Deceitful Exchanges and Tumultuous Storms Depicted in Shakespeare’s King Lear

Shakespeare’s King Lear deals extensively with the theme of expulsion as depicted through characters like Cordelia, Kent, and King Lear himself and connects almost immediately with seemingly unconventional terms like swap and liquid. According to Investopedia, swap refers to an agreement between two or more parties exchange monetary value of an asset for another. As for liquid, the Oxford English Dictionary, defines the term as a material substance in that “condition (familiar as the normal condition of water, oil, alcohol, etc.) in which its particles move freely over each other,” and typically symbolizes renewals and rebirths- which tend to occur after certain expulsions.

Our first encounter with the expulsion of a character occurs as early as the first Act of the play, in which Cordelia’s refusal to flatter Lear with excessive proclamations of love results in her immediate disownment, disinheritance, and exile. This is is conveyed in Lear’s spiteful declaration:  “Cornwall and Albany, With my two daughters’ dowers digest this third; Let pride, which she calls plainness, marry her” (Act 1. Scene 1). By redistributing his land and wealth so that Goneril and Regan can consume Cordelia’s share, Lear is essentially swapping Cordelia’s rightful land over to her sisters. Even Lear’s trusted confidant, Kent, is banished from his service simply because he disagrees with Lear’s impulsive decision to punish Cordelia’s honesty and reward Goneril and Regan’s deceitfulness. 

Therefore, as the events unfold later on in the play, it is of no surprise that Goneril and Regan plot against Lear to diminish the remaining power that he holds. Their fight for control is first demonstrated in the dispute between Lear and Goneril about the disorderly conduct of his men and is later exacerbated when Regan gets involved. Together, both sisters seek to condescend and attack Lear from both sides as they argue over the amount of men he should be allowed:  

Goneril: Here, me, my lord. 

What need you five-and-twenty, ten, or five,

To follow in a house where twice so many 

Have a command to tend you?

Regan: What need one? (Act 2, Scene 4)

It is clearly evident that by allying together on their efforts to reduce Lear’s authority, Goneril and Regan leave him no choice but to remain dependent on them. Later on in this scene, Lear must face an ultimatum: either live without his men or be cast out from both Goneril and Regan’s estates. Unfortunately for Lear, this swap of power for shelter pushes him closer to the edge of madness. Thus, when faced with this ultimatum, Lear lashes out ruefully against his daughters and goes as far to refer to Goneril and Regan as “unnatural hags” and promises: “I will have such revenge on you both, that all the world shall- I will do such things- what they are yet, I know not but they shall be the terrors of the earth!” (Act 2, Scene 4). After this declaration, Lear hastily exits because he would rather walk the heaths than swap his power for shelter, and as a result, Regan orders that Lear ought to be locked out of her estate.

That being said, while the theme of expulsion is deeply connected to the consequences of swapping land from one rightful person (Cordelia) to two less deserving people (Regan and Goneril), liquidity seems to play an essential role in understanding the ways in which Lear’s toxic tyrannical demeanour is cast out and replaced by a more sympathetic perspective. If we consider the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of liquid alongside the storm that is raging on after Lear has been cast out from Regan’s estate, then we might better understand the symbolic cleansing that Lear undergoes as a dynamic character. According to the 2006 film adaption of King Lear, the storm that Lear is forced to endure is depicted as a rainstorm. Rain often connotes despair and rejection, but has also conveyed emotional cleansing and renewals of both the mind and soul which often appear in various works of literature (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, etc.).

It is interesting to note that Lear’s immediate reaction to the storm is to refer to it as both contentious and pitiless, almost as if it were a manifestation of the injustices that he has suffered at the hands of Goneril and Regan. While the storm is indeed tumultuous, I believe its function is paramount to the change Lear undergoes as a dynamic characters in two ways. The first being that it strips him of his entitlement and forces him to endure the storm as a human being as opposed to a former king. This is clearly evident when Lear refers to himself as a slave to the storm and continues to berate himself as: “A poor, infirm, weak, and despis’d old man.” The storm forces Lear to concede that he is, in fact, not at all powerful nor can he always have or be in control. That being said, Lear’s exposure to the lack of protections that his subjects have endured during his reign forces him to recognise his own shortcomings as a ruler, which is evident in his declaration: 

“Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you

From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en

Too little care of this! (Act 3, Scene 4)

The monstrous storm brings out a kinder, gentler side of Lear that we have never encountered before and forces him to challenge his perspective both as a member of the ruling class and as a father. In fact, once reunited with Cordelia in Act 5, Lear prefers to avoid confrontation with Regan and instead spend the rest of his days with Cordelia, living jovially and at peace with one another- even if it means living in confinement. Lear’s passivity is certainly uncharacteristic of him, but it’s not at all surprising that this ease of heart occurs once the storm has passed.

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