The opening scene of King Lear is the most important scene in regard to how much impact it has on what follows. Lear has decided to give up his properties to his three daughters, but only if they tell him how much they love him in exchange. Lear states, “Which of you shall we say doth love us most, that we our largest bounty may extend.” This swap that Lear initiated leads to the corruption of his relationship with his daughters, and their relationships with each other. Various instances of expulsion also ensue as a result of these corrupted relationships.
I think that Lear thought he was being generous and loving in his attempt to swap his property for his daughter’s words of love, but in reality, he was irresponsibly trying to swap things that cannot be compared. For a swap to be done the easiest way to ascertain that it is fair would be to convert the things that are being exchanged to a common currency, such as cash. The easier it is to convert an asset into cash, the more liquid it is. But it is impossible for real love to be liquidized because it is not something that can be owned, or even seen in a concrete way. Love is an emotion, and mutual love is only earned through trust. I believe trust is the foundation of healthy relationships, and to try and exchange love for anything would be to corrupt that foundation of trust. It was nonsensical for Lear to corrupt that foundation of trust and love he had with his daughters in order to decide something as unimportant as who gets the bigger castle. Castles can be rebuilt easily for someone as wealthy as Lear, but the same cannot be said for love.
Also, swaps should not only be between things of equal value, but also between two parties that both offer their consent to the terms of the swap. Cordelia, the only one with real love for her father, recognizes the issues with the swap her father is requesting. She responds, “I am sure my love’s more ponderous than my tongue.” In saying this she is commenting on how love is not something that can be measured with words alone and refuses to consent to the swap her father proposed. Cordelia’s struggle with this situation she has been forced into further speaks to why love should not be liquidized. Sandra pointed out in her essay, “The Numerical Value of Love,” that love is an abstract concept. This means there is not one set definition for what love is, hence why Cordelia struggles with how to put her love into words, and why it needs to be done in the first place. People experience love in different ways; the love Cordelia feels for Lear cannot be compared to the love that Goneril and Regan feel for him. I would personally argue that the love Goneril and Regan feel for their father is not real, and Cordelia’s is, because they don’t hesitate to hyperbolize their love in order to win the best reward from Lear. But seeing as love is abstract, there is no real way for me to prove that they never felt genuine love for their father; I can only speculate.
Furthermore, I would argue that while the swap Lear forces on his daughters is the trigger for the downfall of their relationships and what leads them to expel one another, the real source of this whole problematic situation is that Lear does not know what he truly wants. In Act I, Regan comments on how, “He [Lear] hath ever but slenderly known himself.” Then, later on when Lear’s only company is the fool he asks, “Who is it who can tell me who I am?” I interpreted this as Lear finally realizing that he has made some mistakes. Not long ago he had been a king, with three daughters and hundreds of men who supported him. Yet now he has been expelled and has lost his wealth and influence. He is unhoused and forced to live as the “Poor naked wretches” do, as Lear calls them.
He has lost his title, his family, and most of his men. I sympathize with Lear, because it can be difficult to know what you want out of life, especially at Lear’s old age, but this does not excuse his actions, and the only one to blame for the situation he has arrived in is himself. If only Lear had considered what he really wanted, he could have set an actual goal and made a plan to achieve it. But Lear also needed to consider the wants and needs of others. Lear admits himself that he has ignored the needs of his own people when he says “O, I have ta’en too little care of this.” This statement was in response to his realization that many people were living without shelter and other basic necessities without him even knowing. He was a person in a position of power, and the decisions that empowered people make almost always affect the lives of other people as well. We saw this happen throughout this play.
The ramifications of Lear’s decision to treat his daughter’s love in a monetary manner are grand, as everyone involved was dead by the end. This is not an uncommon ending for a Shakespeare play though, so I think it is more pressing to examine how the transaction corrupted the relationships that Lear, Cordelia, Goneril, and Regan had among each other. It is impossible to know the state of their relationships before the events of this play, but the reader can see that no matter where they stood, they go downhill from where they began in the very first scene. In the beginning we see the expulsion of Cordelia by Lear. Cordelia could not vocalize her love as Lear expected her to do, so he not only refused to give her any of his wealth but also expelled her from his own presence. Lear harshly proclaimed, “Here I disclaim all my paternal care, propinquity, and property of love, and as a stranger to my heart and me hold thee from this forever.” Lear claimed he wanted to know his daughters loved him, yet when Cordelia tried to explain that she does love him and is just unable to express her love in that way, Lear expels her without a second thought. Lear does realize that he shouldn’t have cast her away by the end, yet he still doesn’t take responsibility for his actions. This is shown after Cordelia dies and Lear cries, “A plague upon you, murderers, traitors, all! I might have saved her. Now she’s gone forever—Cordelia, Cordelia, stay a little.” Again, I sympathize with Lear, but this was his fault in the end. He may not have executed her himself, but he did expel her from his protection.
As I said before, Lear’s greatest flaw is that he is inconsiderate of the wants and needs of himself and the people around him. Regan and Goneril know this, and because this is his flaw his decision to try and liquidize and swap their love gives them the opportunity to exploit his own. After Lear had expelled Cordelia and divided his property between Goneril and Regan he returned to them in hopes that they would host their father and his men. Yet neither Goneril or Regan seem inclined to do this, and each tells him that he can stay with them, but only if he dismisses some of his men. Lear is swapped between the two as he tries to keep as many of his men as possible. After Goneril says he can only keep half of his men Lear runs back to Regan and states, “I beg that you’ll vouchsafe me raiment, bed, and food.” Lear begs yet Regan still insists “Return you to my sister.” Regan would prefer to expel Lear from her presence rather than deal with her father. Lear does not like this expulsion though, and cries, “Return to her? And fifty men dismissed? No!” Goneril arrives to the scene and finally Regan asks, “What need one?” While I agree with Regan that Lear does not need any men, I also know she was only saying this for her own benefit. Regan and Goneril wanted to weaken Lear, and they did. Failing to have gotten his way, Lear calls them “unnatural hags” and expels himself from their presence. While Goneril and Regan did push him to this, the fact still remains that Lear could not answer why he needed any men. This once again reveals how Lear does not know what he truly desires. At this point, Lear has managed to lose all three of his daughters.
All this expulsion, loss, and death was a result of the swap Lear made with his daughters in the very first scene. The effects of this swap exemplify why love should never be liquidized. Bonds are not formed through money or wealth, and this expectation that love will be received in return for something so materialistic as property is immature. Real love cannot be bought, it is earned through time, trust, and mutual respect. In trying to buy his daughter’s love, Lear lost any chance of ever genuinely feeling it.