Rather Something - On "nothing" in King Lear

Term Paper, 2006

22 Pages, Grade: 1,0



I First Chapter: Introduction

II Second Chapter: 'Nothing'
II.1 The different concepts of 'nothing'
II.2 Indian philosophy and zero
II.3 Establishing 'nothing' in Europe – 'nothing' in Shakespeare’s time
II.4 The mathematical concept of 'nothing' in King Lear

III Third Chapter: The diametral development throughout the play

IV Fourth Chapter: Rather 'something' than 'nothing'
IV.1 "Nothing will come of nothing" – the love test
IV.2 "If it be nothing, I shall not need spectacles" – treachery
IV.3 "I am a fool, thou art nothing" – the fool tells the truth
IV.4 "Nothing almost sees miracles" – Cordelia comes to help

V Fifth Chapter: Conclusion

VI Sixth Chapter: Bibliography
VI.1 Literature
VI.1.1 Primary
VI.1.2 Secondary

I First Chapter: Introduction

In Elizabethan English there was no figure standing for 'nothing'. But through the influence of Indian philosophy and mathematical concepts the sign '0' was established in Europe. This introduction had a strong impact - not only in mathematics. The idea assigned to it brought strong dispute with it. Especially in philosophy a lot of questions were being asked: What was the nature of 'nothing'?, Was 'nothing' really nothing?, Could one talk about 'nothing'? Didn't it become something thereby? etc.

Questions like these appeared during the Nihilist movement in the 16th century, which eventually led to Nietzsche's statement "God is dead".

Shakespeare used the term 'nothing' about forty times in different contexts within his tragedy King Lear. However, in most student guides and source books on King Lear, 'nothing' is not regarded as leitmotive.

As Brian ROTMAN points out, William Shakespeare was "in the first generation of children in England to have learned about zero from Robert Recorde's Arithmetic."[1] In addition to his frequent use of 'nothing', Shakespeare lets two of his main characters deal with the aspect of 'nothing': the play dramatizes "[...] reductions to nothing, charting the annihilation of human warmth, the dissolution of social, natural, familial bonds, the emptying of kindness, sympathy, tenderness, love, pity, affection into hollow shells, into substitutes for themselves[...]."[2]

The main thesis of this essay is based on the mathematical concept of 'nothing' in which zero is the narrow borderline between positive and negative. Hence, Edgar can not be right when stating "Edgar I nothing am."[3]

Although in most secondary sources relevant for King Lear Gloucester usually is regarded as Lear's counterpart in the subplot, the focus in this essay will be put on the comparison of King Lear and Edgar and their individual development throughout the play.

In order to proof this thesis, the concept of nothing and its sources will be introduced and explained. Chapter I will give a short overview of the ideas of the mathematical concept of 'nothing'. It will explain where the idea of a thing as 'nothing' comes from, how and when it became known in Europe and especially in Elizabethan England and why the sign '0' was chosen.

Chapter II transfers the concept to the play. Although in Shakespearean times mathematics and literature are often regarded as diametral sciences, mathematics are relevant in deed for the reading of Shakespeare's King Lear. The hints on mathematics within the text will be examined in detail.

In Chapter III the results found in the previous chapters will be set in relation to the interpretation of the development of the characters of Edgar and King Lear. Do they develop at all? If so, in what direction? Do they develop from or to 'nothing'? Is the development of these two characters parallel or rather diametral? Can 'nothing' be seen as a cause for the developments of King Lear and Edgar?

Chapter IV will give a selective bibliography. Literary sources, primary or secondary, are rare, as only few works deal with the topic of 'nothing' exclusively. Sigurd BURCKHARD[4] 's and Brian ROTMAN[5] 's works are the exception and prooved very helpful. Interesting though originally focussing on different aspects are The 'nothing' element in King Lear[6] by Robert F. FLEISSNER and Harold SKULSKY's King Lear and the meaning of chaos[7] .

The mathematical details and the historical background of the 'career' of zero in Europe were analysed with the help of Robert KAPLAN's Die Geschichte der Null[8] as well as Michele Sharon JAFFE's The story of 0: prostitutes and other good-for-nothings in the Renaissance.[9]

Background information on Indian philosophy can be found in D. Seyford RUEGG's essay Mathematical and linguistic models in Indian thought: the case of zero and śūnyatā.[10]

II Second Chapter: 'Nothing'

II.1 The different concepts of 'nothing'

Although today everyone understands what is meant by the number of zero, scientists are still fighting over the origins of zero and what the concept behind the number stands for.

In Roman Times, people counted orally and written but they did not employ a number for nothing – there was no such number. With the expanding of the empire, trade and calculating became more and more important.

