Entitled Exchanges: Financial Disorder in Kingdom, Community, And the Family Unit in King Lear

In Sigmund Freud’s, Civilization and its Discontents he argues that through gaining citizenship, certain instinctual responses are adopted to adapt to the cultural terrain of being part of a community. Interestingly, Freud goes on to explain that when these certain instinctual desires go unmet “if the loss is not compensated for economically, one can be certain that serious disorder will ensue” (Freud 75). Citizenship is the most basic fundamental status one has to go about the mundanities of life, which can be taken for granted. When individuals, or even groupings of persons are expelled, citizenships are invalidated, and any rights the expellees may have had previously, even if they were few, are revoked. Expulsion is the best solution to those who rebel against the hegemonic hierarchy, because those in power do not want society to change and if the rebel will not adapt themselves to the society, then they will be thrown out. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, disorder ensues when Lear is not treated with the loving reverence he expects from his daughter Cordelia, and this perceived loss is when the kingdom begins to disintegrate. The source of the tragic element in King Lear is the hopelessness of social class immobility, whether one is an illegitimate son or a woman, neither individual can rebel successfully without destroying the kingdom. As a matter of fact, the social hierarchy is intertwined with the economic operations of the society, thus making it inconceivable for such social class rebellions to succeed without subsequent changes in cultural prejudices preceding. The play does a remarkably well job of showing the double standard of acceptable behaviors between different social classes, specifically in terms of exchanges or contracts that are financially profitable.

In a journal article titled, “Madam Death! Madam Death! Credit, Insurance, and the Atlantic Cycle of Capital Accumulation” Ian Baucom alludes to a sacrifice similar to Freud’s proposed theory of sacrifice of certain instincts in civilized cultures. Baucom cites another author, Christian Thorne Miano, who explains that in order for a hierarchy of social classes to exist within a civilization, these classes must go through a process of sacrifice to keep the imagined, idealized sense of community achievable. In this objective, a compromise must be reached in which “each class can be taught to disregard its own particular interest” (Baucom 81). In this example along with Freud’s insight, the operational discourse within communities is inherently financial, and is a concern for the individual. However, since the government in place is with a reigning king over a monarchy, it can be said that as monarch sacrifice is not necessary on their part because they are what makes a monarchy. King Lear confirms that a sacrifice of sorts is not demanded of a King: “no, they cannot touch me for (coining). I am the King himself” (Shakespeare 4.6.102-3). The double meaning that is carried by this response is best highlighted, firstly, by not giving its context. As it stands, the phrase taken on its own shows that Lear is acknowledging that kings can be deceitful through fraud, and that this abuse of power will go unchecked. In its context, this response was pertaining to the Kings lowly apparel, yet even to this he is still recognizing, or worse, bragging that he can do whatever he desires with no limits to his power. 

Given that expulsion crises are financial matters, defining pertinent terms is fundamental in understanding the relationship dynamics and plot in King Lear. One word that is useful in this discussion is the term liquidity. On Investopedia, liquidity is defined as the ability of an asset to be exchanged into an amount that matches its equivalent appraised worth. Liquidity as a concept in the play, is best understood through social classes distinctions and the power that comes with certain titles. The social ranking of the nobility is a form of liquidity because the distinction of being a noble person has immediate power and wealth gains, except the noble person maintains their title. Therefore, the exchange benefits the nobleman more than anyone else. When Lear asks Cordelia to verbalize her love and she fails to do so, he states that “nothing will come of nothing” (1.1.99). Lear is reluctant to have Cordelia be an inheritor of his asset, which is his kingly estate, because he cannot verify that she is matching his value as king to his self-concept, or esteem.

The transaction that does not transpire with Cordelia, transpires with the other sisters; and, this is an exchange of kingly estates for the love and care of a father. Sooner rather than later, Lear realizes that this exchange was a mistake, for the daughters have their own definition on what it means to show love and to be caring to their father. In short, the girls defend their skewed definition of love by justifying their actions by claiming that Lear is mentally incompetent due to his supposed senility. However, the exchange causes a cascade of threatened privileges previously afforded to the king, but are now revoked and suspended by Goneril and Regan. These two women are eager to eliminate his other power holds like his appointed army. When this inquiry is instigated Lear becomes frantic and expresses a profound concern: “our basest beggars are in the poorest thing superfluous…man’s life is cheap as beast’s” (2.4.305-8). Is it possible he understood this facet of civilization as king, and perhaps abused his power? I don’t think it is far reaching to presume that his quick response originated from his own abuses of power in the economic welfare of his kingdom. 

