The Numerical Value of Love

In a lot of classes where I’ve previously analyzed Lear, it was pointed out that Lear is a play that deals strongly with love and human connection. This is probably best shown by King Lear’s demands of his daughters in scene 1 of Act 1, for he distributes land based on how much they “love” him. Yet love within Lear seems to be more complex than just a human emotion describing the relationship between characters; it seems to factor strongly in the play’s theme of expulsion as well. Lear treating love as if it’s something that holds both financial and numerical properties suggests that expulsion in the play, although seemingly just because of love, might also be strongly connected to economic or quantitative issues. 

In the first scene of Act 1, Lear tells his daughters: “Which of you shall we say doth love us most, / That we our largest bounty may extend / Where nature doth with merit challenge.” It’s interesting that Lear believes love is the most important factor when deciding his inheritance. Edmund’s soliloquy in scene 2 of act 1 indicates that primogeniture could’ve been an option, for Edmund questions why he should be left out of his father’s inheritance because he is, “some twelve or fourteen moonshines / Lag of a brother.” Yet Lear purposely decides to make the inheritance issue a battle of love; in doing so he gives love “liquid” properties. Investopedia defines liquid as “the ease of converting [something] to cash,” meaning something that can be transformed into something else that has monetary value. In return for Goneril’s eloquent speech, Lear gives her a section of the kingdom: “Of all these bounds, even from this line to this…We make thee lady.” Here, verbal affirmation of love is transformed into parts of the kingdom (or land) which holds monetary value. Love thus becomes something that Lear’s daughters can trade in for a form of money. The liquidity of love is also shown in the secondary Gloucester family plot line. In scene 1 of act 2, Edmund tricks Gloucester into thinking that Edgar wants to murder Gloucester. After Edmund states that he tried to defend Gloucester, Gloucester tells Edmund: “And of my land, / Loyal and natural boy, I’ll work the means / To make thee capable.” In return for Edmund’s show of love, Gloucester rewards him with the inheritance. In two of the major plots of the play, love is treated as something liquid or something that can be converted into monetary power. 

Interestingly enough, love also brings in the concept of “swapping.” As we discussed in class, “swap” is defined (by Merriam Webster) as, “an act, instance, or process of exchanging one thing for another.” One example of swapping as it relates to love in the play is Lear’s decision to swap out Cordelia for Goneril and Regan. After Cordelia refuses to profess her love for her father, Lear banishes her and refuses her a dowry, stating to her suitors: “When she was dear to us, we did hold her so, / But now her price is fallen.” It’s notable that Lear uses “price” and monetary terms here, for his words reflect that, to him, Cordelia’s worth has diminished because she is unable to verbally express her love. Because Cordelia says “nothing” (no words) in comparison to her sisters (who say many words), Lear believes her love is less (in number) than that of Goneril’s and Regan’s. Lear, in deciding which sister loves him most, thus attributes numerical values onto an abstract human emotion (love). This is also evident later on in the play when Lear is trying to identify which sister he should reside with. When Regan says she will only allow 25 of Lear’s soldiers, Lear tells Goneril: “Thy fifty yet doth double five-and-twenty, / And thou art twice her love.” Lear attempts to swap between the two sisters based on who allows him the most soldiers (and who he therefore believes loves him most). He strongly connects love with the idea of numbers and says that because Goneril allows him twice as many knights, Goneril loves him two times more than Regan does. As shown by the swapping instances in the play, Lear attempts to give love (a human emotion immeasurable by numbers) quantitative value.

Love thus is strongly connected to the concepts of liquidity and swap. By making love liquid and swapping due to perceived numerical amounts of love, Lear essentially treats love as a form of currency and as an object of numerical value. It’s important to note that Lear giving love financial and quantitative value contributes to the circumstances that make his expulsion possible in the play. Lear, when dividing his kingdom, states: “We shall retain / The name and all th’ addition to a king.” This indicates Lear wishes to keep power and authority as King even after giving away his kingdom. However, this isn’t possible; by converting the sisters’ words of love into parts of the kingdom, Lear has given up his position as ruler and thus his political importance and power. He thus becomes powerless to prevent the circumstances of his expulsion. Additionally, by weighing Cordelia’s love and swapping out Cordelia based on the amount of love she offers him, Lear swaps out and banishes the daughter that has loved him most. In doing so, Lear not only loses his option of staying with Cordelia but also loses someone who likely would’ve reigned in Goneril and Regan’s harsh treatment. Lear’s treatment of love as something that holds numerical and monetary weight contributes to his loss of power and allies that make his banishment into the storm possible. 

Expulsion in Lear thus, through love, seems to be reinforced or made possible due to monetary and/or numerical issues. Perhaps this suggests that, although one reason the Lear characters are expelled is due to emotional ties, there is also a secondary (and perhaps stronger) connection between expulsion and numbers/monetary value. This is evident because love doesn’t just refer to emotional love in Lear; it’s something that functions with a definite, numerical value. Cordelia isn’t so much expelled because she doesn’t love her father, but because Lear cannot determine her worth; she gives him “nothing,” or no words of love, that he can convert into land, so he believes she has no love (and thus no value). Ultimately, this suggests that Lear could be a play mainly about financial and quantitative value as opposed to a play about human relationships and love. Additionally, it’s interesting to see that, despite being part of royalty, Cordelia’s and Lear’s expulsion is linked to that of monetary/numerical means. One would typically see money being more of an issue for those who are not part of royalty. Lear as a play thus perhaps argues that monetary issues are more universal than we think, that even members of the upper classes of society are influenced by notions of money or value when it comes to expulsion.

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