King Lear

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Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Old Age Theme Icon
Fooling and Madness Theme Icon
Blindness and Insight Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in King Lear, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon

Although Lear begins as a figure of authority and order, when he gives up his power and Goneril and Regan turn against him, he falls apart, going mad. Moreover, his personal decline parallels a farther-reaching dissolution of order and justice in the British state. Lear's error, based on blindness and misjudgment, doesn't just ruin him personally. It leads to a political situation in which there is no order to guarantee justice, despite his (and Gloucester's) repeated appeals to the gods.

Cordelia's first answer to Lear's command that she pronounce her love for him, the answer that first enrages him against her, is (in 1.1) is "nothing." After that first appearance, the word "nothing" recurs constantly throughout the play in the mouths of multiple characters. The repetition of this word highlights the theme of nothingness, and of the complete lack of meaning that results from nothingness – after all, when everything is destroyed, it is not possible to compare anything to anything else, and in such a void, without any ability to compare, nothing can have any meaning. And, ultimately, it is hard to argue that the ending of the play offers any justice at all: while the "bad guys" of Edmund, Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall are all killed, so are the heroes of Lear, Gloucester, and Cordelia. Nearly the entire social order, good and bad, is annihilated and turned to nothing. As Lear himself cries out in the moments before he dies, while holding the dead Cordelia in his arms, with his kingdom destroyed: "Never, never, never, never, never" (5.3.372).

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Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Quotes in King Lear

Below you will find the important quotes in King Lear related to the theme of Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness.
Act 1, scene 1 Quotes
"Nothing will come of nothing."
Related Characters: King Lear (speaker)
Page Number: 1.1.99
Explanation and Analysis:

Lear asks each of his daughters to profess their love to him in order to receive their portion of his kingdom. When Cordelia has nothing to say in response, Lear makes this pithy statement denying her any property.

Plot-wise, Lear’s comment refers to the fact that Cordelia will receive no land if she does not express her adoration properly. Thus “nothing”—in terms of inheritance—will come of the linguistic “nothing” she offers him. We see Lear here make an incorrect association between language and property: He does not take into consideration his daughter’s actual affection or care, but considers a single sentence she speaks as reason to deny her all dowry access.

Thematically, Shakespeare establishes a pattern of superficial treatment between characters: they will often base their actions on appearances and speech instead of according to honest principles or sentiments. The very word “nothing” itself appears again and again in the play, consistently reminding the reader of the desolation caused by Cordelia’s simple inability to speak. Even Lear’s own speech mirrors this motif: he opts for a clever, epigrammatic sentence instead of selecting more careful positions that would ultimately better himself and his daughter.

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Act 1, scene 2 Quotes
"Thou, Nature, art my goddess."
Related Characters: Edmund (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Stars, Heavens, and the Gods
Page Number: 1.2.1
Explanation and Analysis:

Edmund bemoans how his status as a bastard prevents him from having a claim to his father's title. As a result, he renounces the value of human laws and instead chooses to exalt the wonder of “Nature.”

Here we see Edmund turn away for the first time from the systems that organize human life. He reveals a wish to violate social norms and seize power for himself. Since “Nature” exists beyond the royal system that delineates between legitimate and illegitimate children, it offers a world in which Edmund could receive a proper inheritance. That Edmund selects nature to be his “goddess” also marks a subtle turn away from Christianity and toward paganism. Though religion is not a blatant theme in King Lear, it bubbles under the tragedy’s surface. Edmund’s embrace of Nature could be seen as somewhat heretical, which foreshadows the way he will sin both spiritually and politically in order to further his own ascent to power.

His soliloquy also initiates a pattern in King Lear of characters seeking solace or support in the natural environment. The tragedy often juxtaposes the banality and social cruelty of the human realm with a more egalitarian and open natural world. Shakespeare positions nature as an open psychological and physical space on which characters can project their ideal worlds, beyond the constraints of normative human society.

"These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us."
Related Characters: Gloucester (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Stars, Heavens, and the Gods
Page Number: 1.2.109-110
Explanation and Analysis:

Edmund has just falsely informed Gloucester that Edgar is plotting against his father. Gloucester notes, as he wonders how to proceed, that the movements in the heavenly bodies foreshadow negative events to come.

