Never-ending Desire in Shakespeare’s King Lear

    Looking at King Lear on a surface level, ideas of expulsion, liquidity, and swapping are very present.  Referencing the Merriam Webster definitions of these words, gives further insight into how they can be connected to the play. However, as one reads closer and uncovers the hidden themes within the play, these terms are even more prevalent. Acts of physical expulsion such as Lear’s expulsion from the kingdom and emotional expulsion are present throughout the entire play. When pondering a question regarding the words interaction with each other, it seems it can be answered by looking at the relationship between Lear and his daughters, and the ripple effect of events that occur after that initial conflict. Tied to that, various other characters aside from Lear and his daughters, have unstable and ever-changing relationships throughout the play, which adds to the fire of the ever-increasing conflict. The idea of swapping regarding it’s meaning of taking part of an exchange of liability between two borrowers, is a term related to many themes within King Lear as it seems nothing in the play can be given without something being desired in return. Liquid is defined as consisting of ready conversion to cash, or flowing freely like water. Much of the familial turmoil we see is in fact like flowing water; a dangerous river that leads into a 20 foot waterfall. Liquid is also noted as being an investment easily turned into cash, which in the case of King Lear, this definition of liquid and swapping overlap greatly. King Lear is a play filled with ideas and relationships related to the concept of expulsion as we are presented with characters and circumstances that do anything but promote a strong familial foundation built on trust and an equal share of respect and power.

    The first act of expulsion that is presented to readers and viewers is Lear’s expulsion of Cordelia from the original plan of land division, when she does not proclaim a love for him that he was expecting. “Here I disclaim all my paternal care, propinquity, and property of blood, and as a stranger to my heart and me hold thee from this forever” (1.1, 15). Expulsion, in all its meanings, seems to be presented here. In terms of expulsion meaning “the action of depriving someone from an organization” it is related to Cordelia being deprived of being a part of the “organization” that is the royal family after this scene unfolds. In terms of expulsion meaning “the process of expelling someone from a place, especially a country” this is also evident in this scene, as Lear is quick to make arrangements with France and Burgundy in relation to where Cordelia will be sent, since her presence with him is such a disgrace. She marries the king of France and begins to create an army with him that she wants to use to defeat the wrath her sisters are creating. 

With expulsion’s final meaning “the process of forcing something out of the body” it can be seen as relating to this scene as well. Lear is demonstrating expulsion as he releases feelings of anger and disrespect as a response to Cordelia’s lack of words of affirmation toward him to the degree, he had originally thought she would express her feelings. Edgar and his role in the play is also related to the term expulsion on varying degrees, as he is forced to leave due to Edmund’s evil and manipulative nature. This is more of an intentional act of expulsion than Lear’s expulsion of Cordelia as it wasn’t part of his original plan to strip her of any land he had originally planned on giving her. This then may evoke feelings of injustice within readers even more so than the previous expulsion presented. It also brings awareness to another term that Edmund is partaking in; fraud. Edmund’s ability to deceive those around him as a means of benefiting himself through the creation of a false perception would back this claim. This isn’t to say that Edmund didn’t have a valid reason for doing so, to him what he was doing was validated. When looking at many of these terms through the lens of literature, seeing things from all perspectives is a necessity as it is in most cases to understand each character’s plight. Edmund was illegitimate, and thus did not get the same treatment that his legitimate brother Edgar was receiving. This unfair power dynamic struck within him anger and rage that was the foundation for his desire to take this route to acquire success and the treatment he felt he deserved. Regan and Goneril, although portrayed as mostly evil, can also be seen as having legitimate reasons behind their actions. Although what they do to their father is, on the surface, quite terrible, the line “He hath but slenderly known himself” (1.1, Page 13) may give readers insight into the reasons behind the expulsion of their father. To slenderly know oneself means to also slenderly know the reason behind your actions and desires. Was Cordelia’s lack of loving words deserving of her father’s rage? Obviously not, but that just goes to show that Lear’s “slender” knowledge of himself affected various parts of his life, as well as others, thinking he was swapping his land for what he thought he felt it was equivalent to.

Liquidity and swapping are correlated with many of the ways that expulsion is presented in King Lear. In the case of this play, liquidity is not cash but rather things the characters deem of great value that they hope to trade something for, such as land, a title or even love.It was within Lear’s original plan to swap words of affection for land. However, as seen in the play quite early on, that original plan is foiled and the conflicts in the play begin to unfold. The swapping of identities also makes itself a very present theme within the play, with Edgar dressed as poor Tom for a good portion of the play as an example. “I will preserve myself and am bethought to take the basest and most poorest shape that ever penury in contempt of man brought near beast. My face I’ll grime with filth” (2.3, Page 95). Edmund wished to swap out his life in which he carried the heavy title of “illegitimate,” for one where he overcomes that, yet he can’t achieve it in the way he desires. That seems to be a common theme for the characters in Lear; they want to swap something they already have for something they deem better. However, that “better option” never turns out the way they want it to. This then leaves readers with the question: why not? Is it because their intentions for wanting to change that original circumstance weren’t in good nature? It seems to be one of those questions without a straight answer, as are many questions surrounding expulsion and the terms attached to it. Many of the terms related to expulsion like liquid and swap seem to have a very selfish nature tied to them, with some even deeming them to be a corrupt nature. Usually related to exchange or finances of some sort, it seems that none of these terms have a fully positive connotation, as something is always expected in return whenever they are used. 

Edgar and Albany are the ones that are left to rule at the end of the play, which may be very telling of the message that Shakespeare was trying to get across. They seemed to be the only characters in the play that didn’t maliciously expel anyone or anything. Edgar and Albany also didn’t take part in exchanges or swapping to try and receive something better than what they already had. They didn’t invest in something expecting it to convert into something else of greater wealth down the line, and this may play into why their own personal stories don’t end in tragedy as the others did. Expulsion, liquidity, and swapping all seemed to be interlaced throughout the storyline of King Lear, highlighting the selfish nature of characters who always desire more than what they already possess. 

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