“The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices/Make instruments to plague us.”

King Lear

Act Five, Part Three

By Dennis Abrams


From Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare and Modern Culture:

lear act five“Shakespeare’s King Lear was written and performed at a moment of high volatility and change in the use of mathematics, pictorial perspective, and, indeed, in the use of paper money for financial transactions. All of these changes were related to the importation into Europe, and the gradual adoption, of the concept and sign for zero – and of zero’s relationship to the equally problematic philosophical and religious question of ‘nothing.’ The argument is brilliantly made in Signifying Nothing: The Semiotics of Zero, a book by the mathematician and philosopher Brian Botman, to which my understanding of this cultural history is greatly indebted.

‘Nothing will come of nothing,’ Lear’s famous rebuke – or encouragement – to his daughter Cordelia, was in fact a familiar proverb, often expressed in its Latin form: Ex nihilo nihil fit (From nothing, nothing comes). In fact, it is as if he replies with an impatient cliché to her heartfelt ‘Nothing’ in response to his question, ‘what can you say to draw/A third more opulent than your sister? Speak.’

Does ‘nothing come of nothing? What about the creation of the world? Or, said Renaissance scholars, what about the egg? The egg, which was the symbol of generation, was shaped like a zero. As a result, writers in the period often used it an emblem of the paradox of everything and nothing.

This is the point, perhaps, or one of the points, of the Fool’s joke about the egg:

Fool:  …Give me an egg, nuncle, and I’ll give thee two crowns.

Lear:  What two crowns shall they be?

Fool:  Why, after I have cut the egg i’ the middle, and eat up the meat, the two crowns of the egg.

The image here is that of ‘nothing’ (the yolk of the egg has been eaten by the practical Fool) inside two crowns that are now hollow and empty. And of course the devolution from royal crown to this homely image makes its own point. It’s the same scene, and just before this, that the Fool offers his own catechism to Lear: ‘Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?’ And he gets the same reply Lear made to Cordelia, ‘Why, no, boy; nothing can be made out of nothing.’

It is also the Fool who makes the equation of zero with nothing: ‘now thou art an 0 without a figure. I am better than thou art now; I am a fool, thou art nothing.’ This is an image from the new mathematics, the mathematics of Hindu or Arabic numbers. The number system that has a zero. The system that understands that zero is a sign, not the absence of a sign.

Zero is in a multiple, punning sense a cipher here: a symbol or character of no value by itself, which increases or decreases the value of other figures according to its position: a person or thing of no value; a numeral; a hieroglyph; and a cryptograph – a secret of disguised manner of writing. In other words, in a modern sense, a code.

Notice too that, in this very arithmetically minded play, all thirds are apparently not equal. Lear has already elaborately given thirds of his kingdom to Goneril and Regan, in response to their glozing words (their ‘glib and oily art”). But he has clearly kept the best part for Cordelia. Until she takes the fifth: ‘I love your majesty/According to my bond; nor more nor less.’

King Lear is set in ancient Britain, and is often performed, as we have noted, in some timeless ‘yore’ of Druids or Picts or primeval England, in caves, with fur wraps and rough wooden utensils, even for the king. But the play was written and performed at a moment of transition in Europe and in England, from one kind of economy to another, and therefore, of necessity, from one kind of numerical system to another. With the rise of mercantile capitalism – trade, commerce, financial futures, all things at issue in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice as well – in addition to the new attention to perspective ‘vanishing points’ in painting and in architecture, it became important to have a notation system that could handle these concepts and these transactions.

