The Value of Nothing in King Lear, by Don Foran

Robert Pirsig writes, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, that “The truth knocks on the door and you say, ‘Go away, I’m looking for the truth,’ and so it goes away.” For many years I have imagined that the truth was an old man seeking a drink of water – the New Testament may have fed my imagery matrix – and, often enough, the old man has looked like Lear. It is somewhat difficult for us to recognize truth when it comes to us as an old man, especially and old man standing in the cold, an old man shouting in the storm, an old man who seems reduced to nothing, more stark that Poor Tom appeared to Lear: “the thing itself… poor, unaccommodating man.”
    In the face of some of the truly intractable facts of our present era – hundreds of millions of humans malnourished and starving, thousands undergoing formal torture, others tortured by injustice and wealth in the hands of a few, four hundred billion dollars spent around the world on arms, considerable environmental and moral pollution, conspicuous consumption, spiritual pandering – one yearns for vial truths, for radical reintegration. And cautiously one turns to Lear for a word of life, an enabling inspiration.
    Expectant Lear looks fondly at his favorite child, Cordelia, and prepares to reward her smallest wish with the fullness of his generosity. He has already given to Goneril one-third of his kingdom, and to Regan an equal part. His youngest daughter will receive the choicest land and a father’s richest blessing:
    Lear: “What can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sister? Speak.”
    Cordelia: “Nothing, my lord.”
    Lear: “Nothing!”
    Cordelia: “Nothing.”
    Lear: “Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.”
    Cordelia: “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave my heart into my mouth…”
    King Lear is thuderstruck. He mistakes his daughter’s reticence to flatter him; he assumes that she is heartless and ungrateful. He asks rhetorically, “So young and so untender?” Cordelia says simply, “So young, my lord, and true.” Cordelia knows that it is enough to “love and be still,” but Lear, long used to the flattery of sycophants, the special privileged accorded to the powerful, and the empty formalities of kingship, will not accept the seeming impudence of simple affection. He has become so inured to the perquisites of authority that he is incapable of seeing the value of honest love. He angrily leaves Cordelia, infuriated into vengeful repudiation of one he needs and loves: “So be it, let truth be thy dow’r.”
    Thus begins what I have come to regard as the most powerful and important leit-motif in King Lear the “nothing” theme, a theme which points up his most tragic choices: to invest rather than to divest, and to mistake affectation for affection.
    Cordelia’s choice to say neither more nor less than she did, neither more nor less than she could and still be true, reverberates throughout Shakespeare’s masterpiece. In a variety of ways the poet asks, “What is the value of nothing?” When one is short of the trappings of authority and power, how does one regard oneself, how does one line? Wherein lies value then?
    Lear’s fool, a Cordelia-like teller of truth, asks the failing king, after Lear has allowed his two avaricious daughters to decimate his troops and curtail his power, “Can you make no use of nothing nuncle?” Even though faithful Kent has warned the King to “See better, Lear,” and the fool counseled, “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise,” only lived experience can educate the aging monarch. He is not yet in a position to respond to his fool in any other way but: “Why no, boy, nothing can be made of nothing.” Uneducated in divestment, in choosing diminishment, Lear rankles.
    Lear now feels the sharp tooth of filial ingratitude, the diminution of his authority, even the pain of radical homelessness. But because he does not as yet include himself in common humanity, he must continue to lord it over whomever he can, until there is no one left to impress. Everyone seems to be against him. Even nature seems to be his enemy, and he utters curses loud and deep, bidding the gods to spill all fertile seed, to dry up all natural lovings and longings. His self-pity is complete.
    Only after having been subjected to unbuffered realities, as most human personas are, only after living the painful lot of any poor, alienated man or woman, can Lear affirm: “Necessity can make vile things precious.”
