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The “Nothing” element in King Lear

Reviewed by Nszl Celia In his work, Robert F. Fleissner, the author of the article “The ‘Nothing’ element in King Lear”, emphasizes how the use of a running metaphor ‘nothing’ contributes to an understanding of Cordelia’s position in the play. The author highlights that many of the passages of the play have in common the theme ‘nothing’, especially those between the characters of Lear, Cordelia, Kent, and the Fool. The word ‘nothing’ stresses the idea of nothingness throughout the play. Fleissner begins his work by drawing attention to the fact that very few academic works give sufficient consideration to the theme ‘Cordelia as a tragic figure’. He states that the tragedy of Cordelia is indeed very important for the play, and emphasizes this importance by making a short analogy with Sophocles’ play Antigona. In Sophocles’ tragedy the main character, Antigona, has a conflict between conscience and duty. This conflict is presumable similar to the one of Cordelia, her references to her heart and then to her bond reveal the conflict between conscience and duty. Her answers – nothing – are the real signs of human emotions which already lead to a potential tragedy. This article also shows that the real commencement of the play as a tragedy occurs with Cordelia’s responses to Lear’s question regarding her daughter’s love for him. Fleissner notices that King Lear makes the error of trusting the substance of spoken words and thus he mistakes Cordelia's response for an insult, a non-answer. Cordelia seems to confuse the King by using what he considers to be equivocal answers. Yet, her tragic flaw involves less the lack of good rhetoric but rather a presented sign of her inner torments. She will not give him the words he desires because they do not hold the substance of what she knows to be truth. Furthermore, the author notices that the previous Lear's dialogue with Cordelia on ‘nothing’ becomes ‘bewitching’, because it seems to play upon the King’s mind, in the part when he is out in the storm with the Fool. The word ‘nothing’ appears again when the Fool tells Lear he is nothing without his crown and power. The King latter complains he was progressively brought to ‘nothing’ and he refers here to his elder daughters. Although they seemed to offer much in the beginning, they left him with nothing; their ‘natural’ affection has proved to be nothing as well. In the last part of the article, the author points out that the metaphor ‘nothing’ has also a significant role in the play’s subplot. Glouchester experiences the value of ‘nothing’, the importance of naked truth and personal integrity. Unlike Lear, Edgar chooses to deprive himself of everything, even his identity. However, this ‘nothing’ which occurs again seem to have a different meaning. In my opinion, this article outlines well the recurrent theme of ‘nothing’. The author highlights that there is ‘nothing’ which first removes, then binds a daughter to her father. ‘Nothing’ is a note that cuts a father's love and in turn makes a son ‘nothing’. King Lear’s mistakes leave him with nothing, depriving him of his loving daughter, kingdom, dignity, sanity, and of life itself. On the whole, it is worth reading the article and I would recommend it to be read because it is useful and informative, especially to those who studies Shakespeare and who are interested in Shakespearean works at a higher level than that of a common reader.