This 17th-century ballad called ‘The Praise of Nothing’ takes on the paradoxical task of making something out of nothing. It plays on some of the varying meanings of the word ‘nothing’ in early modern England – the absence of anything, the nothingness of death, the meaninglessness of human existence, and also a bawdy euphemism for female genitalia. As such it gives us an insight into the recurrent use of the word in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, King Lear and Much Ado About Nothing, all written some time before this ballad.
The first section of the ballad dwells on the transience of human life, suggesting that ‘Nothing’s Immortall’. Through the process of repetition, the word ‘nothing’, signifying lack and absence, becomes something definite and powerful with almost godlike connotations.
The ballad then shifts in tone to a more commonplace fixation with the inconstancy of women. It dismisses both the ‘scolding wife’ and the ‘harlots love’, saying that in their dealings with women, men can be ‘helpd by nothing’. This conveys male cynicism, but perhaps also punningly hints that men could be helped by sex. The ballad then turns back to pious reflections on man’s obsession with money, saying God misses nothing when judging our sins. Ironically, however, those who ‘desire nothing’ will also ‘want for nothing’.
Click here for an easy-to-read transcription and a recording of the ballad being sung.
What is a broadside ballad?
Broadside ballads are lively narrative verses or songs, often illustrated with woodcuts, which circulated widely in 16th- and 17th-century Britain. They responded to current events and heaped praise or blame on well-known public figures, and they were recited and sung to familiar tunes in alehouses and public places. They appear on broadsides, which are cheaply-produced single sheets of paper, printed only on one side and designed to be pasted on walls or thrown away after reading.
Making something of nothing in Much Ado About Nothing
The title of Much Ado About Nothing suggests an unnecessary fuss about something unimportant. The whole plot revolves around misconceptions and misplaced reactions to something that never happened – Hero’s infidelity. Yet, as critics have noted, the title also has potential sexual connotations. There is ‘much ado’ over women’s sexuality, as it becomes the focus of male desire, revulsion and suspicion. Critics also remind us that in Shakespeare’s day the words ‘nothing’ and ‘noting’ were pronounced the same. So the title may allude to the play’s obsession with noting, noticing, spying and eavesdropping. This highlights the need to distinguish between appearance and reality, mere performance and genuine feeling, but it reveals the challenges of doing so, presenting many examples of misperception and self-deception.
King Lear: ‘nothing will come of nothing’
In King Lear, Cordelia replies ‘nothing’ in response to her father’s love test. Lear tells her that ‘nothing will come of nothing’ (1.1.90) and urges her to have another go at flattering him with words of love in order to secure her dowry. When she refuses, he angrily disinherits her. Throughout the rest of the play, as the title and trappings of the King are reduced to nothing (predicted by the Fool in 1.4.194), Lear learns too late the emptiness of Goneril and Regan’s flattery and the real value of Cordelia’s ‘nothing’: a love based on actions and not empty rhetoric.
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