King Lear and Negation


Edward W. Tayler


English Literary Renaissance 20.1 (1990), pp. 17 - 39


In King Lear Shakespeare repeats the word "nothing," along with other words signifying negation, and then repeats them again. He repeats these words in an artistic pattern, almost geometrical in its exactitude, to guide our responses to what we see and hear; he repeats them, perhaps most importantly, to prepare us to understand the full force of what we see and hear at the end of the play. And finally he repeats them because there may be felt in the art of a play, as well as in the life of the mind, something more than a quibbling connection between "no" and "know," between negation and knowledge. The repetition of "no" ("know") and "nothing" lends shape to the play, provides it with its principal meanings. Without these repetitions, registered at least subliminally in the minds of the audience, King Lear would be reduced to a howl of pain and its plot to the ensemble of its incidents - improbable enough, perhaps in some respects even incoherent.[1]


Repetition, particularly of those "no", "know" and "nothing" words, constitutes the basic rhetorical technique of King Lear. If Shakespeare had not written the play, we would lack our best example of the distinction between repetition and repetitive, between reiteration and repetitiousness. Through calculated repetition the playwright gives dramatic form to what Freud elucidates in his brief but great essay "On Negation" (1925): that man is the nay - saying animal. Our intellectual as well as our moral judgments, our capacity to have knowledge and to know, derive from our having learned, early on in life, to say NO.[2]  In art as in life, negation may produce knowledge, knowledge of oneself and others; in the art of Shakespeare's theater, negation leads to anagnorisis. Although the recognition may be token or merely nominal,[3] Shakespeare lays great emphasis on the kind of recognition expressed in Cordelia's words to her sisters, "I know you what you are," and implied in Kent's "But I know you," addressed to the Oswalds of this world, which invariably carries the innuendo "for what you are." For those of Shakespeare's day this deeper kind of recognition means knowledge of substantial being (Lear's substance, for example, as distinct from "Lear's shadow").


At first Lear knows neither himself nor his daughters; the evil characters, unrecognized by the King and Gloucester for what they are, compel the good to say "nothing" (Cordelia), to be "nothing" ("Edgar I nothing am"), or "not to be known" (Kent). Lear will come to know himself first as unaccommodated man on the heath, and later as a "very foolish fond old man." Through negation Lear will fumble his way toward anagnorisis; through no - ing he will move toward the knowing of Gloucester ("I know thee well enough") and of Cordelia and Kent: "Methinks I should know you, and know this man." As unaccommodated man he comes to "recognize" in plain words plainly spoken - words far removed from the kingly magniloquence that marks the opening of the play. This play, everywhere patterned on principles of division that end in nothing, begins almost immediately to distinguish styles of speech as well as styles of conduct. The magniloquence of Lear calls forth the fulsome protestations of Goneril and Regan, diametrically opposed to the "plainness" of Kent and Cordelia. Although Lear on the heath seeks to "out - scorn" the blasts, the winds in their fury "make nothing of' him (3.1.9), and the old king's elemental declamations begin to give way to moments of rhetorical plainness, as his grandiloquent manipulation of the royal "we" descends into first - person humility or veers into the "we" of our common humanity; he divests himself of his royal robes and of what Renaissance rhetoricians called the "clothing" or "garment" of style. No longer does he speak grandly of "wide - skirted meads" (1. 1.64) but moves from the imperative "Come; unbutton here" (3.4á 107) to that final entreaty: "Pray you, undo this button" (5.3.308); he has cast off the lendings of language. We are, as Edgar (in the Folio) tells us at long last, to "speak what we feel, not what we ought to say"  - the plainness that exemplifies a "naught" or "nothing" division between word and deed, phrase and feeling. [4]


Between the rhetorical extremes of grandiloquence and silence lies what Renaissance writers knew as the "plain style," expressed in this play by plain words repeated plainly. When Lear says No, it comes out "no, no, no, no," although in speaking of the life of Cordelia he finds he can make do with "no, no, no." Cordelia cannot forgive her father with "No cause" but must repeat, movingly, "No cause, no cause." Lear, knowing that "never" signifies too short a time for the return of a life, repeats "Never, never, never, never, never." Plain speech, plainly iterated then reiterated in different contexts, gathering meanings from different associations and moving toward anagnorisis, toward the knowing of the self and the other.


Whereas repetitiousness exhausts the meanings of words ("Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow"), repetition insists above all else that a particular word -  "no," "never," "nothing"  - is the one word with sufficient precision and force to do the job, the one word impeccably apposite to the occasion: "thou art the thing itself' (3.4.104), as Lear says of unaccommodated man - no longer tricked out in the garment of style.[5]   Recourse to a thesaurus will not help; synonyms seem impertinent; paraphrase is useless. This is the poet as Adam, exhibiting his capacity to come up with the one right name for each of the animals on parade before him. At the same time, and with exactly the same insistence, repetition betrays the fact that one word will not do the job. It is the one right word, but one word will not do it; the one word must be repeated. This is the post - Babel poet, the poet who can no longer speak the Adamic tongue, the poet as quibbler who puns on "no" and "know." Repetition, as a rhetorical device, therefore exemplifies in little (and this points toward its function in Lear) the grand linguistic predicament in which we all find ourselves: that we always say both more and less than the overwhelming desire of our hearts would have us say; that in desperately trying to express our deepest concerns we cannot, as we often say, find words. They stand before the mind's eye and on the tip of the tongue, always too many words and too few. We must repeat ourselves, and at long last we find, like Cordelia, that we can say "nothing" and must take refuge, or umbrage, in silence.




The significance of the repeated words of negation in King Lear may escape us if, in our critical reveries, we ignore the actual opening of the play in favor of what critics call, with mind - numbing frequency, the fairy - tale beginning, the encounter between Lear and his daughters. King Lear in fact opens with a peculiar and significant kind of division, the kind of division that in this play invariably leaves naught or nothing in the middle and raises expectations that will be "unfolded" in the course of the play.


The first words belong to Kent, who will therefore be accorded the last words before the four - line "epilogue," bringing the play full circle from its opening division into nothing to its final division into nothing at the "promis'd end." Kent refers to time past, before Lear had made his tragic choice to divide the kingdom: "I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall." Gloucester replies: "It did always seem so to us; but now, in the division of the kingdom, it appears not which of the Dukes he values most; for equalities are so weigh'd that curiosity in neither can make choice of either's moiety" (1. 1. 1 - 6). No difference, no longer any difference, between the two. (Soon, only Kent will be able to say, "I'll teach you differences.") In this either/neither situation we first encounter the kind of equal division that leaves naught or nothing in the middle and in the way of differences.