One of the main theories about the concept of zero and its way to Europe finds the explanation in these circumstances. By dealing with Arabian and Oriental traders, the Romans simply adopted the Arabian number standing for nothing, which in trade might have become accessible in an easier way to them than in everyday life. But the question where the concept of zero comes from remains.

Although there are a lot of discussions about the origins of this concept, all scientists agree more or less on one point: Indian philosophy is important in all theories.

For the purpose of this essay it is not primarily important whether zero has its origin in Indian philosophy or has been influenced or transformed by it. In other words: "Islamic mathematicians not only made many original contributions, but by their scholarship they kept much Greek science alive and in due course transmitted it to an awakening West."[11]

For a better understanding, the relation of the number zero and Indian philosophy shall briefly be introduced.

II.2 Indian philosophy and zero

During the fifth century, Indian mathematicians had to widen their reckoning system due to the unbelievably huge magnitudes employed for astronomic operations they already had to deal with.

Before changing it, they employed a system with nine numbers that could be arranged up to 99.999. But obviously, that was not enough. The mathematicians looked for a variabel that allowed them to arrange numbers in more than three potences. Therefore, they searched through Sanskrit, the language of Indian intellectuals. They found the term sunya for emptiness. Employing this term for an empty position in a system of one, ten, hundred, thousend and so on, they invented a new system of positions and the zero as well.

The sign "0" for the word sunya was born, when using the abakus mathematicians wrote a small point and later a circle around it to signify that this position was sunya – empty.[12]

Only in 13th century Italy did this system get widely known, thanks to Leonardo Fibonacci who persuaded his contemporary traders that with this system it would be possible not only to reckon with balances, but also with debts and deficits.[13]

It was Leonardo Fibunacci as well, who created the term zero (zefirum in Latin) from the Arab word as-sifr for emptiness, which was a direct successor of sunya. From 13th century Italy, it did not take long until this new system of reckoning became known in England, as well. Only one hundred years later did it appear in a schoolbook and therefore in the mind of everybody.

II.3 Establishing 'nothing' in Europe – 'nothing' in Shakespeare’s time

The Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci, who came into contactwith the oriental mathematics when he was travelling with his father, a merchant, to muslim Northern Africa in his childhood, convinced the merchants of Pisa of this new kind of rechoning in the 13th century. Although there were a lot of doubts towards this newly invented system, it was simply more practical and therefore very useful for every profession that had to deal with numbers.


[1] Rotman, Brian, Signifying nothing: The semiotics of zero. Houndsmill, Basingstoke, Hampshire and London 1987: Macmillan Press, page 78.

[2] Rotman, Brian, Signifying nothing, page 78.

[3] Shakespeare, William, King Lear. Ed. by R. A. Foakes, Walton-on-Thames: Nelson reprint2004. (The Arden Shakespeare), 2.2.192.

[4] Burckhardt, Sigurd, King Lear: The quality of nothing. The Minnesota Review II:I, pages 33-50.

[5] Rotman, Brian, Signifying nothing, page 78.

[6] Fleissner, Robert F., The 'nothing' element in King Lear. In: Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol.13, No.1. (Winter 1962), pages 67-70.

[7] Skulsky, Harold, King Lear and the meaning of chaos. In: Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol.17, Nr.1. (Winter 1966), pages 3-17.

[8] Kaplan, Robert, Die Geschichte der Null, Frankfurt and New York : Campus, 22001.

[9] Jaffe, Michele Sharon, The story of 0: prostitutes and other good-for-nothings in the Renaissance. (Harvard Studies in comparative literature: 45), Harvard 1999.

[10] Ruegg, D. Seyford, Mathematical and linguistic models in Indian thought: the case of zero and śūnyatā. In: Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Südasiens, Band XXII 1978, ed. by G. Oberhammer, pages 171-181.

[11] Fauvel, John and Jeremy Gray (eds.), The History of Mathematics: A Reader. Houndsmill, Basingstoke, Hampshire and London: MacMillan Press in association of the Open University, reprinted1988.

[12] This is the explanation most of the researchers give when being asked about the process of choosing a symbol for the concept of emptyness. There are, of course, other ideas as well. Some scientists argue that the symbol '0' had been chosen due to its similarity with the form of an egg. Others see some sort of a well when looking at the sign. What all these theories have in common, is the idea of zero as an source or basis from which something develops. I will come to this again, later.

[13] Leonardo Fibunacci had learned to reckon with the Indian-Arab system during his school-time when he travelled with his father, a trader, to Northern Africa. Compare also: Cerutti, Herbert, Die schwere Geburt der Null. In: NZZ Folio, 04.02.2002, Seiten 23-26.

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Rather Something - On "nothing" in King Lear
University of Heidelberg  (Anglistisches Seminar)
Shakespeare and the human evil
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Rather, Something, King, Lear, Shakespeare
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Stefanie Klering (Author), 2006, Rather Something - On "nothing" in King Lear , Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/77249


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