nothing. Cordelia, on the contrary, does ...

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...” appears in the bigger picture of the play. There is almost no political life; Goneril and Regan scheme only against Lear; social life of the people beyond the castle is absent; no arts and sciences beyond the fool’s songs; and no romantic love except a very short scene where France recognizes Cordelia. The play chronicles a tragic vacuum where the reader witnesses the inevitable downfall of the characters. However, in the end, Shakespeare is not completely hopeless. It’s only his characters that fail to see the importance of “nothingness” – the simple truth – and lead to their own downfalls. Nothing comes out of nothing but so does everything. Nonmaterial, spiritual wholeness seems possible only from nothingness, and humankind is all and nothing. Edgar seems to understand this and at the end he emerges as the King of England. But what has Lear learned? Nothing.
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