Kent then changes the subject, as it were, to the other plot: "Is not this your son, my Lord?" After acknowledging the bastard Edmund, Gloucester adverts to the legitimate Edgar: "But I have a son, Sir, by order of law, ... who yet is no dearer in my account" (18 - 19). No dearer, no difference, the account being equal; the kind of division just advertised in the Lear plot immediately finds its parallel in the Gloucester plot. Edmund and Edgar, it appears, are to Gloucester as Cornwall and Albany to Lear. The proportion derives in each case from the kind of equal division that will eventually lead, in the economy of Shakespeare's play, to nothing.


And then, after Lear and Cordelia find that they have little and then nothing to say to each other, the King divides the royal circle of perfection into two equal halves (by implication leaving nothing in the middle) when he tells Albany and Cornwall, "This coronet part between you" (138). Lear warns Burgundy that Cordelia is "littleseeming substance" and her dowry "nothing more," to which Burgundy replies in the pattern by now characteristic of the play, "I know no answer" (197 - 200). Lear will later accentuate the negative: "Nothing: I have sworn" (244). If we have not begun to anticipate the end of the play, it is not for want of Shakespeare's having tried to induce the expectation that No has some connection with Know and that nothing will come of undifferentiated division.


Shakespeare nevertheless recurs to the subject of negation through division in the next scene, again mirroring Lear in Gloucester and again whispering ominous nothings in our ears. "Edmund, how now!" Gloucester exclaims. "What news?" Edmund, ostentatiously concealing the forged letter designed to incriminate Edgar, replies that he knows "none," that "I know no news, my Lord," and that the "paper" is "Nothing, my Lord." "No?" asks Gloucester; "the quality of nothing hath not such need to hide itself. Let's see: come; if it be nothing, I shall not need spectacles." Gloucester at last promises:


"Find out this villain, Edmund; it shall lose thee nothing" (1.2.26II2). Such repetitions of "no," "know," and "nothing" provide evidence, if evidence were needed, of Shakespeare's almost obsessive love of wordplay, and they serve as well to link the Lear plot with the Gloucester plot in parallel patterns of development that will nevertheless end very differently.[6]  Yet the repeated words must also be allowed to have established, especially for audiences closer to the habits of oral culture than our own, coherencies of expectation, intimating that we may come to hear more of nothing and naught, of none and known (pronounced alike in Shakespeare), and of no and know.


Shakespeare continues in the first act to reinforce the kinds of expectations that foreshadow the ending when he shows Lear and the Fool re - enacting the know - nothings of Lear and his "poor fool" Cordelia. The Fool sings a nonsense ditty that ought to make sense to Lear, although tragically he can make nothing of it: "This is nothing, Fool." The Fool points out to the King that "you gave me nothing for't" and asks, "Can you make no use of nothing, Nuncle?" Lear promptly repeats his earlier rebuke to Cordelia (remembering that painful moment as he repeats his own words, he must, momentarily overcome with doubt, speak the line haltingly): "Why no, boy; nothing can be made out of nothing" (1.4.126 - 30).


Even the kinds of division into nothing with which the play opens become part of the wise - foolery. The Fool's riddle - "Nuncle, give me an egg, and I'll give thee two crowns"  - turns out to have an answer that implies the usual division into nothing: "after I have cut the egg i'th'middle and eat up the meat, [you'll get] the two crowns of the egg. [T]hou clovest thy crown i'th'middle, and gav'st away both parts." Division into two, as when Lear proclaimed, "This coronet part between you," produces, in both cases, nothing. "I had rather be any kind o'thing than a fool; and yet I would not be thee, Nuncle; thou hast pared thy wit o'both sides, and left nothing i'th'middle ... ; now thou art an 0 without a figure." "I am a Fool," concludes the Fool; "thou art nothing." Goneril's face reveals her disapproval of the foolery, although she says, as the Fool remarks, "nothing." Finally the Fool points to Lear: "That's a sheard peascod" (1.4.152 - 97). Shell a peapod, and you've got nothing in the middle.


This repeated process of division into nothing, reflecting in the very language of the play the political division of the kingdom, may be grasped in a summary way simply by considering what happens to Lear's retinue.[7] When Goneril "disquantities" the hundred knights to fifty, the enraged Lear seeks out Regan. "Thy sister's naught," he says, unaware of the irony: "She hath abated me of half my train" (2.4.131,156). When Regan proposes "no more" than "five - and - twenty" (246), the King, still arithmetically divided in his feelings, tells Goneril that he will return to her: "Thy fifty yet doth double five-and-twenty, " so "thou art twice her love." But Goneril replies, "What need you five - and - twenty, ten, or five?" "What need one?" adds Regan, reminding us that "one" requires only the addition of the negative to be adopted into the family of naught, to become not one, which is none (257 - 61). Regan concludes, "But not one follower" (291): not one, none, division into nothing, which explains why Cordelia toward the end of the play, helping it to come full circle, specifies precisely a "century" of men to search for the old king (4.4.6).




The divisions into nothing, repeated over and over again, require nothing less than another way of attending to King Lear. For the sake of hypothesis and argument, we may think of this other way of spectating (or reading) as the Shakespearean way, if only to distinguish it from habits of reading derived from the novel and naturalistic drama. Hyperbole stands to plainness as plainness to silence, and it will be recalled that Shakespeare actually obliges Cordelia to say "nothing," and to say it again, which is quite a different thing from having her say nothing (1. 1. 86 - 89).


Cordelia, observing the hyperbolic insincerities of the yes - women who are her sisters, prepares us in an aside to watch her "love, and be silent" (1. 1.61). At this point it may appear that we are being prepared for silence, or at least for some kind of naturalistic response that in its plainspoken love will evoke the purity of Cordelia's devotion in dramatic contrast to the hypocritical exaggerations of her sisters. If Shakespeare had not been making so much ado about nothing, the exchange between Lear and Cordelia in the Quarto might not require a special response:


Cord. Nothing my Lord.

Lear. How, nothing can come of nothing, speake againe.

Cord. Vnhappie that I am, I cannot heaue my heart into my mouth, I loue your Maiestie according to my bond, nor more nor lesse. (sig. B2)


Muffled by the surrounding dialogue, these three "nothings" might possibly be assimilated, although only by suffering artistic amnesia with respect to the previous "nothings," to a tradition of naturalistic drama. In the Folio, however, Shakespeare has obviously gone to considerable lengths to lend "nothing" greater rhetorical prominence.


Cor. Nothing my Lord. Lear. Nothing?

Cor. Nothing.

Lear. Nothing will come of nothing, speake againe.