By the time Shakespeare came to write King Lear, the old system of Roman numerals and calculation on the abacus was on the way out, and the new system of Hindu/Arabic numerals based on zero was on its way in. So the play’s preoccupation with questions of counting, fractions, worth, and ‘nothing’ (not to mention whether anything could actually come of nothing) was, we may say, ‘overdetermined.’ That is to say, it came from many motivations at once – from the old Lear story, from the new capitalism, from the old theology, and from the new science and philosophy.

laurence-olivier-as-king-0011King Lear, in this sense, is a play about nothing. Shakespeare scholars had long discussed ‘nothing’ in King Lear from standpoints physical and metaphysical: in the Renaissance, the word was a slang term for female sexual organs; because an ‘O’ was an unbroken circle it also, paradoxically, connoted ‘everything.’ Rotman, a mathematician, saw the relevance of zero in this connection, and made the link from cultural history to the play.

Cordelia’s ‘Nothing, my lord,’ is a powerful affirmation, if only Lear could hear it as such. She claims that her love for him is right and natural – ‘according to my bond.’ What she resists is the love text, not the love. (And what Lear tests is the love text, not the love.) When the scene is replayed, in the fourth act, and Lear again asks her the same question, tell me how much you love me, it is striking – to me – that she answers it again in the negative.

The scene is perhaps the most moving episode in the whole play: Lear has awakened (‘you do me wrong to take me out of the grave’) and does not know whether he is alive of dead (‘Would I were assured of my condition’). Cordelia, heartbroken, kneels before him:


Pray, do not mock me.

I am a very foolish fond old man,

Fourscore and upward, not an hour more not


And, to speak plainly,

I fear I am not in my perfect mind.

Methinks I should know you, and know this man;

Yet I am doubtful; for I am mainly ignorant

What place this is; and all the skill I have

Remembers not these garments; nor I know not

Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me;

For, as I am a man, I think this lady

To be my child Cordelia.


And so I am, I am.


Be your tears wet? Yes, faith. I pray, weep not.

If you have poison for me, I will drink it.

I know you do not love me; for your sisters

Have, as I do remember, done me wrong.

You have some cause, they have not.


No cause, no cause.


Am I in France?


In your own kingdom, sir.

‘No cause, no cause.’

At the end of the play the death of Cordelia is met by Lear with the same emphasis by the negative:

    No, no, no life!

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,

And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,

Never, never, never, never, never!

What has this ‘nothing’ to do with zero?

Cordeli’a ‘economics’ of love are a matter of obligation. Her ‘nothing’ makes Lear’s script and props (the map, the procession) into a broken play, like the Mousetrap play in Hamlet, where ‘the king rises.’ Hers is not an economics of exchange but of natural ‘use.’ Notice her language to Lear. Brian Rotman nicely notes that ‘Shakespeare puts it all into the verbs’:

You have begot me, bred me, loved me; I

Return those duties back as are right fit.

Obey you, love you, and must honor you.

But Lear makes this domestic relation into a financial transaction, ‘forcefully inserting it into a system of mercantile exchange.’

Seeking to commodify love, or praise, he destroys it.

The anti-type of Cordelia here is Edmund, who also mobilizes that word ‘nothing’ in act 1, scene 2, right after Lear’s love test. Edmund is often described by critics as the type of the ‘new man’ and the capitalist entrepreneur. During the aftermath of World War II he was characterized as a rampant capitalist and even a figure conducive to fascism. Yet he has an undoubted charm. (No wonder the elder two Lear girls fall for him.) In the scene with his father, Gloucester, we first hear his voice in soliloquy – the Machiavel’s device – confiding in the audience (‘Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law/My services are bound’), and we hear about the letter he has written to deceive his father. (Hamlet, of course, did the same to condemn Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to death.)

The scene is quite domestic, the opposite of the Lear court scene. And Edmund ostentatiously hides the letter:


What paper were you reading?


Nothing, my lord.


No? What needed then, that terrible dispatch of it into your pocket? The quality of nothing hath not such need to hide itself. Let’s see. Come, if it be nothing, I shall not need spectacles.

