King Lear is given this line in Act I, Scene I. However, with as many of our modern-day idioms that were first penned by Shakespeare…this isn’t one of them. Although Shakespeare’s version is certainly the most concise, the concept in this quotation predates King Lear, all the way back to the ancient Greeks.
A Brief History of Nothing
Aristotle’s Physics, first published in the mid-300s BCE, grappled with the idea of creation out of nothing. The idea goes like this: “Nothing comes into being from not-being.” Energy, objects, the universe—they can’t appear out of thin air.
About 300 years later, the Roman philosopher Lucretius echoes a similar thought. In De Rerum Natura, he lays out his observed rules of nature. Specifically, “nothing’s brought / Forth by any supernatural power out of naught…. Nothing can be made from nothing.” He elaborates on the absurdity of creation out of nothing: “People could pop out of the sea…. The same tree would not always grow the same fruit.”
To Lucretius, a world of spontaneous creation would be chaos. Instead, “Each thing springs from the source that has the matter that it needs.” A person, plant, or animal is generated from a specific set of materials needed to create it.
Shakespeare’s King Lear was originally published in the early 1600s. Although there’s some controversy around the actual publication date, most literary historians agree Shakespeare finished composing the play between 1604 and 1606. The earliest recorded performance took place at the end of 1606; the first King Lear quarto was published in 1608, and the second in 1619.
The Setting Behind King Lear
King Lear is loosely based on Leir of Britain, a legendary king who would’ve ruled over the Britons in the 8th century CE. Medieval writer Geoffrey of Monmouth recorded Leir’s story in his 1100s work, History of the Kings of Britain. The History is nowhere near historically accurate (among other things, it details the life of King Arthur as fact). However, the basic story of Lear and his three daughters was first recorded here. Shakespeare would’ve had access to this text and these legends.
Shakespeare’s play takes place near the end of Lear’s 60-year reign, in pre-Christian Britain. Lear, who had no sons, is dividing his kingdom into three parts. Each will be ruled by one of his daughters: Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia.
This is an unusual arrangement—what king wants to break his kingdom into pieces? It is also unusual because, although Lear will no longer rule his territory, he still wants to retain his title and the respect of his subjects (1.1.151-153). A king typically rules until his death; there is no protocol for how to treat a king who is both a king and not a king, while other monarchs do the actual ruling.
So how does that relate to when the play was written? Less than a decade before Shakespeare’s birth, Henry VIII died. He left the throne to his nine-year-old son, Edward VI. Edward ruled the country about as poorly as a nine-year-old would. He then became ill and died in 1553, leaving the throne to his cousin Jane.
Jane ruled for only nine days before being deposed by Edward’s half-sister, Mary. Mary then died in 1558, and her half-sister Elizabeth I took the throne. That’s five rulers in only 11 years. Not to mention that as rulers with different beliefs took the throne, the country flipped back and forth between Catholicism and the Church of England.
Then, around the time Shakespeare was composing King Lear, Elizabeth I died. She never had children, and so she chose James VI of Scotland to take the English throne. The Tudor house ended, and the Stuart house began. This was controversial for a few reasons. Foreigners could not inherit English land, and here a Scottish monarch was essentially “inheriting” all of England. James was also the child of Mary Queen of Scots, who was executed for planning to assassinate Elizabeth I. To many, her son hardly seemed like a fitting candidate.
Twice in fifty years, England faces a historic upheaval in its monarchy. It’s possible Shakespeare drew his inspiration from a similarly tumultuous time in history, without actually having to criticize the ruling class of his time. These real historical events, much like the events in King Lear’s fictional kingdom, would’ve left the common people asking, “What happens now?”
The Context of Nothing Will Come of Nothing
In Act I, Scene I of King Lear, Lear is dividing his kingdom. Before granting his daughters their power, however, he asks them to make a display of their love in front of him and his court.
Goneril goes first; she attests that she loves Lear “more than word can wield the matter, / Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty, … No less than life.” (1.1.60-62, 64). Lear is pleased, and grants Goneril her third of his kingdom.
Next up is Regan, who claims that Goneril’s declaration of love “comes too short” (1.1.79). She then declares herself “an enemy of all other joys” than the love of her father, and that she is only happy in his love (1.1.80). Again, this satisfies Lear, and Regan is shown her territory.
Then we arrive at Cordelia, who has been agonizing about what to say this whole time. When Lear asks her, “what can you say to draw / A third more opulent than your sisters’?” (1.1.94-95). Cordelia shocks everyone by saying, “Nothing, my lord” (1.1.96).
Lear, as king, is not used to being told no. “Nothing will come of nothing,” he says, and gives Cordelia a chance to try again (1.1.99). She then explains that she loves her father, even if she can’t put on a display for him. She acknowledges, “You have begot me, bred me, loved me. / I return those duties back as are right fit: / Obey you, love you, and most honor you” (1.1.106-108). She then pokes holes in her sisters’ declarations, questioning how they could love Lear and only Lear if they are both married. Surely their husbands have some of their love?
Cordelia makes a lot of sense here, but that wasn’t the point of this exercise. She was meant to put on a performance. In refusing to do so, she sends Lear into a rage. He disowns her and banishes her from his sight, taking away her dowry and dividing her portion of the kingdom between her sisters. Ultimately, Lear’s decision here is what kickstarts his tragedy.
King Lear’s Quote Explained
So, why is “nothing will come of nothing” so significant? The literal meaning of the quotation in the passage is, “If you say nothing, you will get no inheritance.” However, the idea of nothing pops up over and over again throughout King Lear.
The Fool makes fun of Lear for his decision in Act I, Scene IV. “When thou / Clovest thy crown i’ the middle, and gavest away / both parts, thou borest thy ass on thy back o’er / the dirt” (1.4.163-166). In other words, Lear made a mistake in giving power to Regan and Goneril. As Lear still doesn’t seem to take the Fool’s meaning, he elaborates: “Thou hast pared thy wit o’ both sides, / and left nothing i’ the middle” (1.4.191-192). By cutting his crown in half for his daughters, Lear has left nothing for himself.
As the king moves into his retirement, he plans to split his time between Regan and Goneril. However, Goneril shortly kicks him out. The same thing happens when he arrives at Regan’s. Both daughters demand that he dismiss his knights—after all, what need does he have for them? Isn’t their protection enough? When Lear refuses, he is turned out into a storm. The knights he argued so vehemently to keep do not go with him; he is alone in the elements with only his Fool.
Lear is, essentially, trying to create nothing out of nothing. He no longer has the authority he needs to bend people to his will. He wants to be treated like a king, but he cannot impose his wishes, or force his daughters to provide his ideal living situation, when his power has evaporated. In just four scenes, Lear has lost everything he had left—his daughters have pulled rank by refusing to treat him like a king. His men, his respect, and his family are all gone.
In Act IV, Lear is reunited with Cordelia. He has spent the night in the storm and slept in a hovel. When he regains consciousness in Cordelia’s presence, he is rendered speechless, just like she was at the beginning of the play. “I know not what to say,” he says, and then begs that Cordelia forgive him (4.7.61).
Although Lear has lost everything, he has regained his favorite daughter, and is more content than he has been in the entire play. By coming around to Cordelia’s understanding of love—not as a performance, but as something deeper and unspoken—he finds peace in her company. If he could go back to Act I and handle Cordelia’s declaration differently, he would be more willing to acknowledge that Cordelia’s “nothing” was more meaningful than anything her sisters declared.