“An O without a figure”: The Fool and the Concept of Zero in King Lear


The works of William Shakespeare offer many archetypes and symbols that appear in the cards, including many types of fools. The fools of Shakespeare’s earlier plays embodied the lighter and more entertaining aspects of the Fool’s character because they were written for the clownish Will Kemp, the wildly popular comic actor of Shakespeare’s troupe of players.  But when Kemp wandered off to Morris Dance his way from London to Norwich, Shakespeare had a new player to write for in his fool parts, Robert Armin, who was more suited to the roles of the wiser and wittier fools of Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and King Lear

Robert Armin

His treatment of the fool as a humorous clown evolved into a presentation of the fool as a reminder of the darker side of life and as a call to make sense of the world’s nonsense. This recognition of the encroaching darkness, the abyss, mirrored the experience of the British people as they moved from the expansionist mindset of the Elizabethan Age to the depression and fear of the Jacobean Age.  

At the beginning of the 17th century, England was in a time of transition and struggle. Elizabeth left her successor, King James, a country plagued by religious conflict and persecution, class tensions, ongoing wars, and serious national debt, as well as outbreaks of actual plague.   Shakespeare captures the spirit of those tempestuous and turbulent times in his tragic play, King Lear.  Filled with apocalyptic imagery and horrific acts of violence, the play also offers several characters who embody various aspects of the Fool.  Together, their voices make a plea for personal kindness and compassion, as well as for social justice.  The fools have an existentialist awareness of the fact that only when we care for each other can we find meaning in the face of cruelty, fate, and mortality.

Examining some specific dialogue from the text itself reveals Shakespeare’s rich and complex treatment of the fool, as well as similarities to our tarot Fool.  The play has a fairy tale beginning.  The ancient British king, Lear, decides to abdicate his throne and break up his kingdom, giving each of his three daughters a portion of it.  The catch is that they have to convince him how much they love him first.  He gathers them together to express his “darker purpose.”  The two eldest sisters proclaim that they love him above all else.  Goneril holds him “dearer than eyesight, space and liberty.”  Regan says she is “an enemy to all other joys” than his “dear highness’ love.” Then Lear addresses his youngest and dearest daughter, Cordelia:


KING LEAR: To thee and thine hereditary ever                                                                                                                                                            Remain this ample third of our fair kingdom;                                                                                                                                                     No less in space, validity, and pleasure,Than that conferr’d on Goneril. Now, our joy,

Although the last, not least; to whose young love

The vines of France and milk of Burgundy

Strive to be interess’d; what can you say to draw                                

A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.

CORDELIA: Nothing, my lord.

KING LEAR: Nothing!

CORDELIA: Nothing.

KING LEAR: Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.                         

CORDELIA: Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave

My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty

According to my bond; nor more nor less.

KING LEAR: How, how, Cordelia! mend your speech a little,

Lest it may mar your fortunes.                                                                

CORDELIA:                           Good my lord,

You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I

Return those duties back as are right fit,

Obey you, love you, and most honour you.

Why have my sisters husbands, if they say

They loved you all? Haply, when I shall wed,                                   

That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry

Half my love with him, half my care and duty:

Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,

To love my father all.

KING LEAR: But goes thy heart with this?                                                      

CORDELIA:                           Ay, good my lord.

KING LEAR: So young, and so untender?

CORDELIA: So young, my lord, and true.  (I. ii, 79-107)

In this interchange the two are speaking at cross purposes.  Lear wants to put a value on Cordelia’s love, asking for an amount of affection that merits a share a “third more opulent than [her] sisters’.”  He reveals his belief that love and wealth are intertwined when he measures the love of Cordelia’s suitors by their property and produce, the “vines of France and the milk of Burgundy.”  Unlike her scheming hypocritical sisters, Cordelia answers with love and truth, unable to put a quantitative value on her feelings.  She offers “nothing” in response to her father’s absurd request.  She appears as the Fool in two aspects here:  she speaks truth to power, which we will learn later in the play is the province of the “all licensed fool,” the jester like figure whose job it is to offer advice to the king that others do not dare.  And she uses “nothing” as her watchword, a concept that permeates the play, and is also fundamental to our understanding of the Fool card.  Most of the Renaissance Fool cards signify the position of being outside the bounds of society by having no number at all on the card, as if the Fool has no value in the eyes of the world, or perhaps he chooses a value that is not quantitative, as Cordelia does.  Lear is dismissive of her offer of real love, one that exists beyond quantitative value, but is greater and more profound than that of  her hyperbolic and scheming sisters.   He explodes, “Nothing will come of nothing,” but in fact much will come of nothing in this play.  Lear will eventually learn what comes of nothing, but the cost will be heavy for him, his family, and his kingdom. 

