Liquidity of Inheritance in Shakespeare’s King Lear

When considering the importance of liquid throughout Shakespeare’s King Lear, the most well-known definition comes to mind due to the significance of Lear being expelled out into the storm. Various other definitions of liquid are meaningful throughout the play, particularly the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of liquid as “not fixed or stable; fluid.” The inheritance of property and land that motivates characters is unstable and can be given or taken away very fluidly. Inheritance is also displayed as equivalent to financial liquidity, which defines as, “how easily assets can be converted into cash.” In the case of King Lear, dower can easily be converted into social standing and power over others. The fluidity of endowments creates situations of swapping, which defines as a “contract in which two parties exchange liabilities.” This definition implies the consent of both parties, but within this play, swaps occur due to malicious schemes and without consent or knowledge of all parties involved. In situations where inheritance is unstable and translating to power, many characters swap positions in authority over one another, leading to the expulsion of some while others climb the social ranks. 

Inheritance of property and title in the 14th and 15th centuries is typically decided by primogeniture but King Lear decides to divide his kingdom between his daughters. This breakdown of custom initiates the ability to for decisions to be made more fluidly. The solidity of inheritance decisions is further broken down when King Lear rashly decides to expel Cordelia, declaring, “Here I disclaim all my paternal care, / Propinquity, and property of blood” (1.1.125-126). His impulsive decision to strip Cordelia of her dower effectively strips her of any claim to power and her expulsion destabilizes power relationships throughout the kingdom. Endowment takes the form of a liquid as it can be given and taken away very freely. In another form of the word, liquidity also becomes relevant to inheritance because a dower can be converted into power over others. By splitting the inheritance between Goneril and Regan, Lear gives power over himself to the two of them. They are now entitled to strip away his guards and expel him from the kingdom, if they so choose. 

Lear’s choice for retirement also causes a swap of liabilities between himself and his daughters. He no longer has ownership of any property so he must rely on Regan and Goneril for shelter. His two daughters become liable for his care and well-being as he no longer has the financial means to do so himself. This impulsive swap of property and power leads to Lear’s expulsion from the kingdom. If Cordelia had been given a third of the kingdom, Goneril and Regan would not have had as much control over him and he would not have been thrown out into the storm. Once the dower was initiated, Regan and Goneril held the power to dismiss all subjects and knights of Lear’s. He tries to reason with them that he has the right to a certain number of knights, saying, “Made you my guardians, my depositaries, / But kept a reservation to be followed / With such a number” (2.4.288-290). Lear willingly swapped liability and power with his two daughters, having trust in their love for him, just as financial swaps are initiated on trust of payment. However, following this swap, he is left with nothing while Goneril and Regan have complete power over him.

Similar dynamics of fluid inheritance, liquidity, and swapping are paralleled with Gloucester and his two sons. Edmund initiates a swap of trust between Edgar and his father by asserting his brother to be untrustworthy. Once all trust in Edgar is lost, Gloucester tells Edmund, “And of my land, / Loyal and natural boy, I’ll work the means / To make thee capable” (2.1.97-99). As soon as Edmund is given the promise of sole inheritance, he has power over Edgar, swapping their roles. Edgar takes the disguise of a nude lunatic while Edmund begins to rapidly scale the social ranks. This transition happens very quickly with Gloucester being able to fluidly disinherit Edgar. By swapping not only their social standing but their father’s trust, Edmund’s next move is to swap positions with his father. The gain of Gloucester’s trust allows Edmund to gain access to information that ruins his father, which in turn leads to Edmund becoming the Earl of Gloucester. With inheritance becoming more fluid, social ranks are destabilized causing the expulsion of Edgar, Gloucester, and Lear.

If inheritance and social standings were more solid than liquid, swaps of power would not be so rash and the lives of Shakespeare’s characters would not be destroyed to such extreme levels. A precedent is set in Act 1 that establishes fluidity of inheritances, allowing for swaps of position and expulsion to happen very quickly and impulsively. Without consent of both parties in the swap, one party is left at an extreme disadvantage, as seen with Lear, Edgar, and Gloucester. Cordelia’s husband serves as a form of insurance protecting her from roaming the wilderness following her expulsion, but not enough to prevent her demise. Loss of inheritance leaves characters completely powerless to the wrath of others, fulfilling Lear’s statement that, “Nothing comes from nothing” (1.1.99).

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