Cor. Vnhappie that I am, I cannot heaue

My heart into my mouth: I loue your Maiesty

According to my bond, no more nor lesse.[8]

(fols. qq2 - 2v)


Through its emphatic repetitions, the Folio suggests the direction of Shakespeare's thinking: the poet seems to be trying to make sure that we do not allow this moment to fade into the ongoing dialogue, and he seems (to phrase it more positively) to be inviting us to view the exchange as semi - allegorical or emblematic, designed not so much to reveal character or to further the plot as to reinforce our sense of the ending toward which the play has already begun to move. In other words, the Folio stresses "nothing" even more than the Quarto in an effort to make certain that we take note of a different kind of "style," so that we may find ourselves transported into another state of attentiveness, moving away from psychological realism toward what Maynard Mack calls the "emblematic mode."[9]


It will not do, then, whatever our filial pieties, to become petulant about what might seem to be the tactless retort of a defensive teenager, as though we were responding to a fiction based in the traditions of realism or naturalism.[10]   Cordelia does not say nothing out of impertinence, or to reveal her stubborn independence by going to the opposite extreme of her sisters' hypocrisies, nor even in the hope that by repeating nothing her father will come to realize that words may not correspond to feelings. The twice-repeated nothing that brackets Lear's own nothing proclaims that more is meant than meets the ear. Similarly, Lear's translation of the Aristotelean dictum ex nihilo, nihil fit ought not to be reduced to some psychological meaning. Lear's reply thumbs a metaphysical badge at the audience, authorizing the poet to enter another domain of discourse. Since the members of Shakespeare's audience had been accustomed from their early schooldays to make much ado about nothing, Lear's direct quotation of what they knew to be the basic principle of the pagan universe must be construed as a symbolic or emblematic gesture, deliberately calculated to excite uneasy premonitions.


Petrarch stoutly denounces those who would "defend the very famous or rather infamous little line of Persius," de nihilo nihilum, in nihilum posse reverti (Satires 3.84), which elegantly condenses the central assumptions of the classical philosophers but denies creatio ex nihilo.[11]   The extreme form of these assumptions appears in the materialism of Democritus and the so - called hedonism of Epicurus. Lucretius puts it baldly, definitively: nullum rem e nilo gigni divinitus, nothing can be created from nothing by divine means (Loeb De Rerum Natura 1. 150). This resounding proposition represents, explicitly for Lucretius, the very "first principle" of "nature"; nil igitur fieri de nilo posse fatendumst, therefore we must confess that nothing comes from nothing (205). And Lucretius' second main principle declares that since "matter is everlasting," nothing can return to nothing, redit ad nihilum (248 - 49; cf. 265 - 66). Having no beginning and no end, the world of the atomists and of Aristotle ever subsists. R. B. (Richard Bostocke?), in The difference betwene the auncient Phisicke , .. and the latter Phisicke (1585), accordingly attacks the "false Philosophie of Aristotle," which teaches "that of nothyng, nothynge can be made,"[12] and DuBartas (in Sylvester's version) begins his account of creation with the obligatory disparagement of "fond Democritus" who could not see that "all this All did once (of Nought) begin."[13]   Arraigned against Lear are hundreds of Christian voices such as these, the orthodox chorus denouncing the classical conception of nothing and praising the divine "Lord of Nothing" who, in the manner of a Renaissance playwright ex nihilo fit ens creatum.[14]  


Heard against this objurgatory background, the extraordinary exchange between Lear and Cordelia appears designed to provoke not only the old king but also Shakespeare's audience, although in definably different ways. The metaphysical reverberations suggest ironies unknown to the characters and as yet not fully known to the members of the audience. These nothings function as premonitory gestures aimed at an audience already uneasy in the presence of so many divisions into nothing. The exchange between Cordelia and Lear, in other words, provides a focal point for those general expectations shared by the members of an audience already attentive to the repetition of nothing, apprising them of the shape and direction that their tragic premonitions may take in the course of the play.[15] 


Encouraged again and again to expect nothing, the Elizabethan spectator, habituated from youth to the way the world came from nothing and unfolds to nothing in the drama of existence, must have begun to feel past instances obtrude on present instances of nothing, of negation and knowledge. After the disguised Kent in the stocks abandons his customarily plain syntax to make Shakespeare's usual point, musing that "Nothing almost sees miracles, / But misery" (2.2.16162), there occurs one of those comic - tragic exchanges (2.4.14 - 21) about negation that makes this painful play more painful. Informed that his "son and daughter" have stocked his servant, Lear cries out "No." "Yes," returns Kent. Lear, outraged, pursues the negative: "No, I say," to which Kent replies, "I say, yea." Lear escalates the negative: "No, no; they would not," and Kent answers, "Yes, yes, they have." Lear takes the patriarchal stand: "By Jupiter, I swear, no," only to have Kent remind him that he now lives in a matriarchy: "By Juno, I swear, ay" (spelled "luno" in the Folio, pronounced "youknow"). This kind of reiteration, accentuating the negative in varying though often parallel contexts, establishes subterranean associations, especially between negation and knowledge, no - ing and knowing, that are again and again released toward the surface in quibbling dialogue. (Lear will later lament, "To say 'ay' and 'no' to every thing that I said! 'Ay' and 'no' too was no good divinity" [4.6.98 - 100].) The brief exchange between Lear and Kent, a shudder of comic stichomythia, has its own theatrical integrity, its own passionate intensity; yet it also serves an emblematic function in the unfolding pattern of a play that constantly plays upon negation.


One more example ought to clarify the point. Lear's resolution on the heath - "No, I will be the pattern of all patience; / I will say nothing" (3.2.37 - 38) - is addressed to himself, is overheard by the Fool and Kent, and is understood by the audience to allude to Job. Although Lear expresses on this occasion, as on many others, his determination to "endure," his mode of expression, as it is heard by those of us who have been listening to iterations and reiterations of nothing from the opening of the play, takes on emblematic significance: not only the promise to try to endure in the manner of Job, the "pattern of all patience," but also the unwitting acknowledgment of Lear's stumbling approach toward the position of "patient" Cordelia, who from the beginning had elected to "say nothing." In short, Lear's words ought not to be heard in isolation - a local observation circumscribed by the particular dramatic situation - nor should they simply be catalogued as a biblical allusion to Job; Lear's resolution "alludes" to earlier parts of the play as well as to earlier literature, and it will find echoes later in the play. Analepsis, prolepsis. The old king's words must be sensed as part of the unfolding process of expectation, squinting backward and forward as the play moves from one nothing to another.