            Lear’s anger at Cordelia’s behavior cannot be mitigated.  He tells his counselor, Kent, to “come not between the dragon and his wrath.”  He banishes Cordelia for her ungratefulness and divides his kingdom between his remaining daughters.  He has given them the rule of the country, and he asks in return to be able to live with them alternatively, bringing his retinue of 100 knights with him.  The daughters cut down his entourage (again that emphasis on how much a person is worth in numbers), and generally abuse and plot against him.  Enter the actual fool of the play.  It is notable that as Cordelia exits, the fool enters, back and forth, throughout the play, each functioning as the voice of truth, justice, and compassion to the king.  Lear complains about his ill treatment at the hands of his daughters, and asks for his fool:


KING LEAR: Thou but rememberest me of mine own con-

ception: I have perceived a most faint neglect of late;

which I have rather blamed as mine own jealous

curiosity than as a very pretence and purpose of un-                        

kindness: I will look further into’t. But where’s my

fool? I have not seen him this two days.

Knight: Since my young lady’s going into France,

sir, the fool hath much pined away. I. iv, 66-73


Already we see this identification of the fool and Cordelia and the sympathy between them, even by the blind and self-absorbed Lear.  The fool enters and we see the nature of their relationship:


KING LEAR: How now, my pretty knave! how dost thou?

Fool: Sirrah, you were best take my coxcomb.

KENT: Why, fool?

Fool: Why, for taking one’s part that’s out of favour:                                   

nay, an thou canst not smile as the wind sits, thou’lt

catch cold shortly: there, take my coxcomb: why,

this fellow has banished two on’s daughters, and did

the third a blessing against his will; if thou follow him,

thou must needs wear my coxcomb. How now,                                 

nuncle! Would I had two coxcombs and two


KING LEAR: Why, my boy?

Fool: If I gave them all my living, I’d keep my cox-

combs myself. There’s mine; beg another of thy                                


KING LEAR: Take heed, sirrah; the whip.

Fool: Truth’s a dog must to kennel; he must be

whipped out, when Lady the brach may stand by the

fire and stink.                                                                                              

KING LEAR: A pestilent gall to me!   I. iv, 97-116


The fool uses his wit to paint Lear as a fool himself, and in telling him the bald truth about himself he shows no fear or compunction.  He offers to give him his coxcomb, the sign of the fool, implying that his evaluation of his daughters’ love make him the foolish one.  While Lear rails at him, feeling his gibes as a “pestilent gall,” and threatening to whip him for his insolence, he does not take action, in fact he encourages the fool’s antics.  He banishes Cordelia, but the fool seems to have the king’s ear even if Lear becomes angry at what he says. They continue:


Fool: Dost thou know the difference, my boy,

between a bitter fool and a sweet fool?                                                  

KING LEAR: No, lad; teach me.

Fool: That lord that counsell’d thee

To give away thy land,

Come place him here by me,

Do thou for him stand:                                                                             

The sweet and bitter fool

Will presently appear;

The one in motley here,

The other found out there.

KING LEAR: Dost thou call me fool, boy?                                                       

Fool: All thy other titles thou hast given away; that

thou wast born with.

KENT: This is not altogether fool, my lord.

Fool: No, faith, lords and great men will not let me;

if I had a monopoly out, they would have part on’t:                         

and ladies too, they will not let me have all fool

to myself; they’ll be snatching.  I. iv, 139-157


The fool’s clever rhyme expresses the nuances of foolishness.  He is the “sweet fool” who counsels wisdom and kindness, albeit acerbically. Lear has become the “bitter fool” whose bitterness has impaired his judgment.  The fool pierces right through society’s values, in this case the “titles” that are eventually meaningless. He tries to take Lear back to that original state of natural awareness and interaction with the world that he was born with but has lost.  He implies that it would be better to be in that state, that of a fool, than that of “lords and great men” who would partake of his foolishness if they only knew how.  Lear shows anger, but lets the fool press on:


KING LEAR: An you lie, sirrah, we’ll have you whipped.

