Discuss the topic of "nothing" in King Lear.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This is a great question. Shakespeare returns again and again to the idea of "nothing" in King Lear, from the very beginning, when Cordelia offers "nothing" to her father to win her portion of his lands, and Lear tells her that "nothing will come of nothing." As the play goes on, other characters indicate that Lear is right—but not in the way he thought. Lear himself is indicated to be "nothing," and increasingly so as age begins to take hold of him. His Fool tells him that he is "an O without a figure," and that, having at least the identity of a fool, he is "better" than the king is now—"thou art nothing." Lear is no longer a king; what defined him has been taken away from him, and he is declining mentally, too. The Fool uses the analogy of an egg which, having two crowns, at least has "meat" in the middle; Lear, by contrast, has given away his crown and has nothing left.

The Fool is a fascinating character in this play, as he is often the only person who dares to speak the truth. As a Fool, he is beloved of Lear and tasked with entertaining him, but in truth, he is also the king's caretaker and the only person who can state frankly what is happening. In the latter part of the play, the Fool has disappeared, and Lear becomes even more unstable, more "nothing" without his Fool to support and define him. By the end, Lear is seeing things that are not there, his eyes useless to him, a contrast to the literal blindness of Gloucester, who, like Lear, refused to see the truth of his children. Nothing has come of Cordelia's "nothing," the play leaving her murdered, while nothing has come of Lear or his plans, either.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The theme of nothingness is a dominant one in the drama.  Contrast Lear with how he is in the first scene of the play to how he is in the last scene, and one sees how nothingness is more than a theme.  It is a state of being, a form of mental consciousness for Lear.  At the outset of the drama, the pomp and circumstance of his own condition is what confounds him to believe that somehow, all of it is real.  When Cordelia refuses to be a part of this drama of love towards her father, Lear says "Nothing will come of nothing."  This foreshadows what his entire emotional journey, what has to be seen as "renewal," encompasses.  In the storm on the heath, Lear represents this nothingness, shedding all vestiges of his former being, appearing naked emotionally and physically in the condition of a tempest at both his intimate connections with his children and his connection towards how he viewed consciousness.  The laughing at "gilded butterflies" in the final scene of the drama is another instance where the element of nothingness pervades Lear's state of being, revealing him to be an outsider, a distant observer who understands that the true condition of the human being is to lack real power, substantive autonomy, in the face of larger configurations and how human beings function in the modern setting.  It is here where nothingness becomes relevant in the drama, following both Lear and the reader like a shadow until the very end.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial