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King Lear Nothing

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Hermesmann 1
Anna Hermesmann Nothing From Nothing: Concepts of Justice in King Lear Ex nihilio nihilfit—“nothing comes from nothing.” In the pre-Christian world of Shakespeare‟s King Lear, this doctrine rules as the actions of the characters prove futile and tragedy results. Lear fails to maintain order in his kingdom and his family; Gloucester loses his sight; and Cordelia, the only one who really loves her father, dies. Critics such as Samuel Johnson have argued that because of Cordelia‟s death, Shakespeare‟s ending is flawed, that he fails to follow the “natural ideas of justice” by allowing “Cordelia to perish in a just cause.” In 1689, approximately eighty years after Shakespeare completed the first text of King Lear, Nahum Tate published an alternate ending to the play in which Cordelia lives and eventually goes on to rule in her father‟s place. While this “happy” ending was performed as if it were Shakespeare‟s original for decades afterwards, it actually runs contrary to the original version of King Lear by applying Judeo-Christian human concepts of justice to a world that is not governed by a just God. In the nihilistic world Shakespeare creates, there is no just force to establish an objective morality, and therefore, the rules of right and wrong, and the consequences of each, are obsolete. Thus, because King Lear is set in a world in which the generally accepted rules of justice do not apply, Shakespeare‟s ending, including the death of the only truly virtuous character, is valid and even necessary in asserting the necessity of Christian beliefs for true justice.
However, in order to understand and accept Shakespeare‟s seemingly unjust ending, it is necessary first to understand the world in which King Lear is set—a world in which the Judeo-Christian God of Shakespeare‟s audience does not exist and therefore fails to justly deal out
Hermesmann 2 reward and punishment. Instead, we are presented with various images of nature as a force which the characters acknowledge and even speak to but which cares little for their needs. In Act One, scene two, Edmund prays, “Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law my services are bound” (1.2.1-2). Here, “Nature” is capitalized as a name, a “goddess” which Edmund seeks to flatter and to whom he has pledged his services. For Edmund, nature is far more than the force of wind or rain upon his coat—it is the thing which governs his very life. He even goes so far as to plead, “Now, gods, stand up for bastards,” (1.2.22), asking the gods of nature to help him in his plot against his brother Edgar. Edmund, at least at this point in the play, believes that nature is a force which hears his pleas and which may, with some persuasion, work for his benefit.
Gloucester, too, speaks of the “wisdom of nature” (1.2.97), claiming, “These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us…the king falls from bias of nature” (1.2. 96-103). He sees nature as a fickle force, one which may bring good or bad to him at will; Lear suffers, according to Gloucester, because he has “fallen” from what is natural by going against his child and banishing her. Gloucester speaks also of “machinations, hollowness, treachery and all ruinous disorders (1.2.104-105), alluding to a suspicion that perhaps nature does not truly care for humans, that perhaps the system is merely mechanistic, governed as Edmund says by “the sun, the moon, and the stars” (1.2.111-112). Edmund explains, “we were villains by necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves, and treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers, by an eternal obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on” (1.2.112-116). In the world of Lear, where there is no benevolent and all-knowing God, right and wrong are governed not by a just, good force but instead by forces of nature. And if nature itself is a goddess, it is one which cares nothing for
Hermesmann 3 actual justice. The system is governed by chance; the star under which you were born, the arrangement of the planets, the whim of the heavens—all determine your fate. Shakespeare‟s language conveys the importance of nature to Lear himself, who begs, “Hear, Nature, hear! dear goddess, hear! Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend to make this creature fruitful. Into her womb convey sterility…create her child of spleen…Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth” (1.2.252-261). Again, in the world of King Lear, the characters find it easy to plead with nature for guidance and to ask for nature‟s intervention in their lives and the lives of others. Surprisingly though, Lear asks nature for help in a cause which is clearly not good. He demands that nature “dry up” his daughter‟s organs, “fret channels in her cheeks,” and “convey sterility” in her womb (1.4.255-262). The audience knows Cordelia is virtuous; Lear believes she is not. However, like Edmund, who asks that nature help him betray his brother by demanding, “stand up for bastards” (1.2.22), Lear clearly does not feel that nature would be averse to inflicting harm on humans. Unlike the Christian God of Shakespeare‟s audience, nature is not a benevolent force.
Later, we see that nature is not only unsympathetic towards humans—it does not care about them at all. Lear exclaims, “O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars are in the poorest thing superfluous. Allow not nature more than nature needs, man‟s life is cheap as beast‟s” (2.4.259-262). Here, Lear describes human life as “cheap” under nature‟s terms. Although these lines could be interpreted in many ways, we can see that even the world‟s “basest beggars,” the lowliest of humans, are superfluous, or too much, in nature‟s eyes. Humans, it seems, are more than nature wants or requires, and therefore, their lives are worth no more than the lives of “beasts.” Nature is indifferent.
Hermesmann 4
Shortly after, Shakespeare again portrays human futility in the famous “storm scene.” He describes the “fretful elements,” the “curlèd waters,” the “impetuous blasts,” while Lear “strives in his little world of man to out-scorn the to-and-fro-conflicting wind and rain” (3.1.4-11). Lear‟s “little world” is nothing compared to the scope of nature; against its power, his humanity means nothing. As the storm continues, Lear cries, “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!...And thou, all shaking thunder…Crack Nature‟s mold, all germans spill at once that make ungrateful man” (3.2.1-9). Through this language, the audience sees the power of nature, and because Lear sees that nature cares nothing for him, he interprets this power as fury. Shakespeare uses imagery—“spout,” “singe,” “smite,” “crack,” to illustrate that in Lear‟s world, nature is a very real force in human lives.
Because nature is indifferent, this force has nothing to do with justice, and as a result, sometimes the virtuous (like Cordelia) perish. However, if the reason for Cordelia‟s death is simply that nature deemed it necessary, Lear offers little insight into the philosophy of justice. Therefore, while it is important to note that the forces of nature exist in the lives of Shakespeare‟s characters, the true significance of these images lies in nature‟s indifference. The ease with which it lashes out at humans, the comparative “cheapness” of human lives, the “machinations” of the universe—all make it clear that while nature is indeed at work, it cares little for human lives. Instead, the presence of nature rather than of a just and involved God of creation creates a strange world of “nothingness,” a world where everything is governed by the chance of nature‟s whims—and therefore, nothing really matters. The lack of a just God, characterized through the theme of nothingness and combined with the existence of indifferent natural forces, paints the world of King Lear as nihilistic. In such a world, “human existence is without objective meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value…God does not
Hermesmann 5 exist, traditional morality is false, and secular ethics are impossible” (nihilism). Under this view, life has no meaning, and it is specifically because Shakespeare sets his play in a nihilistic world that Cordelia‟s death is logical. The first image of nothingness, and probably the most often discussed in King Lear, occurs in Act One, Scene One, when Lear demands, “Tell me, my daughters—which of you shall we say doth love us most?” (1.1.46-49). Goneril, Lear‟s eldest daughter, speaks first, claiming, “I love you more than words can wield the matter; dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty; beyond what can be valued, rich, or rare; no less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honor” (1.1.53-56). With these words, Goneril specifically gives her father something, values and quantities by which to judge her love. Reagan, too, attempts to quantify her love by stating that her love is like that of her sister, “Only she comes too short” (1.1.71). Her love, too, is able to be described as something. Lear‟s youngest daughter, however, takes a different perspective. When asked how much she loves her father, Cordelia responds simply, “Nothing, my lord” (1.1.86). The conversation that follows repeats the word “nothing” five times: CORDELIA: Nothing, my lord LEAR: Nothing? CORDELIA: Nothing. LEAR: Nothing will come of nothing, speak again. (1.1.86-89)
And still, Cordelia fails to express her love her father through something, through words that claim to measure and quantify human emotion. Yet, it is clearly Cordelia who loves the most;
Hermesmann 6 her words, unlike her sisters‟, are not superfluous. She describes herself as “true” (1.1.107) and says, “I love your majesty according to my bond” (1.1.92). Even Kent urges Lear, “Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least” (1.1.152). Here, again, we see that, at least according to Kent, it is Cordelia‟s “nothing” that really matters. The “something” which Goneril and Reagan each offer is hollow, presenting only false values and no real devotion to Lear. “Nothing” is far more meaningful, far more truthful, and even far more dangerous—for Cordelia‟s simple “nothing” results in her banishment, Lear‟s madness, and ultimate tragedy seemingly without justice. “Nothing” governs the lives of Shakespeare‟s characters both literally and symbolically.
This theme of nothingness appears repeatedly throughout the text of King Lear, asserting the characters‟ belief that nothing can be derived from nothing and therefore, that no omnipresent force, just or otherwise, could have created their world. Later in Act One, the Fool offers Lear a set of morals and rules in the form of a simple nursery rhyme, to which Kent replies, “This is nothing, fool” (1.4.111). The Fool replies, “Then, „tis like the breath of an unfed lawyer; you gave me nothing for „t. Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?” (1.4.112-113); and Lear, “Why, no, boy; nothing can be made out of nothing” (1.4.114). Clearly, this idea of ex nihilio nihilfit factors strongly into the worldview of Shakespeare‟s characters. They believe that nothing is able to come out of nothing—and from this belief, we form a picture of their world, a world which could not have been created from nothing. The idea of creation from nothing, creation by a God who maintains order and balance in the world, runs completely contrary to Lear‟s doctrine. In this strange world that Shakespeare creates on stage, there is no God or gods to make sure that justice works out as it should, that the good live and the evil perish.
Hermesmann 7
Even the validity of simple life values is questioned, as shown in the conversation between the Fool, Kent, and Lear. Kent dismisses the Fool‟s moralistic rhyme as “nothing”—and both the fool and Lear agree. For, as they easily reason, the Fool received no payment for the rhyme, and nothing can come out of nothing. The rules in the Fool‟s rhyme have no meaning because, not only did he receive no payment for them, they also come from nothing—no just and moral force that determines right and wrong. In the world of King Lear, no such world exists. Finally, the ideas of nature and nothingness combine to form a complete image of the world of Lear. Edgar, Lear‟s legitimate son, says, “Welcome, then, thou unsubstantial air that I embrace! The wretch that thou hast blown unto the worst owes nothing to thy blasts” (4.1.6-9). Here, we see the power of nature, specifically of the wind, through words such as “air,” “blown,” and “blasts.” Yet, Edgar also calls the wind “unsubstantial,” because although it possesses great force, it is really nothing. As Edgar claims, even the human in the worst circumstances “owes nothing” to the wind or to nature. Man receives nothing from nature, and therefore, he owes nothing—because nature at its very core is also nothing. It is unsubstantial, and like Cordelia‟s love, unable to be quantified.
Through these images and choice of language, Shakespeare creates a world completely different than that of his audience. Regardless of the religious conflict in England at the time and the fierce debate among Catholics and Protestants, the majority of Shakespeare‟s viewers believed in a benevolent God who cared about their needs and desires, who rewarded the good and punished the wicked. Because this faith was so heavily indoctrinated into the culture of the time, the model of tragic justice which Shakespeare‟s plays typically follow makes sense. The protagonist in a tragedy should be a good person, but not a perfect person; he or she must have a
Hermesmann 8 sort of “tragic flaw” in order to justify the terrible ends which always, in a tragedy, eventually come. God will reward the good and punish the wicked, and if a person in a completely just cause falls victim to tragedy, the audience is left feeling that something is wrong, that the play did not end exactly as it ought to have ended. For this reason, readers and viewers for centuries have had a difficult time accepting Cordelia‟s death. They search for some flaw in her character or in her purpose, questioning whether she really loves Lear, whether she is working merely for her own betterment, even, as Nahum Tate did in 1689, changing the ending of Lear to preserve this apparently unflawed character. Yet, when put into context, Shakespeare‟s intentions are not so ambiguous. Cordelia dies because, although her cause is just, the world in which she lives and which Shakespeare creates is not. As represented through the references to nature as an indifferent “goddess” as well as to nothingness, King Lear is set in a nihilistic world, and in such a world, there is no force to govern right and wrong, no rules of morality or religion to make sure everything turns out like it should—and justice does not apply. In a nihilistic world, the universe is left to run rampant, and sometimes, as with Cordelia‟s death, justice does not work out. Thus, when the audience leaves King Lear feeling that something is wrong, that justice did not work out, they are correct; because Shakespeare‟s ending represents not a flaw in his writing but a flaw in the system, in the world of nothingness he creates throughout the text.