This passage speaks to the important role of omens for the characters of King Lear. Various characters refer to the way the heavens ordain human events, and thus examining their movements offers a way to guess at the future. Gloucester believes, here, that he can interpret “late eclipses”—moments when light is blocked from the sun or moon—as signs of “no good” to come. (Symbolically, we could say that the light of royalty and stability will be eclipsed by deceit and eventually murder.) Shakespeare thus presents Gloucester as adhering to the value of fate—believing the the heavens determine his life more than individual human action.

It is intriguing that Gloucester brings up the idea of heavenly bodies just after Edmund has sworn allegiance to nature. Though they both seem to be appealing to the same force, their ways of doing so are vastly different. If Edmund sees in nature a space beyond the moral and social constraints of humanity, Gloucester instead sees a divine power that rules over and intersects human affairs. The first sees it as a space apart; the second as deeply integrated. In this way, Shakespeare treats nature and the heavens as a complex symbolic system—a site that various characters interpret differently based on their own beliefs and ends.

"As if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion."
Related Characters: Edmund (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Stars, Heavens, and the Gods
Page Number: 1.2.128-129
Explanation and Analysis:

After Gloucester departs, Edmund mocks his father’s comments on the heavens. He believes that the motion of the planets do nothing to ordain human action.

With these characters, Shakespeare establishes two poles on the question of human agency in the context of heavenly predestination. Whereas Gloucester believes that eclipses in the sky predict negative events in the human world, Edmund finds this perspective ridiculous. This debate speaks to a philosophical question on free will, but it also expresses a generational difference. Just as Lear values ceremonial behavior and adherence to tradition, Gloucester finds deference the heavens to be important. Friction arises with both sets of children because the younger generations seek increased personal control.

To substantiate his claim on the heavens, Edmund gives two examples of where human identities should not reasonably conform to fate: “villains” and “fools.” Shakespeare has not arbitrarily selected these terms. Being himself a villain (as he has just decided), Edmund is implicitly claiming that he acts according to his own will as opposed to the effect of any celestial body. Yet we could take his exploits as proof that Gloucester was correct that eclipses foretold negative events. “Fools” will play an important role later in the tragedy, when both actual and artificial fools render unclear whether the heavens or human action lead to madness. Thus even as Edmund disparages his father’s belief in destiny, Shakespeare subtly designs the structure of the tragedy to reiterate the ever-present role of fate.

Act 2, scene 3 Quotes
"I will preserve myself, and am bethought
To take the basest and most poorest shape
That ever penury in contempt of man
Brought near to beast."
Related Characters: Edgar (speaker)
Related Symbols: Animals, Clothing and Costumes
Page Number: 2.3.6-9
Explanation and Analysis:

Having fled his father’s castle, Edgar finds himself alone in the wilderness. He decides to take on the disguise of a fool called “Poor Tom” in order protect himself from being recognized and killed.

Edgar begins, first, by declaring this intention to “preserve” himself, marking basic survival as his primary intention. Saying, “bethought to take the basest and most poorest shape” declares that the best way to protect himself will be to take on an alternative identity and costume of lowliness. That his “penury” or poverty will be “in contempt of men” implies that his false identity will inherently criticize the morally-empty pomp and circumstance of those from which he hides. Thus he will take on the role of the “beast” primarily for self-protection, but also with an inherent skepticism of others, particularly the morally-bankrupt "nobility."

This passage takes the theme of man’s relationship to the wilderness in an intriguing direction: in order to best protect himself from the human world of deceit, Edgar must approximate the wilderness as much as possible—becoming “the basest and most poorest shape” that he can. In an odd way, this recourse to nature follows in Edmund’s footsteps: not only is he locating in wilderness something that was lacking in the human world, but he even invokes the tropes of baseness associated with Edmund illegitimacy. Yet whereas Edmund sought a reprieve from legal and moral justice, Edgar is seeking protection only from a misapplication of that justice. Thus Shakespeare presents nature as a repository of both productive and counter-productive divergences from human society.

