The Power of Nothing
By Zeke Frerichs
“Nothing can come of nothing.” —King Lear
The plot of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, as evident in the title, revolves around the concept of nothing. Shakespeare uses the word nothing to describe the concept of everything and anything outside the circle of reality, yet still in the realm of possibility. Furthermore, he uses the concept of nothingness to influence events inside the circle of reality. In the play, Shakespeare has the characters make practically all their decisions based on this nothing. This is especially true of their significant decisions, which lead to a variety of mixed-up results. This essay will examine nothing from the present, past, and future, concluding that decisions based on nothing negatively affect not only the characters in Shakespeare’s play, but also people today in our everyday lives.
Nothing is the concept of all things inside the realm of possibility, but outside the circle of reality, that impact our daily lives. As in Shakespeare’s play and in our present day lives, nothing generally has a negative impact. First, we spend too much time thinking about regrets from the past, and the nothings that might have happened had we made different choices. Second, we believe nothing in the present, which often unduly hurts our relationship with others. Finally, our minds are regularly occupied with nothing from the future, harming us through fears as well as unfulfilled hopes and dreams.
Nothing-from-the-past is everything that never in fact happened, yet could have happened. This tends to influence our current reality in the form of regrets and “what if’s?” We are negatively impacted by these nothings-from-the-past, because we spend time wishing we had acted differently. We wonder about what would have happened if we had. In reality, we do not know whether or how those things outside of the circle of reality, yet still in the realm of possibility, could or would have changed the present. But we still waste time lamenting our actions, even though the past cannot be changed.
We see this almost happen in Much Ado About Nothing, when Claudio learns that his beloved Hero, whom he believes he has killed, is actually innocent. When he hears the news, Claudio states, “I have drunk poison whiles he uttered it.” Claudio apologizes to Hero’s father Leonato, and says he will do whatever Leonato asks in repayment. At this point, the nothing that he mistakenly believed (that Hero was dead), could easily have turned to tragedy. Mirroring Romeo and Juliet, Claudio could have drunk literal poison upon finding out Hero was innocent. Or Leonato could have required that he do something terrible to atone for his daughter’s death. Thankfully, the purpose of Leonato’s deception was for good, not for harm. But we can see an equally likely scenario in which the lie of Hero’s death could have had horrible results: we see clearly that this nothing-from-the-past negatively affects the future.
The fact that the characters’ lives are negatively affected by nothing-from-the-present is readily apparent in Much Ado About Nothing. Don John uses nothing (again events outside of reality yet still possible) in the form of lies and deceptions to twice trick Claudio, who never quite seems to learn his lesson. Claudio first believes the lie that Don Pedro is trying to steal Hero from him, and later is deceived into thinking that Hero has been unfaithful to him. Both of those things are possibilities, however unlikely, but are not true, and hence nothing. We see this nothing in our present lives causing negative effects through false gossip, outright lies, and misunderstandings. We exchange words, written or spoken with someone, we misinterpret their tone or their response, and this changes how we act toward them because of our false perception of what they think. Or the inverse occurs, and others misunderstand us over nothing. Nothing causes a great deal of trouble in sixteenth century Messina, as well as in our present day lives.
Furthermore, although we are influenced and troubled by nothing from the both past and the present, we are by far influenced the most by nothing-from-the-future. Because Shakespeare’s play was written in the past and is resolved upon conclusion, it is difficult to talk about any of the characters or their actions in the future tense; therefore we will turn to another British author to consider how nothing negatively affects the future. C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters consists of a series of letters written from an experienced demon to a younger demon about how to tempt his human “patient” away from God. The entire fifteenth chapter is devoted to how and why to keep the patient’s mind focused on the future: “thought about the future inflames hope and fear. Also, it is unknown to them, so that in making them think about it we make them think of unrealities … we want a man hagridden by the Future.” Nothings in the future, which are things that could potentially happen, gives us something to strive towards, but additionally causes fear and disappointment when we fail to achieve something we thought would happen. These hopes for the future can often end up doing far more harm than good. One could strive his whole life to get into a certain college, or to win a certain race or game, or to earn a certain amount of money. Having lost that hope, they are crushed, and do not know what to do with their life. Or, looking at a shorter time-span, one could worry excessively about the pain of getting a flu shot, only to suddenly realize it’s over and he didn’t feel a thing. It is not helpful to worry about nothings in the future. Hopes and fears based on nothing, while giving us motivation, most often end in bitter disappointment.
The influence nothing has over us does not always end in sadness, however. We see this both in Much Ado About Nothing and in our own lives. In the play, Benedick hears a staged conversation about how Beatrice has said she is in love with him, when in truth she has said nothing of the sort. Benedick believes this falsehood, and immediately begins to interpret Beatrice’s action in a different way than he did before. In the end nothing (Benedick and Beatrice’s false beliefs that the other person has said they are in love with them) leads to both of them admitting their love for each other, getting married, and finding great happiness in each other. In our lives, nothing-from-the-future can provide us with motivation to work hard, and nothing from the past—regrets about decisions—can help us to make better decisions next time. However, despite these ways in which nothingness can positively affect us, the negative effects seem to be far greater.
Despite the negative effects it can have, nothingness is important in our lives, teaching us lessons from the past, providing us with ideas for the future, and giving us motivation to do what is possible. However, nothing can quickly turn from being helpful to being harmful, so we must be very careful about what fills our minds, and whether it is to our benefit or detriment—whether it is true or whether it is nothing.
Zeke Frerichs is a junior in high school; he has been homeschooled since fourth grade, and his favorite subject is math. He runs cross country and track, and also enjoys hiking and skiing. During his free time, he loves to program Python, build with LEGOs, spend time with his family, and play board games.
Each time we administer the CLT, the top students from that test are invited to contribute an essay or piece of creative writing to the Journal. Congratulations to Mr. Frerichs on his achievement! If you’d like to see more from our high-scoring students, check out these essays on the role of choice in Wuthering Heights, the importance of experiencing hardships, and questioning the mastery-mediocrity dichotomy. You might also enjoy our weekly seminar series, led by scholars from all over the country, the Journey Through the Author Bank.