What, then, is lacking in Tate‟s ending? It is “happier” certainly, an ending that allows Cordelia to live and which asserts “That Truth and Vertue shall at last succeed” (Tate ). Yet, ultimately, Tate‟s ending is flawed because it relies on human concepts of justice and of an ordered universe that do not apply in the world of Shakespeare‟s King Lear. Notably,
Hermesmann 9 throughout Tate‟s ending, there are numerous references to the “Gods”—and while the plural still denies the acknowledgement of a single Judeo-Christian God, this is the first time the word “God” is capitalized. The “Gods” of Tate‟s ending are clearly different from those of Shakespeare‟s; they are not merely indifferent forces of nature. Edgar claims in the Tate ending, “the Gods have our sufferings; W‟are past the Fire, and now must shine to Ages.” Later, Lear asks, “did th‟inspiring Gods whisper to me alone?” and Cordelia claims, “Then there are Gods, and Vertue is their Care.” Each of these lines clearly asserts the existence of good and just Gods, Gods who will eventually make sure that the virtuous, such as Cordelia, receive justice. Unfortunately, that is not the case in Shakespeare‟s nihilistic Lear setting. There, “Vertue” does not truly exist because there is nothing to govern right and wrong, nothing to offer the characters a set of moral values by which to live. This is not to say that Cordelia and the other “good” characters have no moral values; rather, those values can only be subjective and personal, not universal values that are maintained through a higher being. Tate‟s ending is flawed because it fails to acknowledge this nihilistic and necessary aspect of Shakespeare‟s original. Justice does not always work out in such a world because in Shakespeare‟s King Lear, true divine justice does not exist. Yes, Tate‟s effort is admirable—he attempts to judge Shakespeare‟s play by the Judeo-Christian standards of justice with which he is familiar. Unfortunately, those standards do not apply.
So why would Shakespeare create and devote so much time to a world in which nothing matters? In most of his plays, Christian symbolism can easily be argued—but what about Lear? Why would a presumably Christian Shakespeare write a nihilistic play? In fact, we can easily argue that King Lear itself is not a nihilistic play, that instead, it makes a clear and strong case
Hermesmann 10 for the necessity of Christian values and beliefs. Shakespeare sets his play in a nihilistic world, but in this world where Christian beliefs are nonexistent, chaos and tragedy reign. Obviously, something is needed to hold the universe together, and we can assume the necessary something is a just God. Only in such a world is Tate‟s happier ending valid. Finally, it is necessary to note the importance of King Lear as drama—because theatre in itself is a form of nothingness. The actors, in some sense, lose all identity as they are neither themselves nor the characters they portray. They play out life and love and tragedy in a false world, where the trees are cardboard cutouts and the forces of nature are merely special effects. For three hours, perhaps, the story exists before the eyes of the audience—but when the curtain falls, it dissolves into nothingness. Like in King Lear, there is no just force that governs the ending of play. Edmund, for example, asks after Cordelia‟s death, “Is this the promised end?” (5.3.263); likewise, so questions the audience at the end of Lear—because it fails to provide the ending we want. Tate‟s ending, as previously explained, attempts to right this unexpected and undesired ending. The last lines of the epilogue are: “If you like nothing you have seen to Day/ The Play your Judgment damns, not you the play” (Tate). In other words, if you do not like what you have seen, or the way the play has ended, it is because your judgment is flawed, not the play. We see here that Tate‟s ending seeks to please the audience, and to that effect, it succeeds. However, Tate‟s final statement is superfluous because his ending fails to remain true to Shakespeare‟s original setting, a world in which justice does not exist. Thus, because Cordelia‟s death is the result of a world in which no just God governs right and wrong, we must, and should, accept Shakespeare‟s ending as it is.