In this the play resembles the world of Shakespeare's audience, the "great Globe itself," which moves from its beginning in nothing to its end in nothing and which therefore serves as a reservoir of expectations for a dramatist who ex nihilo fit ens creatum. Frank Kermode likens this view of "unfolding" time to "tick - tock," the tick of Alpha inviting the spectator to anticipate the tock of Omega as the play ticks, in theatrical imitation of the metaphysical timepiece, toward its "promis'd end."[16]  As Gloucester says to the ruined Lear, giving voice to the commonplace from within the play: "This great world / Shall so wear out to naught" (4.6.133 - 34).[17]   The iambic pentameter is completed in a manner characteristic of this play, reanimating the commonplace parallel between theater and theatrum mundi by assimilating it to the recurring association of negation and knowledge:


"Dost thou know me?"


The mode of expression, the precise phrasing, of Edmund's lies to Edgar provides a clear illustration of the way Shakespeare seeks to manipulate the expectations of his audience with respect to beginnings and endings. "I have told you what I have seen and heard; but ... nothing like the image and horror of it" (1.2.170 - 72). Cordelia, recalling Matthew 10.26 (in the Geneva version "there is nothing couered, that shal not be disclosed, nor hid that shal not be knowen"), had warned us what to expect in the first scene: "Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides" (1. 1.279).[18]   We, who shall see and hear the remainder of the play, are being prepared to expect the end, when Edgar sees Lear with Cordelia in his arms and hears him howl. It is not, precisely, what Kent hazards at the time, the "promis'd end" of the Last Judgment or final "unfolding" (for that is the meaning of Apocalypse) but rather the alternative suggested by Edgar himself: "Or image of that horror?" Not only this scene but the playas a whole represents the "image" of that "horror," its basic "conceit" inscribing a theatrical arc from nothing to nothing. The apocalyptic unfolding at the end becomes in this economy the time to recognize, to know "nothing" for what it is: "there is nothing couered ... that shal not be knowen." Edmund's early "nothing like the image and horror of it" has become, in the unfolding of time, Edgar's "image of that horror" - which is like nothing (5.3.261 - 62). This is indeed the movement, the form, of the play.




It may help to clarify the purpose of these remarkable techniques of repetition and recall if we distinguish between plot and what I am reluctantly prepared to call proleptic form. Neither lined nor colored, this kind of form does not appear as an identifiable object in our field of vision, nor even in the symmetrical "plot" of such objects as they present themselves as ensemble in the spatial arrangement of a work such as da Vinci's Last Supper. Listening to a run of notes, plotting as it were a musical sequence, ought not to be confused with appreciating the "form" of a sonata by Scarlatti. For that we require expectation. As Coleridge puts it, in listing what he feels to be the first and distinguishing characteristic of Shakespeare's mature plays: "I. Expectation in preference to surprise. It is like the true reading of the passage; - 'God said, Let there be light, and there was light'; - not there was light." As spectators we travel, so to speak, through the play on two tracks - one of plot, where we may find ourselves more or less surprised by the turn of events or even titillated by the possibility of a happy ending, and the other of proleptic form, where through repetition we gather and retain a number of expectations about the "promis'd end." Why settle for half the play that Shakespeare wrote in Coleridge's view, the "lower" half at that? "As the feeling with which we startle at a shooting star, compared with that of watching the sunrise at the pre - established moment, such and so low is surprise compared with expectation."[19]19 Not plot alone, not form alone, but the interaction of the two: here lies the source of the power of the play to move us, the source of the awful inevitability of the "promis'd end" of the play.




For fellow theists it follows from Gloucester's commonplace that this "great world" comes from nothing and, venire ad nihilum, goes all to naught, with a temporal parenthesis of being in - between. Although Wittgenstein dismissed the idea of nothing as a "muddle felt as a problem," the great nullophiliacs - Plato's Parmenides, Augustine, Hegel, Heidegger, Bergson, Sartre, Donne, Shakespeare - all succumbed to the lure of this fatal Cleopatra. Shakespeare's own obsession with nothing begins in the 1590s and reaches its culmination about a decade later, in King Lear; and it is not too hard to suggest some of the reasons why the poet found himself initially beguiled by this, the most seductive pun in the language.[20]  Suggesting the end of speech or silence, nothing remains a word, an utterance that for Cordelia points toward no utterance. Probably sounded in a way that made Elizabethans hear something of "noting," certainly pronounced in London with a long "0," the word may have had punning associations with surveillance, as with the persistent "noting" of Much Ado, or with music, as it does in Richard II's soliloquy in prison.[21]  Signifying what lies between a maid's legs, as when Hamlet brutally jokes to Ophelia of "country matters," the word nothing points to sex, and through sexuality it may, on Freudian occasions, point toward psyche. Signifying privation, the theological nothing that constitutes the bottom line of the scale of being (in the technical sense of Augustinian neoplatonism), the word commands respect in manners, morals, and metaphysics, as in Macbeth where the protagonist chooses, tragically, to see that "nothing is / But what is not" (1. 3.141 - 42).


Derived from no, the negation we first learn and last relinquish, the family of naught and nothing has kissing cousins by quibble in the family of To Have Knowledge and To Know, especially carnal knowing and knowing of identity. "Know" and "no," then as now, were indistinguishable in sound, as "known" and "none" were then, although not now. Corresponding to the sign of the cipher, nothing suggests the circle, which for Renaissance thinkers represents the perfect form as no - form or zero, expressing everything and nothing like that most human circle of speech, the primal ejaculation O. King Lear, called by the Fool an "0 without a figure" (1.4.189 - 90), inhabits what Shakespeare calls the "wooden 0" (Henry V; Pro. 13) of the Globe Theatre, theatrical circle inscribed within the greater globe inhabited by Shakespeare's audience. All this all, says Gloucester, "shall so wear out to naught," circles into ciphers.


It seems easy enough to imagine a connection between the childhood "No, no, don't touch" and The Decalogue, which prohibits adultery. And it seems almost as easy to imagine that out of early situations in which we hear "No" as a command, as a prohibition, come the attitude deplored as negativism, the odd pronoun that is not one but none, the principle known as negativity, the person named nobody, the place discovered to be nowhere, the time referred to as never, the doctrine espoused as nihilism, the notion called nullity, and the grand concept denominated nothing - all grounded, according to Kenneth Burke, in the "implicit ability to intuit" in language the "noness of No." Prompted by Bergson's argument in "On the Idea of Nothing" that we can form no image of nothing, Burke demonstrates that the "essential distinction between the verbal and the nonverbal is in the fact that language adds the peculiar possibility of the Negative."[22] Expecting that we may be uncomfortable, we may well find ourselves saying, in language and with relief, that the ground is not wet - but the earth itself remains positively and affirmatively dry. There is no "no" in nature, just as there can be no image of nothing in the imagination. In language, however, there is "no"; in language alone there is naught and nothing.


