Lear: Nothing will come of nothing.
There is a great deal of nothing in this most nihilistic of plays. Written in 1606 when King James passionately wanted a united England and Scotland but nobody else did, when longing for the old queen was growing, when religious certainties had fled in the turbulence, when the question of treason and loyalty was muddled, when individuals had lost the illusion that they could leave things in God’s hands, this play with its unexpectedly tragic ending was a shock to London theatre-goers and it has troubled us all ever since.
Cordelia’s ‘nothing’ is everything. Lear has already destroyed the two older sisters by his blatant favouritism and he has already brought strife upon his kingdom by splitting it then refusing to really relinquish his power. Cordelia’s ‘nothing’, which in Lear’s defence could be interpreted as he did, was just one more frightening shift in a world already in doubt of its identity.
Friends of numbers will note that the word ‘nothing’ is used eighteen times in Act One and thirty-four times throughout the play. Lear loses his hold on reality, Gloucester loses his eyes, Edgar loses his father, Goneril and Regan have lost everything long ago but don’t know it yet. These individuals – kings and lords and princesses – are supposed to have power. From the first scene onward their power crumbles, their control over their lives and their world – the control they believed they had had – is wrenched from them and their world explodes in storms and madness.
Lear who had the most and who is the cruellest loses everything but so do the daughters he has destroyed. His most loyal friends commit treason for his sake, those loyal to the kingdom are vicious villains.
Never never never never never.
That’s what this play leaves one with.
I’m beginning to appreciate that.