A Deeper Understanding of King Lear

Looking at the terms “liquid(ity)” and “swap(ping)” under the context of King Lear certainly opens a large area of possibility for writing. That said, I knew I needed to begin my answer to the prompt with a close look at the definitions of these terms in various contexts. As per Investopedia and the context of finance, liquidity is a term used to describe assets one owns and their ability to be transformed into the most liquid asset, which is cash. As I apply this concept to King Lear, I will be thinkING (credit Dr. McCoy for that accurate term) about assets such as trust as abused by Edmund, and the stability of shelter for Lear. For swap, Investopedia describes a consensual agreement between two parties that likely benefits both parties in terms of short and long term. While the financial terms are not directly applied to King Lear, the idea of a swap happens many times with the primary difference for King Lear is that none of the swaps are consensual or mutually beneficial. This toxicity is what drives many characters into dangerous and frustrating situations. My attempt to bring these terms together in relation to expulsion includes a discussion on the relation of liquid assets as being used to initiate a swap, while illiquid assets, primarily honest speech, do not have enough time to fully manifest their potential before the demise of many of our characters. Lastly, in humble self-reflection on my tendencies in writing, I realize that I typically push word limits. While there is no set limit or minimum for these writing assignments, I will attempt to be conscious of my rambling potential while maintaining what I believe to be a sufficient exploration of an answer to this prompt.

To understand liquid(ity) in King Lear, an understanding of various situations is certainly necessary. In the financial sense, Investopedia gives the example that a rare book collection is illiquid despite its apparent worth because it would take significant effort to get the money it is truly worth out of selling it. Applying this concept to King Lear warrants a discussion on the asset of trust. All characters must deal with trust, as we do ourselves in our “real world”. Trust is arguably the most valuable asset of humanity (much more powerful than abundant natural resources and cash) as it is incredibly liquid, thus can be used instantaneously and to great effect when used with truth, honesty, and courage. Edmund is the clearest example of an aggressive misuse of trust in action, as he utilizes his liquid asset of trust against his brother and father, causing him to rise from bastard son to Earl of Gloucester at Cornwall’s word, ultimately being fought over by two princesses as well. While this does not turn out well in the end, either by the ever present wheel of fortune or by the illiquid yet more powerful truth finally catching him, he certainly made quite the return on investment for his years of loyalty putting up with his social standing as “bastard”, which ultimately is out of his control. This use of highly liquid and valuable trust gives Edmund the ability to expel his brother Edgar from his standing as heir to Gloucester’s position in the aristocracy, ultimately leaving Edgar out on the heath as Poor Tom the Bedlam Beggar. Edmund has no interest in his brother’s situation and only seeks to advance himself despite all odds of being the bastard son and having the law against him. By gaining and abusing the trust of those who make and enforce the laws, he bypasses the admittedly unfair structure of society at the expense of the housing, safety, and sanity of Edgar and Gloucester.

To bridge into swap, King Lear himself is worth paying attention to. In the beginning of the play, Lear has all the aristocratic power at his disposal, thus making all his assets incredibly liquid and simultaneously swappable, as he simply must speak his desire to make it happen. He is attempting to divide his kingdom between his daughters as he is getting older, so he decides to base this division on professed love. Goneril and Regan play his game, but Cordelia calls him out and answers with her honesty. Juxtaposed against her sisters superfluous professions of love, this answer sets Lear off and he dispenses of Cordelia’s existence in the royal family and strips her of her dowry, as all of his “assets”, supposedly even his daughter, are very liquid as per Lear being the king. This makes the Duke of Burgundy unwilling to marry her, but the King of France claims that Cordelia and her beauty will suffice as a dowry for him and marries her anyway. As the plot progresses, Lear no longer has liquid assets and is simply looking for a place to live out his years with his knights. While the group of knights is rather lively, Lear is their source of income and housing, so they are theoretically dependent on him, though we as an audience never hear their voices. Goneril and Regan both deny Lear admittance with all his knights and they demean him for thinking he needs them. Lear is thus enraged and proclaims that he would rather be in the storm or begging in France than live in a place where he is not welcome at the end of Act II. Applying swap here looks like this to me: Lear believed that his transfer of land and dominion over a portion of the kingdom would be sufficient enough to earn him admittance to their castles as he lives out his final years with his knights as company and protection. The audience never hears of the finer points of negotiation for this “deal”, yet even if it were not stated it was likely implied and understood by all parties involved. The lack of honest speech in the quarrel over Lear’s knights likely resulted in the decision to expulse Lear by Goneril. This act was furthered in Goneril instructing Regan to refuse to let Lear in as well, thus leaving Lear with the options of giving in to his daughters and living alone in their palaces (well…sort of. Regan and Albany are exercising their authority from Gloucester’s castle, not their own, which has placed Gloucester in a tough spot. Later in III.3 Gloucester will have his castle seized by Regan and Albany when he suggests that they let Lear in as he simultaneously discloses news of the French invasion to Edmund, who takes this information to frame Gloucester at personal gain from Cornwall. More on Gloucester later). Lear now has no leveraging power at his disposal as he has given his assets, land and power, to his daughters. His option to give in is not favorable, as he likely has not had to give in to anything in many years because he has been the king. This results in his decision to fend for himself, which appears childlike upon my first read but has deep-cutting implications. The swap has gone sour, leaving Lear only with the liquid of the rain in the storm, no longer having the liquid assets that he had once taken for granted.