The last line is full of predictive irony, since Gloucester will have his eyes plucked out in the play’s most terrible scene. (And here the effect of a play that becomes a ‘classic’ is redoubled, for many in the audience will know what is coming, and will wince in anticipation. ‘Were all the letters suns, I could not see one,’ the blind Gloucester will tell the mad Lear later in act 4, scene 6, when Lear thrusts toward him a real or imaginary ‘challenge’ he has ‘penned.’ Whether there is an echo of ‘sons’ in ‘suns’ will be up to the listener to determine.)

But in this first scene of reading the ‘letter,’ of course, is a forgery, purporting to come from Edgar, the loyal and legitimate son, and purporting, too, to invite Edmund into a conspiracy to kill their father and share his estate. Something will come of this ‘nothing’ – Edgar flees, disguises himself; Edmund is for the moment preferred. And his motives are, he claims, financial. ‘Wherefore should I/Stand in the plague of custom, and permit/The curiosity of nations to deprive me.’ That is, why should being a younger son – and a bastard – mean that he does not inherit?

To the list of the Fool, Cordelia, Edmund, Goneril, and Regan as figures for zero or nothing could easily be added the disguised Kent (who is a walking cipher, since he has lost his name) and Poor Tom, the disguised Edgar (‘Edgar I nothing am’).  In the various ways in which the economic sphere is mobilized and emblematized by these characters, we can see something of the play’s visionary modernity, its modernity despite itself.

The play, as Brian Rotman noted, is poised on the brink of a shift between the old and the new, the feudal family and the capitalist entrepreneur, the Roman numerals of computation and the Arabic numbers with which equations can be solved. A world without zero becomes a world – very like ours – in which many zeros are counted. Even the last line of the play, spoken to the audience on and off the stage, is cast in the negative: ‘Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say…we that are young/Shall never see so much, nor live so long.’

But the redemptive view of the play’s ending – Lear learns from his suffering: ‘we’ who are left at the close have gained something from this powerful tragedy – was overtaken by the events of the mid- and late twentieth century.  Maynard Mack in his book King Lear in Our Time (1965) gave voice to the general sentiment of ‘we who are young’ in his own time: ‘After two world wars and Auschwitz, our sensibility is significantly more in touch than our grandparents’ was with the play’s jagged violence, its sadism, madness, and processional of deaths, its wild blends of levity and horror, selfishness and selflessness.’  How many zeroes in six million?

And, as we have already noted, the horrors of the century had more to expose.  The atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Where it fell was ‘ground zero’ – the hypocenter – the part of the ground situated immediately under an exploding bomb, especially an atomic one. The term originated with the Manhattan Project, but as we know, it has had an afterlife (and a half-life)

The term emerged again in the wake of September 11, 2001. There are, I am sure, people alive today who know only the World Trade Center site as ‘ground zero’ – for whom the earlier atomic usages were never known, or are now forgotten. But it is in this new context of zero that the play of King Lear has been produced, and read, and understood in our time. Although the devastations wrought by these two ‘ground zero’ events may look similar, their efficient causes and their relationship to the technologized world are different. The Manhattan Project was Big Science; the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and Pennsylvania plane crashes were low tech, actions performed by recruited agents who may have seen their position as ‘the worst,’ in Edgar’s terms. When zero enters the equation, what remains?

In this avalanche of ‘zero degree’ catastrophes, we should also recall the story of the so-called Patient Zero, the supposed first case in the AIDS epidemic. A ‘patient zero’ is an index case in the transmission of a disease outbreak – it’s a technical term of art in epidemiological investigations. In the case of AIDS in the United States, however, the Patient Zero story turned out to be both a vilifying narrative and a typographical error. There is no clear evidence that any one person was the first to pass AIDS to the gay population in the 1980s; and in fact the numeral zero was an erroneous transcription from the letter O: ‘Patient O,’ for ‘Out of California,’ was how this individual was recorded in medical files. Thus yet again zero does not mark an origin (it is not referential) but an absence. A mistake, and a dissemination, not a cause.

An O without a figure.

