Lear’s Transactional Loyalty

Depending on the context, the words ‘liquid’ and ‘swap’ can have varying meanings. On dictionary.com, liquid is defined as “flowing like water” and swap is defined as “to make an exchange”. These definitions explain the most common conversational meanings of these terms; however, both liquid and swap have different meanings in the financial world. According to Investopedia, liquidity is defined as “the degree to which an asset or security can be quickly bought or sold in the market at a price reflecting its intrinsic value” and swap is defined as “a derivative contract through which two parties exchange the cash flows or liabilities from two different financial instruments”. William Shakespeare’s King Lear uses both the conversational and transactional definitions of these words, especially surrounding King Lear’s notion of loyalty. In King Lear, loyalty is treated as liquid, both in its way of flowing between characters and its function as an asset that can be used or misused in a swap between parties.

Loyalty becomes liquid because it flows freely, like water, from character to character throughout the course of the play. This liquidity of loyalty can be seen through Lear’s ever-changing relationships with his daughters. In the beginning of the play, Lear is most loyal to Cordelia as he “love[s] her most” (1.1.137); however, this loyalty is quickly lost when Cordelia refuses to flatter him. Within the first scene of the play, Lear abandons his loyalty for Cordelia in favor of Regan and Goneril. As loyalty flows between characters, it becomes an asset.

Even though loyalty cannot be directly converted into cash, it can be bought and sold for a price. Lear wants consistent loyalty, but he does not remain consistent in his own loyalty. This inconsistency of loyalty relates to Lear’s idea that “[n]othing will come of nothing” because since Lear does not give consistent loyalty, he does not get loyalty in return (1.1.99). Instead, Regan and Goneril abuse Lear’s nature by feigning loyalty to Lear for their own gain. In return for their loyalty, Lear gives them land. This transaction shows that loyalty functions as a liquid asset that can be swapped.

The transactions between Regan, Goneril, and Lear shows that love, even when fraudulent, can be exchanged for loyalty. When love is exchanged for loyalty, Regan, Goneril, and Lear partake in a swap; however, since Regan and Goneril’s love—or at least the extent of it—is dishonest, Lear is being misled at his own detriment. In this particular example of a swap, Lear does not totally consent to the terms of the swap. Yet, later in the play, Lear initiates another swap with Regan and Goneril.

In Act 2, Lear attempts to exchange loyalty for personal and financial gain. He attempts to negotiate with Regan and Goneril to determine which of his daughters will allow him to keep the most of his men. To keep his men is a sign of loyalty to Lear, so whichever daughter will allow him to keep the most men will receive loyalty in return. Initially, Goneril offers Lear to keep half of his men, and Regan suggests that he only keep “five-and-twenty” (2.4.285). As Lear attempts to negotiate with his daughters, the number of men that they will allow him to keep diminishes. At this point, Lear’s loyalty to his daughters, and their loyalty to him, diminishes as well. Just as loyalty can be swapped for personal and financial gain, a lack of loyalty can be exchanged for expulsion.

Due to his liquid loyalty and the swaps of loyalty that Lear makes with his daughters, he eventually is expelled into the storm. When Lear’s liquid loyalty is misplaced and subsequently lost, it is replaced with another liquid in the form of rain. The rain and the flood symbolize Lear’s loss of his liquid assets, as he is now homeless in the storm. Lear’s expulsion forces him to rethink his actions previous to being cast out in the storm. He realizes that he has been disloyal to his people, and as he experiences “what wretches feel” he acknowledges that he should have taken better care of the homeless while he was king, since they have no protection from storms (3.4.39). In spite of Lear’s insanity, he manages to look beyond his own past privilege and supernumerary wealth. Lear’s self-reflection is one of his human responses to his expulsion.

Lear’s self-reflection continues when his liquid loyalty once again flows back to Cordelia. He asks Cordelia for forgiveness which he hopes to swap for the return of mutual loyalty between himself and his daughter. Lear’s expulsion made him realize that Cordelia has been his most loyal daughter all along. His loyalty, like the tides of ocean, “ebb and flow by th’ moon” (5.3.20). Although the constant swapping of his liquid-like loyalty Lear lost all of his liquid assets, yet he regains the loyalty of his only truly loyal daughter.

Overall, in King Lear Shakespeare uses both the conversational and transactional definitions of ‘liquid’ and ‘swap’ to emphasize the nature of King Lear’s loyalty. Throughout the play, loyalty flows between characters and can be used as a commodity to achieve personal and financial gain. Loyalty is used and abused in transactional exchanges between parties, and is treated as both an asset and a liability. Due to his temporarily misplaced loyalty, Lear swaps his liquid financial assets for the liquidity of rain once he is expulsed; the liquidity of his loyalty is his fatal flaw. Through his expulsion, however, Lear is able to self-reflect upon his past mistakes and realize who he should have been loyal to all along. 

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