April 28, 1976 Rewritten March 7th, 2001



Each age has its quest for individuality, for the path to identity.  The two World Wards and the Holocaust stripped recent generations of security, gentility, and fair play, and introduced a nuclear anxiety.  

Shakespeare’s age had its own anxieties.  Any genius is aware of his own worth, particularly in constant with his well-positioned yet often undeserving patrons.  

The information era has made us empty vessels of overwhelmed with too much content, subjects deprived of rulers, gods, kingdoms, eternal kingdoms, too suave to believe in the sheltering sky, too cynical to believe even in sin.

Shakespeare might tell us that it is in accepting our emptiness that we find fulfillment: the best defense is to have no defense.  To find ourselves we have to lose ourselves: we must find before seeking.  We must remove ourselves from combat to win.  That is, man


With nothing shall be pleased till he be eased

With being nothing….

(R2, 5, 5, 40 - 41)


The linguistic means by which Shakespeare unearths meaning out of nothingness should thus serve as ends for the depleted identities of his modern readers, sans ideals, sans eternity, sans everything.



In deference to nothing in particular, let me start with a summary of negations.  The word nothing is mentioned 678 1 times in Shakespeare, a relative frequency of 0.0766% out of884,647 words.2Something comes up 188 times.  Shakespeare is trying to tell us something, or nothing.  



Single nature’s double name

Neither two nor one was called.

(“The Pheonix and the Turtle,” 39 - 40)


Between the double identities of bright Phoenix and drab Turtle, a schizophrenia many of us must share, between nothing and something, lies a third thing, which is neither here nor there, neither one nor the other.  This is what the Greeks called methexis, or a kind of reading between the lines.  

If Kant felt morality was black and white, Hegel invented grey.  There is a chiaroscuro to the complex, even if comic books reduce their heroes to simpler constraints.  Such a systematic plurality of possible actions put an end to good and evil and introduce hedging and deal-making into philosophy, although the Greeks had been aware of such humans inconsistencies much earlier.  

The critic Hugh Kenner advances Noam Chomsky’s theory of negative syntax as an example of methexis.  St. Paul writes:

Do not presume that one of Thebes is saved.

Do not fear that one of Thebes is damned.

If this were mathematics, “presume” cancel “fear,” and “saved” would cancel “damned.” so the equation would cancel out.  Nothing has been said, from a rational point of view.  But in fact everything has been said.  A modest hope has been raised.  This is how Shakespeare’s equation function as well.  



Shakespeare spent whole plays dramatizing such self-cancelling distinctions between who we think we are and who we really are, between the ego and the id, the social self and the selfish self, the Jekyll and Hyde, between our given name and our earned title, between the aristocracy and the meritocracy.  Such differences were buffeted about in the Elizabethan air.  The divine rights of kings, and the inherited privilege of the great titles, known as Nominalism (“What’s n a name?”), were set against self-determination.  As Cassius says in Julius Ceaser:


The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

(JC, 1, 2, 140 - 141). 


Although the stories of kings have been the standard definition of history, Braudel has popularized the notion that there are equivalent, if less vocal, stories among the poor.  They in fact did have a voice, and it was Shakespeare’s.

Shakespeare questioned the star-given rights of weak kings, such as Richard II, or evil kings, such as Richard III.  His play Coriolanus explores the identity crisis of a war hero whose name, Coriolanus, is earned after he conquers the town of Coriolan, and it then revoked, leaving him unimportant and nameless, like any CEO who was lost his title.

His Richard II, on the other hand, is king in many only, too sensitive for power and thus underserving of the throne, and yet perhaps deserving of a better throne, as he is the king of metaphysical poetry, and his revelations shape and shake our notions of self-worth.  He becomes king only when he is unkinged.

I am obvious enough to compare this “mockery king of snow,” of melting illusions, the weak yet poetic Richard II, who rises from the revelations of his own ashes, to the relative turtle of a Roman general,3 the Cominus of Coriolanus: 



He would not answer to; forbade all names.

he was a kind of nothing, titleless, 

Til he had forged himself a name o’ th’ fire

Of burning Rome.4


This is one kind of nothing (perhaps less than kind).  Applying the numeric theory of treble doubles, it is predictable enough that Richard the snow king means something else by nothing;5 that Coriolanus the torrid6 neglects mirrors for miracles, snow for show; and that thinking, good or bad, makes an altogether different thing of nothing.


Then am I kinged again; and by and by

Think that I am unkinged by Bolingbroke,

And straight am nothing.  But whate’er I be.

Nor I, nor any man that but man is,

With nothing shall be pleased til be he eased

With being nothing….