Another pertinent economical term that is applicable to the expulsion and entitlement exchanges is the term swap, specifically credit default swaps. A credit default swap, as defined on Investopedia, is an exchange of credit risks between two investors, so that the original investor can remain on their course of pursuit without suffering any drawbacks in their feat. In the play, this concept of swapping is best exemplified through the Earl of Gloucester who unknowingly is dragged into the process of usurping Lear’s throne. The daughters, Goneril and Regan, stymie Gloucester from letting him provide shelter and support for Lear. Gloucester’s involvement in the affair is pivotal, for he allows the expulsion of Lear to be initiated. Once he realizes his mistake, he goes to inform Lear of his present endangerment. By doing this, Gloucester breaks off the imaginary contract between the daughters and him, and this loss for the girls is avenged through violence. Gloucester recognizes after his torture and the contract being dissolved, that he was taking the brunt of the risks to someone else’s prosperity endeavor. Regretfully, he realizes his lack of critical thinking in the dealing of the matter: “I stumbled when I saw. Full oft ‘tis seen our means secure us, and our mere defects prove our commodities” (4.1.20-2). In this line, Gloucester admits that the women used him by taking advantage of his ignorance. The diction of this line emphasizes the link between his social standing to the economic sphere, particularly with the word commodity. In the marginal notes of the Folger book, it states that in this context commodity means advantage. Interestingly, it is applicable to the economic contract of deception Gloucester engaged with the girls. The girls abused Gloucester’s hospitality, the most basic act of human decency. The economic greed that dictated the girls’ actions caused them to view Gloucester in terms of his utility and resources, thus dehumanizing the individual for their own pursuits in society. The swap contract, in this case, served as a loophole for people who want to speedily get power. 

How does the theme of financial power connect to the genre of tragedy? An element of the tragedy genre is the apocalyptic threat, this element is one of four elements characteristic of the tragedy genre mentioned in Andrew Bennet and Nicholas Royle’s textbook An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory (Bennet and Royle 119). The apocalyptic threat in King Lear is the economic policies dictating the kingdom. Ironically, the concern for the future economic state of the kingdom is what initiates the plays action, and is what accounts for the tragic element of apocalypticism. The matter is foreshadowed by Lear’s premise for acting: “we have this hour a constant will to publish our daughters’ several dowers, that future strife may be prevented now” (1.1.46-9). Lear’s fall from grace through his expulsion affords him a new sympathetic perspective on his role as king to the wellbeing of his citizens and financial stability and security of the kingdom. The expulsion of Lear from his own kingdom engendered an opportunity for him to learn how to become a better king: “O, I have ta’en too little care of this. Take physic, pomp. Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, that thou may’st shake the superflux to them and show the heavens more just” (4.5.37-41). He recognizes the immense power a king has is often wasted on his own self-interest, and that this causes his citizens to suffer. The resolution he sees to this is that economic disparity between the high and low classes must be narrowed by the king himself. Therefore, the death of Lear is the death of any economic prospects of progress for the lower classes who Lear had sympathized with.

Unsurprisingly, one of the few people left alive at the end of the play, is also someone who would not conceive of an economic revolution being necessary. Edgar benefits from the hierarchy in place as the legitimate son, and heir to his father, Earl of Gloucester’s estate. Edgar’s expulsion does not impart him with a new perspective on the operations of the kingdom and economic disparity. Instead, he asks pity from others for the time he had to spent as a beggar, and he winces at the tainted reputation he had fallen victim to (5.3.219-20). The dead march that concludes the play could be interpreted as being for the death of the kingdom, or the possibility for the economic revolutionized kingdom. Lear died as an expellee to his own kingdom, never would he get a second chance to rule the kingdom better than he had before.

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