Act 2, scene 4 Quotes
"O sir, you are old.
Nature I you stands on the very verge
Of his confine."
Related Characters: Regan (speaker), King Lear
Page Number: 2.4.164-166
Explanation and Analysis:

Regan and Goneril argue with Lear about his behavior in their households. During the fight, Regan comments on his age and the way he approaches his mental and physical demise.

Her accusation returns to the question of how insanity and elderliness interplay: Regan firmly contends that the decline of Lear’s mental capacities is responsible for his erratic behaviors. Here, she offers a somewhat new take on the issue when she brings in the ever-present image of “Nature.” Here, “Nature” signifies a wild realm beyond a human, rational range of understanding. That this force is “on the very verge of his confine” means that the specter of madness approaches Lear. His “confine” would thus stand for the metaphorical borders of his sanity—which, if breached by Nature, would shatter his mind. In this way, Regan defines a very fragile conception of human intelligence and control, in which emotional instability or old age could potentially weaken one’s “confine.” For her, “Nature” is a set of wild forces waiting to burst in and take advantage of human weakness the moment social or mental stability fails.

"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."
Related Characters: King Lear (speaker)
Related Symbols: Animals
Page Number: 2.4.304-307
Explanation and Analysis:

Lear becomes increasingly deranged during his conversation with Goneril and Regan. He begins raving, here, about the meaninglessness of life and how all men are essentially equivalent to beggars.

As with many of Shakespeare’s supposedly mad characters, Lear chooses images that seem nonsensical at first but actually contain real philosophical significance. When he says that beggars “are in the poorest things superfluous,” he plays with the question of ownership and inheritance. Indeed, beggars have a great deal of “the poorest things”—the “nothing” so oft referenced in the play. In this way, they are weirdly superior to the rich. Lear continues to affirm the value of poverty when he continues, “allow not nature more than nature needs,” pointing to the way nature requires no human accessories or niceties to exist.

At this point, Lear could have still defined nature to be a separate space from human society, but when he adds, “Man’s life is cheap as beast’s” he brings the two together. That is to say, in this new worldview, men should not consider themselves superior to animals; their reason and things bring them no special existential merits. The choice of the economic term “cheap” stresses the foolishness inherent in how humans assess their lives in terms of money. Thus beneath Lear’s apparent madness, one can actually trace a complex critique of human society, one which has come from Lear’s experiences with his daughters greed and deceit. Indeed, saying “reason not the need” Lear seems to be aware of the value in his insanity. If he indeed finds “reason” empty or unnecessary, he is explicitly saying so. This passage thus brings into question the full extent of Lear’s insanity: has he actually lost his mind, or has he gained greater clarity into human folly?

Act 3, scene 2 Quotes
"Here's a night pities neither wise men nor fools."
Related Characters: Fool (speaker)
Page Number: 3.2.14-15
Explanation and Analysis:

Lear and his Fool stand amidst the overpowering storm. The first shouts at the natural forces, while the second offers these more reasoned statements.

The Fool is here describing the way Nature does not affect humans differently based on their social status. This night “pities” none more than others, because it affects all equally. Physically, this would be taking place on the stage as we would see King Lear and the Fool equally affected by the “night.” This statement quite cleverly plays with the opposition between “wise men” and “fools.” Note how the Fool and Lear continue to switch roles: whereas the supposedly wise king is screaming insanely into the environment, the supposedly jesting Fool is offering poignant commentary. Yet that Fool’s wise comment is to once more equate wise men and fools! After all, it is in his madness rather than his earlier rationality that Lear seems more introspective and intelligent. Thus the effect is not particularly to invert their roles but rather to, amidst a physical and metaphorical storm, show how fluidly intelligence and insanity bleed together.

"The art of our necessities is strange
And can make vile things precious."
Related Characters: King Lear (speaker)
Page Number: 3.2.76-77
Explanation and Analysis:

Still amidst the storm, Lear reflects on the insignificance of physical possessions. He observes how little humans require in certain circumstances.