(R2, 5, 5, 36 - 41)



The antiscians throw shadows opposite ours at noon on the other side of the world.  Richard throws words opposite his own.  The phrase by and by separates kinged from unkinged, all of which are connected by think, as is the case with Richard: thinking is what makes him king and also what unmakes him.  He is ironic in saying that he straight is nothing: the process is more deceptive.  

But…I is followed by but…man.  Man is preceded by any man.  Nor I is followed by nor any man.  Richard is toying with logic, grammar, and synecdochic identity.  Positive nothing is followed by negative being nothing.  Both nothings are separated by the suspicious rhyme of pleased…eased, both positive and negative.  There is a conflict here, anaclastic semantics, words bending each other towards an unreal reflection.  The lumpy artifacts of void and abstraction blend crookedly with the unmentionable modernities of being and concretion.  To be or not to be casts conjunctive doubt on both sides of the sword, of the words.


MacBeth shapes his confusion similarly: 

…that but his blow

Might be the be-all and the end-all here

But here upon his bank and shoal of time

We’ld jump the life to come….

(MacBeth, 1, 7, 4 - 7)


I omit the stops to point the joints: two buts, two tees, two alls, and two heres lead to a jump.  Bank and shoal are not the same: between them lies a leap.

Richard also jumps between two verbal worlds: philosophic conjunctivitis.  In the Coriloanus quote, the name Coriolanus, and in the Richard quote, the name Bolingbroke represent the concrete, the words that destroy the dream, the nouns that unking - that is, nominalism, denying the glory of imagination to words.  Richard is the medieval realist, the uprooted linguist, imagination without a future.  Coriolanus, on his part, is the I without the imagination.  

Richard puns his own death: being nothing.  He will be killed just after his speech, highlighting its importance as “:famous last words,”  He is a past faced with the present.  Bank versus shoal becomes a verbal anadidymus: two of everything, only hate sprung from only love7.  Inflationary language results, like Victor Borge’s “so on and so fifth.,  interlocking with all the ambidextrous contrarieties of left and right hands.

Words grab at being and ending.  Reputation builds rhythm, cadence, like the dull cycle of a discus before a surprising throw: the circle of kinged and unkinged, a commodious virus, leads to a straightness; not a fall and wake, like Finnegans fall from grace off the ladder, but an ascent and a new world, the dark territory of Anthony and Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s eponymous play that is not Rome and Egypt.  Thus Richard denies.


“Nor I, nor any-man….)


Shakespeare has introduced Plato into language: the ideal.  What men are, what man is, is not what they would be.


“There be, an if they might.”

(Hamlet, 1, 5, 177)


The past is what ought not to have been, the present is what should not be, and the future is what artists are8.  We would jump the life to come, reach outside the cave for the ideal, as Caesar is moved by a dream he knows to be unreal.  Beyond Hamlet’s silence and Richard’s espousal of nothingness is a condition unaffected b the contradictions or contractions of thought.  It is beyond the set of our ability to verbalize it, but it is there nonetheless. 

Richard accepts being nothing as a progression beyond the simple repetitive contraries of the king’s two bodies: king or non-king, to be or not to be, Egyptian or Roman.  Beyond the choice of strangely refractive doubles is a final message: no thing is acceptable until the two words are eased into one word, nothing, even if by the blood of self-sacrifice - 


Or that the Everlasting had not fixed His canon ‘gaist self-slaughter.

(Halmet, 1, 2, 131)


And once all repetitive contraries are equated in cancellation (the country Coriolanus cannot leave), the music can be heard in Richard’s prison and in Jessica’s Belmont (in The Merchant of Venice), and Richard can bless the musician; he is beyond both temporal and official selves.

Nothing is mentioned twenty-five times in Richard II until the final nothing of the key passage.  For example, the Queen’s “inward soul/With nothing trembles,” and makes her “with heavy nothing faint and shrink.”  If “nothing but conceit…,” “Tis nothing else,”  If nothing has begot her “something grief,” it is also true that the nothing itself has something, or that some thing has the ideal nothing9.  The Queen underlines the refraction or contradiction, but cannot go beyond her two “somethings” to pin the “nothing” down:


’Tis in revision that I do possess;

But what it is, that is not yet known - what

I cannot name….

(R2, 2, 2, 38 - 30)


The Gardner says to the Queen, “In your lord’s scale is nothing but himself….” (R2, 3, 4, 85) Richard mixes contraries: “Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be….” (R2, 4, 1, 201).  Here he identifies the ego with nothing twice, and then states it a third time to impress the third level of nothing upon himself.  

But ultimately Richard learns a way out of the two nothings:


…Sighs, tears, and groans

Show minutes, times, and hours.