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...In the play King Lear, written by William Shakespeare, King Lear tumbles into a world of insanity after his daughters, whom he once cared for dearly, deceive him. Lear's eldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, betray Lear by falsely stating their love for him at a ceremony to divide the King’s kingdom. Dismayed by what she sees as her sister’s false confessions of love, the honest and youngest sister, Cordelia, chooses a path of sincerity to not profess her love for her father. Outraged, the king then banishes Cordelia and divides the land between Goneril and Regan. This decision comes to haunt Lear, when the two sisters take away his title and drive him mad. Cordelia’s honesty, loyalty and maturity are traits that separate her from her sisters and contrast their untruthful, unfaithful and insecure nature. To begin, Cordelia and her sisters are very different in the sense that Cordelia is honest and her sisters are untruthful. Cordelia portrays a very honest character and her integrity is evident from the beginning of the play and it is carried through all the way to the end. “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave my heart into my mouth. I love your majesty according to my bond, no more nor less.” (I. ii. 91- 93) This line is delivered after Cordelia is once again asked by Lear to confess her love to him after she already she has nothing to confess. She is being honest with Lear when she tells him she simply loves him the way a daughter should. Lear was expecting Cordelia to act......

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Why Is King Lear Still Relevant

...Looking at another play, King Lear, we are able to see characters that have very real traits. King Lear himself is a good example of the type of characters Shakespeare creates. Being an old man, King Lear decides to give away his land, splitting it equally between his three daughters. This can be seen as a very wise thing to do, being able to understand that as one becomes older, their time on this earth draws close to ending. Thus, by giving away his land to his daughters, he is setting up the future for them while he still can. However, King Lear doesn’t only have noble traits, as he is also very prideful. He is unable to look past the fact that one of his daughters, Cordelia, doesn’t shower him in praises and extol his virtues like his other two daughters. He sees this as an affront to him and banishes her. Therefore, he sets into motion the chain of events that bring about his downfall. This depth allows people to actually become invested in the characters. The more people that are invested, the more that people that will...

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...Guide Sue Tweg King Lear William Shakespeare contents Character map Overview About the author Synopsis Character summaries iv 1 1 2 4 Background & context Genre, structure & language Scene-by-scene analysis Characters & relationships Themes, ideas & values Different interpretations Questions & answers Sample answer References & reading 6 10 14 24 39 55 59 64 66 iv I ns i g h t T e x t G u i d e ChARACTeR mAp Edgar Legitimate son of Gloucester, disguises himself as ‘Poor Tom’. Leads Gloucester to Dover, fights and kills Edmond, becomes king. Wise fools Companions in storm Kent Truth-teller. Disguises himself as ‘Caius’. Loyal, noble servant to Lear. Offends via discourtesy to Lear Match wits Defends, speaks boldly Defends and helps Teaches patience and saves father’s life Fool Truth-teller; endures the storm. Is possibly hanged. Teaches Lear compassion Cordelia Truth-teller. Youngest daughter, loves Lear and heals him. Loses battle and is hanged in prison. Loves Loves Offers kingdom to Edgar – accepted Gloucester Believes Edmond’s lies about Edgar. Saved from suicide by Edgar after Edmond has cause his blinding by betraying him to Cornwall. Needs Foolish old fathers meet in storm Blinds King Lear Divides his kingdom, rejects Cordelia, rejected by Gonerill and Regan. Goes mad, healed after storm by Cordelia. Dies after Cordelia is hanged. Fails to show Lear how to value Cordelia King of France Sees......

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Kinglear

...Lear: meanwhile we shall express our darker purpose Goneril: a love that makes speech unable Regan: she comes too short Lear: nothing will come of nothing Cordelia: I love your majesty according to my bond, no more no less C: obey you love you most honour you Lear: avoid my sight Kent – see better lear, the youngst daughter did not love thee least Edmund – nature art thou my goddess to thy law my services are bound Ed – I stand in the plague of custom Kent – as poor as the king Fool – thou wuld make a great fool Lear – oh let me not be mad G: loyal and natural boy Cornwall to Ed – natures of such deep trust shall we need L: Daughter do not make me mad L: thought executing fires (to storm) L: I never gave you kingdom, you owe me no subscription, let fall your horrible pleasure Edmund: the younger rises when the old doth fall L: is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts G: do me no foul play friends Regan – let him smell his way to Dover G: I have no way therefore want no eyes G: I stumbled when I saw G: AS FLIES TO WANTON BOYS ARE WE TO THE GODS, THEY KILL US FOR THEIR SPORT L: Kill x 6 L: I am the natural fool of fortune Ed – the wheel is come full circle Edgar – two extremes of passion joy and grief burst smilingly Kent: my master calls me and I must not say...

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