Once again, Shakespeare places philosophically significant statements in the mouth of a madman. That Lear considers “our necessities” to be an “art” is a subtle paradox, for arts are generally taken to be a supplement to human existence rather than a strict requirement. Being a “strange” art further muddles the definition of “necessities,” which we would expect to be clear-cut and self-evident rather than uncertain. When Lear adds that this art “can make vile things precious” he points to the power human psychology has in reshaping its relationship to external objects. Things that should seen disgusting can be made “precious” with sufficient art—indeed they may even come to be seen as necessities.

Lear’s confrontation with the primal nature of the storm thus seems to have radically altered his sense of what is essential versus superfluous. Shakespeare shows how his earlier conceptions have been opened up by this poignant confrontation with environmental and internal madness—ironically giving him greater insight than he had while supposedly sane.

Act 3, scene 4 Quotes
"Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness defend you
From seasons such as these? O I have taken
Too little care of this."
Related Characters: King Lear (speaker)
Page Number: 3.4.32-37
Explanation and Analysis:

Lear has finally escaped from the overwhelming storm. Shaken by the experience, he reflects on how little attention he devoted as King to his impoverished subjects.

This passage shows that Lear’s experience has granted him a new level of empathy to others. He imagines that common people “bide the pelting of this pitiless storm” just as he has—and that they must therefore be in need of resources and aid just as Lear was. Nature, here, serves as an equalizer between king and subject, allowing Lear to understand how desperately others would need aid “from seasons such as these.” He is able, then, to imagine the significance of not having a castle and only owning “looped and windowed raggedness”: the paltry huts that would be owned by peasants. Having redefined his idea of a necessity, he comes to see even mere shacks as precious.

Shakespeare develops, then, the argument that supposed madness can actually bring one great clarity and insight. Lear is seen by the other characters to be insane, but his ravings in the wilderness have actually brought him greater empathy for his subjects—the exact quality that would be necessary for any accomplished ruler. That he renounces his previous actions places Lear in a traditional moral arc of recognition and repentance, but Shakespeare plays on this formula by making insanity the route to that realization.

Act 4, scene 1 Quotes
"The worst is not
So long as we can say 'This is the worst.'"
Related Characters: Edgar (speaker)
Page Number: 4.1.30-31
Explanation and Analysis:

Edgar is reflecting on his lowly position when he sees the blind Gloucester led by an Old Man. He revises his earlier beliefs, pointing out that many are far worse off than himself and that, indeed, the ability to observe how bad things are must mean they are not at the absolute bottom.

That Edgar’s observations are induced by seeing the Old Man and Gloucester reiterates how the tragic action offers perspective on one’s own misfortune. Edgar may have pitied himself, but once he sees others in even more dire straights, he realizes that he was being ridiculous all along. His very ability to reflect on his state of affairs is juxtaposed with their lack of composure.

This passage also returns to the question of how language can often deviate from reality. One would assume that saying “This is the worst” would imply that things are indeed at their most terrible, but Edgar points out that it is just the opposite. The very ability to speak those words implies a level of composure and reflection—indeed an ability to speak!—that must mean the state of affairs could be even worse. Thus not only can language misrepresent reality, in this case, the statement itself must misrepresent reality.

Act 4, scene 2 Quotes
"The nature which contemns its origin
Cannot be bordered certain in itself."
Related Characters: Albany (speaker), Goneril
Page Number: 4.2.41-42
Explanation and Analysis:

Albany has realized the deceitful way Regan and Goneril treated Lear. He condemns them, here, for turning against their own father.

Shakespeare plays once more with the complex term “nature,” here used to refer to both Goneril’s disposition and to her blood-linked relationship to her father. In the first sense, Goneril’s “nature” means her cruel personality that has acted independently of any filial compassion and thus lashed out brutally against her father. But by selecting the possessive pronoun “its” for “its origin,” Albany implies that nature is inherently linked to the “origin” of one’s parents. Goneril’s actions against her father have thus both been characteristic of her nature but also have betrayed that nature because she “contemns”—sees with contempt—her father.

Albany brings these two meanings of nature together in the second line. That something cannot “be bordered certain in itself” means that it cannot have a secure sense of its identity or disposition. That is to say, it is a nature that cannot be sure of its borders and thus can never know just how it will react. Albany implies that turning against one’s heritage is a kind of self-abnegation—a violation of one’s own nature. Thus Shakespeare plays with the dual meaning of nature as identity and origin to differentiate between those who value heritage and those who belittle it.