In what seems to be the most interesting of the early novellas, the case - history of "Dora," Freud adduces, with respect to the advances of Herr K., the lady's "most emphatic negative," and then explains that the "No" does "no more than register the existence of a repression and its severity"; in short, Dora's" 'No' signifies the desired 'Yes'." This analytic insight - if indeed the analyst is right about his patient in this particular instance - receives general formulation elsewhere in Freud, who states categorically on many occasions that "we never discover a 'No' in the unconscious." As he observes on many other occasions, there is nothing in the id that can be compared with negation, because "negative judgment is the intellectual substitute for repression."[23] There is no "no" in nature, no image of nothing in the imagination, and no "no" in the unconscious; but in language there is negation, and King Lear must be considered its exemplary lexicon.


Gloucester at first appears to the crazed Lear as an emblematic apparition (had she not turned the world upside - down?), a "Goneril, with a white beard" (4.6.96), but then the old king shows that he, an unaccommodated man no longer shielded (and blinded) by "Lear's shadow" of royalty, has begun to know No. Out of his madness he manages to communicate his recognition of Freud's meaning of negation, Dora's meaning of No as Yes. It will lead to anagnorisis, the recognition of the humanity of others and of himself.


Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand!

Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back;

Thou hotly lusts to use her in that kind

For which thou whipp'st her.

(r58 - 6r)


The beadle's denial by reversal - a form of displacement in which the "negative judgement" functions as the "substitute for repressionÓ expresses the desire in terms of its opposite, and Lear's understanding of this inversion in the primary process ("No" meaning "Yes") constitutes the first stage in "knowing" the significance of "no. " Lear then recognizes, out of his turning wits, the Christian meaning of negation: "none [pronounced "known"] does offend, none, I say, none" (166). And then, out of his turning wits and out of the two previous recognitions, Lear comes to acknowledge Gloucester, to recognize him for what he is in plainly stated and greatly moving words: "I know thee well enough; thy name is Gloucester" (175).[24]24 No becomes To Know, negation knowledge; and such examples epitomize the psychological mystery of a play in which knowing No leads to anagnorisis.


The play proceeds against the background quibbling of no and know, none and known; against the background of repeated nothings. Although it would be tedious to catalogue any more instances, it may help in this context to point to the dramatic function of Kent, who embodies the principle of protraction that pervades the play until the final recognitions, the final "unfoldings," at the "promis'd end." Kent had informed a gentleman, who does not know Kent though Kent knows him, that a "dear cause" must "in concealment wrap me up awhile" until the precise moment of anagnorisis, "When I am known aright" (4.3.5 I - 53). The time is not yet; it is not yet what Edgar, who also remains "wrapped up," calls the "mature time" (4.6.272). Kent entreats Cordelia to "know me not"  - and by implication invites us to exercise patience until the "promis'd end" when "ripeness is all" (the lesson learned by Gloucester on the imaginary cliff): "Yet to be known shortens my made intent: / My boon I make it that you know me not / Till time and I think meet" (4.7.9 -  I I). We know that "Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides," but meanwhile Kent remains folded up in his disguise, declining until the moment of recognition to "put ... off' the "weeds" of "worser hours."


Lear enters, carried in a chair and still asleep. They have put "fresh garments on him" (4.7.22), emblematic of the fact that he will now speak afresh, in the plain style ("to deal plainly," he says) and against the coming of the end. In the words of Sir Thomas Browne, "This is that one day, that shall include and comprehend all that went before it, wherein as in the last scene, all the Actors must enter, to compleate and make up the Catastrophe of this great peece."[25] And the quibbling upon negation and knowledge, upon no - ing and knowing, moves toward the series of near - recognitions and recognitions - all those dramatic unfoldings, those theatrical apocalypses - that foreshadow the "promis'd end" when we shall know, according to St. Paul, as now we are known. It is the moment for which we have been readied: "The weight of this sad time we must obey." Now we are to "speak what we feel, not what we ought to say" (5.3.322 - 23).


Cordelia asks, "Sir, do you know me?" Lear finds that "I know not what to say," although he also feels that "methinks I should know you and know this man"; and out of his terribly mixed feelings ("nor I know not") comes the terrible, "I know you do not love me." It is in this context of anagnorisis and negation that we hear Cordelia's "No cause, no cause" (4.7.48 - 75). Nearing the end we will feel the force of Lear's "No, no, no, no" (5.3.8); Goneril will make her last exit (in the manner appropriate to this particular play), "Ask me not what I know" (159); and when Albany observes that Lear "knows not what he says" (292)., we know that it is also time for the old king's last exit, time for him to unbutton for the second and last time in the play. "And my poor fool is hang'd! No, no, no life!" She shall "come no more":


Never, never, never, never, never!

Pray you, undo this button: thank you, Sir.

Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,

Look there, look there!



We may try to conceive of this moment as absurdist, or even attempt to find in it an anticipation of the Theater of Cruelty.[26] 26 Dr. Johnson could not endure it, and Nahum Tate devised the happy ending that held the stage for a century and a half, although today such productions are staged by silent emendation only in the mind. A. C. Bradley and his modern followers find in this unbearable moment the redemption of Lear who dies believing that Cordelia lives, which makes for a good enough play, a kind of divine tragicomedy; but not the better one that Shakespeare wrote.[27]




The ending is, after all, not only difficult to endure as a thing in itself. Plot, as distinct from the pattern of no - know - nothing expectations I have been calling proleptic form, has allowed at least some of us to hope, particularly if we have read one or more of Shakespeare's sources, that we may come upon some kind of poetic justice at Dover. As Stephen Booth has shown, and as many first - time spectators know to their cost, the "movement of the play [in my terms, "plot"] is toward a happy ending." Not only do certain incidents - for example, France's choice of Cordelia - suggest that all may yet be well; also Shakespeare delays, even teases, the moment of closure, which allows Booth to compile "an anthology of familiar signals that a play is ending."[28]28 Nevertheless, and all the while, proleptic form warns us that the "worst is not" yet; it reminds us that the playworld has not yet worn "out to naught," that it can only reach its end in "nothing." Again and again we find that "familiar signals" of closure (for exampIe, Albany's speech after the battle) serve instead to "stretch" us out farther on the "rack of this tough world" (5.3.313 - 14). Arrested again and again, the movement of plot toward the happy ending that will never come holds in suspension one set of expectations, delaying the moment when proleptic form will at long last coincide with plot to fulfill the contrary set of expectations - not Bradley's or the Revisionists' but Shakespeare's.


