How, nothing will come of nothing. (I.i)

When Cordelia tells Lear that she can say “nothing” about her love for her father, this line is Lear’s response. His words are a warning to Cordelia—she must comply with her father’s demand for a flattering speech or risk losing her inheritance—but the line reverberates throughout the play. Lear essentially repeats it when he tells the Fool that “nothing can be made out of nothing” (I.iv), while the word “nothing” and other negatives (never, none etc.) come up over and over again. These repetitions reflect King Lear’s obsession with absences and loss. Lear’s declaration in the opening scene that “nothing will come of nothing” prepares the audience for a play that begins with an impulsive, senseless act and ends with no meaning, no hope and no redemption for its characters.

O, thou’lt come no more,
Never never never never never. (V.iii)

Lear addresses these words to the body of Cordelia in the play’s final scene. Cordelia’s death is the most terrible event in a play full of terrible events. She is blameless, and even the character who ordered her death, Edmund, wants to save her. Her forgiveness in her last scene had seemed to give meaning to all Lear’s suffering during the play: as a result her death confirms that all Lear’s suffering, including his grief at Cordelia’s death, is meaningless. Lear’s repetition of the word “never” is the disbelief of a bereaved parent, but it also gives voice to the shock and disbelief of the audience. Coming at the end of a play in which negatives like “never” and “nothing” have been insistently repeated, the repetition of “never” here also confirms the vision of the play as a whole: the world of King Lear is a world without meaning.