Act 4, scene 6 Quotes
"Gloucester: Oh let me kiss that hand!
Lear: Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality."
Related Characters: King Lear (speaker), Gloucester (speaker)
Page Number: 4.6.147-148
Explanation and Analysis:

After Gloucester has survived his fake-suicide, Lear enters the scene. Gloucester asks to greet him royally, but the mad Lear rejects the offer due to an irrational comment on his impending death.

Shakespeare places in conversation here two figures who are crippled from proper communication: Gloucester and Lear have both been driven to different forms of disability, with the first being blind and the second being insane. Yet he cleverly inverts their roles in this moment of mis-recognition: this inversion comes through in the way that Gloucester is blind, yet he is able to recognize Lear and thus asks to kiss his hand. Lear, meanwhile, is the blind one in that he does not recognize Gloucester. Indeed, his senses are nonfunctional in that he “smells” his hand incorrectly.

The passage also reiterates the way madness is equivalent to philosophical insight. Lear is indeed correct to point out that his hand “smells of mortality,” for all human hands do in a sense. His insanity comes from that exact existential insight, for he applies it indiscriminately to every situation. Thus by staging an interaction between two forms of disability, Shakespeare burlesques the very nature of human interaction—for even when one man overcomes his disability and the other offers a poignant observation, they entirely fail to communicate.

Act 5, scene 3 Quotes
"Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones!
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so
That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone forever."
Related Characters: King Lear (speaker), Cordelia
Related Symbols: The Stars, Heavens, and the Gods
Page Number: 5.3.308-310
Explanation and Analysis:

Just as Edmund sends a messenger to halt his plans to kill Cordelia and Lear, Lear enters with his daughter’s body. He exclaims these lines of intense remorse.

Though Lear’s language has become increasingly difficult to parse, it continues to hold meaning if examined carefully. Lear’s invocation—“Howl, Howl, Howl”—recalls his earlier expressions during the storm. Here, he mimics the environmental sounds, becoming himself an expression of natural catastrophe rather than of rational human logic. Calling others “men of stones” implies that he finds them emotionless and cold in the face of the catastrophe he has witnessed. As a result, Lear finds their verbal responses lacking.

In particular, he wishes he possessed their “tongues and eyes” because he could speak and see with greater vigor the horror of his daughter’s death. That Lear demands the senses of others is particularly evocative considering the role that blindness and insanity have played in the work: even as he descends into a lack of proper sensation, he demands the sensory capacities of others. His goal would be “that heaven’s vault should crack,” which develops the previous imagery of celestial bodies. Here Lear implies that something could “crack” or change course in the pre-destined role of the heavens were he given sufficient power—a point that notably deviates from his earlier adherence to fate and the heavens. Thus in Lear’s more remorseful moments, he both imitates and seeks to overcome the power of nature, all while demanding that the other unmoved humans grant him their sensations.

"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."
Related Characters: King Lear (speaker), Cordelia
Related Symbols: Animals
Page Number: 5.3.369-372
Explanation and Analysis:

As Lear’s life draws to a close, he speaks these final lines. He ends with abject denial of himself and of human nature.

His tone in this passage is actually quite soft and surprised. The repetition of “No, no, no” combined with the phrasing as a question, cast Lear as quite hesitant, even infantile. His next line comparing the lives of animals to that of dead Cordelia is similarly innocent: Lear seems to not be able to make sense of basic human injustices, believing naively that his daughter simply deserves to be alive because other things are. In this way, he completes the narrative spelled out by Regan and Goneril earlier in which old age reverts him to an infantile state.

The obsessive repetition of negation words recalls his original rejection of Cordelia’s “nothing.” Here, then, we see how far that denial has carried the both of them—from one faulty sentence to a complete denial of life with three “no”s and five “never”s. Shakespeare ends this tragedy, then, not exactly with overwhelming bloodshed, but rather with a exploration of how one small bit of misplaced language multiplied into a broad and permanent nihilistic denial.