Bradley acknowledges that Lear's "look there, look there" may "bring a culmination of pain: but," he adds, "if it brings only that, I believe we are false to Shakespeare, and it seems almost beyond question that any actor is false to the text who does not attempt to express, in Lear's last accents and gestures and look, an unbearable joy." In which case the old king, his "last accents" expressing "unbearable joy" as well as the "culmination of pain," would die in the language of paradox, precisely in the manner of Gloucester whose "flaw'd heart," we learn from Edgar, "'Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief, / Burst smilingly" (5.3.197 - 98). In which case the Lear plot and the Gloucester plot would parallel each other throughout, each plot finding its aesthetic repose in an identical kind of antithetical equilibrium. This line of argument, along with its comforting corollaries, has Bradley's fine instincts as well as the principle of parsimony to recommend it - yet it ignores the proleptic form of the play.


Gloucester dies in Edgar's narrative of the event, but Lear's death must be staged to the eye as well as the ear. Gloucester's heart, " 'twixt two extremes," bursts in paradox, which is to say that the poet has come about as close as possible in language to the expression of that which lies outside language. Although George Herbert also aspires in his poems to a silence beyond paradox, most Renaissance poets seem satisfied to exploit the rhetorical technique in the manner of John Donne, advertising through their dazzling paradoxes the poetic fact that they are engaged in a witty raid on the inexpressible. Shakespeare, reluctant merely to scout the margins of the ineffable, evidently conceived of the Gloucester plot not only as a parallel but also as a norm from which to diverge, as a way of going beyond paradox toward significant silence. Paradox, spoken by the actor and heard by the spectator, may be fully appreciated as part of the plot, but through proleptic form Shakespeare seeks to communicate a kind of meaningful muteness inaccessible to paradox - the inaudible saying of nothing.


Cordelia has shown us that speech is to silence as being is to nothing, and we ourselves knew all along that deeper knowledge of another's being requires the recognition (anagnorisis) of negative as well as positive impulses. Since punning is a mode of thought as well as the highest form of wordplay, the quibbling of no - know - nothing words constitutes a forcible reminder that we must know No in order to know: to know, for example, the No of the rascal beadle in order to know not only the rascality of the beadle but also to know something of the subterranean nay-sayings of our own minds. In King Lear Shakespeare narrows the margins of the mystery of negation, and while his quibbles may not prove equally resonant for all of us, I am assuming that most of us hope that we may on occasion avoid the tendency of the mind to deny its own being through the No of repression - in our lives, and on this occasion with respect to the ending of King Lear.


We have no need, then, to speculate with Bradley or anyone else about what Lear sees and hears when, no longer able to avert his gaze, he "looks" on Cordelia's "lips." This is the "promis'd end," promised over and over again from Kent's opening words, which from the very first lines begin to establish the proleptic form of the play. "Nothing will come of nothing," Lear had said, not too much later, to Cordelia: "Speak again." The word does not reach us on this occasion through narrative report, as in Edgar's account of his father's death. It is not expressed in paradox, nor does Lear's heart break "smilingly" between "two extremes" of "joy and grief." Since Shakespeare aspires to silence, to an audible muteness beyond paradox, the word appears neither on the page nor in the mouth of any actor. It echoes instead in the mind of the spectator where proleptic form - the fulfillment of precisely those expectations that run counter to the comedic expectations of plot - causes the word nothing to resound.


Cordelia's lips - "Look there, look there! " - remain unmoving and say nothing, as Lear's "nothing will come of nothing," uttered unknowingly in the beginning, reaches its ironic unfolding in the time of the "promis'd end." Nothing we now know - nothing Lear now knows - can come of nothing. In our minds we hear the auditory counterpart of the "image of that horror," the "soundless" sound of nothing unfolded in relation to the image of nothing on stage, as Cordelia, who had earlier said "nothing," now says nothing, and the old king, hearing nothing, returns to the nothing from which he came: "O ruin'd piece of Nature! This great world / Shall so wear out to naught." Lear has come to know No, to know naught and nothing, no longer through a glass darkly. It is Lear's apocalypse, the theatrical "image of that horror," and the unfolding of the deepest and most final of truths.


In ways I have tried to sketch Shakespeare reveals from the beginning how his own creation ex nihilo, the world played out in the wooden 0 of the Globe Theatre, shall so wear out to naught. Kent's last words, the last words before the four - line "epilogue," point to the effect of the playas a whole: they are neither pessimistic nor optimistic, neither tragic nor comic, neither despairing nor "redemptivist." In no way reducible to abstract dichotomies, his words have behind them the force of the play; he does not say Yes, he does not say No. His words, like the psychic connections between No and Know, touch the penumbra of uncanny feelings that surround our everyday endeavors but evade rational formulation - no more amenable to academic discourse than Kurtz's "The horror, the horror." Kent, his "not ... no" signifying his readiness to return to the nothing from which he came, speaks what he feels and also what, in the controlling terms of this playworld, he ought to say: "My master calls me, I must not say no."



[1] This essay, delivered as lectures in various versions at the University of Virginia, the Huntington Library, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and the University of Tel Aviv, has received valuable criticism from James Biester, William Kerrigan, Gregory Lombardo, Christina Moustakis, Peter Rudnytsky, James Shapiro, Irene Tayler, and Saul Touster; David S. Kastan and Edward Pechter showed me what to try to do and how it might be done.


[2] Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, ed. and trans. James Strachey (24 vols.; London, 1953 - 1974), XIX (1961), pp. 235 - 39. Cf. Rene A. Spitz, No and Yes: On the Genesis of Human Communication (New York, 1957): the "unconscious does not have a 'No,''' and the prototypical motor responses of head - nodding and head - shaking "arise in the period of nondifferentiation, when not only 'Yes' was indistinguishable from 'No', but when crying is confused with laughing by the observer" (146). Maire Jaanus Kurrik, Literature and Negation (New York, 1979), provides an extensive bibliography as well as stimulating insights, and Rosalie Colie, Paradoxia Epidemica (Princeton, 1966), has drawn attention to what amounts to an obsession with "nothing" during the Renaissance; on Lear see esp. pp. 463 - 8 I.


[3] Hugh L. Kennedy, "King Lear: Recognizing the Ending," Studies in Philology, 71 (1974), 371 - 84, for a well - nigh exhaustive account of the huge number of recognitions, mis-recognitions, and near-recognitions. Cf. W. F. Blissett, "Recognition in King Lear," in Some Facets of "King Lear", ed. Rosalie L. Co lie and F. T. Flahiff (Toronto, 1974), pp. 103 - 16.


