The word “nothing” appears in King Lear 34 times and is said by nearly every major character in the play except Goneril, Regan and Cornwall. It is also one of the most important themes of the play.
The first time we hear it is in Act I, Scene I. Lear asks his youngest daughter, Cordelia, what she can say to win land more valuable than that which her sisters received. Cordelia’s response of “nothing” sets the wheels in motion for Lear’s ultimate demise, and it is spit back at her as Lear strips her of her title, dowry, and his affection.
“Nothing will come of nothing,” Lear tells her.
“Nothing” is also the catalyst for the downfall of Gloucester and his family (although Edgar, his elder son eventually finds redemption). Edmund insists that the letter he is reading when his father happens upon him is “nothing.” Hastily trying to conceal the letter only makes Gloucester more determined to read it, and he demands it of Edmund. The letter (along with some persuading from Edmund) convinces Gloucester that Edgar is plotting against him.
This one word, “nothing,” holds so much power in this play. It has always fascinated me, and I was eager to explore it from the perspective of the character Kent. At the start of the play, he is the only one who comes to Cordelia’s defense, and does so at his own peril. Neither of her sisters defend her, and the fact that they do nothing speaks volumes. Instead, Kent entreats for her, telling Lear to “reverse thy doom,” but his pleas fall on deaf ears, and he is rewarded with banishment.
Later, disguised as Caius, Kent returns to Lear’s service, determined to set things right. He hears the Fool ask Lear if he can “make no use of nothing, nuncle?”
Lear replies, “Why, no, boy; nothing can be made out of nothing.”
This echo of Cordelia’s words has always struck me as one of the most tragic moments of the play. It is in this moment that the tables suddenly turn for Lear and he suffers the same condemnation he passed upon Cordelia: he slowly loses his home, his wealth, his rights and his mind. And, no matter how hard Kent tries, there is nothing he can do to stop it.