Fool: I marvel what kin thou and thy daughters are:

they’ll have me whipped for speaking true, thou’lt

have me whipped for lying; and sometimes I am                            

whipped for holding my peace. I had rather be any

kind o’ thing than a fool: and yet I would not be thee,

nuncle; thou hast pared thy wit o’ both sides, and left

nothing i’ the middle.  I. iv, 183-189


Here the fool is commenting on how Lear has lost his way.  Stripped of his identity and power and left with “nothing i’ the middle,” a fool with no judgment.  Lear protests at the fool’s characterization of him, but the fool goes on to call him even less than a fool. When Goneril enters, Lear comments on her “frown[ing]” appearance, and the Fool pipes in with his opinion:


Fool: Thou wast a pretty fellow when thou hadst no

need to care for her frowning; now thou art an O

without a figure: I am better than thou art now; I am

a fool, thou art nothing.I. iv, 192-195


We have already seen how the concept of nothing is integral to King Lear and to the Renaissance tarot Fool.  In this speech, the fool uses the “O without a figure,” the zero itself.  He says that the fool’s “nothing” has more value than the zero/nothing of Lear, the digit using in the numerical system that determines quantitative value.  Western Europe had only started to accept the idea of having a digit to represent nothing at the end of the 13th century. The Sola Busca Mato has an actual zero on the card, as we have become used to seeing in later centuries.  Identifying the tarot Fool with such a mark emphasizes how far outside of time and space he is.  In the fool’s remarks to Lear, he makes it clear that Lear’s life has lost meaning, that to crawl out of the abyss he has fallen into will require a rebirth and a new identity.

Lear’s anger with Goneril and Regan for their treatment of him reaches a “high rage” and he rushes out of the home they have provided for him, such as it is, into the thunder and lightning of an apocalyptic storm:


KING LEAR: Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!

You cataracts and hurricanes, spout

Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!

You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,

Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,                                    

Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,

Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!

Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once,

That make ingrateful man!

Fool: O nuncle, court holy-water in a dry                                                         

house is better than this rain-water out o’ door.

Good nuncle, in, and ask thy daughters’ blessing:

here’s a night pities neither wise man nor fool.

KING LEAR: Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!

Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:                               

I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;

I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children,

You owe me no subscription: then let fall

Your horrible pleasure: here I stand, your slave,

A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man:                                     

But yet I call you servile ministers,

That have with two pernicious daughters join’d

Your high engender’d battles ‘gainst a head

So old and white as this. O! O! ’tis foul!

Fool: He that has a house to put’s head in has a good                                   

head-piece.  III. ii, 1-25


Lear has returned to a primitive state, completely in tune with the “cataracts of hurricanes,” the “sulphurous and thought-executing fires,” and the “oak-cleaving thunderbolts.”  Only these catastrophic prodigies can express the rage and confusion he feels.  It’s worth noting here that the archetype of the Tower card leaps out at us as well in this scene.  The lightning thrusts the king from his rigid, dark tower onto the wildness of the heath;  but here it is as if Lear cannot be sure if he is the Tower or the bolt from the blue that destroys it.  However, Lear still does not see the part he has played in his own destruction.  He feels that the very elements have conspired with his daughters to hurt him in their “horrible pleasure.”  The fool reminds him that his rage and irrationality are still hurting others; Lear is needlessly keeping them out in the storm, without “a house to put’s head in.”

            Lear still feels he is “a man more sinned against than sinning,” but at the fool’s prompting he finally becomes aware of the sorry state of the fool. 


KING LEAR:                           My wits begin to turn.

Come on, my boy: how dost, my boy? art cold?

I am cold myself. Where is this straw, my fellow?

The art of our necessities is strange,                                                      

That can make vile things precious. Come, your hovel.

Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart

That’s sorry yet for thee. II. ii, 67-73


Lear recognizes that his lack of “wits” has caused suffering for his companions.  He is starting to think of others before himself. And he seems to understand the fool’s and Cordelia’s way of thinking when he values things by their non-quantitative way of thinking, knowing that the hovel he considered before as “vile” might actually be “precious” in his need.

They reach the hovel, and Lear seems to have processed the lessons the fool has been trying to teach him:



[To the Fool.]

In, boy; go first. You houseless poverty,–

Nay, get thee in. I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.

[Fool goes in.]

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,                             

Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you

From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en

Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;

Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,

That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,                                   

And show the heavens more just. . . . .

Fool: This cold night will turn us all to fools and                                                   

madmen.  III. iv, 23-35, 76.


