What does the line "Nothing will come of nothing" mean in King Lear, and what is the relationship between nothing and something?

"Nothing will come of nothing."

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The line "Nothing will come of nothing" highlights the importance of "nothing" as an idea in King Lear. Lear and other characters, such as Gloucester, continually mistake something (that which has solidity and value) for nothing and vice versa. It is the beginning of wisdom for these characters to understand what matters and what is truly nothing and therefore incapable of producing anything.

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In King Lear, Shakespeare shows the king's harsh, arrogant conduct in act 1, scene 1. This is when he makes the statement "Nothing will come of nothing" to Cordelia. In fact, it is Goneril and Regan who are "empty-hearted," as Kent remarks when he points out the "hollowness" of their speeches. It is these two daughters who truly feel nothing for their father.

Lear then has the rest of the play to reflect on his mistakes, including this one, though it takes him quite some time to begin this process of self-examination. It is the Fool who keeps pushing him to see how he has been the author of his own misfortune, and he does so partly by inviting him to reexamine the idea of "nothing." When Kent complains that one of the Fool's rhymes means nothing, he responds:

Then 'tis like the breath of an unfee'd lawyer; you gave me nothing for't. Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?

Lear gives a variation on his original reply to Cordelia, saying "nothing can be made out of nothing," to which the Fool tartly responds that "so much the rent of his land comes to."

Goneril and Regan felt nothing for their father and, between them, received a kingdom in return. Cordelia felt something but said nothing and therefore received nothing. At the beginning of the play, Lear's attitude to his daughters' love and his land is like a commercial transaction: he gives away the country in return for flattering speeches. These, he quickly finds, were worth nothing, meaning that he is left with nothing. Indeed, as the Fool perceptively points out, a man who was a king but has given up everything that made him a king has himself become nothing. It is when Lear understands this that he begins to gain wisdom after a lifetime of folly. Understanding what is something (that is, what has solidity and value) and what is nothing is the beginning of self-knowledge for Lear. The same is true of Gloucester, who makes a similar mistake in relation to his two sons.

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The motif of "nothing" recurs throughout this play, with the audience invited to ponder on what "nothing" means. Gloucester says to Edmund that "the quality of nothing hath not such need to hide itself," after Edmund says that he is reading "nothing." The exchange between them deliberately and structurally echoes that between Lear and Cordelia, and begs us to question whether Cordelia really had nothing to say, or if she simply chose to say nothing while concealing something deeper.

Later, we see Lear's original conversation with Cordelia echoed again in the exchange between Lear and his loyal Fool. The Fool asks if Lear can "make no use of nothing," to which Lear says, "nothing can be made out of nothing"—a very similar statement to his earlier "nothing will come of nothing." From this statement, we can interpret that Lear has not yet changed his mind nor recognized his own error. As in many of Shakespeare's plays, the fool in King Lear has the advantage of being often the only person to have the perspicacity and wit to speak the truth of the whole situation. The Fool accuses Lear of having carved up his wit as he carved up his kingdom "and left nothing in the middle"—Lear, he says, is "an 'O' without a figure," or a circle which has nothing in the middle. More explicitly, the fool says that while he is a fool, Lear himself is nothing.

If the real "nothing" is Lear, then the idea that nothing can come of nothing acquires a greater significance. Shakespeare's wordplay on the word "nothing" and his repeated return to discussion of it underlines for the reader or audience member that this is an important question for us to interrogate. "Nothing can come of nothing" was meant by Lear to indicate that no good would come for Cordelia out of refusing to speak, but in a wider sense, nothing can come of Lear, who himself is nothing. Lear has, in dividing up his kingdom, rid himself of his wits and reduced himself to something powerless; in the end, all who have "come of" or been fathered by him come to unhappy ends, and Lear's plan is a failure for all concerned. Lear's Fool is perceptive in suggesting that it is Lear who is truly nothing, while even his Fool is superior to him, having at least his own wits and self-definition.

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I would suggest that there is verbal irony involved in Lear's statement that "Nothing will come of nothing." The two daughters who end up getting the entire kingdom by professing their deep love for their father actually have no feeling for him at all. They feel "nothing" and their words are empty words. Throughout the rest of the play Lear discovers that there was nothing behind their professions of love for him and consequently he is getting nothing from them of any value. He himself ends up with nothing, not even a roof over his head. This is a concrete example of how his nothing came out of his daughters' nothing. He experiences nothing but heartbreak and wretchedness. He is worse off than beggars. He gets help from Cordelia because there is something in this daughter's heart and something in her promises and deeds. She has a genuine love for her father. The same is true of Kent, who follows Lear incognito and tries his best to give him help. It is interesting that Lear's statement that nothing will come of nothing is like an unconscious forecast. He does not say that nothing comes of nothing but that nothing will come of nothing. And nothing that he bargained for and expected ever comes. He has exchanged his whole kingdom for empty words.

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