Exchanging Something for Nothing in King Lear

“Nothing will come of nothing,” Lear tells his daughter in one of the most famous lines of Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear. The idea Lear expresses is one that can be found in disciplines ranging from commerce to chemistry; the law of conservation of energy, for example, states that the total energy in a system remains constant and is only transferred from one thing onto another. However, does this idea of conservation—of exchanging one thing equally for another—always hold true? Especially in a play that ends so tragically, as Lear clings to the body of his murdered daughter, does one always get back what they give? To understand this question, two financial terms for exchanges become useful. According to Investopedia, swap can defined as “a derivative contract through which two parties exchange the cash flows or liabilities from two different financial instruments.” Similarly, liquidation can be defined as “the process of bringing a business to an end and distributing its assets to claimants.” The presumption of each of these exchanges is that both parties are willing and able to make such an exchange and therefore will receive something of equal value to what they give away. However, when Lear foolishly relinquishes his title and power for retirement or when Gloucester blindly swaps his loyal son for his disloyal son, nothing is left where there once was something. Thus, when we use terms like liquidation or swap as a lens through which we look at King Lear, we begin to notice unfair exchanges; this contributes to the theme of injustice in the play.

Although financial terms may seem inapplicable to King Lear, if one is paying attention, they will see exchanges—or swaps—from the very onset of the play. In both the main plot about Lear and his daughters and the mirroring subplot about Gloucester and his sons, the old men attempt to exchange one thing for something else that they believe to be of equal value. Lear, viewing his political power as a liability due to his old age, attempts to swap it out for retirement. He tells his daughters, “Know that we have divided / In three our kingdom; and ‘tis our fast intent / To shake all the cares and business from our age, / Conferring them on younger strengths, while we / Unburthened crawl toward death.” He makes another exchange when he disinherits Cordelia: “With my two daughters’ dowers digest the third; / … / I do invest [Goneril and Regan] jointly with my power, / Pre-eminence, and the large effects / That troop with majesty.” The focus on property in these lines—dividing Cordelia’s inheritance and investing it in Goneril and Regan—demonstrates that Lear is swapping one daughter who he believes doesn’t love him for two who do. Finally, like Lear, Gloucester also swaps his children because he mistakenly believes Edgar has staged a plot against his life. “[O]f my land,” he says, “Loyal and natural boy, I’ll work the means / To make thee capable.” Here, he transfers the inheritance of his legitimate son onto his illegitimate one. Each of these events serve as inciting incidents to the rest of the narrative. Thus, we see how swapping initiates much of the conflict.

Paying attention to these exchangeswe begin to notice that many of them are unequal. Lear may gain retirement after trading away his title, but he also loses his power and himself. He realizes this when he berates Goneril for denying him one hundred knights: “Does any here know me? This is not Lear. / Does Lear walk thus? Speak thus? Where are his eyes?” He asks, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” And the Fool, knowing that Lear has lost himself in all he has given away, replies, “Lear’s shadow.” Lear has, unbeknownst to him, swapped his power for powerlessness. Likewise, Lear exchanges the love of Cordelia for the love of Goneril and Regan, yet their love turns to hate and is therefore not equal to what he lost. Similarly, Edmund betrays his father at the first opportunity, demonstrating that Gloucester too has swapped a good son for one unequal to him in character. In losing much and gaining little, something was swapped for nothing.

Thus, we begin to see how “nothing will come of nothing” and other assumptions of equivalent exchange are debunked by the tragedy. Sometimes something can come from nothing; this can be seen by Edmund gaining his brother’s inheritance through trickery or Goneril and Regan gaining power over their father. But more often in the play, something gets turned to nothing. Cordelia and Edgar both lose their inheritances through no fault of their own; Gloucester loses his eyes for blindly trusting Edmund. But the loss that draws the most attention is the loss Lear feels after his expulsion, as he wanders the heath, bemoaning the cruelty of his daughters. Here, we see the idea of liquidation become relevant. Once again, liquidation refers to the exchange of assets for their equal value in cash. However, if we use the literal definition of liquify—to turn something to liquid—Lear’s trek across the heath takes on new significance. The power the old king once has—his title, his knights, his property—is lost in exchange for the pelting rain. When Goneril and Regan bit by bit reduce Lear’s assets and eventually “[s]hut up [their] doors” to him, he becomes like the “[p]oor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are, /  That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm.” He wonders, “How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, / Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you / from seasons such as these?” Here, Lear is “naked” and “houseless,” which both imply lack. He lacks what he has unwittingly traded in; now, he must reckon with the storm, his possessions liquified and gone. 

Gloucester who has likewise been cast out of his home, blind and suicidal, muses, “As flies to wanton boys, we are to th’ gods, / they kill us for their sport.” Thus, we see the central theme of Shakespeare’s tragedy: the world is unjust. This theme becomes especially apparent when we look for instances of swaps and liquidation. Characters are not returned what they have given. In a denouncement of Lear’s belief early in the play, nothing came from something. It is worth noting that, through this analysis, one could almost read King Lear as a critique of capitalism. After all, if the swaps and liquidation of this narrative result in the expulsion of old men into a bitter storm, might unequal exchanges do something similar in real life? No one should be able to swap one child for another; no daughters should be able to liquidate their father’s assets until he is left with nothing. However, this play demonstrates that injustice will always exist no matter the circumstances. It is never guaranteed that everyone will get back what they have given. Sometimes, one can turn nothing into something. But other times, everything is lost for nothing.


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