*This is also a first draft on my ideas about 'Nothing' in King Lear. After class today, I'd like to revise a couple of ideas. Also, in class, there was an interesting question brought up that I'll address later: Why is it that the 'mad' men of this play are the only ones who speak the straightforward truth and reason? At one point, Tom of Bedlam is considered a philosopher by King Lear (who goes crazy, but that's part of the point, and I'll explain later).
Follow the metaphor of “Nothing” in the play. What comes of nothing that begins this play? How does it affect the development of one of the major themes within the play: madness, blindness, epideictic language of praise, authority, or identity?
In the early Young Man sonnets, Shakespeare writes purely epideictic and praises his love object, to the point of idealizing and turning a blind eye towards any flaws love object may contain. As Shakespeare writes more sonnets, there is a progression from the idealized and flowery language of the early Young Man, into the more honest and brutal language of the Dark Lady sonnets. The turning point is in Sonnet 130—“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”—when Shakespeare has abandoned the purely epideictic language of praise, in exchange for a more honest approach. Shakespeare also begins to appear in his own work, as the subjectivity of the poet is included in these later sonnets. This is illustrated in Sonnet 130, because the quality of confessing and revealing the true appearance of his love object, Shakespeare is also revealing his non-traditional, yet realistic relationship to the object—Gone are the platonic boundaries of Petrarchian love poetry.
The development of epideictic language of praise in “King Lear” is expanded upon, but it is mostly criticized in this play. The main critique is that it is ultimately a flowery way of saying “Nothing”. In the play, King Lear wants to leave his kingdom to his daughters, but in exchange, he wants to be eulogized with epideictic language. Of his three daughters, two of them, Regan and Goneril, don’t really have love for King Lear, but they have no problem exclaiming such love for him:
Goneril: “Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter;
Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty.
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare,
No less than life; with grace, health, beauty, honour” (1.1.53-56)
Here, Goneril speaks of a love that cannot be described by the normal senses, of a love that cannot be put into words—mainly because the love she has for her father doesn’t exist—her flowery language is thus a fancy way of saying nothing. As opposed to the way Cordelia describes her love for her father: “What shall Cordelia speak? Love and be silent.” (1.1.59) Perhaps Cordelia lacks a way with words, and clearly her tacit ways are some of the cause of the great tragedy in King Lear, but it is because Cordelia—whether she knows it or not—wants to prove a point to King Lear that he is foolish to want validation for a love that doesn’t exist. Only God can Present, to make something come from nothing – the problem of representation, being an imperfect form of presentation. King Lear performs blasphemy when he demands that something come out of nothing, as only God can create. He cannot demand that something materialize if it does not exist, the love of his daughters. Words don’t mean anything, and this is a lesson Lear must learn.
He rejects Cordelia’s straightforward answer by saying “Nothing will come of nothing, speak again” (1.1.90), and this is true, but it is also false. It is true in that a declaration of love will NOT magically manifest itself when there was no love to begin with, i.e. the absent love of Regan, Goneril, and even Edmond in regards to Gloucester. It is false as well, and Cordelia needs to prove this to her father, that something can come from nothing, and that is in her attempt at teaching Lear a lesson, by giving him a non-answer—a denial—when he seeks validation/eulogy/epideictic language he expects from his daughters. Cordelia is proving that something can indeed stem from nothing, and this is tragedy and catharsis.
Another aspect of the play that is developed is madness, as well as blindness. When Edgar becomes Tom o’ Bedlam, he loses his rational thought in exchange for nothingness—“Enforce their charity. ‘Poor Tuelygod, Poor Tom.’ That’s something yet, Edgar I nothing am.” (3.3.177). By claiming to have nothing, he is able to descend to the level of madness that King Lear embraces and Gloucester flirts with. Blindness is explored, when Gloucester is blind to the sincerity of Edgar, who joins him in poverty as Tom, and blind to the manipulation of his bastard son Edmond. It is only when Gloucester is literally and ironically blinded, that he does become ‘unblinded’ to the fact that his son Edmond has betrayed him, and that Edgar is the truly honorable one.