Shakespeare, Lear, and Math
  • lear2_372

    Shakespeare was not only a poet. He was a thinker.

    Nowhere is this more clearly concretized than King Lear, wherein we see a curious concern with numbers and mathematics.

    King Lear is about madness — or, more specifically, the fear of madness and the redemptive power of love and charity as a kind of foil against madness — and many readers for this reason regard it as Shakespeare’s most “humane play.”

    Yet interwoven among all this flesh-and-blood lurks the beautiful and bloodless world of math, which serves to anchor the unshakable sense that Lear’s brains are breaking free from their moorings.

    Many, for example, have noted how the words “nothing” and “all” resound throughout the entirety of the play, and that both of those words can be represented by the symbol zero: 0

    The round world, the globe, the Globe Theatre, Shakespeare’s obvious punning on “hole” and “whole” — these are all as well represented by 0.

    In King Lear, Shakespeare is clearly concerned with the idea of nothingness and the finality of death, as, for example, when in Act 1, Scene iv, the Fool says to Lear:

    “Thou are an O without a figure. Thou art nothing.”

    In that same scene, the same fools says the following:

    Fool: Nuncle, give me an egg, and I’ll give thee two crowns.

    Lear: What two crowns shall they be?

    Fool: Why, after I have cut the egg i’ the middle, and eat
    up the meat, the two crowns of the egg. When thou
    clovest thy crown i’ the middle, and gavest away
    both parts, thou borest thy ass on thy back o’er
    the dirt: thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown,
    when thou gavest thy golden one away.

    A crown is one kind of circle, and so is an egg.

    The egg is nothing, as the fool recognizes: eat the hardboiled egg, and you have two empty rounds. (These empty rounds later become the gouged-out eye sockets of Gloucester, which Shakespeare unforgettably describes as “bleeding rings.” Shakespeare also deliberately deepens the description by having a servant say he will fetch egg-white to treat Gloucester’s maimed face [III.vii.106], and by having Edgar say that if Gloucester were to throw himself from Dover Cliff, he’d be crushed “like an egg.”)

    Thus the bald head of King Lear suddenly takes on a newer and more complex meaning — an abstract, mathematical symbol: not only a crown but a kind of circle as well.

    In this way, Lear’s nothingness — his descent into madness — becomes a universal nothingness, in an indifferent universe, with a chilling finality, and that is why when the blind Gloucester meets Lear, now legitimately mad, he says to him and about him:

    “O ruined piece of nature! This great world
    Shall wear out to nought.”

    Act 4, vi, 134-135

    Bleak but beautiful — and unbelievably smart.

About The Author

Ray Harvey

I was born and raised in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. I've worked as a short-order cook, construction laborer, crab fisherman, janitor, bartender, pedi-cab driver, copyeditor, and more. I've written and ghostwritten several published books and articles, but no matter where I've gone or what I've done to earn my living, there's always been literature and learning at the core of my life.

3 Responses and Counting...

  • doc 02.06.2014

    One of your best. Wonderful turn of phrase, ‘multicultural preoccupations’ reminded of reading a comment of the ‘mournography’ that will surely accompany Hoffman’s death.

  • Thank you, Doc!

    Mournography? Is that for real, or are you being deliberately over-the-top?

  • doc

    from The Guardian
    Need a monkey gland

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