by Suvij Sudershan
This paper will analyze the nature of “nothing,” the manner in which the word “nothing” is employed, and the way “nothingness” is depicted in William Shakespeare’s Richard II (1595) and King Lear (1606). Richard II presents situations in which “nothing” is felt as an absence, and yet as a present absence in which a “nothing had begot … something” (Richard 2.2.37). Moreover, this “something” is an actual threat: in Richard II, “something” masquerades as “nothing,” and leads to a series of events culminating in Richard’s loss of the crown. Shakespeare complicates this understanding between “nothing” and “something” in Lear, as Lear believes that “[n]othing will become of nothing” (1.1.99). The characters in Lear perceive the absence of motives and threats amongst other opponents as “something,” and their suspicious natures lead to their eventual destructions. Moreover, while Richard’s experience of nothingness remains grounded in the “something” of his speech and mental abilities, Lear’s material and psychological nothingness in material and psychological terms translates to a nothingness in dialogue. The nuanced relationship between absence and presence illustrates a more realistic and psychologically complex conception of characterization in King Lear, since the characters actively manipulate, or are manipulated by, “nothingness.”
Richard II and King Lear both depict the usurpation of royalty and its effects on the monarch. In both plays, Kings Richard II and Lear have to adapt to their new identities as deposed monarchs, and cope with the tragedy of having been betrayed by their families. However, the two plays differently depict the manner in which the two kings arrive at their similar tragedies. Both Richard II and Lear involve detailed depictions of the roles that family members of the deposed monarchs play as the usurpation unfolds. In this regard, a comparison can be made between the characters of Aumerle, son of York ( Richard II), and Edmund, the illegitimate son of Gloucester (King Lear). Both Aumerle and Edmund plot intricate murders in which letters play a significant role. In Aumerle’s case, he is carrying a letter that details the plot to assassinate Henry Bolingbroke. When York asks Aumerle to “let [him] see the writing,” Aumerle brushes it off as “nothing” (5.2.63); yet when York snatches the letter from Aumerle, his desire to read the letter illustrates that it is not “nothing.” The assassination plot (“something”) masquerades as “nothing,” but York’s actions reveal the vital importance of “nothing” throughout King Lear.
This assassination plot in King Lear also leads to a conflict between Gloucester and Edmund in Act I, scene ii. Here, Edmund’s performance of “[p]utting up the letter,” which draws Gloucester’s attention to his attempts to hide it, makes his “invention thrive” (1.2.21), or his scheme a success. Like the Duke of York, Gloucester argues that “the quality of nothing hath/ not such need to hide itself,” before commanding Edmund to hand the letter over (1.2.35 – 1.2.45). At this point, the texts of the two plays diverge; Richard II never reveals the explicit contents of the letter– even though the events discussed in it are displayed by York’s actions – while Lear shows Gloucester reading the letter and divulging its contents to the audience. Gloucester’s reading is unnecessary, since the audience already knows that the letter contains a plot to “top” “[l]egitimate Edgar’s” land (1.2.17). The only function it serves is to show how “nothing” – the non-existent usurpation plot – is created by Gloucester’s overreaction and blind rage. That said, the fact that the letter in Richard II is never read aloud suggests that it ceases to threaten Bolingbroke’s life; the assassination never takes place, or rather, is reduced to nothing because Aumerle is unable to pass off “something” as “nothing.” In contrast, this theme is developed further in Lear so that the events of the letter actually come to pass, as Edmund successfully creates “something” out of “nothing” simply by claiming that the letter is “nothing.”