[4] 4. See Emily W. Leider, "Plainness of Style in King Lear," Shakespeare Quarterly, 21 (1970), 45 - 53, and Anne Barton, "Shakespeare and the Limits of Language," Shakespeare Survey, 24 (1971), 19 - 30; cf. Sheldon P. Zitner's essay on the sheer importance of "language" to the play in Some Facets.


[5] I quote, citing in parentheses, from the Arden Edition of Kenneth Muir (1952; rpt. London, 1978).


[6] Sigurd Burckhardt, "The Quality of Nothing, " Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton, 1968), pp. 237 - 59, is particularly incisive on the relation of the two plots, and I also want to acknowledge my general indebtedness to his stimulating discussion.


[7] Cf. the fine chapter on Lear in David Scott Kastan's Shakespeare and the Shapes of Time (Hanover, N.H., 1982), pp. 102 - 22, esp. pp. II7 - 20.


[8] Shakespeare's Plays in Quarto, ed. Michael J. B. Allen and Kenneth Muir (Berkeley and London, 1981), and First Folio, facsimile ed. Charlton Hinman (New York, 1968).


[9] 9. "Engagement and Detachment in Shakespeare's Plays," Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama in Honor of Hardin Craig (Columbia, Miss., 1962). Cordelia's words (and Lear's responses) do of course reveal "character" and help to make up "plot." Nevertheless, these "nothings," which have no counterpart in the sources of the play, provide a particularly clear illustration of Shakespeare's methods, constituting as they do a radical departure from the various modes of discourse used elsewhere to reveal "naturalistic" feelings or to suggest psychological depths. When Lady Macbeth declares that she would have killed Duncan "had he not resembled my father / As he slept" (2.1.12 - 13), the dramatist plainly invites a psychological response, even for the kind of reader who might be hesitant to offer a psychoanalytical interpretation centered in the ambiguous "he" of "he slept," When Macbeth, on the other hand, describes Duncan's "silver skin laced with his golden blood" (2.3.108), the dramatist provides us with an emblematic moment, a moment of intellectual detachment in which we meditate the thematic implications of the alchemical symbolism. It would be possible, I suppose, to construct a psychoanalytical interpretation of why Shakespeare chose to have Macbeth speak in the technical jargon of alchemy at this juncture, but the description can afford little if any psychoanalytical insight into the character of Macbeth himself. Similarly, David Willbern, in a wide-ranging and extraordinarily sensitive essay on "Shakespeare's Nothing" in Representing Shakespeare; New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and CoppeIia Kahn (Baltimore, 1980), pp. 244 - 63, misses at least part of the point by concentrating his attention on the "hidden genital significance" of Cordelia's "nothings." cf. Robert F. Fleissner, "The 'Nothing' Element in King Lear," Shakespeare Quarterly, 13 (1962); Leonard Shengold, "More about the Meaning of 'Nothing'," Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 43 (1974); Douglas Fraser, "Much Virtue in 'Nothing'," Cambridge Quarterly, 8 (1978).


[10] This kind of response, which has become accessible to readers since the nineteenth century, appears in Coleridge ("some little faulty admixture of pride and sullenness in Cordelia's 'Nothing' ") and stems from the Romantic emphasis on "character." Reversing the opinion held by Aristotle and his Renaissance commentators (that the characters are agents of plot), Coleridge maintains that the "interest in the plot is always in fact on account of the characters, not vice versa ... ; the plot is mere canvas and no more," a conviction that permitted him to dismiss the first scene as superfluous (Lectures and Notes 011 Shakespeare and Other Poets, ed. T. Ashe [London, 1904], pp. 335 and 239 - 40). G: R . .Elliot, The King Lear Perplex, ed. Helmut Bonheim (Belmont, Calif., 1960), begins his psychological or "naturalistic" interpretation by pointing out that Lear had, after all, merely asked his youngest daughter politely to "mend your speech a little," meaning only that "she was expected to utter her love briefly, simply, and sincerely, in happy contrast with her sisters." Instead, concludes Elliot, "she has spoken, as Lear perceives, and as every reasonable person must perceive, with 'pride which she calls plainness' .... The deep tenderness of her love for her father, equaling his for her, has been overcome for the time being by blind, unconscious, angry pride" (p. 171). From this kind of reading we may conclude that "every reasonable person must perceive" whatever one's experience of literary convention has led one to perceive as reasonable.


[11] l owe the reference to William Elton, King Lear and the Gods (San Marino, Calif., 1968), p. 183, who in the course of a learned argument aimed in part at "redemptionist" readings provides an excellent account of the controversy over nothing.


[12] 12. As quoted in Elton, King Lear and the Gods, p. 183, with corrections from the original; Elton also cites (p. 186) Brian Melbancke, Philotimus (1583), who seeks to refute the Aristotle whose "physicke affirmes ... ex nihilo, nihil fit."


[13] Although the facsimile, introduced by Francis C. Haber (Gainesville, Fla., 1965), includes the explanatory marginalia, I am quoting from The Divine Weeks and Works of Guillaume de SaZuste Sieur du Bartas, ed. Susan Snyder (2 vols.; Oxford, 1979), I, 112; cf. I, 114, II7, 120, and esp. II, 140: "Since first the Lord of Nothing made this Frame, / Nought's made of nought; and nothing turns to nothing." The locus classicus is Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, II. xvi, citing Genesis to prove that "to create is nothing" other than to "bring something into being" without "prevalent matter" and to refute the "error of the ancient philosophers" who supposed that matter has no cause, "whence they drew the opinion common to all that from nothing naught is made [1 Phys. iv.2]."


[14] 14. Puttenham, like Sidney, has recourse to the analogy: "A Poet is as much to say as a maker. ... Such as (by way of resemblance and reuerantly) we may say of God; who without any trauell to his diuine imagination made all the world of nought" (Elizabethan Critical Essays, ed. G. Gregory Smith [2 vols.; Oxford, 1904), II, 3). The parallel between an artistic deity and the god - like poet, between the two kinds of creation from "nought," lends force to the metaphor of theatrum mundi; the play begins in "nothing" and finds its "promis'd end" in "nothing." But see also James I. Calderwood, "Creative Uncreation in King Lear," Shakespeare Quarterly, 37 (1986), 5 - 19.


[15] Kent and Gloucester will later give voice to the political dimension - staged to the view of Elizabethans as early as Gorboduc – of these anxieties. When Kent meets the Gentleman on the Heath and greets him with "I know you" (3.1.3), he must later repeat, "Sir, I do know you," to lend emphasis to what he must add:


And dare, upon the warrant of my note,

Commend a dear thing to you, There is division,

Although as yet the face of it is cover'd

With mutual cunning, 'twixt Albany and Cornwall. (17 - 20)


The factional "division" that is "cover'd" will be "unfolded," but meanwhile Kent remains in disguise, the "fellow" whom "yet you do not know" (49), and Gloucester gives Edmund his opportunity: "Go to; say you nothing. There is division between the Dukes, and a worse matter than that" (3.3.8 - 9). In short, Kent and Gloucester, in speaking of the political divisions that have followed Lear's division of the kingdom, reawake in the audience the anxieties over succession that Shakespeare's nothings will channel toward the "promis'd end" of the play.


