'And Nothing Brings me All Things': Shakespeare's Philosophy of Nothing

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


‘To be or not to be’, ‘I am not what I am’, ‘I must nothing be’: many of the significant and complicated lines in Shakespeare’s plays evince his pervasive interest in the ontological questions of life, death, being, non-being and nothingness. But what does Shakespeare mean by ‘being’, and ‘nothing’? Are they equivalent to life and death? Plenty of critics have picked up on the significance of nothingness in Shakespeare’s plays, but few have dealt with the full philosophical significance of Shakespeare’s use of ‘nothing’, and particularly his understanding of ‘being nothing’. This chapter seeks to analyse Shakespeare’s use of ‘nothing’ from a philosophical perspective in order to shed light on the ontological depth of Shakespeare’s exploration of existence.
The first part of this paper will delineate a few philosophical approaches to ‘nothing’ – looking at analytic arguments by Wittgenstein and Carnap, and continental approaches by Hegel, Adorno, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty – before proceeding to outline the ways that literary critics have approached the philosophical dimension of nothingness in Shakespeare’s works. The rest of the chapter will then look specifically at the way Shakespeare uses the word ‘nothing’ and how it compares to philosophical theories of nothingness. To that end, this paper will discuss the threshold between life and death in Anthony and Cleopatra, explaining how this differs from being, non-being and nothing through a philosophical discussion of Hamlet, King Lear, Richard II, and a number of other plays. It will become clear that Shakespeare reveals the significance of being by navigating the threshold between being and non-being, showing, through the idea of nothingness, that existence is filled with meaning and presence.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Companion to Shakespeare and Philosophy
EditorsCraig Bourne, Emily Caddick Bourne
Place of PublicationAbingdon
Number of pages382
ISBN (Electronic)9781317386902
ISBN (Print)9781138936126
Publication statusPublished - 17 Oct 2018
EventShakespeare and Philosophy - University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield, United Kingdom
Duration: 3 Jul 20164 Jul 2016

Publication series

NameRoutledge Philosophy Companions Series


ConferenceShakespeare and Philosophy
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


  • Shakespeare
  • Philosophy
  • Nothingness
  • Ontology
  • Heidegger
  • Merleau-Ponty
  • Wittgenstein
  • Carnap
  • Hegel
  • Adorno


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