Edmund is one of the four characters from Lear and Richard II who interacts most closely with the idea of “nothing,” the other three being The Queen from Richard II, and the Fool and Cordelia from King Lear. The Queen has knowledge of “nothing” and “something,” as Shakespeare depicts her attempts at articulating the inarticulable, like the Fool. She has a sense of premonition about Richard’s fall from grace but is unable to voice it since she cannot express the “heavy nothing” she feels (Richard 2.2.33). In her conversation with Bushy in Act II, scene ii, she mentions how her “inward soul/ [w]ith nothing trembles” (2.2.12). The two then discuss the nature of her feelings, and Bushy argues that her inarticulate speech is either a product of her confusion or simply a “conceit,” a purely psychological feeling, diminishing it to a paranoid reaction. The Queen replies that it is neither, and that her feelings are even more of an abstraction than a conceit, since those feelings derive from grief (a psychological state in itself). She experiences a sense of doom that she is unable to vocalize, and so calls it “nothing.” However, this “nothing” is not marked by a sense of absence but rather an abundance of feeling that she cannot put down into words, and hence her attempts to verbalize this feeling end in circular definitions and paradoxes when she fails to explain her emotions: “For nothing hath begot my something grief—/ Or something hath the nothing that I grieve” (2.2.38 – 2.2.39). “Nothing” and “something” are intertwined in the Queen’s sense of premonition at a level of abstraction that language fails to convey.
In King Lear, Cordelia depicts a comparable but distinctly psychologized instance of the verbalization of feeling as “nothing.” Scholars have positioned both the Queen and Cordelia as prophetic figures (Dawson and Yachnin, 55; Malay 98-99). Both make their prophetic phrases in heroic couplets: The Queen has knowledge of the crisis that Richard will soon face and proclaims, “[b]ut what it is, that is not yet known; what/ I cannot name; ’tis nameless woe, I wot” (2.2.40 – 2.2.41), while Cordelia tells her sisters that “[t]ime shall unfold what plaited cunning hides:/ [w]ho cover faults, at last shame them derides” (1.1.325 – 1.1.326). Unlike the Queen, however, Cordelia articulately voices her opinion and explicitly tells Lear that she will not engage in his “love competition.” As illustrated by her clear expressions – she “[o]bey[s]” Lear, “love[s] [him], and most honor[s] [him]” (1.1.108) – she is not struggling with words; she is a stronger and more well-developed character than the Queen, since she refuses to speak – rather than fails to articulate – her emotions for her father. Whereas the Queen attempts to clarify the meaning of the “nothing” she feels as “something,” Cordelia actually articulates why she thinks her sisters’ proclamations are more meaningless than her silence. Cordelia’s “nothing” is thus more complex as it characterizes her as a figure of restraint and patience, which casts her as being more than just a prophetic figure. While the Queen’s “nothing” is really a struggle with language, Cordelia’s “nothing” is an acceptance of the limits of language when it comes to expressing emotions.
Edmund’s knowledge of “nothing” is based on his understanding of human nature. He diagnoses human interest in theology and astrology as
The excellent foppery of the world, that
When we are sick in fortune (often the surfeits of
Our own behavior) we make guilty of our disasters
The sun, the moon, and stars, as if we were villains
On necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion. (Lear 1.2.125- 1.2.129)
He is characterized as the rationalist, who sees a meaningless nothingness guiding the world around him. He manipulates what he sees as the human tendency to attribute divine causes to one’s circumstances, such as Gloucester’s attribution of his perceived dire straits to “[the] late eclipses in the Sun and the Moon” to his advantage (1.2.109 – 1.2.110). In this regard, the Fool similarly understands the complex nature of “nothing.” Unlike Lear, who at the opening of the play banishes Cordelia for saying “nothing,” the Fool can sift through silence to understand the meaning. For instance, he tells Goneril, “I will hold my tongue; so your face bids/ me, though you say nothing” (1.4.200 – 1.4.201). As Kent remarks, the Fool’s jokes mean nothing (1.4.132), yet his humour nevertheless catalyzes important realizations for Lear. Throughout the play, the Fool helps Lear realize his mistakes, such as giving his kingdom to his daughters and banishing Cordelia. He asks Lear if he could “make no use of/ nothing” (1.4.134 – 1.4.135), to which Lear replies that “[n]othing can be made out of/ nothing” (1.4.136 – 1.4.137), which is the same reply he gives to Cordelia when she refuses to express her love. At this point, the Fool uses “nothing” to bear upon Lear’s own situation, telling him that nothing is what “the rent of his/ land comes to” (1.4.138 – 1.4.139). In this way, the Fool uses the word “nothing” in a material manner that highlights Lear’s lack of resource, and simultaneously relates it to Lear’s abrogation of Cordelia’s inheritance. He uses the word to weave multiple meanings and contexts together, without directly invoking any of them, through the word “nothing.” It is through his conversation with the Fool that Lear realizes “[he] did [Cordelia] wrong” (1.5.24). Just like Edmund manipulates “nothing” to his advantage, the Fool uses the concept of nothingness and the word “nothing” to aid Lear’s realizations in an oblique manner.