The wild, wrathful dragon is gone.  Under the guidance of the fool, Lear’s experience as a beggar, vagabond and madman has produced a transmutation in him.  A short time ago, he had been raving about his utter inability to live without exactly 100 men, with all the ceremony and respect due a king.  He was the most important man in all of Britain and came second to none.  Now he is urging the lowly fool to “go first.” He is lucid and repentant, and feels the urge to pray.  And then an even more surprising change.  Living on the margins has evoked sympathy in him, not just for those close to him, but for the poor of his kingdom, the “poor naked wretches, wherso’er you are.” And he doesn’t just feel sorry for them—he takes responsibility for their “houseless” and unfed” condition.  “O, I have ta’en too little care of this!” he cries.  He recognizes that the human condition is full of suffering, and that only those in a position of power, who live with more than enough, with “superflux,” can “show the heavens more just.”  The fool recognizes Lear’s evolution.  The “cold night” has worked a sea-change in Lear, now one of the company of “fools and madmen.”

But Lear’s epiphany does not last long;  his mind clouds and he truly becomes mad, although as one character says, with “matter and impertinency mix’d!” He appears “fantastically dressed with wild flowers” (reminiscent of the Visconti-Sforza Fool) and eventually reunites with Cordelia, who has married the King of France.  They are waging war on England to oust the regime of Cordelia’s sisters, and Cordelia has come with the army to Dover.  But Lear’s mind is broken, and he scarcely grasps where he is.  A doctor treats him in the French camp:


Doctor: Be comforted, good madam: the great rage,

You see, is kill’d in him: and yet it is danger

To make him even o’er the time he has lost.                                      

Desire him to go in; trouble him no more

Till further settling.

CORDELIA: Will’t please your highness walk?

KING LEAR:                           You must bear with me:

Pray you now, forget and forgive: I am old and foolish.  IV. vii, 79-85


No longer in a “great rage,” he cannot bear to “even o’er” his past actions and their dreadful consequences.  In his broken state, he asks Cordelia to “forget and forgive.”  But he says he is “old and foolish,” not that he was, which would refer to when he make such terrible mistakes in judgment.  In his current state, he recognizes that it is the foolish side of him that is more lucid and caring than the “dragon” he had been in the past.

            Lear’s reconciliation with Cordelia is short-lived.  They are both imprisoned by opposing forces, and an assassin hangs Cordelia in her cell.  Lear kills the murderer, but cannot save her, and the last heart-breaking scene presents him mourning over her body, stunned by the horror of what has happened. He holds a feather up to her face to see if she breathes:


KING LEAR: This feather stirs; she lives! if it be so,

It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows

That ever I have felt. . . . .


 A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all!

I might have saved her; now she’s gone for ever!

Cordelia, Cordelia! stay a little. Ha!

What is’t thou say’st? Her voice was ever soft,

Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman.                                  

I kill’d the slave that was a-hanging thee. . . .


And my poor fool is hang’d! 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!                                                      

Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.

Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,

Look there, look there!

[Dies.]   V. iii, 267-268, 271-307


He desperately wants the chance to “redeem all sorrows he has ever felt,” to make right the wrongs that he set in motion.  His anger returns again, but this time he has the ability to know who the real villains are, the “murderers, traitors all” who killed the “gentle” daughter he had sent away from him.  He cannot give up the notion that she might come back.  He almost hears her “soft, gentle, and low” voice, but he is finally forced into seeing that death is both final and random.  “A dog, a horse, a rat” can still go about their business while his precious daughter can “never, never, never, never, never” come again.

            In his last speech he again conflates Cordelia and the fool, exclaiming, “My poor fool is hanged!”  The fool has been absent since Cordelia reappeared in Lear’s life, so the doubling of these two characters continues to the end.  While he learned from both of them the value of foolishness and “nothing,” he gets no opportunity to make use of his new awareness and empathy, whether in his own family or in his realm.  Shakespeare’s tragic vision leaves us with a feeling of loss and sorrow.   The play cries out a haunting and assertive call for kindness in our personal lives and social justice in the public sector, knowing that we are responsible for the only amelioration possible of the human condition.

One Response to ““An O without a figure”: The Fool and the Concept of Zero in King Lear”

  1. JB Says:

    Great post. Martin Lings’ work on Shakespeare and spirituality is also well worth a look; the book was published and republished under a variety of titles, but the original lectures are available to download as MP3s here: http://themathesontrust.org/authors/martin-lings
    And a couple of the essays here: http://www.worldwisdom.com/public/viewpdf/default.aspx?article-title=The_Secret_of_Shakespeare_part_1_by_Martin_Lings.pdf

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