Is this the promised end, or image of that horror? The feared nuclear holocaust of the mid-twentieth century, which haunted the King Lear of the cold war years, has not materialized. The Berlin Wall came down. But the nuclear threat remains, now joined with global terrorism, poverty, and the consciousness of impending ecological disaster. The play today seems to speak from a new ground zero – as, in a sense, it has always done.

The weight of this sad time we must obey;

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

The oldest hath borne most; we that are young

Shall never see so much, nor live so long.


And from Mark Van Doren.  I excerpted from the first paragraph of this when we started, but after rereading the entire piece last night – I think it’s extraordinary, and a must-read now that we’ve completed reading the play and can see it as a whole:

article_kinglear1_0‘To judge of Shakespeare by Aristotle’s rules,’ said Pope, ‘is like trying a man by the laws of one country who acted under those of another.’ But if the truth about poetry is everywhere the same, and if Aristotle’s analysis of the art was sound, he will tell us as much about Shakespeare as he told us about Sophocles. He tells us a great deal about “King Lear” when he remarks that tragedies have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The first scene of “King Lear” is a beginning, but all the rest is end. The initial act of the hero is his only act; the remainder is passion. An old and weary king, hungry for rest, banishes the one daughter who would give it to him and plunges at once into the long, loud night of his catastrophe. An early recognition of his error does not save him. The poet does not wish to save him, for his instinct is to develop a catastrophe as none has been developed before or since. Henceforth King Lear is a man more acted against than active; the deeds of the tragedy are suffered rather than done; the relation of events is lyrical instead of logical, musical instead of moral. Such a play, if it is destined like this one to become the most tremendous of poems, must enrich itself with magnificent and immediate effects, with sensational tempest and intolerable tortures. It must incur the risk of seeming monstrous rather than terrible; it must have villains of enormous size – Edmund, Regan, Goneril – and it must give them the hearts of wolves. Edmund is Iago with a club and stilts, and Lear’s dog-hearted daughters, scowling with their thunder-brows, are like no other women in Shakespeare or the world. Such a play must also, since it cannot order its events by intellect or law, deal heavily in sound. It must suggest, as “King Lear” does, an analogy with the complexest imaginable music. “King Lear” had to be a symphony to be anything at all; though only a giant’s genius could have built it into the symphony it is. Its movement is not spearlike as ‘Hamlet’s” is, a single curve of speed; it is glacial, inexorable, awful, and slow, pushing everything before it as its double front advances over Britain from west to east from Lear’s island palace to the cliffs of Dover.

For its front is double; its theme, vast as it is, is worked out on two levels. Again it can be said that if “King Lear” was to be as great as it is it needed the addition of the Gloucester story – woe piled on woe, music answering to music. But to meet the need required all of Shakespeare’s daring, and all of his capacity. Nothing in his plays is more skillful than this parallel of Lear and Gloucester, and nothing is more meaningful. The careers of the two old men lie parallel, but one runs well below the other; they never cross, for if they did they would lose their mutual power, they would cease to reflect each other. The difference between them is no less audible than the resemblance is visible. The two catastrophes look alike; Gloucester banishes his one good son Edgar as Lear banishes his one good daughter Cordelia, and both of them suffer and die through a mistaken trust in their remaining offspring, who show themselves to be kites of the same detested feather by mingling in adulterous flight across rainbeaten England. And there are many identities of detail, as well as many points of contact; both suffers grope their way stubbornly towards Dover, Edgar encounters Lear and becomes his ‘philosopher,’ each father meets and fails to know his banished child, and the thoughts or one are echoed in the other – both make the same discoveries and arrive at the same conclusions. But it is here that the resemblance ceases. Lear and Gloucester do not sound alike. The first is a great poet, articulate to the limit of speech; the second is a plain man whose tongue’s prose cannot save him from descent into dumb-animal agony when his eyes are gouged out by Cornwall and he stumbles on to full knowledge of his injustice to Edgar. As Lear rises on the wings of metaphor Gloucester lowers his voice to a mumble. The keen violins and the trombone blasts of the King’s self-pity are balanced and tempered by the simple bass of the earl, who if he think of himself does not know how to say so. Each music serves the other – Gloucester’s to measure the height of Lear’s, and Lear’s to pour meaning into the lowly goodness and modesty of Gloucester’s. Gloucester may be the better man, but Lear is the better artist. And only to him is given the inestimable privilege of madness. The earl envies him this:

The King is mad; how stiff is my vile sense

That I stand up and have ingenious feeling

Of my huge sorrows! Better I were distract;

So should my thoughts be sever’d from my griefs,

And woes by wrong imaginations lose

The knowledge of themselves.

(IV, vi, 286-91)

For he cannot go mad any more than he can make great music with his mind and tongue. Nothing is more characteristic of him than the muttered brevity of his response to Edgar at one of the immortal moments in the play:


What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure

Their going hence, even as their coming hither;

Ripeness is all. Come on.


And that’s true too.

(V, ii, 9-11)

And when he and the King are concerned with a cognate theme it is the King who does the talking:


Thou must be patient; we came crying hither

Thou know’st, the first time that we smell the air,

We wawl and cry. I will preach to thee; mark.


Alack, alack the day!


When we are born, we cry that we are come

To this great stage of fools.

(IV, vi, 182-7)

‘Alack, alack the day!’ The words say nothing, though the man has suffered everything. Gloucester’s epithets are conventional – ‘base,’ ‘brutish, ‘abhorrent,’ ‘abominable,’ ‘common’ – and the key of his poetry, such as it is, is correspondingly low. ‘Here, take this purse,’ he says to the miserable Edgar,

     thou whom the heavens’ plagues

Have humbled to all strokes. That I am wretched

Makes thee the happier; heavens, deal so still!

Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man,

That slaves your ordinance, that will not see

Because he does not feel, feel your power quickly;

So distribution should undo excess,

And each man have enough.

(IV, I, 67-74)

This is in his best style, but how much better Lear can talk may be seen at a glance in the passage which parallels it:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you

From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en

Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;

Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,

That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,

And show the heavens more just.

(III, vii, 106-7)

Gloucester’s lines are never brilliant like that, nor is his spirit in consequence ever freed by the satisfactions which the articulation of grief can give. Our feelings are spared after his eyes are out by hearing one servant say to another:

     I’ll fetch some flax and whites of eggs

To apply to his bleeding face.

Lear does not need such help, nor is he given it; his own poetry is his medicine, his ability to reach the extremes of statement has somehow made all even. A wounded animal may be pitied in a sick silence, but an eloquent man can soar beyond sympathy. The luxuries of rhetoric are denied the Earl of Gloucester, who to be sure can say that he loves Edgar ‘tenderly and entirely,’ and can announce, after another ‘Alack,’ that

     the night comes on, and the high winds

Do sorely ruffle,

and can still mount to at least one potent generality:

As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods,

They kill us for their sport,

(IV, I, 38-9)

but who for the most part must carry wounds that language cannot lick. His longest speech, beginning ‘These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us’ (I, ii, 112-27), and going on to connect mutinies, disorders, divisions, and treasons with the irregularities of the stars, is immediately derided by Edmund, who dismisses any interest in ‘planetary influence’ as ‘an admirable evasion of whoremaster man.’ Edmund is as evil as Iago, but his annihilation of Gloucester’s fallacy is complete, and we shall remember the cynic son longer than the inspired father: a sort of thing that could never conceivably happen to Lear, who cries down all competitors, animate or inanimate, in lines we cannot choose but remember. Finally too it is significant that Gloucester crawls out of the play to die. We learn simply from Edgar that the old man’s heart,

‘Twist two extremes of passion, joy and grief,

Burst smilingly

We neither hear nor see his end, for it happens inside him where he has always lived. He has not lived in language, like King Lear.