The titular characters of both plays– Richard II and King Lear– have great investments in “nothing” as well, with the crucial difference that Richard is reduced to “nothing” by Bolingbroke and the Lords whereas Lear brings about his own fall by dividing his land and banishing Cordelia. Both characters have to grapple with being reduced to nothing. As Richard tells Henry, his “care is loss of care” (4.1.205); the task before him is to “undo [him]self” (4.1.212) “for nothing [he] must be” (4.1.210). As Richard is receiving news of his losses to Henry in Act III, scene ii, he realizes that his identity is predicated on his kingship, and its loss means his reduction to “nothing.” Similarly, through the Fool’s exhortations, “I/ am a Fool. Thou art nothing (1.4.198 – 1.4.199), Lear understands how he has lost his kingdom forever.
The nature of this nothingness is, however, experienced and depicted differently for the two monarchs. The sense of nothingness is felt both materially and psychologically by the two kings. Richard, for example, is unable to reconcile himself with his newfound normalcy and asks Aumerle and Carlisle how they can consider him a king even when he “feel[s] want, [t]aste[s] grief, need[s] friends,” just like them. As Ernst Kantorowicz notes, the broken mirror in Act IV, scene i of Richard II signals the “rise of a new body natural” as Richard is reduced to the “insignificant physis [nature] of a miserable man” (Kantorowicz 40). Analogous to the breaking of the mirror is Lear’s stripping off of his clothes. Upon seeing Edgar/ Poor Tom, Lear remarks: “Thou art the thing itself:/ unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare,/ forked animal as thou art” (3.4.113 – 115) and begins to take his clothes off, embracing his state of poverty. Both kings experience themselves in an alien and material form, and come to understand that they are only mortals granted divinity by their monarchical office, not by divine power.
Richard and Lear both understand their materiality in similar terms, but their psychological states are depicted in different ways. Both characters are trapped in their minds; Richard creates a “little world” of “thoughts” to make the prison of his mind comparable to the world outside the physical prison (5.5.9); over the course of King Lear, Lear loses his identity and his mental faculties, going so far as to ask the Fool and even Oswald “[w]ho am I” (1.4.78), and ultimately collapsing into complete incomprehensibility. Richard’s psychological sense of “loss of care” is depicted through a semantic saturation in his language. The puns and paradoxes he speaks of are highly logical constructions, and he uses the conjunction “and yet” multiple times to connect two contradictory sentences to provide a sense of his confusion to the audience. Furthermore, Richard’s use of the “and yet” conjunction appears for the first time in 3.2.154, at the moment when he begins to see that he has lost his kingdom to Henry. Even in his final moments as he expounds on his existence as “nothing” (5.5.38), he expresses it in an ornately constructed soliloquy, concluding,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased till he be eased
With being nothing. (5.5.39 – 5.5.40)
This depiction of Richard as both one who experiences his nothingness and conveys it in language is “forked” in King Lear into the separate characters of Lear and the Fool.