(R2, 5, 2, 57)


Coriolanus, on the other hand, never notices that tears are bound up with times; he remains a boy of tears.  Richard salutes his own discovered imagery: “I wasted time and now time doth waste me.” (R2, 5, 5, 29) Coriolanus remains the numb mockery of his own clock.  

Coriolanus’ watch is nothing.  He cannot even speak for himself: it is up to Volumnia, Menenius, Aufidius, and Cominius to do the jumping10, to draw the conclusions.  

Aufifius dreams that he and Marcius (Coriolanus) fight and wake “half dead with nothing,” something of a summary of the latter’s career.  Menenius says Coriolanus “wants nothing of a god but eternity.”   The irony is not so much on eternity as it is on nothing.11

Both Marcius and Richard are deprived of names, but the former cannot replace the loss with two’s or even three’s; he dies with the hyperbole of “six Aufidiuses, or more” (C, 5, 6, 128).  Coriolanus cares about names, Richard about words.



The nominalistic materialism of names cannot justify the soul in the end.  A name is not enough.  They are at best only icons of better, if less visible, spirits.  

Words are clues for Richard, barriers for Marcius.  The latter is only a kind of nothing, the former a king of nothing.

Coriolanus’ egoism results in personal void, while Richard’s acceptance of void ends in final identity. 

Richard, passive, talks his character into reality; Marcius, active, leaves his career to the words of others, and dissolved into negation by a third crowd: the Romans oppose him when allies, leave him alone when enemies.  His enemies the Volscians usurp Rome’s vengeance while allies.

Marcius speaks of himself, poorly, in the first person; he must be spoken about, finally, in the third, as does Cominius, a Coriolanus surrogate.  Richard often referes to himself in the third.

Opposites destroy Coriolanus, death brings nothing to him.  Both Richard and Marcius are assassinated, but with a difference.  Richard has become a phoenix; Coriolanus remains a turtle.  Richard admits to a dichotomy founded on Platonism: 


Mount, mount, my soul!  they seat is up on high;

Whilst my gross flesh sinks downward, here to die.

(R2, 5, 5, 112 - 113)

Coriolanus remains bound to a concrete, destructive polarity, forging names out of fires.



Doubles in Shakespearean language point to neither two nor one.  Juliet’s oxymoron (“thou day in night”) circles the inherent impossibility of two families becoming one, hinting at a different kind of love altogether.  Coriolanus resources Marcius (his original identity) and arrives at “a kind of nothing.”  Richard is content with neither king nor self.  Cleopatra says to Anthony, “I loved you, but that’s not it.”

It seems logical that the nothing they achieve is not the one-minus-one of Marcius, not the one-plus-one of Juliet, but a third “something” which informs the structure of Shakespeare’s language with a linguistic methexis, wherein words can only approach an ideal, motives must see past of shadows and the names, and language exists in spite of itself to indicate something better.  

As Timon of Athens said,


The sun’s a thief, and with his great attraction

Robs the vast sea; the moon’s an arrant thief,

And her pale fire she snatches from the sun;

….Each thing’s a thief.12


The result of words should be silence, as Beckett and Hamlet have theorized.  But there is a residue, and that is the poetry, and the hope.  



1 See Marvin Spevack, The Harvard Concordance to Shakespeare, Harvard, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1973.


2 .0212 relative frequency; although nowadays even the truth may be proved (Wilde).


3 Handy in later generalizations. 


4 Coriolanus, 5, 1, 12 - 15: five lines against Richard’s six, interstitial symmetry, contrapuntal syncope.  My apologies for stylized references to old-fashioned scenes.


5 Repetition with a distance, that we may wear our rue with a difference.


6 Turtles versus mocks, generals against kings.


7 I am as good as a chorus.


8 WIlde, the but is mine (as always).


9 Richard II: 2, 2, lines 12, 32, 33, 34, 36, 37.


10 See Tom Stoppard’s play, Jumpers.  “Jumping” is used as a metaphor by Stoppard for that logical leap between a reasonable proposition and its absurd, godly conclusion, the same leap of faith which produces poetry.

11 Coriolanus, 4, 5, 127, and 5, 4, 23.


12 See The Life of Timon of Athens, 4, 3, 432 -438, and Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire, whose title comes from this passage, but, when quotes by the hero’s uncle in the novel, is mistranslated as “silvery light,” a wonderful comment on how bad language misses the truth, and how great language conveys it. 


All plays cited are by William Shakespeare unless otherwise noted.  I am indebted to the theories of Edward Tayler at Columbia University.  I hope that my own misinterpretation of Tayler and of Shakespeare supplies another line to read between.