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The use of "nothing" in King Lear

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Matt Doughty

on 15 July 2011

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Transcript of The use of "nothing" in King Lear

Shakespeare's use of the concept of nothingness in King Lear is vital to the development of the characters and the relationships between them. NOTHING In the very first scene, Lear and Cordelia use the word “nothing” in very different ways, causing a misunderstanding which creates conflict and advances the plot.

- Cordelia tries to say that she cannot put her feelings into words by saying "nothing".

- Lear however misunderstands and utters the famous proverb "nothing will come from nothing". (I.i.90)

- Lear takes away her dowry, leaving her with nothing. This also subsequently leaves Lear with nothing later on in the play as he has nowhere to stay, which provides an example of "nothing will come from nothing". - The fool uses the word nothing often in humor, but he is also trying to give serious advice to Lear who has reduced his possessions to nothing by giving away his kingdom.

- The fool asks Lear "Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?" (I.iv.117)

- This is a reference to "nothing will come from nothing", saying that in giving away his entire kingdom, Lear has left himself no means by which to survive and he will never be able to regain the lifestyle he is used to. Nothing is also used in the subplot to introduce the plot and to develop Edmund and Edgar.

- When Gloucester questions Edmund on the nature of his the letter that he is reading, he also replies “nothing”, only making Goucester want to read it.

- Gloucester reads it, saying "“if it be nothing, I shall not need spectacles”, only to find it is quite the opposite of nothing.

- What Edmund calls "nothing" is the very thing that causes Edgar to forgo all of his possessions, forsake his identity and become nothing in order to evade capture.

- When Lear stumbles upon Edgar in the forest, he realizes the similarities between the two, both have been reduced to nothing by their families and their minds weaken in the process (or so it appears to Lear).

- When Lear loses his possessions we can see that he becomes gradually more insightful and thoughtful throughout the play. What do you believe that Shakespeare is trying to say about the real value of nothing in this play? When do you believe that Lear stops being "nothing" and becomes something again? CORDELIA

Nothing, my lord.






Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.


Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less.


How, how, Cordelia! mend your speech a little,
Lest it may mar your fortunes. Do you believe that by becoming nothing, the characters in the play become better people? Nothing is possibly the most important word in the play because of its many uses and the way it affects the plot. Nothing is the word that starts many conflicts in the play: it is what makes Lear angry with Cordelia, it is what Edmund uses to get the interest of the father in order to banish Edgar and it aids in many aspects of the play such as plot, theme and character development.
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