The reach of Lear’s rhetoric reveals itself as early as the first scene, which is better suited to the remainder of the play than many admit.

     The barbarous Scythian,

Or he that makes his generation messes

To gorge his appetite

(I, i, 118-20)

— that looks forward to

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!

You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout

‘Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!

(III, ii, 1-3)

and to

Down from the waist they are Centaurs,

Though women all above;

But to the girdle do the gods inherit,

Beneath is all the fiends’;

(IV, vi, 126-9)

and in its different way to

     No, you unnatural hags,

I will have such revenges on you both

That all the world shall – I will do such things –

What they are, yet I know not; but they shall be

The terrors of the earth.

(II, iv, 281-5)

King-LearIn its different way; for Lear commands  both trumpets and strings, he can be as limpid in some lines as he is loud in others. This old man whose first announcement to us is that he wishes to rid himself of all his cares so that he may ‘unburden’d crawl toward death,’ whose thoughts of rest have been set on the kind nursery of Cordelia, and whose broken sinews, once he has banished her, are never to be bound up by ‘our foster-nurse of nature,’ can be as plaintive as a child. Macbeth in his prime is dissolved to desperation by insomnia; Lear, unable to sleep or rest, is reduced sometimes to the merest petulance. The reason may be that he has reached his second childhood, yet Regan remembers no other father: ‘Tis the infirmity of his age; yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.’ ‘We came crying hither,’ he reminds Gloucester; and he will go crying hence. Meanwhile he has been a poor, spoiled man, a play-king who fancied that his gestures really ruled the world. He still makes enough of them in Goneril’s house for her to have some show of right when she rebukes him. He still expects mankind to come running when he claps his hands. ‘Where’s my Fool, ho? I think the world’s asleep’ (I, iv, 51-2). When the Fool comes he is not altogether fool, observes Kent. His butter tongue tells truths that a king only half knows. The great scene he dominates with his comedy bears no resemblance to the great comic scene of “Hamlet” where the Prince jested with gravediggers; that scene enhanced its hero by showing that he had recovered his sense of humor and his philosophy, whereas this one throws the weakness of Lear into full tragic relief. ‘Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise,’ concludes the bitter Fool (I, v, 48). Now he will never be wise. He rends the air with his self-pity:

You see me here, you gods, a poor old man;

(II, iv, 275)

The little dogs and all,

Tray, Blanch, and Sweetheart, see, they bark at me;

(III, vi, 65-6)

but he will never understand as Gloucester does that another’s misery can be deeper than his own. (IV, vi, 221-3). He will make the heavens shrill with prayers for the patience he is deluded into thinking he once had, but he will never be a king over his passion as Cordelia, pattern of grief, is a queen over hers:

     You have seen

Sunshine and rain at once: her smiles and tears

Were like a better way…In brief,

Sorrow would be a rarity most beloved,

If all could so become it.

(IV, iii, 19-26)

He will implore: ‘O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!’ Yet it will be madness of which he becomes the pattern in all poetry, not patience as he supposes.

Matter and impertinency are mixed in his madness, which is never insanity of the sort that obliterates the connection between cause and effect. Persons who are demented beyond the memory of their woes cannot be used in poetry; irrelevance has no value in any art. Lear’s farthest range of wildness keeps within dramatic meaning. His progress is through irony, which in the beginning is so natural an expression of his self-absorption that he does not suspect the direction in which it is taking him. ‘Are you our daughter?’ ‘Your name, fair gentlewoman?’ This is mere sarcasm, and Goneril can dismiss it as a ‘prank.’ But it opens the way to wilder ironies when it dawns on Lear that the answers to his rhetorical questions are after all not obvious in a household whose indifference to him is draining his very identity away. And when he is convinced of his homelessness in either daughter’s castle he is ready for the final irony of his desire to go homeless among the elements. The ruined king will become a ruined piece of nature too. Hamlet had been isolated in the society of Elsinore, but the King of Britain must be as naked in the universe as he is destitute of human love. The great wheel of Fortune, which comes full circle for Edmund, and which grinds remorselessly for Edgar until his only comfort is to say:

The lamentable change is from the best;

The worst return to laughter,

(IV, I, 5-6)

must grow for Lear into a wheel of fire that turns with him down into a hell of his own making. The theme of exposure announces itself early in the play, and thenceforward is never out of mind. Kent’s wish to Cordelia in the first scene is that the gods take her ‘to their ‘dear shelter,’ as if the world were suddenly without roofs. And Edgar as poor Turlygod, poor Tom, presents himself naked to the winds and persecutions of the sky before Lear does. Lear has had a hint from the Fool of vision which will underlie his desire.


Dost thou call me fool, boy?


All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with.

The vision is of himself as naked as nature had made him – naked not only of clothes but of titles, ties, possessions, duties, rights, and even memories. It grows upon him with bewildering rapidity, and controls his thought throughout the heart of the play.

Return to her, and fifty men dismiss’d!

No, rather I abjure all roofs, and choose

To wage against the enmity o’ the air;

To be a comrade with the wolf and owl, —

Necessity’s sharp pinch.

(II, iv, 210-4)

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.

(II, iv, 267-70)

I’ll finish with this (and the rest of King Lear) in my next post.


And as a bonus, Joyce Carol Oates, always a thoughtful writer and critic, wrote a most interesting piece called “King Lear:  Is This the Promised Land?” back in 1974.  It is, I think, very much worth your time.  Click to read it here.


My next posts:

Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning:  Last thoughts on King Lear

Thursday evening/Friday morning:  Sonnet # 139

And since next Monday is a holiday in the US, I’m going to take the weekend off and return on Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning, with my introduction to a play I’m sure you’re going to love, the truly glorious Antony and Cleopatra.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to “The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices/Make instruments to plague us.”

  1. GGG says:

    Now to explain that post….I commented earlier today, but when I clicked post comment, my comment disappeared! So I tried again, but … it disappeared, so i was just doing a test and of course, it posted.

    Here’s my comment if I can remember it all.

    Really found the discussion of zero/nothing interesting. I did not realize that this was the time period when zero was being adopted.

    Talking about numbers made me remember that in reading Lear, I noticed that King Lear in the second half of the play often repeated a single word numerous times: “never, never, …,” “howl, howl, howl,” “Kill, kill (six times.)” There are other examples too. I was wondering why–if this was to emphasize his madness? I think Lear is the only character that did this. Don’t think there is any hidden number significance (unless you are a Shakespearean decoder or whatever the enthusiasts are called who linked numbers and letters to hidden messages) but i just found it an interesting detail that I don’t remember for any characters in other plays. Some of the repetitions are so long (kill, kill for example) that it was clearly very intentional and must present an interesting interpretative challenge for actors.

    • GGG: Sorry about the missing post. Nice catch on the repeated words from Lear in the second half of the play, Garber touched on this: “When Lear in the latter part of the play is reduced to repetitions (‘Howl, howl, howl, howl!’ as he discovered Cordelia’s dead body; or “kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!’; or, closer to the theme of ‘nothing,’ ‘Never, never, never never, never’), we experience another version of the rhetoric of silence, the acknowledgement of the unutterable, the literally unspeakable.’ LIke the syntactical breakdown of Othello’s language in the scene of his swooning fit (Othello 4.1), Lear’s repeated iterations of the same word over and over again, without subject or object, and without any rhetorical gesture of control, mark the very limit of language as communication.”

      For me, that sounds just about right.


  2. Lesley says:

    I also appreciated the delving into zero’s arrival on the mathematical scene, as it relates to the play. Fascinating! Outstanding essay, Dennis.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s