    As Lear learns from the things he suffers, the dramatist embroiders on the “nothing” theme in the sub-plot. Edgar, son of aging Glouchester, on of Lear’s few true friends, is, through the machinations of his half-brother Edmund, forced to flee from his father’s house. Unlike Lear, however, Edgar chooses to divest himself of everything, even his very identity (“Edgar I nothing am!), in order to bide his time undetected and patiently wait for an opportunity to assume his rightful place as loving son. In the guise of Poor Tom, a rustic madman, Edgar suffers the cold and deprivations of the Winter, wandering deep in the forest. When Lear comes upon the seemingly distracted wretch, the king feels great pathos. Grasping a bit of himself in Poor Tom, and a bit of the alienated madman in himself, Lear exclaims: “Thou are the thing itself…poor, unaccommodating man.” Reduced to its barest essentials, the human person’s spark of self shines through. Lear begins to view Poor Tom as a wise philosopher. Though fooled by Edgar’s appearance, Lear is seeing better. Lear now affectionately calls his fool, “you houseless poverty,” and becomes increasingly able to form fresh impressions. As the fool notes, “Old fools are babes again.” As Lear responds to the naked honesty of Edgar and the fool, they become truly kindred spirits. Having been reduced by circumstance, the are alone together.
    While the trio of friends attempt to survive the exigencies of the stormy Winter in the forest, the elder Glouchester stands up for Lear against one of Lear’s venal daughters; he pays for his truth-telling with the plucking out of his eyes. He now sees nothing, but, paradoxically, learns to “see feelingly.” Early in the play he had told Edmund that “the quality of nothing hath not such need to hide itself.” Now he experiences, much as he exiled son Edgar had, the value of nothing, the importance of naked truth and personal integrity. The lesson is not a pleasant one, but had he not undergone this painful experience he probably would never have known where his greatest resources and true happiness lay. Before he can be united with his true son, Gloucester wanders into the storm, resolved to give away what little he has left to any person who will help him get to the cliffs of Dover where he intends to commit suicide. Edgar, disguising his voice, serves his father in ways he has not anticipated. As the old man prepares to leap off the cliff, he is schooled by Edgar, “We must endure our going hence even as we have our coming hither: ripeness is all.” The human condition, shorn of the artificiality of the forms of social status is not to be loathed, much less forsaken. The suffering endows the sufferer with insight and meaning.
    Lear has by now learned enough to try to explain to his old friend Gloucester whom Poor Tom brings home to the cave that he, too, has seen through the basic illusion: “They told me I was everything.” He now knows that during their moments in the sun of political power and prestige both he and Gloucester had put more credence in the accoutrements of authority than they had in personal integrity or the simple truth that those who loved them most might flatter them least. Lear’s fool had intuited that there was creative value in the diminishment Lear was to undergo after his rash rejection of Cordelia’s silent affection. Now it is very late, but still old fools have become wise men by making use of the “nothing” divestment presents as opportunity to those who would see better, see feelingly.
    It should be obvious to us all that our contemporary world, with all its grandiose culture and institutions and technology, could well attend to William Shakespeare’s complex metaphor of divestment, the value of nothing. So many of the lies of ideologues and so much of the economic oppression in our world are spawned because the right and powerful cannot dissociate themselves from the artificiality of hermetically sealed policy chambers and experience the anguish and frustration of the poor, alienated human beings whose life-blood is wasted in the service of other men’s vanity. Gloucester spoke of the more fundamental blindness of those who “will not see because they do not feel,” and Edgar, when asked by Albany at the conclusion of Lear how he knew the miseries of his father, replied simply, “By nursing them.” The child becomes the father or mother of the man. The truths our world needs are not complex, but simple. They are the truths of the heart which Cordelia, the fool, and the reborn Lear and Gloucester articulate. The powerful of this world may not be able to make creative use of “nothing,” to divest themselves for the sake of all their children, but they could learn to listen less for flattery and more for truth, shunning the “everything” of illusion for the “nothing” of value, integrity, truth, and compassion.
    The closing couplet of the tragedy King Lear instructs those who would learn from Lear’s final madness and death, and Cordelia’s assassination:
The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
If the bombing of peasants, the support of dictators, the death of children, or the insanity of nuclear weaponry are truly unconscionable, if the blandishments of privilege rather than the habit of truth determine our priorities, we must speak out, paying the price for being alive. As St. Augustine once said, we “must die to death that we might live to life.” Cordelia, after all, knew what she risked, and chose to love truthfully. When we have done that, we too can be still.