[16] The Sense of an Ending (Oxford and New York, 1967), pp. 44ff.; this seminal work, to. which I am greatly indebted, bears importantly on the theses advanced here.


[17] Read perhaps by the young and reverential as a great thought, metaphysical wisdom from the Bard; by the scholar as a topos based in the venerable comparison of macrocosm to microcosm; but to be heard in King Lear as emblematic in relation to "naught" and "know."


[18] Since Cordelia draws on proverbial lore (see Morris Palmer Tilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries [Ann Arbor, Mich., 1950]), we may be tempted to deny the (Renaissance) truism its due weight in relation to the "time" of the play as a whole, even though we know that poets help us realize yet once more the truth of truisms. (Whether Cordelia says "plighted," "plaited," or "pleated" does not make too much difference in this particular context, for the words are related and in any case the idea of temporal "unfolding" remains dominant.) We may be reasonably sure that the proverb retains its power in the Renaissance, having behind it not only such incontestable truths as Matthew 10.26, Mark 4.22, Luke 8.17 and 12.2, and the important I Cor. 4.5 ("Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who will lighten things that are hid in darkness") but also the prevailing assumption that, although God delays and works in mysterious ways, the time of Christian history will eventually bring truth - however dismaying, however awful - to light. See Fritz Saxl, "Veritas Filia Temporis," in Essays in Philosophy and History Presented to Ernst Cassirer, ed. Raymond Klibansky (New York, 1963), pp. 197 - 222, for the religious and political significance of this complex of ideas. Cordelia's truism certainly holds true for the temporal pattern of this play, which again and again delays its "unfoldings" until "ripeness is all" and the awful truth comes to light in the "nothing" of death.


[19] Lectures and Notes, p. 237


[20] Although David Willbern, cited above, provides the best general treatment of nothing in Shakespeare, he relies almost exclusively on psychoanalytical methods; on the other hand, Paul A. Jorgensen, "Much Ado About Nothing," Shakespeare Quarterly, 5 (1954), 287 - 95, rpt. Redeeming Shakespeare's Words (Berkeley, 1962), handles even the sexual puns rather gingerly but is more securely anchored in the history of the period, providing a wide range of references by no means limited to Much Ado or to Shakespeare; see also J. J. M. Tobin, "More on 'Nothing'," Notes and Queries, 32 (1985), 379 - 80.


[21] Fausto Cercignani, Shakespeare's Works and Elizabethan Pronunciation (Oxford, 1981); Helge Kiikeritz, Shakespeare's Pronunciation (New Haven, 1966), p. 132, and cf. p. 320.


[22] Language as Symbolic Action (Berkeley, 1966), pp. 459 and 420; on negation, see esp. pp. 913, 65, 140, 195, 402 - 04, 419 - 69; on nothing, see esp. pp. 419, 437, 454, 469 - 79. Burke maintains that "language by its very nature necessarily culminates in the Negative, hence negation is of the very essence of language" (p. 457).


[23] Standard Edition, V (1953), pp. 57 - 59; XIX (1961), pp. 235 - 39á


[24] It seems to me that Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say? (New York, 1968), pp. 267 - 358, is particularly fine in his handling of this moment; his essay is very much of the 1960s but among the very best of that time.


[25] Religio Medici and Other Works, ed. L. C. Martin (Oxford, 1964), p. 44. For background' see Kermode, Sense of an Ending (cited earlier), The Apocalypse in English Renaissance Thought and Literature, ed. C. A. Patrides and Joseph Anthony Wittreich, Jr. (Ithaca, 1984), esp. Wittreich's contribution, ch. 7; and, to be used with considerable caution, the more extended treatment of Lear in Image of That Horror (San Marino, Calif., 1984).


[26] In an essay that deserves more attention than I think it has had, Edward Pechter, "On the Blinding of Gloucester," ELH, 45 (1978), 181 - 200, acknowledges the "revolution in Lear criticism" but points out that most "of the current Revisionists [of Bradley] seem to imply that suffering is in itself a good experience, and in some cases this is made explicit in the name of such evidently fashionable counters as Reality, Absurdity, our-inhabiting-an-imbecile universe, the Theater of Cruelty, and the like. These terms can point to some quantity of truth about the play, probably no less (and no more) than their sentimental counterparts, love, forgiveness, renewal; but they too remain vague, evasive, anesthetic." The play itself speaks neither in "fashionable counters" nor in "sentimental counterparts" but in the language of nothing - and the rest is silence.


[27] Shakespearean Tragedy (1904; rpt. New York, 1955), pp. 233 - 34. Although the reaction against Bradley had become the standard reading for critics like Barbara Everett, "The New King Lear," Critical Quarterly, 2 (1960), 325 - 39, the problem of the ending remains obdurately the problem for the playas a whole. Rene Fortin attempts in "Hermeneutical Circularity and Christian Interpretations of King Lear," Shakespeare Studies (Tennessee), 12 (1979), I I 3 - 25, to bring Bradley, as it were, up to date by arguing that the ending of the play "presents a demythologized Christianity ... founded upon hope rather than fulfillment." Charles Nicholl, The Chemical Theatre (London, 1980), finding hope in Cordelia, the philosopher's stone that redeems Lear, and John Cunningham, "King Lear, the Storm, and the Liturgy," Christianity and Literature, 34 (1984) 9 - 30, finding hope in the storm as the sacrament of baptism, offer further testimony to the vitality of a tradition that seeks to endure the unendurable. It needs to be said that a "Christian" reading based on the understanding of "nothing" espoused by Renaissance Christians is not less but more terrible than anything imagined by modern spectators. Beyond death and beyond words lies the Word, but Shakespeare does not repeat that "word"; he repeats "nothing," until finally we hear the "nothing" that Richard II knows as "being nothing."


[28] King Lear, Macbeth, Indefinition, and Tragedy (New Haven, 1983), "The Greatness of King Lear," esp. p. 57. Elsewhere Booth (p. 162, n. 8) insists, with an unconscious irony apposite to my argument, that "Lear learns nothing in the course of the play" and that "King Lear has nothing to teach us." Exactly. Lear himself comes finally to know nothing, and the play teaches us to know something of nothing.