The semantic saturator of King Lear is not Lear, but the Fool, who does not experience any sense of nothingness but rather drives Lear to recognize his own lack. This characterization allows Shakespeare to heighten the tragic tone by placing such ornate constructions and their tragic meanings in the mouth of a comedic character who makes his points through humour. The Fool is Lear’s source of knowledge, but he is also a riddler who forces Lear to come to his own conclusions and who asserts his power over Lear’s worldview through his use of language. The linguistic manoeuvres that lend Richard a sense of grace and knowledge in the midst of his downfall become, in the Fool’s speeches, a tragic carnivalesque in a Bakhtinian sense (Bakhtin 81), by which Lear is further reduced to “nothing” through his reliance on the Fool. Like a King in the medieval European carnivals that Bakhtin writes about, there is an inversion of the power dynamic between Lear and the Fool through the Fool’s control over language, depicted most strongly in his manipulations of the connotations of “nothing.” Like Richard, Lear is trapped inside the “prison” of his mind. However, Shakespeare depicts Lear’s mental collapse in much starker terms through an absolute loss of meaningful speech. In this context, Lear is comparable to the Queen from Richard II, whose sense of “heavy nothing” cannot be translated into language. Just like Mowbray’s “tongue’s use is to [him] no more” (Richard 1.3.163), Lear dies Mowbray’s “speechless death” when he is left out in the tempest.
Shakespeare goes further in characterizing Lear than in his depiction of Mowbray or the Queen, even as he combines elements of their characterizations such as linguistic failure with Richard’s pathos in Lear. The Queen’s chaotic language is still contextualized within her dialogue as attempts to express her feelings, and the audience never sees Mowbray once he is banished. Lear, on the other hand, speaks incomprehensibly on-stage. Phrases like “[p]eace, peace! This piece of toasted cheese/ will do ’t. There’s my gauntlet; I’ll prove it on a /giant” (4.6.108 – 4.6.110) follow a logic of internal organization which, although comprehensible, makes no larger sense within the narrative of the play except for illuminating Lear’s mental state. In the case of the above lines, peace/piece are homophones, the piece of cheese is being offered to a mouse, and the gauntlet is a reference to the knightly convention of duelling. However, this network of associations serves only to illustrate the incomprehensible “nothingness” of Lear’s psyche. Lear’s use of language does not narrate his psychological nothingness like Richard’s does but rather depicts it through the emptiness of his words and their non-referentiality to physical facts. While Lear’s speech is not entirely meaningless (since it works according to an endogenous logic) it is meaningless in the larger context of language itself, which is to say it makes sense to him but not to anyone who reads or listens. In other words, Lear’s language has no other referents than his psychological state and its meaninglessness is a reflection of his loss of identity, his nothingness.
This paper has argued for the multiplicity of the usages and connotations of “nothing” in Richard II and King Lear. The letters of Aumerle and Edmund have similar assassination plots, but while Aumerle calls his “nothing” to conceal its true nature, Edmund’s use of the word is to set his plan into motion by tapping into Gloucester’s paranoia. The Queen calls her emotional distress a “heavy nothing” because she can feel its presence yet it remains inarticulable. On the other hand, Cordelia uses the word “nothing” not to struggle against language, but to illustrate her inability to adequately express her subjective feelings through language. Both Edmund and the Fool use their knowledge of “nothing” and nothingness towards affecting the way in which other people (Gloucester and Lear, respectively) understand their situations. Finally, Richard’s sense of “nothingness” is articulable in speech, but Lear’s sense of loss has to be inferred through the referent-less nature of his speech. These developments show Shakespeare’s ability to render a higher level of realistic psychologization in Lear, which he uses to attain a greater tragic value in Richard II.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Translated by Helene Iswolsky, Indiana University Press, 1984.
Dawson, Anthony B. and Paul Yachnin. Introduction. The Oxford Shakespeare: Richard II, by
William Shakespeare, eds. Dawson and Yachnin, Oxford University Press, 2011, 1-116.
Kantorowicz, Ernst. The King’s Two Bodies. Princeton University Press, 1997.
Malay, Jessica L. Prophecy and Sibylline Imagery in the Renaissance: Shakespeare’s Sibyls.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, Folger Shakespeare Library, 2010.
–. Richard II. Edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, Folger Shakespeare Library, 2010.