The full effects of the control of liquid assets to change terms of swaps continues to affect the plot of the play as Lear, Edgar, Gloucester, and Kent all band together in the storm, ultimately taking refuge in a hovel. (If I could use footnotes here, I probably would, but alas here we are. Kent was expulsed at the beginning of the play for his words against Lear’s decision to banish Cordelia, yet he maintains his loyalty to Lear and enters disguise to work for him). This group of those betrayed only continues to be struck down, as Gloucester in particular is labeled a traitor at Edmund’s still-trusted word. After Gloucester gets his eyes gouged out, he is told of his blindness about Edmund by Regan and turned loose, which leaves him to suffer in blindness of both sight and judgement. It is therefore not surprising to me that Gloucester attempts to jump off of the cliffs of Dover, yet he is saved by Edgar who also cannot believe his own position in the hierarchy of the aristocracy and believed it could not get worse. When he sees his father, he admits essentially that the proverbial “bottom” is a long way down, as it can almost always get worse in life. The dynamic between this duo is quite sad as they attempt to help each other which is again based on a trust they have for each other, Gloucester’s trust being of someone he does not know, while Edgar knows he is with his father. Gloucester’s decision to trust a stranger blindly again could reflect his inherent need as an individual with blindness, as the divine wheel of fortune appears to be turning his way as he is placed in the care of Edgar. Ultimately, when Gloucester learns that Edgar has been with him, it is too much for his heart to handle and he resultantly dies, but this death feels slightly more redeemed than simply unnecessary, as many of the other deaths feel to the audience. This subplot is a fully fleshed out example of how an abuse of the asset of trust launched Edmund into the aristocracy at the expense of his father and brother, leaving them expulsed and powerless. The terms of “liquid(ity)” and “swap(ping)” certainly aided my understanding of the play in the sense of expulsion for Gloucester and Edgar far more than I did on my first read without an adequate understanding of the relationship between liquid and illiquid assets used in swaps.

As for the primary plot and the rest of the group in the hovel at the end of Act III, their stories continue to turn tragic as well. While this group is making way to Dover, Albany appears to the audience to be the only one to maintain honest order in the aristocracy. Goneril attempts to get rid of Albany through an affair with Edmund, but this causes tension with the newly widowed Regan, who claims just entitlement to Edmund’s hand. Albany benefits from the asset of the knowledge of this affair by the good fortune of Edgar’s triumph over Oswald the steward during a fight over Gloucester’s life. Edgar takes the letter to Albany instead of Edmund, which when publicly proclaimed after Edmund is wounded in V.3 sends Goneril to kill herself after she had poisoned Regan over the matter, knocking out those with the power in the aristocracy, which could be viewed as a defaulted swap to give it all over to Lear pending him still being alive, or onto Albany, which ends up being the result as the end of the play.

So what? Who cares? The ever-present question in all study of English, citing my firsthand experience in student teaching as I attempted to communicate to my students why the work we do matters. As for this play in relation to expulsion, the terms “liquid(ity)” and “swap(ping)” provided concise and understandable definitions to effectively narrate the circumstances of the play to understand it in a broader sense. Without these useful terms, I likely would not have as much language to effectively describe the situations in the play and thus would not understand the play with as much specificity. The beginning of the play angered me and clouded judgement on Lear’s perspective, as I have a personal difficulty in navigating parents who rescind support of their children. While I do not excuse Lear’s expulsion of Cordelia nor do I find the ending of the play as a moral rebirth that makes everything okay, I do have an appreciation for his and his knights situational swap after he handed control of the kingdom to his two eldest daughters. Understanding the idea of liquidity in relation to assets helped me to clarify metaphorically the reality of how trust works and can be dangerous. I firmly believe that trust and honesty work synergistically to benefit all parties involved when done properly, but understanding the play using liquid(ity) and swap(ping) as anchor terms showed me that when trust is abused, the extreme liquidity of the asset lends itself to make drastic changes quickly as we all are willing to make decisions without time to process or gather all of the information ourselves when the instrument of advice is an individual that we trust. This reality launches the subplot of Edmund’s rise to power into motion and his superior intellect and lifetime of earning trust while simultaneously building resentment, as outlined in his soliloquy in I.2, maintains his position up until Edgar and Gloucester meet, confiscate Goneril’s letter from Oswald, and bring it to Albany, our “wise king” archetype who has both power and honesty in his toolbox. As such, I have a greater understanding of how power can be abused through trust, as before the play I believed that telling lies would never result in a positive situation. While this statement alone still holds true, I now require the addendum that there can be extreme short-term changes in a hierarchy based on abused trust to supplement my statement. In the long term, it is reasonable to say that nobody gets away with anything (I suppose if Gloucester had been killed and not blinded, Edmund would have “gotten away with it”, but the psychological impact of Edmund reflecting on his decisions may have then been sufficient to cause Edmund some degree of suffering, though not his death at his honest brother’s hand). I certainly have a better understanding of the fabric of reality that we inhabit through the compelling story of King Lear, especially when the course concepts of “liquid(ity)” and “swap(ping)” are applied to it. The story encourages constant vigilance over who we choose to trust, as the value of the asset is determined by the power of the one who is trusted. This concept is going to be in my head for quite some time, I imagine, because ultimately my answer to the question of who cares is this: I care.

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