Twice, King Lear says, “Nothing will come from nothing.” It is one of the most striking of the many striking lines in William Shakespeare’s masterpiece King Lear.
Harold Bloom comments on the first instance in which this is said:
“Nothing will come from nothing” to Lear means he will withdraw Cordelia’s dowry. He cannot know that he has prophesied the final emptiness that will afflict his world.
In the second instance, Lear is talking with his fool:
Fool: Can you make use of nothing, nuncle?
Lear: Why, no, boy, nothing can be made out of nothing.
Here, Bloom asks the question: “Is Lear on some level cognizant that he is obsessed with ‘nothing’?”
Certainly, as Bloom points out in his 2018 book Lear: The Great Image of Authority, Shakespeare’s play is obsessed with it. He notes:
“Nothing” is a term prevalent in this tragedy. There are thirty-four uses of “nothing” and forty-two of “nature,” “natural,” “unnatural.” The relationship between nothing and nature is a vexed one throughout Shakespeare and is particularly anguished in The Tragedie of King Lear. In the Christian argument, God creates nature out of nothingness. The end of nature, according to the Revelation of St. John the Apostle, comes in a return to a restored Eden.
“Fall, and cease”
That Christian hope, though, has no place in King Lear, Bloom asserts.
That healing abundance is alien to Lear’s tragedy. As the drama closes, Albany, Kent and Edgar discover that Lear’s prophesy has been fulfilled: Nothing has come of nothing. There is no revelation; nature again drifts back to chaos.
In fact, when Lear dies and they look back on all the chaos that has occurred, leaving bodies strewn and a kingdom wrought, eyes plucked out and the hangings of a fool and a queen, Albany, Kent and Edgar express what each theatergoer is probably already thinking:
Kent: Is this the promised end?
Edgar: Or image of that horror?
Albany: Fall, and cease.
Is the end of chaos not redemption but more chaos? Is the end of the chaos of our individual lives nothing but more chaos?
Do we live life only to “fall, and cease”? Live life, endure the chaos — and then we die?
“This great stage of fools”
Lear: When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools
Lear, writes Bloom:
devastates by associating the cry of birth with the great stage of fools or victims upon which all of us perform. All the world is a platform for apocalypse. The gods rain down misfortunes upon us all, whether great kings or ordinary mortals. And we all fall face forward fighting on the stage, unable to save either ourselves or our dear ones.
Lear says he is “every inch a king.” But Shakespeare’s play is about how he is no longer the king he was — and, indeed, never was the king in the sense of having control of his life.
Bloom’s subtitle of Lear as The Great Image of Authority is ironic. Lear has wielded great earthly authority. He has been “worshipped as a god,” and “For sixty years of his reign, Lear’s flatterers told him he was everything in himself, but he has learned nothing.”
While he was in control, he wasn’t in control. Blind circumstance was constantly intruding on his life as it does here at his life’s end — Nature, the blindness of some around him, the lust of some around him, the loyalty of others.
Seeking to give away his kingdom to his three daughters — and, yet, somehow keep power of some sort — is sheer hubris. For his life as a king, hubris has worked. At least, it hasn’t been fatal. Here, though, now, the hubris releases forces which buffet, batter and ultimately kill Lear and many of those standing around him in the throne room in his opening scene.
“Our uncertain presence”
Bloom writes of “our uncertain presence in the world of tragedy, where total immersion might destroy us.”
So, we protect our emotions. We wall ourselves off from what we cannot face. We numb. We deaden. We blunt our feelings.
We do this in life, and we do this, Bloom writes, in the audience at a performance of King Lear:
Something in all of us defends our everyday existence from Shakespeare’s onslaught of feelings. Thoughts of such intensity so throng us that we are in danger of inundation. Relentless and vehement, Shakespeare’s images do not allow us to interpose a little ease. We need release, and it is denied us.
“An O without a figure”
Lear doesn’t have that luxury.
Lear incessantly proclaims his anguish, fury, outrage, and grief, and while he means everything he says, we never become accustomed to his amazing range of intense feeling. His violence expressionism desires us to experience his inmost being, but we lack the resources to receive that increasing chaos.
And the more that Lear learns, the more he feels. And the more he suffers.
The Fool tells Lear:
Now thou art an O without a figure; I am better than thou art now. I am a fool, thou art nothing.
Pounded and whipped by a storm’s rain, Lear seeks to regain some dignity:
Lear: No, I will be the pattern of all patience, I will say nothing.
Of course, he has had much to say by this point and will say much more as the play moves toward it dark ending. Bloom writes:
The King is hardly patient Job, who actually was scarcely patient. Yet there is deep pathos when he adds: “I will say nothing.”
“Nothing,” the dark refrain and ultimate conclusion of his tragedy, can be said. Shakespeare’s art is to show the myriad nuances of “nothing.”
“Bewildered by it”
What Bloom writes about Edgar can also be said about Lear:
[He] has seen into the abyss of our reality, and discovered it to be nothing.
King Lear is a starkly brutal play, raw and electric with pain. So is life.
At the end of his honorable and clear-eyed and deeply felt book, Bloom writes:
I write the final sentences of this book, wondering if all of us, like Lear, should cry that we are come unto this great stage of fools.
Hamlet thought himself though to the truth that no man knew anything as he departed.
Lear, suffering the woe and wonder of too much love, was bewildered by it, until he died.
Aren’t we all bewildered, facing “the final emptiness”?
Patrick T. Reardon